HC Deb 17 December 1981 vol 15 cc453-62 3.37 pm
Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)

Will the Leader of the House state the business for next week?

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Francis Pym)

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 21 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

TUESDAY 22 DECEMBER—Proceedings on the Hops Marketing Bill [Lords].

Remaining stages of the Currency Bill.

Until about seven o'clock, there will be a debate on the situation in Poland, followed by a debate on the situation in the Middle East, which will arise on a Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

WEDNESDAY 23 DECEMBER—It will be proposed that the House should meet at 9.30 am., take Questions until 10.30 am., and adjourn at 3.30 pm until Monday 18 January 1982.

Mr. Foot

Perhaps I may put three questions to the right hon. Gentleman. First, will he make sure that we have an early debate, when we return from the recess, on the youth training scheme, about which the Government made an announcement this week?

Secondly, on Tuesday we shall have the next set of unemployment figures. Since the Prime Minister was referring to the matter a few minutes ago, may we have an assurance that the "Secretary of State for Unemployment" will make a statement to the House on Tuesday about the figures so that he can be properly cross-examined about them?

Thirdly, on the question to which reference has already been made about the House of Lords' ruling in regard to the Greater London Council, the Opposition would like to make it clear that any discussion about this matter on Friday would be quite unsatisfactory as a proper way of dealing with this question, and that what we expect the right hon. Gentleman to do is to rearrange the business so that we can have a full debate next week on the serious implications of this matter in preparation for what we believe is the only proper way of dealing with it—for the Government to introduce legislation. If the Government are to introduce fresh legislation when we return soon after the Christmas recess, the House should give its guidance on this important matter in a debate next week. I ask the Government to give time for that.

Mr. Pym

I am sure that the House would welcome a debate on the youth training scheme. I will certainly keep the right hon. Gentleman's representations in mind. I should have thought that it was a suitable subject for a Supply day debate, but if a day can be found in Government time, so be it.

Last month's unemployment figures will be announced on Tuesday in the normal way. I shall not give an undertaking that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment will make a statement in the House on that subject. It would be right for the announcement to be made in the usual way.

As regards the judgment that was made only this morning, it is clear from what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that tomorrow's debate will certainly not be the end of the matter. The Government will give proper consideration to the judgment, as, no doubt, will the Opposition. After that process has been completed we can review the matter again, but I am not prepared to rearrange the business for next week. We cannot say how long the consideration will take, either on the Opposition side or on the Government side.

Mr. Foot

I thank the right hon. Gentleman, but I wish to press him on two of those matters. He says that the unemployment statement will be made in the usual way, but the unemployment figures facing the country are unusual. They are the worst since the end of the war and, therefore, I urge that the Secretary of State should come to the House to make a statement on the subject on Tuesday.

On the House of Lords judgment on GLC fares, tomorrow's debate will be irrelevant to the problem. We are asking for a proper, orderly debate on a major decision of great importance and we believe that the only proper course for the Government is to prepare legislation in one form or another and that the House should have the chance to give its views beforehand. Unless the right hon. Gentleman wants to be partly responsible for the chaos that will occur in London Transport if we do not get a chance of settling the matter properly beforehand, he should arrange for us to debate it.

Mr. Pym

The unemployment figures will be announced in the usual way. The Secretary of State for Employment has made a number of statements and has spoken in debates in the House recently. No doubt such debates will arise again. I think that the announcement will be made in the right way.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second point, I think that the right course is for the judgment to be properly considered on both sides of the House. Obviously that will not be done by tomorrow. No one suggested that it could be, and nor should it be. The Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Transport and others will consider it, and when the process has been completed on both sides of the House we can consider how best to proceed.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 132, which proposes an extension of the remit of the Comptroller and Auditor General and thereby greater parliamentary accountability?

[That this House approves the Report of the Committee of Public Accounts on the Rôle of the Comptroller and Auditor General (1980–81, H.C. 115); and, in view of the all-party criticism of the Treasury response in the Debate on 30th November 1981, urges the Government to reconsider the views expressed in its White Paper (Cmnd. 8323) and to introduce legislation to allow proper accountability to the House of Commons.]

The motion has been signed by the remarkable number of 252 Members and I do not doubt that many more names will be added, because the House feels strongly about the matter. Did my right hon. Friend hear the admirable reply of the Prime Minister to my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris) a few moments ago? Will he arrange for a statement to be made on the matter as soon as the House resumes its business after the Christmas Recess?

Mr. Pym

Yes, as soon as possible. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a forthcoming answer and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is considering the important points raised in the recent important debate. As soon as possible after the recess there will be a full response to those points.

Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

Is it not time that the right hon. Gentleman, as a practical Leader of the House, considered the farce of having Question Time on the day of the Adjournment debates before a recess? Few hon. Members are in the House on such occasions and they do not take Question Time as seriously as they might. Could not the arrangements be altered so that we do not have questions on Wednesday?

Mr. Pym

There might be a good deal of support for that. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."] There would, of course, be others who would wish to continue the practice. Luckily for me, I do not have responsibility for taking that decision. It is a matter for the House, but the right hon. Gentleman's proposition could and, I should have thought, should be considered in the appropriate way—[HON. MEMBERS: "NO."]—at some moment in the future.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

With reference to the Green Paper on alternatives to the domestic rating system published yesterday, will my right hon. Friend give a commitment that there will be a debate in the House as soon as possible in the new year and certainly before the consultation period expires at the end of March? I am sure that he agrees that the House should be able to give its preliminary views on that important matter.

Mr. Pym

I shall wish to seek an occasion for such a debate, but not, I think, early in the new year. It would be helpful to have a wider public discussion first, but at some point I should like to arrange a debate on that important and big issue.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

Does the Leader of the House understand that the House of Lords judgment in the GLC case goes far beyond the issue of transport and the case of the GLC and Bromley? Judgments made about local authorities that incur surcharges can affect immediately every local authority in England and Wales. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that such a judgment, which has the effect of virtually changing the law, must be debated in the House at the earliest possible moment? Tomorrow's debate will be inadequate for the purpose. May we have a debate on the subject before Christmas?

Mr. Pym

The judgment refers, I think, to London ratepayers, but in so far as it may have wider implications, and the hon. Gentleman's opinion may be right, that adds force to what I have said about proper consideration being given to the judgment in the first place.

Mr. Norman Atkinson

It is a political judgmentt.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

In considering whether we should have a debate on London Transport in Government time, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind who was the Conservative Party's representative when the Transport (London) Bill went through the House in 1969? Does he remember that it was the present Prime Minister and that the deputy spokesman for the Conservative Party was the present Secretary of State for the Environment? Does he know that both of them spoke in those debates in a sense that made it clear that they recognised that subsidies could be provided for London Transport? Is he aware that one of the present senior Government Whips explicitly said that a democratically elected local authority ought to be able to use its money in any way it pleased in that respect? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear that in mind when deciding whether there should be a debate in Government time?

Mr. Pym

I have not even looked at the judgment, but I heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister say that there was no question of its not being possible for a local authority to subsidise transport; but that was not the point at issue. However, it underlines the fact that the judgment must be studied carefully before any further steps are taken.

Mr. Peter Emery (Honiton)

My right hon. Friend will have seen that the Minister who replied to the private notice question yesterday said that he believed that nearly all those who had had their electricity supply disconnected would have it reconnected by today. It now appears that there may be 5,000 or more people whose supply will not be connected before the weekend. If that is the case, will my right hon. Friend consider drawing the matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Energy and asking him to consider making another statement tomorrow?

Mr. Pym

I shall certainly draw those representations to the notice of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. I cannot promise a further statement, but I certainly share my hon. Friend's concern about the extraordinary inconvenience and hardship that a number of his constituents and others in the South-West must be suffering.

Mr. Joel Barnett (Heywood and Royton)

With reference to the early-day motion mentioned by the right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Du Cann), may I address a question to the Lord President in his role as Leader of the House rather than as a member of the Government? Does he accept that more than 250 signatures to the motion and the speeches made in the recent debate are a clear expression of the view of the whole House? Will the right hon. Gentleman, in his capacity as Leader of the House, ensure that the views of the House are not only brought to the attention of the Government but are brought back to the Floor of the House so that the Government may have the opportunity of introducing the appropriate legislation?

Mr. Pym

I thought that I had answered previous questions on this subject as Leader of the House. I certainly intended to do so. I note what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is right that views expressed on both sides of the House in that important debate should be considered carefully by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Treasury. That process is in hand and we shall report on the conclusions after the recess.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that certain of his colleagues on the Government Front Bench seem convinced that the economy is picking up. Is he also aware that some hon. Members believe that considerable encouragement could be given to this process if some capital projects were brought forward by the Government? Is he further aware that a project in which he could be inolved would be a start in 1982 on the phased development of the Bridge Street site, to extend facilities for the House, which was stopped at the beginning of this Parliament?

Mr. Pym

Were there to be such a capital programme, some hon. Members, I believe, would support my hon. Friend's view that work should go ahead on the site. However, other hon. Members might feel that there were more important uses to which those resources could be put. I shall keep my hon. Friend's request in mind. What is most important is the help that can be given to our manufacturing and productive industries.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

I may not have heard properly, but I wonder whether the Leader of the House, for the convenience of hon. Members, would say when we shall debate the motion for the Christmas Recess.

Mr. Pym

I expect that the motion will be debated on Monday.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Will my right hon. Friend, with his great influence in these matters, do something about he horrible smell of eggs and bacon that pervades the Chamber every day?

Mr. Pym

If the source can be traced, I am sure that we shall try to stop it.

Mr. James Wellbeloved (Erith and Crayford)

Will the Leader of the House think again about a debate on the GLC issue? It is vital to make clear that what is at issue is not the right of the GLC to provide a subsidy but the responsibility that it exercises in providing that subsidy. Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that it is vital to have a debate so that Mr. Livingstone and his Marxist friends on the GLC—[Interruption.]—and some of them here—can be made aware that what is unacceptable to Londoners is his irresponsible attitude and that what he needs to do is to exercise responsible management of London's affairs?

Mr. Pym

I have nothing to add to the replies that I have already given.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Apart from any debate on the House of Lords judgment, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that one urgent legislative need to follow that judgment is a Bill of Indemnity to protect those persons who have acted apparently unlawfully in the belief that they were acting lawfully? Is he aware that this may be a matter of great urgency in individual cases? Will the Government give serious consideration to introducing early legislation to deal with this point?

Mr. Pym

I do not know about legislation. I am sure that the point that my hon. Friend raises will come into the consideration of the judgment.

Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

Next week the House will debate the violation of human rights in the Middle East and in Poland. When will hon. Members debate an issue over which we have more control—the violation of human rights in Canada? When will there be debate on a Canada Bill? Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that those hon. Members who seek to oppose parts of the Bill will be given ample opportunities for debate and for the tabling of amendments?

Mr. Pym

In due course I shall present a Canada Bill to the House.

Mr. John Stokes (Halesowen and Stourbridge)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the near future for a debate on an important publication, "Social Trends" issued the week before last by the Central Statistical Office, which shows that, while there has been a marked rise in living standards during the past 10 years, there has been a marked decline in moral standards?

Is it wise for the House to debate affairs in Poland? Is it not the case that, deeply as we feel about events in Poland, we have no power over that country and no responsibility for what goes on there?

Mr. Pym

It sounds to me as though the first subject raised by my hon. Friend would be appropriate for a private Member to raise.

Events in Poland are of the greatest importance and concern to the West. Although we do not have any direct control, we have a great interest in those events It is very much to meet the wishes and desires of hon. Members that a debate has been arranged to provide an opportunity for hon. Members to express views on the dramatic and important developments in Poland.

Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)

May I draw the right hon. Gentleman's attention yet again to the important multi-fibre arrangement negotiations in Geneva and remind him that the protocol governing the arrangement expires on 31 December? Is he aware that by next Wednesday either an agreement will have been reached or 600,000 workers in the industries affected will be left in complete uncertainty about what is to happen? Does he not agree that a statement should be made next week, or at the earliest opportunity after the House returns from the Christmas Recess?

Mr. Pym

A number of questions were raised on this matter last week when I said that negotiations were continuing. They are still continuing. The situation in relation to those negotiations is, shall I say, somewhat fluid, to the extent that I do not think that anything useful can be added to the two statements that have been made? I have discussed the matter with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade. If events in Geneva between now and 23 December develop in a manner that warrant a statement, or if my right hon. Friend thinks that one would be helpful, he will make it.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will my right hon. Friend review the workings of the Select Committee system, as instituted at the beginning of this Parliament? Will he consider, in particular, the reappointment of a Select Committee on Nationalised Industries which would span departmental responsibilities, because these industries are immune from scrutiny by Back Benchers and their financial performance has been one of the most depressing features of the current economic situation?

Mr. Pym

Almost every hon. Member has an interest in these Committees and is following their work, which is comparatively new, with great interest. If the House so wished, in due course it would be possible to make some changes. I believe that the general wish is that they should continue more or less as they are for the moment.

I do not think it is true to say that the nationalised industries do not fall within the remit of Select Committees. They do. The only difference is that various nationalised industries come under the purview of different Departments instead of all being rolled together in one. The House may eventually wish to revert to the previous arrangement, but at the moment I do not detect any desire to do so.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Is the Leader of the House aware that he should understand the wide-ranging nature of the House of Lords decision? Is he aware that hon. Members need a statement at the earliest opportunity, because the Law Lords have changed the law? How will the decision, for example, affect the excellent transport scheme of South Yorkshire and the decision of the Labour-controlled West Yorkshire metropolitan county council to give increased support to the transport services in West Yorkshire so that people begin to make more use of public transport? These matters are still not clear. A statement and a debate are urgently needed.

Mr. Pym

The Law Lords have passed judgment upon the existing law. I think that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was among those who acknowledged this at once. I do not believe that the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) is on to a good point.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising to put questions from the start of these exchanges.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

I wish to pursue a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) with the Prime Minister. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will no doubt have come across an important statement by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), and as, from time to time, the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition will obviously not be in attendance—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not need advice from either Front Bench when this sort of point is being put. I hope that the hon. Gentleman has a question relating to next week's business.

Mr. Marlow

In the event of the Deputy Leader of the Opposition not being her next week, would my right hon. Friend say—

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)

Has the attention of the Leader of the House been drawn to another remarkable decision, this time by the Court of Appeal in the case of Westminster City council v Ray Allan Ltd., when the court held that one could hold a closing-down sale and stay open, and put goods at reduced prices in a shop without ever having had them at the higher price in that branch at any time? As the Trade Descriptions Act clearly needs urgent amendment, and as the season of sales has arrived, will the right hon. Gentleman undertake at least to speak to his right hon. Friend the Minister for Consumer Affairs and ask her to consider making a statement now for the protection of consumers in another sector that is threatened by a decision of the court?

Mr. Pym

I assume that the hon. and learned Gentleman has done so himself, but I am quite prepared to pass his representations to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)

If the debate on the repercussions of the House of Lords judgment is delayed until the new year, will my right hon. Friend say when there is likely to be a statement about what happens to ratepayers who have paid the supplementary rate, what should happen to those who have not paid, and at what stage ratepayers will know whether they will have to pay for the subsidy during the period when London Transport's action has been held to be illegal? I should welcome a debate on the judgment next week or in the new year, because there are many elderly people in my constituency who cannot get the advantage of reduced underground fares because there is no underground in the constituency and because old-age pensioners already travel free on the buses?

Mr. Pym

I fully accept what my hon. Friend says, but at the moment the answer is "No". Clearly the matter will be considered, and no doubt in due course my hon. Friend will receive an answer.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Leader of the House or the Secretary of State for Energy be making any statement about miners' pay, and on the fact that on the Robin Day "Question Time" programme the other night he sought to be somewhat helpful in getting further negotiations going with the intention, presumably, of providing further moneys which would naturally come from the Government? As the right hon. Gentleman made those relatively helpful statements, will he assure the House that what he said on the programme is Government policy, and make sure that his statement is brought to the attention of the rest of the Cabinet so that the matter may be resolved and miners may receive their justified wage award?

Mr. Pym

The negotiations must proceed, and I am sure that everyone hopes that they will reach a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Speaking as a Member who represents a constituency in the West Midlands, and following the representations made by several of my colleagues, including my right hon. friend the leader of the Opposition, may I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider his earlier replies and accept that there is an urgent need for a debate before Christmas on the implications for local authorities throughout the country of the House of Lords judgment on transport policy.

Mr. Pym

I have nothing further to add to what I said in answer to a number of questions that have been put to me on that subject during the last half hour.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

As the Government now support trade unionism, at least in Poland, will they show good faith and avoid accusations of double standards by not proceeding with the proposed Bill on trade union legislation which is aimed against trade unions in this country? Has the Leader of the House seen the comments of TUC leaders after meeting the Secretary of State for Employment?

Mr. Pym

The hon. Gentleman knows that he is misrepresenting our views about trade unions. The answer to his question is "No". We have seen the remarks made by the TUC. My right hon. Friend will bring forward a Bill in the new year to improve the arrangements relating to trade unions and industrial relations.

Mr. Ioan Evans (Aberdare)

I accept that the Leader of the House has commented several times on the decision of the Law Lords on the GLC, but does he realise that it has wide repercussions and relates not only to London? For example, it has been said that as a consequence of the decision old-age pensioners may lose their travel concessions. Will he clear up that and other matters? If he cannot bring forward the amending legislation on Monday, will he at least make an interim statement and allow the House to debate the matter before the Consolidated Fund Bill?

Mr. Pym

If it is true that the judgment has immense ramifications, that is all the more reason to take time to consider it properly. The idea that conclusions should suddenly be reached and then presented to the House would be utterly wrong. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to consider the implications, as will all other hon. Members.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

The Leader of the House will have observed, and may have quietly participated in, the Government's gyrations in connection with their arrangements for local government finance, which no doubt we shall debate when the legislation is brought before us. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should also be given time in the House—and fairly soon—for debates, not only about the system referring to the document already mentioned in these exchanges, but about the fact that so far in this Session we have not had the usual debate on the rates for 1982–83? Hon. Members usually have ample opportunity before Christmas to consider that matter. When the arrangements are announced in the new year, will they be as calamitous as they were the last time that a Conservative Government deferred the announcement, in 1974?

Mr. Pym

There will be a debate on the rate support grant when we return after the Christmas Recess.

Mr. Alfred Dubs (Battersea, South)

May I press the Leader of the House on a point that I put to him last week? A few weeks ago the governors of two prisons wrote letters to the newspapers. In one of them the governor of Wormwood Scrubs said that he was the manager of a large penal dustbin. Since then—this is confirmed in today's newspapers—a letter has gone from the Home Office to prison governors warning them that if they complain publicly about prison conditions they will have to resign. Surely that is a major departure from the professed Home Office policy of more openness in prison administration. Is not the House entitled to a statement about that policy before we adjourn?

Mr. Pym

I understand that the reply I gave last week was correct—in other words, that what has occurred between the Home Office and the prison governors is normal practice. I shall convey the hon. Gentleman's remarks to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

Mr. Stanley Cohen (Leeds, South-East)

In view of the rather critical comments about nationalised industries by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who regrettably has left the Chamber, will the Leader of the House be prepared to provide time so that some of us may discuss the accountability of nationalised industries, as opposed to the private sector, and defend some of the unjust criticisms that have been made against nationalised industries?

Mr. Pym

I do not know that I can provide time, but I know that there is a general interest in that subject and in the way in which nationalised industries are brought to account. I cannot undertake to provide time in the forseeable future for a debate.