HC Deb 29 July 1957 vol 574 cc878-909

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

I beg to move, That this House is of the opinion that the statement made by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs on 22nd July, in which he announced that the British authorities in Muscat and Oman had been given discretion, within certain limits, to take military action, constituted a definite matter of urgent public importance under Standing Order No. 9, and regrets that Mr. Speaker did not rule to that effect. In moving my Motion, Mr. Speaker, I should like to begin in the traditional way by saying that it is, of course, moved in good faith as a House of Commons matter and that the wording of the Motion is such that it could not possibly lead—nor is it intended to—to any debate on the rights or wrongs of the action of the Government in Oman. The fact that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who is seconding the Motion, takes the contrary view to mine on the merits of the action of the Government in Oman, is a sufficient guarantee of that.

This is a House of Commons matter, because I am appealing to the House of Commons to review one of the Rulings you have given. Of course, the history of Parliament is the history of the House of Commons entrusting to its Speaker increasing responsibility for the conduct of our debates. A century ago your position, Mr. Speaker, was more like that of a Lord Chancellor in another place today, who exercises little or no responsibility at all over the debates.

Over the course of time, this House has entrusted two types of responsibility to you. First, there is the responsibility of acting as an umpire between both sides of the House, seeing that the Government get their business and the minority gets its right to speak; and also, in that connection, there is the responsibility in your choice of hon. Members to address the House. That is your rôle as umpire and I do not challenge it today.

There is a second rôle which has been entrusted to you. That is to act as interpreter of our Standing Orders. Under Statute and under our Standing Orders you are called upon to reach what I can only call many judicial decisions. I give as an example that under the Parliament Act it is your responsibility to give a certificate if, in your view, a Bill is a money Bill. That certificate is sufficient to pass the Finance Bill without the assent of another place. That is a judicial function.

Similarly, if an hon. Member appeals to you on a point of Privilege, you decide whether it shall have priority over the Orders of the Day on a judicial basis. I am appealing to the House of Commons against a judicial interpretation of Standing Order No. 9. Indeed, there is no one else to whom I could appeal, since the House of Commons is a sovereign body. I am coming as a suppliant, exercising the rights given even to the meanest Member of this House against a Ruling of the Chair.

This is not the only occasion when this problem has arisen. As a House, we are called upon to be judges in our own case when we consider a question of Privilege and also to vote ourselves money because there is no senior body to which we can go. Therefore, in introducing the Motion, I submit that I am doing no more than what is done in the court when an appeal is taken beyond a judge to a superior court. Just as the judge whose ruling is reversed on appeal is not taken thereupon to be censured for all his conduct, so this Motion is a Motion of censure on one act, but not a Motion of no confidence in the Chair or the present occupant of the Chair. To underline that—and I say this at the beginning so that there shall be no misunderstanding—it is not my intention to vote for my Motion. If I have permission, I shall withdraw it in order that there shall not be a Division of the House upon it.

The case which I submit to you is very simple. It is that last Monday you wrongly interpreted Standing Order No. 9. To develop my point, I should like to say a word, if I may, about Standing Order No. 9, because seventy-five years ago any Member of the House could move the Adjournment of the House for any reason, and that Motion had priority over the Orders of the Day. It was Mr. Gladstone who, in 1882, decided that it was necessary, at the time when he introduced the Closure, also to introduce some limitation on the rights of Members to adjourn the House. There were thirty days of debate on our Standing Orders, of which nineteen were taken up with the debate on the Closure—of course, the Closure could not be applied to them—and three were taken up with the discussion of this new Standing Order.

In the form in which the Standing Order was first presented to the House, the words definite matter of urgent public importance did not appear. Mr. Gladstone himself amended his own Motion in the course of the debate to make it clear that the purpose of these Adjournments was to be only for a definite matter of urgent public importance". In the course of the debate Mr. Parnell asked the then Speaker how he would interpret the words definite matter of urgent public importance", and, as reported in c. 1448 of HANSARD of that day, Mr. Speaker said: The construction that I should put on the Amendment"— that is, the words "definite matter of urgent public importance"— …is that the question of urgency should rest not with the Speaker, but with the Member desiring to bring the question forward. Indeed, a week later, when the procedure was first brought into action, and when an hon. Member, Mr. York, sought to move the Adjournment of the House on these grounds, the definite matter which he raised was, he said: the conduct of the Government, and in particular the conduct of the right hon. Gentleman at the head of the Government, in reference to a controversy recently at issue between himself and me with regard to the release of the three prisoners of Kilmainham Gaol a few months ago. That was the definite matter of urgent public importance. Another hon. Member—Mr. Thorold Rogers—rose and protested to the Chair saying: I beg to rise to Order. I wish to know whether, in your opinion, Sir,…the question can be raised as to whether this is a matter of urgent public importance? Mr. Speaker said: The hon. Member, upon his own responsibility, has stated that it is a matter of urgent public importance I have no authority for contravening that statement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th November, 1882; Vol. 275, C. 21–2.] That is the Standing Order as it was introduced by Mr. Gladstone, accepted by the House and interpreted by the Chair. It is no part of my object today to suggest that that Ruling of the Chair still remains in force. Of course, over the seventy-five years the Chair has constantly reinterpreted its functions. If hon. Members will look at Erskine May, they will see that there are no fewer than six pages of leading references to definitions by Mr. Speaker of the meaning of those words. Hon. Members will see that every one of those words has been defined. The word "definite" has been defined as meaning "a single specific matter", that the "facts are clear" and not "hypothetical." The word "urgent" means "of recent occurrence and raised without delay", "no ordinary opportunity coming for debate." The words "public importance" have been underlined by the necessity for the support of 40 Members, and the Government responsibility must have been established beyond any doubt.

It is my submission not only that there has been a great change from the original interpretation of this Standing Order, but that even as the Standing Order stood on Monday of last week it was your duty, Mr. Speaker, to rule that a definite matter of urgent public importance had occurred.

I want to make only a very brief reference to what the Foreign Secretary said on Monday. As I have said, I make no attack upon his statement. He pointed out that the local British authorities had been given discretion within certain limits to take military action". I asked him, in a supplementary question, whether he will give an assurance to the House that British troops, aircraft and ships will not be engaged until the House has hem told of it in advance? I had no right to demand that, for it is the right of the Government to act without consulting Parliament, but it is also the right of Parliament to ask the Government whether there will be an opportunity to debate such matter before action is taken, and I exercised That right to elicit a point of fact. I was given the answer: Certainly not". Armed with the statement that the decision had been taken and the assurance that there would be no further opportunity for discussion, I came to you, Mr. Speaker, to raise it as a definite matter of urgent public importance". You will remember that the wording of my Motion was: …namely, the decision of Her Majesty's Government to offer British military assistance… In reply you gave three Rulings, and I should like, if I may, very briefly to take the House through the three Rulings which you gave. First, you said that it was not urgent, and these are the words which you used: I think that this submission must fail on the ground of urgency. We have just heard that, at the moment, there are no British troops in Muscat—I understand that to be the position—and we are not in possession of any of the facts of the situation which would entitle me to regard this as an urgent matter. The answer to your Ruling, if I may be allowed to give it, was that I did not raise the matter of urgency on the ground of the presence of British troops, but on the ground that a decision had already been taken, and, therefore, no facts could possibly have entered into what I said because the only fact was the statement of the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, you said later, in another passage, that the facts were "sketchy". Part of the object of Parliamentary debate, I have always understood, was to bring pressure on the Government to turn a situation which was uncertain into one of greater certainty by compelling them to give the answers which hon. Members required. I submit that if a decision to commit troops were not urgent, then it is very questionable whether anything can possibly be urgent.

Your second Ruling was on what I might call a legal matter. I said that this matter might possibly be of special importance because it might be a breach of international law, and you ruled: If the hon. Member says that it is against any treaty that we should do so, that is a legal matter that he should argue at the proper time. But legal complications cannot reduce urgency. They may, indeed, underline it. The fact that legal matters entered into this was an extra strong reason why you should have ruled in my favour.

Your third argument was what I might call the Supply Day argument. You said: May I also remind the House that there are this week four, I think, Supply Days, that next week there is the Appropriation Bill, and that on any of these days this matter can be discussed in all its aspects. That is, in itself, sufficient ground, as has been ruled by all my predecessors, for my refusing to receive a Motion of this sort."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd July. 1957; Vol. 574, c. 32–7.] I believe that there are two answers to your Ruling. The first is that if the matter were urgent under the Standing Order, then it was so urgent that it could not wait as long as next week. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am not discussing the merits of the issue, but if a matter is urgent under the Standing Orders it cannot wait until an Appropriation Bill debate the following week. Indeed, I suggest that if any Speaker in the future were in a restrictive frame of mind he would find in Mr. Speaker Morrison's Ruling of 22nd July, 1957, precedent enough to clamp down on any plea for urgency made by a back bencher.

The second argument which I would bring to bear on the Supply Day point is that your Ruling, though technically correct, is now out of keeping with the character of modern Supply Days. I looked at the business for last week. It was, Monday, Roads and Colonial Air Services; Tuesday, Disarmament; Wednesday, Scottish Health; Thursday, Economic Situation: today, Local Government; tomorrow, Local Government; Wednesday, Redundancy; and Thursday, Old-age Pensions. Is it true to say that on these matters, that on any of these days, the question of Muscat and Oman "could be discussed in all its aspects?"

You were not in the Chair on any of those days, Mr. Speaker, but if I had gone to the Chair and asked to be called on Scottish health, and had been asked, "What line are you taking?", and if I had said. "I am against the Government on Muscat and Oman". I should have been very surprised if I had been called. Had I shown the ingenuity shown by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), I might have been able to keep in order in discussing it, had I been called, but if I had been frank with the Chair about my intentions then the Chair would not have called me, rightly, because it would have been a graver abuse to interject a speech on Muscat and Oman into a debate on Scottish health or redundancy or old-age pensions than it would have been to seek to move the Adjournment of the House.

This is the point which I put before you: that your Ruling makes sense only if it is addressed to the leader of a great party, because the leader of a party can change the business for a Supply Day if he chooses. If he chose, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Gaitskell)could have taken disarmament off for Tuesday and put on Muscat and Oman as the subject for the debate. Therefore, your Ruling that the opportunities existed is addressed only to a party and not to a Member.

This is why, of course, I have tabled this Motion today. Many of my hon. Friends have said—and I do not blame them—"Why should an hon. Member with a grievance against the Chair delay the business of a Supply Day today?" The answer, of course, is that these Rulings, and particularly the Supply Day Ruling, about Standing Order No. 9 and the remedy are addressed only to a party; and they touch two of the most important principles which govern our proceedings in this House, and, indeed, two of the principles most discussed when it comes to Parliament itself.

When we talk about Standing Order No. 9 we are talking about the back benchers. The Front Benchers can decide their business whenever they choose. If I may use an analogy from the realm of food, the Front Benchers on both sides are in the privileged position of reading every day from a menu of their own choosing, as they lounge on the couches beside the banqueting table. They are discussing what they want to discuss, the Government because of the precedent of their business and my right hon. Friends because of our Supply Days. But the back benchers here are a hardier race. We have to grub for our food. A Parliamentary Question is all that we get, and it is a job very often to get the chance to ask a supplementary. We have to hope that we shall get the evening Adjournment; we have to ballot for a Motion. We have, when we believe it urgent, the security of Standing Order No. 9.

If you take away this right, Mr. Speaker, or restrict this right, you are doing damage in a battle which, in my view, is just as important as any other battle we fight in this House; that is, the battle of the back benchers to win a place in the House from the Front Benchers. I submit that this is one reason, at any rate, why this is a House of Commons matter and is not something which in any way affects our party alliegance.

The second reason why this is important is that Mr. Speaker's remedy being addressed to a party highlights the relationship between a Member of Parliament and his party. If my right hon. Friend and my party had wanted to debate Oman last week they could have done so, but they did not want to debate Oman last week. I shall not attempt to say why. But it is perfectly clear and obvious that my hon. Friends could have asked for a debate, changed the business for a Supply Day and could easily have brought on a debate on Oman if they had wanted to do so.

What happened, Mr. Speaker, was that you gave a Ruling which was a remedy for my party but not a remedy for me. You may very well say, "What right have you to choose?" The answer is that I have not a right to choose in this matter unless it is urgent, definite and of public importance; and then I claim under Standing Order No. 9 I have the right to choose on one condition, and that is that I have the support of 40 hon. Members of this House. I do not know whether they would have risen in their places. They might not have done. My grumble and complaint is that they were not given a chance.

The party system is well embedded in our form of Parliamentary Government. We all know that one cannot get elected to Parliament unless one has a party label. We know when we come here that the organisation of business is done through the Whips. I think I am a good party man. I believe that we can achieve nothing unless we act together and I also believe that we must be prepared to hang together. Sometimes I think that that fate is particularly appropriate to some and not all of my hon. Friends. But I accept the party. For the modern party system, even at its most oppressive, does not in any way limit our right to speak. It may limit how we vote at the end of the day, although in my own party and in the party opposite we have the right of abstention on grounds of principle. That is a comfort which I draw from the restriction of the party system. "It is not what a man does that matters; it is what he says."

It is not the vote at the end of the day that limits our right. It is the right of free thought and free speech that is left unfettered by the party system. If you, Mr. Speaker, give a Ruling which means that an individual back bencher cannot raise a point, even within Standing Orders, without the support of his party, then you give to the party a power over the Members which I believe would be an imposition on the rights of the House.

I plead with my right hon. Friend, or my party, not to misunderstand my views on this question of party discipline. Party discipline has been discussed recently in the columns of the Manchester Guardian, in the columns of Pravda and even in China itself. If I may draw an analogy from abroad, I am not forming an anti-party faction at all, in the sense that Mr. Molotov was. I am one of the thousand flowers asking permission to be allowed to blossom.

Many of my hon. Friends have said unkind things to me since I tabled this Motion, and some of them have said kind things. But the thing that has depressed me most of all has been the question, Why make all this fuss on a procedural matter?" Parliamentary Government is itself procedural. When we come to this House, by our very election we each pay our own tribute to procedure. The methods we use for resolving our differences, in the long run, are more important than the differences that divide us.

When the Election manifestoes have turned yellow in the library of the British Museum and when HANSARD has interest only to the historians, the Standing Orders which we are debating today will still be at hand to guide a Member in 2057 or 2157. I believe that if we could speak to the Mother of Parliaments herself, she would agree with me. I do not believe that she cares for the Members of this House, not even for you, Mr. Speaker, or for the famous on both sides—certainly not for me, who can be remembered only by a fading signature in the Test-Roll of Parliament. She does not care for us. We are not her children. Her children are the practices and usages of this House.

And I believe that if we pressed the Mother of Parliaments further she would even say that she would trade all the statues in the Members' Lobby for one good footnote in Erskine May.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

I beg to second this Motion.

I support this Motion for precisely the reasons so admirably expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn). I believe that we are considering a right of back benchers, and that if we back benchers do not stand up for our rights the Front Bench certainly will not do it for us. Nobody is interested in the rights, privileges and powers of others if those can be obtained only by subtraction from their own; and Front Benchers do not differ from anyone else in that respect.

I certainly do not wish to second this Motion because I disagree with the Government's policy on Muscat or Oman. On that, I would be far more likely to disagree with my hon. Friend. For my part, I am sick of Foreign Secretaries telling us that they are taking certain action to slop a war, to help the United Nations or their good friend, the Sultan. I would be only too glad if they were to say that British forces were being used to enforce British interests. Frankly, that is what I provide British forces for.

Nor do I, in any sense, support this Motion, Mr. Speaker, as being derogatory to you or to your office. Four years ago we elected you our Speaker. Personally, I am heartily glad that we did so, and I know that neither you nor the House will believe that I would say that if I did not think it. But we did not elect you to be Pope. We did not ask of you, or expect of you, infallibility. We have provided a procedure, a proper procedure, whereby particular Rulings of the Chair may be challenged. That is being done in this instance.

Mr. Speaker, you and I belong to a great profession. We have received, on occasion, judges' decisions that we did not like. We appealed against them. By that, we were not impugning the capacity or the integrity of the judge or, indeed, the greatness of his office. The notice of appeal was the procedure for challenging his decision. So is this Motion the procedure for challenge here. I would only say this. Of late, there has been a certain habit—and I say immediately that I have been guilty of it, perhaps, a good deal more than most—of rising to argue decisions when they are given. That is a new practice and. perhaps, not a desirable one. It is by Motion that the matter ought to be challenged, and it may be desirable that that should be done, because that is the right procedure.

Having dealt with that, let me just say one word about the Standing Order—and my hon. Friend put is so well that I can deal with it very shortly indeed. Standing Order No. 9 is a right of the back bencher to rise, and to have his voice heard upon an urgent matter of public importance—not the single exception, but the back bencher who expresses a sufficient body of opinion to have 40 Members of this House to support him.

As for the question of urgency of this particular debate, I think that that was clear. Its desirability was another matter. I should not have been one of those to rise if the Motion had been put, but it was my decision, in my submission, not the Chair's, and I would say that not only is this a right of the back benchers, important to back benchers, but it is peculiarly the right of Government back benchers.

When one is in Opposition, and 40 of one's hon. Friends want to kick the Government over something, one can generally get one's own Front Bench to have a bat at the Government. Generally speaking, that is so, but that is not the position when one is on the Government side. Two of the great debates that come to my mind which have been raised under this Standing Order were raised from the Government side.

One was when the Jewish Agency was closed down and its members arrested in Palestine. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman)raised the Adjournment of the House against his own Government, and one of the most notable debates that I have ever known in my life occurred as a consequence. I was, myself, involved in the question of sending tanks to King Farouk. On that occasion, the policy of my own Government was changed.

It is, in particular, the right of Government back benchers that is guarded in Standing Order No. 9, and it is, therefore, highly important for them that they should not see it whittled away. I say that to them in considerable seriousness because, according to the Press—I hope that it is untrue—in this highly House of Commons matter, a matter which has nothing to do with party, a three-line Whip has been issued. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] In my submission that is wholly contrary to the tradition of Parliament. This is a matter in which we on the back benches are considering a precedent with regard to our particular rights.

Another point that I should like to make relates to the working of this Standing Order. I believe that the tremendous change in the practice under it has reached the point where it ought to be reconsidered by the Rules Committee. I hope that the Leader of the House will consider that. Secondly, I believe that under this Standing Order it would be desirable and, I think, within the precedent—that is, within your power, Mr. Speaker—to hear arguments, where you consider it necessary, before, instead of after, giving your decision.

To take this particular case as an illustration, if you had turned to my hon. Friend, before you gave the Ruling, and had asked, "Where do you say the urgency is here?" my hon. Friend could have given his explanation. ft may be even that other hon. Members might have assisted you by advancing arguments, but I can find nothing definite in the Standing Order or, indeed, in the precedent. On occasion, argument has been heard before the Chair has given a Ruling; on occasion, the Chair has asked the Government Front Bench if they had anything to add. I believe that to hear argument first would be a most useful practice, because it is very difficult for the Chair to give a Ruling without hearing argument.

As to the Ruling in question, I am hound to say, in words that I think that I used before, that to provide authority to commit British troops to battle in a foreign country must be an urgent matter. It is urgent in a sense that it must be debated at once, precisely because one has not the information. It ceases to be urgent once the authority has been exercised. Once the authority has been exercised, the horse is stolen and it is of no use closing the door. Where the matter of urgency is the giving of the authority then it is urgent that that giving of the authority be debated before the authority is acted on; because, once it has been acted on, then, indeed, the urgency has gone, because the authority is superseded by the action.

I venture to say this. In the old days—and I turn to -end where I started with regard to this procedural point—appeals in the King's Bench went to a full bench, upon which the judge against whom the appeal was lodged himself sat. The matter was fully argued. On a number of occasions, the judge himself agreed to the over-ruling of his decision, because it was wrong. I have a feeling. Mr. Speaker, that if this matter were fully debated before you as a Member of this House, and in this House, it might be that, on this occasion, as to the question of urgency, you might yourself agree to alter this decision.

At any rate, this is a matter of House of Commons importance, and I feel that my hon. Friend had a right to raise it not as a challenge to you or to your office, but as a matter which, I believe, is important to the rights of back benchers on both sides of the House.

4.20 p.m.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

I cannot hope to emulate the eloquence of the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)and the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget). I do, however, claim to equal them in their love for the House of Commons, and to exceed them in Parliamentary experience. It is because I have long Parliamentary experience and because of my love for the House of Commons that I hope the House will forgive me if I appear to be a little pompous and pontifical.

After about twenty-five years of life in Parliament it is borne in on me more and more that this House depends upon the authority, the majesty and the dignity of the Chair and the respect which is paid to it. I differ from the hon. and learned Member for Northampton in this—we are not discussing whether this right of private Members to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 ought to be established or reestablished, or whether it is right or wrong. What we are really debating now is whether the verdict of the Chair, of you, Mr. Speaker, should be challengeable.

I am not concerned with whether your Ruling the other day was right or wrong. As one who has a deep affection for the House of Commons, I am concerned with this, that it derogates from the dignity of the Chair and, therefore, from the reputation and the usefulness of this House if the Ruling of the Speaker of the day is criticised or challenged.

The hon. and learned Member for Northampton said that we have not elected you Pope, that we have not conferred any infallibility upon you. I know that that is true, but I believe it is bad for this House and bad for Parliamentary tradition when the utter impartiality of the Chair—I am not talking about the infallibility of the Chair—and the dignity of the Chair are questioned. For that reason, I deeply regret the Motion that has been moved.

I go further. I very much regret whenever any hon. Member—myself or anybody else—argues with you, Mr. Speaker, on any Ruling. When I first came to the House in the days of Mr. Speaker Fitzroy, when a Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 was moved, no argument or discussion was permitted. Owing to his kindness of heart, Mr. Speaker Clifton-Brown began to permit argument with him over his Rulings on those Motions. I venture humbly to suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that the time has now come when, having given your decision, you should stand by it and should not permit argument or discussion.

I do indeed believe—and I say this with the deepest sincerity—that you, as Mr. Speaker, are the key to the success of the Parliamentary system. I often resent or differ from your Rulings. I am sure that every hon. Member is bound to resent some of the Rulings of the Chair, but I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to the whole tradition and usefulness of Parliament and of Parliamentary democracy if we do anything to derogate from the dignity and majesty of your office. For that reason, I deeply resent the Motion which has been moved.

4.24 p.m.

Mr. Austen Alton (Edmonton)

The hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson)has done no credit to the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)moved his Motion. My hon. Friend made it clear that he was not in any way challenging or criticising your impartiality, Mr. Speaker, but was merely challenging your interpretation of what is an extremely difficult Standing Order.

I only wish to speak because your Ruling has underlined a growing anxiety which I have had in my mind, particularly during the last year. The occasion of my hon. Friend moving his Motion for the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 was the committal by the Government of British troops in an extremely inflammable area. We have in our Parliamentary arrangements no constitutional safeguard against a Government committing British forces to action such as they have in some countries, including the United States.

For myself, I do not want any alteration in our arrangements or any change in the broad prerogatives by which Her Majesty's Government are entitled to commit troops to action or to make treaties, so long as what we have always considered to be the traditional safeguards against dangerous or irresponsible action should continue to operate.

Among those safeguards, I would consider, are full discussion in the Cabinet before such action takes place; full consultation by the Government with their advisers, including their overseas representatives and other members of the Commonwealth and our allies; the insurance of public support; and, as has grown up in more recent times, consultation with the Opposition.

It was all these which were lacking at the time of the Suez crisis last year and which gave some of us very great anxiety about the way in which the normal safeguards against irresponsible action by the Government were being avoided. This may not be such a serious occasion, but I think that the House of Commons should have had the opportunity, even at the instigation of only one Member, to find out the Government's intentions and, if necessary, to criticise the Government's intentions by means of this final safeguard which is the right of any Member to challenge or discuss, on a matter of urgent and definite importance, the action of the Government at the earliest opportunity.

This, of course, can only be done by moving the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9. It is for this reason that I felt that your Ruling on this occasion was wrong, because it added to the growing anxieties which I have felt ever since last year with the action of the Government in Suez. I realise that on that occasion the matter was raised and criticised officially by the Opposition, but I still feel that where British troops are committed to action it should be the right of any back bench Member to discuss this matter on the earliest possible occasion.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I thought, after listening to the two very eloquent speeches of the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)and the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), that there was some danger of it being suggested that to criticise this Motion is to criticise Standing Order No. 9. It seems to me that the two eloquent speeches went no further than this. Standing Order No. 9 is a very proper safeguard of the rights of back benchers, from which no one would dissent and which we should do everything possible to maintain.

I entirely agree with that opinion, but surely we must not lose sight of the fact that Standing Order No. 9 always arises in certain circumstances, and in the particular circumstances of your decision, Mr. Speaker, I suggest that there is no decision that the Chair could have given other than the one which you gave.

The question of committing British troops is, of course, urgent in the sense that military action is always urgent, but they were being committed, if not exactly in pursuance of a treaty, at least in pursuance of an understanding or an agreement of friendship with a friendly State. If it is to be the doctrine that Standing Order No. 9 shall always be invoked if British troops are likely to be committed in any military action, that seems to me to go to the prerogative mentioned by the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Albu). That raises far different constitutional questions than merely the operation of Standing Order No. 9.

If it is to be accepted that the House of Commons shall always have the right to debate, before the Government of the day carry out their obligations under a treaty or an understanding with a friendly State, I suggest that that goes to the prerogative and is tantamount to saying that no Government can take action in foreign affairs without the previous agreement of this House. On those grounds, and on the facts which were known to the Chair, I submit that it was not possible to take any other decision than the one you took by rejecting the Motion for the Adjournment of the House on that occasion.

4.29 p.m.

Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham. Northfield)

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that I had an Amendment on the Order Paper seeking to add at the end of the Motion the following words: it further considers that the present interpretation of the Standing Order, based often on rulings given in different historical conditions, now tends unduly to frustrate the House and prevent it from proceeding to discuss an urgent matter of public importance; and is of opinion that the interpretation be referred to a Select Committee. I should explain that I withdrew that Amendment from the Order Paper because, on consideration, we felt that it was not right to develop the debate into a wholesale discussion on the Standing Orders of the House. But I think I made the point by putting the Amendment on the Order Paper, and it has been developed in the speeches of my hon. Friends, namely, the point that what is probably wrong in these circumstances is the interpretation of Standing Order No. 9 as it has been developed since 1882. We are now frustrated on the back benches and have been unable to raise matters of urgent public importance because of the case law which has been built up by various Speakers in past years—case law which is now. I believe, unduly restrictive.

Before I say something about that, let me say a few words on the immediate issue between my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)and Mr. Speaker. I am quite sure, to summarise his complaint, that his protest is not so much for some of the reasons which have been given by other hon. Members, but because he asked to be allowed to raise one urgent matter of public importance which he specified, and that Mr. Speaker ruled on quite a different matter. My hon. Friend raised the matter of the Minister's decision to commit troops, and Mr. Speaker ruled on the fact that the troops were not yet there, that they had not arrived and that the information was "sketchy". Of course, that was an entirely different matter. As my other hon. Friends have said, it was a case of being unable now to raise matters of public importance that have been decided upon before it is too late to prevent the Minister from withdrawing from his decision. It was an unfortunate way of ruling out my hon. Friend's Motion.

On the question of Standing Order No. 9, I hope that the Lord Privy Seal will at least give us an assurance that there will be some examination of it. This Standing Order arose from the history of the late nineteenth century in this House, when Irish hon. Members were making something of a bear garden of the House of Commons because of the grievances which they were raising—something like a dozen Adjournment Motions every year—and the Government of the day rightly protested that they could not get their business.

Therefore, Standing Order No. 9 was introduced, was restrictive and negative, and tried to prevent people from having too many opportunities to raise the matters that bother back benchers. What has now happened, based on that interesting origin of the Standing Order, is that it has been further narrowed, has become further restrictive and negative, and Mr. Speaker has only been to some extent following tradition in making it narrower still. We have now reached a situation in which we ought to have a Select Committee to examine the whole of the Standing Orders.

If, at the end of Questions, we are going to move on to a debate on the Adjournment, then a debate on a matter under Standing Order No. 9 is immediately ruled out. If we are moving on to a debate in Committee of Supply, on the Consolidated Fund, or on Estimates, immediately Mr. Speaker has to rule that the urgent matter is unable to be discussed under the Standing Order. In that sense, the whole purpose of the Standing Order is often frustrated in the first place.

Secondly, it is based on a fiction that once was a fact, a fiction that on Estimates, on the Consolidated Fund, or whatever else it is, any matter can be raised. That was true in its origin, but it is now a fiction, under which various important debates are organised in agreement between the Government and the Opposition. It is now frustrating to back benchers to be told, as Mr. Speaker told us on this occasion, that the matter could be raised on Supply Days, whereas, of course, we cannot do it.

It is restrictive in the further sense that it has the disadvantages of an Adjournment debate, because nothing involving legislation can be raised, whereas the urgent matter to be raised may be a matter in which it has been found that legislation is urgently needed. I could go on through the list of restrictions imported into the Standing Order, showing that it is a very negative instrument designed to stop people from having these debates. I do not want the House of Commons to become a bear garden again I only want it to carry out the ordinary democratic processes.

I suggest that the Select Committee should have regard to the changed nature of this rule, and that these debates should no longer be called Adjournment debates under Standing Order No. 9 but should be regarded as special emergency debates. They should be emergency debates in which everyone should have the right to take part on something broadly like the existing procedure. Secondly, it should not be so hampered as it is now with all the restrictions that have grown up from the decisions preventing various matters being raised.

If we turn to Erskine May, on page 352 we find reference made to all the restrictions of the Standing Orders, and it is stated that the grounds originally raised for disallowing a matter from being raised have been considerably narrowed by subsequent Speakers. The House is continually in that position and finds that it is being made narrower still.

In conclusion, may I say that in 1887, when this Standing Order was originally introduced, Mr. Beresford Hope, speaking on this power to move the Adjournment of the House, said: —The power under discussion, much as it has been abused, was the only safety valve existing in all their proceedings…The Government know that emergencies arose in the life of Parliaments, as of nations, and knowing [hat, they must not sit down on the safety valve of their Parliamentary system. I am sure that those words are still true today. We cannot say that we have been allowed a lot of liberality in this matter in recent years. There have been 73 occasions since the end of the war when attempts have been made to move the Adjournment of the House under this Standing Order, and only eight have been allowed. I suggest that we are narrowing the interpretation further and further until it has frustrated its purpose. I hope that the Lord Privy Seal in his reply will deal not only with the question of Mr. Speaker's decision on this occasion, but with the wider problem which worries many of us as to the interpretation of the whole of this Standing Order of the House.

4.38 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

Anyone who has had the honour to be Leader of the House or who has been in this House for many years has, I hope, a natural aptitude for catching the atmosphere of the House. I think it would be wrong not to acknowledge that the spirit in which the debate has taken place has certainly not been animated by any towards Mr. Speaker personally.

The first point I wish to make is that it was right that a Motion of this importance should be taken immediately—and the precedents have been stated—because it does seem wrong to leave such a Motion on the Paper and not to give hon. Members an immediate opportunity to discuss it. That is why we are taking it early this afternoon before the important debate on local government. It is also worth noting that Motions on a matter of this sort are something of a rarity and, in my view, should be a rarity. I think it is wrong to have on the Order Paper Motions criticising the Rulings given by the Chair, and I say that with due solemnity, because I feel it is not too much to say that the authority of the Chair and the dignity of this House are absolutely bound up together and that to imperil one is to imperil the other.

I understand that the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)has said that he intends to withdraw his Motion. I hope that will be the case. As he has said so, we may take it that it will be withdrawn. If that is the case, I shall not need to offer the advice to the House to reject this Motion, which otherwise I should have done in the most definite terms. I do not doubt that the Leader of the Opposition might wish to say something, and perhaps other hon. Members too, but I hope that the earliest opportunity will be taken by the hon. Member for Bristol. South-East to seek an opportunity of obtaining the leave of the House to withdraw his Motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson)felt very strongly on the point that I made, about the dignity of the House, and I think that it is right to feel like that. There are not very many occasions when a Motion of this sort has been put on the Order Paper, and had Mr. Speaker been present I should have paid a personal tribute to him for the impartiality with which he has conducted his affairs over the last six years since he has been Speaker of the House.

The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East based his case largely on the Ruling of Mr. Speaker, which I have before me, namely, that there were other occasions—he used the expression, "four, I think. Supply Days," upon which this matter could be raised. The hon. Gentleman's speech would have been far more convincing if he had not referred to the day we discussed Scottish health and to the other occasions but had referred to the day immediately following, when, in fact, the Foreign Office Vote was down for discussion. It would have been perfectly possible for hon. Members to raise this matter on that occasion when the Foreign Office Vote was down. The hon. Member was leaving out a very important argument from his case when he omitted all reference to the opportunity which hon. Members would have had for raising the subject of Muscat and Oman.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

As a Scottish Member, may I point out that we only get a day on Scottish health because hon. Members wish to attend the Royal Garden Party?

Mr. Butler

There are always two Scottish days at the end of every Session, and, as usual, we have arranged them on the day most convenient to the House.

As the House will be aware, the precedent by which Mr. Speaker must be governed, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, is to be found in some four or five pages of Erskine May, the most important page being page 352, under the second heading that the "Matter must be urgent," to which he referred. In paragraph (c), it is there said, citing endless precedents for it: the motion has been refused when an ordinary Parliamentary opportunity will occur shortly or in time. It is our view that such an opportunity did, in fact, occur, and that Mr. Speaker's Ruling was a just and proper one. We believe that the opportunity given on the next occasion for this matter to be debated was sufficient in the interests of hon. Members and of the House as a whole.

Mr. Paget

Even if one assumes that there might have been an opportunity on a Supply Day which could have been devoted to this matter, by the time the morrow came British troops had been committed and British aircraft had been in action.

Mr. Butler

My difficulty is that, as Leader of the House, I am not, so to speak, taking sides upon the question—[Interruption.] Perhaps the House would listen to me—of the convenience of the Government. The Government are ready to face debate or criticism or to answer the queries of hon. Members on the back benches at any time of the day or night. I am simply saying that, as Leader of the House, in my opinion Mr. Speaker acted according to precedent. The reason which he gave in his Ruling was In my view, unless we know something more about this case…and the limits which have been placed on that discretion"— namely, the discretion within certain limits to take military action— I do not think that I can call it under the Standing Order."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22nd July, 1957: Vol. 399, c. 37.] In my opinion, looking at it from the point of view of Mr. Speaker's Ruling, that was a ruling which it was proper for him to give. I am not discussing Government policy; I am not discussing the situation from the Government's angle. I am simply giving reasons why I think Mr. Speaker gave his Ruling and why I think we should not support the Motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway

(Eton and Slough): I am quite sure that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to be fair to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol. South-East. He said that my hon. Friend did not mention the Foreign Office debate. My hon. Friend referred to the disarmament debate, and I hope, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman will withdraw that particular statement.

Mr. Butler

Certainly, the hon. Gentleman did refer to the disarmament debate, and I will withdraw any suggestion that he made no reference to it. What he did not say was that there was the Foreign Office Vote, and it would have been quite in order to discuss Muscat and Oman on that Vote if he so desired. That is what I think he should have brought forward, which I think brings Mr. Speaker's Ruling within the bounds of precedent, according to Erskine May.

The only other two matters I have to answer are a request for further investigation into Standing Orders, and a request for a meeting of what has been described as the Rules Committee. I canot give any such undertaking today, except to say that those of us who are connected with the Committee on Procedure and those of us who are responsible for the business of the House, and the usual channels, will certainly pay attention to the needs of back benchers. It is our business to do so, and it is the business of Mr. Speaker, as of the Leader of the House, to take care of minorities in the House.

However, I would not say that the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, however eloquent his remarks have been, has been unable to blossom through the last few months and years. In fact, we regard him as a somewhat luxuriant weed in this Assembly. I do not think that he need feel himself to be in any way inhibited or put back. I have with me a particularly luxuriant newspaper article, sent to me by one of my hon. Friends who took it from a Sunday newspaper, wherein the hon. Gentleman informed his readers about his feelings in moving this Motion, saying that he felt a condition of absolute terror in the lower part of his inside. All I can say is that he does not show it when he speaks; nor did his excellent father when he moved a similar Motion several years ago. There is something in this plant which is endemic in this matter.

I should strongly advise the House, while accepting the wit and eloquence of the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East, and the spirit in which he moved his Motion, to take the view very definitely that Mr. Speaker acted in a proper manner in his Ruling, according to the best information at his disposal on this occasion. We have unbounded confidence in his fairness and impartiality, and I hope that the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East will withdraw his Motion.

4.46 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Gaitskell (Leeds, South)

I shall be very brief, because I think that the House wishes to bring this matter to a conclusion. We all agree that respect for the Chair is the very essence of our Parliamentary democracy, and that, without that respect, we could not conduct our proceedings in the manner we think appropriate. I would not, however, go so far as the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson)in suggesting that we ought, all of us, automatically and without question, to accept everything Mr. Speaker says. I feel that the hon. Member for Farnham has been a little too long on that side of the House and that, perhaps, if he were a Member of the Opposition again he would find his instincts in this matter changing a little. This is not to say in any way that we derogate from our fundamental respect for the Chair.

I think it is well known that we do argue with Mr. Speaker from time to time about Rulings which he gives. Here, I must put in a word for the Front Bench. Even the Front Bench has been known to argue with Mr. Speaker on Rulings he has given. It is one thing, however, to argue with Mr. Speaker. It is another thing to support a Motion of this kind. I myself would not agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget)that it is better to accept Mr. Speaker's Ruling without question at the time, without argument_ even though one strongly disagrees, and to put a Motion down afterwards. In my view, the present arrangement by which, if we think it right, we usually try a bit of argument with Mr. Speaker but do not put down Motions is the right way round.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)made a most excellent speech which, I think, was appreciated by the whole House. If we are to continue the flowers metaphor, I hope that he will have a very long and pleasant period of continuous blooming throughout the summer. Also, despite his rather cynical reference to the Front Bench, I would say about my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton that I hope he too has a good time as a flower.

This is, as has been said, a House of Commons matter, and we must look at it in that light. I am bound to say that I regret that the party opposite has, apparently, issued a three-line Whip on a matter of this kind. It is for hon. Gentlemen opposite to settle these issues, but I feel that the Patronage Secretary has in this case made a mistake. However, that should not affect our judgment as to what we should do. For my part, recognising that in this particular instance there was a very definite difference of opinion with Mr. Speaker—I think it was, at any rate, a borderline case—I, for my part, would not and could not support the Motion, and I am very glad that my hon. Friend has promised to withdraw it.

4.50 p.m.

Mr. Leslie Hale (Oldham, West)

I had intended to speak formally on this matter, but in view of the way matters have progressed I propose to make only two or three very brief points. I entirely agree with every point put by the mover of the Motion, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), and I disagree with very little said so fairly and vividly by the Leader of the House. I always listen with attention to the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson), and, indeed, with regard, but I felt that when he said that there was an attack on the impartiality of Mr. Speaker he was saying something that did not exist in the Motion.

Mr. Nicholson

I was not suggesting that there was an attack on the impartiality of Mr. Speaker. I said that any criticism of Mr. Speaker is liable to degenerate into such an attack and that I deplore criticism of him because I believe him to be the personification of this House.

Mr. Hale

The hon. Gentleman said subsequently that he sometimes resented Mr. Speaker's decision, which seems the strongest criticism made of Mr. Speaker in the debate. I do not resent Mr. Speaker's decisions. I am well aware that for a humble back bencher like myself it would be almost as much an impertinence to compliment Mr. Speaker as to criticise him.

I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would proceed with the eulogy he planned, because I should like to be associated with any expression of appreciation. Indeed, I have myself had reason to express my appreciation of the great dignity, the great learning, the wit, the good humour, the tolerance and the forbearance with which Mr. Speaker has faced very difficult Parliamentary decisions for a long time.

May I venture to say that I am on record in the matter? It is not without its significance that when practically the whole party put down, not as a party matter but with the vocal support of many hon. Members, a Motion of censure which was moved on one of the distinguished officers of this House, whom we all regard with deep respect and most of us with very great affection, and to whose return to the House restored to health we all look forward with real pleasure, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget)and I were the two hon. Members on this side of the House who expressed vocal disagreement and declined to support the Motion.

With regard to the point I now wish to put, I was surprised to find that I was already on record. When a Motion of censure was moved on 7th May, 1942—and let me say that "censure" is a Parliamentary term and, in the terms of the Oxford Dictionary, means to express disagreement, which has degenerated in the vulgar tongue into implying something quite different—I expressed the view in rather special circumstances. The Motion had been put down in the names of two of my most intimate hon. Friends, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman)and by the then hon. Member for Devonport, and I again spoke in disagreement with it. I said that, personally, I thought it was a very good thing that the House should regularly and constantly discuss the question of its rules and the application of its procedure.

I deplore the fact that we have not found a more sensible method than of putting down a Motion called technically a Motion of censure, because that, I believe, gives it priority over ordinary business. In the twelve years that I have been a Member of the House, I have always felt that the House was far too conscious about its privileges and not too much concerned about its liberties.

We have discussed all sorts of silly things under the issue of privilege—the holding up of a car two miles from the House when a Member was coming here on an unimportant afternoon, and whether Mrs. Jones was right to call somebody a stinker on a poster. Let us face it. We have discussed matters in this way because of the silly rule which makes it incumbent on an hon. Member to rush to the House, without thinking, to raise such a matter. This could be avoided if the Rules Committee would give twenty-four hours for consultation and thought on such matters. I would prefer consultation with party leaders. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition will not accuse me of being over-anxious in that respect on other matters.

I think that we should protect our dignity a bit more and that if we discussed the question of liberty and the rights of back benchers it would be a useful thing, and that hon. Members on both sides of the House would want to join in with enthusiasm. We have, unfortunately, been devising a procedure. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that, of course, there must be the right to challenge at once and to argue.

I should have thought it a very desirable alteration, which I do not think would be contrary to the rule, if anyone who moved the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 9 were given an opportunity of a few minutes to put his reasons for it at the time instead of leaving Mr. Speaker in the almost impossibe position of having to give, on the spur of the moment, a Ruling on a highly complex matter after a brief series of questions and cross-questions, and to have regard to matters which he could only do after searching the Order Paper about priority of business and then to have to give a Ruling in a difficult position.

Although I accept the fact that one should not argue at the time, I am quite prepared to say that under the guise of points of order we have recently developed a procedure of challenging Mr. Speaker in a manner which becomes disorderly. I have been as guilty as anyone of that myself and without giving any assurances for the future, I am prepared to wear a limited amount of sackcloth and ashes for the past.

A national newspaper suggested today that Mr. Speaker's decisions should be treated like an umpire's decisions and should not be questioned. That was the sense of the speech of the hon. Member for Farnham. All of us who know anything about cricket and have seen Dick Tilsley given out 1.b.w. will not accept the mythology that the umpire's decision is accepted without question by even the least pertinacious of the 20,000 spectators without actually using one's bat as a weapon. The mythology that an umpire's decision is always respected is more unpopular in England than in Pakistan.

As has been rightly said, Mr. Speaker is called upon to give judicial decisions and to give them in conflicts and difficulties which do not confront a judge. He is called upon to balance two conflicting elements in circumstances in which it is almost inevitable that his decision should give dissatisfaction to some part of the House. Therefore, it is very wonderful that we manage in these technical arguments with the Chair to retain such confidence and such a sincere admiration for its occupant.

The other thing I wish to say to the right hon. Gentleman is that the occupant of the Chair is inevitably called upon to reconcile the rights of back benchers with the official business of the House, which, of course, is really Government business. Whether it be a Labour a Conservative or a Liberal Government, the official business is always Government business, and in those circumstances it is always inevitable that the views of the Chair will be tinctured by the consideration of the relative importance attached to the matter by the distinguished individual who, for the time being, occupies the Chair.

I would refer the House to an example of this on 3rd March, 1947. I attempted to put a Private Notice Question and was ruled out of order by the Table and, on appeal, by Mr. Speaker. I raised the issue as a point of order and the discussion was allowed to proceed for forty-five minutes. I was raising the question of the intended execution that day of five Africans, and for forty-five minutes a debate went on. My arguments against Mr. Speaker's Ruling had some results. It may be that many hon. Members may think that a very undesirable procedure. I was happy to be told last week that two of the men concerned are now out of prison and are living in Ghana. It seems to me that might be a useful result of that intervention.

On this occasion, we were discussing what, after all, is a military operation. I have no desire to raise any issue of controversy, but a number of points of view were put forward. The noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke)raised an extremely important point on the whole terminology of the matter. We found out that the payment, or the offer, by King Saud to the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi of money is bribery, but that the offer of Mr. Eisenhower to King Saud is mutual aid. The hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro)raised a question, which the Foreign Secretary himself said today he still cannot answer, about the attitude of one of our greatest allies in this matter and how far that ally approves of our action and to what extent it is for or against it. So they were issues of importance. I do not, however, wish to pursue that. The House has been very patient, and I know that it wants to get on to other business.

I venture to suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that the Rules Committee, or, indeed, the Government, could consider some method by which we could have a debate on a few vital matters that affect us. In parenthesis, may I say that there is no constitutional historian who does not say that, however much Mr. Speaker protects the rights of Members, they are whittled away by an inevitable historical process. The Statue of Liberty is constantly eroded by the necessity for Government business to take increasing priority over the rights of Members.

It is, therefore, eminently desirable that these questions should be considered. If we could sometimes consider our unhappy tenure, in view of the alterations in leasehold law, of a Royal Palace under the directions of a dignitary whom none of us knows and who, apparently, obtains his office somewhat fortuitously by the drawing of lots in various families, and the rights of Members in the building, we might be discussing something worth while. If we could discuss these questions in this form without it being imputed that we were lowering the dignity of the House, it would be much more desirable. I therefore suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that he should consider these matters.

I speak for all of us when I say that because of the implications attached to such a Motion by those who do not understand the procedure of the House one always puts down such a Motion and supports it with the deepest possible reluctance and distaste. No one in the course of the whole debate, which has been conducted with very good temper and a genuine attempt to understand one another's point of view, has made any comment of any kind which reflects, nor does any comment of any kind reflect, upon either the competence or the impartiality of the Chair.

5.2 p.m.

Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire, South)

The chief value of this debate has not been what its ostensible purpose appeared to be. Indeed, it appears as if the whole House now is of an opinion contrary to that which the Motion sets forth. If the mover of the Motion, the hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), and his seconder, the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), carry out their intention and the Motion is withdrawn, I trust it will be taken that there is no suggestion whatever of any taint or slur upon Mr. Speaker's judgment being left on record and that the matter will really then have been entirely disposed of and that the whole House can proceed with its confidence in Mr. Speaker's judgment absolutely unimpaired.

5.3 p.m.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn)has done a great service today to back benchers on both sides of the House. In pointing out the value of Standing Order No. 9 to back bench Members of a Government party, he has also done a service. Back benchers on this side used that procedure when we wanted to criticise our own party, and if we want to keep alive the virility of British politics and liberty, back benchers on both sides must have some opportunity of doing this.

There is no question of criticism of the dignity of Mr. Speaker. There is no question of criticism directly of his authority. But who are we to sit back and not be allowed occasionally, through proper procedure, to put a Motion on the Order Paper and to question these decisions on Standing Order No. 9?

My hon. Friend pointed out that there have been 73 occasions since 1945, but that on only eight of them has debate under the Standing Order been allowed. This method is not used frivolously. Every Member of Parliament, on both sides, has a sense of responsibility. If there was no sense of urgency about the sons of British mothers being brought into action in the Middle East and our having nothing told to us about it, I want to know what other thing could have a sense of urgency.

Something is happening to this House of Commons. Speeches are becoming more arid. Long speeches are being written. We are losing the art of debate. I wish Mr. Speaker would recommend that Members who read long speeches should be ruled out of order. The cut and thrust of debate is being lost, and the real pulsing virility of British freedom is being lost because a Member sits up half the night trying to make smart phrases and misses getting them across because he does not depend upon the good British sense of getting them across the Floor of the House.

I sincerely hope that the Rules Committee will listen to what back bench Members have said. There are not many opportunities for the back benchers. I and others have sometimes used them. We have tried with agility under the Ten Minutes Rule and by Questions or sometimes by the use of Standing Order No. 9. So I sincerely hope that the Rules Committee will look into the question of written speeches.

One other thing that we must stop is the business of Members approaching Mr. Speaker to have long lists of names, because that will empty the Chamber if Members know that certain of them may speak freely and openly. If we do not keep liberty alive in this Chamber, it will be lost outside. If hon. Members on both sides know that there is a list of twenty names to be called, they will say, "What good is it for us to sit in the Chamber?" So when the Rules Committee considers this—[Laughter.] It is not a laughing matter. It spoils the debates. It spoils their spontaneity and it does not keep alive the real British attitude to the cut and thrust of debate. I hope that the Rules Committee will look into this.

The Leader of the House should have had sufficient confidence in the common sense of this Parliament not to send out a three-line Whip on this issue, because Members would have made up their minds on this matter completely irrespective of party. That shows the danger of Government power in imposing a three-line Whip on an issue like this and not allowing it to be a true House of Commons debate for back benchers. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for airing this matter and I sincerely hope that the Rules Committee will take note of the points that I have made.

Mr. Benn

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.