HC Deb 16 December 1959 vol 615 cc1456-66
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I will, with permission, Sir, make a statement on private Members' time and on the Recommendations of the Procedure Committee of 1959.

I am obliged for the views which I have received from right hon. and hon. Members, all of which I have carefully considered. The views expressed to me as to the best arrangements for the consideration of private Members' Motions vary considerably—some favour Mondays, some favour Wednesdays, in whole or in part, very many favour making no change in the present arrangements which confine private Members' time to Fridays.

I find no unanimity and have, therefore, decided to propose an experiment. The 20 Fridays already allotted for private Members' business will remain undisturbed. The Government programme for this Session was planned upon this basis, and, that being so, the House will, I trust, realise that there must be a limit to the extra time which can be given to private Members' Motions.

We are, however, prepared to give four opportunities for the consideration of Private Members' Motions on two Mondays and on two Wednesdays, in addition to the Fridays which they at present enjoy. A Monday up to 7 o'clock will be set apart towards the end of February, and another towards the end of May; and there will be a Wednesday from 7 o'clock until 10 o'clock in March and again towards the end of June.

I will inform the House of the precise dates when we resume, as they must, of course, depend upon the Government's general programme of business. Government business will be taken during the other half of these days. When title first half of the day is given, private Members are safeguarded against any inroad into the time by opposed Private Business which is set down for consideration at seven o'clock. I hope that this experiment will lead us to arrive at the best arrangement for next Session.

The Ballots to determine the precedence of Motions will be held in the House after Questions. The necessary Motion to carry out the proposal is being prepared.

I now come to the Recommendations made by the Select Committee on Procedure. The Government are indebted to the Committee for its Report, which has been considered, as well as the views expressed during and since the debate in July. The Committee made some useful proposals for the more efficient dispatch of business, particularly in relation to Standing Committees, and I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT a summary of those Recommendations which the Government propose to invite the House to accept. I have had the opportunity of discussing certain of the Recommendations which intimately concern the Chair with Mr. Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means. We have been guided by their advice, as will be indicated in the statement to be circulated.

There is, however, one Recommendation to which I wish to refer, namely, that the House should support Mr. Speaker in checking the number and length of supplementary questions. I feel that it is the wish of hon. Members in all parts of the House that more Questions should be answered orally and that this Recommendation will receive our general support. I detect a slight advance and venture to hope that in the New Year we shall resolve to support you, Mr. Speaker, in your endeavours.

We shall have the expert assistance of the Clerk of the House in drafting the Amendments to Standing Orders and Motions which will be required to carry the various proposals into effect, and these will be tabled immediately on our resumption after the Recess.

My statement today and the more detailed information to be circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT, which, I must tell hon. Members, is of considerable length because we are accepting a considerable number of the Recommendations, will, I am sure, be studied by hon. Members. After our return I shall arrange for a debate to take place, not only upon the particular proposals, but generally, if that proves to be the wish of the House.

Mr. Gaitskell

I should like to express the appreciation of this side of the House for the right hon. Gentleman's statement. Although it is perhaps im- possible to secure unanimity, it was certainly my impression that the general sense of the House during the debate on private Members' time was that we should have Private Members' Motions on Wednesdays instead of Fridays. The right hon. Gentleman has given us part of that, not the whole of it, and, although I would have liked more, I think that in the circumstances we should accept the experiment which the right hon. Gentleman has proposed.

With regard to the alterations in procedure, we shall, of course, study what is proposed, but there is one matter which has been brought up several times lately at the end of Questions, and that relates to the Prime Minister's Questions. May I ask the Leader of the House whether that point will be dealt with in the proposals of the Government after the Recess?

Mr. Butler

No, Sir. If hon. Members will study the very considerable papers which I am circulating in the OFFICIAL REPORT, which run into four pages of foolscap, they will see a reference to the suggestion that we should have two Questions per Member, not three. That matter has been discussed with you, Mr. Speaker. I think that, in the circumstances, the Government, and I, as Leader of the House, would prefer that we should not finally come to a decision upon a final time for the Prime Minister's Questions, as was recommended by the Select Committee, until we try this experiment.

Mr. Gaitskell

I do not quite see why the limit of two instead of three Questions should affect the time at which the Prime Minister's Questions are reached. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to at least keep an open mind on this matter, so that we may consider it again in the debate which he has promised after the Recess. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he would be prepared to allow the debate to take in not only the particular proposals, but the whole question of procedure and the whole Report, so that we can discuss what the proposals do not contain as well as what they do contain?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. That brings me to what I said at the end of my statement, namely, that, if it is desired, we shall certainly make the debate general so that hon. Members can put forward other ideas which they may prefer. There is no absolute tie-up between the matter of two Questions instead of three, and the exact time for the Prime Minister's Questions, but I think that the combination of fewer supplementaries and a greater speed-up of Questions might well mean that the Prime Minister's Questions will come on at a reasonable hour. That is the sort of thing that we can discuss.

Mr. Driberg

Do the recommendations of the right hon. Gentleman include the modest proposal which I made to him, which would ensure at least that several more Questions were reached orally each day—that is to say, the proposal that Question Time should last for one hour from the moment at which Question No. 1 is called?

Mr. Butler

No, Sir. Although the hon. Member wrote to me, and I am aware of his view, that proposal is not included in the circulated document. It is, however, one which the hon. Member can raise in the debate.

Mr. Shinwell

Do we understand that the right hon. Gentleman has made up his mind about these matters, or is he prepared to collect the voices and then come to a conclusion afterwards? Will he take great care in this matter of the number of Questions? Is he aware—no doubt he is—that Question Time is the most important time in this House, that it affords an opportunity for interrogating the Executive and that there are, no doubt, Ministers who would welcome a curtailment of Questions for obvious reasons? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the lengthy Answers furnished by Ministers? The fact that sometimes they are not very satisfactory is beside the point, but will the right hon. Gentleman do something to curtail the length of those Answers?

Mr. Butler

The Government and I, as Leader of the House, have based our proposals upon a Select Committee of the House, so that we have based them on something of which the House has cognisance. If hon. Members want to add or subtract, they will be able to do so. I was warning the House before the Recess that the general line of drafting which we shall now undertake is on the lines of the document I am circulating; so that hon. Members will have plenty of time to consider it during the Recess. As regards the length of Questions or Answers, I would not restrict a stricture on that matter to one section of the House. It should apply to all hon. and right hon. Members, whether on the Front Benches or elsewhere.

Mr. C. Pannell

Will the Prime Minister look again at this matter of the Prime Minister's Questions? It was a unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee on Procedure that the House should know a definite time at which the Prime Minister should answer. I think that all hon. Members are agreed upon that. It is not affected by the other matters that the right hon. Gentleman has put forward. It seems to us that the Prime Minister is simply being asked on two days of the week to be present at a certain time, and to some of us it seems a considerable disrespect to the Prime Minister that he is sometimes debarred from answering Questions by the loquacity of an Under-Secretary.

Mr. Butler

As I said in my opening statement, this is a matter for the House and for hon. Members ultimately to decide. I am interested to note the point made by the hon. Member and his right hon. Friend in this respect. It is not in the circulated document, but it has come up at Question Time and it must be a matter for future consideration.

Mr. Blackburn

Will the Leader of the House explain a little more clearly what he means by saying that it will be possible to add to or subtract from the recommendations of the Government? Will it be possible for amendments to be moved concerning items which have not been included in the Government's recommendations; and when it comes to the House accepting the recommendations, shall we be able to accept them all separately, or shall we have to accept them in bulk?

Mr. Butler

They will be in the form of Orders or Motions. The question of private Members' time will be dealt with in a Sessional Order. It will not be an amendment to the Standing Orders and as such it will be debatable. The other matters will be dealt with in either Orders or Motions, which would be susceptible of discussion and debate. Therefore, there will be ample opportunity to go into them. In addition, we shall do our best to lay them immediately we return, to give time for hon. Members to study them.

Mr. Tiley

Will we be allowed to discuss accommodation as well as procedure? When the Select Committee sat last year, we were a little hampered in our deliberations by the terms of reference and it is difficult to discuss just the one subject.

Mr. Butler

We had better discuss accommodation on a separate occasion. We were ready to offer half a day even before the Recess, but the Opposition preferred to have a full day and the matter has, therefore, been postponed until after we return.

Mr. Marsh

Has the right hon. Gentleman been able to consider the possibility of giving drafting assistance to private Members? Does he not agree that the encouragement of amateur drafting is not in the best interests of the House?

Mr. Butler

The hon. Member had better study our recommendations. This is a matter which I have discussed through the usual channels and with several hon. Members. If we might consider it later, I shall be obliged to the hon. Member.

Mr. Osborne

Are the right hon. Gentleman's recommendations fixed and firm? Can they be altered at all? If so, can we write to my right hon. Friend during the Recess—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We shall never get to an end of this unless we can hear it.

Mr. Osborne

Will my right hon. Friend consider that in addition to reducing the number of Questions by each hon. Member from three to two, he should also, as a trial, see that no hon. Member puts more than one Question to one Minister, so that Ministers answer in rotation more often?

Mr. Butler

It is not part of the object this operation in any way to restrict Question Time or the liberty of asking Questions. The object is to get as many hon. Members into Question Time as possible. In the circumstances, it would be better not to restrict it further.

Mr. Warbey

With regard to private Members' time, can the right hon. Gentleman say how long is it intended that the present Session will be? The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the amount of time which it is planned to take up for Government business, but as he is engaged in the process of lengthening Recesses and cutting down the length of the Session, would it not be better to reverse the process and give more total time to Parliamentary business so that we can have more private Members' time?

Mr. Butler

It will be found, in general, that we shall not sit very much less than any other Session of Parliament. It certainly is not our wish unduly to cut down Parliamentary debate. It is well known that I undertook to make this offer and I have now made it as against a Government programme already outlined. It is about as much as I can manage.

Mr. Peyton

Has my right hon. Friend been able to think of any method which might discourage those who habitually make very long speeches?

Mr. Butler

That lies more in your discretion, Mr. Speaker, than in mine.

Mr. Lipton

Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that when these proposals relating to procedure come before the House there will be a free vote on them?

Mr. Butler

We had better wait and discuss that.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House has a great deal of business to do. Ballot for Notices of Motions for Friday, 29th January.

Following is the detailed information:


[H.C. 92 of 1959; references to Summary of Recommendations, pages xxviii-xxix]

Recommendations which the Government propose to accept:

(ii) Alterations in the composition and procedure of Standing Committees (with the exception of the Scottish Standing Committee). (Paragraph 8.)

The distinction between the nucleus of the Committee and added Members to be abolished; the maximum size of a Standing Committee to be 50 and the minimum size 20, as at present; the size of a Committee appointed to consider minor Bills not to exceed 20–25; the numbers required to form the quorum and to render the majority effective for the Closure to be expressed as one-third of the membership of the Committee, fractions being counted as a whole, instead of the present fixed alternative numbers.

The Government agree with these Recommendations, but are of the opinion that the duty imposed upon the Clerk of a Standing Committee to call the Chairman's attention to the absence of a quorum should be retained.

(v) Announcement of selection of Amendments by the Chair on Committee and Report stages. (Paragraph 14.)

In the last Session of the last Parliament, the then Chairman of Ways and Means made known his selection of Amendments to the Finance Bill and the final list of Amendments and new Clauses was numbered. The final marshalled lists of Amendments have been numbered this Session in respect of the Local Employment Bill and the Betting and Gaming Bill, now before a Standing Committee. It is believed that these arrangements are to the general convenience of the House.

The Government accept the Committee's view that if this practice were adopted the Chair must reserve the right to alter the selection of Amendments as the debate progresses and that the preliminary announcement cannot be regarded as binding on the Chair.

Mr. Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means have been consulted and give their approval to these Recommendations.

(viii) Ten Minutes Rule Bills to be limited to one on any one day. (Paragraph 18.)

(ix) Week's notice to be given of Ten Minutes Rule Bills. (Paragraph 19.)

The Government agree that Motions for leave to bring in Bills proposed by private Members on Tuesdays and Wednesdays under Standing Order No. 12 should be limited to one on each of those days and agree that a week's notice should be given of such Motions.

(xv) Requirement of seconders to be abolished except upon ceremonial occasions. (Paragraph 28.)

The Government agree with this Recommendation.

(xxi) Money resolutions to be exempted business for three-quarters of an hour. (Paragraph 35.)

The Government agree with this Recommendation.

(xxi) Motions to suspend Standing Order No. 1 to be moved at moment of interruption of business. (Paragraph 35.)

The Government agree with this suggestion.

(xxiii) House to support Mr. Speaker in checking number and length of supplementary questions. (Paragraph 38.)

The Government agree with this Recommendation.

(xxiv) Number of Oral Questions allowed each day to be reduced from three to two. (Paragraph 39.)

The Government are in favour of this Recommendation and have consulted Mr. Speaker, who will give effect to it.

(xxix) New form to be used for sanctioning virement. (Paragraph 45.)

A new form of the Resolution will be proposed which will make clearer the point at issue and provision made for the Resolutions to be considered in Committee of Supply.

(xxxiii) Time allowed for a Count to be increased from two to four minutes. (Paragraph 51.)

The Government agree that it would be convenient to increase the time allowed for a Count.

(xxxiv) Business statement to announce business for week beginning with the Tuesday following and ending with the next Monday thereafter. (Paragraph 52.)

So far as is practicable, the weekly statement of business will include the proposed business for the following Monday week.

(xxxvi) Drafting Committee to be set up on the Standing Orders. (Paragraph 56.)

The Government agree with this Recommendation and propose to set up a drafting Committee to review the details of the Standing Orders after the proposed changes have been agreed to by the House

Recommendations which have been discussed with Mr. Speaker

(xvi) Practice relating to Privy Councillors' rights in speaking to be altered. (Paragraph 29.)

The Government consider that this matter is best left to the discretion of the Chair.

(xviii) Method of ballot for adjournment Motions to be altered. (Paragraph 32.) (Half-hour Adjournment.)

Mr. Speaker is in favour of this Recommendation and will give effect to it if it is the general wish of the House.

(xxxi) Precedence not to be withheld from matters of Privilege provided that they are raised within 24 hours after the first opportunity. (Paragraph 29.)

The Government have consulted Mr. Speaker and agree with him that it would be an advantage for the Chair to be given notice of complaints of Privilege before they are raised by hon. Members in the House. In such cases the precedence which Privilege matters have over the Orders of the Day should not be withheld provided

  1. (a) that notice is given to Mr. Speaker at the earliest opportunity, and
  2. (b) that the matter is raised at the sitting of the House next following that during which the notice was given.

The following examples show the operation of the precedence rule in relation to Privilege:—

1. Alleged breach of Privilege in national newspaper on Monday.

Present practice: Must be raised on Monday at 3.30 p.m.

Proposed practice: Notice given to Mr. Speaker on Monday before rising of the House could be raised on Tuesday. But if no notice given, Tuesday would be too late.

2. Alleged breach of Privilege in local newspaper on Monday.

Present practice: Must be raised on Tuesday at 3.30 p.m.

Proposed practice: Notice given to Mr. Speaker on Tuesday before rising of the House could be raised on Wednesday. But if no notice given, Wednesday would be too late.

3. Alleged breach of Privilege national newspaper on Friday.

Present practice: Must be raised on Friday at 11 a.m.

Proposed practice: Notice given to Mr. Speaker before rising of the House on Friday could be raised on Monday. But if no notice given, Monday would be too late.

Recommendations already implemented

(vii) Methods to deal with obstruction in Standing Committee on Private Members' Bills. (Paragraph 17.)

The Chairmen's Panel have considered this Recommendation and passed a Resolution reported to the House on 16th November providing that, if at any two meetings of a Committee on a Bill the Committee is adjourned for lack of a quorum before 12 noon, the Bill should go to the bottom of the list of Bills before the Committee and remain there until all other Bills committed to the Committee have been disposed of.

(xi) Earlier presentation of Private Bills. (Paragraph 22.)

The House agreed to the necessary amendments to the Private Business Standing Orders at the end of the last Session of the last Parliament at the instance of the then Chairman of Ways and Means.

(xxxvii) Public Business Standing Orders to be printed separately from Private Business Standing Orders. (Paragraph 57.)

The Clerk of the House has caused the Public Business Standing Orders and the Private Business Standing Orders to be issued in separate volumes of differing format.

Recommendations for further consideration

(vi) Programme for Private Members' Bills. (Paragraph 15.)

The Committee's Recommendation relating to the present arrangement for Private Members' business which is taken on Fridays will be considered in connection with any changes which may be made in the future

(xxvii) Procedure for determining allotted days to be altered. (Paragraph 43.)

The Committee drew attention to the uneven distribution of allotted Supply Days throughout the year and suggested that they should be more evenly spread. This matter concerns the Opposition and preliminary discussion has already taken place and will be followed up in due course.

(xxxv) The Order Paper to be revised. (Paragraph 53.)

The proposals of the Clerk of the House for the revision of the Order Paper are in active preparation. They are complicated and will require careful consideration. Mr. Speaker's approval will be sought to any changes proposed and he will probably seek the advice of the Select Committee on Publications and Debates Reports.