HC Deb 03 April 1952 vol 498 cc1916-21

3.48 p.m.

Mrs. E. M. Braddock

On a point of order. Before we proceed with the Business for the day can I have your guidance and assistance in a certain matter, Mr. Speaker? I do not want to make any reference to the incident which took place in the House last Thursday morning. The reason I am asking for assistance and guidance is that I am very anxious not to have a recurrence of that kind of incident, because, if there were, it might be necessary for me to refuse to leave the Chamber, and I should hate to put the Serjeant at Arms in the difficult position of attempting to carry me out physically.

I raised a similar matter earlier—in the last Parliament but one. Can you tell me what is the position with reference to the method of catching your eye? Is it necessary for an hon. Member to intimate to you that he or she desires to speak? Is it then necessary for him or her continually to canvass you or your successors in the Chair for the purpose of deciding whether or not he or she is allowed to speak? Is a list prepared which is passed from you to your deputy and from him to his deputy and back again?

I want to draw your attention to the fact that on Wednesday I received a postcard from an hon. Member on the Government back benches which intimated that he was going to make reference to myself in the National Health Service Bill debate. I am wondering whether he knew, and, if so, how he knew, that he was to be called upon to speak in that debate. I looked at HANSARD carefully when I received it—because I was not here—and I found that at 6.34 p.m. on that day the hon. Member was called by you. How did he know he was to be called? Is there a special way of dealing with this matter, because if there is I think all hon. Members are entitled to know about it.

As you know, I sat through the whole of the debate on the textile industry. I saw people come into the House, be called, speak, and disappear and never appear again—and they had never appeared before. I sat and watched them. I watched the situation very carefully. I have read in HANSARD every word of what happened in the difficult situation in which I was put. I am not making any comment, because the public know what the position was and I believe that I was right. [HON. MEMBERS: "Order."] I am entitled to express an opinion. There is nobody in this country who can prevent me from saying what I want to say when I want to say it.

I am saying to you, Mr. Speaker, that the country as a whole has taken a point of view in this matter. A lot of hon. Members opposite came into the House when the Division was called. They knew nothing whatever about it, had no idea of what was happening, and voted as they were told.

I want to know what the position is, because I think it is a very serious situation if Members can intimate to other Members that they intend to refer to them in a debate which has not started. If there is a list, can we know? Can we know what we must do in order to be allowed to speak, because unless we do know there will be some very serious differences in the House and I am going to be part of them, and I am warning you in advance.

Sir Herbert Williams

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that my best speeches have never yet been delivered?

Mr. Speaker

The question put to me by the hon. Lady deserves a serious answer. The facts are these: the calling of Members when several rise to speak is in the discretion of the Chair. A custom has grown up, long before my time, that on set debates hon. Members on both sides who desire to speak have sent in their names to the Speaker saying that they desire to be called if there is time. That list, although sometimes of assistance to the Chair in indicating Members who are ready to speak, is by no means binding on the Chair, and for my part, though I receive names when they are sent in to me and I consider them, I never consider myself bound, in calling a Member, by the question of whether or not he or she has given me notice.

One of the considerations that I have in mind always is to try to give hon. Members who have hitherto not spoken, or who have spoken only on a few occasions, a chance of being heard if they so desire. As for the incident, which the hon. Lady mentioned, of the postcard from another hon. Member, it was, of course, quite wrong for that hon. Member to assume with any certainty that he might catch my eye.

Mrs. Braddock

He did.

Mr. Speaker

It is a courteous custom that if one Member intends to refer to another hon. Member in the course of debate, notice should be given, but that should always be given with the proviso, "if I manage to catch Mr. Speaker's eye," because there is no guarantee whatever that any Member, in these crowded debates, can be called.

Mrs. Braddock

Perhaps I might now be permitted to read the post-card, Mr. Speaker, so that you will see exactly why I am raising this matter and asking you how it was possible for the Member to know that he would be called in the debate. It is dated 26th March, and it says: Dear Mrs. Braddock, In case you want to be present on the National Health Service Bill, I intend to refer to your speech against Clause 1 of last year's Bill and your subsequent vote for it. Don't acknowledge. The card is signed.

It is the content of the post-card that I am concerned with. The hon. Member said that he intends to refer to me. [HON. MEMBERS: "Who?"] If hon. Members will look at HANSARD for Thursday, time 6.34 p.m., they will have no need to ask me the details.

Do I take it that in major debates—I am not talking about Committee stages—if a person desires to speak, he or she must notify you first? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am asking Mr. Speaker. Must they notify you first of all, and then continually canvass you to see whether they are to be called? Second, is it usual in the House for a Member whose constituency is repeatedly referred to in the course of a debate to be refused permission to speak during that debate?

Mr. Speaker

On the first point, there is very little I can add to what I have said. It is a coincidence that the hon. Member who gave the hon. Lady notice was called. I had, of course, no knowledge of that at all. As regards the wider question, it is not necessary, I repeat, for hon. Members to give their names in to the Chair. The custom has grown up long before my time. In some ways it is a convenience, but it does not bind the Chair in any way and I do not consider myself bound by it.

Mr. Frank Bowles

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give a little clearer direction: that an hon. Member who writes to you gets no priority whatever over a person who goes through the normal procedure of rising in his place? Will you give that assurance?

Mr. Speaker

I certainly will. I give no priority to hon. Members who write to me. I would go even a little further and say that, as a human being, and being mortal, I sometimes find myself prejudiced against Members who, in the course of a crowded debate, when I have to weigh up so many conflicting claims, pester me in the Chair. Although I try not to let it do so, I think that subconsciously it rather prejudices me against them.

Mr. Iain MacLeod

I am the hon. Member referred to, Mr. Speaker. I wrote three post-cards, one to the Leader of the Opposition, one to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) and one to the hon. Lady. I understand that if a Member intends to refer to other Members in a debate, that is the ordinary custom of the House. In view of the incident with which the hon. Lady was concerned, she will find front HANSARD that as she could not reply to me, I omitted all reference to her in my speech.

I had no knowledge whatever that I was to be called in the debate, or when, and I wrote giving to the two right hon. Gentlemen and to the hon. Lady the ordinary information that, I should have thought, was courteous from one Member of Parliament to another.

Mr. I. Mikardo

I wonder whether I can, with great respect, Mr. Speaker, ask you if you would find it convenient to go a little further than you did even in the extremely valuable reply which you made to my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles)? I am sure we all appreciate the very great difficulties which the Chair has in the selection of speakers, the very many factors which the Speaker has to take into account, and the difficulty of memory above all other things. But this practice, which, as you say, has grown up under your predecessors, seems—and I think this will be agreed by hon. Members on both sides of the House—to have certain reprehensible features about it, even though it may be a convenience.

I think, Sir, that you would find a general welcome in the House to an expression of view on your part that you would not receive such notes in advance of Members desiring to speak and that Members who send in their names would not have their names included on a list, even remotely for guidance, and that you would not receive any representations whatever except the representation which a Member makes when he rises in his place.

I am quite sure that if it were known that that was the general practice, one useful advantage would be that the average length of speeches would tend to be shorter, because Members would not prepare them several days in advance. That is something which might be useful. I put it to you, Sir, with respect, that if you were to say to the House, "Let us go back to the initial practice of no writing to the Chair—no nagging the Chair—but of Members getting up in their places," I am quite sure that the House would be with you.

Mr. Speaker

The House will, I hope, forgive me if I do not feel able straight away to make a breach of long-established custom which has been in use ever since I became a Member of the House, but I have great sympathy with the tenor and sense of what the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo), has said. I hope that this time has not been wasted if it has enabled hon. Members to have a sincere appreciation of the difficulties in which the Chair is often placed in discharging this task.

Mr. Archer Baldwin

Do you not think that it is of some assistance to you, Mr. Speaker, to have intimations from hon. Members who wish to speak? Then you have opportunity to ascertain how long it is since an hon. Member spoke before. Surely it is quite impossible for you to remember how long it is since an hon. Member spoke before.

Mr. Bevan

In view of the fact that you have twice referred to the long-established practice, Mr. Speaker, may I call attention to the fact that, for more than 10 years of my experience of the House, Mr. Speaker Fitzroy always refused to form a list and always refused to take names. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I certainly recollect that. It was much later that a list was started to be formed.

Sir Ian Fraser

Mr. Speaker will you bear in mind another experience and a very different recollection? I sat under Mr. Speaker Fitzroy for the whole of his time in the Chair and it was found convenient, as, I think, it may be found convenient, to Members of all ranks—

Mr. Julian Snow

And colour, no doubt.

Sir I. Fraser

I have in mind the rank of Privy Councillor. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is a status that gives special precedence in this House, and I do not question it. But, having regard to all the circumstances, I beg to remind you, Mr. Speaker, of my recollection that, under Mr. Speaker Fitzroy, it was possible to have a due and proper admixture of the spontaneous choice of the Chair of those who wished to speak and the Chair's consideration of such factors as whether an hon. Member had a special interest, whether he had been absent, whether he could not be here at the beginning of the debate but came in an hour or two later. All those are factors that are considered, and I, for my part, would beg of you to take into account all these various factors without tying yourself too strongly to the one system or the other.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman.