BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE
Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you have rightly said, the Opposition have their rights on a Supply Day, which might have been frustrated by the Government having lost control of a large section of their own party. In these circumstances, may I ask the Leader of the House to tell the House what he intends to do to give us time next week to debate this subject, which is vital to hundreds of thousands of workers, and because of the issues of freedom involved, which are of importance for every citizen in this country?
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
The question that the hon. Gentleman has put to me is, of course, important and I should like time to consider it. I have had only a moment for consideration, and I must tell him that I do not accept the prelude to his remarks, because my hon. Friends who raised the matter earlier—it was on the Order Paper—dealt with it as they were entitled.
Moreover, it was not a debate in which only my hon. Friends participated. Several hon. Members from the Opposition Benches also took part. Therefore, the matter being on the Order Paper as it was, I cannot accept that my hon. Friends were not entitled to do what the rules of the House permit them to do. Whether I would desire them to do it is another question altogether, but hon. Members on the Opposition Benches must learn that Members in all parts of the House have their rights according to the normal orders of the House of Commons. If any of my hon. Friends had been out of order, I am sure that you would have called them to order, Mr. Speaker, but that was not the case.
I say in response to the hon. Gentleman that I shall certainly consider what he has said, but I suggest that the House should now proceed with the matter on the Order Paper. I fully accept that it would be impossible to reach a proper conclusion by 10 o'clock, and therefore I suggest that we initiate the debate now. I agree that we cannot reach a conclusion, but we can have [column 1694]further discussions on how we might proceed later.
I believe that it would be quite wrong to respond to the hon. Gentleman's request by saying that I accept it immediately. I am entitled to consider it. In the meantime I suggest that the House should proceed with the matter on the Order Paper. I fully accept that we cannot reach a conclusion on the matter, but I should like time to consider the proposition that the hon. Gentleman put to me a minute or two ago. That was the first I had heard of it, and I think it perfectly reasonable that I should have time for consideration.
Mr. St. John-Stevas
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. All of us in this place are anxious that the House should not be brought into disrepute. The Lord President has suggested that the debate be initiated this evening. If the House is in fact allowed to do so, the Opposition would be happy to follow that course provided that we have an opportunity this evening not only to debate the matter but to vote in the Division Lobbies.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The question whether a vote shall take place after a certain period is not for the hon. Gentleman to decide It is a question for Mr. Speaker to decide. I suggest to the House—I fully understand that the feelings of many hon. Members, after the discussions that we have had, have run high on these questions—that it is proper that the House should take some time to consider the matter. In my opinion—others may disagree—on a matter of this significance, if we started the debate now it would be improper to reach a conclusion at 10 o'clock. That is my view. I believe that there should be a longer period than that. But I do not see any difficulty in starting the debate now, and I am quite prepared to consider the matter put to me by the hon. Gentleman.
I am not prepared, at a moment's notice, to give a response without considering the other implications, such as those for the business for next week. We have all these matters to consider, and I am asked by the hon. Gentleman to give an off-the-cuff reply at a minute's notice. I do not think that that is a reasonable way for the House to proceed.[column 1695]
Mr. St. John-Stevas
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Opposition are perfectly happy to follow the suggestion of the Lord President that the debate be initiated, provided that we can have some indication from the Chair that we shall be able to reach a conclusion this evening. If you find it impossible, Mr. Speaker, to give such an indication, we must ask the Lord President for a full day's debate next week on this vital issue.
I am prepared to consider representations from the Opposition. What I am suggesting is that we should start the debate now and that we should continue with the business on the Order Paper as it was agreed. Indeed, the order of business today was agreed by the Opposition as well as by us. I suggest that we continue on that basis. We would then have time to consider what should be the next step. I certainly agree that it would not be proper to try to bring the debate to a close at 10 o'clock, and that also, in my view, has to be taken into account. I think that we should have time to consider these matters and, in order that we may do so, I think it right that the debate should now be initiated.
Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkrik and Peebles)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is not the difficulty in which the House finds itself that there are two groups of hon. Members with quite legitimate interests to pursue, namely, those who feel that it was wrong to pass such large sums of money on the nod and who have legitimately used the procedures of the House to express their displeasure, and, on the other hand, those on the Opposition Benches who have thereby lost their right to a full Supply Day?
I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that it really cannot make sense to follow the course suggested by the Leader of the House, namely, that we should begin a debate not knowing when it might end. Surely, that is quite unreasonable. Nor, with respect to the Shadow Leader of the House, do I think that it can make sense to have a decision of this magnitude after a debate of two and a quarter hours, when plainly there are hon. Members—I am not one of them—who represent constituencies vitally affected by these matters. I am certainly hoping to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and I know that [column 1696]I have certain privileges in that respect, but I am seeking to protect the rights of those who have constituency interests, of whom, as I say, I am not one.
I do not think that either course is sensible. I feel that we must accept that, sadly, we have lost today and a lesson must be learnt for the future as to the procedure of tabling these motions on a day such as this, and the Opposition should be given their Supply Day next week.
Several Hon. Members
Order. If we begin the debate now, I am not prepared to tell the House at this point whether I would take the closure. It would not be the first time that it had been taken after a two-hour debate. It will be three-quarters of an hour short of an emergency debate if we begin now. I do not wish to commit myself at all. I shall see what happens in the debate.
Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)
Further to that point of order and to your ruling, Mr. Speaker. We cannot start this important debate. Michael FootThe Leader of the House has had three hours to know exactly what is going on. It has gone on before his very eyes—or, if it has not, the reason is that he was not present in the Chamber. The Government have run away from a debate on sanctions. They have deliberately done so because they were afraid that they would not win it, and this despite the fact that it is an extremely important subject which affects almost every constituency.
I demand from the Lord President a Supply Day to discuss the subject. Otherwise, he must understand that all co-operation through the usual channels will be withdrawn.
I shall certainly take into account the submissions that have been made both by the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) and by the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, but I am entitled to have some time to consider those submissions. The first submission that we have had from the Opposition—that we should adjourn the debate and not proceed—was put by the hon. Member for Chelmsford.
The Opposition agreed to the procedures under which we were operating [column 1697]today, and therefore the right hon. Lady is not entitled to make such charges at all. What we are seeking to discover is how best we can use the time and how best we can consider also the business for next week.
I am entitled, and the Government are entitled, to consider what is the business for next week before we accept representations of that character. If the Opposition want to have discussions through the usual channels about the business, of course we are prepared to do so, but we are not prepared to accept it under the threat that, if we do not accept a particular demand, all the facilities or arrangements through the usual channels are to be broken off. Let us have discussions through the usual channels. That, of course, is exactly what I was proposing.
I suggest that this debate could have been started. I feel that we could have proceeded in that way, but if the House does not want to proceed with the debate this evening, we shall have to consider what is to be done in the future. I have to take into account the representations of other Members, and I have to take into account the position of the House. I am not prepared to agree to a proposition put by the Opposition in these circumstances in this way without considering the full implications.
Mr. St. John-Stevas
Before things get any worse, Mr. Speaker, may I ask whether it would be possible to suspend the sitting for a brief period—[Hon. Members: No.” ]—so that the suggestion put forward by the Lord President can be following up?
Several Hon. Members
Order. Of course, that is possible in the interests of the House, if the House generally wishes to reach a conclusion on this matter. I see no harm whatever in suspending the sitting until 8 o'clock to allow discussions to take place.
Mr. Michael English(Nottingham, West)
Before you do that, Mr. Speaker——
So be it. The sitting will be suspended until 8 o'clock.
Sitting suspended. [column 1698]
Several Hon. Members
Order. The Lord President.
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement to the House on how I think we should proceed. In the light of all that has occurred I do not believe that it will be possible for us properly to debate the subject of sanctions, as was originally intended. I do not believe that we should seek to proceed with that debate tonight, and in a moment or two I shall move the Adjournment of the House.
Order. I remind the Lord President that there is an order to be dealt with before the Adjournment of the House can be moved.
I was not prepared to lose that order, Mr. Speaker. I was hoping that we could deal with that first before turning to the Adjournment of the House. I was explaining that I do not think that we should proceed with the subject tabled by the Opposition for debate. Tomorrow morning there will be a meeting of the usual channels to discuss future business, and I shall make a fresh Business Statement to the House at 11 o'clock tomorrow.
We have to consider the whole position of the business that is before the House, and I think that we are fully entitled to take that into account. I believe that what I have suggested is the best way for the House to deal with the whole situation. I hope that what I have proposed will be accepted.
Mr. St. John-Stevas
May I say that that very reasonable suggestion from the Lord President is completely acceptable to the Opposition? May I just add one personal caveat? Any connection between these extraordinary events today and my appointment as Shadow Leader of the House is purely coincidental.
Order. Does the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) really want to keep it going?[column 1699]
Yes, Mr. Speaker. Back Benchers have their rights, too. Indeed, they are a majority in the House. when the two usual channels meet tomorrow for their discussion I ask that they consider the reports of bipartisan Select Committees that have been unanimous in saying that this procedure should be altered.
I think that the House is now prepared to move on to the next item of business.