HC Deb 18 February 1919 vol 112 cc755-8

May I ask your assistance and guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter affecting the amenities and courtesies of the House in regard to the seats of Members? At a meeting of this Parliament, after consultations with you and consultation between various Members of the House, a kind of informal understanding was arrived at that those who are described as Independent Members of the House should occupy this particular bench [the front bench below the Gangway on the Opposition side of the House]. Personally, I willingly relinquished a claim that I had hoped to maintain to a seat which I gladly gave up to my gallant Friend the Member for Fairfield (Major Cohen). To-day, coming to this House at twelve o'clock, I observed that the seat now occupied by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras was vacant, and in my innocence I assumed that by the courtesy and amenities of the House it had been left vacant for me. Coming back to the House, having not left its precincts since half-past twelve, I found the card of my hon. Friend in the seat. I at once proceeded to make an elaborate search for him in all the precincts of the House. It was unsuccessful. I thereupon very gently removed his card to a seat lower down. I continued my search till half-past two to-day, with the assistance of all the attendants and waiters of the establishment, but I was unable to trace him. I came into the House at two thirty-five, to find he had put back his own card. I respectfully ask you, Sir, to give the House some indication as to what the decencies and amenities of the House are in this matter, and to lay down a sort of unwritten commandment that a Member shall not covet another Member's seat.


I am very sorry that the hon. Member for South Hackney should have lost his seat so soon. I hope he may soon be in a position to recover it. The general rule with regard to taking seats is, as I think most hon. Members are aware, that, the House being open at eight o'clock, any Member who puts a card in a seat which he desires to occupy, and if he attends at Prayer Time and puts a card in the slot, is entitled to that seat. The old presumption was that Members were in attendance within the precincts of the House during the interval, and perhaps it would be as well to retain that presumption, although we know that on many occasions it is not carried out in fact. But, in addition to that, I ought to point out that by the courtesies and amenities of the House, which have been in existence for a number of years, certain parties or groups have been recognised as occupying certain seats. For instance, the Nationalist party I have personally known for at least forty years to have occupied the third seat below the Gangway on the Opposition side. I do not say they are entitled to that seat, but I think the House generally recognises that, during the long period they have held it, there is a presumption that they ought to remain there. I also understand the right hon. Member for the Duncairn Division (Sir Edward Carson) and his friends, occupy the seat below the Gangway on the Government side. In the course of time, no doubt, there will be other groups formed, who, naturally, will take a particular place in the House. I understand the general sentiment and desire of the House to be that unofficial Members, unless they belong to one of these recognised groups, should not invade those particular places, but should leave them for the members of those groups. There is always at the beginning of any new Parliament a difficulty of this kind, and I have reason to believe hon. Members have met with it, but my experience is that in a very short time matters adjust themselves, and, with the usual courtesies hon. Members show to each other, no one can believe that in a few days or a few weeks the matter will not right itself.


Might I call your attention to the notice which appears on the top of the card— This card, signed and placed on a seat by a Member, will secure it for him on that day until he attends prayers, provided that he does not in the meantime quit the precincts of the House.


May I say that I have attended at early hours of the morning for the last seven or eight years, and the hon. Member is quite mistaken in regard to that particular card. It is usual to put on a seat a card of this kind which has no writing whatever upon it, and, therefore, it does not bind the Member who signs the card to be in the precincts of the House in the morning at all.


Would you Sir, kindly give a definite ruling as to whether or not the rule "as to remaining in the precincts of the House" must be abided by? [Hon. Members: "No."] I respectfully ask, Sir, whether you will give us a definite ruling as to whether that must be observed or not, as, if not, it puts those who are more scrupulous of that rule at an unfair disadvantage.


Might I, with all deference, venture to suggest that, perhaps, it would be for the general convenience of the House that the words "provided that he does not in the meantime quit the precincts of the House" be erased? Because the general practice is that if a Member puts his ticket here in the morning, he is considered to be at liberty to leave the House.


I think that, at all events for the present, we had better leave the matter where it is. The presumption is that a Member of the House is present. I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that hon. Members do not always remain within the precincts of the House. I think the hon. Member would be well advised to leave, the matter where it is. I will make what inquiries I can, and if I find there is a general desire to abolish the old presumption, I will take care to have the notification struck out in the card. But for the present I think the matter had better remain as it is.


May I ask whether it is irregular for an hon. Member to put down five or six cards for other hon. Members?


I do not think hon. Members ought to put the names of other hon. Members on cards for them.


In view of the fact that there is considerable accommodation for strong men on the Opposition Front Bench, might I respectfully recommend that the Member for South Hackney be made a Privy Councillor in order to enable him to sit there?