HC Deb 06 November 1957 vol 577 cc167-77
The Secretary of State for the Home Department and Lord Privy Seal (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I beg to move, That—

  1. (1) save as provided in paragraphs (2) and of this Order, Government business shall have precedence at every sitting for the remainder of the Session;
  2. (2) Public Bills, other than Government Bills shall have precedence over Government Business on the following Fridays, namely, 6th December, 24th January, 7th and 21st February, 7th and 21st March, 18th April, 2nd and 16th May and 20th June;
  3. (3) on and after Friday, 18th April, Public Bills other than Government Bills shall be arranged on the Order Paper in the following order:—Consideration of Lords Amendments, Third Readings, Considerations of Reports not already entered upon, adjourned Proceedings on Consideration. Bills in progress in Committee, Bills appointed for Committee and Second Readings;
  4. (4) the ballot for unofficial Members' Bills shall be held on Thursday, 14th November, under arrangements to be made by Mr. Speaker, and the Bills shall be presented at the commencement of Public Business on Wednesday, 20th November;
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  6. (5) unofficial Members' Notices of Motions and unofficial Members' Bills shall have precedence in that order over Government Business on the following Fridays, namely, 29th November, 13th December, 31st January, 14th and 28th February, 14th and 28th March, 25th April, 9th May and 13th June; and no Notices of Motions shall be handed in for any of these Fridays in anticipation of the ballots under paragraph (6) of this order;
  7. (6) ballots for precedence of unofficial Members' Notices of Motions shall be held after Questions on the following Wednesdays, namely, 13th and 27th November, 22nd and 29th January, 12th and 26th February, 12th March, 16th and 23rd April and 21st May;
  8. (7) until after Wednesday. 20th November, no unofficial Member shall give Notice of Motion for leave to bring in a Bill under Standing Order No. 12 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business) or for presenting a Bill under Standing Order No. 35 (Presentation or introduction and first reading).
I do not wish to detain the House for long, but I want to make one or two remarks about the dates for private Members' business. This proposal means that there will be the same number of days for Bills and Motions as in previous Sessions, and is in accordance with the recommendations of the Select Committee in 1946. The Fridays will be alternately devoted to Motions and Bills, as in the past. The first date is Friday, 29th November, and on that day Motions will be taken.

Once again, the first six of the Bill Fridays will be for Second Readings and the last four will be for those Bills which have made most progress. I believe that the arrangements made in recent Sessions, whereby twenty days are available for private Members, meet with the general approval of the House and we are certainly following precedent in this matter. There is a period of nine days from today until the Ballot for Bills and then there is a further period of six days between the Ballot and the day for presentation of Bills. Hon. Members who are lucky in the Ballot will, therefore, have adequate time to decide on their proposals. Hon. Members will be asked to sign their names for the Ballot for Bills in the Noes Lobby on these two dates, namely, Tuesday and Wednesday, 12th and 13th November. The first Ballot for Motions will take place in the House on Wednesday, 13th November, that is, for Friday, 29th November. There will be a certain degree of notice. As in recent Sessions, it is proposed that once the Ballot for Bills has been taken private Members should he free to present Bills in the ordinary way or under the Ten Minutes Rule.

Mr. J. Griffiths

On behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I would say that this Motion is satisfactory and that we certainly approve of it.

Mr. Parker

I want to ask the House to face the question whether we are not wasting time by allocating these dates for Private Members' Bills. Bearing in mind the time we spent during last Session on Private Members' Bills and the few that reached the Statute Book, I should have thought that that experience showed that we need to look again at the whole question of Private Members' Bills. Until we face the need of amending Standing Orders in respect of Private Members' Bills we are largely wasting the time of hon. Members who take part in trying to get such Bills on to the Statute Book. Their time is wasted both on Second Reading debates and in Standing Committee.

At present, private Members, who have not the resources of parties and Whips behind them, have extraordinary difficulty, first, in getting a Second Reading for a Bill and, secondly, if they are lucky enough to get a Second Reading, in getting the Bill through Standing Committee. I suggest that the House should face the question first by making one or two sensible reforms, for instance, in respect of the Closure on debates on Private Members' Bills on a Friday. I suggest that 40 would be a reasonable figure to vote in favour of the Closure instead of the 100 needed at the moment. One can readily accept that 100 is necessary for a Government Bill. If 40 were sufficient for Private Members' Bills there would be a chance of many Bills getting a Second Reading on a Friday.

Secondly, I suggest that 10 be the figure for a quorum and for the Closure in Standing Committees on Private Members' Bills. I agree that this makes a distinction between such Bills and ordinary Government Bills passing through the House, but in view of the changes which have taken place over the last fifty years or more, in that Government Bills have become the main business of the House and Private Members' Bills have become a small part of the business of the House, it is high time that we faced the need for a change. If not, we shall get increasingly into the position of finding that the whole of the time given to Private Members' Bills is a farce, an elaborate obstacle race in which hon. Members waste their time in the House and in which people outside who are interested in the Bills also waste their time.

I suggest that wasting time in that way is not to the credit of the House or of hon. Members, and I therefore suggest that the House should consider setting up a committee to look into the question of Private Members' Bills and the need to consider Standing Orders in relation to them before we pass paragraph 5 of this Motion.

Mr. Nabarro

Will my right hon. Friend reject absolutely the plea made to him by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker)? Is my right hon. Friend aware that if he does anything to curb the traditional and long-established rights of private Members to bring in private Members' legislation he will face a great deal of opposition from me, and from many of my hon. Friends? Does he realise that it is an admirable curb upon the Executive that private Members are allotted this substantial amount of Parliamentary time and that private Members propose zealously to safeguard it?

Mr. Woodburn

Has the right hon. Gentleman made up his mind about the Select Committee which has already discussed the question of procedure in Committees, including the Scottish Grand Committee? Is it still his intention that the House should discuss that question before the Government's proposals are made, or will he bring forward the Government's proposals and have a discussion upon them?

Mr. R. A. Butler

It was our hope to have had a discussion on these matters of procedure in the last Session, but the Opposition will remember that we devoted two days, at their request, to economic affairs. This Session has a long way to go, and it is quite possible that we may have a discussion on procedure and consider the report of the Select Committee on Procedure. I will say no more about it today.

In that connection, we should certainly pay attention to the proposals on quorums, or quora, made by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who was trying to extend the rights of private Members on a Friday. I shall also try to digest the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro) to ensure that we pay respect to his wish, namely, that we do not limit the undoubted rights of private Members. That is the object of the Government in moving this Motion.

Sir T. Moore

I should like entirely to dissociate myself from the remarks of the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker). I have been a long time in the House and I have been able to get nine private Member's Bills through the House.

Mr. Mellish

All about dogs and cats.

Sir T. Moore

I have found that if a private Member has a good Bill which commands the support of the House and also of people outside, it is always possible to get a quorum, but if he has a bad Bill he will not get a quorum. It is no good hon. Members opposite complaining that hon. Members will not attend on a Friday. Hon. Members do not intend to attend on a Friday to support a bad Bill. They therefore stay away. The answer lies in the hands of hon. Members; hon. Members should select a good Bill, bring it forward, and it will get through.

Mr. Royle

Will the Leader of the House consider a very important point which arises from what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker)? It has been possible—we have plenty of examples—for a Bill to get a Second Reading with the permission of the whole House but, when it reached Standing Committee, for it to be easily defeated. One of the best examples is the Bill introduced by the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers). Because half the Standing Committee were opposed to that Bill, no quorum could be obtained. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will bear that point very closely in mind when he is considering any revision which might be made of procedure concerning Private Members' Bills.

Mr. Dudley Williams

I hope that my right hon. Friend will pay no attention to the comments made by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker). I think it is quite wrong that private Members' time should be used to introduce controversial Measures. That would happen if the rules of the quorum were revised. Many of my hon. Friends feel that it would be most unfortunate if any such amendment of the rules were made.

Mr. Mellish

I remember that the late Sir Herbert Williams, at one time Member for Croydon, East, used nearly always to oppose Private Members' Bills, particularly when they related to animals. I once asked him why, and the anwser which he gave me was very good; it was one of the things which the hon. Member did very well. He was anxious that there should be a consolidating Bill embracing all forms of animal life and giving them protection. If any hon. Member wanted a wild bird to be given protection, he could make application and it could be included in the consolidating Bill without the necessity to promote another Private Member's Bill.

What is the truth of the situation? An hon. Member can get a Bill through the House only if it is completely innocuous. That is why so much of the time of the House on these Bills is taken up with questions concerning the protection of wild life and subjects of that character. The hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore) said that he had got nine Bills through the House. I believe that the vast majority of them concerned animals of one kind or another. They did not concern human beings, not the things which matter. I have no doubt that there are some hon. Members who, if they are lucky to be drawn in the Ballot—I have never had the luck to be drawn in the Ballot—will introduce a Private Member's Bill to make certain that if we launch a satellite we do not put a dog up there. That will probably mean that we shall have to go through all the Bill procedure. That sort of Bill may get some support in the House.

I ask the Home Secretary whether it is not about time that something was done about the promotion of Private Members' Bills for the protection of this or that animal. I am serious about this; I would support many of those Bills, but surely we can devise a system whereby we do not have to have a Private Member's Bill every time, to go through the procedure of the Ballot and to be pestered by people outside from organisations which, in the main, get their living from promoting Bills of this character. That is why we have so many of these organisations. It would be a good thing if we abolished all that rubbish. When we have Private Members' Bills let us talk about something intelligent and to the benfit of mankind.

Dame Florence Horsbrugh

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that in, say, the last ten or fifteen years many Private Members' Bills of great importance to the whole country have become Acts of Parliament? I am not saying anything against Bills dealing with animals, birds or things like that, but I do say that if hon. Members would get a list of the Acts of Parliament that have been brought forward as Private Members' Bills they would see that it included an extraordinary number of extremely useful Measures, some of which have certainly been controversial.

I cannot think that the Private Member's Bill brought in concerning divorce was anything but controversial. There have been a great many excellent Bills of this type, and it is a great pity that there should be an idea that only when something small and stupid is concerned do private Members bring in Bills. They do not. My right hon. Friend will, I think, agree that this is a useful part of our legislation.

Mr. C. Pannell

Has the Leader of the House considered what happened to Private Members' Bills last Session, and the relative failure of Bills then? The principal architect of the destruction of a very useful Bill was the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), who seems to have a vested interest in this destroying of Private Members' Bills. I speak as Vice-President of the Association of Municipal Corporations. All municipal corporations have wanted a Bill called the Promotion of Bills Bill—[Laughter.] That laughter only betokens the fact that other people do not know what they are laughing about.

At present, local authorities have to promote a great many Bills by means of very expensive procedures. The Promotion of Bills Bill was aimed at saving public money, by streamlining public procedure, and all the local authorities in the country wanted it. It was destroyed by the vested interest of bookmakers and all sorts of people who got working on hon. Gentlemen opposite in the last Session—[Interruption.] It seemed to me to be a curious coalition of bookmakers and funeral furnishers. It was a fact that some of us here—

Sir P. Agnew

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. As one of the hon. Members of the Standing Committee concerned with that Bill, may I ask whether it is strictly in order for the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) to suggest that bookmakers began to work upon us?

Mr. Speaker

I took the words, placing on them the best construction that I could, to mean that hon. Members on the Committee had received representations from bookmakers. Hon. Members of this House receive representations from a great number of people, and I saw nothing I could check in that remark.

Mr. Pannell

I am quite prepared to believe—

Mr. Dudley Williams

On a point of order. No bookmaker spoke to me, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Pannell

I think you know, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Gentleman did not raise a point of order there.

Mr. Speaker

I did not hear the point of order of the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams), but I would point out to the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) that we are discussing the Motion before the House and not the Bill to which he has been referring. I understand that that matter has been decided, one way or the other.

Mr. Pannell

As my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) had spoken generally about the waste of Parliamentary time because of the failure of Private Members' Bills to progress and as the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House had answered, I thought it reasonable to give to the House a specific instance of a worthwhile Bill that would have saved public money but was made completely abortive because of the action of hon. Members. We held about seven meetings of that Committee, and although a majority was in favour of the Bill we were obstructed simply because we could not get the Closure.

I suggest that for a small Committee of this House a Closure of 20 is far too high a figure. The opinion of many members of the Committee was that, in all the circumstances, such a Closure of 20 was quite ridiculous. I believe, though I speak subject to correction, that 20 Members are necessary for the Closure whether the Committees are of relatively small or large size, which makes the position quite ridiculous.

All I will now say is that the Bill to which I refer was one that local government itself really wanted—[Interruption.] Local authorities wanted this Bill, there is no question about that, but at present we have to go through a completely old-fashioned procedure that is completely time wasting. In the case of which I speak, the Committee was made completely abortive, because we are not at present armed with the necessary procedures. The words of the immortal Samuel Weller might be applied to Private Members' Bills, when he said that he wondered whether it was worth while going through so much to achieve so little.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Although there have been given examples of Bills that have not gone through the House, is my right hon. Friend aware that useful and contentious Measures have been brought in? One was brought forward by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Rochdale (Lieut.-Colonel Schofield), and passed into law as the Advertisements (Hire Purchase) Act. Another extremely useful Bill which started as a Private Member's Bill and later became a public one was the Cheques Bill, now the Cheques Act.

Mr. Mitchison

I have two very short points to put to the House. The first is in connection with a very useful type of reform that at present depends practically entirely on Private Members' Bills. I refer to non-contentious law reform. It is a great pity that that has to depend quite so much on Private Members' Bills, but while that position remains it is very important that there should be time given for that type of Measure. I stress that I mean non-contentious law reform.

The second point is this. On this side of the House we welcome this Motion, and we hope that the results of the labours of the Select Committee which dealt with questions of quorum and of Closure in Committees will be given effect to as soon as possible. They are very relevant to the type of point my hon. Friends behind me have raised. Without wishing myself to be contentious, I believe that at present there are too many facilities for hon. Members in a minority to block Bills by excessive loquacity in Standing Committee.

Mr. Baldwin

I should like my right hon. Friend to give some attention to the question raised by the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), of the number of hon. Members necessary on a Friday to get a Private Member's Bill through. I think that 100 is far too many. I speak as one who suffered in that way with a Private Member's Bill—a very good one—which had the support of many hon. Members opposite. Although that Bill was carried on a Friday by a majority vote, because there were not the necessary 100 Members present it went on the shelf. Thereafter, it was only necessary for one hon. Member in the House to say "Object" every fortnight to prevent that Bill ever passing into law.

This is something to which consideration should be directed. Do we want to reduce the number required to be present on a Friday?

Mr. Monslow

I should not have intervened were it not for the fact that some of my hon. Friends have suggested that all Private Members' Bills are innocuous. I do not accept that view. I have had the privilege of piloting two Private Member's Bills through the Commons. They were highly controversial. The one I remember particularly was the Married Women (Maintenance) Bill, which I regarded as a very necessary Measure. By it, a Private Member's Bill, we changed the law, which had not been changed for about fifty years, and we increased the scale, as a result, from £2 to £5. In my view, private Members should have an extension of the facilities they now enjoy.

Mr. V. Yates

I wish to mention one matter in reply to the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore). After twelve years in the House, I feel that some of our finest discussions have taken place on Fridays, on Private Members' Bills. Therefore, I should very much deprecate any suggestion that we should reduce private Members' time.

The hon. Member for Ayr suggested that hon. Members stay away from a Committee which is considering a Bill only when it is a bad Bill. Of course, that is not true. During the past year we have had experience of what has happened to really good Bills. There was one Bill the purpose of which all penal reformers support and which, they believe, would bring about a fine reform and improvement in our penal system. Yet Friday after Friday hon. Members on both sides of the House were to be found standing outside the Committee room and refusing to enter. That is an abuse of private Members' time, in my view.

The right hon. Gentleman might well consider very carefully whether the number required for a quorum is a fair number, especially in view of the kind of abuse to which I have referred. I hope that, as we go on to discuss our Private Members' Bills, he will decide to look at the question of the quorum generally and, in particular, its application on Fridays. It is a great tragedy that we should have the privilege of introducing Private Members' Bills and that hon. Members on both sides should unite to destroy that very privilege which we fought for and have retained for so many years.

Mr. Ernest Davies

Is the Leader of the House aware that, had it not been for a certain Private Member's Bill which went through the House the Session before last, the funds of many local Tory and Labour parties would be in a far worse position than they are?

Question put and agreed to.