BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
Before we come to business questions, may I inform the House that I have on my list a far greater number of right hon. and hon. Members wishing to speak in the major debate to follow than I can possibly call today. The time that is taken on business questions will simply come out of the major debate.
May I ask Michael Footthe Lord President to state the business for next week?
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
The business for next week will be as follows:
Monday 28th November—Consideration of Private Members' motions until 7 o'clock. Afterwards, motion on EEC Documents R/77 Nos. 2147, 2428, 2429, 2434, 2521 and 2642 on fisheries.
Motion on the code of practice on time off for trade union activities
Tuesday 29th November and Wednesday 30th November—Progress in Committee on the Scotland Bill.
At the end on Tuesday, motion on Financial Assistance to Industry (Thames Board Mills) Limited.
At the end on Wednesday, motion on EEC Document Com(67) 155 on architects' qualifications.
Thursday 1st December—Consideration in Committee on the European Assembly Elections Bill. [column 1755]
Friday 2nd December—Private Members' motions.
Monday 5th December—Supply [2nd Allotted Day]: debate on a motion to take note of the First to Tenth Reports from the Select Committee on Public Accounts in Session 1976–77, and the related Treasury and Northern Ireland memoranda.
Motion relating to the Sheriff (Removal from Office) Order.
May I ask the Lord President about Thursday's business? On the assumption that the European Assembly Elections Bill receives a Second Reading, is it his intention to put down a motion to take the system of voting first on the first Committee day? Is he aware that many of us would agree with the view expressed by one of his hon. Friends that, because it is just as easy to define the constituencies in a schedule for the first-past-the-post system as it is to define the regional boundaries, the method of election does not affect our capacity to meet the deadline for elections? However, it would be of great assistance, I believe, and would secure the more rapid passage of the Bill, if we were to know the system early.
We had not thought of putting down such a motion as the right hon. Lady suggests. We thought that the best way was to proceed with the Bill as presented. From what the hon. Lady has said now, it seems that the matter she has raised is more a question for debate than for consideration in the way she suggests. I shall look at the point if she wishes me to do so, but I should have thought that it was better to proceed with the Bill as it has been presented to the House already.
Mr. David Watkins
Can my right hon. Friend say when there may be a debate on the report of the Services Committee on payments and facilities for Members' secretaries and research assistants?
I fully accept that the House should have an early opportunity of debating the matter. Certainly, we want the House to have a chance to give its view on the matter soon if it be necessary or desirable that the arrangements should be brought into operation next year. If we do not have a chance of debating [column 1756]it before we depart for the Christmas Recess, I shall try to arrange a debate very soon afterwards.
Mr. Stephen Ross
Will the Leader of the House give us an early opportunity to debate the Carter Report on the future of the Post Office? The other place has discussed it. Surely it is time the report was discussed on the Floor of this Chamber.
I cannot promise that we shall have a debate on it before Christmas. As I said last week, there are a number of matters with which we have to deal before the recess. But I agree that it is a proper and important matter for debate, and I shall see what the opportunities are later. It is a matter that could be raised by hon. Members in other ways.
I understand that on Monday 5th December, on the motion relating to the Sheriff (Removal from Office) Order, the Leader of the House will be asking the House to affirm the decision of the Secretary of State for Scotland about the dismissal of a member of the Scottish judiciary. In view of the potential importance of that matter, and without commenting on the merits, is the Leader of the House happy that one and a half hours is sufficient time for such a debate? Is there not a case for at least a half-day debate on that kind of issue?
I accept fully what the hon. and learned Gentleman says about the importance of the subject and the constitutional implications that are involved. That is why we have carried out our pledge to arrange the debate. No one was more eager to have that debate than my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland——
The hon. Gentleman should not say anything of the sort. From the very moment when the matter was broached, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland urged that the proper way for it to be dealt with was by a debate in this House. I am sure that the hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that. The normal method of dealing with a Prayer before the House would be to have a debate for one and a half [column 1757]hours. If we were to be asked for a longer debate, we should have to consider that. I do not give the hon. and learned Gentleman a promise, but I shall look at his representations, because I fully acknowledge the importance of the subject, as I have done on previous occasions.
Mr. George Cunningham
Does my right hon. Friend accept that some of the most important and most controversial amendments to the Scotland Bill are likely to arise on the referendum clause? Is he willing, in principle, that the Business Committee should consider revising the guillotine allocations on clauses if it appears that we need more time—even for votes, and not only discussions—on important amendments which have a chance of being accepted?
I accept what my hon. Friend says about the importance of the clauses dealing with the referendums, both in the Scotland Bill and in the Wales Bill. I underline the indications that I gave during the Second Reading of both Bills. On both occasions I indicated that, of course, the Government would have to look carefully at any representations made by the House on the subject. If it is necessary for the Business Committee to look afresh at the time allocated to ensure that we carry out those undertakings satisfactorily, I shall see that it does.
Does the Leader of the House accept that a debate on Sheriff Thompson is a matter of extreme importance and great constitutional significance? Will he not agree that that debate does not deserve to be taken late at night, as an appendix to other business, but should have a full period of debate, and that the point made by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) should be taken into account, with Sheriff Thompson being permitted to come to the Bar of the House and answer himself questions put to him by hon. Members of this House?
In answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, I have already acknowledged that I agree. Indeed, I have taken that view in response to all the questions which have been asked on the matter right from the beginning. It is a matter of considerable constitutional importance, should be treated as such, and is being treated as such. That is why we have provided [column 1758]time for the debate and have carried out the undertaking that I gave on the subject. The question of appearance at the Bar raises altogether different matters. If hon. Members will look back at the precedents——
There are not any.
The hon. Gentleman knows everything, but he might learn a little more if he would listen a little longer. There is a precedent. There was a dismissal of a judge in 1830, and the House considered whether the judge should appear personally at the Bar. The House of Commons at that time decided not to do so. It was, of course, the Duke of Wellington's Parliament, but, even so, that decision should be taken into account. It is not true that there are no precedents. I believe that the House should accept what I have proposed as the best way to deal with the matter.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the public will be delighted to learn for how long the House will not sit during the Christmas Recess?
I am sure the House would be delighted to have that information, but I should prefer to wait until, say, next week before giving an indication in that respect. We want to see what progress we make. However, I shall take into account representations from my hon. Friend and others on the matter.
Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that the Secretary of State for Defence will come to the House on Monday to make a statement so that we may question him about the inadequate accommodation and the inadequate equipment with which many of our Service fire-fighters are struggling?
I cannot say whether my right hon. Friend will make a statement on Monday, but I shall discuss with him whether in fact a statement on the subject should be made next week.
Will the Leader of the House consider having a word with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about the possibility of reintroducing the Road Traffic (Seat Belts) Bill? This is almost the last country in Western Europe that does not have legislation on the compulsory wearing of seat belts.[column 1759]
The seat belts Bill and the clause in the Bill was a matter of considerable controversy in the House. There was a majority in favour of the proposal but there was a considerable minority against. That was why the measure did not go through. I understand that an Opposition Member is going to raise the matter for discussion in the House later today. We shall no doubt hear what is said then.
Why does the Leader of the House arrogate to himself the decision, which properly belongs to the House of Commons and not to the Leader of the House, whether Sheriff Peter Thomson should be allowed to appear at the Bar of the House before the Prayer is taken? Why does he refuse to allow the House of Commons to take the decision on that matter by putting on the Order Paper, before we consider the Prayer, the motion signed by Members from every party except the Liberal Party, including the Labour Party, the Scottish Labour Party and others?
The hon. Gentleman mis-represents the position on this matter.
It is true.
The hon. Gentleman does not misrepresent the position on the matter of various Members from different sides of the House signing the motion. I accept that that is the case. Of course, I have taken that motion into account. But if one takes into account that motion and one looks back at the precedents on the question, as I have carefully done, one sees that the last attendance at the Bar other than on a privilege question was in 1857. I do not believe that it is the appropriate way for this question to be dealt with. There is a whole series of matters which, I believe, uphold that view, but this will be debated in the House.
The action of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in upholding the recommendations made by high judiciary authorities in Scotland will be debated in the House—as I certainly think it should be—and I believe that the House will see that we are proceeding in this matter in the proper manner.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House said that it will be appropriate [column 1760]to debate on a negative resolution Prayer the question whether or not Her Majesty should annul an order to dismiss Sheriff Thomson made by the Secretary of State for Scotland, as to whether or not Sheriff Thomson should have the leave of the House to appear at the Bar. My understanding is that the proposition which the Leader of the House has just made would be totally out of order in such a debate on a Prayer. Would you, Mr. Speaker, tell the House whether it has been grossly misled by the Leader of the House in suggesting that it will be in order for the House to discuss whether Sheriff Thomson should have the leave of the House to appear at the Bar of the House during a debate on a Prayer, or whether I am correct in believing that the Leader of the House is totally wrong and has advised the House totally wrongly in making that proposition to it?
I will advise the House before the debate takes place.
May we have another debate on the CPRS review—that is, the Berril Report?
As I indicated to the House on the previous two Thursdays, it is difficult to provide special time for debated before Christmas. I do not believe that there will be a possibility of a debate on that report before then. However, there may be other chances later on.
A fortnight ago, the Leader of the House gave me a very friendly answer when I asked whether he would find time for a debate on Southern Africa. Since then, there have been momentous developments in the Middle East as well. Although I fully realise that the House is now much more interest in matters of the parish pump than in other affairs which touch our interests closely, the House still has a great deal of experience of both Africa and the Middle East. Would it not be appropriate for the Government to find time for either two debates, one about Africa and one about the Middle East, or a general foreign affairs debate extending over two days, bearing in mind that vital British interests and bread-and-butter problems are at stake in both?
I acknowledge fully that both subjects are of supreme importance. Of course, it is right that they should be [column 1761]debated at some time in this House. I am not withdrawing any of the friendly response that I made to the right hon. Gentleman last week, but I cannot offer time in the immediate future for these debates. There will be other opportunities for these matters to be debated. Some of them might have been debated on the Queen's Speech, but they were not selected. We shall see what opportunities there may be. I cannot promise debates on both those important matters, however, before the Christmas Recess.
Order. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members do not think that they will be called if they rise on a point of order about not having been called. The truth is that the hon. Member for Warely, East (Mr. Faulds) has, like others, waited for a long time.
I always appreciate applause, Mr. Speaker. I express my gratitude to you for noticing me in business questions, if not during Prime Minister's Questions. May I reiterate the importance of debating in the House the excellent examination and recommendations of the Whitehead Report? I stress the urgency of this matter because, if we do not debate it and do something about it by next April, another financial year will have flown by and we shall not be able to do anything until 1979.
I am glad to welcome my hon. and stranger Friend back to the House. Of course, we must have a debate on this subject before the operative time. I have already indicated that I know what that time is. I fully agree that the House should discuss this matter, and we must discuss it before the beginning of the next financial year.
Will the Lord President look at the need to reflect Back Benchers' interests against the growing problem of the transferred Question? Is he aware that this is a growing practice and that it is transferring many Questions into oblivion?
This matter has been discussed generally. I should not accept any criticism of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on that matter, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman is not in any sense criticising him. In that case, I am not quite sure where the arrow is [column 1762]directed. When I know, I shall investigate and see whether there is any merit in the proposition.
Several Hon. Members
Order, In view of the great number of Members who wish to speak in the debate today, I shall take one more from each side.
Will my right hon. Friend indicate when we are likely to have the legislative proposals on the reform of the Official Secrets Act?
I cannot say when the proposals will be published. Obviously, when they are published the House will wish to debate them. I have no specific date in mind at present but I shall see whether before the Christmas Recess I can indicate to the House when the proposals are likely to be brought forward.
Since the Lord President is leaning on the precedent set by the late Duke of Wellington, would he be as good a democrat as the late Duke of Wellington and allow the House to decide whether an accused judge should come to the Bar of the House to answer charges? That is not to say that I advocate one course of action—whether he should come or not. But why cannot the House decide, as the Duke of Wellington allowed it to decide, whether the judge should be allowed to come here?
The House of Commons, not the Duke of Wellington, decided the matter at the time. If the House refers to the precedents, as I did—I looked up the past history on this matter—it will see that there have been considerable changes in the procedures of the House generally since then, including very considerable changes regarding those who should appear at the Bar. As I indicated earlier, it is over 100 years since anybody other than those who were involved in privilege cases appeared at the Bar. That fact should be taken into account as well.
We considered this matter very carefully, because we believed that important constitutional principles were involved. We looked at the representations for the debate, and we considered that this was the best way to have the debate so that Members would be able to state their [column 1763]views. The Secretary of State for Scotland will be able to present to the House the reasons for the action that he has taken.