HC Deb 31 July 1956 vol 557 cc1156-61
Mr. Gaitskell

May I ask the Lord Privy Seal whether he has any statement to make about the business for tomorrow?

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

Yes, Sir. I have a short statement to make. Tomorrow, Wednesday, at the request of the Opposition, the following subjects will be debated on the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill:

The situation in the Suez Canal.

The administration of the Seychelles.

The position of Seretse Khama.

As was announced to the House last night, we propose to take, after the business already announced for today, the Motion to set up a Select Committee on Procedure.

Mr. H. Morrison

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider it entirely satisfactory that the most important events in Egypt should have approximately only one-third of tomorrow's sitting? Is not this a matter of such vital importance that we ought to have a whole day's debate? Would it not be better either that the House should sit on Friday, so that we could devote Thursday to the subject or, possibly, that my right hon. Friends might consider postponing until later the debate on the Motion for today, which seems a little out of place in the light of the events last weekend?

Mr. Butler

I am sure that the House will agree that every consideration should be given to the point of view of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), but we have talked over these matters with the Opposition, and, after discussion through the usual channels, we consider that this is the best way to give ventilation to the subject of the Suez Canal. I think it will enable all that can properly be said at the present time to be said, and that, I think, is a consideration which we all ought to bear in mind in taking a responsible view of the situation.

Sir R. Boothby

Does my right hon. Friend realise that what he has said means that tomorrow's debate on the Suez Canal will, inevitably, be confined almost entirely to Privy Councillors on both sides of the House, and that it will be quite impossible for back benchers on both sides to have a chance to be heard if we have a debate lasting only two hours on this vital subject? I think that the House is being affronted in this matter.

Mr. Warbey

May I support the plea which has been made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) and the hon. Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir. R. Boothby)? It is quite clear that back bench Members will have no opportunity whatever of taking part in the debate. Either we have a debate or we do not; and if we are to have a debate, let us have a proper debate, in which everyone has a proper opportunity to participate.

Mr. Paget

Is not this subject exempted business, Mr. Speaker, and cannot the debate on Egypt continue as long as we wish? May we have an assurance that we shall not be switched to some other subject while hon. Members still want to discuss Suez?

Mr. Speaker

Tomorrow's business, if it stands, is exempted business, and anything which can be said on the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill can be said in the debate, as far as I am concerned. I understand that these arrangements have been made for the convenience of the Opposition, whose day this normally is, and it is for them to choose what subjects they want to debate. I am not aware of anything in the rules of order which would enable me to limit the discussion to any particular subject or any particular time.

Mr. H. Morrison

May I reinforce the point which I have made? The Lord Privy Seal, as I am sure he will accept, is the guardian of the rights of the House. If the programme proceeds as arranged—I agree that it can proceed otherwise; and it is just as well to remember that—it can hardly be more than an exchange of views between the two Front Benches. It is not enough for the two Front Benches to agree about this matter. It is important that the House as a whole should express itself and that the Government should be sustained by the opinions of the House. I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that nothing less than a full day's debate on this vitally important subject is good enough.

Mr. Butler

As you yourself said, Mr. Speaker, this is a day on which the business is chosen by the Opposition. As I said in my short statement: at the request of the Opposition, the following subjects will be debated … We are simply following normal practice in accepting the request of the Opposition, which we think will meet the situation; and in any case the request comes from the Opposition. From inquiries which I have made, I do not think that all the time will be taken by Privy Councillors, nor do I think that the speeches likely to be made from the Front Benches wilt be so long as to take up the whole time. That is in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for East Aberdeenshire (Sir R. Boothby). At any rate, the position will be considered in the light of the representations by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South.

Mr. H. Fraser

Is it not clearly for the Leader of the Opposition to reconsider his request? Should there not be a full Government statement before we debate the subject?

Mr. J. Hynd

Is the Minister not aware that there are a number of hon. Members who do not applaud the attitude which has been taken by the Government and still less many of the statements made by their supporters? Is it not, therefore, important that adequate time should be given in the debate for all points of view to be heard, as far as possible, from the back benches? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider that point?

Mr. Butler

It is always the duty of the Administration of the day, especially when dealing with grave matters of national importance such as this, to pay attention to public opinion as expressed in the House, as representing the country. I can assure the hon. Member that we are already aware of the varieties of opinion. We shall be more aware of them after this debate.

Mr. J. Amery

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is no point in having a debate at all unless full expression is to be given of the different opinions held? Will he join with us in supporting the views of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) and asking the Leader of the Opposition to reconsider this matter?

Mr. Harold Davies

May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Are there not some means by which back benchers on both sides of the House, no matter what opinion they may hold on this problem, can have the opportunity of debating this subject, if necessary, on a Friday, so that the opinions of back benchers as well as of Privy Councillors can be heard? Is there not some way by which the voice of the House can be heard at this time, instead of only the voices of right hon. Members on the Front Benches?

Mr. Butler

Undoubtedly, the right course to take is always to pay attention to the expression of opinion in the House of Commons. I ought to do so. My duty, as Leader of the House, is to pay attention to the representations which have been made and, in allocating the time to be given to the debate, to give consideration to them and to the position in which you, Mr. Speaker, are placed.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I say that our desire in approaching the Government on this matter was, first, to secure that the subject would be debated before the Summer Recess? It seemed to us that a debate on a Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill was an appropriate way of dealing with the matter. There is, of course, no time limit to it; it is exempted business. It is certainly not our wish in any way that the debate should be confined to Front Bench speakers. On the contrary, I hope that the Front Bench speeches will be relatively short and that back benchers will have plenty of opportunity to express their views.

Mr. Elliot

Is it not a fact that the subject of the Suez Canal is the first subject for debate on the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill, that the House will have an opportunity of debating it at the earliest possible moment, and that there will be no time limit whatever on the subject? [An HON. MEMBER: "That was said two minutes ago."] It does not seem to be clear to all hon. Members in all parts of the House, and I am trying to get the facts clear. There is nothing whatever to stop a full day's debate on this subject tomorrow, and that means that some of the objections which have been raised do not seem to apply.

Mr. Rankin

If it is the intention to have a full day's debate tomorow on the Suez Canal, why did the Leader of the House bother to mention the other two subjects? Could not the right hon. Gentleman now tell us exactly what the intention is for tomorrow? Are we to have in the House a full-scale debate which is in keeping with the full-scale debate which is going on outside the House?

Mr. Butler

Many subjects are raised on the Consolidated Fund Bill. In fact, any hon. Member can rise in his place and raise any subject he likes. It would have been possible for me, had I had the art of divination, to divine what hon. Members would raise in the debate, but it so happens that these three subjects were mentioned by the Opposition and Suez was deliberately put first as being obviously, at any rate in the opinion of Her Majesty's Government, by far the most important. That was also the view of right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Therefore, in the light of representations which have been made, it is clear—and this is an answer to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kelvingrove (Mr. Elliot)—that it will be our duty to see that the debate is sufficiently protracted to give sufficient opportunity for hon. Members to express their opinions.

Mr. H. Morrison

I am sorry to have to intervene again, but is not this an unsatisfactory procedure? Is it desirable that this debate should take place on the Consolidated Fund Bill?

Mr. Stokes

How else can it be done?

Mr. Morrison

There are other means, which I have already indicated.

Mr. Stokes

Not practical.

Mr. Morrison

On the Consolidated Fund Bill it is difficult to divide the time. I gather that there is no possibility of a Motion or Division. I do not say that that is desirable, but it might be. I submit that this method is not paying proper respect to the rights of the whole of the House of Commons. We should have a separate debate on Egypt, which could easily be arranged by one of the two methods which I have indicated.

Mr. Ellis Smith

To avoid any misunderstanding outside the House, particularly in industrial centres, will the Leader of the House make it clear that we have reached an agreement on our request for a debate about the cruel action of the British Motor Corporation only at the request of the trade union leaders, who are desirous of negotiating a settlement?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. The Opposition have forgone their original request to debate the motor industry in order to give priority to the Suez Canal debate. I should have thought that that was an indication of the importance attached to the debate and the desire of the whole House that the debate should be a real one.