HC Deb 09 December 1943 vol 395 cc1244-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain McEwen.]

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

Yesterday I gave notice that I would raise this Question on the Adjournment. Fortunately to-day was vacant, and I got my chance, and I am taking advantage of it. In the House yesterday I asked the Prime Minister if he is aware that a Petition signed by over 4,090,000 electors for increases in the weekly amount to old age pensioners was presented to the House on 2nd November, 1943, by the hon. Member for Bridgeton; that this Petition has not been submitted to the Committee on Public Petitions for them to consider whether such Petition should have a hearing from the Bar of the Chamber; and will he consider making arrangements to have the Standing Orders on Public Petitions examined with a view to renewing the custom of allowing such petitioners to plead their case before the House? The Deputy Prime Minister did not give a satisfactory answer. He said: The Petition to which my hon. Friend refers was found, when examined, not to comply with the Rules of the House. In accordance with the usual practice it was, therefore, not submitted to the Committee on Public Petitions, whose function, I would remind my hon. Friend, is to classify and prepare abstracts of Petitions in whatever manner the Committee considers best suited to convey to the House all requisite information respecting their contents. With regard to the last part of the Question, I would refer my hon. Friend to what I said on 3rd November last arising out of the statement on Business."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th December, 1943; cols. 965–6, Vol. 395.] All this has arisen through a Petition presented on 2nd November by the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton). It was received by the House, and then one wondered what would happen. The petitioners asked that they should be heard at the Bar of this Chamber. On 3rd November the hon. Member for Shettleston (Mr. McGovern) asked permission to bring forward a Motion dealing with this matter. The whole thing got jumbled up then. The Deputy Prime Minister did not seem to understand what the House had to do in regard to Petitions; no one seemed to know exactly what to do. I happen to occupy a position on the Select Committee to deal with Petitions and I thought my best plan would be to wait a little while and see what happened. When we met about a fortnight later to deal with Petitions I was anticipating, seeing there had been some mistake before, that this might be submitted to us for an examination to find out what should be done with it. When we met one small matter was brought before us which had nothing to do with this question, and so I asked the Chairman whether any reference had been made by the House to the Select Committee in regard to the Petition presented by the old age pensioners. He said that so far as he knew nothing had been done.

Here we are with a Select Committee to deal with Petitions and with no satisfactory answer given to the House and nothing submitted to the Select Committee, and we wonder what is taking place. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to find out what is the position in regard to public Petitions. I have always understood that the public outside, if they were concerned deeply enough, and their Petitions were well founded and showed that public opinion was behind them, had some kind of redress on the Floor of this Chamber. I think many other people had the feeling that they could in special circumstances come to the Bar of the House to state their case. It appears that for some reason or other that is not allowed at the present time. The only thing of advantage that I have been able to get out of it is a particular word called "desuetude." It is interesting to know what it does mean. It is used; the Deputy Prime Minister made use of it. It means "fallen into disuse." One would have thought the word "disuse" would have met the situation, but it seems that we are using a mystifying word so that the House of Commons cannot know what to do. When a man like myself, who has not had the advantage of what is called a classical education, comes across a word like that he has to look at the dictionary. I went to the dictionary to find out what it meant and try to pronounce it properly. It means "fallen into disuse." So we get the idea now that because the presenting of Petitions has not been followed up for a long time the House of Commons—and when I say the House of Commons I mean the Government of the day—is taking advantage of the opportunity to say that because this right has not been used for a long time it is not prepared to renew it. That is all that I can imagine.

It is my intention to find out exactly what the Government do mean and if it should prove that the Government are trying to let this right lapse because it has not been used lately, but only in times gone by, then it will be for hon. Members to try to revive the right, so that the public may know that they can from time to time claim the attention of the House of Commons. In my view democracy means giving the people some opportunity of voicing their opinions from time to time. This particular Petition was signed by more than 4,000,000 people, electors. They signed forms, gathered them together, and came to the outer precincts of the Commons in the hope that they might get a chance of stating their case before us. Most hon. Members thought they had a right to do so. But it appears they cannot, and I want to find out why a big body of the electorate, with a genuine claim on our attention, with a case that nobody can refute, should not have the chance to put it before us. Is it because we are afraid to hear them, because we do not want their case brought to the light of day at the Bar of the House of Commons? It appears to me to be so.

In looking through the newspapers yesterday I learned that it was the anniversary of a great statesman of former days, Pym. The anniversary was being celebrated because he fought for the rights of the people. On that account he had enshrined himself in the hearts of the people. One of the things he fought for was the right of the people to state their case at the Bar of the House of Commons. Surely it is not for us in this House to forget the fight that he put up for the liberties of our people. If we do so we shall not be playing our part. I want the Government to recognise that if they wish to win the feelings of the people they must on all occasions give them the opportunity to state their opinions. We cannot drive great public thoughts underground. The best way to deal with these matters is to deal with them openly. Let people have the fullest opportunity to state their case. I believe that if we revive this old practice we shall not be hampered, as some people think, by constant Petitions. The people will only come before us asking us to listen to them when they have a genuine case. I think the Attorney-General is to reply, and I want him to tell us exactly what the legal position is. Will he tell us whether those rights have suffered because of the lapse of time and how we can re-establish them, or whether it was never the practice to have Petitions presented at the Bar of this House?

We were told by the Deputy Prime Minister that there were two mistakes made at the time the hon. Member for Bridgeton presented the Petition, from where he is sitting now. If that is so, the hon. Member should have been instructed as to the proper wording. It is not worthy of this Chamber to do this kind of thing. The petitioners should have been properly instructed, and the Petition could then have been drawn up properly, the two mistakes having been rectified, and an opportunity given to them to come to the Bar of the House and state their case. In bringing this matter forward, I believe I am doing a public service in clearing this whole matter up. If we have not the right for which I am asking, everybody will know what the position is, and the hon. Member for Bridgeton, his followers and myself can bring the matter forward again. We want to go to our people outside and assure them that when they have agitated for a reform and have brought the matter to the notice of their Members of Parliament, we do all we can for them.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

I have very considerable interest in this Petition. Since the presentation of it I have scanned each week the pink paper which intimates when Reports from the Select Committee on Petitions are in the Vote Office. One week I did find a Report from the Select Committee, but when I got it from the Vote Office I found it was some other Petition, which had been presented in a less obtrusive way than is available to Members who present Petitions. I took the very greatest care. These old people came to me and asked for my advice about the preparation of their Petition and the mode of presentation. I had had experience of petitioners coming up against technicalities, so I went to the Vote Office and got the paper that is available and which gives a list of the rules and regulations governing the presentation of Petitions. I studied it and advised the old people as to the steps they should take to bring their Petition properly in order, and I presented them with that paper to guide them in their arrangements. I went and consulted the best technical knowledge available to me in this House. I thought I had taken every conceivable precaution. I have now found, and only through the accident that an hon. Member who was active in the matter is a member of the Select Committee, that the Petition was ruled out of Order. I have had no intimation of that fact, and I learned it only through the fact that the hon. Member is a member of the Petitions Committee. I suppose he only found it out by asking for information.

The Petition was not ruled out of Order by the Select Committee on Petitions, but somewhere between this House and the Committee set up to handle this thing, somebody intervened and said, "This is not going to the place where the House intends Petitions to go." If there are technicalities that we do not understand, that sheet that is presented to us should be brought up to date and put into plain and simple language. There is no need to stick to the archaic language in the presentation of a Petition if the objective is reasonably clear, and there is no point in insisting upon handwriting when modern typewriting or printing is so much more efficient. I understand now that the subjects upon which citizens can petition are limited and that this particular subject was one that goes beyond the scope. I do not suppose that more than two or three Members of this House know that the limits that apply to a Private Member's Motion apply also to Petitions. It is entirely wrong, and I would like to see in some Statute or rule exactly how that is laid down. I could go on at very considerable length on this point, but I want to hear what the Attorney-General has to say.

The Attorney-General (Sir Donald Somervell)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) that he has performed a public service in raising this question, because it is very desirable that we should all know what we ourselves have laid down. I have in my hand the Order of the House with regard to public Petitions. It can be obtained from the Vote Office and sets the matter out quite clearly. The House may desire to alter it, but these are at present the instructions which the House has given to its officials, servants and Committees on this matter. I will read the two relevant provisions in respect to which the question has arisen over this Petition. The first states: Every Petition offered to be presented to the House of Commons must begin with the words 'To the Honourable Commons of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled' or with words equivalent thereto. On the back there is a form of Petition. One of the advantages of this Debate is that many other hon. Members as well as myself will have had this document brought to their attention. From the form on the back it should be easy for anyone who has this document before him. That is the position as to Petitions at present. Those are the Rules that the House has laid down. It can alter them, but till it alters them those are the Rules which have to be carried out.

The next point I ought to deal with is the function of the Committee of which my hon. Friend is a member. One of the questions which he asked the Deputy Prime Minister suggested that it was part of the function of that Committee to consider whether petitioners should be heard at the Bar of the House. Now, that is not so, as is clear from the terms of reference of that Committee. I will not read the whole of the terms of reference. I have before me the Official Report where it all appears and where my hon. Friend and others were appointed. Among the functions of the Committee are: to classify and prepare abstracts of the same in such form and manner as shall appear to them best suited to convey to the House all requisite information requesting their contents. and then the number of signatories and the number of addresses, and so on.

Mr. Tinker

My chief point was that the Petition did not arrive. It was not sent to us at all, and we did not know what happened to it.

The Attorney-General

I can only deal with one point at a time. I wanted first to make it quite clear that this Committee has nothing to do with the question as to whether petitioners should be heard at the Bar of the House. Why this particular Petition did not reach the Committee for classification and the making of an abstract was, as the Deputy Prime Minister said, because it did not conform with the Rules. The practice of this Committee and its Clerk has always been that if a Petition does not conform with the Rules which, are laid down by us in imperative mandatory terms it is not referred to the Committee, because it has not brought itself within what we have defined as the proper form and character of Petitions. That is the position.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

Who decides that?

The Attorney-General

The Clerk to the Committee.

Mr. Stephen

Does the Clerk not report to the Committee?

The Attorney-General

I am told that he told the President. The practice has been that it is a matter for the Clerk to the Committee to consider. I am only telling the House what has been the practice in these matters. It is one of the advantages of this discussion that if Members think that the practice should be altered, they can take it up in the proper quarter. The practice has been that if the Clerk is presented with a document which plainly does not conform with these Regulations—I have no doubt that if it was doubtful he would refer it—then it is not a Petition within the meaning of the terms of reference of this Committee.

Mr. Stephen

Surely the Clerk should intimate that to the hon. Member who introduced the Petition.

The Attorney-General

That may be, that is a point. I am simply stating what I understand has been the practice. Anyone concerned can consider it in the light of this.

Mr. Mathers (Linlithgow)

Should not that intimation have been made before the Petition was presented?

The Attorney-General

The other point I should have referred to, which is very important and which has been referred to by other Members, is this question about public money. This was referred to by the Deputy Prime Minister in his answer. He said that the second reason that it could not be referred was because it involved the expenditure of public money and the consent of the Crown had not been obtained. The first reason was that it was not addressed to the House. Members can go to the Vote Office and get the Order dealing with Petitions. This Order says that no Petition may be made for any grant of public money except with the consent of the Crown, that is to say, if a Member wants to present a Petition involving the expenditure of public money he must get the consent of the proper Minister; that is the Order, that is the Rule. I do not say that it is difficult to get such consent, but that is the Rule. That is another point. The question is that in this case the assent had not been obtained. I do not say it is difficult to get, but that is the step which any of us who wants to present a Petition involving the expenditure of public money must go through, and that was not done in this case.

In regard to the other point, the major point raised by the hon. Member for Leigh, I want to draw a distinction between a discussion on Petitions when they are presented and the question whether the petitioners may be heard at the Bar of the House. Under the Standing Orders, which have stood for a long time, except in the case of such Petitions complaining of a personal grievance, for which there is an urgent necessity for providing an immediate remedy, then the Speaker can give leave for a discussion, but except in that exceptional case, if a Petition is presented the Standing Orders provide that there shall be no discussion. Those are the Standing Orders. That was found convenient by our predecessors, and I should think will very likely be found convenient to-day. The other question, which is really a different question, but which also has very seldom been granted in recent times, is as to whether the petitioners should be heard at the Bar of the House. That is a matter for the House. It can give leave, but experience on the whole has shown that it is not a useful procedure, but that is entirely a matter for the House on any particular occasion.

Mr. Maxton

Has the House the right to express its opinion on that? On this occasion the House did not get a chance.

The Attorney-General

No doubt somebody could move that.

Mr. Maxton

On the spot?

The Attorney-General

That would be a matter for Mr. Speaker. The House can give leave. Whether you give them leave to be heard forthwith is a matter on which I cannot give an opinion. Maybe it would be a Motion that they be heard on a future occasion. I think the last case was when someone applied to be heard on behalf of the Legislative Council of Newfoundland, on a Bill affecting Newfoundland, and the House said that he could be heard, but on a later occasion, when the Bill was read a Second time. By that time the Government of Newfoundland had composed their differences with the Government here, so it was unnecessary for him to appear. But I think that on that occasion the leave was for a future date.

Mr. E. P. Smith (Ashford)

Can my right hon. Friend say what was the last occasion when anyone did appear at the Bar of the House with a Petition?

The Attorney-General

No. The date of the Newfoundland case—when he did not appear—was 1891. I cannot say how long it is since anyone appeared, but is is a long time—at any rate no one has appeared for 50 years.

Mr. Woodburn (Stirling and Clackmannan, Eastern)

The Standing Orders say, "if a Petition is presented to the House." Are we to understand from what the Attorney-General has said, that no Petition was presented to the House. If so, why was the hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) allowed to present something to this House which was not a Petition?

The Attorney-General

If you lay down rules, someone, of course, may present a document and put it forward, honestly and properly, as a Petition, but, according to the rules, you have to say that it is not a Petition.

Mr. Mathers

The same thing happened to me, when I was not allowed to present what was, at that time, the first Petition from the Scottish old age pensioners.

Mr. Woodburn

The point is that all Petitions other than the ones mentioned by the Attorney-General shall be presented to a Committee of this House.

The Attorney-General

If it does not comply with the rules, it is not a document with which the Committee can deal. My time is up; but we can rest satisfied that, on the merits of the question, although the Petition did not come through the normal channels, it has leaked out that it was presented. Indeed, I heard the Minister of Labour referring to it just now.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.