Business of Supply

Orders of the Day — London (Public Services) – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th November 1973.

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10.33 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Lowestoft

I beg to move.

That Standing Order No. 18 (Business of Supply) be amended as follows:—

Paragraph 6, line 81, at end insert— '(b) any vote on account for defence services for the coming financial year that shall have been put down for consideration on at least one previous allotted day'.Paragraph 7, line 93, leave out '25th' and insert '18th'.Paragraph 7, line 102, leave out sub-paragraph (b).' Perhaps it would be convenient if I listened to the debate and replied at the end of it.

10.34 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Short Mr Edward Short , Newcastle upon Tyne Central

This is a complicated matter, but I understand that these amendments to Standing Order No. 18 do two things. First they carry out the proposal of the Third Report of the Select Committee on Procedure to enable the Defence Vote on Account to be dealt with in the same way as the Civil Vote on Account, and secondly they bring forward the date of the spring Supply guillotine by one week.

The first of these seems to be of advantage to hon. Members, because if the motion is carried the Defence Vote on Account debate will in future cover all defence matters and will be a much wider debate than previously. I would have thought that that would be of advantage to the House.

The second change, to bring the spring Supply guillotine forward by one week, is of advantage to the Government and Government Departments. I think I understand the reason for this. It is because Royal Assent to the Consolidated Fund Bill at present comes much too near to the end of the financial year. I think I am right in saying that the Bill finally got through this year on the last working day of the financial year. I should think that this has caused problems for Government Departments in need of money. I understand that they can draw money from the Contingencies Fund, but that is limited to £100 million or £200 million, which is not a lot of money these days.

That is the situation as I understand it, but perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will assure us that it is so. If, indeed, all that the motion does is to change our procedure in the way I have described—the first point giving an advantage to the House and the second an advantage to the Government—I shall recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to support it.

10.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robin Turton Mr Robin Turton , Thirsk and Malton

I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for appearing to carry out the recommendation in the Third Report of the Select Committee on Procedure made in the last Session, but I should like elucidation of certain points.

The Select Committee's main point in making this recommendation was that, at the moment, defence debates are bunched together in February and March, which is unsatisfactory. We felt that it would be a good idea for the House to have a pre-legislative debate, as it were, on defence before the Defence White Paper was drawn up by the Government, so that hon. Members could give their view on how they thought the White Paper could be framed.

We recommended that the Defence Vote on Account should be debated for one day in the autumn. The proposed amendment to Standing Order No. 18 makes it not earlier than the sixth allotted Supply Day. It so happens that today is the first allotted day of the Session, and today is 20th November. It will therefore be difficult to get our recommendation implemented this Session. How will my right hon. Friend operate Supply Days in order to enable debate on the Defence Vote on Account to take place in the autumn and not after Christmas? Unless we have a rush of Supply Days, that is surely not likely to happen this Session.

The subject of the second proposed amendment to Standing Order No. 18 was not considered by the Select Committee. Why is my right hon. Friend proposing to bring forward the March guillotine by one week? Again, the question of Supply comes into it because my right hon. Friend will have to get 10 Supply Days by 18th March.

If my right hon. Friend is to carry out the terms of the motion properly, he will have to get far more Supply Days before Christmas than we had in the past. I believe that that would be of benefit to the House but I am not quite happy about the practical effect of this motion.

10.38 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I am concerned with the same point as the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton), namely the concertina effect of defence debates as at present. As one who has taken part in defence debates regularly for 10 years. I find it extremely unsatisfactory that we should have them all bunched up in the spring. It is even more unsatisfactory at a time when there is no likelihood, it appears, of any kind of Select Committee on defence—one understands that there are serious arguments against that proposition—because decisions are made which cannot be unscrambled on extremely expensive projects such as the multi-role combat aircraft and a number of others. If we are to be serious about the scrutiny of defence, we should see that opportunities are somewhat better spaced throughout the year.

10.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Acton

I am sure that the whole House is grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Edward Short) for outlining what appears to be the purpose of these amendments. I was surprised and a little shocked that we did not get some exposition of the purposes of the amendments from the Lord President at the beginning of this short debate.

It appears that the explanation behind the amendments has had to come from the Opposition and that they have been scrutinised and found wanting by the Father of the House and the Chairman of a very important Committee and by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). It is their proper function to scrutinise the amendments, just as it is the function of the House to scrutinise statutory instruments. But, speaking as a back bencher with some pride in what the House does, I believe it is wrong that they have had to bring out these matters and wrong for my right hon. Friend to have to explain what it is the Government's duty to explain.

If the Lord President moves an amendment of this sort, surely it is his responsibility to explain it. I am sorry he has not done so. It appears that this is now the fashion of the Government.

10.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Lowestoft

That was rather unfair. I was prepared at the start to tell hon. Members what the amendments were about, but generally on these occasions it has suited the convenience of hon. Members for me to speak last. If the hon. Member for Acton (Mr. Spearing) had taken the trouble to read the Third Report from the Select Committee on Procedure he would have seen that considerable evidence was given by me and by the Chief Whip on this matter. I am not in any way trying to deny the House a proper opportunity for debate or a proper opportunity to have these matters explained.

I confirm that the changes to the Standing Order go no further than my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton) suggests, and I will try to explain why the Treasury has made its proposal to bring forward the date of the Supply spring guillotine from 25th March to 18th March. I shall come to that in a moment.

I think that it is the general wish of hon. Members in all parts of the House that we get away from the procedure that we have followed up till now of bunching all the defence debates into a small space of time. In recent years they have not been as bunched as they used to be. We used to have a two-day debate on the main Defence White Paper, then in the following week two days on Vote A, another day on Vote A the following week and then the Vote on Account debate the following week. We got it all over in about three weeks, and defence was forgotten about for the rest of the year.

We shall find one day in the autumn for the Defence Vote on Account. It will be found before we adjourn for the Christmas Recess. My right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton spoke about a day not earlier than the sixth alloted day. In fact, we may have six allotted days in good time for this debate to take place. Even if we do not, I am advised that we can still have the debate in the autumn, even if the six alloted day has not come and gone. I assure the House that we intend to have the Defence Vote on Account debated before Christmas this year.

Paragraph 11 of the Third Report of the Select Committee recommended that the Defence White Paper should be debated one day in the spring—this is not governed by Standing Orders—and that three days between March and July should be devoted to the Vote A debates or debates in lieu as well as the one day's debate on the Defence Vote on Account in the autumn.

Hitherto, the defence money has been voted by asking the House to pass a number of individual Votes selected by the Department. By means of the system of virement, switching money from Vote to Vote, the funds provided by the Votes which have been passed have enabled the Department to carry on to the end of July when the remainder of the Votes have been agreed to. Under the new arrangements, which follow the pattern of Civil Estimates, a percentage of each of the Votes will be passed by way of the Vote on Account. In this way the Defence Vote on Account debate will be wider in so far as the Votes relate to all defence expenditure and not to certain aspects of it. That again is to the advantage of the House.

It is proposed to substitute "18th day of March" for "25th day of March" in the second line of paragraph 7. This will have the effect of bringing forward the date of the Supply guillotine. The reason for seeking this change is essentially a practical one and concerns the issue of funds from the Consolidated Fund. Under the present arrangements there have been occasions when there has barely been time between Royal Assent to the Consolidated Fund Bill and the end of the financial year for funds to be issued to Departments, because Royal Assent has not been given until almost the very end of March. In March of this year, for example, the Bill was not finally enacted until the 29th, which happened to be a Friday, and thus the last working day of the financial year.

Although the First Reading of such Bills takes place immediately following the Supply guillotine, time has to be allowed for the Second Reading debates and the remaining stages of the Bill. If the date of the guillotine is delayed until just before 25th March, as allowed under paragraph 7 of the Standing Order, the time factor becomes critical. It seems sensible therefore to recognise this fact in our Standing Orders, to ensure that the Supply guillotine is taken in time to enable all the necessary stages of the March Consolidated Fund Bill to be completed and Royal Assent given on or about 25th March, so that Departments can be put in funds before the end of the financial year. The proposed amendment seeks to achieve this without in any way disturbing the Supply procedure. It is almost an administrative convenience. I hope the House will accept that it is no more than that; it is certainly not intended to be.

The other measures are of interest and importance to the House. The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has drawn attention to the bunching of defence debates, saying that he regards it as a scandal.

This is a small but important improvement in our procedure and I am grateful to the Procedure Committee for putting it forward. I hope that the House will agree to it.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

Can the right hon. Gentleman say when, in the Government's opinion, autumn finishes? The matter is of wider consequence, as we have had no assurance that there will not be a winter Budget.

Photo of Mr James Prior Mr James Prior , Lowestoft

That question is not strictly in order in this debate, but in the phrase for one day in the autumn I have interpreted "autumn" for the purposes of the defence debate as being a period up to Christmas. However, I do not want the hon. Gentleman to read into that that I think the autumn gees on for ever.

Question put and agreed to.