HC Deb 13 December 1955 vol 547 cc1011-4
Mr. Donnelly

On a point of order. May I seek your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter of which I have given you notice? It concerns the debate yesterday on the Middle East and the number of Privy Councillors who spoke in it. I hasten to add that I was not one of those who was disappointed through not catching your eye.

Yesterday, seven out of the first ten speakers were Privy Councillors, and there were nine altogether, and the House had the dubious advantage of 282 minutes of their wisdom. I am not making any criticism of you, and I am not accusing you of being a radio producer, nor am I making any criticism of any of the right hon. Gentlemen concerned. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I am not making individual criticisms. I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) said yesterday—that it is far better for our colleagues to wonder why we speak so little than to wonder why we speak too much.

The Lord Privy Seal, in the recent debate on the 14-day rule, referred to the House as the great forum of the nation and talked about the cut and thrust of debate and the bringing out of different points. This sort of situation makes nonsense of what he said.

I have looked through my edition of Erskine May and can find no absolutely definite rule about the calling of Privy Councillors. No doubt it has grown up as a custom. May I ask for your explanation of that, Mr. Speaker—whether it is a rule or a custom? Secondly, be it a rule or a custom, or whatever it is, what opportunities have hon. Members in all parts of the House to obtain a consideration of the practice, which affects hon. Members in all parts? The rules are made for our convenience and not us for their convenience.

Mr. Speaker

The custom to which I have referred and which I and my predecessors have followed is that a Privy Councillor and a maiden speaker—although they are not the same thing—have a preference if they rise and offer to speak. The hon. Member will find the practice as regards Privy Councillors set out in the Manual of Procedure, although I agree with him that it is not specifically referred to in Erskine May.

The custom has no doubt grown up. It has certainly been a custom as long as I can remember and I know that it was a custom long before I came into the House. It is founded on the belief that right hon. Gentlemen who have borne office and are normally experienced should be heard when they rise to speak. I am bound by the custom, but I should like to put that side as well, because, although I have sympathy with the case of the back bencher—indeed, I suffer with him on these occasions because I am not able to call as many Members as I should like—in fairness to the right hon. Gentlemen I feel that I ought to put that point of view forward. They are entitled, like other Members, to catch my eye when they rise.

As to the steps which can be taken, as long as the custom exists I am bound by it. I am bound by the practice of the House. The only way in which it could be altered as far as I can see is by a Motion to that effect carried by the House. If the House changed the rule I should be bound by the rule as changed.

Mr. Bellenger

As a Privy Councillor who purposely kept out of yesterday's debate because of the number of my hon. Friends who did want to speak, will you allow me, Mr. Speaker, to put a point? Is it not correct that even Privy Councillors are Members of this House? Even if there are so many of them sitting on back benches now and in competition with other private Members, on the whole do they not speak far less often than some of my hon. Friends who are not Privy Councillors? [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Well, Sir, the records can show that quite easily.

Mr. G. Thomas

It does not seem so.

Mr. Bellenger

Even if the House changed the custom, would it not still be within your discretion to call Members as you thought fit? Has it not always been the case that it has been the custom for those who are senior Members of this House, irrespective of their Privy Councillorship, to have some preference over newer Members?

Mr. Speaker

I have dealt with the question of the right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) in my original reply, and I do not think that there is anything which I need add to that.

Mr. Chetwynd

Does not the difficulty arise when more than one Privy Councillor wishes to speak in the same debate? Could we not appeal to them to exercise a self-denying ordinance, or could they conduct a private ballot among themselves to see which one could speak?

Mr. Speaker

I have no doubt that the hon. Member's remarks will have been heard. I should like to make it clear that when I spoke about right hon. Gentlemen on a previous occasion, I was referring to interventions at Question Time. That was not the subject matter which has been raised by the hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Donnelly) today. Different considerations apply. I should like the House to bear in mind that right hon. Members are Members of the House and have certain claims from experience and from having had responsibility.

Mr. S. Silverman

As a Member who is neither a Privy Councillor nor a maiden speaker, may I suggest to you, Sir, that the difficulty arises not so much at Question Time and not so much in the day-to-day business of the House, as on occasions such as yesterday when there is under debate a subject of great importance and of great interest and when a great number of hon. Members are anxious to be heard? Would it be possible in some way to limit the practice on these occasions so as to give you a greater discretion in the matter than that which, by the practice of the House, you at present enjoy? No one is suggesting that right hon. Members should have fewer rights than other Members. The complaint arises when there is so great a congestion of them on special occasions.

Mr. Speaker

I have said that the practice of the House binds me and I think that the practice can be changed only by Resolution. However, from my experience of the House, I have found that many of those difficulties which appear formidable can frequently be arranged by hon. Members and right hon. Members themselves, without the necessity of drastically altering the practice of the House.

Mr. Donnelly

May I thank you for that very courteous and full reply, Sir, and ask you to take account of the various points of view which have been put to you? Perhaps I can give notice of putting down a suitable Motion, which would be a suitable compromise in what is a very difficult thing.