HC Deb 13 March 1980 vol 980 cc1557-71
Mr. James Callaghan

May I ask the Leader of the House—[Interruption.] In case the Leader of the House did not hear my question because of the hullabaloo made by Conservative Members, may I ask him to state the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 17 MARCH—Supply [14th Allotted Day]: Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the problems of the North-West and afterwards on the West Midlands, on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Debate on a motion relating to the Olympic Games.

TUESDAY 18 MARCH and WEDNESDAY 19 MARCH—Remaining stages of the Social Security Bill.

At the end on Wednesday:

Remaining stages of the New Hebrides Bill [Lords.]

THURSDAY 20 MARCH—Debate on European Community documents Nos. 4896/80, addenda I and II, 5069/80 on agricultural prices and markets, 11337/79 and addendum I, 4885/80 on common agricultural policy, R/769/78 on sheepmeat, 5720/79 and corrigendum I 8611/79 on agricultural structures, 8248/79 on liqueur wines, and 485/80 on the budget.

FRIDAY 21 MARCH—Private Members' motions.

MONDAY 24 MARCH—Progress on remaining stages of the Transport Bill.

The House will wish to know, Mr. Speaker, that it will be proposed that the House should rise for the Easter Adjournment on Thursday 3 April until Monday 14 April.

Debates on European Community Documents

The relevant published reports of the European Legislation Committee are as follows:

R/769/78 (Sheepmeat): 36th Report, H.C. 29-XXXVI, 1977–78.

5720 / 79 (Agricultural Structures): 2nd Report, H.C. 159-II, 1979–80, para.1.

8611/79 (Agricultural Structures): 8th Report, H.C. 159-VIII, 1979–80, para 2.

8248/79 (Liqueur Wines): 10th Report, H.C. 159-X, 1979–80, para.1.

4845/80 (Community Budget): 20th Report, H.C. 159-XX, 1979–80 para.1.

A typescript report on the remaining agricultural documents is expected to be available in the Vote Office before the debate.

Mr. Callaghan

Is it not astonishing that the House is being asked to consider the Olympic Games in a debate that will take place after the full day has run, at 10 o'clock at night, although the Government say that it is so important? Why are the Government trying to smuggle a debate through in that way? Why do the Government not put this debate on at a reasonable time, so that the House can discuss the issue? I shall ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions. First, will he please table a motion today stating how long the debate will last? Secondly, will there be a free vote?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman will know that discussions took place through the usual channels about alternative dates. This is the earliest date that we could find. The debate must be arranged before the conference that is to be held on 17 and 18 March. That conference will include several countries as well as Britain. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office will then have the advantage of knowing the will of the House.

The wording of the motion will be put down later today. It will be a simple motion about the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent unsuitability of Britain's taking part in the Olympic Games. We expect the debate to run for three hours. I am happy to assure the right hon. Gentleman that as the debate will primarily give the House an opportunity to express its mind on that issue, the Conservative Party will be given a free vote.

Mr. Callaghan

Will that really be the form of the motion? If the Soviet Union were to change its attitude, would the Government or House not wish to take a different view. The Leader of the House told us that the motion will provide an opportunity to condemn the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. Of course, we all deplore that. In view of the great concern that has been shown, the distress that has been caused to many athletes, and the divisions that have occurred in the West on this issue, the Government should not try to smuggle a debate through at such a late time. There should be a proper and full debate. It should not be limited to three hours. Such a difficult and thorny subject should be debated thoroughly. At the moment this issue is leading the Government into some petty forms of tyranny.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It would not be right to debate the terms of that motion during business questions and before the motion has been tabled. I wished to assist the right hon. Gentleman and I therefore communicated to him in advance the general form of the motion. The motion will be tabled later today. Bearing in mind the wide publicity that this subject has achieved, there is no substance in accusing the Government of trying to smuggle this motion through the House. I accept that the debate will not be held at an ideal time. However, it is important that the will of the House should be expressed before the conference takes place.

Mr. Callaghan

As Leader of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman consider the inconvenience—some might say contempt of the House—that has been caused by the Government's failure to produce the public expenditure White Paper? For years that White Paper has been produced in January and February in order that it might be debated in the House. We have now learned from press leaks that the White Paper will be published on Budget day. No announcement has been made, and the House has been treated with less than respect. All hon. Members who care about such things should say whether they think it fair that a document of such size should be published after the Chancellor of the Exchequer has completed his statement on Budget day. Will the Leader of the House ask his colleagues to consider this issue? The House should have a chance of considering the expenditure proposals before the taxation proposals are announced on 26 March.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly pass on those views to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Surely there is a logical connec- tion between the public expenditure White Paper and the Budget. I cannot give an exact date. However, it is not unreasonable to consider the two together.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

In view of the words that the Leader of the House twice used in regard to the purpose of the motion on Monday, will he confirm that the will of the House, as it affects the citizen, can be made known only by an Act of Parliament?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that that is entirely accurate. The House can impose legally binding obligations on citizens only by an Act of Parliament. However, the wishes of the House can be made known by a resolution.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

When will the House have an opportunity to consider the recommendations of the Services Committee concerning facilities for European Members, and when will a decision be taken?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That report of the Services Committee was published only today. I believe that it would be a good idea to have an interval in which hon. Members can reflect on these proposals and make their views known to me, amongst others.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Following the question from the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), will the Leader of the House tell us whether any finding made in this House that is not an Act of Parliament is binding on the citizens of the country?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The only way that there can be a legal obligation is by an Act of Parliament. Parliament has a legislative function, but there is another most important function of Parliament, which is that the House of Commons should express its mind on the great issues of the day. That is why we have debates. That is why, on this most important question of the future of the Olympic Games, it is right that the House of Commons should express its mind.

Mr. Higgins

In view of what my right hon. Friend says, does he agree that the objective of the Government must be to persuade sporting bodies to boycott the Moscow Olympics? Will that task of persuasion be helped by having a three-hour debate, late at night? Will my right hon. Friend accept that we should give the matter the attention and importance that the athletes who are being asked to make a major sacrifice rightly deserve? Will my right hon. Friend reconsider the matter? Will he carefully consider whether the motion should be tabled immediately in its precise terms, as the athletes are concerned that the Government are not doing everything within their power and that the athletes are being asked to bear the main burden? Such action would give us the opportunity to table amendments.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I know that my right hon. Friend feels strongly on this issue. [HON. MEMBERS: "We all do."]I have said that the motion will be tabled later today. It is important that this House should have the opportunity to express its view. I am sure that that will be taken into account by British athletes in making up their minds.

Mr. Mellish

Does the Leader of the House understand that the business for next week and the following weeks will be quite irrelevant unless he does something about the appalling conditions under which the staff of the Official Report are working? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware, for example, that apart from reporting everything that is said on the Floor of the House, they also report the Committees, which sit in the mornings and afternoons, some even going into the evenings, when no refreshments are provided? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the Official Report is understaffed? What does he propose to do? Will he give the Official Report a Sub-Committee to assist the House of Commons Commission? Does he accept that it is about time the Official Report had the status and dignity that it deserves?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. It gives me an opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the Hansard reporters and others, who, because of the record rate at which the Government are implementing their mandate from the electorate, are bearing a heavy burden. I have regular meetings to discuss the situation with regard to Hansard, and I have some hopes that within a reasonably short time I shall be able to announce proposals to improve the situation.

Mr. David Price

In respect of Mondays's business after 10 o'clock did I understand my right hon. Friend to suggest that the Government wish to hear the views of the House? If so, will my right hon. Friend accept that three hours after 10 o'clock is totally inadequate? Will he consider the matter again and rind time for at least a full day's debate?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I agree with my right hon. Friend that it would be desirable to have a longer debate. However, I have indicated the importance of the House of Commons expressing its mind at a time when it can have a direct influence on Government policy.

Mr. David Steel

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the matter? We all accept that there are times when the House has to transact business in the small hours of the morning, but if, to use the right hon. Gentleman's own words, it is an important matter on which the House should declare its view, the country will not understand if we do that at 1 o'clock in the morning.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

As I have indicated, I have sympathy with that view, but it is necessary to have an early debate on the matter.

Mr. Ashley

Is the Leader of the House aware of growing public concern about the failure of the system of checking the safety of medical drugs in Britain? Is he aware of the American case, in which there are accusations that the British drug Debenox has caused malformations in young children? Irrespective of the outcome of that case, may we have a statement or a debate next week on the system of checking drugs in Great Britain?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The right hon. Gentleman raises a most important point. I shall take it up as a matter of urgency with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services.

Mr. Kershaw

Is the Leader of the House aware that the report of the Select Committee on the Olympic Games is available in the Vote Office and that the evidence will be there at half-past five this afternoon?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for making that announcement for me. I congratulate him on the speed with which his Committee worked. The report will be relevant to the debate.

Mr. James Callaghan

In view of the non-party expression of opinion from all sides of the House about the importance of a full day's debate on the Moscow Olympics, is it necessary to have the Social Security Bill next Tuesday and Wednesday? Could we not debate the Olympic Games on one of those two days?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The conference to which I have referred is on Monday and Tuesday, 17 and 18 March. It would be open to complaint if the House expressed its view on the matter after decisions had been made.

Mr. Callaghan

With respect, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Olympic Games are a long way away? Will he further accept that I do not know, and I doubt whether the House knows, the status of that conference? Does he agree that it is not the last occasion on which the House can return to the subject? Will he reconsider the matter? Why is it necessary for the Government to know the opinion of the House on this occasion, when opinions have so far been freely expressed by Ministers without any difficulty?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the timing of the debate was discussed through the usual channels. Had there been agreement, it would have been possible to have another debate.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the House has spoken strongly this afternoon against a debate on the Olympic Games at a late hour on Monday? Will he therefore reconsider the matter, bearing in mind that the object of the exercise is to demonstrate to the public the views of the House? Will he accept that he now knows the views of the House? Will he choose a more convenient time for debate, which will have a greater impact on public opinion?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

As I said, we made every effort, but we could not get agreement on a date.

Mr. Silverman

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm whether I heard his statement correctly about next Thursday's debate on agricultural prices? Did he include document No. 4845/80, which deals with convergence and budgetary questions? Will he accept that that is an entirely different matter from agricultural prices?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

It is quite possible to have misunderstood me in the battery of figures that I had to give. Of the nine documents that I mentioned, eight directly concern agricultural policy. The ninth concerns the budgetary document, but 90 per cent. of the budget is concerned with agriculture.

Mr. Tapsell

Will my right hon. Friend accept that the Leader of the Opposition appears to find intervening in business questions less humiliating than intervening in Prime Minister's questions? Before my right hon. Friend gives too much weight to the right hon. Gentleman's earlier intervention, may I mention that some of us believe that it is sensible and helpful for the Government's expenditure, income and tax estimates to be made known to the country simultaneously? However, in future years will the Government consider announcing them all in comparable money units?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly pass on that interesting suggestion to my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer. With regard to the question whether the Leader of the Opposition rises in business questions or in Prime Minister's questions, that is a matter for him. In my view, it should not be made a matter of reproach that he evidently considers business questions as interesting as Prime Minister's questions.

Mr. Ennals

Does the Leader of the House consider that he is properly fulfilling his function as Leader of the House—he is not Leader of one side of the House, but Leader of the whole House—in failing to respond to expressions from both sides of the House that the timing of the debate on the Olympic Games is not only unsatisfactory to the House but will be seen by the country as a ludicrous way of dealing with an important issue?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am, of course, aware that my job is Leader of the House. That is why I made every effort to see whether an agreement satisfactory to all sides of the House could be achieved.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the relatively near future for a debate on the despicable actions being followed by some trade unionists in their campaign against the Government? I refer particularly to the use of children by members of NUPE in Cheshire to advance their campaign and to a document describing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as a vampire—a document handed to children—which urges parents to refuse to pay school transport charges if the Education (No. 2) Bill is implemented and becomes an Act of Parliament.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am sure that the vast majority of trade unionists would not approve of the factual situation revealed by my hon. Friend. With regard to the appellation of "vampire", my right hon. Friend has been called much worse things. She is none the worse for it.

Mr. Freeson

With regard to the Olympic Games, will the Leader of the House defer action on Tuesday and Wednesday next week, on the Social Security Bill, the main purpose of which is to reduce pensions, and hold a debate on the Olympic Games on Tuesday, as my right hon. Friend suggests?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Alternatives were considered, but it was impossible to reach agreement.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. There is a statement to follow. I propose to call four more hon. Members from either side of the House before moving on.

Mr. Emery

Will my right hon. Friend take account of the considerable feeling for a longer debate than the three hours until 1 o'clock in the morning? As there is such a response by the Opposition, will he extend an invitation to the Leader of the Opposition to give up half of his Supply day to enable us to debate the matter from 7 pm until, perhaps, midnight?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

That is an interesting suggestion. I am sure that it will come as no surprise to Opposition Members.

Mr. Jay

Why have the Government failed to publish not merely a public expenditure White Paper but a defence White Paper at the normal time this year? Is there to be a defence debate?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Yes. We are to have a defence debate and publication of the White Paper in due course.

Mr. Onslow

Will my right hon. Friend confirm the impression that he has given that the reason why the House has to suffer the inconvenience of a debate on the Olympics at such an awkward time is the refusal of the Opposition to make available any of their time?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that I can be drawn into that kind of discussion.

Mr. James Callaghan

Is it not also clear that the Government tell us when we are to have Supply days?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not want to go into detail. It is part of the conventions of this House—

Mr. Orme

Tell the truth.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I am telling the truth. That is possibly why the right hon. Gentleman does not believe me. He is not used to hearing it. It is fair to say that I made efforts to see whether agreement could be obtained. Those efforts did not meet with success. I do not wish to go further than that.

Mr. James Lamond

Is it not a remarkable commentary on the Government's priorities when the Leader of the House can find time for a debate on the Olympic boycott because Ministers must be armed with information about what he calls the will of the House before they go to a conference, and yet he repeatedly refused to arrange a debate about the stationing of nuclear weapons in this country before a Government Minister went to the appropriate NATO conference to make the decision?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I do not think that those are parallel matters. At least, they are of commensurate importance because each, in its own way, involves the future peace of the world.

Mr. Kilfedder

Does the Leader of the House not realise that Olympic athletes and their supporters will be fully entitled to disregard whatever wishes are expressed by the House in a debate that lasts for only three hours after 10 pm on Monday? Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise that it is for the Government to provide proper and adequate time, as they are trying to impose upon us their tyrannical attitude regarding the Olympic Games despite the wishes of our people?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Government have made clear that there is no question of imposing a legal ban on athletes taking part in the Olympic Games, but they have also made clear that in their opinion Britain should not take part in the Games. This gives the House of Commons, also, the opportunity to express its mind. It is one of the traditional constitutional means for making expressions of public opinion.

Mr. Harry Ewing

Is the Leader of the House aware that he is doing himself and the House a grave disservice by keeping his head down and going on with this debate on Monday night on such an important subject? How can he continue to pretend that the Government will take heed of what the House says on Monday night when three major decisions have already been taken by the Government? The Foreign Office has removed diplomatic assistance from the Olympic team. The Prime Minister, in her role as Minister for the Civil Service, has given instructions that no civil servant will be given special leave to take part. The Secretary of State for Defence has given instructions that no Service men will be allowed special leave to attend the Olympic Games. Is that an indication of the heed that the Government intend to take of the decision of the House?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The measures that the Government have taken with regard to the Civil Service and the Armed Forces is wholly consistent with Government policy that we should not take part officially in the Olympic Games. That is totally without prejudice to the decisions of individuals. The purpose of the debate on the Olympic Games is certainly for the Government to assess opinion in the House but, equally important, it is for the House to have an opportunity to express its mind, as the House of Commons, on this issue.

Mr. Moate

Will the Leader of the House say how and when he intends to make good the statement of the Minister of Transport that the Government will abide by the will of the House on seat belts legislation? As the will of the House—I think he will agree—is shown in the substantial Second Reading majority and not in the sustained if rather poor-quality filibuster by a small handful of hon. Members, can he say how he intends to carry out the statement made by his right hon. Friend?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I shall certainly refer that point to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. What happens to Private Members' Bills on this or any other subject is, of course, a matter for the House of Commons.

Mr. Wellbeloved

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Government's inept handling of the Olympics boycott issue has seriously weakened the possibility of effective united action being taken in condemnation of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? Will he not seek to atone, at least in some measure, for this inept handling by granting the united desire of the House, which is to have a full-length debate on the Olympics issue at a proper time?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

The Government and the Prime Minister have given a very clear lead not only to this country but to other nations. We took action early on this matter and other countries are now following our example.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, I appeal to you as the guardian of our rights. I believe that I heard the Leader of the House say during the course of these proceedings that should the House on Monday vote against British athletes going to Moscow the Government would not carry out the will of the House. Is it not the case that by issuing orders of ne exeat regno the Government should not prevent or make a crime of the act of athletes going to Moscow? Are the Government really saying in advance that they will disobey the will of the House should the will of the House be that way?

Mr. Speaker

That is for the Government. It has nothing to do with me in terms of ruling on the Standing Orders of the House.

Mr. Lawrence

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member not only to accuse his hon. Friends of a filibuster but to say that it was a filibuster of poor quality? Apart from being the grossest slander upon myself and those of my hon. Friends who supported me, is it in order to make such an observation when nearly 590 hon. Members did not turn up to support the closure, which adequately reflects the opinion in this country of that rather contemptible Bill?

Mr. Onslow

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on a matter connected with the debate on Monday? I understand that our rules now preclude the possibility of raising an application under Standing Order No. 9 on a Friday morning. If that is so, and even if an application under Standing Order No. 9 were to be raised on Monday and you were to accept it, there would still be no possibility of the debate taking place until the Tuesday. If I am right, and if the House wishes to debate this matter before the conference to which my right hon. Friend referred has taken place, would it be sufficient for an application under Standing Order No. 9 to be made to you this afternoon?

Mr. Speaker

Standing Orders with regard to emergency debates are not intended merely to provide a debate if the Government have not given time for a debate. That is not the main purpose of Standing Order No. 9, as the House knows. However, if I accept the motion for an energency debate on Monday it would be possible to have the debate that night. But I do not want the House to be misled into thinking that I am encouraging such an application.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The whole House has expressed concern about the proposal made by the Leader of the House regarding the three-hour debate. I wonder whether there is not a convention that announcements regarding the ensuing week's business should be made in the House. Is not the obdurate attitude of the Leader of the House due to the fact that yesterday the timing and extent of the debate was announced on both television channels? First, this brings the House into contempt, or certainly treats the House with contempt. Secondly, will hon. Members, receive the same treatment as the media? In other words, if we ring the Office of the Leader of the House on a Tuesday or Wednesday, can we be given the information about the forthcoming week's business? It seems to me that it is a convention—and it is your job, Mr. Speaker, to protect the conventions of the House in relation to facilities for Back Benchers—to see that announcements are made here before they are made to the media or anybody else outside the House.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, I have made no announcement on this subject to any other body or in any other place except this House. I cannot be responsible for speculation—which is all that it is—on television.

Mr. Gorst

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I draw your attention to the remarks made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. He said that he wished public opinion to be informed on the Olympic Games issue, but we shall be debating it when not only the newspapers will have gone to bed but, I imagine, newspaper journalists will have gone to bed. Consequently, public opinion will not be able to be rallied on this point.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is pursuing a question that he might have asked had I called him earlier.

Mr. Wellbeloved

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the leaks to the media of the timing of the debate on the Olympics boycott and the denial by the Leader of the House that he made such a statement, would it be in order for me to request, through you as the guardian of the rights of this House, that the Government should institute a leaks inquiry to find out just where the information came from?

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand from my reading of the press today that the vindictive discrimination against civil servants by the Prime Minister is a breach of the conditions of service for the Civil Service. Those conditions of service are not contractual—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Gentleman can relate that to the Standing Orders of our House, I will rule on it.

Mr. Lyon

The conditions of service of civil servants are not contractual obligations. They are honoured only by convention under the constitution. The point made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is absolutely valid. If the House passes a resolution on Monday, that may be a breach of those conditions—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is quite clear that that is not a matter upon which I can rule.

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