HC Deb 26 January 1944 vol 396 cc655-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County of Derby (Western Division), in the room of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Philip Hunloke, who, since his election for the said County, hath accepted the Office of Steward or Bailiff of His Majesty's Manor of Northstead, in the County of York."—[Mr. James Stuart.]

Sir Richard Acland

I do not intend to speak for more than three minutes, and I am not going to divide the House. I wish only to ask the Government Whips' office when they are going to learn political manners. This is the first day on which the public knows that this hon. and gallant Gentleman has applied for the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead and on this day the Writ is moved. I have been asking a number of Members of the House in the last ten minutes or so, whether they have heard of a similar occurrence in recent political history, and they have not. It is the universal practice that, when a Member desires to make such an application, the fact is made known to the public, and a week, a fortnight, perhaps three weeks will elapse before the Writ is moved. The practice has been departed from in this instance, with what results? In the difficulties of war it is not the leading Members of little tiny groups of independents who are embarrassed, it is the people of the constituencies who are embarrassed. That is the point. I am not asking for a privilege for the little organisation to which I belong. I am asking for ordinary treatment for 48,000 citizens. They are being treated as if they were the goods and chattels of the Hartington family. You can move the Writ now and have it to-day, but you are not going to get that seat.

Mr. G. Strauss

I should like to have some explanation of this proceeding. The hon. Baronet is quite right in saying that this is a departure from normal practice and it would seem that it is quite unfair to the public and to other Opposition parties who may want to put up candidates, to have this thing sprung on them, without enough time to organise, to choose a candidate or to run the election. Unless there is some explanation, this seems to me to be sharp political practice.

Mr. Tinker

We have a political truce but it seems to me that, unless we get some understanding about who is to give up, it is going to be a travesty. I think some explanation ought to be given in this case. Seats ought not to be given up lightly, to be handed over to a member of some big family and, unless we get some explanation, it makes it difficult for some of us to abide by the political truce, which I have done all I can to honour.

Mr. Thorne

I think all this is a lot of piffle. If I were to apply for the Chiltern Hundreds to-day, I should be only too glad if the Writ for a new Member for Plaistow were issued at once.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

I must support the hon. Member in saying that this is much ado about a quite normal practice. The hon. Baronet the Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland), at every moving of a Writ, begins the by-election campaign. He has done it to-day with an attack on the late Member and on the gentleman, who is, he supposes, to be the prospective candidate. What I have to say is that the practice we have followed, is perfectly normal. We did not ask this hon. and gallant Gentleman to give up his seat. He is on active service and he wrote to us and said he proposed to give it up. As is normally the case when an intimation of that kind comes, an announcement of the vacancy of the seat is made in the shortest possible time. I should never lend myself to anything that I thought was in the nature of sharp practice. On a previous occasion the hon. Baronet made a great to-do about not enough time being left for an election but the House afterwards saw from experience that there was ample time, and he, if no one else, ought to appreciate that. I simply ask the House not to support this method of fighting an Election beforehand in every case on the Floor of the House. I will undertake in every following case to consult carefully with the Parliamentary Secretary to make sure that there has been absolutely sufficient notice. I will go into it in every case, and I give the House a definite assurance that I will never ask for a Writ to be moved, unless I am satisfied that it is fair.

Mr. Silverman

Will the Leader of the House tell us what was the last occasion on which a Writ was moved on the same day as that on which the public had notice for the first time, that there was a prospective vacancy? That seems to me to be vital to the question of whether this is really what the right hon. Gentleman calls the ordinary practice. I have not been a Member of the House for anything like as long as he has. I have been here only eight years. I may be mistaken, but in that eight years I cannot think of any previous occasion on which a Writ was moved within half an hour of Members of the House knowing that any retirement was contemplated. I am told that it was in yesterday's papers, so my half-hour is a slight exaggeration, but I do not think my point is substantially affected by that. It is true that this is a constituency which appears to have been politically divided, in the past, into three approximately equal parts. [Interruption.] I am not supporting any candidate whom the hon. Baronet may have in mind. I do not like the political truce, but my party is committed to it, and what my party may decide to do on a certain occasion I do not know.

The party truce depends, surely, on this, that the party which held the seat before shall retain it on a vacancy. In most cases the party that held it before has held it with a substantial majority of the votes cast in the election. In this case that was not so. They held it by a minority vote. There were more people in the constituency against it than for it. I do not know whether that has any bearing on the political truce or not. It may be that hon. Members opposite are quite right; that it has no bearing on it and that under the political truce their party is still entitled to the seat, but there is something to be considered. When you move a Writ with this indecent haste, it is the quickest way to bring the truce to an end. There are two things that we ought to be told. One is, when last this was done in this way. The other is when did the hon. and gallant Gentleman apply for the Chiltern Hundreds? It is true that the newspapers had it yesterday, but when did he apply? How long have the usual channels known that this was coming? The practice in the past——

It being a quarter of an hour after the hour appointed for the Meeting of the House, the Motion for the new Writ lapsed, without Question put.

Mr. Driberg

On a point of Order. Will it be possible to have an extension of Question time, to make up for the time lost in this discussion?

Mr. Speaker

It has been laid down quite clearly that time which has been taken from Questions cannot be given back.

At the end of Questions——

Motion made, and Question proposed, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County of Derby (Western Division), in the room of Lieut.-Colonel Henry Philip Hunloke, who, since his election for the said County, hath accepted the office of Steward or Bailiff of His Majesty's Manor of Northstead, in the County of York."—[Mr. James Stuart.]

Mr. Bowles

On a point of Order. Did not the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House assure us that he would not do this again, without giving the House reasonable notice?

Mr. Eden

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by this statement. This is the same Writ.

Mr. Bowles

Is the right hon. Gentleman moving it again?

Mr. Eden

Yes, Sir, of course, it is being moved again. Perhaps my hon. Friend will let me explain exactly what the position is. I have looked into the precedent since we last discussed the matter and the practice we are following now is absolutely the normal one. It is, by long-established practice, the right of the party that holds the seat to move the Writ at the moment that the party thinks appropriate. That has been done over and over again. If it so happened that the hon. Member for Barnstaple (Sir R. Acland) or one of his supporters, for instance, were elevated in some way, the hon. Gentleman would be entitled, by long-established practice, with the help of his party's "usual channel," to move the Writ as and when he desired. Two days ago, these appointments were made in respect of two hon. Members of this House, the one just announced of the hon. and gallant Member for West Derbyshire (Lieut.-Col. Hunloke) and the other, of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Kennedy). I looked up the precedents—I have not had much time to go through them all—and I found, for instance, that in 1940, when the right hon. Gentleman who is now Minister of Supply was elected the time-table was precisely the same. I understand that the party opposite are proposing to move the Writ in respect of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy on the next Sitting Day. The practice as I say is normal. There are precedents for it and I can assure the House—which is what I am assuring my hon. Friend—that we shall be watchful. We realise the abnormal circumstances and we shall be watchful to see that we do not take any undue advantage to ourselves on that account. I have no more to say.

Mr. Silverman

I do not know why the Leader of the House drew a comparison between the two cases. He says these appointments were made two days ago, and that his side of the House is moving for the Writ in one case to-day, and that the other side of the House will move for the Writ in the other case on the next Sitting Day, and therefore, he argues the cases are alike. They are not alike at all. As far as the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Kennedy) is concerned, everybody has known the situation for two months. The constituency has known about it for two months, and it has been mentioned in the Press long ago. I do not disagree with what has been said about custom—the right of the Whips of the party to which the retiring Member belongs, to choose the moment when they will issue the Writ for the ensuing by-election. Of course, that is right, and it follows that they will move the Writ only when they are ready. Actually, I think nobody complains of that. The only complaint I have heard in the past is not that the Whips have been too hasty in moving the Writ, but that they have taken too long.

In this case they are moving it within 12 hours of the news of the vacancy being known. We must, therefore, assume that the Whips of the Conservative party are ready, because they would not have asked for their Writ to-day, unless they were. It is to be assumed that they have chosen their candidate and are ready to fight the by-election. When did they choose their candidate? Last night? I ask this because it was not until last night that anybody knew there was to be a vacancy. Therefore, I repeat the point I was trying to make earlier. When was it first known to those who had the privilege of deciding when this Writ would be issued, that this situation was developing? I feel certain that it could not have been last night. If they knew before and said nothing whatever about it, either to the constituency or to anybody else, but kept the whole thing secret until they were ready to act, and then sprang it at one and the same time as the first news of the impending vacancy—in that case they are taking a most unfair advantage, both of the electoral truce and the 50,000 electors in the constituency.

The right hon. Gentleman says this is the normal practice. I do not know. If it is the normal practice what, then, was it that he intimated earlier would never happen again? We must leave it until the OFFICIAL REPORT is published when we can all read it. But I think that what I am saying is in the recollection of every Member in the House. What was not to take place again was the making public of the vacancy, at one and the same time as the moving of the impending Writ. I do not think the Leader of the House knew anything about this matter before this morning. He has a great many other things to do, and I do not suppose he is in and out of the Central Office of the Conservative party every day worrying about by-elections. I think he was taken by surprise, and that is why he gave the undertaking to which I refer. I am surprised, after what has been said, that it was not considered better, on the other side, to refrain from moving the Writ again later in the day and to pay some regard to what has been said, so that people may exercise their rights constitutionally.

Mr. Stephen

I am somewhat uncertain about the statement made by the Leader of the House concerning the sitting Member's application for the Stewardship of Northstead. We have no official intimation that he has made that application and that, consequently, his resignation has been effected. In the case of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kirkcaldy (Mr. Kennedy) we were told that he was making application for the Chiltern Hundreds, but he did not, in fact, do so until two months afterwards. One of the difficulties that I see in this matter and, which I would like to have cleared up, is whether the resignation is quite effective. The hon. Member might, send a letter saying he had changed his mind and then his membership would still be valid. I submit that we should have a definite statement that there has been an acceptance by this Member of the office in question before the Motion by the right hon. Gentleman is put.

Mr. Speaker

When an hon. Member accepts the office of Steward or Bailiff, an official notification is sent to me, and such official notification has been sent to me in this case.

Mr. Maxton

Was the notification which was sent to you, Mr. Speaker, published for the information of all Members of the House? Since hearing, in the last 24 hours, of this very hurried arrangement, I, myself, have been looking in the House for some notice as to when this hon. and gallant Member for West Derbyshire (Lieutenant-Colonel Hunloke) had been appointed to the Chiltern Hundreds, but so far I have seen nothing.

Mr. Speaker

The appointment was published in the "London Gazette" and, I think, appeared two days ago.

Mr. Maxton

Am I to understand, then Mr. Speaker, that the receipt by you of the notification remains private to you, and is not recorded in the proceedings of the House?

Mr. Speaker

It is not recorded in the annals of the House; that is correct.

Mr. Gallacher

The Leader of the House said that, according to procedure, the party concerned in this matter had the right to come forward and decide on the moving of the Writ. I would like to ask whether if I happened to be elevated, I would have the right to nominate the Member who is to take my place?

Mr. Eden

The hon. Member could leave that request to me in his last will and testament.

Mr. Stokes

As neither the Leader of the House nor the Patronage Secretary apparently, intends to answer the reasonable question put by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Silverman) may I repeat it? Can the House be told how long the knowledge that this vacancy was to arise has been in the possession of the "usual channels" or the Patronage Secretary? I think the House feels that in this matter it has been treated in a very cavalier fashion.

Mr. Eden

I really cannot accept that suggestion. I gave a very full explanation. The information has been in the possession of the Whips' Office only a very few days. It is really the time-honoured privilege of a party to move its own Writs and I do not think anybody would wish to abandon that right—even the hon. Member may, some day, find that it has some significance for him—and I, certainly, do not propose to weaken it in any way. All that I did say to the House was that, realising the peculiar circumstances, the Government have, I think, a special responsibility—or those who move the Writ have—to see that they do not abuse the advantage they have. That is all I said, and by that I stand.

Question, That Mr. Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County of Derby (Western Division), in the room of Lieut.-Colonel Henry Philip Hunloke, who, since his election for the said County, hath accepted the office of Steward or Bailiff of His Majesty's Manor of Northstead, in the County of York, put, and agreed to.

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