The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1979-1983 Parliament

Mr Major’s Intervention during Housing Bill Debate – 16 April 1980

Below is the text of Mr Major’s interventions during the Housing Bill debate held on 16th April 1980.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire) I am grateful for this early opportunity to bring myself to the attention of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I am sorry that when I have intervened during the Department of Environment Question Time, he has not noticed my interventions. Perhaps that rather faulty memory accounts for some of the matters that he has forgotten during the period of the previous Labour Government. None the less, I shall seek to bring myself to his attention many times during this Parliament.

During the next few moments I propose to adopt the novel concept of speaking to whether there should be a guillotine. There are two specific reasons why I am happy to vote for the Government motion. First, I believe that the Bill needs and deserves to become law at the earliest possible opportunity. Secondly, it is highly desirable that the remaining time available within the Government’s programme should be allocated in such a fashion as to ensure that there is reasoned discussion on all the important parts of the Bill that we have not reached. There are many important points to be discussed on leasehold and other matters, and a reasoned and moderate discussion may be achieved, because the timetable motion is likely to concentrate minds wonderfully.

I understand the view presented by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, and it will no doubt be echoed by his right hon. Friend for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). They do not like the Bill. They do not agree with the Bill, and they do not like the concept of the guillotine motion. But we have already debated the Bill for more than 100 hours, and there is more debate to come. It will be subject to scrutiny in the other place, and there is a two and a half day allocation for Report and Third Reading. That seems to be a sufficient allocation, even for a controversial Bill.

The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook blamed the Government for profoundly unreasonable behaviour in guillotining the Bill. I should like to draw to his attention the remarks of his right hon. Friend the Member for Durham, North-West (Mr. Armstrong) on the occasion of the guillotine of another serious and controversial Bill – the Education Bill in 1976. On that occasion the right hon. Gentleman said: To talk about curtailing discussion of a Bill on which we have already spent 100 hours is to stand logic on its head.” – [Official Report, 8 November 1976; Vol. 919, c. 53.] I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will consult his right hon. Friend later this evening to determine whether he accepts that as an accurate statement.

We had a frank discussion in Committee, and in the temporary – I hope – absence of the right hon. Member for Ardwick, I should like to say that the Committee stage was conducted in a reasonable manner most of the time.

I revert to the guillotine for a moment, since this is the subject under discussion. On the occasion of the guillotine in 1976, we had two guillotines for the price of one. On that occasion both measures were guillotined after a discussion lasting for one hour. There was a guillotine on the guillotine.

If the Opposition believe – as they frequently seem to suggest in Committee – that the Bill, and the intention to guillotine it, is a wicked unilateral act of devilment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, I am pleased to take this opportunity to disabuse them. The Bill was a prime election commitment, and my constituents cannot understand why it is not already on the statute book. In my area a fairly enlightened local authority is selling council houses and implementing a series of reasonable policies. That is not universally so. In many areas – almost exclusively controlled by Labour councils – council houses are not sold. However, that is not so in all cases. Some Labour councillors will sell houses, and several Labour councillors will buy council houses.

Mr. Frank Allaun The hon. Gentleman said that the policy of selling council houses was an election commitment by the Government. However, other electorates have committed their local authorities not to sell council houses. The hon. Gentleman said that for the most part Labour-controlled authorities were refusing to sell. He must know that a large number of Conservative-controlled councils informed Shelter that they did not want to be compelled to sell council houses.

Mr. Major This policy was stated clearly to the electorate, and the Government’s prime concern is to honour their election commitment. The circumstances were similar to those surrounding the Education Bill in 1976, when the hon. Member joined his colleagues in overriding the views of many Conservative-controlled education authorities. I suggest that a certain degree of consistency might be merited. During the election campaign we promised beyond a shred of doubt a statutory right to buy without delay, a tenants’ charter and shorthold provisions. We have now been in office for one year, and we have delayed long enough. We should now bring those promises to the statute book, and ensure that the rights that we promised people are available.

I know that the Opposition have claimed – and the right hon. Member for Ardwick will no doubt claim this passionately later – that we have made very good progress on the Bill and that we could complete it without a timetable motion. I agree that we have made relatively good progress. But it does not necessarily follow that I agree that we can complete the Bill within reasonable time to ensure that it becomes law before the summer without the timetable motion. Perhaps we can, but it is not certain.

In Committee, from time to time we reached especially contentious points. On such occasions the right hon. Gentleman turned loose his hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Mr. Roberts) and Lambeth, Central (Mr. Tilley), who have an infinite capacity to speak at moderate length on subjects well within the rules of order. On one occasion the hon. Member for Bootle was on his feet for 28 minutes making one speech – or, to be more precise, making one four-minute speech seven times during a 28-minute intervention. It occurred to me on that occasion – and I recall the thought now –that, as the French General Pierre Bosquet said at the battle of Balaclava: It is magnificent, but it is not war. Certainly the speech made by the hon. Member for Bootle on that occasion was entertaining, but it was not progress. We need to make progress desperately on the Bill to bring it into law at the earliest possible moment.

If there were to be no guillotine, if we were to accept the good will of the Opposition and to decide that no timetable motion was necessary, we would lay open ourselves to the possibility between now and the conclusion of proceedings on the Bill that at any stage the Opposition might suddenly discover something that they disliked to such an extent that they would seek disproportionate delay. The right hon. Member for Ardwick may shake his head, but that may happen. The right hon. Gentleman said in Committee that he had discovered areas in the Bill which were far worse than he imagined they could be. If that is so again, there may be some form of disproportionate delay which I should not wish to try to explain to my constituents.

The right hon. Member for Sparkbrook claimed that no time had been wasted in Committee and that there were very few indications of exceptionally long, single filibusters. That I accept without question. But time has been wasted in Committee that could have been spent discussing the Bill.

We have spent a substantial time in Committee – many hon. Members serving on the Committee are in the Chamber now and they know it – discussing not the provisions of the Bill, but the delights of Ardwick by day and by night and the horrors of Fort Ardwick. We have discussed the virtues of the Manchester city council at length. I should have thought that the virtues of Manchester city council would have been the subject of a very short debate, but apparently not. We discussed the rather curious habit of the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) of arresting his constituents as they go about their business. We also discussed the fact that the hon. Member for Bootle was unable to get a council house and was forced, poor chap, to go out and become an owner-occupier. [HON. MEMBERS: “Oh!”] We were all very sorry and sad about that. Entertaining it may have been, but it was not germane to discussion of the Bill, and in aggregate it amounted to a considerable degree of wasted time.

Mr. Straw Does the hon. Gentleman accept that, despite the occasional entertainment that we have provided to Conservative Members, who otherwise have been required to keep their mouths shut and their heads down in deference to the Whips, the Committee has made more progress than any other Committee on any major Bill since the election? Indeed, its progress has been twice the rate of any other Committee on a major Bill.

Mr. Major That is precisely because we have given Opposition Members so much time to speak, about which the hon. Gentleman was sarcastic. As another example of time-wasting, one had only to mention the word “landlord” in Committee to see a glazed look come over the faces of Opposition Members. Indeed, the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) is sitting there, looking entranced, again. I have mentioned the buzz word and a look of entranced enlightenment has come over him as he considers the wickedness of landlords. If the hon. Gentleman had been the commander of the walls of Jericho when they fell down, he would have blamed the landlord for poor maintenance, not himself. No doubt, as his right hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick would say, had they been under the care of Manchester city council, that could not possibly have occurred.

Mr. Frank Allaun Better than Ronan Point.

Mr. Major It may be better than Ronan Point. It may even be better than a number of other things as well. However, even the hon. Gentleman was somewhat puzzled when it occurred to him that a tenant might sublet. A tenant is, of course, very worthy, but if he sublets he becomes a landlord and not at all worthy. It was most painful to see Opposition Members struggling with their psyche during the period when they uncovered this.

Presiding over these delaying tactics with a benign and delightful expression on his face has been the right hon. Member for Ardwick. As a newcomer to the House, it has been a delight for me to observe the tactical manoeuvrings of the right hon. Gentleman. He has the most effective air of injured innocence that I have ever seen. He is perfectly able to crank himself into a position where he can be as thoroughly unhelpful as possible while stating that he is seeking to give every ounce of co-operation to the Committee. That has occurred throughout what I concede has been a most enjoyable Committee stage, but one, none the less, that I hope we shall see concluded by 1 May.

We have a clear mandate, a clear commitment, for the Bill. We have had long – perhaps already over-long – discussion on the Bill. There has been some time-wasting, albeit spread widely and not significant and locked together in a single block. I believe that there is considerable justification for this reasonable timetable motion to ensure that there is reasoned and balanced discussion within fixed time limits of the clauses that remain. I believe that the time has come when we can proceed on what will come to be looked at as one of the most remarkable social Bills that we have had for many years, and that it will give many people a freedom of opportunity that has not existed in the past. I trust that the timetable motion will be passed.

Mr. John Tilley (Lambeth, Central) I think that we are now hearing some of the qualities of knockabout humour that Conservative Members were not allowed to indulge in in Committee.

Mr. Major I promise to indulge in them after the timetable motion has been passed.