HC Deb 11 March 1988 vol 129 cc781-5

11 am

The Lord president of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.

The business for Monday 14 March will now be as follows: Social Security Bill (Allocation of Time Motion). Followed by consideration of Lords amendents to the Social Security Bill.

The business originally announced for Monday will be taken at a later date.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

I thank the Leader of the House for making this late adjustment to our proceedings next week. It has the merit of providing a proper opportunity for the House to consider the Lords amendments to the Social Security Bill, and in particular it gives us the opportunity to endorse their proposals for the annual uprating of child benefit, which I hope will be agreed.

We regret that the Government have decided that they need a guillotine motion to complete the business on Monday, which we think rather extraordinary. However, we welcome the opportunity to debate the important Lords amendments, and our amendments to them, without prejudicing the proceedings on the equally important Housing (Scotland) Bill at a later date.

Mr. Wakeham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. The Social Security Bill is an important piece of legislation. The timetable for its earlier stages was negotiated through the usual channels, and no undue difficulties arose. Discussion of the Lords amendments on Monday 14 March was announced in the business statements on 3 and 10 March after discussions through the usual channels. I very much regret that those arrangements were not acceptable to the Opposition.

Mr. Alastair Goodlad (Eddisbury)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is by their own ineptitude that the Opposition have yet again deprived the House of an opportunity to discuss Scottish business? This will be widely resented in Scotland, despite the fact that no Scottish Labour Members are present today. Perhaps that is because they do not wish to discuss the Housing (Scotland) Bill, which is such a sensible measure.

Mr. Wakeham

I share my hon. Friend's regret that the Scottish business has had to be postponed, but never fear, we shall find a day for it in the near future.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

The Housing (Scotland) Bill is both complicated and contentious. The Leader of the House owes Scottish Members rather more of an explanation and an apology for disrupting the business of the House at such short notice—[Interruption.] All I am saying is that there should be some explanation and apology. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Scottish Members make advance travel arrangements, so the taxpayer will have to pay the cost of sending out the amended Whips' notice. This sort of disruption requires more of an explanation and an apology than the right hon. Gentleman has given thus far.

Mr. Wakeham

As I said, I would have been content to go ahead with the original business, but that was unacceptable to the Opposition. It seemed to be in the best interests of the House to alter it. I regret any inconvenience to hon. Members, and I especially understand the difficulties of those who come to the House from a long way off.

Mr. Neil Thorne (Ilford, South)

If my memory serves me correctly, the Leader of the Opposition accepted the original business statement on 3 March. Does that mean that the Opposition are entirely out of control and cannot deliver next Monday? Is that why the Government have had to reorganise the business?

Mr. Wakeham

I am not sure that my hon. Friend is being entirely fair to the Opposition. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) appeared to be in control today—although there are not too many Labour Members around. I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said in reply to my statement.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)

Only five weeks, which is not an inordinate length of time, were given to the important Social Security Bill in Standing Committee. Is it not utterly disgraceful that for four full days next week we shall be debating handouts to the rich? What are the Government afraid of? They are crippling the poor by imposing a guillotine on an important debate that will affect millions of people who are already living in poverty and who are being ground down by this evil Government.

Mr. Wakeham

If anyone is frightened of anything, it sounds as though the hon. Gentleman is a little frightened of what might be in the Budget. However, I know no more than he does about what it will contain.

The timetable motion, which will be tabled later today, will allow a generous amount of time to discuss the Lords amendments, all of which are either technical or are improvements to the Bill. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the majority of the amendments were passed by another place on or before 3 March. The amendments that it passed yesterday were not opposed by the Opposition.

Dr. Michael Clark (Rochford)

Has the business for Monday been arranged through the usual channels? We were told yesterday about the business arrangements for next week, and we assumed that the usual channels had been at work to agree the arrangements. If the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) is in control, is he not, in fact, in control simply of a shambles?

Mr. Wakeham

It is easy for those who are not party to the usual channels to attribute incompetence to those who struggle to organise our business. When we made the business announcement, we had every reason to think that it had been agreed. However, difficulties arose and I did my best, as I usually do, to try to meet them.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Irrespective of negotiations through the usual channels, which we all recognise as part and parcel of the business arrangements for the convenience of hon. Members on occasions, does the right hon. Member not appreciate that, with a large Government majority, the business arrangements should, wherever possible, be made well in advance of the proposed dates? Why, following the Cabinet meeting on Thursday morning that agreed the business, is there now this late change, which might inconvenience many hon.

Members? Is there any precedent for introducing a guillotine motion on Lords amendments, especially at such short notice?

Mr. Wakeham

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the proposed business for Monday was first announced on 3 March, not yesterday. The hon. Gentleman should look at the record of his Government, who brought to the House Lords amendments to major Bills on the very day that they were passed in the other place. I do not complain about that, because it is not an unusual procedure—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) has had a go, rather ineffectually, and if he keeps quiet I shall do my best to reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) who asked a rather more intelligent question.

There are many precedents for guillotining Lords amendments, but what is new is the necessity to do so when the previous stages of the legislation have been completed without the need for one. The reason for that is rather more a question for the Opposition than for the Government.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, prior to his statement, the House was debating engineering. Would he like the engineers in the House to look at the mechanism of the usual channels if that is not working? Or is it simply the problems of the Opposition that have led to the altered business arrangements?

Mr. Wakeham

The engineers could give us an oil can or two, which might help.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that although some hon. Members may not be party to the usual channels, they believe that it is indecent that a Government who are sinking into the gutter should, only 24 hours before a Budget that will almost certainly give more tax concessions to the top taxpayers—many of whom are included in the 20,000 millionaires in Britain — introduce Lords amendments which, under the new social fund, will deprive 7 million people of the ability to live above the poverty line and take away 500,000 free school meals from children in almost every constituency in Britain? The pattern of events shows that the Government are concerned with handing out large tax concessions to the rich and hammering the poor into the ground. The guillotine on Monday is part and parcel of that tawdry, rotten programme.

Mr. Wakeham

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman would have made that sort of intemperate remark whether we or the Labour party were in power. I fear that a Labour Government would take about as much notice as I shall. His remarks reveal that he has no idea of what the Lords amendments are about.

Mr. Spencer Batiste (Elmet)

The contribution from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) demonstrated clearly the difficulties faced by the usual channels in reaching agreement on business.

Mr. Skinner

The usual channels — what do they matter?

Mr. Batiste

Neveretheless, this statement and that interjection in particular illustrate the difficulties created for Scots Members by the further disruption of business—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has had his say at some length.

Mr. Batiste

Many Scottish Members will be concerned again at the further disruption of another day of Scottish business. Is there not now a case for reviewing the whole timetabling procedure, with a view to timetabling all major Bills from the outset?

Mr. Wakeham

Perhaps I can modestly say something in defence of the usual channels. Normally we manage to find an acceptable basis for the way that business proceeds. The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras and I are fully paid up members of the usual channels—

Mr. Dobson

I do not get paid.

Mr. Wakeham

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should remember the proverb of the labourer being worthy of his hire. We do our best. Most of the time we succeed, and we shall struggle on in our inadequate way.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Who is the Leader of the House trying to kid? He comes to the House on a Friday morning to tell us that a Government with a majority of more than 100 do not control the business of the House. He knows, and so does everybody else, that he controls the business. Is he not ashamed to announce the steamrolling through of this Bill, which will rob millions of the worst off of even more money than they are left with now? Why does he not announce that the £8 that is owed to the 170,000 people, including pensioners, in compensation for the Government getting the retail prices index wrong will be paid? Why does he not withdraw the Bill rather than steamroller it through? Why does he not announce an increase in pensions, rather than cuts in housing benefit which will leave thousands of pensioners worse off? Why does he not announce an increase in child benefit, rather than rob thousands of school children in Bradford of free school meals? Why does he come to con the House, rather than to give us the truth?

Mr. Wakeham

I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for making this business statement at rather short notice, because if he had had a bit longer and had thought about what he wanted to say he might have made a better job of it. What I have demonstrated is that the Government are in charge of the business. That is the purpose of a timetable motion. Therefore, I am not trying to kid anybody. One tries to organise the business through the usual channels for the benefit of everybody. If that is not possible, unfortunately from time to time timetable motions must be used.

Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield)

My right hon. Friend has a reputation for compassion. What steps has he taken to acquaint the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), the Opposition spokesman on such matters, about his decision on what will take place on Monday, just in case that hon. Gentleman happens upon the Labour party conference in Scotland?

Mr. Wakeham

I hope that smoke signals are reaching that hon. Gentleman from somewhere, but I have not looked upon it as part of my responsibility to tell him.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

I am still puzzled, and perhaps the Leader of the House will help me. Is he saying that it is because of the Official Opposition that we have lost the Scottish business on Monday night — [Interruption.] — or that it has been postponed? It is important that we in Scotland know whether that is the case, because I would want to be able to go home this weekend and tell the people that once again we have lost our business, or that it has been postponed.

Mr. Wakeham

The hon. Lady has not been long in the House, but she observes the proceedings well and makes welcome contributions. She would do best to draw her own conclusions. I have announced the position as best I can, and I shall not add to the troubles.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the workings of the House will soon resemble a Chinese Parliament if Opposition Members keep welshing on deals that they do behind the Chair?

Mr. Wakeham

Over the years I have done a good deal of business with the Chinese, and I know them well. I would not want to insult them by making such a remark.

Mr. Dobson

In case some hon. Members on both sides of the House do not understand the purport of the statement, can the Leader of the House confirm that on Monday the Social Security Bill will now be debated at length in prime time, rather than dealt with extremely late at night, when it would be highly inconvenient for all the people in the Press Gallery to give it the coverage that it deserves? Will he further confirm that it is the Government's desire to get the Housing (Scotland) Bill through as quickly as possible, and that it is the Opposition's desire to prevent or delay its passage as long as possible?

Mr. Wakeham

I shall certainly not answer questions on what the Opposition want to do, but I can say that my timetable will enable the allocation of time motion and the Lords amendments to the Social Security Bill to be debated. If not too long is spent on the allocation of time motion, more time will be available for the Lords amendments to the Social Security Bill, which will be in what the hon. Gentleman refers to as prime time.

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