Business of the House (Supply)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th March 1979.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this day, as soon as the House has entered upon the Business of Supply, Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith the Questions which under the provisions of paragraph (11) of Standing Order No. 18 (Business of Supply) he is directed to put at Ten o'clock.—[Mr. Snape.]

4.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Ronald Thomas Mr Ronald Thomas , Bristol North West

In essence, this motion demands that we should accept and pass on the nod the expenditure of large sums of public money. A number of my hon. Friends and I find this indefensible.

My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) referred briefly to the struggles of Parliament since 1640 to establish the right of ordinary Members to make decisions, to debate and question public expenditure. By motions such as this we are completely denied that right.

Last December many of us made it categorically clear that we were no longer prepared to accept considerable sums of public expenditure going through on the nod without any debate whatsoever.

Many in the press and the media suggested on that occasion that we were involved in some kind of conspiracy to prevent that day's business on sanctions policy. That was completely untrue. We raised the matter in all honesty and legitimately because of our concern that the few powers and privileges of Back Benchers were being eroded in that way by a motion which, if passed, would lead to the approval of the expenditure of considerable sums of money on the nod.

Commentators often refer to Members of Parliament as Pavlovian dogs who simply go into the Lobby when they are instructed to by the Whips. Many of my colleagues do not fall into that category. We refuse to accept that we cannot debate and question these large sums of money. I am disappointed that the Lord President cannot stay with us. I assume that he has a much more pressing engagement. The Lord President has a reputation for jealously guarding the rights of Back Bench Members—

Photo of Mr Ronald Thomas Mr Ronald Thomas , Bristol North West

He has that reputation, and my colleagues and I were hoping also to appeal to him.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

Will the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) give me one example when the Lord President has defended the rights of Back Benchers since he became Leader of the House? Does he agree with me that there is no more important task for the Lord President to perform than to be about his duties in the House of Commons?

Photo of Mr Ronald Thomas Mr Ronald Thomas , Bristol North West

I shall give an example in a moment when I come on to another aspect.

I was hoping that the Lord President would be here, because I wanted once again to appeal to him to do something about this matter. As you know, Mr. Speaker, we have raised this subject on many occasions and have been told that something will be done, but still nothing has been done.

People come forward with suggestions about the way in which we should deal with public expenditure, Estimates, and so on. They talk of having a more powerful Public Accounts Committee, or a form of Select Committee or Standing Committee to look at this expenditure, but I believe that these matters should be dealt with on the Floor of the House and not in a Committee.

I congratulate the Lord President on his response to the idea of further Committees being set up and taking away from this debating Chamber many matters which I think should still be dealt with on the Floor of the House. Certainly, one matter above all others which should be debated fundamentally is the whole question of public expenditure and estimates. I know that I am not allowed to say that many of us are opposed to the increase in defence expenditure as set down on the Order Paper. That is why we have put down an objection with the aim of reducing the total sum. We believe that it is indefensible to increase defence expenditure when we are cutting back expenditure on education, housing, the social services, health and other essential services.

A few moments ago Mr. Speaker said that we should be able to debate some of these matters when we considered the Consolidated Fund Bill next week, but by then these sums of money will have been voted and agreed to, and there is no point in debating or questioning them in a post mortem sense, after the event. Therefore, although many of my colleagues may take part in the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, that is not satisfactory. We find it indefensible that we should be expected, on the nod, to agree to large increases in defence and other expenditure. We therefore intend to register our protest today, and we shall continue to do so until this procedure is changed.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

I am in a dilemma similar to that faced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas). I am alarmed by the enormous amount of money which we are asked to pass. In the Supplementary Estimates Class 1 (Defence), set out in House of Commons Paper No. 198, on page 14 under the heading "Fuel and Utilities" there is an increase of a net £3 million, explained by the phrase "mainly higher prices and increased requirements". In that explanation some of the net figures presented by the Department and the Treasury in regard to inflation and high wages stand condemned because, clearly, inflation is the product of higher prices for gas, electricity and water, probably stemming from a Government decision to make those industries self-sufficient and to withdraw their subsidy. On page 15 there is an item of £2,800,000—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant God-man Irvine):

Is the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) aware that what he is debating is whether the matter is or is not to be put to the House now?

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

I am aware of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The problem for me in deciding whether it should or should not be debated is the absence of any understanding of what these figures mean. I am speaking about an increase that we are asked to pass of nearly £3 million, which is explained as "mainly increased NATO construction work". I am not told where that construction work is, or whether it is in Europe using European labour. I am completely in the dark.

On page 34 there is a reference to an additional sum of £109 million in respect of air systems. Here again—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. None of those matters is any way persuasive as to why the matter should be decided now and not at 10 o'clock.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

That is the kernel of my point, with respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would be happy to pass the Estimates now if I understood what they meant. My problem, and that of other Back Benchers, is that we have no way of knowing whether the £109 million will be rightly spent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. It would appear in those circumstances that the hon. Member for Preston, South wants the matter not to be decided now.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

I am trying to get a statement from the Treasury Bench or from the Prime Minister, if that is appropriate, on why we should accept the Prime Minister's motion which we are presently discussing, to wit, that we should proceed to accept these Estimates. If that is not the procedure, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perhaps you would care to explain to me what the procedure is. Mr. Speaker indicated before he left the Chair that we would be debating the motion tabled by the Prime Minister relating to these Estimates. An objection has been raised, and we are addressing ourselves to that objection, which is that we should not permit those items of expenditure to go through the House without adequate debate. The reason why I believe that there should be adequate debate is that hundreds of millions of pounds of public money is being spent without there being an adequate explanation.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. This is not the moment for an adequate debate to take place. All that the hon. Gentleman can discuss at the moment is whether the Question is to be put now.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest that it should not be put now. I have attempted to explain why. The Question should not be put now because hon. Members have not been given an adequate amount of information upon which to make a reasoned judgment whether the amounts should be accepted, whether the decisions taken by the Department of Defence which is calling for that expenditure are decisions we want to support, whether the £109 million I mentioned might be better spent in the relief of overseas poverty, for example, or in providing nursery schools in my constituency, or in any other way.

Photo of Mr Ronald Thomas Mr Ronald Thomas , Bristol North West

I wonder whether my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) is aware that this is not the first time this year that the Government have come forward with Supplementary Estimates. The Government came forward asking for £150 million last December. Now the Government want another £141 million for defence alone. It is for those reasons—I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree—that we object to the fact that we are not getting a proper debate on this matter today.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

That point is extremely relevant, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When we consider the matters discussed in the House over the past two months, arising directly from lack of Government response to the needs of people across a wide sector, we discover that we are suddenly asked to meet needs amounting to £109 million for the provision of additional hardware which will not give one iota of assistance to ambulance men, nurses and other sections of the community facing difficulty at present. It is for that reason—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Order. If the hon. Gentleman reads the motion he will see that it seeks to achieve that these matters be determined without debate now, as opposed to later tonight, when there will still be no debate.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

Obviously, Mr. Deputy speaker, my language is not well understood by you. I am seeking to argue that we cannot possibly accept the motion, because we do not have the ability to recognise—without even reading it, which is what the motion implies—that it is correct that we should pass the expenditure. I cannot go along with that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West indicated, we had this debate in December last. We made it clear then that we were no longer prepared to accept items of expenditure such as this to pass through the House without debate.

There may be 610 hon. Members who are indifferent to the fact that we shall be spending the sort of money that is set out in the motion, but there are some hon. Members who are concerned about it. It seems to me that if the procedures of the House do not permit debate upon matters of that description, any claim that we make about this being a democratic Chamber are null and void.

May I proceed, Mr. Deputy Speaker?

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Only in discussing the motion as I outlined it. If the hon. Gentleman does not want these matters voted on now, he can explain why he does not want them voted on now. However, the only step that he can take will be to vote against the motion.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can my hon. Friend the Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) argue his case if you say that he should not argue why we should not debate the matter now? For the life of me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not understand your ruling.

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

The motion has been set down to allow these matters to be determined without debate now. That is the matter before the House. If we are not to come to a conclusion on this matter without debate now, we can do so at 10 o'clock, but there will still be no debate.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the question whether the Estimates should be debated now. If I were able, in debate, to put to the Minister certain questions about these Estimates that we are being asked to accept and to raise with him the question whether certain items are or are not justified—for example, whether it would have been better to do (a), (b), (c) and (d) rather than (f), (g) and (h)—I could come to some conclusion about these Estimates—

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

Unfortunately, that is just what the hon. Gentleman is not able to do.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

As I understand you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are saying that I should address myself to the question why this matter should or should not be debated now. Is that so?

Mr. Deputy Speaker:

No. The matter to which the hon. Gentleman should be addressing his mind now is whether he wants the motion not debated now or whether he wants it not debated at 10 o'clock tonight.

Photo of Mr Stanley Thorne Mr Stanley Thorne , Preston South

I was giving those reasons, as far as I was aware, but clearly you do not interpret them in the way that I do, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am seeking to argue that it is not possible for us to pass the motion urged upon us by the Prime Minister. That is why we have raised objections. Behind those objections is our complete inability as Back Benchers to question the expenditure of one farthing in these Supplementary Estimates, and we are dealing with hundreds of millions of pounds. Initially I sought to draw attention to specific items which clearly give us very little, even in the printed material, in the way of adequate explanation for the amounts involved.

Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack , Staffordshire South West

I do not wish to trespass on the time of the House for more than a minute or so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I could not disagree more with many of the things that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) and the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne) stand for, and the subject of these Estimates—defence—is certainly something on which we are poles apart. If anything, I believe that the figures on the Order Paper are far too low. However, we must not talk about that.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have a real argument that deserves support on both sides of the House. It is wrong—indeed, it is utterly absurd—that the House should pass enormous sums, for whatever purpose, without debate. There should be proper opportunity for scrutiny. The power of the purse should be in this place. The Executive should be answerable for their financial proposals and we should have ample opportunity for debate. In so far as the hon. Member for Preston, South is seeking to advance that argument—which is the only real point of substance so far as I see it—I agree with him.

This is an issue to which the House should return at an early date, because it is of great importance. The subject that has been chosen by the Opposition for the Supply day is also very important. I want us to get on to it very quickly.

I should like Labour Members to know that this is not merely a crusade on their behalf. There are many Conservative Members—indeed, I suggest almost all hon. Members on both sides of the House—who believe that there is a great deal of substance in the arguments that have been advanced.

Photo of Mr Arthur Newens Mr Arthur Newens , Harlow

I also wish to speak against the motion now standing on the Order Paper, to put the Question on the Supplementary Defence Estimates forthwith. As my hon. Friends have already pointed out, a number of us raised this issue of approving hundreds of millions of pounds on the nod when it was last proposed on 7 December—in fact, we raised it on previous occasions.

As I stated on 7 December, I was opposed not to all the expenditure which was put forward but to the principle of avoiding a debate on such vast sums. It is a serious principle which, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) said, ought to command the attention of all right hon. and hon. Members. Those of us who are raising the matter today are, first and foremost, concerned with that issue.

It was pointed out by Mr. Speaker that it was possible to debate these matters during the Consolidated Fund debate. However, as I understand it, the way that we could do that would not give us the opportunity of voting against the specific items with which we are concerned. There would be an opportunity for us, if we so wished, to avail ourselves of voting against the whole of the Consolidated Fund, but that certainly is not our intention. Even in these Estimates there are a number of Votes of which we heartily approve. The motion does not allow us the opportunity of differentiating between the sums which are being put forward today.

Photo of Mr Ronald Thomas Mr Ronald Thomas , Bristol North West

My hon. Friend referred to the Consolidated Fund debate. Does he agree that if we allow the Estimates to go through today we shall have granted the money and we shall not be able to do anything about that on Thursday or whenever?

Photo of Mr Arthur Newens Mr Arthur Newens , Harlow

I am sure that that is so. If we raised the matter in the Consolidated Fund debate, it would be a form of post mortem after the event. That would be nothing but a charade. We need a debate, and we should not allow the Estimates to be approved without debate as that will prevent us from having the opportunity of speaking about items with which we are especially concerned. If the motion to put the Question forthwith is carried, there will be no opportunity for a Minister to reply to the arguments that have been advanced.

Many of us find ourselves in considerable difficulty. We do not wish to oppose the immediate approval of certain Estimates. We do not wish to convey the impression that we are opposed, for example, to increases in pay for members of the forces. Many of us regard such increases as extremely important. If the motion is accepted to put these matters forthwith, none of us will have an opportunity to advance our arguments.

There is an amendment on the Order Paper that stands in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas), others of my hon. Friends and myself that endeavours to clarify the arguments that are now being advanced. However, the motion that is now before the House precludes any discussion on that amendment. It is surely wrong that we should pass a motion that prevents the House from discussing an amendment of importance.

We wish only to refer to certain aspects of the Estimates. The argument that I advance is that if we pass the motion we shall be putting on one side important issues while, as we know, with due respect, the House spends a great deal of time on other occasions discussing comparatively trivial or piffling matters. Surely, we have a right to say that it is time that the House reconsidered its procedure and refused to allow motions to be passed, such as the one before us, that enabled important matters to be thrust on one side, debate to be shelved, and arguments not to be advanced while we allow the House to spend an infinite amount of time discussing matters that do not command the attention of all hon. Members.

I find it surprising that the Opposition Front Bench has not addressed itself previously to the issue that my hon. Friends and I have raised. It has been especially concerned about the scrutiny of public expenditure. If we are to say that when public expenditure relates to health, welfare, education and other important civilian matters it should be scrutinised and that defence Estimates should be passed through the House without the opportunity for scrutiny, that will be an unsatisfactory state of affairs.

Enshrined in the motion is a principle that I cannot support. I do not believe that the House is able to support it. It is the principle that we approve Supplementary Estimates on defence without a proper debate. For all the reasons that I have advanced, the motion before the House is totally unacceptable. Those who have views on defence expenditure should have the right to advance their arguments. That right will not be available if the Question is put forthwith. Therefore, the House should not accept the motion that will allow Estimates to be approved on the nod. I hope that my hon. Friends support that view and will be prepared to oppose the motion by voting against the Government.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

It seems clear that the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) has spoken against the motion as a protest against defence expenditure. Whatever the reason for the exercise, I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South-West (Mr. Cormack) that it raises an important matter of House of Commons principle.

We are in this place as guardians of public expenditure. We are bound to scrutinise public expenditure before we approve it. I do not know whether Labour Members below the Gangway would be equally enthusiastic to debate other forms of public expenditure, but whatever their views on defence expenditure they have raised an important matter.

The House of Commons should not approve on the nod large sums of expenditure by way of Supplementary Estimates. The Select Committee on Procedure should bear in mind that there should be a means of scrutinising expenditure of this nature and degree before it is approved.

Photo of Mr Frederick Willey Mr Frederick Willey , Sunderland North

I join the protest that has been made by my hon. Friends. Their protest is based on a cardinal principle.

I do not know of any other Parliament that has abrogated its responsibilities to such an extent. I cannot think of any other Parliament that has abrogated all control of Supply. Parliament exercises no control over the Executive unless it controls Supply. The issue is whether we shall have a general debate that will be noted by the Executive and no more, or whether we shall be specific and say "If you are asking for money, we shall examine the Estimates in detail before giving our approval."

This is an issue that the House must face. Unless and until Parliament exercises the power of control, Parliament will be ineffective. I express no view about the Votes that are at issue. I repeat that unless and until Parliament reasserts its control over Supply, Parliament will be ineffective.

We are concerned that Parliament should remain the centre of control. It will have control only when it re-establishes control of Supply. At present it is a farce to talk about the House in terms of a Committee on Supply. I remember when the House exercised control over Supplementary Estimates. We went through Estimates in great detail, but that no longer happens. I agree that the Committee on Procedure has done a good job on relatively minor matters, but we must have Parliament examining the estimates and having effective control.

Photo of Sir Raymond Gower Sir Raymond Gower , Barry

This debate underlines what the right hon. Member for Sunderland North (Mr. Willey) has just hinted at, that there has been a weakening in our examination of expenditure of this kind, progressively over the years. It will be within the recollection of the right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, that some years ago we used to debate such matters in much greater depth, both in relation to defence and the Civil Estimates, whether Estimates or Supplementary Estimates similar to those now before the House. This debate has shown that we need a completely new and different procedure for dealing with these matters, and this needs to be looked at almost immediately by the Committee on Procedure. This is an urgent matter and I hope that those Ministers who are here today, while they may not agree with all that has been said in this short debate, will see the need for closer scrutiny of these matters before they are approved by the House.

It is very undesirable that matters of this kind should be passed by the House, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) says, on the nod, which is a vivid description of what is happening. I do not believe any Ministers in any Government would wish things to be this way, or I hope not. I cannot conceive that they should, and I hope that there will now be pressure from both sides of the House in the months ahead for a different procedure to be recommended and adopted by this House.

Photo of Ms Jo Richardson Ms Jo Richardson , Barking

I want to add just a few words to what has been said on both sides of the House, and in doing so I am very much encouraged by the support for a change of procedure in this matter. It is practically three months to the day—it was 7 December and today is 8 March—since we debated the same point on the then Supplementary Estimates. It is perfectly true, as the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) has pointed out, that we have, as it were, hung the problem on defence, but that is by way of drawing attention to it, although of course many of us do object to the extra money proposed to be spent on defence; but there are other things also, which each individual Member may have his or her own wish to debate in terms of the Supplementary Estimates, and we ought to have an opportunity to speak on them.

Photo of Mr Ronald Thomas Mr Ronald Thomas , Bristol North West

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is the first opportunity that we have had to make out protest again, and it would not have mattered whether the Estimates were on defence or anything else, we would have been making this protest today?

Photo of Ms Jo Richardson Ms Jo Richardson , Barking

That is absolutely true. My hon. Friend is perfectly right. The hon. Member for Barry (Sir R. Gower) said that he hoped that over the next few months the Government and perhaps the Opposition would get together and consider how this matter could be put right. I remind him that not only did we debate this subject at some length, as far as we could, in December; we debated it at the same time last year, in March 1978.

We were then told that the matter would be seriously considered. It was probably debated the year before, though my memory does not go back that far; but certainly on every conceivable opportunity over the last few years this matter has been debated.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) said that we ought to get back to the situation where Supply money that is voted in this way is scrutinised by this Parliament. Obviously, that has been done, however unsatisfactorily, at some stage in the past; so there has been a change in taking it away from the Floor of the House. Hon. Members on all sides, of all parties and in all groupings have to press to see that this does not go by any more without the possibility of debate on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley

Does my hon. Friend regard it as surprising that the Conservative Opposition, who are committed to cutting public expenditure in every conceivable place, because they agreed with the form of expenditure on the Order Paper, were prepared to see this kind of money go through on the nod?

Photo of Ms Jo Richardson Ms Jo Richardson , Barking

Perhaps they have seen the error of their ways, or perhaps they are jumping on the bandwagon. In any event, I hope that their publicly voiced support for it will continue. We are always told by those who reply from our Front Bench "You need not worry. You are making a fuss about nothing. This is only a formality. On the Consolidated Fund debate you will have an opportunity to raise exactly what you want." As my hon. Friends have pointed out, that is too late, for it has already gone through by that time and the money has already been allocated so that there is absolutely nothing we can do at that stage.

Because some of my hon. Friends are interested in defence expenditure we have been told in previous debates "You will have plenty of opportunity to speak, because there will be two or three days of debate, probably a day each on the Army, the Royal Navy and the Air Force, and you can speak at that time". But that again is too late. Those debates are about the Army, the Navy and the Air Force and they do not lend themselves to the issue of whether or not we are to spend this or that amount of money.

We spend hours in this place trying to winkle money out of the Treasury for sums which, by comparison with the money that we are now asked to vote without debate, are chickenfeed. Recently, I have been on several deputations trying to get more money for non-contributory invalidity benefit for disabled married women. We were told that £23 million was a dreadful figure and could not be afforded; and in no way could I get anybody to consider that as a realistic possibility. Yet today we are giving away £109 million here and the odd £1 billion there on these Estimates. This expenditure may be very well worth while, but I just want an opportunity, as do other hon. Members, of scrutinising these Estimates and being able to debate them and ask questions on them, and then to vote on them, not before.

I hope that the Government will take very serious note of the urgency of this matter. I hope that in another six months' time, or whenever the next Supplementary Estimates are due, we shall not have this situation occurring again.

Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Cities of London and Westminster Paddington

I wish to underline what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) about the repetitious nature of these matters. First, I want to express appreciation of the diligence of my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) who has to look at the Order Paper most closely to know when an attempt is once again to be made to put matters of this kind through the House without proper debate. When we have a reply from the Front Bench, though I do not know whether the appropriate Ministers are there to give one, I hope that there will be some explanation of why this subject is always treated in such an inept fashion. It is absolutely true that a fuss was made about this over a year ago and, I believe, a year before that. As my hon. Friend the Member for Barking has said, just three months ago a whole day's business was lost because a motion was put down in this form. Therefore, it is with amazement that I this week again observe exactly the same thing has happened, as if there had never been a protest, as if a day's business had never been lost, as if there had never been quite a fuss from below the Gangway on this side and the same noises of support from the other side. What bothers me is that it seems that the same kind of faceless bureaucrats continue to give the some inept advice to whichever side of the House may be in power.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

I do not take the view that faceless bureaucrats are responsible. I take the view that faceless bureaucrats are involved. I do not think we should be mealy-mouthed about the role that civil servants play in these matters, but the real kernel of it is that the two Front Benches agree to getting these things, or anything else for that matter, through without any consultation with the Beck Benchers. It is a well-known fact that in the course of the last few days my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol—[Interruption.]

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

The hon. Gentleman may not believe it, but the House is anxious to see him.

Photo of Dennis Skinner Dennis Skinner , Bolsover

Will you put that in writing, Mr. Speaker, and get all hon. Members to sign it? My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) has been trying in the course of the past few days to negotiate over this matter and we know that people on our Front Bench have been trying to resist these pressures. The more that we get this message across, the better it will be. The more we assert ourselves, the more chance shall we have of debating these things, as my hon. Friends want.

Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Cities of London and Westminster Paddington

My hon. Friend is being less than charitable about this. The faceless bureaucrats that I was referring to are not those at the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence but those who lurk in this building and purport to give advice to Government Whips. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was being slightly uncharitable. I understood that the Government Chief Whip sincerely believed that there was no other way by which we could have adequate debate. I always accept what the Government Chief Whip says at its face value. I do not question his sincerity or the genuineness of his belief that there is no alternative. My hon. Friend may criticise me, but I have volunteered that, if these chaps cannot give better advice to the Government Chief Whip, I can suggest ways and means in which these matters may be discussed. I am talking not about going to the Whips' Office or about a quango but about those who are supposed to know procedure so that House of Commons accountability can be practised.

Instead of the motion on the Order Paper that we must vote forthwith or you, Mr. Speaker, must put the Question forthwith without discussion, there should be a proposition for you to put the Question after whatever is the appropriate time for the House to debate the Supplementary Estimates. Business managers are bound to put it in that way. An opportunity could be given for a full debate on the substantive motions. Under the rules of order, Mr. Speaker, you and others deputising for you will rightly say that we are out of order if we discuss the substance of the matter. Therefore, we can seek to make the point within the rules of order only by debating why we are not allowed to debate the subject matter. That is farcical.

If everyone rises for just one minute to say that we would like to discuss £141 million of Supplementary Estimates but are not allowed to, the business managers will laugh up their sleeves at the making of one-minute speeches and the House will agree to put forthwith Questions on vitally important matters.

Let me remind the House of the nature of what we are asked not to debate and that you, Mr. Speaker, are asked to put forthwith. The Order Paper says that we have Supplementary Estimates to ensure that Votes will not be overspent as presented in the spring in the light of the latest available forecast outturn on the individual Votes. In plain English, the House is being asked without debate not merely to vote Supplementary Estimates but, in effect, to cook the books. If we deal with Supplementary Estimates under any other heading or public expenditure in general, there is an imposition of cash limits. Local authorities and others are asked to stay within the limit fixed by the Treasury and not overspend. As the Prime Minister said only a few days ago, there is nothing in the kitty. But here, in order to ensure that we do not overspend, we adjust the Estimates before we hit the limit and reach the overspending. The rules for defence expenditure are different from those for any other expenditure. That is a vitally important issue of principle. It is quite wrong that we are asked once again to let this through without debate.

Photo of Sir Raymond Gower Sir Raymond Gower , Barry

The scrutiny of expenditure is extended to all civil expenditure. It is not merely in this sphere that the House has fallen down on its job. It is throughout all Government expenditure.

Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Cities of London and Westminster Paddington

Whatever is remiss in regard to surveillance of other expenditure, this is the most scandalous. The Order Paper spells out that it is not possible to give us details of the overspending at present but that somebody in the Treasury or the Ministry of Defence has guessed that they might go over the limit. Therefore, the figures must be adjusted so that when, at the end of the period, the accounting is done it will be found that there has not been overspending. That goes far beyond non-scrutiny of expenditure. It is writing a blank cheque. Earlier in the year the House approves a figure. The House is then told that the figure on the cheque has been altered. We are not allowed to discuss the sum. You, Mr. Speaker, are bound by the motion on the Order Paper. We are not given an explanation, let alone an opportunity to discuss why that figure is being altered.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

The hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham) has given the impression that we are confined to defence expenditure. It is not. On the Order Paper there are Civil Estimates with exactly the same wording.

Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Cities of London and Westminster Paddington

In the document that we are not allowed to discuss, there are references as to why particular adjustments must be made on defence and why it is not possible to give the House details. So it is even worse in that regard.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West has many times raised this matter. Each time there are sympathetic noises from the business managers. The Chair is always put in difficulty because it is hard to know what is in order, how something which should not be debated can be debated. Conservative Members agree that it is a bad procedure. It can be suggested that some of us are unhappy about increases in defence expenditure. That may be true but that is not what is being discussed. Whatever party is in Government, eventually Governments understand only winning votes.

What is before the House is not the Civil Estimates to which the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) referred, nor is it defence, but whether we may debate these matters. If the motion to put the Questions forthwith is defeated, those Supplementary Estimates will not fall, but the House will be able to debate the items before voting. That is what we are asking for.

There is no point in making noises of sympathy—they are not words, because they do not have meaning—unless people are prepared to back them up in the Division Lobby. It is no good raising protests, asking for a commission to investigate procedure, saying that we have been remiss about finances, that there is £14 million not accounted for and that that is not unusual. That nonsense makes the House the farce that it often can be. When the Question is put, those same people will troop into the Lobby and vote for it being put forthwith or disappear into the Tea Room and allow the payroll vote to go through. If the House wishes to assert itself, hon. Members must go into the Division Lobby—I urge that they do so today—to put their votes where their mouths are and vote against putting the Question forthwith so that we can have proper debate of these considerable Supplementary Estimates of public expenditure.

Photo of Mr Tom Litterick Mr Tom Litterick , Birmingham, Selly Oak

It is two years since we had an undertaking from the Leader of the House about propositions of this character. He said that something would be done, but since then there has been a deafening silence.

I meet organised groups of my constituents regularly and I know that in the next two or three weeks someone from my constituency will ask me why an extra £577 million was required for military and Civil Estimates, and how it was spent. That is a perfectly reasonable question for a constituent to ask his Member of Parliament. My problem is that I shall not be able to reply. There is no way in which I can give an intelligent reply on the basis of what exists today.

The Government are telling us to give them the money and not ask why. They appear to believe that they have the right to demand that we sanction the release of our constituents' money for an unknown and unknowable purpose. That is a total negation of our function as Members of Parliament. We are supposed to scrutinise the spending of the Executive and to provide factual detailed accounts of the way in which the money is spent. We are being forced today—not for the first time—into a position in which we are unable to explain these matters to our constituents. Therefore, our purpose is rendered nugatory.

The Government are creating a hideously inconsistent situation in public expenditure. I am painfully aware that my local authority, which is a representative body and which is responsible to my constituents for its spending, is being held in check by the Executive of the State. At the same time, the Executive claims the right not to be responsible for the decisions of the representative local authorities. It imposes cash limits on them, but no one can impose cash limits on the Executive.

During the last few weeks we have heard time and time again from the Government that if certain wage claims are granted certain things will follow automatically because of the operation of cash limits. The Government are imposing constraints on the spending activities of local authorities, but at the same time they are demanding that we—the representatives of the nation—shall not impose constraints on them. In fact, they go further and say that we shall not even debate what they intend to do with this £577 million. That money represents what is in effect an error by the Government. Put in the most charitable light, they underestimated the amount of money they needed. Fair enough—that can happen in the best run household. Nevertheless, we have the right to ask the Government in what circumstances and areas this overspending arose. Without the answers to those questions we have no idea whether the Government are efficient or incompetent.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides who respect this House and themselves as Members of Parliament will think carefully about their vote today. This has nothing to do with whether a Member is Labour, Liberal or Conservative but it has everything to do with whether one is a member of a Parliament which is worth having. If hon. Members share the cynicism of the Government—this motion was put down with the blackest of cynicism—and if they do not respect themselves and just want to be members of the junta, they will vote with the Government. But, if they think that it is important for the British people to have a representative assembly with real power, they should join us in the No Lobby.

Photo of Mr Donald Stewart Mr Donald Stewart , Na h-Eileanan an Iar

I want to associate myself briefly with these protests. We have heard all these arguments before and now we are back to square one without having moved at all in the right direction.

I was almost induced to change my mind after listening to the speech of the hon. Member for Paddington (Mr. Latham). Much as he dislikes the extension of defence expenditure—as I do—he should accept the military wisdom of not fighting on two fronts. If he and his hon. Friends can get support of Conservatives, Liberals and nationalists this is not the time to divide the ranks. I shall vote against this procedure today.

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Birmingham Handsworth

We seem to be in the habit lately of making fools of ourselves. A few days ago we discussed the procedures of the House and a large number of hon. Members expressed dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of Parliament. That dissatisfaction related to our opportunities to debate matters, and extended to our sources of information and research backup. It extended to our knowledge in advance of Bills being processed in the House and the processing of Bills themselves. As much attention was paid to the actual Bill processing as to anything else. It also extended to the question of scrutiny and monitoring of financial expenditure. Only a few days after a debate in which a lot of dissatisfaction was expressed, we are now proposing to allow millions of pounds of public money to go through on the nod. This is not the proper way to deal with these matters.

At times this House seems intent on shedding its authority. It sloughed off a lot of that authority to Brussels under the European Communities Act. It has tried to get rid of other powers by devolution. Now, not content with humiliating ourselves in this way, we are denying ourselves something that is within our competence—the right to scrutinise and debate at length expenditure which the Government try to get through as an afterthought.

Those hon. Members with more experience of local government than I have pointed out the irony of local authority expenditure being subjected to a far greater degree of control than Government expenditure. Local authorities which "bust" their vote are liable to be in difficulties with their auditors. There is no such comparable sanction on the affairs of Government. The Government legitimise it afterwards. Local authorities cannot do that. They cannot legitimise excessive expenditure ex post facto. This is an odd way to conduct our affairs.

I am sorry that the Leader of the House is not here. I see my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip lurking as a spectral

presence in the background exuding his usual good humour. It is a wrong-headed way of setting about the matter. I should like to be able to tell my constituents why we are spending £109 million on air systems defence procurement, but I do not know how to begin to answer their questions. Many of them feel strongly about the matter. It is an unsatisfactory situation.

We are all fond of the Leader of the House. We love him dearly. Over the past 30 years he has gained a reputation as a champion of Back Bench rights. However, I am afraid that of late he has been an example of a poacher turned gamekeeper in these matters.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 228, Noes 68.

Division No. 85]AYES[5.31 p.m.
Adley, RobertDrayson, BurnabyJohnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)
Anderson, DonaldDuffy, A. E. P.Jones, Alec (Rhondda)
Archer, Rt Hon PeterDunlop, JohnJones, Dan (Burnley)
Armstrong, ErnestDunn, James A.Judd, Frank
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Durant, TonyKaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
Banks, RobertDykes, HughKitson, Sir Timothy
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Eadie, AlexLangford-Holt, Sir John
Bates, AltEdwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)Le Marchant, Spencer
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony WedgwoodElliott, Sir WilliamLester, Jim (Beeston)
Berry, Hon AnthonyEnnals, Rt Hon DavidLewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Boardman, H.Ewing, Harry (Stirling)Lofthouse, Geoffrey
Booth, Rt Hon AlbertFairbairn, NicholasLoveridge, John
Boothroyd, Miss BettyFairgrieve, RussellLyons, Edward (Bradford W)
Boscawen, Hon RobertFaulds, AndrewMcCartney, Hugh
Boyden, James (Bish Auck)Finsberg, GeoffreyMcElhone, Frank
Bradley, TomFookes, Miss JanetMacfarlane, Neil
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Foot, Rt Hon MichaelMacFarquhar, Roderick
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Forman, NigelMcKay, Allen (Penistone)
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)Forrester, JohnMacKay, Andrew (Stechford)
Buchanan, RichardFox, MarcusMackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor
Buchanan-Smith, AlickFry, PeterMaclennan, Robert
Bulmer, EsmondGeorge, BruceMcMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)
Burden, F. A.Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr JohnMadel, David
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian (Chesham)Marks, Kenneth
Campbell, IanGlyn, Dr AlanMarshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Cartwright, JohnGolding, JohnMarshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Channon, PaulGoodlad, AlastairMason, Rt Hon Roy
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)Gourlay, HarryMates, Michael
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)Mawby, Ray
Cockcroft, JohnGrant, George (Morpeth)Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)Grant, John (Islington C)Meacher, Michael
Coleman, DonaldGrieve, PercyMellish, Rt Hon Robert
Concannon, Rt Hon JohnHamilton, James (Bothwell)Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)
Conlan, BernardHampson, Dr KeithMills, Peter
Cope, JohnHarrison, Rt Hon WalterMoate, Roger
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Haselhurst, AlanMolyneaux, James
Craigen, Jim(Maryhill)Holland, PhilipMonro, Hector
Crawshaw, RichardHoram, JohnMontgomery, Fergus
Crowder, F. P.Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham, Sm H)Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Huckfield, LesMorris, Rt Hon Charles R.
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)
Davies, Ifor (Gower)Hunt, David (Wirral)Morris, Michael (Northampton S)
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)
Deakins, EricHunter, AdamMudd, David
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick
Dempsey, JamesJames, DavidMurray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Dodsworth, GeoffreyJay, Rt Hon DouglasNeave, Airey
Doig, PeterJenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd)Nelson, Anthony
Dormand, J. D.Jessel, TobyNeubert, Michael
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesJohn, BrynmorNewton, Tony
Douglas-Mann, BruceJohnson, James (Hull West)Oakes, Gordon
O'Halloran, MichaelSilkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)Wakeham, John
Onslow, CranleySilvester, FredWalker, Harold (Doncaster)
Orbach, MauriceSmith, Dudley (Warwick)Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)Smith, Rt Hon John (N Lanarkshire)Ward, Michael
Page, Richard (Workington)Snape, PeterWarren, Kenneth
Palmer, ArthurSpeed, KeithWatkins, David
Park, GeorgeSpence, JohnWeatherill, Bernard
Parker, JohnSpriggs, LeslieWeetch, Ken
Perry, ErnestStainton, KeithWellbeloved, James
Price, William (Rugby)Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)Wells, John
Pym, Rt Hon FrancisStewart, Ian (Hitchin)White, Frank R. (Bury)
Radice, GilesStewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)Whitehead, Phillip
Rathbone, TimStott, RogerWhitelaw, Rt Hon William
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)Strang, GavinWhitlock, William
Rees-Davies, W. R.Summerskill, Hon Dr ShirleyWilliams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Rhodes James, R.Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)Williams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Roberts, Albert (Normanton)Temple-Morris, PeterWinterton, Nicholas
Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)Woodall, Alec
Roderick, CaerwynTinn, JamesWool Robert
Rowlands, TedTomlinson, JohnWrigglesworth, Ian
Sandelson, NevilleTomney, FrankYoung, David (Bolton E)
Scott, NicholasTrotter, NevilleYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, cton)
Sever, JohnVarley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Sheldon, Rt Hon RobertVaughan, Dr GerardTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Shepherd, ColinWaddington, DavidMr. John Evans and
Shore, Rt Hon PeterWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)Mr. Ted Graham.
Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)
NOES
Abse, LeoFowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)Morton, George
Ashton, JoeGrimond, Rt Hon J.Newens, Stanley
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Ovenden, John
Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)Heffer, Eric S.Parry, Robert
Bain, Mrs MargaretHooley, FrankPenhaligon, David
Beith, A. J.Hooson, EmlynPrice, C. (Lewisham W)
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)Richardson, Miss Jo
Bidwell, SydneyHughes, Roy (Newport)Rodgers, George (Chorley)
Blenkinsop, ArthurJeger, Mrs LenaRooker, J. W.
Canavan, DennisJenkins, Hugh (Putney)Skinner, Dennis
Carmichael, NeilKelley, RichardSmith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Clemitson, IvorKerr, RussellSpearing, Nigel
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Kilfedder, JamesStewart, Rt Hon Donald
Corbett, RobinKinnock, NeilStoddart, David
Cryer, BobLambie, DavidThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)
Edge, GeoffLamond, JamesTierney, Sydney
Ellis, John (Brig & Scun)Latham, Arthur (Paddington)Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
English, MichaelLee. JohnWelsh, Andrew
Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)Loyden, EddieWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)MacCormick, IainWise, Mrs Audrey
Evans, loan (Aberdare)McNamara, Kevin
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.Madden, MaxTELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Flannery, MartinMaynard, Miss JoanMr. Tom Litterick and
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)Mikardo, IanMr. Stan Thorne.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Ordered,
That this day, as soon as the House has entered upon the Business of Supply, Mr. Speaker shall put forthwith the Questions which under the provisions of paragraph (11) of Standing Order No. 18 (Business of Supply) he is directed to put at Ten o'clock.