HL Deb 19 October 1992 vol 539 cc627-34

4.45 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, the time allotted for supplementary Questions has elapsed. It is right that I should now, with the leave of the House, continue with a further Business Statement.

I fully understand that a number of your Lordships have made strenuous efforts to be present today to discuss the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill. I can only apologise to your Lordships and to the House for the inconvenience which the rearrangement of business has caused. However, I am sure that the House will understand, in the light of the Statement which we have just heard, why I considered it unwise to ask the House to proceed today to discuss the Bill. I welcome the opportunity to explain my decision now.

As your Lordships will know, the Committee stage of the Bill was set down in July, before the Summer Recess—from which I hope your Lordships have emerged refreshed for the Session ahead. The Bill is, of course, a largely technical measure which confers on the British Coal Corporation and on the British Railways Board powers to participate in the implementation of the Government's proposals for the privatisation of British Coal and British Rail.

Though the Bill does not directly address the issues of how the Government propose the privatisation programmes will be followed through, it has become increasingly clear to me that, since the announcement of the pit closures made last Tuesday, many of your Lordships consider that the context in which the Bill is to be scrutinised by the House has changed since the Second Reading debate.

Though it is my view that the issue of pit closures and the subject matter of the Bill are separate, I recognise that this perception may not be widely shared by your Lordships. In these circumstances, and particularly in view of the relatively short time which has elapsed since the pit closures' announcement, it appeared to me that the House would find it difficult to fulfil its function effectively as a revising Chamber should it be asked to proceed into Committee on the Bill today.

My feeling was reinforced by the fact that the pit closures policy itself is currently under legal review. Two legal actions are pending in the High Court. One action by the National Union of Mineworkers has been adjourned until tomorrow. A separate application by the Union of Democratic Mineworkers for judicial review will be heard on Thursday. Moreover, as your Lordships have just heard. the Government have proposed further adjustments to the policy. In the light of these developments, and the uncertainty they necessarily engender, I considered that the measured consideration of legislation, in which the House plays such a valuable role in Parliament, would not be possible.

The Government will invite your Lordships to consider the paving Bill in due course, and following discussions with the usual channels. Your Lordships will then have the opportunity to scrutinise the Bill in detail. I also anticipate that your Lordships may wish to debate the pit closures policy itself. I would be happy to arrange for the House to debate this policy in Government time. Perhaps I may also add that I shall ensure that the House has a further opportunity to debate the policy in the light of the review which is to be undertaken.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the noble Lord the Leader of the House has discussed and proposed a course of action in this House which we find extremely difficult to accept. He has tried to make a case for the postponement of the Committee stage of the British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill, but we on this side of the House see no valid argument for that. As the noble Lord said, the Bill has been on the Order Paper for a long time. Noble Lords have been summoned here today to debate that Bill and some have travelled a long distance to do so. There was no other business before us. We resent this arbitrary way of treating the House.

As the noble Lord, Lord Wakeham, said, the revision of legislation is our primary business and to tell the House at a few hours' notice that we cannot proceed with a Committee stage is in my estimation offensive to noble Lords and to the House. The Government's closure policies were no reason for postponing consideration of the Bill. If they were, then, as the noble Lord conceded, this business could have been deferred several weeks if not several months ago. The Government are responsible for the current crisis and they should not have deprived the House of the full and constructive debate which could have taken place on the first amendment which my noble friend Lord Donoughue had tabled.

In view of this, the Government have left us with no alternative but to table a Motion for debate tomorrow to consider the crisis in the light of today's Statement by Mr. Michael Heseltine. As I have said, the Government have had several days in which to make a decision about today's business. Their failure to do so, to have a proper discussion and to reach agreement with all the Opposition parties may lead to difficulties in the future over arranging the business of this House. I regret that all this has happened.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, perhaps I may—

Noble Lords


Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, I suppose that, considered against the background of the Government's monumental mishandling of every issue that they at present touch, the question of the business in your Lordships' House today is a relatively minor one, but it is nonetheless unfortunate to have got this wrong as well. It occurs to me that it would have been eminently sensible to have proceeded at any rate from the first amendment—a paving amendment—to a general discussion on energy strategy.

In my relatively brief period—now five years—in your Lordships' House I have been struck by the fact that, while your Lordships' procedure has many advantages over that in the other place, by its procedure this House is relatively inflexible in being able to react quickly to major events of national importance. Here, by accident, was a golden opportunity to overcome that and to have a debate of great contemporary and national interest. Deliberately to have prevented our doing that seems to me to be a grave misjudgment.

I should have expected the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal to have wished to address this House at the earliest possible moment. He is, after all, not only a member of the Cabinet but one of the architects of the policy that has produced the current situation in the energy industry. I was frankly surprised that on an issue as important and difficult as this today the noble Lord did not repeat the Statement but left it to the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, to do the best she could with a very difficult brief. I should have thought that, in view of his record on these matters, the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal would wish to explain himself to the House as soon as possible.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords—

Noble Lords


Lord Wakeham

My Lords, it would probably be for the convenience of the House if I were to respond now to the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I imagine that we can then continue with the questioning.

Of course I fully accept the responsibility for the change in the business that I have invited the House to accept. I did my best in speaking to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition but he made it quite clear that he did not think that that was the right course. I was under no illusions about that. Therefore, I fully accept the responsibility for making the decision that I made. It was a difficult decision and if the House thinks that I have got it wrong I can do no more than to apologise and to say that I am very sorry.

In my view it was not going to be possible for this House to fulfil its very important role in revising legislation in the then current atmosphere, with a major Statement to be made to the House—by whoever should repeat it, and probably after the debate had begun—which would have changed the matter substantially. I did not think that that was the best way for the House to proceed. That is why I took the view that I did.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, that it is important that this House should find an opportunity to debate these major issues. From what I gather from the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition such an arrangement has been made. If the indications that I have heard are correct, we should be able to have a significant debate on the coal industry tomorrow—the day before the other place discusses these matters. I should have thought that your Lordships might feel that that was a convenient way of dealing with these major issues before we proceed with the legislation.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, I attempted to intervene before my noble friend the Leader of the House answered because I did not want to give the impression of merely reiterating what he said. I feel that we should react against the advice that has been given by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. Common sense tells us that the atmosphere in which we would have considered the detail of the Committee stage that was planned has completely changed.

Briefing letters from the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress—I have no doubt that many other noble Lords have also received them—made very impressive points, but they have been completely changed by what has happened during the past three or four days, and especially in the light of the Statement that we heard earlier this afternoon.

It is unreal to pretend that the contributions that would be made during a Committee stage now would be anything like the same as they would have been given the overriding feeling of despondency that has resulted from the Statement and all that has happened. It would be wise to recognise that. Although it will be a disappointment and perhaps an inconvenience to the many noble Lords who had expected to comment in Committee stage terms, their inconvenience comes very much second when it comes to applying common sense to the changed situation. Common sense tells us clearly that we should not carry on with the Committee stage as though nothing had happened.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for putting that point in the way that he did. I am sure that the substance of what he said is right.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords—

The Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, as for the past—

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, it should be our side, but I defer to the noble Viscount.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, as for the past, I do not expect that my noble friend will attach any value to my support, but personally I can only say that faced with that very difficult situation I should have done exactly the same myself. That may be regarded as a condemnation, but I must honestly say it. Equally. if I had been the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition I would have taken exactly the same position as he did on this matter and I happen to think that, from his point of view, he was right.

In a curious and funny way, as happens so often in your Lordships' House, I now believe that we have probably reached the right answer. We have spent a considerable time today discussing the Statement. All that would have been lost if we had continued with the business as planned. The noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition is right to put forward the idea of a Motion for consideration tomorrow. What could be better for your Lordships' House than to consider such a Motion the day before the other place? We could put our views tomorrow on the big issue facing us today—and a very big issue it is. It seems to me that that is getting the best of both worlds in the final event. I only hope that the House will now decide to accept what seems to be the best of both worlds.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I must say to the House that I feel considerably comforted by the fact that my noble friend believes that I made the right judgment at the time and indeed that the Leader of the Opposition also made the right judgment. I was seeking to find a way to pray in aid the letter from Mr. Norman Willis that my noble friend Lord Colnbrook mentioned earlier on, but I do not think I need bother to find a way now.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I am sorry to have to speak again on this issue but the fact of the matter is that the Leader of the House cannot get away with it. If our business is now to be decided on the basis of atmosphere, where will we get to? Our business is decided, or has been decided, on the basis of agreement between all sides of the House as to what shall be on the Order Paper. If the Leader of the House and noble Lords on his side can suddenly come along and say that the atmosphere is not right, just exactly where are we getting to? Can I have his assurance that this will not occur again?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the noble Lord has spent probably more years in the mysteries of how business is organised than I. This is a most unusual set of circumstances. I apologise profusely for it having come about and I have no plans for a reoccurrence if I can possibly avoid it. As my noble friend the Chief Whip said, "never" is a word which I do not think it was right for me to use. But I do not anticipate it happening again.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the question surely arises now as to when we will reach the Committee stage of the Bill. The reason for the postponement today is the uncertainty that has been created. The uncertainty will remain until the report—some of us had hoped for an independent inquiry—comes out at the end of this year, is then fully debated and a decision made about the future of the coal industry. Does the Leader of the House have in mind that the postponement might go on well into next year?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, before I came here today I felt the right and proper thing to do was for the House to have a general debate on the current situation in the coal industry and then to discuss through the usual channels the best way to proceed with the Bill. That is the right way. After the debate on the coal industry tomorrow, which I very much welcome, I shall have discussions through the usual channels to decide on the best way to proceed with the Bill.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Lord has indicated a certain degree of flexibility about the use of the usual channels in determining the business of the House. As is well known, the country is in the grips of controversy at the moment about the constitutional position of the United Kingdom in relation to the European Community. It is well known that there appears to be a degree of agreement on this matter between Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Opposition. May we have an assurance from the noble Lord that those of us who take a rather more independent attitude towards these matters, particularly those of considerable national gravity going right to the roots of the British Constitution, will be able to have some say as to the arrangement of the agenda for Parliament to discuss these matters?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that there are important matters involving constitutional questions about which there are strongly-held views. There are not, I hope, similar strongly-held views about the constitutional position of the usual channels. But if we go on debating the usual channels for too long, that will happen as well. I hope that the usual channels will continue to facilitate the good workings of this House for many years in the future and I hope that the slight blip in the arrangements will be forgotten and forgiven before too long.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, understandably, we have concentrated on the coal industry today. Another important industry—the railway industry—is affected by the Bill and a great deal of uncertainty therefore extends over the future of that industry. Can the Leader of the House indicate when we shall be able to consider those elements as well?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that it is an important Bill. We want to get on with it as soon as the House believes proper. I shall certainly arrange for discussions as soon as we have had the debate tomorrow.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, I wish to thank the Leader of the House for his Statement. The way things seem to be evolving is eminently sensible in terms of the business of this House. However, something else needs to be recognised. Following the Government's Statement earlier this afternoon, it appears that they are going to tough it out. Effectively, we are seeing a rift between the government of this country and the people of this country. One of the points that concerns me is that from all over the nation people will be coming to London on Wednesday to lobby Parliament against the pit closures. There will be an enormous number of people outside the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday. We must recognise that those people have a legitimate right to lobby Parliament and to complain about the actions of the Government. I make a plea for the Leader of the House to speak to the Commissioner of Police who I believe has responsibility for keeping the highways open for access to Parliament and to advise the commissioner that his men on duty on Wednesday should treat with great sympathy and understanding the people of this land who will be lobbying Parliament against the pit closures. I urge that that information be transmitted to the Commissioner of Police.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am very happy to convey the noble Lord's views about that matter. I am sure the whole House would want any lobby of Parliament to be conducted in a peaceful way, for the police to be supported and for those who want to exercise their democratic rights to do so in a peaceful and, from no doubt their point of view, persuasive way.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, in the context of tomorrow's business, no mention has been made of any Statement about the Birmingham meeting of European Heads of Government. Will such a Statement be made tomorrow?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, my understanding is that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is likely to make a Statement on Birmingham in another place tomorrow. If that is the case it will be repeated in this House if the House so wishes. I should be happy to do that should it be the wish of the House.

House adjourned at eight minutes past five o'clock.