HC Deb 04 April 1922 vol 152 cc2127-33

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £75,250, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1923, for Expenditure in respect of Houses of Parliament Buildings."—[Note: £40,000 has been voted on account.]

Commander BELLAIRS

I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £5.

I ought to explain the precise significance of this reduction. Last Session a, proposal was put forward that time recorders for speeches should be put up on each side of the House, so that any Member speaking might know how long he had been speaking, and any Member coming into the House would know exactly how long the speaker had been addressing the House. Mr. Speaker suggested that if the Office of Works were satisfied, a vote of the House could be taken on this matter. Tenders were invited from various firms, whose representatives were shown over the building while the House was not sitting, and these tenders were submitted to an unofficial Committee upstairs. We were satisfied that all the conditions which the Office of Works might lay down would be carried out by these firms. It would be unfair if I were to state the exact cost of any tender, but to satisfy the minds of Members who think it might be costly, I can say at once that it would be less than £100. The conditions which the Office of Works would wish to lay down, as I understand, were that all machinery should be below the Floor of the House, which could be easily attained, that no wiring should be in sight, and that the time recording apparatus should not mar in any way the harmony of this beautiful building. That is satisfied. There was an absolute guarantee from all firms that no wiring should be in sight, and that the actual time recorders on each side above the Gangway should correspond to the clock. The dial case would be the same, but the dial would merely indicate 60 minutes. The unofficial Committee which considered the matter upstairs were unanimously of opinion that everybody would know when a speaker was on his second round of 60 minutes. We have not to consider the third or fourth round, because the speeches nowadays are not like those Artemus Ward described in a Fourth of July oration as something which took four hours to pass a given point. But we are still considerably bothered with long speeches, reminding us of Pope's famous description of the Alexandrine line: That, like a wounded snake, drags its slow length along. 8.0 P.M.

My own view is that the effect of having a time recorder facing the speaker would be in the direction of making him abbreviate his remarks, and if he be unduly trespassing on the time of the House, then hon. Members, knowing how long he has taken, will exercise some of that gentle persuasion which we are in the habit of exercising when we say, "Divide, divide!" and so forth. I am sorry my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) is not in his place, because I understood that he was going to oppose, and I should like to hear his reasons for opposing. I was told that he thinks that it would exercise an intimidating effect upon new Members, and that that was the line he was going to take. I do not believe for one moment that that would be the case. I cannot imagine, for instance, the Recorder of the City of London, whom, I suppose, we must class as a new Member, being in the slightest degree intimidated by seeing the clock indicating to the nearest half minute the time he has taken for a speech. An hon. Member has just mentioned the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy). He, I believe, takes about 40 hours of the time of the House in a Session. I worked out the other day, though I do not know whether my calculation is accurate, that in a long Session there are, after you have deducted the time for questions, the time for points of Order, the interruptions by Black Rod, counts, and so forth, not more than 1,200 hours at the disposal of this House for debate. That means that there are not two hours for each Member, including those on the Front Benches, and the consequence is that any Member who unduly trespasses on the time of the House is really filching from others, and new Members, despairing of getting into the debates, gradually cease to attend them and go elsewhere. There is another effect. There are certain privileged Members, like my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London, who I believe opposes me, who are called upon almost always immediately they want to take part in the Debate, while other Members are thrown on to the dinner-hour. That is very much as though my right hon. Friend and those who are called upon in the early stages of the Debate were to take the asparagus of the Debate and were to hand other hon. Members the stalks to consume during the dinner-hour—a very hard fate which nobody appreciates. I am told the hon. and gallant Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Colonel Wedgwood) is another opponent. I am mentioning the opponents only because I receive nothing but encouragement from Members of the House generally on this point. The other day he was called upon at the end of a Debate on India, when only 15 minutes was left, and he refused, on behalf of the Labour party to take part in that Debate. The reason for this, according to a letter which the hon. and gallant Member wrote to the "Daily Herald," was that he could not possibly develop his argument in 15 minutes. His particular argument on that occasion was simply this—he wanted to make it clear that between the Prime Minister's blood and iron policy and the Labour policy there could be no possible agreement. Anybody who knows and admires the speeches of the hon. and gallant Member knows that in 15 minutes he could make clear the difference between blood and iron and milk and water. So I dismiss that point altogether. There is another point of view, and that is the point of view which Mr. Disraeli put forward after the Session of 1848, which lasted for 10 months. In 1850 various proposals were put forward, and I find that in the "Life of Lord George Bentinck" Mr. Disraeli in discussing them said: The good sense and the good taste of the House of Commons will be found on a whole to be the best regulators of the duration of a Debate. That forecast was not verified. As years went on, the House of Commons found it had to adopt the Closure. The Closure means that a great many speeches are never delivered at all, that we do to those speeches what Cromwell did to the House of Commons when he closed it up altogether. There are many speeches reposing in the archives of various Members of the House that have never been delivered at all. Perhaps they may be delivered on future occasions. In the old days debates were probably better attended. The amenities of the House were not so great then. I remember the day when we had only one smoking-room; now we have got many smoking-rooms, and Members can flock elsewhere from this chamber, and we ought to give them greater inducements to stay here, and I am certain that short speeches will tend in that direction. There is the position of Mr. Speaker himself to be considered. He cannot escape from the speeches. The amenities of debate for him instead of increasing have diminished.. It was in reference to one of his predecessors that the lines were written: Like sad Prometheus fastened to the rock, In vain he looks for pity to the clock. The only amenity which has come to Mr. Speaker has been what is called the "Speaker's Chop," which enables him to retire for dinner, and it is a custom which, I hope, will be conservatively adhered to, liberally interpreted, and eaten without labour. I think this proposal would give him a greater variety of speeches if it has the effect which I think it will have. The effect will be that the visible recorder will appeal to the conscience of the hon. Member who is speaking, and it will appeal to the reason and the justness of those who are his listeners. I venture to forecast that there will be a sensible diminution in the length of speeches, both on the front benches and on the back benches, and it is even more important to diminish those on the front benches than those on the back benches. These time recorders will be controlled by buttons placed either at the entrance or at the Table. If this system fails it will be a very simple process to pass a Standing Order arming the Speaker and the Chairman with powers at any stage of the Debate to limit speeches, and in that way to bring about a sensible curtailment of long speeches; but it is our English method never to try compulsion until we have tried a voluntary means; and it is as a voluntary aid to the reduction of long speeches that I make the proposal to put up time recorders of speeches above each of the Gangways, so that every hon. Member can see exactly how long he is taking.


I am sorry I cannot support the hon. Gentleman in the Amendment which he has moved. The best argument against his point—that it is possible to put a case in a quarter of an hour—is that it has taken him nearly 20 minutes to move his Amendment. I do not think time recorders would have any effect upon Members who make long speeches. As for the hon. Members and right hon. Members who make speeches of half an hour and three-quarters of an hour, nothing short of a sledge hammer would knock them down; the voice of conscience would have absolutely no effect at all. There are hon. Members who seem to think it is a vital factor for the country, and particularly for their own constituents—indeed, it is now becoming a matter of political propaganda—to see exactly how many square feet in the OFFICIAL REPORT they can cover. That seems to be a particular recommendation of them to the electors. I do not think a clock would make any difference at all to the time an hon. Member occupied in addressing the House. A much easier way of dealing with him would be to make a Rule, such as there is in all large Congresses, limiting a speaker to five minutes or 10 minutes or a quarter of an hour, or whatever time may be selected. If you would be effectual, the best thing would be to specify a certain time. I would not, however, recommend that to this House, and for this reason, that here we have men of experience whom we should not like to limit to a quarter of an hour; they are men of experience and speak with wide knowledge upon particular questions. At the same time there are other people, people perhaps like myself who, if they speak five minutes, speak about as much as they ought to. [HON. MEMBERS: "No, no!"] At any rate, I think the best test is the one suggested by a Tory Prime Minister, who made the test the good sense of this House. In large congresses, where you have a limitation of a quarter of an hour, if the congress does not wish to hear a man it will make that plain to him even inside the quarter of an hour, and as a rule he subsides. I sometimes think the House is rather too generous with the particular delinquents the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs) has in mind, and the best thing it can do is to show that good sense of which Mr. Disraeli spoke by expressing itself in no uncertain way. Members sometimes do so now, and I think that is far more effectual than a time recorder. In this matter I am expressing a view which is purely individual. It is not a matter of party outlook at all, and some of my colleagues on these benches will probably smite me hip and thigh for this view, but I am very pleased to have this opportunity of asserting it.


I very cordially support the proposal of the hon. and gallant Member for Maidstone (Commander Bellairs), not that I hope very much will come from it, but if we can make a demonstration of any kind in order to shorten the speeches made by some of the hon. Members and right hon. Members of this House, we will have taken a step in the best interests of the House itself. There are some Members of this House to whom I could listen for any length of time, and we know that when any Debate of importance takes place there are certain hon. Members and right hon. Members who have a prior claim to take part, but while we have a considerable number of live volcanoes in the House, we have also a considerable number of extinct volcanoes, and the latter still attempt to function, however thin the stream of their eloquence may be. I wish we had some system of limiting speeches in this House, and it is because I am in favour of anything that can be done in this direction that I intend to support the hon. Member in the proposal for time recorders he has just made to the House.


I hope we shall be able to carry out the hon. Member's suggestion. As a comparatively new Member of this House, I have been struck with the number of speeches that exceed 20 minutes, and I think time recorders would bring home to those who make them that other Members of the House want to speak as well.


I only desire to say—[HON. MEMBERS: "Divide, divide!"] I think I am entitled to some answer, for notice was given many months ago by my hon. and gallant Friend that he would move on this subject. I well recollect the day the hon. and gallant Gentleman raised this question—

It being a quarter-past Eight of the dock, further Proceeding was postponed, without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 4.