HC Deb 17 December 1948 vol 459 cc1616-28

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Follick (Loughborough)

I thank Mr. Speaker for having allowed me to change my subject. For special reasons, I was asked not to take the question of Spain on this Adjournment. I have therefore selected a subject which is meeting with the approval of the whole House. I have consulted a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House and I have not yet found one who disagrees with the proposal of a time limit to speeches. This time limit would, I suggest, apply not only to back benchers but also to Front Benchers. It will be generally admitted that the Foreign Affairs Debate last week was the most disgraceful performance seen in this House since the General Election. So many people wanted to speak but were unable to speak on account of the selfishness of other speakers who took so long over their speeches, that there was a general feeling of disappointment and frustration throughout the House—

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Richard Adams.]

Mr. Follick

As we are going at present we limit the number of speeches, but I propose to limit the length of speeches so as to have more speeches in the Debates. We are sent here by our boroughs and divisions to represent their ideas. If only a few people are selected to utter the views of the whole of this House, we are not getting truthful Debates but only a reflection of the opinions of a few.

I am going to read out the length of time taken by the various speakers on Thursday, 9th December, which was the first day of the Foreign Affairs Debate. I will not touch upon the two openers. The second Member to speak was the right hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. C. Davies) who took 22 minutes. That is very little time for him. His speeches are generally longer, but as he is the leader of a party we have to accept that at the moment. Next was the hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Zilliacus), who took 36 minutes. The hon. Member for Gateshead always takes a very long time. Not only that, but he always repeats the same speech. The semicolons may be different but the speeches are essentially the same. The curious part about it is that he always gets chosen to speak in foreign affairs Debates. He rarely comes here except in time for his speech and he goes out immediately afterwards.

The hon. Member for Cambridge University (Mr. Pickthorn) took 27 minutes. The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Mr. Cocks) took 45 minutes. It is true that he apologised for taking so long, but the apology did not wipe out the fact that his speech cut out two other speakers. The hon. Member for Lancaster (Mr. F. Maclean) took 21 minutes and the other speakers between 20 and 24 minutes. Taking these eight speakers they occupied 219 minutes. If that time had been devoted to speeches of 15 minutes in length it would have allowed 14 to join in the Debate instead of eight and 28 Members over the two days, instead of 16, working on that basis.

On the second day the speeches worked out in the same way, except for the curious fact that the hon. Member for Mile End (Mr. Piratin) took longer over his speech than did any of the others, excepting the right hon. Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill). Even the Minister in replying did not take so long as did the hon. Member for Mile End. Mr. Speaker tries to be as fair and impartial as he possibly can, and nobody in this House doubts his fairness, but dividing up the speakers into their various parties we find that the Communist Party get an inordinately bigger share of the speeches than does any other party in the House. On the first day of the foreign affairs Debate, cutting out the last speaker who was only put to stop-gap of eight minutes, there were four Labour speakers, three Conservative speakers and two Independent speakers. On the second day there were four Conservative speakers, four Labour speakers and one Communist speaker.

Taking the House as a whole that does not represent a true proportion of the Members. On the first day, the Independents had far too big a choice and on the second day, as I say, the Communists always get called. If these split parties could all be put together as independents that would divide up the House on a much better proportion.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Bowles)

I understood that the hon. Gentleman's subject was the length of speeches and not Mr. Speaker's selection. I think the hon. Member ought to be careful and he ought not to go too far.

Mr. Follick

What you say, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, is perfectly true, but I was going to relate this to the amount of time taken by the different speakers. If you object to that, I will not pursue it any further. If we could have this restriction of speeches to 15 minutes, not only shall we get more speakers, but we shall get a better reflection of the true opinion of the country. When we go into our divisions and meet our people they let us know their idea of what we ought to be representing in this House. If we get a very small number of people speaking, that means that only a small part of the country is represented in these Debates.

This limitation in the time of speaking is no new idea. In the South African Parliament they have a time limit, which is so rigid that even if a Member is in the middle of a sentence he has to sit down.

Lieut-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)

What is the time limit?

Mr. Follick

I believe about ten minutes, but I am not sure. In one State in Central America they have a system of lights which turn to one particular colour two minutes before a speaker is due to end and another one when he has to stop. In this House we have a limit to our Debates—the Ten o'Clock Rule—so that a Rule limiting times is not new to this House. In our party conferences we have a strict time limit and it works very fairly. If we introduce this idea, it is not going to be anything revolutionary or new and would improve the Debates all round.

Coming to the Front Benches, I have made inquiries from Ministers on this side and from those who were Ministers and who now sit on the Opposition Front Bench, so that I might get some reasonable idea of the amount of time necessary for those who open or close a Debate. Some suggested half an hour and some three-quarters of an hour. No one recommended more than three-quarters of an hour, though some thought half an hour was rather on the limited side. I can recall that when Lord Addison was in the House he said that he could make any of his opening speeches in 15 minutes. If the Front Bench, or, as is customary on the Opposition side, one of the back benchers was winding up and took only half an hour, allowing the same amount of time for the openers of the Debate, in a two-day Debate with speeches limited to 15 minutes there would be considerably more speakers and, therefore, a greater variety of opinion than we would get today. Not only should we get better results but speakers would get to their subjects much more quickly than they do now when there is no time limit. As I am arguing a time limitation for speakers, I have to be very careful not to overstep the mark myself.

Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite

The hon. Member is on the South African mark now.

Mr. Daines (East Ham, North)

The hon. Member has had 12 minutes already.

Mr. Follick

On the second day of the Foreign Affairs Debate recently the right hon. Member for Woodford took one hour and 11 minutes for his speech.

Mr. Vane (Westmorland)

He had something to say.

Mr. Follick

He always uses the most excellent language. To me, it is an intellectual enjoyment to listen to the right hon. Gentleman, but he is such an able speaker that he could do it just as well in half an hour. The greatest words he ever said, or is ever likely to say, did not take more than half a minute, and they are recorded in history. I refer to his speech in the days of the Battle of Britain when he used those memorable words. In winding up what I have to say—because I want to leave other hon. Members the chance to speak—I should like to mention that the greatest speech that has been made in the last 100 years, and which has affected the human race more than any other speech, did not take five minutes. That was Lincoln's speech at Gettysburg.

4.11 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Sir Walter Smiles (Down)

The time is now eleven minutes past four o'clock, and I have to be careful myself, but I remember a meeting which I attended in a Committee room upstairs on the subject of shorter speeches at which the man who introduced the subject spoke for so long that no other speaker got a chance. I understand that this suggested rule has been introduced already by the Scottish hon. Members as a sort of self-denying ordinance. They add up the number of Scottish hon. Members and divide that figure into the number of minutes, but, of course, no English Member dare interfere, unless he has a skeleton in the cupboard in the shape of a Scottish grandmother, or something else.

I have worked in India in the Legislative Assembly where this rule existed; I think it still exists under the new Constitution. A Front Bench speaker was allowed almost unlimited time, but rarely took more than half an hour. The back bencher had only 10 minutes, except in the Budget Debate. I found that that rule worked very satisfactorily. Speakers were warned about a minute or so before the time limit, and, generally speaking, we limited our speeches to 10 minutes. It is wonderful how quickly one can come to the point when one knows one has only 10 minutes. I suppose it is the most highly civilised nations who produce the longest speeches. We should think of the "Radio Doctor" and all that he gets into five minutes. I think that he has done more in five minutes to take away people's appetites for breakfast than anybody else could do in that short time.

Time is money, and Parliamentary time must cost a great deal of money. I am sure the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) can say that time is money in fourteen different languages, but I can only say it in one. A dentist in Calcutta was supposed to earn three rupees a minute, and when I attended him it was worth the money. Today, I believe that the highest earners are George Bernard Shaw and Betty Grable, although we approach their earnings from a different point of view, and I believe that they earn three times as much as the dentist in Calcutta.

I suggest that, between the hours of 7 and 8 p.m., when Mr. Speaker is very often away, and you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, may be acting in his place, a time-limit might then be imposed for six speeches of 10 minutes each. That would only be a slight innovation at present, and it would not curtail the time of the "big guns" though it would certainly give a chance for five or six more speakers. I have noticed, sometimes, that Mr. Speaker lifts a finger of his left hand, and, when he gets more impatient, sometimes raises his arm, but nobody has yet seen a full semaphore signal, and, if that happened, I think the hon. Gentleman who was speaking would never be called again by Mr. Speaker. In Gladstone's day, long tail coats and long speeches were the rule; today we believe in short coats and we should make short speeches.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Delargy (Manchester, Platting)

I have so much sympathy with what has been said by hon. Members who have preceded me that as an earnest of my good faith I will apply a rigid time limit to my own speech. I know Parliament is often decried as a "talking shop," but the very etymology of the word indicates that Parliament is a place for talking. It is better for us to talk about our differences than to bash one another on the head, as appears to be the custom in other countries. The purpose of this proposal, however, is not to decrease talking, but to increase the number of talkers, which, I think is all to the good. If a time limit were applied to speeches, two results would follow. There would then be fewer silent Members than at present. After all, there must be many wise colleagues whom we have the opportunity of hearing very seldom, possibly much to the detriment of our counsels.

Another result, I think, would be better speeches. The general level of Debate in this House is not nearly as high as it should be. The grammar, rhetoric and syntax are often appalling. Speeches are too long, prolix and drearily tautological. In the Manchester City council, of which I had the honour to be a member for several years, we had a 10-minute rule, which we found quite sufficient. I believe the period of a quarter of an hour is adequate for an hon. Member to express himself adequately, clearly, simply and, by way of a change, in good English.

4.17 p.m.

Lieut.-Commander Gurney Braithwaite (Holderness)

I entered the Chamber in the hope of hearing the hon. Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) discourse to us on the subject of Spain. I was not aware that he was going to raise this matter, but it is topical, and I think also important. I do not know whether we are to have a reply from the Government Front Bench, which at present is manned only by a representative of the "usual channels."

I had the privilege of congratulating the hon. Member for Balham and Tooting (Mr. R. Adams) on his maiden speech and I shall be glad to hear him again if he cares to intervene. The hon. Member for Loughborough has raised no new subject. All the time I have been in the House there have been complaints about the length of the speeches of some hon. Members who intervened in Debates, generally raised by frustrated back benchers supporting this or that Government. The trouble from which hon. Members opposite suffer is that they have such overwhelming numbers that they do not get the opportunities they would have if they sat on this side of the House, but probably that will be rectified in a very little time.

I disagree entirely with what the hon. Member for Loughborough told us in regard to Front Bench speeches. A Debate can be wound up in a quarter of an hour on some minor Bill, but if some great international problem or some major Bill is before us, one cannot impose any kind of time limit. When the hon. Member complains of the oratory of the Communist Party, which I enjoy no more than he, I would remind him that it is a fundamental tradition of this House to afford protection to minorities, however much we dislike them, and the protection of the Chair is always given.

I came to the House in circumstances very similar to those of the hon. Member, but I found that I could get called because my speech would not take more than 10 minutes. The Chair loves short speeches. Hon. Members who speak at length do not find the same opportunity as others when the Chair is calling on hon. Members to address the House. The Scottish Members, as my hon. Friend has told us, have applied in their own Debates a self-denying ordinance with very considerable success, and I am bound to say that, without any alteration of rules, these matters are largely in our own hands. A time limit brings great dissatisfaction. I well remember when the late Mr. Lloyd George was nearing the end of his life and he did not attend the House very often. He would come down and speak to us for an hour or an hour and a quarter. For my part, I always delighted to listen for that period of time. Our great figures should be heard, and heard at such length as they like to take.

The remedy is a simple one. What is the House really suffering from today in this matter? It is not the length of the individual speeches which have been made. It is the lack of time which the Government give for debating their important Bills. We had one day on the Licensing Bill—ridiculous. Twenty Members turned out for it. We are suffering, not from excessive oratory, but from a grossly overloaded Parliamentary programme. That is the difficulty. The late Lord Salisbury used to say—I know times were different then, but his remarks still hold good—that six months' legislation and six months' administration is the ideal form of government. We now sit for some nine months in the year, and Bills are rushed through with the Guillotine. I am sure the hon. Member for Loughborough does not complain of what is going on in the Standing Committee on the Iron and Steel Bill. There are no excessive speeches there. The Government have seen to it that there are none at all on most of the Clauses.

If hon. Members would address the House only when they really have something to say, how much better would it be. Who can complain of an hon. Member speaking for 40 minutes if it is the only speech he makes during the Session? Who can complain of an hon. Member addressing the House for half an hour three times in a Session? If we were to add up the total score of some hon. Members who address the House for ten minutes—and I may be one of them—we should find at the end of the Session that the time of the House which they had taken greatly exceeded that, for instance, of the hon. Member for Gateshead (Mr. Zilliacus), whose speeches I do not admire, but who does confine himself to foreign affairs. We do not have many foreign affairs Debates, and when he does speak for 40 minutes, he puts a point of view which is held by a minority of people, it is true, but which is none the less held in this country.

The hon. Member for Platting (Mr. Delargy) said that what we wanted were not necessarily shorter speeches but better and more grammatical speeches. The time is approaching when that will be the case. Some new Members of an entirely different complexion will come in, and the quality of the speeches will immediately rise.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. Richard Adams (Lord Commissioner of the Treasury)

I have been asked to reply. In view of the "end of term" atmosphere which prevails, I am sure that most Members will agree that it is not unfitting that a Member of the Whips' Department should break, his monastic silence for a few moments. If in doing so I am able to give a special pleasure to the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut. - Commander Braithwaite) I am sure we shall both enjoy our Christmas as a result of it. I am sure we are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Mr. Follick) for raising this matter today. I thought that he went rather far with his attacks upon those who took part in the last Foreign Affairs Debate, and when he apparently began to question Mr. Speaker's authority in the allocation of time.

Mr. Follick

I did not question Mr. Speaker's authority. I was going to analyse the whole thing to see how it had taken effect.

Mr. Adams

I can only say that that proposed analysis seemed to meet with the disapproval of the Deputy-Speaker, I must say, too, that his suggestion of a system of lights, while they might be rather colourful at this time of the year, would not normally be acceptable to the House as a whole. I noted that although the hon. Member claimed, perhaps rightly, that possibly the most famous speech of all time, the Gettysburg speech, occupied only five minutes, he himself took over 13 minutes to develop what was after all a somewhat simple point.

Taking the hon. Member's speech as a whole, developing as he did his attack upon other hon. Members and their speeches, I must say it was somewhat of a "pot and kettle" advocacy because I have listened to the hon. Member himself on many occasions, with some appreciation, but I would not for one moment suggest that he is always brief and to the point. For instance, I can remember on 15th April when I was here as a matter of duty for the Adjournment, I sat and listened for the whole 30 minutes of the Adjournment Debate to the hon. Member dilating upon the pleasures of a Caribbean journey. In fact, he was still proceeding very vigorously and full of fervour when your colleague, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, left the Chair and departed home for bed. I remember other occasions, too, when he has pleased the House with what one might call delightful little cameos interspersed in his speeches on more serious subjects. I remember an excellent little cameo dealing with oral hygiene in which the hon. Member told us of the advantage of using a rotating toothbrush. I recall, too, on another occasion he told us how it was possible to teach a Spaniard to speak English in three lessons.

Mr. Follick

That is not true.

Mr. Adams

Finally, I also recall one Foreign Affairs Debate when the hon. Member spoke very delightfully—and the whole House enjoyed him I am sure—and at some length on the fact that he had been able to have breakfast with a Spanish prince in Spain and had been able to nod to the Foreign Secretary at lunch time, before coming here in the afternoon to take part in the Debate.

I do not think the hon. Member was the best advocate for this particular topic, which is one on which I am sure most hon. Members will agree. There are, of course, some practical difficulties if we attempt to solve this problem by an official time limit. For instance, would one suggest that the time limit should be the same for an important Foreign Affairs Debate or a Budget Debate as in some Committee on a matter of no great importance? There would have to be, I think, different times for different occasions. I understand they have this time limit rule in New Zealand but the rule varies from one hour to five minutes according to the importance of the Debate.

Speaking from my own experience on a local authority before the war, where we had the five minute rule in force, I may say that it was applied by means of a sand hour-glass. If a member wanted to speak for more than five minutes on an important subject, he spent the whole of the first five minutes developing a more interesting but perhaps frivolous point in order to attract interest in the council so that when the five minutes were up they automatically gave permission for the member to continue. I hesitate to suggest that we should have an hour-glass of that sort in this House, so that as the sands began to run out, faster and faster would become the speed of the speaker until at last even the HANSARD reporters would be unable to take down what he was saying.

If a time limit were imposed I think too that hon. Members would tend to speak to the limit of the time available and I am not sure that we should save any considerable amount of time on the Debate as a whole. I think, as a matter of fact, the position is best summed up in the Third Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, published in October, 1946. Reporting on this idea of a time limit on page XIX they said: The idea found no support among Your Committee's witnesses. The Committee went on to say: While Your Committee consider that speeches should be as short as possible, they concur in the view expressed by Mr. Speaker that the influence of the Chair with the general support of the House is the only effective and practical check.' I think all hon. Members will agree that the idea behind the subject raised by the hon. Member for Loughborough is a good one, but that it should be achieved more by voluntary effort on the part of the Members concerned rather than that we should attempt to erect some crazy structure of official time limits.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-Nine Minutes past Four o'Clock, till Tuesday, 18th January, 1949, pursuant to the Resolution of the House yesterday.