HC Deb 17 December 1957 vol 580 cc207-12
Mr. Speaker

I wish to make a statement to the House about the points of order which were raised last Wednesday when the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) was moving to introduce a Bill under what we call the Ten Minutes Rule.

On Wednesday, the hon. Member for Wycombe was moving for leave to bring in a Bill to provide for the free supply of drugs to the patients of doctors in private practice. He proposed that his Bill should provide for the resulting charge to be borne by the Land Fund. His argument was that by this means he would avoid the necessity for the prior Queen's Recommendation as required by Standing Order No. 78 and a Resolution of a Committee of the whole House as required by Standing Order No. 79.

Technically, the hon. Member's argument is valid. The National Land Fund is a separate entity, not replenished from the Exchequer. Consequently, new expenditure charged upon it does not result in a charge upon the Exchequer and does not need the Queen's Recommendation or a Money Resolution. The matter is dealt with in page 763 of the latest edition of Erskine May. It is there instanced that the Historic and Ancient Monuments Bill, 1953, imposed charges on the Land Fund without either the Queen's Recommendation having been signified or a Money Resolution.

It may be thought that there is a certain congruity of purpose between the Land Fund and historic buildings, which is absent when it is proposed to charge the Fund with druggists' bills; but that consideration seems to me to bear rather on the merits of the Bill than upon the procedural point. We must remember that the hon. Member is proposing to proceed by a Bill. It is, I think, impossible to argue that Parliament is incapable of decreeing such a diversion of the Fund as the hon. Member proposes. Indeed, Section 48 of the Finance Act, 1946, which set up the Land Fund, states that the Fund is to be used for the purposes mentioned in this Part of this Act and for such other purposes as Parliament may hereafter determine. No limit is imposed or even indicated on those "other purposes". I therefore concluded that the hon. Member for Wycombe was in order in asking leave to introduce his Bill.

Argument was addressed to me, notably by the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), to the effect that the financial proposal of the hon. Member for Wycombe was, in fact, a subterfuge which would defeat the constitutional control of expenditure by the Government of the day. There is great force in this argument, but I do not think that it is for the Chair to give effect to its conclusion. The subject was considered by the Select Committee on Procedure in its recent Report, when it was drawn to the Committee's attention by evidence and a memorandum from the Treasury.

Hon. Members will find the recommendation in the final paragraph of the Select Committee's first Report. It was: Your Committee do not consider that there is any reason for extending the Standing Orders to cover purposes other than those for which they already provide. From the evidence given to them they have not been made aware of any difficulties which have arisen in this connection. The number of Funds which might be affected is very small and Government expenditure is limited by statute. Legislation which resulted in the expenditure by the Funds of public money in excess of the statutory limits would necessitate new legislation to authorise such additional expenditure. This would involve the introduction of a new money resolution, and this, of course, would have to be introduced by the Government and would he debatable. The fact stated by the Committee as the first ground of its recommendation is that the Committee was not "made aware of any difficulties which have arisen in this connection." It may be that further resort to this device may raise difficulties of which the Committee was not made aware. If that happens the House may have to reconsider the matter. But that is not for me. The ability to use the rules of the House as they stand is important for the rights of private Members, and particularly for those of the party in opposition.

My conclusion, therefore, is that, as the proposal of the hon. Member for Wycombe is in order, he should be allowed to ask the leave of the House to introduce his Bill.

Mr. H. Morrison

I am sure that the House will be much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for the careful Ruling you have given, and I admit that there is force in the number of the points which you have put before the House, but may I put this consideration to you? Where there is a recognised channel of expenditure provided by Statute, such as the National Health Service, is it not an abuse of the procedure of the House that somebody should, in order to bring in a Bill, invent another and really irrelevant channel for financing something? Is it not a serious thing to depart from the doctrine that expenditure can be proposed only by Ministers? There are 10 or 11 Bills on the Notice Paper. Somebody says there are 13. That is unlucky. Would there not be a possibility that every day there might be a series of Bills proposed? I hope that it will not be necessary to consider these Bills today, otherwise our hon. Friends from Scotland will be embarrassed. However, these notices of Bills do indicate the extent to which this procedure can be abused and the ordinary business of the House held up.

Mr. Speaker

Naturally, I considered all that in coming to the conclusion I came to. My experience, both in opposition and on the Government side of the House, is that private Members frequently exercise their ingenuity to get round this particular provision of Government control of expenditure so that they may air subjects which they feel should be discussed. It is a question, I think, of degree, rather than of anything else, whether that becomes such an abuse that the House has to take notice of it. I am reluctant to extend the power of the Chair so as to curb the proper exercise by private Members of such rights as they have under the rules.

If I may use a metaphor, I will put it this way. I do not think that it is for the referee to change the rules while the game is in progress. It is for that reason I have given the Ruling I have, but all these things depend very largely on the common sense of the House, and I think I can leave it safely in hon. Members hands not to abuse the spirit of our ancient constitution.

Mr. Mitchison

Mr. Speaker, while for myself accepting respectfully your decision on a matter of procedure, and, indeed, regarding it, if I may say so, as inevitable in view of past decisions, may I take it that it does to some extent depend on the language of the Finance Act, 1946, which left this Fund for use for a specific purpose and for such other purposes as Parliament may hereafter determine —a form of words which would not apply to and does not exist in the case of the National Insurance Fund and Industrial Injuries Fund?

Mr. Speaker

The Ruling I have given today is limited entirely to the matter which was raised last Wednesday. I should not like to go beyond that today.

Mr. Blackburn

May I add to what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison)? We all appreciate, Mr. Speaker, the very careful consideration which you have given to this problem, but I should like to put to you a further thought. I know you appreciate the danger that your Ruling may mean for the procedure of the House. I do not think it is right that an hon. Member should try to abuse the rules in this way. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is quite correct that in this instance, relating to this Fund, the Queen's Recommendation is not required because it is not drawn upon the Consolidated Fund, nor is it supplied from money to be provided by Parliament. However, I think you will agree that funds are set up for definite and specific purposes, and that there ought, therefore, to be continuity in the proceedings of this House.

We ought to take note of what has gone before. Quite recently, some Members of the House, because they were not quite certain of the meaning of an Act of 1770, decided that it should be referred for decision to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. However, we know quite definitely what was in the mind of Parliament in 1946, and although the words of Section 48 of the Finance Act, 1946, are, as you say, for such other purposes as Parliament may hereafter determine I think that every hon. Member will agree that Parliament had in mind purposes similar to the purpose of the 1946 Act. When the Government, in 1953, through the Historic and Ancient Monuments Bill, raided the Fund, it was done by Ministers of the Crown and it was done for a purpose which was similar to that of the Finance Act, 1946.

Mr. Speaker

I thought I mentioned all that. I remain of the opinion that these are matters which should be discussed on the merits of the Bill. I do not think that there is any procedural bar—and that is all I am concerned with—to the hon. Member proceeding with his Bill.

Mr. Fernyhough

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that it was because I was seeking information that there arose the little debate last week. I was then in some doubt and I am still in some doubt. In your Ruling you stated that you hoped that in future hon. Members would not infringe the spirit of the Standing Orders. I want to know who is going to interpret, who will judge whether the spirit is being infringed. Suppose, for instance, that on the first Wednesday after we reassemble after the Christmas Recess I seek to bring in a Bill on the lines of the one about which I asked you last Wednesday, when I asked you whether it would be in order. Who will then determine whether my Bill infringes the spirit? If my Bill were to be infringing the spirit, how comes it that the Bill of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) does not also infringe the spirit of the Standing Orders?

Mr. Speaker

I did not put what I said about infringing the spirit of the Standing Orders on a par with my decision on the procedure. What I mean to say is this: that if the rules of the House are used in a way which makes it inconvenient for the rest of the House then the House probably will take some action about it. That is what happens. Majorities can generally look after themselves in the House quite well, but as the rules stand I think it was my duty to find the Bill in order. The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) cannot expect me to give an advance decision upon any future action which he may take, or upon any Bill which he may seek to introduce.