HC Deb 29 October 1979 vol 972 cc823-31
Mr. Merlyn Rees

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The matter that I wish to raise concerns the Education (No. 2) Bill. I do this on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who, as the House knows, is not available. I do not wish to discuss the merits of the Bill but the contents show how important it is. It deals with school government, admissions to schools, the establishment, discontinuance and alteration of schools, scholarships and awards, including assisted places at independent schools, grants for education in Welsh, school meals and transport and recoupment and sharing of expenditure. Though the Bill deals mainly with England and Wales, it contains important elements affecting Scotland as well.

The importance of the Bill is proved by its financial aspects. There is £5 million allocated for the election of school governors, about £1 million for industrial scholarships and a small though important sum of £500,000 for Wales. There is about £55 million—a lot of money when cuts are the norm—for assisted places in independent schools. There is a saving of £220 million listed which will be the result of cuts in school meals and school transport in the rural areas.

The Bill is to be debated next Monday. It is a convention of this House—and I have looked very carefully at the debate of two years ago on the Renton report—that there should be at least two full weekends before a Bill is debated on the Floor of the House. This is particularly important if it is a major Bill. We on the Labour Benches did not object when the European Communities (Greek Accession) Bill and the Shipbuilding Bill were debated at short notice; we waived the convention then because, in our view, it was right to do so. This Bill, however, is extremely important.

Hon. and right hon. Members could not get copies of the Bill on Friday last. Late in the day a handful of copies—12—were available, which was not enough to supply the needs of the House. The Leader of the House and his Department realised that they were in error and sent a copy of the Bill to every Member of this House. Many of those copies did not arrive until this morning and many hon. Members who represent constituencies a long way from Westminster and who do not get to their homes until Sunday evening tell me that they have not received copies of the Bill.

I would like the opportunity to discuss the Bill as it affects my area. The assisted places issue will not affect my constituency, but the cuts will. The convention should be maintained that an important Bill should be in the hands of hon. Members for two full weekends. I ask the Leader of the House—whose party commands a majority of 70 and can afford to be magnanimous—to let the Bill come before the House not next Monday but the week after.

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order for me. It is not my responsibility. Does the Leader of the House wish to speak?

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, which has quite properly been raised by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), I express the good wishes of hon. Members on the Government side for a speedy return to this House of the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot).

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the concern that hon. Members have expressed about the delay in supplying copies of the Education (No. 2) Bill to the Vote Office on Friday last. I express my regret to the House for any inconvenience which hon. Members may have experienced. I understand that a small number of copies of the Bill were available at the Vote Office shortly after the House met on Friday but copies were not available for all hon. Members until about 1 o'clock, shortly after the House had risen.

The Lower Vote Office, at my request, remained open until mid-afternoon and my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland (Mr. Jopling), the Government Chief Whip, arranged for it to be made known that copies of the Bill were available there. I also arranged, in view of these circumstances and the importance of the Bill, for personal copies to be sent that afternoon, by first-class post, to as many hon. Members as possible. Further copies were dispatched on Saturday through the normal machinery of the Vote Office. I think we did all that we could reasonably be asked to do to remedy a situation which had arisen from circumstances beyond our control.

Mr. Kinnock

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. What the Leader of the House has said, with the greatest respect to you, misleads you and the House in many important respects. Last Thursday afternoon, during the exchanges on the Business Statement, the Leader of the House recorded his feelings on this matter. He said that he acknowledged the need for giving the customary two weekends for consideration by hon. Members of a major Bill. If such a major Bill is published after midday on Friday, if the intention is to provide time for the Second Reading of a Bill a week the following Monday and if copies of that Bill are not available to more than 12 Members until half-past one on the Friday afternoon, when the House has risen at 20 minutes past 12 o'clock, how can the right hon. Gentleman fulfil his duties to the House and how can hon. Members fulfil their duties as scrutineers of legislation if they receive such short notice of Bills? That is an important right, which must be preserved.

There were further instances in the course of Thursday's business. The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, in an Adjournment debate, when questioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), repeatedly referred to the fact that the House could expect to have the Bill in another 12 or 13 hours and All will then be revealed to the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends".—[Official Report, 25 October 1979; Vol. 972, cc. 638–765.] Indeed, all has been revealed about the incompetence of the Government. The Government attempted to cover their tracks by posting a copy of the Bill to each Member at the House of Commons, but very few Members could be expected to be there on a Saturday morning as they would normally be in their constituencies. That is a signed confession of the incompetence and arrogance of the Government in this matter.

The convention is well established. The committee chaired by Sir David Renton, now the noble Lord Renton, recommended that two clear weekends should be given. Governments who introduce Bills at the very last second of a week of business and expect such Bills to be debated at the very first point of the week following the next week of business are in difficulty in many instances, especially when contentious matters are involved. But Governments who introduce Bills an hour after the end of the business of a week and still expect those Bills to be debated properly on Second Reading by the beginning of the week after the next week are in even more difficulty.

I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, like the rest of the House, will find such action utterly intolerable. I appeal to you, as the defender of minorities in the House, to give consideration to this matter, to follow the recommendation of the Renton committee and to give a ruling that, certainly in the case of contentious Bills, two full weekends shall be given and that the two weekends shall run from the end of business in the one week to the beginning of business in the next week but one, so that we can avoid the possibility of this kind of confusion and misleading of the House in future.

If the Second Reading of the Education (No. 2) Bill had not been arranged for a week today—if it were to be, for example, the Wednesday or Thursday of next week—the Opposition, in their customary co-operative manner, would not be making such a fuss. Twice in part of a Session which is now only a week old, my right hon. Friends have informed the Government that they would not seek to impede or delay the Government's business on the accession of Greece Bill and the Shipbuilding Bill. That has become an established custom. In the same way, the Government, when in opposition, did not impede my right hon. Friends when they introduced non-contentious matters.

I have parliamentary answers which indicate that a substantial number of Bills did not conform to the criteria laid down by the Renton committee, but they were non-contentious matters, as evidenced by the fact that not once throughout the duration of the Labour Government did the Conservative Opposition have to make protests or appeals to you, Mr. Speaker, of the kind that we are having to make today. I shall be interested to hear your response to the manner in which the Government have approached the matter, which is, I feel, a most irresponsible and cavalier manner, disregarding the rights of the Opposition and the well-established convention of the House.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take three more points of order and then answer all of them together, if necessary.

Mr. Heffer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that I was the last but one Member who tried to obtain and eventually obtained a copy of the Education (No. 2) Bill. I was asked by the man in the Vote Office who I was. Having ascertained that I was a Member, he then said that there were two copies left, one of which I could have. Incidentally, the House had not risen at that stage; it was about to rise. The chap in the Vote Office said that there were two copies left, that I could have one and that another Member who was with me could have the other. There were no more copies then. That was just before the House rose. The Adjournment debate did not proceed because the hon. Member concerned was not present.

Last Thursday the Leader of the House said that we ought to have two full weekends to discuss the Bill. I have always regarded the right hon. Gentleman as a very honourable Member of this House, whose word I have always accepted, though not necessarily agreed with. I put it to him that, on the basis of his own statement, he ought now to accept that we should not proceed with the debate on the Bill today week. In fact, it should be put back for at least a week in order that hon. Members may properly read the Bill and make up their minds how they should proceed with respect to it.

I believe the right hon. Gentleman to be an honest Member and that his word—[Interruption.] We are all honest Members, but the right hon. Gentleman is a particularly honourable Member. I put it to him that, on the basis of his own statement, he should be prepared to accede—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not able to put anything to the Leader of the House. He is raising a point of order which must be directed to me. I indicated earlier that I was prepared to take further points of order as long as they were points of order and not arguments whether the Bill should go on.

Mr. Heffer

I accept that, Mr. Speaker. However, through you, may I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, in view of his own statement, he should accede to the request that I have made.

Mr. Archer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. After the rising of the House on Friday, I attempted to obtain a copy of the Bill and was unsuccessful. It is fair to say that I obtained a copy later in the day and another one through the post, so I now have two copies of the Bill. However, it is within my knowledge that some hon. Members had to leave before copies became available later in the day in the Vote Office. Therefore, on any showing, they were not available to those hon. Members over the weekend. Is not the purpose of presenting a Bill not only that two full weekends should elapse before Second Reading but that copies should be available to hon. Members?

Mr. Neubert

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. During the last 18 minutes I have heard two matters asserted. The first was that the Leader of the House said that the Bill was available at one o'clock on Friday. The second was that the hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) asserted that such Bills should be available at the end of business of one week and should not be debated before the business in the week following the week after that. It would seem that on this occasion Opposition Members had copies of the Bill made available to them three and a half hours earlier than normal. Will you please explain what is at issue in this matter?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take one more point of order from each side of the House.

Mr. Pavitt

May I seek your advice, Mr. Speaker? With regard to the Bill, which I have not yet been able to see, in your experience of this House, when we are still at the beginning of October and likely to run through to next August, would one week's delay be a disastrous consequence for any Government?

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

As a Business Statement will be made on Thursday which will cover the following Monday, could not my right hon. Friend think about this and give an answer then?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), has a point and I recognised that by the action that I took. However, with respect to the hon. Gentleman, he has rather exaggerated the point. If I thought for a moment that hon. Members would be substantially deprived by a delay of a few hours in the Bill's being available, I would take action at once, but I am not convinced.

The hon. Member for Bedwellty answered his own case when he asked you, Mr. Speaker, to make a ruling on this matter. When speaking during business questions on Thursday, I said that it was a custom that two weekends should be available. It is not a rule or a convention of the House. The idea is that a reasonable time should be made available. The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer), the former Solicitor-General, said when in office that the House should appreciate that, while the report of the Renton committee should be considered, there are bound to be some occasions when these intervals would not be practicable."—[Official Report, 3 November 1975; Vol. 918, c. 120.] I do not believe that there is substance in the point made by the Opposition, but I shall certainly reflect upon the matter, if necessary.

Mr. Kinnock

I hope you share my conviction, Mr. Speaker, that the right hon. Gentleman is playing with words. The House is run on custom and understands its proceedings when customs are conformed to. On matters of great contention, such as this Bill, surely the only way in which we maintain a civilised relationship in the House is when customs are scrupulously conformed to and not twisted to suit the convenience of the Treasury Bench. Custom in the House assumes greater importance—and, indeed, greater credibility and a greater measure of universal support—because it is generally adhered to. On those occasions when it is significantly departed from—as on this occasion—we need your protection, Mr. Speaker, to save us from the consequences of having what the Conservative Lord Chancellor has called an elective dictatorship. In some respects that is what the Government are saying.

The right hon. Gentleman accuses me of exaggeration, but where shall we draw the line? Shall we draw the line at 9 o'clock, midday or half-past one on a Friday, or, indeed, when the House rises—whether that be at 4.30 pm, as is customary, or at 12.20 pm, as was the case last week? If Governments can bend their consideration of time, and the appropriateness of the presentation of a Bill, whether it inconveniences the House or not, and then shuffle behind an apology—which I am sure is genuinely given—that is not sufficient protection for minorities in the House to secure their rights and the rights of their constituents. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will acknowledge the force of that argument.

We have had 13 weeks in recess. We are filling up the early weeks of this part of the Session with various matters lacking in contention. I do not object to that. But if we can have 13 weeks off and then have two items of uncontentious business, what is the hurry about getting the Education (No. 2) Bill in, especially when it is accomplished by gross incompetence on the part of the Government by not providing hon. Members with the Bill well beforehand?

Mr. Speaker

First, let me make my own position absolutely clear. I understand that this is an agreement between both sides of the House, a convention between parties. It is not a matter which Mr Speaker has ever been called to rule upon. Therefore, I advise the House that I am not able to help further on any points of order about when the Bill will be debated. That is not a matter for me. [Interruption]. Order. The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) indicated to me privately that he has a very different point of order, which I shall hear. I shall not pursue points of order about the matter that has already been raised. I have given the House a very good run on what was not a genuine point of order.