HC Deb 30 March 1926 vol 193 cc1991-2006

STANDING ORDER No. 18 (Order in, Debate).

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I beg to move, in paragraph (2), line 2, after the word "occasion," to insert the words shall continue until the fifth day, and on the second occasion until the twentieth clay on which the House shall sit after the day on which he was suspended, but on any subsequent occasion until the House shall resolve that the suspension of such Member do terminate. I will be as brief as I can, but I am afraid that it is necessary to give a word or two of explanation to the House. In the first place, I should like to say that no Resolution of this kind is moved by the Prime Minister in his capacity as Prime Minister. It is moved by him in his capacity as Leader of the House of Commons. Such an alteration in the Standing Orders should be made by general agreement of all parties in the House. Matters of conduct of the House should be judged, not from a party point of view, but from the point of view of the general amenity of the whole House, and whatever sanction lies behind the introduction of any penalty should be the general sanction exercised by the whole House, and not exercised by the utilisation of a majority. It may be the fact that a general agreement has always been considered desirable in these matters that has led to the Standing Order having bee n left unamended for nearly a quarter of a century.

It is common knowledge — at least, I hope it is — to the House that from the time of 1880, when the Rule as to a penalty was inflicted, until 1902, that is to say for a period of 22 years, the terms of penalty were a week's suspension for the first occasion, a suspension of a fortnight for the second, and of a month for the third or any subsequent offence. In 1902, Mr. Balfour, as he then wake who was leading the House, made certain proposals upon which it is unnecessary to dwell, but those proposals led to rather protracted discussions, which were continued on no less than three occasions. As it became obvious that there would be great difficulty in securing agreement, and probably owing to the fact that even in those spacious days there was not unlimited Parliamentary time for the discussion of these matters, the Government withdrew their Motion. From 1902 until the present day, as the House is aware, there has been no fixed period in the Standing Orders for the suspension of any Member, and the matter is left to the decision of the House. That is to say it is left to the decision of the Leader of the House for the time being, who takes whatever means are in his power to ascertain the general opinion of the Members in the House.

I have, as has been my duty, been in consultation both with Mr. Speaker, in view of his position and of his long membership of the House, and the Leaders of the other parties, and after a certain amount of discussion we are agreed that it would be a fair proposition to recommend to' the Rouse for their acceptance a penalty of a week for the first offence, and, instead of a fortnight, a month for the second. I may say that in practice I cannot remember a second instance occurring within the same Session. We have worded the Resolution by Parliamentary days for this reason. that there has sometimes appeared to us to be a risk of a certain irresponsible ebullience on the eve of the holidays. whereby a Member might be suspended, and under the Rule of a week or a fortnight or whatever his punishment might be, he might work the days out in the holidays. We felt there was an element of unfairness in that. If a Member is suspended, the time of his absence from the House should be during a period when the House is sitting and not in the holidays. Therefore we have said five Parliamentary days, which is equivalent to a week. It must be a week when the House is sitting. In the same way, for the second offence, we have said 20 Parliamentary days, which is the equivalent of a month when the House is sitting. I do not think myself the House need contemplate a third offence. If there should ever, unhappily, arise such an occasion, I think the House would know how to deal with it, and the words I have inserted here, though they were not agreed upon at the meeting to which I have referred, have given effect to what was in our minds. We felt that a third offence might fairly be left, to be covered by the existing practice, that is to say, suspension should be during the pleasure of the House. But as I was responsible for the wording of the Resolution on the Paper, I consulted the authorities of the House, and they were clearly of opinion that it would be better that words should be put, in making that quite clear, so that every Member, in voting for the Resolution or against it, would know exactly for what he was voting. There is nothing new in the wording. It merely puts it in words on the Paper, and therefore the words, if carried, will appear in the Standing Orders as a declaration of what is the existing practice.

I will just say this—and I want to say no more—that individual views in the different parties may legitimately differ. Some may think that the first punishment is too little—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"]; some may think that the second punishment is too much, and some may think it is too little; but I have put down here what, having regard to the precedents in the House, and having regard to what I believe will command the largest body of opinion, are the terms which, I believe will meet generally the views of the House. Let me repeat before I sit down what I said when I first rose, that it is essential in making an alteration of this kind that it should command general assent. I should be extremely reluctant, myself, to divide the House upon this matter, and, for myself, I would far rather leave things as they are, unsatisfactory as that is in the peculiar responsibility it throws upon the Leader of the House, than that I would have an alteration in these terms carried merely by a majority of the House. In my view, the terms should command a general assent, which general assent gives the necessary sanction that we require. I commend this Resolution to the House, and I hope very much that, with or without discussion, as may seem fit to them, they may feel themselves able to approve of it.


I rise to associate myself in a sentence, with the Motion the Leader of the House has just moved. We have all felt the inconvenience of an incomplete Rule. The criminal law has not been finished, and I think hon. Members on all sides will agree that the sooner it is finished the better. The attempt that has been made, as the Prime Minister, as Leader of the House has truly said, is not a party decision at all. We are acting to-night as House of Commons men, and not as Conservatives or as Liberals or as Labour men. There is one thing the Prime Minister left perhaps a little indefinite—not by any intention of his, but he omitted it—and that is to make it perfectly clear that this Rule, like all other Rules, holds good for a Session—that the suspension terminates with the Session, and does not run from one Session into another. in view of the third provision that has been added, T think it is necessary that that should he made quite clear. As far as the first sentence is concerned, five days, and the second, 20 days, it is all right; but when the third is left indeterminate, it is necessary to remove any apprehension that that might last for a whole Parliament if the House of Commons so felt. I think the Leader of the House quite agrees with me on that point. Personally, I rather regret, as he said, that it was necessary to put in a third section at all. I would like to feel, and I am sure everybody in the House would too, that a third offence of this kind is such an absolute impossibility, and so very remote, that. the House need not take it into contemplation. I do say that if it were left without any mention, then, obviously, Mr. Speaker would have power to suspend a third time if the necessity arose, and no provision being made. for a Member being suspended a third time, the House would [have to decide when his suspension would have to terminate. But the wise heads that sit at the Table advised that that was impossible, and as far as I am concerned, I agree, and I accept the third provision. I think this Amendment, taken as a whole, is a complete scheme, and I hope this proposal will be accepted by every Member of the House, not by a majority, but with unanimity.


I entirely concur with the general tenor of what has been said by the two right hon. Gentlemen who have spoken from opposite benches. I very well recollect the occasion, now nearly 25 years ago, when this rule which is now proposed to be completed was proposed to the House. The difficulty and division of opinion on that occasion was as to the period of the suspension, and in the interval you, Mr. Speaker, and your predecessor in the Chair have had to administer the proceedings of the House and give definite instructions as to suspension. It has been the custom that when any hon. Member who may have been temporarily, suspended from taking part in the proceedings of the House had made an expression of regret for the conduct which had led to his suspension and had expressed his intention of conforming to the rules and customs which govern the proceedings of this House, the Leader of the House has risen at an early date to propose that that Member should be received back again to take part in our proceedings.

I think that that method of proceeding has, on the whole, worked fairly well, but during this whole period of over 20 years it has been felt by successive Leaders of the House that too great a responsibility has been placed upon their shoulders in this regard, and every Leader of the House has complained to the House that this Rule ought to be completed, and that he ought to be relieved of the responsibility of determining when he should propose the Resolution terminating the suspension and terminating the punishment of any Member of this House. I venture to think, as one having some experience in these matters, that this Amendment is really more convenient to Leaders of the House, past, present and prospective, than it is to the House itself, and I, for one, should be well satisfied, as a Parliament man, to leave things as they stand; but I am not rising to-night to criticise meticulously the Amendments now proposed. I would, however, suggest to the House that there is something omitted, that it will be advisable that we should take into account our experience during the last 20 years, and that it should be required of any Member, when his period of suspension is terminated, that he should express regret for the fault which has led to his suspension, and his intention in future of conforming to the Rules, Standing Orders and customs which govern our proceedings.

In an Assembly such as this, those of us who have sat here for a number of years will recognise that it is absolutely necessary that we should conform to all the general Rules, customs and procedure of the House, and on all occasions, whether we agree or not, though we may state respectfully and in proper form to th3 House our objection, we should submit to the rulings of the Chair and conform to the general consensus of opinion of the House which governs our proceedings. It would be impossible, either at the present time or in the future to conduct our proceedings in an orderly and regular manner unless hon. Members do so conform. There is no subservience required; it is morely a corporate feeling that we, as Members of a great Assembly, should agree that we will submit, even though we may disagree on matters of procedure, to the general consensus of opinion. I suggest that it would be a mistake to drop and abandon the requirement which has prevailed for the last 20 years, that hon. Members, after their suspension, should, on being received back, express regret and make some apology to the Chair.


In the regrettable absence of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), I desire to associate myself and my friends with the alteration in the Standing Order which the Prime Minister has commended to the House. The large attendance of Members at this late hour shows the keen interest which hon. Members take in their own procedure. Having, in earlier days, seen this Standing Order applied to some of my own friends, I think the alteration which the Prime Minister commends to the House meets with our approval, and we cordially associate ourselves with it.


The Prime Minister, as he always does, has made it extremely difficult for anyone to differ from him, especially on this side of the House. I should like to support what has been said by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton). Personally, I think that any Member who has been suspended ought not to be allowed to resume his service in this House without having expressed his regret to you, Mr. Speaker. I hold, as I believe many Members in this House hold, that an insult to you, Sir, is an insult to all the Members of the House, and the least the Member can do is to apologise before he comes back. That may not be possible under the Resolution. But the point I should like to clear up is some difficulty I feel in exactly understanding what the right hon. Gentleman opposite said in following the Prime Minister. I understand the Resolution has been altered to five Parliamentary days, so that. if a. Member is suspended the day before the Session ends he would have to pay the extra four days ha the new Session. He would have to pay the five Parliamentary days, and not get over the suspension by the fact that the Session had come to an end. By what I understood from the right hon. Gentleman opposite, if the Session come to an end, that wipes out the whole of the penalty. That seems to me entirely different from what the Prime Minister said. If that is not so, I should very-much like to move an Amendment that the suspension be for 10 days, because I think five days is not sufficient, but anyhow, if the five days are going to operate, they must at least operate in the new Session if the old Session had not lasted long enough for the Member to pay the five days for which he has been condemned. I should like the point to be cleared up before we come to a decision. There is a further point that if a Member is suspended from his duties in the House, he should also be deprived of his emoluments.


As a Member of the Labour party, brought up in the Irish party, I feel very keen regret that there should be any idea of penalising a Member of the House for trying to express independent opinions on subjects upon which he may have very strong feeling. That is what it means. No one wishes to insult the Speaker. I have been insulted myself, and I have apologised. No one objects to anyone who has done wrong being treated as disorderly, but what we want to know is what this means in reality. A man may come into the House representing an opinion not represented here yet. He may break the Rules, and he only begins to know the Rules by breaking them. I have broken most of them. I have been suspended five times, and I have apologised. My apologies have been worse than my offences. I therefore want to know exactly what it means. This punishment is going to be inflicted upon a Member who commits an offence against the Rules of the House. Most of us do not know them. Even those who are standing up for them to-night. could not tell what they are. Someone shouts out "Order!" and you do not know whom the order comes from. Really the punishment is too great for the offence. To-night an hon. Member opposite said the Minister was lying. He said it in polite language, because they were brought up differently from us. He was not suspended. The Prime Minister and others were sitting on the Front Bench, and did not raise a question about it. I will undertake to say if I had said the same thing, I should have been suspended immediately. I want to know exactly what these penalties mean. The hon. and gallant Member for Bass and Burton [Interruption.] I mention Bass because I drink it.


Will the hon. Member address himself to the subject? We cannot allow this sort of thing to go on.


The hon. and gallant Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton) told us that he would like to compel us to apologise. Nobody has made more bitter attacks upon the Government when their action does not suit. him than the hon. and gallant Member. Why cannot he be compelled to apologise? He has never been compelled to apologise. Let us go on as we are; the time may come when a Labour Government will be in a majority, and hon. Members opposite who are now so anxious to impose penalties may find themselves in the cart. I want to give them the same liberty to express their opinions which I want for myself. If they say or do things that are not right, let them stand by the consequences. I admire Mr. Speaker as much as anyone. He has been so kind to me. Let him have the opportunity of giving judgment, and when he allows us to come back, we will come back with due humility. I do not agree with the idea of imposing penalties, as though we were criminals in the dock, because on a certain occasion, in the excitement of the moment, we have said something which somebody does not like. In that case we are not treated as Members of Parliament; we ought to be convicts at Pentonville.


I do not propose to amuse the House as the hon. Member for Silvertown (Mr. J. Jones) has done. In anything that I say I trust that I shall not disturb the good temper of the House which the Prime Minister was so anxious to invoke; but I do regard this question as one of very great importance. I have not so far been suspended, but I am not always altogether pleased with the orders that I get from my superiors, and I have sympathy with the man who, perhaps with a little less self-control than I have been fortunate enough to acquire, may land himself in such a position that he gets suspended. If a man is suspended for defying the Chair owing to lack of self-control or to some fit of excitement at the time, he is the kind of man who will be glad to say that he is sorry for what he has done, and to apologise. If, on the other hand, a Member who has suffered penalty of suspension for defying the Chair absolutely declines to apologise, I am inclined to think that is a case where more severe punishment should be given. My own view about it is that the period is not a matter of importance at all, or whether it is the first suspension or the second or the third or anything else, but that the main question is, What is the intention and temper of the hon. Member in question? I would like to see the hon. Member who is suspended admitted again within an hour, or before the close of that day's sitting, if only he expresses unreservedly his apology for what has happened. What I fear is that an hon. Member who has obstinately and intentionally defied the authority of the Chair, and defied this House as a whole, should be at. liberty merely to take a holiday for the days, perhaps get a certain advertisement for it, and come back again absolutely unrepentant.

I do not want to attempt to bring about any sharp division of feeling in the House, but when we are discussing a matter of this sort the point on which some of us feel very strongly ought to be emphasised. I would far rather see the unsatisfactory state of affairs in which we are now remain than have. an amendment of or addition to the Standing Orders under which such a liberty as I have referred to should be given, to come back without apology in five days. As things stand now, I agree, they are unsatisfactory, because a certain amount of responsibility is placed on the Leader of the House. But I do not think that that is very great. At any rate the Leader of the House would always be only too willing to move that a suspension should be removed directly a proper letter of apology was written. I say quite frankly that if a 14fember does not apologise, I have no sympathy with him, and. I do not think that the House has. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about his constituency"] We are discussing a very important matter, because it does affect a Member's constituency. Suspension is not a penalty for a free expression of opinion on any subject which could be debated. I suggest that if a Member defied the authority of the Chair and of the House, and continued to defy it in the country, his constituency should be as angry with him or as dissatisfied with him as is this House. I would almost say that if his constituents are not, then his constituents should suffer the penalty of not being represented for a certain time. At any rate, I hope that we shall not. be pressed to accept the exact Motion which the Prime Minister has moved. The feeling of a very large. section of the House is that a Member who is obstinate should not be readmitted automatically at the end of such a short space of time as five days, unless he be prepared to apologise.


I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, in line 1, to leave out the words "fifth day, and on the second occasion until the."

I agree with what has been said by my hon. Friend who has just spoken. The Leader of the Opposition truly said that this is entirely a matter for the House of Commons. I am sure that not a single Member of this House is moved by any party feeling or any personal feeling in this matter, but only by one consideration, and that is, what is the right and proper procedure for this House, having clue regard to the respect which the House ought to have in the country. I feel, with my hon. Friend who has just spoken, that if any hon. Member on these benches or on the opposite benches can decide deliberately to defy the Chair, knowing that he will be in a position to return to the House within the short space of five days, it will be a great temptation, especially to Members for certain constituencies. I suggest—if it is not possible to insert words which will give effect to the proposal already made no this side, to the effect that some expression of regret should first be received—that it would be, at least, some small measure of protection to the House if we omitted the five days' provision, and made 20 Parliamentary days' suspension the punishment of a first offence. That would be a good sound warning to any hon. Member who committed a breach of the Rules of the House, and thereafter he would be suspended in accordance with the existing Rule. I believe it to be necessary that we should not cultivate these "insurrections," if I may so call them—these defiances of the Chair. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide !"] Surely this is a matter which is worth a few moments' attention. The House should corns to a deliberate conclusion upon a question which has remained in suspense since 1902. Surely it is worth while to give careful consideration to the subject, and pay due respect to the serious manner in which the Prime Minister has placed it before the House. I invite the attention of hon. Members to the Amendment, which, if I am in order, I beg to move.


The Amendment is in Order. Does any hon. Member second it?


I beg to second the amendment to the proposed Amendment.

I am but an unexperienced Member of the House, and not so well acquainted with its Rules as some others, but I have learned one thing during my short membership. It is that absolute deference to the Rulings of the Chair is necessary if this Assembly is to be conducted in a business-like and decorous manner. I have witnessed the suspension of an hon. Member opposite who, obviously in a fit of temper, transgressed and went out like a gentleman on the Ruling of the Chair. I am sure every Member on this side of the House would have voted for his reinstatement within five minutes, to say nothing of five days. But to say that any hon. Member who defies the Chair and has to be suspended, shall be reinstated as a matter of course within five days without apology, is another matter. It is an insult to the traditions and Rules of the House to say that they may be infringed with such impunity. Many of us find it necessary occasionally to absent ourselves from the House for periods of five days without any offence.


I do not propose to take long on this occasion. I think if the hon. Member who spoke last either had been longer in the House or had been more fully aware of the history of this matter, he would not have spoken about the traditions and Rules of the House as he did. Let me remind the House of what is the position. From 1880 to 1902 there was a definite sentence. No question of apology was ever raised; it was neither asked nor given. A punishment was inflicted, the Member took his punishment, and came back. In 1902 it was proposed to lengthen those terms, and the question of an apology was first raised. Before the new periods could be inserted, it was moved to leave out the old ones, and that is why the Standing Order to-day has no terms at all. Then, when the House came to discuss the matter, there happened what probably will always Happen. There was such a divergence of opinion

that nothing was done, and it was on that exact question of the apology, which was raised by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Burton (Colonel Gretton) to-night, that the discussion proceeded at such lengths that, after two adjournments, nothing was done, and for 24 years it has been left in this condition.

I would only like to give my own views about an apology, hearing in mind that when this rule was first included in the Standing Orders and the term was put in, the question of an apology never entered into the. case. As a matter of theory, an apology is a very nice thing, but a compulsory apology to come hack is worthless. It is exactly like the imposition of the Test Act, which has been given up. If you give a definite sentence, and ask for an apology as well, you might as well expect a police court magistrate to ask for an apology from a man to whom he gives six weeks' hard labour. I am not, myself, trying—it is the last thing I should do—to force the House in any way to come to a decision. I merely recommend to them what I and the Leaders of the other parties think would be a fair solution of this difficulty. If the House is not ready for it, I make no complaint, and I will move to adjourn the Debate, hut I do not propose to include anything in the Standing Orders that is reached only by a Division in this House. Unless the House agree generally in the proposal that is put down here, I shall have great pleasure in moving the adjournment of the Debate.


Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the period in the Standing Order before 1902?


I read that out when I first got up. It was one week for the first and one fortnight for the second offence. We keep the week which was in the original Order, but we have increased the fortnight to a month. In the case of the third or any subsequent occasion, the term was a month, but at this time we say that the third occasion—and that carries with it subsequent occasions—will be at the will of the House.




Does not the five days automatically come to an end if the Session end?


If the Session end, certainly, because Prorogation kills everything.


Then what is the point of indicating that it is five Parliamentary days?


Because it runs over the Easter holidays, the Whitsuntide holidays, any other holidays, or a. week-end; but no power on earth can carry anything, either a Bill or a Resolution of that kind, through Prorogation.


I had not the slightest desire to do anything but fully explore this matter, and, in view of the discussion which has taken place, I have much pleasure in asking leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.

It being after Half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes before Twelve o'Clock.