HC Deb 22 November 1955 vol 546 cc1264-6

Considered in Committee [Progress, 16th November].

[Sir CHARLES MACANDREW in the Chair]

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

On a point of order. I rise to seek your guidance, Sir Charles, on a matter of some importance, a matter which we feel to be one of principle arising out of our discussions at the conclusion of the last sitting of this Committee.

You will recall, Sir Charles, that on that occasion, at a fairly early hour in the morning of 17th November, I rose and moved, "That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again." I have no intention now, of course, of going into the consequences which thereafter followed and which we discussed yesterday afternoon during the revival ceremony, but I am concerned with something which I could not raise yesterday because you were not in the Chair. That is the reasons you gave at one point during the proceedings for refusing my Motion.

If I may, I should like to remind you and the Committee of what you said. You said in response to a suggestion of mine: I am always willing to reconsider my attitude on anything, but I made my position perfectly clear on reporting Progress, and to my simple mind one does not report Progress until one has made some progress. We have made absolutely none, so far as the Committee stage is concerned, between the previous Motion to report Progress and the one which has just been moved. We had only dealt with the machinery, and we had made no progress. You also said, a little later: To my mind, no progress was made in the Committee."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th November, 1955; Vol. 546, c. 748–9.] I am sure you will appreciate that that is an important statement. I think it is also the first occasion on which a Chairman of Ways and Means has so interpreted the word "Progress." Therefore, if it were allowed to stand it would constitute a precedent and would in due course find its way into Erskine May. That being the case, I venture to put before you some reasons why we for our part, with great respect, do not feel that the reason you gave for refusing my Motion was an entirely satisfactory one.

I wish to make three statements to you, Sir Charles. In the first place, as we all know, if the Chairman refuses the Motion to report Progress in circumstances similar to those of last Thursday the Committee can find itself in rather serious difficulties. It could and would find itself in this difficulty if, in fact, it was the general desire of the Committee to adjourn the proceedings, as was the case last Thursday. There was then only one way out and that was by moving, "That the Chairman do leave the Chair forthwith," with consequences which from the Government point of view, must be described as at any rate tiresome.

The second point I would submit to you, Sir Charles, is that this interpretation could not possibly apply to the Motion to report Progress when we are moving out of Committee of Supply because, as you will agree, there are many occasions when no progress whatever is made. Indeed, when the business of Supply is taken purely formally it would obviously be absurd to say that you had refused the Motion in those circumstances on the ground that no progress had been made.

I would say with all humility, in the third place, that an interpretation of this kind is, in a sense, a threat to the Opposition, whatever party may be in opposition at the time. It does suggest, to my mind, that if the Chairman says he will not accept a Motion of this kind, and will not even allow it to be discussed unless progress has been made with legislation, he is really saying the Opposition must facilitate, to some extent, Government business before we can even discuss the possibility of an adjournment. I feel, therefore, for all these reasons that this interpretation is not one which should be allowed to stand.

May I add that I think we all fully understand the difficult circumstances in which you find yourself and in which Chairmen of Ways and Means find themselves from time to time after all-night sittings. I will not enter into the responsibility for that. I do not wish to elaborate that at the moment, but, as I say, I feel that this interpretation is not a satisfactory one. If I might venture to say so, I think that the Motion "That the Chairman do report Progress and ask leave to sit again" means to report Progress whether or not any progress has been made, as is the case when we are in Committee of Supply. I should certainly think that when no progress is made you can still report that no progress has been made. I know that the Standing Order provides against abuse of the rules of the House and I realise that that, perhaps, could be said to occur if any hon. Member did repeatedly seek to move that Motion at very short periods. That would be an abuse of the rules of the House.

For these reasons, and with great respect, I venture to ask you whether you would clarify your statement on that occasion. I feel that the Committee as a whole would be greatly indebted to you if you could do that.

Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)

Further to that point of order—

The Chairman

Perhaps I may answer one hon. Member at a time. I thank the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) for what he has said. I was not obliged to give my reasons for refusing to accept the Motion to report Progress on Thursday morning, but, in the circumstances of last Thursday, I did, in fact, volunteer one. On reflection, I feel that the reason which I gave—that no progress had been made—was not in itself an adequate one.

Mr. Gaitskell

I am sure that we are all very greatly obliged to you, Sir Charles, for that statement. I think that I can speak for all my hon. and right hon. Friends, and for the rest of the Committee, who may one day find themselves on this side, when I say that you have allayed our fears, and that therefore, in the circumstance, we can proceed with the business before the Committee.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Harry Crookshank)

May I associate myself, Sir Charles, with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell) in expressing our thanks to you for having given such a clear Ruling?