HC Deb 21 May 1940 vol 361 cc27-32
Mr. Lees-Smith

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you have considered the question of the occupation of the Front Opposition Bench, and whether you have any statement to make?

Mr. Levy

Before you answer that question, Mr. Speaker, may I ask for your guidance as to whether right hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite are now recognised as the Official Opposition?

Mr. Speaker

With regard to the question put by the right hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Lees-Smith), the custom of the House is described in Erskine May, page 176, as follows: The Front Bench on the Opposition side, though other Members occasionally sit there, is reserved for leading Members of the Opposition who have served in the offices of State. The qualifications thus appear to be twofold, being leading Members of the Opposition, and being ex-Ministers. The present circumstances are, as far as I know, unprecedented. It cannot be said that there is now an Opposition in Parliament in the hitherto accepted meaning of the words; namely, a party in Opposition to the Government from which an alternative Government could be formed. The principal, if not the only qualification which remains is that of being an ex-Minister. To meet these unprecedented circumstances, it is necessary to make some change in the usual custom, and I think the arrangement which would most nearly conform to the custom of the House, which I read just now, and having regard to the fact that there is no Opposition in the terms which I have described, would be that any ex-Minister outside the present Government, that is, an ex-Minister of any party, should be, if he chose, entitled to sit on the Front Opposition Bench. It will be noted, in the passage which I quoted from May as regards the Front Opposition Bench, that other Members occasionally sit there. In recent years it has been the practice of the Opposition to invite a few prominent back-benchers to sit on the Front Opposition Bench, and I see no objection to that practice being continued as regards those who have already been invited to fill those positions. As I understand these choices and Members have been settled for the Session only, they can from time to time be reconsidered.

Sir Stafford Cripps

May I ask whether you are prepared to give the House any guidance as to how the functions of the Opposition in such matters as the selection of Supply Days are to be carried out under existing circumstances?

Dr. Haden Guest

On that point, may I ask whether it is not a fact that the custom of the Opposition choosing Supply Days arose in 1896, and that it was then a matter of convenience in order that Supply might be chosen if convenient to the Government; and is it not important that that right should be maintained, so that Supply could be chosen by those who are not Members of, or in close affiliation with, the actual Government of the day, merely as a matter of getting an adequate and proper Debate?

Mr. Speaker

The selection of Supply Days has been arranged through what are called "the usual channels," which means that the different parties approach the Whips of the Government of the day and inform them of the particular subjects which they would like to discuss. Formerly that was confined to what was called the Official Opposition. Since there has been more than one Opposition—that is to say, the Liberal Opposition—they have been conceded a privilege in the selection of Supply Days and have had some choice in the matter of Supply Days. It is not a matter for me to decide, but for the House to decide as to how it should work the system under the new arrangements. I would much prefer not to give any definite Ruling on the matter to-day. I would prefer to give the matter further consideration and to see how the new system works, and then we can discuss it.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of the fact that the Labour party still remain the second largest party in the House, may I submit that the right to call for Supply should remain as heretofore, namely, in their hands, conceding whatever rights were thought to be desirable by the House to the third largest party in the House, namely, the Liberal party?

Sir H. Williams

What about the largest party?

Mr. Maxton

And what about the smallest?

Mr. Shinwell

May I make the further submission that, for the purposes of conducting the Business of the House harmoniously, all Members of the House collaborating with the Government in the prosecution of the war, it is desirable to make as few changes as possible, in spite of the constitutional objections?

Sir P. Hannon

May I ask you, Sir, whether you are satisfied that the usual channels are now constituted? Will you indicate to the House that these are in existence, and that in arrangements between the parties in the House the usual channels are an operative part of our proceedings?

Mr. Speaker

As I have already said with regard to the selection of Supply Days, I would much prefer not to give any definite Ruling until things have settled down. I would much prefer to see how the new system works, and then the question can be raised.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether your attention has been drawn to the fact that at the commencement of this sitting, before Prayers, a number of tickets were placed on the Front Opposition Bench; whether that is not contrary to precedent, and whether, pending any further arrangement being made, in view of the fact that a number of ex-Ministers of the Crown may desire to sit on that bench, you will issue instructions to the effect that no tickets should be placed on the Front Opposition Bench?

Mr. Speaker

I think the Ruling which I have already given will have the effect desired by the hon. Member.

Mr. Maxton

I had some difficulty, Mr. Speaker, in following your answer, because of noises in the House. Do I understand your Ruling to be that the Front Bench above the Gangway is to be occupied by ex-Ministers of all parties and that you will regard that collection of men as the official Opposition?

Mr. Speaker

I am sorry if I did not make myself heard by the hon. Member, but in the Ruling which I gave, I particularly remarked that in my opinion there was no Opposition in the hitherto accepted meaning in the House at the present moment, either on the Front Opposition Bench or anywhere else.

Mr. Burke

Is it not childish that at this time the House should be wasting time in discussing a matter of this kind?

Mr. Maxton

It may be that, in the minds of hon. Members who are endeavouring to be in the Government and out of it at the same time, this is a waste of time. To me, it appears that we are now making vital decisions. If as you say, Mr. Speaker, the Opposition is to be abolished, then we are on the Reichstag level at once. The Opposition are those who are in opposition to the major policies of the Government. I did not want to discuss this question across the Floor of the House. I recognise that that is not a convenient way of doing so. I understand that the Prime Minister in answer to an earlier question and you, Sir, also, expressed willingness to consider the best method of arranging the affairs of the House in this respect. I am very ready to accept that proposal but I am not to be bound by a Ruling of this description, which gives the strategic position of Opposition to anybody at all who may have been in a Government 50 years ago, and who may be 100 per cent. in agreement with the present Government's policy.

Sir W. Brass

In view of your Ruling, Sir, that there is no Official Opposition in this House now, and that ex-Ministers of all parties may sit on the Front Opposition Bench, and that, in addition, certain Members may be invited to sit on that bench—apparently only by the party opposite—may I ask whether it would not be right that invitations to occupy seats on the Front Opposition Bench should come from all parties in the House and not from the Labour party only? Then there would be on the Front Opposition Bench representatives of all parties.

Mr. Gallacher

I agree thoroughly with those who say that the present times are so serious for the people of this country that this House should not waste time, but in view of the statement that there is no alternative Government in this House, may I ask whether it is not the case that there is in this House at the present time an Opposition to this Government and to the policy of this Government? If that Opposition is to be allowed to grow in order that it may have an opportunity to change this Government and to replace it by a Government which will extricate the people from the tragedy now in front of them, is it not the case that that Opposition must be recognised?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member is not asking a question but making a speech.

Mr. Gallacher

My question is whether it is not necessary, if that Opposition is to grow as it is entitled to grow, that it should be recognised as being in opposition to the policy of the Government?

Mr. Speaker

I think the Ruling which I have already given is perfectly clear.

Mr. A. Bevan

Would it not be a real disaster if, at this time, there was any attempt to define a formal Opposition in this House? Let the Opposition disclose itself in the course of the conduct of the proceedings in this House, before you, Mr. Speaker, are asked to define that Opposition. It would be a disaster, I contend, if three or four people were defined now as the Opposition, when real opposition to the Government might in the course of the next few months disclose itself? This, I submit, is not a matter of Order at all. It is a matter of the constitution of the House of which the House itself is the master.

Mr. Denman

Is it not the case that during the last war a simple and logical solution of this difficulty was found when there was a mixed body sitting on the Government Front Bench and there was also a mixed body on the Front Opposition Bench?