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Column 753absolutely right that tax should be paid on profits rather than on production. I confess to having profound doubts about whether fiscal neutrality has been achieved. Heretic though it may make me, I happen to believe that we need not even seek fiscal neutrality.
Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North) : I have privately as well as publicly congratulated my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) on his elevation to the Opposition Front Bench, but I want to take this first opportunity in the House to repeat my warm congratulations to him, especially on his debut, and to wish him much success in the future as an Opposition spokesperson and, I hope, as the years go by, as a Minister.
I have been involved, mainly as a Front-Bench representative, with two of the three major disasters of recent times : first, the Herald of Free Enterprise at Zeebrugge ; secondly, the King's Cross fire disaster ; and, thirdly, when I was involved as a constituency MP, the Piper Alpha disaster. In a strange kind of way--I take no comfort from this--we marvel that in all three major accidents more lives were not lost. The Herald of Free Enterprise keeled over 100 yd from shore. Everybody on board that ship could have been lost. Many more people could have been lost in the King's Cross disaster. Those who saw the dramatic photographs in the technical report that was published by the Department or who saw, admittedly from afar, the battered remains of the Piper Alpha platform cannot understand how anybody survived. It is a miracle that more people did not die, but we cannot take any comfort from that.
With all three incidents, there is a strong feeling that commerce and competition came before safety. With the Herald of Free Enterprise, there is no doubt that the drive of competition and to maximise profit led to quicker turn-rounds and sloppiness with regard to safety.
As for King's Cross, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind--I think that the Fennell report bears it out--that those who were in charge of London Underground were far more concerned with cash and cutting public subsidy than with safety. Again, sloppiness crept in. The day after the fire, I saw underneath the escalator. I was told that, on that one wooden escalator, there had already been 12 fires which had gone out without causing major loss of life. I incline towards the view that there is a correlation in the North sea between price stability and attention to safety. Everybody denies that. In discussions with the United Kingdom Offshore Operators
Association--other hon. Members have had similar discussions--and when we visited the Tartan Alpha platform, everybody assured us that safety was always paramount. If it were not true in the past, Piper Alpha has concentrated everybody's mind. I have no doubt that the issue has been considered afresh.
All of us who have been involved have been flooded with letters and inundated by people coming to see us to tell us about breaches of safety legislation and practice. They tell us that they felt that they were being driven to get on with their job because nobody wanted the platform to shut down. It is difficult to know how to judge hearsay evidence. I normally tell people who come to see me and those who give me their names and addresses to make their
Column 754evidence public. I tell them to make it available to the Lord Cullen inquiry. Everybody owes it to the living and to the dead to ensure that no aspect of safety is overlooked.
I understand that Lord Cullen cannot look into every allegation and every possible aspect of safety in the North sea, nor would we want him to do so. We want a thorough examination, but we want fairly speedy conclusions. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what will happen at the end of the inquiry. What immunities have been given to the participants in the inquiry? To get the evidence at the Zeebrugge inquiry, a blanket immunity from prosecution was given to anybody who took part. Some qualified immunities have been given in regard to the Piper Alpha inquiry. I am not seeking vengeance any more than anyone else, but if clear knowledge of breaches of safety legislation emerges, the people concerned ought to be prosecuted further. I hope that, whatever qualified immunities might have been given, there is no blanket immunity from prosecution.
None of us wants to prejudge the outcome of the Cullen inquiry. I have already said publicly, and repeated it in the House, that I believe that Lord Cullen has begun his inquiry in a way which leads me to have confidence that we shall get a fair and reasonable result.
There is controversy about the independence of the safety inspectors. I have some doubt whether an independent safety commission would be as beneficial as is sometimes suggested. There is an incestuous relationship between the industry and the Department. It is neither here nor there whether that relationship is real or apparent ; there is a close relationship, and people feel that it has got a bit too cosy and that perhaps the commission should be one step removed.
I know that some hon. Members feel very strongly about this issue, but my hesitation on the subject arises out of the fact that the commission cannot be entirely independent of the Government. Moreover, I do not believe that the Government's safety record is very good. I would not dare to cast aspersions on the Secretary of State or the Minister of State. I have already said that they have conducted themselves well since the Piper Alpha inquiry started, but some Ministers have departed and some may yet come in whose judgment I would not necessarily trust. We must approach the subject of independence carefully and seek an assurance, yet again, that the safety inspectors have the greatest possible independence. I do not know why the oil industry is so hesitant. When the Opposition have demanded more trade union involvement in safety and organisation on the rigs, some people have thought that we are pursuing our natural political and industrial inclination to favour the trade unions. I am a Member sponsored by the Amalgamated Engineering Union. That union recruits members from among those working in the North sea, so people would expect me to say that we want strong trade union organisation, but it is not simply a matter of having trade union organisation because we have a vested interest in it.
I believe fervently that active trade unionists in any industry are concerned for members and colleagues, irrespective of whether their workmates are members of a trade union. I cannot understand why the oil industry has resisted proper trade union membership. The vast majority of the majors who operate in the North sea have onshore, downstream activities where for many years they have happily accommodated union safety representatives and
Column 755even closed shops. Why can they not allow the same in the North sea? They say that they are perfectly happy to allow organisation. It cannot be contradicted, however, that when a trade union organiser applies to go to a platform his application is welcomed but it just happens that a place on a helicopter cannot be found for another six months.
It might be asked why organisers do not organise the lads when they come on shore. Having been offshore for a fortnight, men want to get home to their wives and families ; they do not want to hang about at trade union meetings. It is entirely understandable that they want to get the first aeroplane south--because this is not a wholly Aberdeen-based industry.
When there has been some organisation, because half a dozen good trade unionists have got together, it is well documented that when they come up for their next tour of duty they are put on different ships or different platforms. The cohesion which has begun to be built up is therefore broken. Why is the oil industry not prepared to allow proper trade union organisation? I believe that such organisation is important.
I do not know how many other hon. Members wish to speak, but I apologise to the Minister as I may not be able to be present to hear his reply. It is not entirely satisfactory that he should deal with the debris of the platform in his winding-up speech because we do not know what he will say. That is a minor carp. I know that the Minister of State is hoping that I shall hurry up and finish.
Mr. Peter Morrison : I am keen to help the hon. Gentleman. However, I wanted first to be 100 per cent. sure that I should in no sense mislead the House. I have now discovered that I should not be misleading the House, so I shall tell the hon. Gentleman precisely what the position is.
It was only last night that a proposition was put in my box relating to the abandonment of Piper Alpha, which I approved. It is obviously a matter of great importance. The proposition then went to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. This morning, my right hon. Friend also approved that proposition. For the sake of accuracy, it may be helpful for me to spell out precisely what the proposition is.
Under section 4 of the Petroleum Act 1987, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has approved the abandonment programme for Piper Alpha, submitted by Occidental and its co-venturers. This proposes the use of explosive charges to topple the remains of the installation and to put them on to the sea bed, away from the existing pile of debris, leaving at least 75m of clear water above all remains.
The approval is not final. The proposed conditions to be attached to my right hon. Friend's approval include requirements for surveys of the toppled remains and surrounding sea bed to establish the position of debris and to monitor for leakage of oil and gas. They also require sediment samples to be obtained and examined for the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls and radioactivity. The conditions provide for repetition of these surveys and of sediment sampling at such times as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State may subsequently direct. They also provide for debris to be moved, or removed, as my right hon. Friend may direct ; for any leakage of oil or gas to be sealed to his satisfaction ; and for steps to be taken to deal with any unacceptable levels of pollution.
Column 756All those proposals are subject to approval, and the operating company will have the opportunity to raise objections under the statute. The proposals have not yet been conveyed to anyone other than hon. Members in the House today, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, myself and one or two officials. I hope that that has been helpful.
There were two points with which the Minister did not deal. The first point concerns the bodies. I come from a seafaring family of generations back and I know from experience--although none of my family has been lost at sea-- how seafaring families find it difficult to come to terms with death if no body is found. After the Zeebrugge and the Piper Alpha disasters, the relatives of those who died found it difficult to come to terms with the deaths. If the Piper Alpha platform is toppled, perhaps there will be a further search for bodies around the platform.
The other matter about which I am anxious is that the evidence that may be available about corrosion will be difficult to obtain. I said earlier that I did not expect Lord Cullen to go into every aspect of safety in the North sea, but I believe that corrosion is extremely important in relation to safety. The hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) mentioned corrosion and safety. As the Minister has made a final decision about the platform, I hope that he will assure us that there will be ample opportunity to study corrosion.
I believe that the oil industry is under an obligation to carry out a proper restitution of the immediate area of its operations in the North sea after abandonment. It should not have been allowed to say that it was starting a great programme, providing wealth for the nation and many jobs and that it would look after the area and then later say that it is too poor to make proper restitution. I do not share the view that is held by some of my hon. Friends that these measures should be fiscally neutral. The oil industry generally has done pretty well out of the North sea and it should have provided more for the Government. The only comfort I take is that, although the oil industry did not produce as much for the Government as I should have liked, the Government have totally squandered the North sea revenues that they received. When North sea oil drilling began, the Opposition argued strongly that there should be a specific investment fund and that revenue should go to develop not only Aberdeen--although, of course, it needed development--but the infrastructure for the manufacturing capacity of this country. That was resisted because the Treasury dislikes hypothetical revenues, and that allowed the Government to waste the assets of the North sea. I hope that they will do better with those assets in future. I look forward to seeing the benefits from the North sea accruing to the people of this country--not only to the oil companies and those who have shares in the business.
The Bill has been warmly welcomed by Labour and Conservative Members and by the oil industry. The new fiscal regime will help to remove obstacles to the development of worthwhile and economically viable
Column 757projects. The Government have recognised that royalty--a non-profit-related levy--was the most serious impediment to development. The abolition of royalty, coupled with tax changes, will give a new incentive for new gas developments and developments onshore. By removing the tax on wells and substituting a tax on profits, we now have a fairer system, which will encourage marginal projects to come forward and which should give a boost to the smaller and more independent oil companies. Despite a good record of new fields being developed and new wells being drilled, we should seek to exact the maximum return from this most valuable national asset. I shall now deal with the question of undrilled acreage. The problem of the banking of acreage stems from the first four rounds of licensing. There is still a major incentive to the oil companies to develop that acreage. The licences end in the period 2010-18 and the Bill does not provide for the extension of those licences. The normal lifespan is 20 years, so the licensees may run out of time to complete extraction during the period of tenure of the licence. They are urged to come forward so that they do not fall foul of the time limit.
The Government believe that there are now good grounds for seeking to secure new impetus in the exploration of undrilled acreage. One obvious point is that the undrilled portion is an important potential addition to the United Kingdom's oil and gas reserves. Recent developments in recovery technology have improved the viability of smaller fields. The Department of Energy is encouraging licensees of undrilled plots to explore them more thoroughly. The Department has made it clear that the oil companies are expected to give details of plans to do just that.
I am delighted that the Minister made the clear point in a recent announcement that the new applications for the 11th round will be considered in the light of the existing licensees' plans on undrilled acreage. That is most welcome, and I urge my right hon. Friend to press that point whenever possible. Any measure that helps to avoid the banking of acreage is to be welcomed.
I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware of the report from stockbrokers Gilbert Eliott who looked at the problem and made certain suggestions. Instead of the full United Kingdom continental shelf coming forward in a series of licensing rounds, the report proposed that the shelf should be divided into four regions and that all the available acreage should be offered once a year, by quarters in rotation. If any block remained undrilled for 10 years, the Department could demand its relinquishment.
The report claims that the scheme will have several advantages. First, there will be a constant work load for the industry and the Department of Energy, which is surely to be welcomed ; secondly, sitting on undrilled acreage will cease ; thirdly, regional geological assessments would become possible ; fourthly, long-term exploration planning would be easier ; fifthly--most important--there would be constant opportunity for new entrants.
Many new entrants are our own United Kingdom independent producers. They are an important group and their vital contributions have recently been acknowledged by the Minister. However, this year the number of United Kingdom independents has fallen by about a quarter. In
Column 758February we had 40 companies ; in August we had only 31. Such companies are facing several problems at present, such as the fact that their cash flows are not good and the oil price is depressed. The OPEC decision of the last few days may be of some encouragement to them.
Many United Kingdom independents are involved in onshore exploration. It is to be welcomed that the Bill gives a great step forward by having a royalties exemption clause for onshore exploration. However, problems still face those who wish to develop on shore : for example, the reserve sizes are questionable, the planning process is lengthy and there is no petroleum tax relief. I recently heard further evidence to the effect that the cost of drilling a well on shore to a depth of 6,000 ft. would cost about £750,000, whereas an offshore 15,000-ft. well would cost £2.7 million. However, when tax is taken into consideration, the net cost of the onshore well would be £480,000 compared with only £430,000 for the offshore well.
Managements involved in decision-making face competing demands on their costs. Often, the choice is made in favour of an offshore field, probably abroad, instead of encouraging the development of our United Kingdom potential to its full.
Finally, I turn to the southern basin--an area of the North sea that is important to my constituency and significant to the economy of East Anglia. The development of additional gas reserves will help preserve the production and infrastructure that is in place, and will keep jobs in my region. With electricity privatisation, there are serious possibilities of gas coming on shore for gas turbine stations. That would be a welcome addition to electricity generation in the area.
One cannot stress enough the importance of the fiscal changes in the Bill and their importance to investment decisions in the oil industry. However, there appears to be some difference in interpretation between the Government and the oil companies on the importance of internal rates of return on a field at the expense of concerns about the present value and pattern of cash flow. I believe that when these matters were dealt with in Committee on the Finance Bill, the oil industry raised the question of the level of tonnes per chargeable period, which the Bill brings down from 250, 000 to 125,000. Will the Minister give an assurance that he will monitor that regularly to ensure that it does not militate against development and that the necessary new fields come forward as we hope?
We have heard from the Minister this evening that we have a buoyant oil and gas industry. All who work in the industry deserve our greatest admiration and gratitude. Theirs is a dangerous occupation and since the Piper Alpha disaster, which has been referred to by many hon. Members, many families must be under considerable mental and emotional pressure as they await the return of their loved ones from tours of duty on the rigs. This House and those families are grateful for the Minister's categorical assurance that the highest safety standards are operated at present, and will be in the future.
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Mr. Doran : This has been an extremely useful debate, although at some distance removed from the precise purpose of the Bill. However, it has highlighted some of the major problems and issues that are faced in the offshore oil and gas industries.
The points made by the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), who is not in his place at the moment, seemed to be a plea on behalf of the oil industry, not just for the fiscal neutrality of the Bill, but for a lowering of tax rates. I certainly do not agree with that, and I am sure that none of my hon. Friends would agree either, unless the lowering of tax rates were related specifically to development proposals.
I take on board the points made by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss) about the banking of acreage and our need to encourage development. Some of his points bear further scrutiny.
The major issue that we must deal with is that of safety. Several points have been put to the Minister, who has already responded favourably to one of them. I was pleased to hear his statement on the importance of the abandonment of the Piper Alpha platform. However, I should like him to be specific on one point. When I recently met the Secretary of State for Energy--if my memory serves me correctly I should also have met the Minister of State, but he was called away to Downing street for something which, unfortunately, appears not to have been noteworthy or important--the right hon. Gentleman was at pains to point out that what was intended at this stage was an interim measure in the interests of safety because there was serious concern that the remains of the Piper Alpha platform could topple in the bad winter weather. Despite the fact that supports are being manufactured for the remains of the platform, it is not likely that the platform will survive the winter. Therefore, I am a wee bit unsure about what the Minister said earlier in response to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes). I am not sure whether the Minister is now talking about an interim measure, or a more permanent arrangement. I should like him to clarify that if he can.
The question of safety in the North sea has been canvassed because it is the main issue at the moment and concerns us all. I have already said that the Government should not sit on their hands and wait until the report from Lord Cullen's inquiry is available before dealing with the obvious points that require action now. I look forward to hearing the Minister's response to that.
I hope that the Minister will take on board the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, North about trade union rights. Again, at recent meetings with the Secretary of State it was made clear that the publication of the consultation document leading to regulations for safety committees and safety representatives in the North sea was likely. We shall continue to press our points on trade union representation. It is not just a question of establishing safety committees, because such committees require back-up. Onshore there is a well-established, well-tried system, involving trade unions on a statutory basis. Those committees have been shown to be enormously successful in improving the onshore safety record. We want the same thing to happen offshore. We want the members of those safety committees and the safety
Column 760representatives to have access to the independent information and advice that is provided by the trade unions' research staff. We want a genuine contribution to safety in the North sea through the establishment of such committees and safety representatives, not a muted or toothless talking shop.
The matter of the inquiry is coupled with the points made about the Piper Alpha platform. Will the Minister repeat the assurance given to me in a private discussion that every effort will be made to recover whatever evidence remains at the bottom of the sea? I understand the difficulty and the risk involved in recovering the various modules that still lie on the sea bed under this dangerous platform. I hope the Minister understands that there is still much uncertainty, for example, about where the original explosion occurred and how it occurred. Can he give us an assurance that no effort will be spared to recover vital evidence?
Mr. Peter Morrison : I agree with the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) that this has been a constructive debate. It has also given the House the opportunity to range more widely than the precise provisions in the Bill, and that is helpful, not least because for the last 18 months we have not had an opportunity to debate the oil and gas industries. Very important issues have been raised, some of which dealt with the tragedy in July on Piper Alpha. The debate has not been very political, and perhaps the industry is successful because politics and politicians do not interfere in it to any great extent.
I shall attempt quickly to answer the questions raised in the debate. The hon. Members for Aberdeen, South, for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) asked whether the work of the safety directorate would continue during Lord Cullen's public inquiry. I can give a categorical assurance that that is correct. I thought that I said earlier that that will be the case. I was also asked about the emergency shut-down valves. Proposals about those have been received by my Department from the industry, and in the light of those we are urgently considering what new regulations would be appropriate.
The point has been made to me in my office and elsewhere that there should be a separate safety directorate. The hon. Member for Gordon said that I rebutted that with chagrin and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy was prone to doing the same. I do not think that I did it like that ; but, of course, I accept that that is how my reaction may have been judged. I thought that I said, in as reasonable a way as possible, that Lord Cullen would look at that matter and that we would look carefully at the recommendations in Lord Cullen's report. If my reaction came across as chagrin, it was not meant as such.
As the Opposition know, we have followed the majority decision of the Burgoyne committee which was made at the beginning of this decade. That was assumed to be a satisfactory way of proceeding, and until that fateful evening in July not one parliamentary question had been put to me about the safety regime as such. Obviously hon. Members and outside bodies feel strongly about this matter, and it will be looked at carefully in the public inquiry.
Column 761The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South asked specifically about the abandonment of the Piper Alpha platform. In an intervention during his speech I gave him an answer to that question. I repeat that the decision made overnight by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I was subject to certain conditions.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South asked whether debris would be moved or removed. One of the conditions of the abandonment proposals is that my right hon. Friend can provide for debris to be moved, or removed, as he may direct. It was not until I intervened in the hon. Gentleman's speech that I made public at all, even to Occidental, the situation as it stands.
Mr. Morrison : It is subject to the possibility of written representations by Occidental. In my office the hon. Gentleman and I discussed toppling the platform outwards. Such a controlled toppling would ensure that the remaining debris would be not be crumpled, or crumpled further, as it might be if the platform were toppled by natural forces. I hope that I have made the position clear, as I understand it.
I was asked about pipelines and whether the certifying authorities were properly co-ordinated. I can give an assurance that that is the case. If the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South has any specific matter to raise with me, perhaps he could do so after the debate and I shall quite happily look at it.
Column 762My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Hannam) spoke about discussions that he and his wife had had with friends about the corrosion of platforms. I assure him that there is a continuing requirement for platforms to be regularly examined for corrosion. They will continue to be structurally examined at regular intervals by the certifying authorities so that they come up to the standards required by regulations before certificates of fitness can be issued. I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by that.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, South asked about the British Gas monopoly. Perhaps that matter concerns many hon. Members. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Monopolies and Mergers Commission produced a report a little earlier this year. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has asked the Director General of Fair Trading to look at the proposal in the MMC report that up to 90 per cent. of a particular field should be sold to British Gas and that the other 10 per cent. should be sold to another client. As the hon. Gentleman realises, more customers are coming forward. One can quote, for example, the sale of gas from the Miller field to the North of Scotland Hydro Electricity Board. To a certain extent, that is starting to break what might have been a monopoly.
I do not wish to detain the House any further because we have other important matters to discuss. The Bill is short and remarkable for being uncontroversial. It is the first Bill to be presented in this Session and it is important because it has a key part to play in the economy and in industry. I am most heartened that there is cross-party agreement on the Bill, and I commend it to the House. Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House. [Mr. Fallon.] Committee tomorrow.
Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Fallon.]
[Relevant Procedure Committee documents : Second Report (HC 49 of Session 1984-85) on Public Bill Procedure ; Second Report (HC 324 of Session 1985-86) on Allocation of Time to Government Bills in Standing Committee ; First Report (HC 157 of Session 1986-87) on A Parliamentary Calendar ; Second Report (HC 350 of Session 1986-87) on Use of Time on the Floor of the House ; Third Report (HC 254 of Session 1986-87) on Early Day Motions ; Fourth Report (HC 373 of Session 1986-87) on the Work of the Committee ; and First Report (HC 705 of Session 1987-88) on the Implications for Procedure of the Experiment in Televising the Proceedings of the House.]
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham) : One of the many duties of the Leader ofthe House is to try to ensure that its procedures are kept under regular review and that the House has opportunities from time to time to express its opinions on procedural matters. Tonight's debate on a motion for the Adjournment provides such an opportunity and will enable hon. Members to raise any aspect of procedure in which they have an interest.
The main matters before us tonight are the Procedure Committee's reports, listed on the Order Paper. I shall make some comments on those reports later in my speech, but first I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and the fellow members of his Committee for their conscientious and valuable work. I understand that my hon. Friend hopes to catch your eye later tonight, Mr. Speaker, and I look forward to hearing what he has to say. In addition to these reports, however, there are several other current procedural matters which are of particular concern to a number of hon. Members. The Joint Committee on Private Bill Procedure has recently produced a report of fundamental importance, for which I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair -Wilson) and to the other members of his Committee. As hon. Members will appreciate, the report will require detailed and extensive consultation. This is bound to take some time, and I see no prospect of legislation being introduced this Session, but I have said that, unusually, I will try to arrange a debate before the Government have responded to the Committee's recommendation in the normal way so that the views of the House can be expressed.
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish) : I am sure that the Leader of the House will realise that this is not only an excellent report but the culmination of a great deal of concern in the House about this matter. He is saying that there will be a chance for an early debate, but little chance of changing Standing Orders in this Session. Does that mean that private Bills being introduced in 12 months' time will still go on under the old procedure? Many hon. Members feel that that would be unsatisfactory.
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is aware that there are moves afoot from various hon. Members to block private business so as to precipitate a decision. I for one would not be too enthusiastic at having to carry out
Column 764that exercise for a whole 12 months. Will the Leader of the House at least give thought to the idea that, by the time Bills are introduced in 12 months, we should have the new procedures in operation?
Mr. Wakeham : I am not sure that I go along with the hon. Member's suggestion that it is acceptable to deal with matters before the House not on the merits of the issues but having regard to other considerations which are nothing to do with the promoters of the Bill or the merits of the Bill. I know that he wants to be helpful, and I wish to be helpful as well. This is an important report, and we should not delay it unnecessarily. The right thing to do is to have a debate as soon as we can to hear the views. I said, not that Standing Orders could not be altered if that was the will of the House, but that the legislation that will be necessary to implement some of these proposals could not be introduced this Session. The best thing is to proceed with a debate on the issue as soon as we can, to hear the views and see whether there is a measure of agreement as to how we should proceed and in what direction.
Another issue which came significantly and sadly to the fore in the last Session of Parliament was the behaviour of hon. Members in the Chamber. We all expect that debates will sometimes be passionate and that feelings will run high, but we also expect Members to bow to your authority, Mr. Speaker, when you rule that things have gone far enough. Last Session, hon. Members were suspended from the service of the House nine times, compared with just 17 previous such occasions in more than 40 years since the war. This fact perhaps shows that the penalty of a five-day suspension is no longer enough when calculated against the media publicity that such suspensions entail. Hon. Members may wish to air their views on this matter this evening. I am sure that the Procedure Committee, which is currently considering the matter, will find them helpful.
Mr. Wakeham : I refute that. I do not believe that it is any justification for disobeying Mr. Speaker, on any basis. I am surprised that the hon. Member, with his experience, believes that that justifies him disobeying Mr. Speaker.
A further matter affecting the procedures of the House which will be in hon. Members' minds is the effect which television has on our deliberations. The Committee has just published its first report of the current Parliament on this matter. I have noted the Committee's recommendations that there should be no change to procedures while the experiment is in operation, and I concur with this. We have voted for an experimental period of televising. Let us have the experimental period first before we decide on any implications for our procedure.
"That this House approves in principle the holding of an experiment in the public broadcasting of its proceedings by television ; and believes that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider the implementation of such an experiment".
I draw the attention of my right hon. Friend to the fact that the television cameras have already been in this
Column 765Chamber during the proceedings of this place. I understand that it would be surprising if the State Opening were deemed not to be a proceeding for the purpose of privilege. After all, both Houses are at that time properly constituted. In those circumstances, how can the Committee study
"the implementation of such an experiment"
when the implementation has already taken place?
Mr. Wakeham : I assure my hon. Friend that the Committee, of which I am the Chairman, has not yet finished its deliberations or started to make its report. That report has to come before the House, and it has to be approved by the House before any experiment, under the terms of the resolution that my hon. Friend quoted, can be carried out by the House. I gave no permission for any television cameras to proceed, so it is not a matter for me whether any television cameras broadcast at any time.
My hon. Friend may be referring to the fact that, at the time of the State Opening of Parliament, there were some television cameras in the Chamber which were used not for the broadcasting of the State Opening but for an experiment in the lighting arrangements, which was conducted by the Committee the day before, and which had been the subject of some discussion in the House. As far as I know, those cameras were not connected to the gubbins that are necessary before they can produce the signals that can go out across the ether to the great wide world. As I understand it, they were in operation the day before and the only signal that was received was on six monitors that were in the Aye Lobby at the time.
Where did I get to?
Mr. Wakeham : I think that I was saying, to put it into a sentence, that we should deal with the experiment of television before we deal with the procedures of the House. The tail must not be allowed to wag the dog.
Each hon. Member will have his own particular interests and priorities in procedural matters. If they succeed in catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, I have little doubt, for example, that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) will have something to say on the times and lengths of our sittings, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) may remind us of the importance of arrangements for scrutinising EC documents, and the hon. Member for Warley, West (Mr. Faulds) may be able to advise us how best to prepare ourselves for television. Other subjects, which I have not touched upon, could be raised.
Mr. Dalyell : Did the Leader of the House notice this afternoon the difficulty into which Mr. Speaker once again got as a result of this abomination of the open question? Is he going to give any views on the shortcomings of the open question? Have the Government considered whether this is a satisfactory arrangement? When we first came here, Prime Minister's questions were extremely strict and Macmillan and Home, and Wilson in his better days, would transfer any question that was not the responsibility of the Prime Minister. I submitted evidence to the Committee on this subject, and I wonder whether the Government have any reflections on it.
Mr. Wakeham : The Government are perfectly willing to agree with the wishes of the House in this matter. The Government do not have a strong view on how those matters should be dealt with. Ministers are here to answer questions and they will do their best to do so. However, the present arrangements are probably the most generally acceptable to the House. We may be a little wiser at the end of the debate, and the Procedure Committee may return to the issue.
Mr. Thompson : I was interested in the point that has just been made about the televising of Parliament and the State Opening. I watched the television programme on the State Opening, so I intervene merely for information. I do not know which cameras were used, but there was a view of the Chamber including all the Benches. I do not know how that was obtained and I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider that point.
Mr. Wakeham : I am happy to consider that point, but it has nothing to do with my Committee. We did not do anything that we should not have done. Front-Bench Opposition Members who are distinguished members of that Committee can confirm that we are innocent. I wish briefly to outline some general principles and to comment particularly on two of the principal matters dealt with in the Procedure Committee's reports which are before us tonight. It seems to me that there are certain general questions which hon. Members on both sides of the House need to ask themselves when considering the principle and practicality of these or any other changes to our present procedures. First, will they in practice mean a more efficient scrutiny of legislation by the House? Secondly, do they respect the rights of the Opposition to probe the Government's proposals and advocate alternatives? Thirdly, can they be implemented without making unreasonable demands on the time and energies of Back Benchers? Fourthly, do they still permit a Government to "get their business" in an acceptable way? In other words, the proposals should not lay themselves open to exploitation designed to disrupt the normal proceedings of the House. Of course, a balance between these questions may need to be struck, but I believe that Members will wish to be assured that any changes in procedure will provide satisfactory answers to them.
Against that background, I turn, first, to the Committee's revised proposals for the timetabling of Government Bills in Standing Committee ; and, secondly, to the proposals for major changes in the procedures for dealing with delegated legislation, and, in particular, prayers.
On timetabling, if I may remind the House, the Committee's main recommendation is that each Standing Committee should have its own Business Sub-Committee. After six sittings of the Standing Committee, the Business Sub-Committee would report to it, in the absence of "satisfactory understandings", its proposals on the date by which the Bill concerned should be reported to the House, the number of sittings required and, if appropriate, the