HC Deb 08 March 1945 vol 408 cc2249-59

12.13 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That on and after the thirteenth day of March, nineteen hundred and forty-five the Order of this House (Sittings of the House) of 29th November, 1944, shall cease to have effect, and during the remainder of the present Session, until this House otherwise orders— (1) Standing Orders Nos. 1, 6, 7, 8 and 14 shall have effect as if, for any reference to a time mentioned in the first column of the following table there were substituted a reference to the time respectively mentioned in the second column of that table.

Time mentioned in Standing Orders. Time to be substituted.
2.45 p.m. 2.15 p.m.
3 p.m. 2.30 p.m.
3.45 p.m. 3.15 p.m.
7.30 p.m. 6.15 p.m.
9.30 p.m. 7.45 p.m.
10 p.m. 8.15 p.m.
11 p.m. 9.15 p.m.
11.30 p.m. 9.45 p.m.

(2) The following Order shall be substituted for Standing Order No. 2—

2. 'The House shall meet on Fridays at 11 a.m. for private business, petitions, orders of the day and notices of motion. Standing Order No. 1 (as amended by this or any other Order of this House) shall apply to the sittings on Fridays with the omission of paragraph (1) thereof and with the substitution of references to 4 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. for references to 9.15 p.m. and 9.45 p.m.'

(3) Standing Order No. 25 shall apply—

  1. (a) to sittings on days other than Fridays, with the substitution of references to half past seven and half past eight for the references to a quarter past eight and a quarter past nine; and
  2. (b) to sittings on Fridays, with the substitution of references to a quarter past one and a quarter past two for the references to a quarter past eight and quarter past nine."

I originally informed the House that the Government would propose a Motion providing that the House should meet at 2.30 p.m. and sit until 9.30 or 10 p.m. As a result of some previous discussion on the question of the hours of sitting, I understood, however, that some Members favoured meeting at 2 p.m. and rising at 9 or 9.30 p.m. Last Tuesday, as the House will perhaps remember, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. A. Greenwood) suggested as a compromise that we should met at 2.15 p.m. and sit until 9 or 9.30 p.m.

I have had the opportunity of consulting opinions in various quarters of the House, and hon. Members will notice from the Motion on the Order Paper that we now suggest the House should meet at 2.15 p.m. and sit until 9.15 or 9.45 p.m. This will mean that the length of the Parliamentary day will be exactly the same as now. Of course, this is a matter to be decided by the House. I hope it will not be necessary for us to go to a Division, but if we should the Government Whips would not be put on. The House knows all the arguments in favour of changing our hours of sitting and I do not propose to repeat them. On the contrary, I hope that the proposal now on the Order Paper will commend itself generally to the House, and that we shall be able to reach a decision without a long Debate.

12.16 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Greenwood (Wakefield)

We have had this matter under discussion on more occasions than one and I know there is a divergence of views about it. Those for whom I speak were prepared to agree to our sitting in the afternoon, though with some reluctance because of the difficulties of travel late in the evening. But I would not like it to be thought that I, or any of my hon. Friends, would wish to impede legislation that ought to come before this House, and it is clear that if we set up Standing Committees, we must re-arrange the Sittings of the House as a whole. Those of us who in past years had experience of Standing Committee work upstairs, know how a Minister in charge of a Bill could always get substantial progress by threatening the Members that the Committee would have to sit in the afternoon when the House itself was sitting. That brought many recalcitrant Members to heel. I have used that technique myself on occasions with considerable effect.

I put to my right hon. Friend on Tuesday the suggestion of making the hours of sitting from 2.15 p.m. to 9 p.m., with 9.30 for the end of the Adjournment Motion. I am glad to think that there has been a considerable element of agreement on that proposal, and that the original Motion has been taken off the Order Paper and a new one put on making the hours 2.15 to 9.15, with 9.45 for the end of the Adjournment Motion. I think the extra quarter of an hour between 9.30 and 9.45 will really be of substantial importance, because transport is not getting any easier, either for Members of this House or for the large staff of the House, whose conditions have also to be considered, because many of them have not merely to remain here while the House is sitting, but to stay on afterwards. Members can, if they like, creep away at any time, and nobody can say them nay—not even Chief Whips if they are determined; but the staff must remain, and 9.45 would mean that most people would have reasonable prospects of getting home.

I think the House will approve the idea of going back, more or less, to the old Friday hours of sitting. I could never see the justification for sitting longer on Friday in war-time than we used to do in peace-time, more especially in view of the conditions of railway travelling. I think that to end at 4 o'clock would enable a considerable number of Members who have to go to their homes or their constituencies at the week-ends to get home that evening, whereas the rising of the House at 5.30 did debar a large number from getting home that night.

I have pleaded hard for the fullest rights of Private Members in this House, and I hope—it is an expression of hope—that the half-hour for the Adjournment will be continued in peace-time, whatever time the House rises. I think we have to continue it in war-time in view of the pressure from Members on all sides for an opportunity to raise matters on the Adjournment. I should like to support what the Leader of the House said, because I do not feel there is need for any long Debate on the question now before us. I think we have arrived at what seems to be a fair compromise. Yesterday evening I let it be known to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that, so far as I was concerned, I was prepared to accept it, and I hope that without unnecessary delay, the House will enable us to proceed to the next Business.

12.21 p.m.

Mr. Buchanan (Glasgow, Gorbals)

With all due deference to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. A. Greenwood) I trust that it will not be taken as wrong if somebody else speaks as well as the two leaders, and if occasionally a back-bencher intervenes to look after his own welfare as well as the general welfare. I do not propose to divide against this Motion, although, if a Division were called, I should certainly vote against it. But I rise to enter my protest against what I regard as a wrong drift in our affairs. First, I object to this method of picking out the hours of sitting as a matter by itself. If we are to discuss the future arrangement of Business, there is not merely the question of hours to be discussed, but the whole range of Sittings from Monday to Friday. Let us look at the question as a whole, not picking out this isolated issue. I realise that many hon. Members have had little experience of Committee work. That is not their fault, because they have come into Parliament in the last five years. I understand that some 250 Members have entered this House since the war started. I often feel that more is made of the arguments about Committee work than is really warranted. I have sat on every kind of committee—local legislation Committees, Scottish Committees (and Committees dealing with English Bills, the lot—and I say frankly that only a small minority of Members serve on Committees.

It is nonsense to contend that Debates here would be better attended if there were a readjustment of the hours of Sittings. I would say to Members on this side who were here in pre-war days, as most of them were: "Carry your minds back to the period from round about 7 o'clock to 10 o'clock." There were empty benches, hardly a soul present, and then, occasionally, what I think were disgraceful scenes round about 11 o'clock, when the Government of the day wanted its majority and the white shirts entered the House to vote upon the issue though not having heard one word of the discussion. It has been said that Parliament is going back. I say frankly that in the last five years, curiously enough, Parliament has, in my view, risen in stature, and it has risen for two reasons. I never thought that in its conduct the House was bad, but I think the general conduct of the House in carrying out its work has improved out of all knowledge since I first became a Member. In the last five years attendance at the House is of a higher standard than prevailed in pre-war days—taking the Debates as a whole. Hon. Members attend and take an interest in what is being done.

I know that we shall go on with this experiment, I know the fetish about Committee work—although few attend the Committees—but I would point out that those who do attend the Committees will have to come here at half-past 10 in the morning and then go on with business in a House that sits till half-past 9, 10, 11 or 12 o'clock at night. In conditions like that, I say, Members will have cither to neglect the business at 11 o'clock in the morning or at 11 o'clock at night. Nobody can do both. I cannot say that I like the proposed change in hours. Before I came to the House the older Labour Members used to criticise the then hours of sitting, both from the platform and in the Press. The hours were foreign to their mode of life and conduct. I still take their view, and I should like us to go on with the present hours, but at the same time, I say that we shall be faced with issues which are much wider. Some hon. Members will argue that they have business to do and that their total income does not come from their membership of this House. I say to them, frankly, that Members will in the future have to make a choice when they come here between attending to their own business, and the business of the House. I cannot see us avoiding that issue. My view may be wrong but I think the issue will come sooner or later. With the great increase in Parliamentary work that choice will have to be made.

while I allow this experiment to go on I cannot be taken as being altogether a consenting party, because I do not look with favour on our going back to the times when we did business at 12 o'clock at night, with Members having sat in the smoking-room for a great part of the time. Was it an edifying spectacle, or uplifting? That is where we are drifting. Last night we sat until after 9. On the first Sitting Day next week, if we are to do our business properly, we shall be sitting until at least 11 o'clock, and with the Committee work in the morning that will mean working from 11 to 11. I do not think that is good. A Committee might be set up to examine the problems of the hours of sitting. I would abolish the Friday Sittings. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) used to crack jokes about our Friday Sittings. I would abolish the Friday Sittings now and let Friday be devoted to the Committee work of the House. Make Committees meet that day and devote that day to Committee work. That is my outlook on the position. I do not propose to divide against the Motion but to let the matter go.

12.29 p.m.

Sir Ernest Shepperson (Leominster)

While I agree with the proposals in the Motion before us, I rise on behalf of certain of my fellow Members who, like myself, are immobile, to appeal to the Minister of War Transport to consider whether it is possible for arrangements to be made when the Sittings end at 9.30, for us to be conveyed short distances to our homes. At 9.30, when it is dark, it is absolutely impossible to obtain conveyances to take one for even a short distance. Taxis are not there. I have asked many taxi-drivers the reason, and some say it is on account of the shortage of petrol, others that there is a lack of spare parts, and others say there is a larger community now using taxis owing to increased spending-power among the people. I would respectfully suggest that two taxis or two cars should be made available to Members of this House between the hours of 9 and 10 p.m.—to those Members who are immobile. For the last two or three years, during which I have attended this House and we have risen round about 6 o'clock, I have never had the opportunity of going to a theatre, a cinema or any entertainment, because of the impossibility of obtaining transport. I accept that as the penalty for being immobile, but I do make an appeal to the Minister of Transport to do something for those of us who are at this disadvantage now that there is to be an alteration in the hours of sitting.

12.32 p.m.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

I would like to put a query to the Leader of the House with regard to the Adjournment. At present, from 6 to 6.30 is the time for the Adjournment, but if other business takes up that period we are still allowed a full half-hour. I am wondering whether this new arrangement will alter that. I shall be satisfied if I am assured that at the conclusion of other business a full half-hour will still be given to the Adjournment.

Mr. Eden

indicated assent.

12.33 p.m.

Mr. Sloan (Ayrshire, South)

This Motion is another very substantial argument in favour of Home Rule for Scotland, because I should be surprised if one Scottish Member, if speaking honestly, is in favour of it. I wonder if the House knows the inconvenience to which Scottish Members would be put if this proposal were agreed to. Many of us live 400 miles from this House, which is certainly an inconvenience, and one which we ought not to be afflicted with, because we have the very decent city of Edinburgh; but we meet here. We have either to travel here the day before or over-night. We have always had to do it, but that is no reason why we should be called upon to do it still. It takes me 14 hours to get to this House. The changing of the hours does not make any difference at all: it only means that we arrive in London in the morning and have to waste three or four hours in the City. I feel that when people are giving their time to public business they should not be called upon to face such an inconvenience.

I cannot understand why people wish to work on a night-shift when they can work on a day-shift. In my collieries the great difficulty is to find men willing to work on night-shifts. We have had strikes on that score, but this House, evidently, prefers to work on a night-shift. As far as I have been able to ascertain, the hours of Sittings since the change was made have been very suitable to the Members of this House. It is true that they have not been suitable to those who work during the day before they come here, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) said, the time has arrived when people who give themselves to public business, such as is conducted in this House, should make their choice whether they devote the whole of their time to being Members of Parliament or are going to work in the City, as lawyers, or going to spend the forenoon as stockbrokers, etc., and then come here to play at legislation, because that is what it comes to in the end.

What is the position going to be on Fridays? The right hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Greenwood) thinks he has squeezed a great concession out of the Government by our adjourning at 4 o'clock on Fridays. If we adjourn at that hour, people travelling to Edinburgh will have to wait from 4 o'clock until 10.15 for a train. It needs little imagination to see what a tremendous loss of time that is to Members who would be at a loose end during those hours, and, if there is a Division called, I shall certainly go to the Lobby to vote against this Motion.

12.36 p.m.

Mr. A. Bevan (Ebbw Vale)

I support the Motion, and if I had had my way the change would have been made last year and not this year. But I suggest to the Leader of the House that if the hours on Fridays are to be curtailed, it would have to be very carefully decided what Business to allot to Fridays, because the Sittings would be very short indeed. Although it is true that a Friday is as much a day of business as any other day, it will be a very much curtailed day and I suggest that, in considering future Business for Fridays, regard should be had to the fact that if Government and Front Bench spokesmen take up most of the time, there will be very little left for the rest of us. As one of those who is a faithful attender on a Friday, I hope we shall not be given Business to discuss on that day which ought to be given more extended consideration on some other day.

12.37 p.m.

Mr. Edgar Granville (Eye)

I know that the House wishes to get on to the next Business, and I will content myself with asking what is to happen to the "count" during dinner-time. Under the present arrangement it is not possible to have a "count" during luncheon, and I would like to have it made clear that it will not be possible to take a "count" during luncheon on a Friday, and during the dinner period in the rest of the week.

12.38 p.m.

Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)

I do not think I can move an Amendment, but the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House is aware that if a Division takes place at 9.15—at present, at 6 o'clock—the half-hour Adjournment Debate is cut down by the time taken by the Division, which is a very serious matter from the point of view of Private Members' rights. For instance, in the Division last week, the Government had a majority of 413 to 0, and the result was that the Adjournment Debate was abandoned by the hon. Member who was proposing to raise a question. Nothing can be done about it now, but I hope the right hon. Gentleman will consider making a proposal to the House, which I am sure would be acceptable, to allow the half-hour to run from the time the Division is over.

12.39 p.m.

Dr. Haden Guest (Islington, North)

I support the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles), but in order to meet the important points put up by representatives from Scotland, could the Leader the House say anything about the possible development of air transport? There is no reason at all why Scottish Members should not come more rapidly to this country; and that applies also to Members from Northern Ireland and Northern England. This is a serious suggestion. I hope that air travel is going to replace those long and tedious railway journeys. Cannot some hope of this be held out to Members with constituencies in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Northern England?

12.40 p.m.

Mr. Eden

I would like to thank the House for the proposals made, and I think the feeling is that hon. Members would like to come to a decision now. One or two comments are necessary in answer to the points raised. I think it is clear that the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Sir E. Shepperson) is one which the House would like to consider. I would propose that my hon. Friend and his colleagues should have a word with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of War Transport and see what arrangements can be made.

Mr. Buchanan

I would like to point out that if we are to be here on Fridays until 9.30, our last train might be missed, and I am wondering whether any arrangement could be made in view of this.

Mr. Eden

It will be four o'clock on Fridays.

Mr. Buchanan

With the best will in the world, a man who wants to visit his division in Scotland has to go there some Fridays. It is impossible for a Scottish Member, under this new arrangement, to get to his division on a Friday unless some rearrangement is made.

Mr. Eden

I think the hon. Member will realise that that is a different request. I do not think we could cater for trains. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) made some reference to the possible effect of these changes on the attendance and work of the House. I hope he is wrong, but only experience will show us. We are not making any immutable arrangement now, and if it cannot be worked it will have to be re-examined. The point about our Parliament is that we are able to do these things. With regard to the other questions about Friday, we are really reverting to the old pre-war programme, which I think is generally convenient.

Mr. A. Bevan

But we did not have Public Business on a Friday.

Mr. Eden

We did sometimes, but I will bear the point in mind. I do not think there are any other points except the one regarding air transport. That seems to me to be more a post-war than a present-day arrangement. After the war I hope it will be possible for us all to have the advantage of it, even if we do not go to Scotland.

Mr. Woodburn (Clackmannan and Stirling, Eastern)

There is one hon. Member who must travel by air in order to get to his constituency in time, and I think it is most unfair that air travel is not regarded in the same way as railway travel, and that he is compelled to pay the extra fare out of his own packet.

Mr. Eden

That problem would arise whatever hours we sat. The question as to the half-hour Adjournment Debate does not arise particularly from the alteration of hours, and is a matter which will have to be considered apart from the question of what hours we sit.

Question put, and agreed to.

Ordered accordingly.