§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise what is by any standards a scandalous denial of the rights of this House. Earlier this evening, the Secretary of State for the Environment published a written answer to a question which amounted to an announcement that council house tenants in the United Kingdom are soon to endure a rent increase of from £2.50 to £3 a week—an increase of 30 per cent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Resign."].
Clearly, the Secretary of State should have had the courage to make that announcement to the House, and clearly the Prime Minister should prevent members of her Cabinet from following such cowardly practices. The offence of the Secretary of State has been compounded by the fact that he had innumerable opportunities yesterday during his Department's 764 Question Time to make the announcement—an announcement that he was clearly prepared to make, since a written document has been published for more than 24 hours.
I therefore ask you, Mr. Speaker, what opportunity the Opposition have to defend not only council tenants but normal democratic procedures. In what way can we postpone prorogation in order that this disgraceful conduct by the Secretary of State can be debated? [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before I take any further points of order, let me say that I shall reply to the right hon. Gentleman, but at present we are waiting for Black-Rod—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order When Black Rod arrives, it is a Royal Command, and I shall lead the procession.
§ The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It may be for the convenience of the House if I explain that up to now consultative processes were not involved—[Interruption]—in fixing or deciding the level—[Interruption]—in fixing or arriving at a decision about the level of council house rents. It was the practice of my 765 predecessors to announce their views—when they had taken the decision finally—to the House, and there was then no way in which the views of other people could be collected before the decision was taken.
Under the Housing Act 1980, we have provided for the first time that there should be—[Laughter.] I should have thought that Opposition Members would welcome consultation, not laugh at it. The Government have provided for a period of consultation before the decisions are taken and announced to the House. What I have done today is to start the process of consultation—[Interruption]—by making available the consultative documents required under the Housing Act 1980.
§ Mr. Hattersley
For the statement that the Secretary of State has just made to contain any shred of truth it must mean that there is still a prospect—[Interruption]—that council house rents will not increase by £2.50 or £3 a week. Nobody in the House believes that to be true and nobody in the House—[Interruption]—nobody in the Houseߞ
§ Mr. Speaker
Black Rod. [Interruption.] Black Rod. [HON. MEMBERS:"Go back."] Order. I appeal to hon. Members to make way for Black Rod. [HON. MEMBERS:"No".] Order. [HON. MEMBERS:"Name them."] I have no desire at this stage of the Session to name anyone. I believe that our normal traditions and courtesies should be observed. [Interruption.] I ask hon. Members to make way for Black Rod. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Order. The sitting is suspended for 10 minutes.
§ Sitting suspended.10.49 pm
§ On resuming—
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
It would be helpful to the whole House if 766 we could escape from the difficulty in which we are placed, but the Opposition feel that the rights of the House of Commons have been grossly interfered with by the behaviour of the Secretary of State for the Environment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] We fully appreciate, Mr. Speaker, the difficulties in which you and the House are placed, but we believe that the origin of the difficulties is with the right hon. Gentleman. I do not know where he is. It is deeply offensive to the House that he should not be here.
What we should like to suggest as a means of escaping from the impasse is that the right hon. Gentleman should rise, or, if he is not present, the Prime Minister or the Leader of the House, and say that this so-called consultative document, which we believe is very much more than a consultative document—it is in fact a declaration of policy—will be withdrawn and that the Government will introduce it in the new Session, after they have had real consultations. If the Government made an announcement of that nature, if there is any validity in their document, they would still have the chance of proceeding. However, for such a proposition to be introduced at the very last second of the Session is an insult to the House as a whole.
At Question Time today incredulously I put it to the Prime Minister that I hoped that the Government would not introduce any fresh statement of policy by a written answer, as they had done over the 6 per cent. statement, yet here we have a further illustration of that method.
I plead with the Government, in order to remove the difficulties and escape from the impasse—and I fully accept the difficulties in which you, Mr. Speaker, and the House are placed—to say that this so-called consultative document will be withdrawn and will be reintroduced, if at all, in the next Session.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Leader of the House of Commons and Minister for the Arts (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)
May I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that it would be in the interests of the House if you would be good enough to have a further suspension?
§ Mr. Foot
May I say, Mr. Speaker, that sometimes it is necessary to have 767 suspensions of the House, but I believe that that is not the best way for us to proceed now. Very often Governments have to make up their minds. I suggest that this Government should make up their mind about this present situation. What we and the country are faced with is a document that has been introduced at the very last moment, without any possibility of our knowing what is to be proposed, and we are suggesting to the Government a way in which they can escape from the impasse. I do not believe that it is necessary to have a suspension. If the Government had any sense of the House of Commons, they would withdraw the document on the spot.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
May I point out to the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Speaker, that it is precisely to consider what he has said that I am suggesting that there might be a short suspension.
§ Sitting suspended.
§ 11.8 pm
§ On resuming—
§ Mr. Heseltine
Further to the earlier points of order, Mr. Speaker. The House will remember that I explained the position that surrounded the normal arrangements up until this year whereby we had announced the levels expected for council house rents. I made it clear that the practice of the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), who is in his place, was to announce his views in a written answer. I made it clear that last year I announced my views in a written answer to the House, and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), the Opposition spokesman on this matter, questioned that position.
I was absent from my place for a few minutes during earlier exchanges because I wanted to check the facts. I have been able to obtain from the Library of the House a copy of the written answer that I gave on 16 November 1979, in which I made it quite clear that I was anticipating a rent increase of about £1.50 a week. [AN HON. MEMBER: 768 "That was a year ago."] So what I told the House was totally true. There was no debate on that occasion. There was no call for a debate on that occasion.
In reaching my decision how I should proceed last year I took account of the precedents established by the Labour Government.
As I said, until this year no consultative process was involved in the fixing of the rents. In the course of the legislative arrangements under the Housing Act 1980, we have arranged for Ministers not to announce their views without consultation on the level of council house rents. Therefore, under the Housing Act 1980, I have recently been presenting to the House a series of consultative documents which are necessary to implement the 1980 Act. There has been a series of such documents. Two of them were made available in the Library, again complying with precedent, as a result of a written answer today. Therefore, I believe that I have totally fulfilled the precedent in this matter.
§ Mr. Heseltine
It is necessary, in the orderly conduct of our relationship with local government, to give local government the maximum possible notice in all the circumstances of what we have in mind, particularly at this time of the year, when local authorites are making arrangements for their budgets for the financial year 1981–82.
If we do not proceed with the consultation processes that I have set in train today, there will be uncertainty in the planning of local authorities' budgets. That will not be helpful to local authorities in their budgeting process. Therefore, my advice to the House is that we should proceed with the consultative process. [HON MEMBERS: "No."]
Only one conceivable factor would make me wish to change that advice, and that is your authority, Mr. Speaker. I believe that that is now at stake. I am prepared to begin the consultative process in the new Parliament and, therefore, to withdraw the consultative document. [Interruption.] But I make it clear that that is done purely to uphold your authority, Mr. Speaker.
§ Mr. Foot
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman concluded his remarks with the statement for which we had asked. [HON. MEMBERS: "We are not."] I think that the rest of the House is. As I said, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman concluded his remarks with the statement for which we asked precisely for the reason that we asked for it, because it relieves the House of the difficulties in which it was placed. Therefore, what my right hon Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) asked for originally has now been accepted by the Government. I must say—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The House has already behaved in a disorderly manner. I hope that we can now reach a conclusion.
§ Mr. Foot
I am glad that we should reach a conclusion. But I say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that it would have been much wiser if the Government had earlier accepted our suggestion for dealing with this matter. The situation would not have arisen if the Government had not taken this action in the last minutes of prorogation. The right hon. Gentleman and the Government were guilty of a grave offence against the House when they did that. It is extremely gratifying that they have now withdrawn the document, but they could have done it with much better grace.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Before Black Rod enters the Chamber, I want to tell the House that I believe that we endanger our parliamentary institutions—[Interruption.] Order. What has happened tonight is quite unprecedented.
§ Mr. Gorst
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I draw your attention to the fact that this evening we have witnessed picketing by more than six people, at least half a dozen of whom were to be seen on the Grunwick picket line. Surely that justifies those of us who voted against the code of practice on picketing.
§ Mr. Speaker
I believe that Black Rod has been delayed—[Interruption.] I can assure hon. Members that we have only a second or two to wait.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Hon. Members must recall that this House stands for better conduct than we have had tonight.