HC Deb 03 December 1928 vol 223 cc839-42

May I ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter which affects many Members of this House, that is to say affects their place in public Debate. I refer especially to the discussions for three days of last week on the Local Government Bill. That Bill, as you know, affects county councils, municipal corporations, charter boroughs, urban district councils, rural districts councils and boards of guardians all over the country. It fundamentally changes their status and functions. Yet no one of those groups of authorities had what one may call an adequate opportunity of putting its views in this House, and some of them had no opportunity whatever. Members who were prepared to put these points of view were shut out of the Debate. These councillors and guardians are devoted and unpaid servants of the public, and I would ask you whether means cannot be found to rearrange the machinery of Debate so that adequate chances may be given for the expression of their views on a great public matter of this sort? I put it to you that it is especially necessary that this should he done at this stage, because without the good will and co-operation of these great representative and unpaid bodies throughout the country the, new Measure cannot have the success that we wish it to have.

I hold in my hand a time-table of the three days Debate on the Bill. There were 37 speakers and their speeches occupied 20 hours. [Interruption.] I am making no accusation against or criticism of any Member. Of the 20 hours, Ministers, quite naturally, took four hours. The official Opposition took their share, and there were other outstanding speakers whom in any event the House would desire to hear. They took their portion. Outside those three categories one speaker occupied an hour and a half, another occupied 55 minutes, ten speakers occupied on an average over 40 minutes, and the list tapers down to one speech at the end, which occupied nine minutes. Some speakers may think that that speech ought to be put at the top of the list. No one, certainly not myself, would wish in any way to suggest that you, Mr. Speaker, should be limited in your unrestricted choice of speakers, and I think there would also be pretty general agreement in the House that there should be some such apportionment of time to Ministers and to the official Opposition and to authoritative and generally recognised Members of the House, as was the ease in last week's Debate.


Who are they?


That is not for me to say. Mr. Speaker has that to decide. He judges when a speaker is one whom the whole House wishes to hear. Taking last week's discussion, ten of the twenty hours would be allotted pretty much as they were to the three classes of speakers whom I have indicated, and there would remain 10 other hours for what I might call the rank and file of the party.


What party?


All parties. It is in regard to that remaining portion, probably one-half of the Debate, that I make this suggestion. Would it not be possible in regard to that half that, Ministers having had their portion and the official Opposition and Members whom you know the House would wish to hear having their portion, the remaining half should be allotted in a more equitable fashion. Would it not be possible to bring into force something in the nature of a voluntary ration? There are many Members of the House who would be glad of an opportunity of putting their case to the House bereft of all preludes and perorations and coming straight to the point in the space of 20 minutes, 15 minutes or even 10 minutes. Nothing would be lost and much would be gained by such an arrangement. If some such voluntary ration were the custom and formed the basis of the list from which you make your choice of speakers the second half of the ten hours would have been divided somewhat as follows: Ten Members would have spoken an average of 20 minutes, 10 an average of 15 minutes and 10 an average of 10 minutes; and in all therefore instead of 37 speakers there would have been 50. Those who took less than their ration would have left more time for others.

I put this suggestion forward with great diffidence. I have no personal grievance myself, as the list of speakers will show. I have no criticism to offer of other Members, and I do not ask for an answer to my question now; but I do suggest that this matter is well worthy of consideration so as to ascertain whether it is not possible to give an opportunity for all material aspects of an important question of this sort and all differences of experience and opinion to be put forward before a decision is taken. Otherwise we may risk losing the place of this House as a great deliberative assembly representative of the whole nation.


Before Mr. Speaker answers that very important question, may I ask him to consider also that the official Opposition took the view that sufficient time was not given to the spokesman of the Opposition? We would be delighted if the Government would give adequate consideration to the representation made now by one of their own Members.


I am very much obliged to the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Hurd) for having brought this question to my notice and through me to the notice of the House, but I think, from the very nature of his question, he will see the difficulties which surround the whole problem. This question is one that has been often asked in the House before, and has often been raised in debate, and I can but give exactly the same answer as has been given on previous occasions by my predecessors—that I really have no power in the matter at all. I sometimes wish I could limit the speeches of hon. Members; at the same time, I very often—perhaps rather oftener—feel glad that for various reasons I cannot do so. The real solution rests with hon. Members themselves. If, especially in debates on big Bills like the one which is now before the House, hon. Members would try to compress their speeches into the narrowest possible limits, then by that means and by that means only can a larger number of Members have the opportunity of addressing the House.