BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
May I ask Michael Footthe Leader of the House to state the business for next week?
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
Yes, Sir. The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 6th December—Second Reading of the National Insurance Surcharge Bill.
Motion on EEC Document on water—R/2098/75.
Tuesday 7th December—Committee stage of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding [column 1161]Industries Bill, which will be taken formally, followed by motions on suggested amendments to the Bill and Third Reading.
Wednesday 8th December—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Surcharge Bill.
Thursday 9th December—Supply [1st Allotted Day]: debate on a motion to take note of the First to Sixth Reports in Session 1975–76 of the Committee of Public Accounts and the related departmental replies.
Motions on Northern Ireland Orders on Appropriation (No. 3) and Supplementary Benefits (Amendment).
Friday 10th December—Remaining stages of the Fishery Limits Bill.
Monday 13th December—Progress on the Second Reading of the Scotland and Wales Bill.
Is the Lord President not aware that we think it an absolute disgrace to arrange for all the remaining stages of a big Bill, such as the National Insurance Surcharge Bill, within two days of Second Reading? This is a taxation measure which imposes nearly £1,000 million of taxation on our citizens and may affect many of them in other ways. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to railroad the measure through before they can know about it, before they know how it can affect them, or before they have any chance to make representations to Members whose job it is to scrutinise all taxation measures. Will he, therefore, take it off the list for Wednesday and allow a proper interval in which our citizens can make representations to their Members so that they may be properly represented?
I understand the right hon. Lady's representations on this subject. We looked at the matter and we are prepared to consider it afresh in the light of making a rearrangement of the business for next week—that is, proposing that the remaining stages should be taken on the Thursday rather than the Wednesday—but we cannot make any further suggestion than that for dealing with the situation. When hon. Members have had an opportunity of looking at the nature and scale of the Bill—I fully recognise that it is an important Bill—I think they [column 1162]will agree that there will have been time for constituents to make representations. I am sorry to reply to the right hon. Lady that, beyond the arrangements that we have suggested, I cannot see how we can change this proposal.
That just is not good enough. Three days are very little better than two for a taxation measure. The whole reason for our being here is to scrutinise taxation and to redress grievances. We must not impose measures without knowing exactly how they will affect our many constituents and organisations. There must be a respectable interval between Second Reading and remaining stages. It is a Money Bill I understand, Mr. Speaker, and therefore there is no possibility for revision in another place.
As I said to the right hon. Lady, I recognise the representations that she has made on the matter during previous discussions. We have looked at the possibility of rearranging the business for the following week in order to assist, but that also was not convenient to hon. Members opposite. Therefore, I fear that, in view of the discussions that we have already had, it will not be possible for us to make a fresh proposal for the business for next week.
Mr. David Steel
As the Leader of the House has announced that the Second Reading debate on devolution will begin on Monday, can he tell the House how many days he proposes to devote to it, because many Members obviously wish to participate? Secondly, in order to accommodate the differing views of his hon. Friends as well as the differing views in the Opposition, would he care to test the opinion of the House by a free vote on the matter?
On the second question, what is done by other parties is entirely a matter for them. The Government do not regard the matter as one that would be subject to a free vote. This, of course, is a major issue which has figured in the election manifestos of the Labour Party and one which has always figured in our programme as a major measure, so I cannot make any suggestion of that kind.
As for the length of the debate, we had thought that a three-day debate would be a perfectly reasonable period for the [column 1163]discussion, but if representations for a longer period are made we shall certainly take them into consideration.
May I raise the same point that the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition raised in relation to next Wednesday's business? Is my right hon. Friend aware that before this measure is dealt with many of his hon. Friends wish to have a look at it to see what the effect on unemployment will be in the country as a whole. On that ground alone, will he consider giving more time for consideration and discussion before the debate on Wednesday?
I apologise to my hon. Friend if I have mistaken what he said. I am not sure whether he was referring to the National Insurance Surcharge Bill or to the Social Security (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. If it were the former, the proposal has been before the country for a considerable time and there has been considerable opportunity for discussions to take place about it. Therefore, I think that what the Government are proposing is reasonable. We have to get the measure through, and I think that we shall have to proceed along the lines that we have suggested.
With regard to the Northern Ireland business on Thursday, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman two questions? First, will he make the usual arrangements for an extension of time in respect of the Appropriation Order, which is clearly of special importance? Secondly, is he aware that it should be possible on the same evening, with a little extra time, to deal with the Noxious Weeds Order if the Government will put that down, or put them down?
I am always eager to deal with noxious weeds as speedily as we can. I shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion in that light. I am most grateful to him for his other suggestion about looking at how we may order the debate. If extra time is wanted by Members from Northern Ireland in the way in which we have previously arranged—it has worked successfully before—we shall be glad to offer that.
Do the Government intend this year to introduce an import duties order, which is also taxation, to raise import taxes on food on 1st January? [column 1164]If so, may we be assured that there will be time to debate it fully before it comes into force?
It is certainly not going to be debated next week, but there may be opportunities for the matter to be raised. I know that my right hon. Friend has always played a special part in previous discussions on these import duties, and I am sure that he will be looking for similar opportunities on this occasion.
Mr. du Cann
First, is the Leader of the House aware that the arrangements that he has now made for a debate on the Public Accounts Committee's Reports will be very much welcomed? It is necessary that the hard work of Members on both sides on Select Committees should be refreshed from time to time, and as frequently as possible, by the opportunity for full discussion of their reports in this Chamber.
Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us when we are to have a statement on the economy by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? Will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that following the statement, which presumably will come some time after 9th December, we shall have a full opportunity for debate?
I cannot say yet on which day the Chancellor will make his statement on those subjects. We shall have to await the statement to see whether a debate should take place at that time or later.
On the first matter, I am most grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's comments. We have always understood that time has to be provided. He has often raised this matter, and we are glad to make the time available in response to the representations that we have had from him and others.
With regard to the National Insurance Surcharge Bill, am I right in saying that this is the Bill which implements what was said by, I think, the Chancellor last July? If so, what is all this hoo-ha about delay?
That seems a very simple way of disposing of the matter. I was trying to deal with it more delicately, but I thank my right hon. Friend for his assistance. [column 1165]
In order to correct any misapprehension about what I said in reply to a previous question, it is the fact that, with regard to the actual time that is being made available on Thursday for the discussion, we have been greatly assisted by the offer of a day from the Opposition. I should be the last to be churlish on that account.
Mr. Donald Stewart
Can the Leader of the House tell us whether, as he recently made two tentative attempts to have such a debate, he has a date in mind for the debate on transport?
We made a day available for that debate, and but for the events that occurred it would have taken place. Events outside our control truncated proceedings that day and made it impossible, which was greatly to be deplored. I know that several of my hon. Friends and hon. Members in other parts of the House wish to have a general debate on transport. I cannot give any promise at the moment, but I shall certainly consider these representations.
I remind the Lord President that unless he changes the rules Christmas Day will fall as usual on 25th December. Therefore, does he think it possible to look a little further ahead than he usually does and tell us when the House will go into recess and when we shall return after Christmas? That would be for the convenience of all Members of the House.
Secondly—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear” .]—when the rabble has quietened down, can the right hon. Gentleman say whether he has yet found a precedent for compressing all the stages of a major taxation Bill in the way that he is proposing for next week?
With regard to the proposals for the discussion next week, I think that I dealt with that in my previous replies. The Government made these announcements some time ago, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) indicated. There has been considerable discussion on this matter. I fully acknowledge that the Opposition would wish to have more time, and so might others, but we have to take into account the requirements of the Government in getting their business [column 1166]through. I am sure that that is understood by all hon. Members.
As for the hon. Gentleman's request for an indication of when we shall rise for the Christmas Recess, I am sorry that I cannot give it, but I assure him that no Member of this House is more eager than I am for that day to come because I shall be able to have a few days when I do not have to gaze upon the hon. Gentleman's visage.
Are we to have a statement from the Secretary of State for Trade about the financial dealings of Sir Hugh Fraser, who, at a time when we are all being told to pull in our belts, and at a time when the Government are reluctant to introduce a wealth tax, can afford to fiddle away over £2 million in gambling debts and heaven knows how much in financial aid to the SNP?
I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade will take into account all the points that my hon. Friend has put so eloquently.
Mr. Graham Page
Did I understand the right hon. Gentleman to endorse the phrase of his right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) that the complaints about the programme for the National Insurance Surcharge Bill were all hoo-ha? Does he think it is hoo-ha when the printed Bill was not available to hon. Members until this morning and is to be brought in on Monday, with the remaining stages being completed two days later? Does he not think that that is a contempt of the rights of Members of the House, of the conventions of the House, and of responsible parliamentary Government?
I was very careful not to endorse the particular phrase used by my right hon. Friend. I merely expressed some element of gratitude for the general sense of what he was seeking to convey. I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Of course it is highly necessary that papers should be provided for the House at the proper time and that time should be provided for the House to discuss these matters. We took all these matters into account when we made these arrangements.
These proposals have been before the country for a considerable time. I accept [column 1167]that there is some inconvenience for the House in having this debate on Wednesday—I am not seeking to disguise that—but I think that these are matters that we have stressed in our discussions with the usual channels, and I think that our case, as well as theirs. on the subject is appreciated.
Sir G. Howe
The Leader of the House must take this more seriously. Does he not appreciate that the Bill seeks to impose a load of taxation larger than that imposed in many previous Budgets, and that it was only when the Bill was published yesterday that we saw, for example, that, in contrast to the selective employment tax, the Government are seeking to impose this tax on jobs—not just on all jobs but even on the employment of people employed by charities and Churches? This is a major departure about which those organisations and others will wish to make representations. It is intolerable to bring in this kind of measure at such short notice to the House and to the country.
Of course it is necessary and right that organisations throughout the country should have an opportunity of making their representations, but this is a very short Bill, and we offered a rearrangement of business that could have assisted. [Hon. Members: “No” .] We made an offer which we thought was reasonable, but for perfectly valid reasons the Opposition did not prefer that rearrangement. I think, therefore, that I must ask the House to proceed to discuss the Bill as arranged.
Mr. Michael McGuire
May we have a debate on North-Western affairs? May I assure my right hon. Friend that while we are all very grateful for his efforts in arranging the last North-West affairs debate which, unfortunately, was shortened from its proposed extended period, we in the North-West feel that we should have this debate on the Floor of the House? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the feeling that if we take these debates upstairs in Committee they have been devalued? That sense of anger will grow, especially if we are to spend so many days discussing the devolution Bill without giving necessary attention to the affairs of a region with 7 million people.[column 1168]
I hope that my hon. Friend will not advance the proposition that, because we proposed that this debate should take place in the Committee upstairs, we were devaluing it in any way. We were not seeking to do that. We believe that important debates on regional matters can be held in those Committees and we shall need to do this if we are to have a proper discussion on these matters. I cannot offer the opportunity of an early debate in the House on the subject although, of course, there may be opportunities when the general subject can be raised. But if my hon. Friends wish for another debate in Committee, we shall of course look at that. If they want to debate the matter on the Floor of the House, we shall have to wait longer.
Does the Leader of the House realise—I feel sure that he does—that he has not satisfied us about next Wednesday's business? Whatever the complications about delaying the remaining stages for one day or into the following week, there is no need for it to be taken that quickly. The Bill was published only yesterday, and if his plans were adhered to, the whole measure would be disposed of in the House within one week. That is totally unsatisfactory when dealing with a major matter of legislation, even if the Bill happens to be particularly short. Cannot the right hon. Gentleman send it upstairs to a Standing Committee as we do with the Finance Bill? That is one possibility.
If the right hon. Gentleman is wondering what to do about next Wednesday, why does he not take off the remaining stages and put on instead a debate on one of the numerous reports about which the House constantly asks for debates?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also be sure that next week he will be able to say something positive about the handling of the reports to this House by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the IMF loan and the Letter of Intent, so that the House can weigh up how—not in the following week because of the devolution Bill, but in the week after that—it might be appropriate and right to hold a debate on what is clearly a very important matter at this stage in our country's economic affairs?
I shall consider what the right hon. Gentleman said about a statement on the discussions with the IMF and [column 1169]what may follow and what discussions are to take place in the House.
With regard to his first question, I cannot give an undertaking to alter what we have now proposed. We have already had considerable discussions on this subject, and I cannot promise to alter what we have proposed. I shall look at the right hon. Gentleman's suggestions. We made proposals to the Opposition on this matter, as the right hon. Gentleman will acknowledge, but I can give no undertaking that we shall change next week's business because we must get this business through and we have only a short time in which to do it.
May I return to the question of devolution and ask my right hon. Friend how many days we are likely to have to discuss the devolution Bill? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that, irrespective whether the Government or the Opposition put on a three-line Whip, there are Members on both sides of the House who will not worry about three-line Whips on this fundamental question of the constitution? Is it my right hon. Friend's intention to say that we must be bound totally by the manifesto on the question, for example, of direct elections which does not appear in the manifesto and on which there is a Labour Party conference resolution contrary to what the Government are proposing?
The question of direct elections is governed by the decision made in the referendum, the result of which was accepted by the House. How far and how speedily we shall be able to proceed in the matter is another question.
I am surprised that my hon. Friend has questioned the reference in the manifesto to devolution. There is no doubt about the Government's commitment on this matter and we shall provide the usual advice to hon. Members with a three-line Whip on that subject. Hon. Members in all parts of the House have to decide how much accord or agreement they may have with three-line Whips. That is for their individual judgment.
This is certainly a Government measure and the Government believe that it is essential, in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole, that it should go through in this Session. But we also believe that adequate time must [column 1170]be provided for its discussion, and we propose to provide the time to get it through successfully in this Session.
May I ask the Leader of the House about the sound broadcasting of our proceedings? In particular, is he aware that, on the information we have been given so far, the cost could be nearly £1 million in the first year? While I appreciate the pressure on parliamentary time, could he give an assurance that, if a Joint Committee is to be established, there will be ample time for its recommendations to be considered by the House, particularly with regard to the cost and the timing of its proposals?
The hon. Gentleman has pressed his view since this matter appeared on the Order Paper, as he is entitled to do. Presumably he is seeking a debate on the question of reappointing the Joint Committee. He might consider whether it would not be better to use any debating opportunities to consider any recommendations that the Joint Committee may make. I hope that on that basis he will let the Joint Committee proceed to its discussions and they we shall have a debate when it returns to the House.
Several hon. Members
I propose to call two more questions from either side of the House.
Will the Leader of the House give consideration to, and perhaps comment on next week, the ringing declaration of Shetland, which has pronounced its allegiance to this Parliament and to the United Kingdom? Clearly, it is going to be a major problem for consideration by this side of the House. Above all, Shetland's forthright and generous statement that the revenues from oil found in Shetland waters belongs to and should be used in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole clearly creates a major problem, since it destroys the entire basis of the Scottish National Party's argument.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that the statement made on behalf of the people of the Shetland Islands is very important. This House must take it into account. Indeed, the Government has taken into account such [column 1171]considerations in the form in which we have presented the devolution Bill to the House and to the country. We believe, of course, that the United Kingdom must be kept united for, among other reasons, the full exploitation of the great oil resources for the interests of the country as a whole.
Has the attention of the Leader of the House been drawn to Early-Day Motion No. 26, which deals with the desirability of proportional representation in the election of the Assemblies of Scotland and Wales? Has he, in particular, noted the very wide spectrum of opinion which has supported that motion? In view of that, will he, in this regard at least, come out for a free vote of the House?
[That this House, recalling the unanimous recommendation of the Kilbrandon Commission that Scottish and Welsh Assemblies should be elected by a system of proportional representation, urges Her Majesty's Government to make provision for such a system in the Devolution Bill.]
This is a matter for debate when we come to the Bill, and we shall come to the Bill fairly soon. Let us debate the matter then and see what is to happen. I am not referring to this matter alone. Of course it is the Government who are presenting the Bill to the House, but we fully recognise that there is bound to be consideration in the House and perhaps alteration to the Bill as it proceeds. That is only natural. We certainly do not intend to ram the Bill through the House without a single amendment, as was done on the last constitutional Bill, which dealt with the Common Market.
Mr. Robert Hughes
As my right hon. Friend recognises the wide variation of views in the House on the devolution Bill, will he take into account the fact that, on a major constitutional issue of this kind, with the best will in the world brevity cannot be too brief and hon. Members will need a reasonable opportunity to make their speeches? Will he therefore either look again at the number of days to be allocated to the Bill or consider extending the time limits, or indeed do both? Finally, will he resist the temptation whenever we have a devolution debate to have Front Bench [column 1172]opening and closing speeches, since that would decimate the time available to Back-Bench Members?
My hon. Friend refers not to the general debates on the Bill but to debates in the week after next on the Second Reading of the Bill. I shall certainly take into account the representations he has made on all those matters, on which I am sure he speaks for many others besides himself.
Is the Lord President aware that some of the Government's policies for financing sport and recreation were clean bowled yesterday by the Royal Commission Report? Is he also aware that the Government White Paper on sport and recreation was introduced 15 months ago? When are we to have a debate on these two reports in Government time?
It so happens that I was not aware of any of the facts that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. I have now been enlightened on them—that is, assuming that the hon. Gentleman's information is correct—and I shall certainly take into account what he has said and have a look at it to see what is the best way to deal with the matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I put it to you that the House has not been left exactly satisfied by what the Leader of the House has said on the subject of the National Insurance Surcharge Bill. Although we must, of course, take in good faith his undertaking to look at the matter, we would expect him to give us now an undertaking to come back to make a Business Statement tomorrow if he has something to tell us.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking a question.
Further to that point of order——
I did not consider it really a point of order. I thought that it was a question addressed to the Leader of the House.
I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for expressing myself so maladroitly. I was seeking to put it to you that it would be for the convenience of the House, which is, I think, possibly a matter in [column 1173]which you are interested, if we could secure some understanding as to how this matter is proceeded with. At the moment, next week's business is in a state of indecision.
I am about to do so. Obviously, that is not in my hands. The business of the House is announced from the Front Bench.