Business of the House

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th October 1976.

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Motion made, and Question proposed,That, at this day's Sitting, proceedings on any Bill set down for consideration at Seven o'clock by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means shall, instead of being considered at that hour, be considered as soon as a member of the Government shall have signified his intention to move, That this House do now adjourn, for the purpose of bringing the sitting to a conclusion.—[Mr. Graham.]

3.55 p.m.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Opposition Whip (Commons)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do I understand that the motion is debatable?

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Opposition Whip (Commons)

The House is put in something of a mystery by the terms of the motion. It seems to set a rather unusual precedent. My recent experience of Private Business, which has been greater than usual in the past few weeks, has led me to suppose that the Chairman of Ways and Means has usually put it down for between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. and has been most anxious that it should not be relegated to the distant hours of the night, as we have recently had some Government business so relegated.

It would be helpful if we could know whether the Chairman of Ways and Means takes, or is entitled to take, any view as to the propriety of this motion, or is formally neutral. The House should also consider whether it is right that Private Business should be shunted by the Government to a position after a whole series of other matters. I speak as one with no direct or immediate interest in the item of Private Business being considered tonight, but I know that there are other hon. Members who may wish to comment on it.

It is extraordinary that we should seek to change long-established procedure for Private Business and make a practice of interposing it immediately before the Adjournment debate. If the Chairman of Ways and Means is able to give his view, I am sure that the House will welcome it. If he is not, the House should resist the motion rather than be pushed into so drastic a change without having the opportunity to consider it at length.

3.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

Unlike the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), I can hardly say that I have no interest in the topic concerned. At 2.30 p.m. when, puzzled, I raised this with you, Mr. Speaker, you said that you, too, had been puzzled. Therefore, I put a question either to you or to the Chairman of Ways and Means. On what occasion has there been a precedent for shifting Private Business as put down by the Chairman of Ways and Means from 7 o'clock? Is this a precedent?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I understand that it has been done before and that this motion is not a precedent.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

Would you clear up one small point, Mr. Speaker? Have those who have already addressed the House done so not on a point of order but on the motion? Is that correct?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

That is correct—except that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) did, I think, raise a point of order.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was referring to the point of order that I raised with you at 2.30 p.m., when it had to be a point of order. Perhaps one other question should be asked. Should there not be an explanation from the Government why they have done this?

3.59 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

I want to add my voice of protest against the motion. It seems an extraordinary procedure that, at any time from now on when any member of the Government rises in his place and signifies his intention to move, "That this House do now adjourn", all the business comes to an end and suddenly, precipitately, we are embarking upon a Private Bill. That is an impossible situation for hon. Members. It might be that—not myself—some hon. Members were taking a cup of tea and would miss their cue because some junior Whip, sitting at the end of the Treasury Bench, had risen in his place and moved that the House should adjourn.

Surely it is customary to give notice of the time at which certain business is likely to be brought forward. I know that we are accustomed in this House to awaiting the end of one piece of business before we commence another, but it is always possible to ascertain whether a piece of business is drawing to a close. In this instance, however, it is possible that a Minister could rise in the middle of an hon. Member's speech in a preceding bit of business, move the Adjournment and put the motion on the Private Bill, and the whole thing would be over because there would be no one present who was expecting that to happen.

This cannot be a procedure which the House would wish to adopt. I am sure that the House would like to stick to its established procedure of taking Private Bills between 7 o'clock and 10 o'clock. Even if it were decided by the House to take this Private Bill at a separate time, the procedure suggested in the motion seems to me to be utterly unacceptable. It seems to me to be a sort of confidence trick procedure.

If the House were to agree to the motion this afternoon, it might find that it had created a precedent. It might well find that this Government—unrepresentative, unloved, hard-pressed for time and in chaos on its legislative programme—could well begin to adopt this new procedure and put similar motions on the Order Paper in connection with any piece of legislation that they happen to want to get through.

What would there be to stop the Government, after this, in the case of, for example, the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill, suddenly getting one Minister to pop up in the middle of Question Time or one Friday afternoon in order to say "I beg to move, That this House do now adjourn", and then for another Minister to say, "I beg to move, That the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Bill be now read the Third time". He could then sit down and expect to get his business motion through in that way.

This is no way in which to conduct a Parliament. It is necessary to have an orderly agenda, and to be clear which business succeeds which business and at what time certain business will be embarked upon. I strongly urge the House to throw out the motion and to ask the Chairman of Ways and Means to revert to the normal procedure of giving notice of the precise time at which Private Bills will be entered into, so that hon. Members can be certain of being present on matters which interest them.

4.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

On the whole, on this matter I am more kindly disposed than my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), who has just spoken. I would not wish to see anything too precipitate done in regard to the motion in the name of the Prime Minister, although I think it would be very nice indeed—

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Hutchison) that no such thing—

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I might have known that the remark came from the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) who sits behind my hon. Friend, and from whom it comes far more in character—

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I am sorry that the Home Secretary should have had to be called on at rather short notice to be responsible for the appalling mess in which the Government's programme now stands. On a day when he could have looked forward to relative calm and peace, it is unfortunate that this little thing should have blown up, but no doubt we shall have from him a very lucid and clear explanation of the Government's intention. After all, we must take it that exceptionally the Government have moments of clarity and lucidity, and I am sure that we shall want to give the right hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt.

As I understand it, there are three important Scottish measures on the Order Paper this afternoon. Most exceptionally for these days, they are not obnoxious. They are not even exceptionable. We wish them no ill. But why suddenly must this rather novel procedure be put forward? Why should the Private Business, which is of some importance and of very great interest to many people, suddenly be subordinated to some hour of which no one can be certain? Once again, one of the very small privileges that we have in this House is being eroded and taken away. There are not very many left.

Then there is the question of the Prayers, on which the right hon. Gentleman would do well to offer us his observations, because praying in this House—and, Heaven knows, we have cause for praying—is now becoming a very hazardous occupation. Prayers very seldom receive the attention which they deserve—and this at a time when delegated legislation is running riot.

I could go on longer, if I felt it were necessary, in order to give the Home Secretary a better chance to digest the wisdom which is being poured into his ears by the Patronage Secretary. But as I gather that that passage is now over, I will very helpfully sit down, at the same time asking the right hon. Gentleman to be kind enough to acquaint the House with exactly what is intended here. I hope that he will tell us at what hour we can have a reasonable expectation that the Private Business will be reached, and what is to happen to the Prayers.

4.6 p.m.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

Responding to the right hon. Gentleman's mood—calm and peace is my watchword, and that is the way in which I hope I shall continue—the Prayers will come first, at the request, as I understood it, of the Opposition, and the business that we are talking about will be at the end. I have made quick inquiries, because, frankly, this matter was new to me. This is not an unprecedented way of proceeding. It is a matter for the Chairman of Ways and Means. There is Scottish business. There are agreed measures in front of us, and as I understand it, the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) was agreeable to the procedure.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

And the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty is important in this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] My advice is that we should continue in the way in which the order is written, and I hope that the House will agree.

Photo of Mr Teddy Taylor Mr Teddy Taylor , Glasgow Cathcart

If we do not get to Scottish sex by 10 o'clock, do we have to drop it? [Interruption.] There are, in fact, three Scottish Bills to come before the House, dealing with Scottish teachers, then valuation, and then Scottish sex. If we do not finish these three Bills by 10 o'clock, when the Prayers come on, will the Government drop the Bills?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I understand that Scottish sex is a consolidation measure.

Photo of Mr George Younger Mr George Younger , Ayr

May I ask for clarification of one very important remark that the Home Secretary, with respect, must have made in error? Without expressing any view either way on the Private Business that is to come up tonight, he would surely be quite wrong in saying that the important thing is whether one side of the argument found it convenient to consider it tonight. Both sides have an equal right to be heard, and without pronouncing either way I hope that he will make that clear.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

That is what I meant. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty is in charge of the Bill and is agreeable to this course. Both sides of the argument can be put.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I thought that the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) had already spoken on this matter.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

By leave of the House—

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I am on my feet. We cannot have two of us on our feet at the same time. The hon. Member may speak by leave of the House—if the House gives it.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

May I ask my hon. Friend the Home Secretary why the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) should be singled out as being important in this matter? I think there is quite a serious issue here. Is the hon. Member important by virtue of having taken a strong view as the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty, or is it that he is important in his other capacity, wearing his other hat, as a Front Bench spokesman on energy? If it is as a Front Bench spokesman that he has taken this view, then, because of the traditions of the House, I should have to accept that of course he has a special place and is important in this matter. But I hope that he is not specially important because he takes a very strong view on a particular issue in the controversy that is before us. I ask the Home Secretary, therefore, precisely why the hon. Member is specially important above all the rest of us.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty is important—if that is the way in which one needs to put it—because this measure, and what will result from it, arises in his constituency. It is not, therefore, that he is more important as far as this House is concerned but because we consider it right that this matter should arise. What is before the House is not unprecedented, and the view of the Chairman of Ways and Means and the other points that I made must be taken into account.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

With the leave of the House, may I ask the Home Secretary one very simple question? Will he give an undertaking that he will not allow this Private Business to come on in the small hours of the morning? If it cannot be reached by a reasonable hour, will he undertake that it may be put over to another day?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I think that the best course is to see how we go. I am seized of the point.

4.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jeff Rooker Mr Jeff Rooker , Birmingham, Perry Barr

I am not rising on a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that it is worth pointing out that there is £36 million of taxpayers' money going into what I consider to be a bucket-shop company under this Bill, and the Government have constantly refused to take a view and to pronounce on this. In fact, if the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray) is in charge of the Bill, it should be stressed that he has not so far answered any questions on the matters raised by those of us who are concerned about the Bill.

I treat this motion with suspicion, if only on the ground raised by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), that at any point between now and the end of today's sitting the motion can be moved to adjourn and, if hon. Members are not in their places—and I have in mind especially the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Wells), who rose before you adjourned the debate last Thursday—the business can go through.

On the other hand—and I make no bones about this—if the business comes on in the early hours of the morning, whatever the Government may say about their view, I shall be here, together with a number of my hon. Friends, and the chances are that the payroll vote will not be here. I know that there is a free vote on this Bill. However, the payroll vote, on free votes, tends to go into the Government Lobby. So I shall not raise too many complaints about it. However, I am very unhappy about a procedure whereby a matter of this kind can be raised without notice at any time, even before the completion of business which appears on the Order Paper.

It may be said that it is not thought necessary to proceed with the Prayers on the Statutory Instruments on sports grounds. It may be felt that they could be done away with, in which case a Whip could move, "That this House do now adjourn," and, bingo, the Cromarty Petroleum Order Confirmation Bill would go through.

I do not think that this is a satisfactory procedure. This is a Back Benchers matter. It is not a Government matter, nor an Opposition Front Bench matter. You, Mr. Speaker, as guardian of the interests of Back Benchers, will, we hope, pronounce on this matter or invite the Chairman of Ways and Means to do so.

4.12 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hamish Gray Mr Hamish Gray , Ross and Cromarty

First, I must thank the Home Secretary for elevating me to a position to which I have not aspired.

I speak as a Back Bencher and not as a Front Bench spokesman on energy matters. At the beginning of the debate on this subject on Second Reading, the Opposition indicated that they would follow precedent and not oppose this Private Business. I am acting entirely as a Back Bencher, therefore.

The reason why I have taken an active interest in this matter is that it very much affects my constituency. In view of several statements made earlier today, I should have thought that my right hon. and hon. Friends would welcome the thought of £l50 million worth of private investment at this time—

Photo of Mr Hamish Gray Mr Hamish Gray , Ross and Cromarty

The fact that it will also attract Government aid is incidental—

Photo of Mr Hamish Gray Mr Hamish Gray , Ross and Cromarty

The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has been making remarks from a sedentary position for days now. But I am sure that he will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate later.

I support this motion because, as I see it, there is a consortium of personalities in the House prepared to go to nearly any length to ensure that my constituency does not have this investment. If the Government think that this is a reasonable way to proceed, I am prepared to accept their ruling on the matter.

4.15 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

I have no wish to embarrass the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), but I agree with every word that he said. This matter is one of very great importance to this House.

It is important for three reasons. First, there is £36 million at stake. A sum of £36 million has a certain magical ring in this context. The Government are borrowing £35 million a day, and £36 million expenditure on this proposed Bill is just £1 million more than the Government are borrowing each day—

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

But that is what we are discussing—the expenditure of £36 million.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

No. What we are discussing is the order in which that matter shall be discussed.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

I am endeavouring to show that the order in which we debate these matters is related to the importance of the matters which we are discussing.

Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury

Would not it be better if we discussed borrowing £36 million before we discuss spending it? Is not that really the way in which we should do business?

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

I do not think that I should be diverted, even by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley).

The second important point is whether we should leave it to a member of the Government to decide at what time and at what stage the business of the House is debated.

If we allow a member of the Government—and it would be interesting to have a definition—

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

It does not say that.

Photo of Mr Ian Gow Mr Ian Gow , Eastbourne

It says "a member of the Government". It is all very well for the acting Leader of the House to say that it does not. It says "a member of the Government", and the payroll vote in this House is large enough already without giving right hon. and hon. Members who happen to be members of the Government further powers to decide what shall be the timetable of the business of the House.

Finally, if we agree to this motion we shall be creating a very dangerous precedent. We shall be granting further powers to the Executive and eroding still further the rights of Back Benchers.

I agree, therefore, with the hon. Member for Perry Barr. We look to you, Mr. Speaker, to protect our rights, and I must give notice that, very emphatically, some of my hon. Friends and I will divide the House on this subject.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Before I call the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), since two hon. Gentlemen have referred to it, let me make it clear that I cannot intervene on this matter. It is a motion on the Order Paper, and the House must decide for itself whether it approves of the motion.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

I rise on that very point. We want the acting Leader of the House to give us a timetable. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), I want to see this Private Business proceed and proceed favourably. However, if my Prayer on the safety of sports grounds is shut out by Scottish sex, can I get it later this week, or what plans has the Home Secretary for leaving it on the Order Paper?

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

I have an interest in the Prayers on sports grounds. I have made my view clear. I believe that this is the correct way to proceed, and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will now come to a decision on the motion.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) has addressed the House already.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Opposition Whip (Commons)

I rise on a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Home Secretary seemed to suggest that in some way the Chairman of Ways and Means was responsible for the motion. Is it possible for you, Sir, to indicate that what appears on the Order Paper is a Government motion and not one which emanates from the Chair, which appears to be the substance of your ruling?

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

The right hon. Gentleman has not yet answered my question. Will he safeguard the Prayers?

Question accordingly agreed to.

Photo of Mr Merlyn Rees Mr Merlyn Rees , Leeds South

My answer to that is, again, "Yes".

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The answer to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) is that, of course, this is a Government motion.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 149, Noes 34.

Ordered,That, at this day's Sitting, proceedings on any Bill set down for consideration at Seven o'clock by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means shall, instead of being considered at that hour, be considered as soon as a member of the Government shall have signified his intention to move, That this House do now adjourn, for the purpose of bringing the sitting to a conclusion.