HC Deb 07 December 1961 vol 650 cc1544-52
Mr. Speaker

I understand that it is the wish of the House that I should try to help about doubts which arose yesterday.

I have to steer my course, picking my way between two difficulties. First, as Speaker, I know nothing about what happens in Committee. Secondly, I do not wish to breach our wise rule that the Chair does not rule on hypothetical situations, and if I get beguiled into doing that I ask the House to regard it as a lapse in attempting to help the House rather than as a precedent.

The facts are these. I see by the Votes and Proceedings that the Chairman of Ways and Means left the Chair of the Committee on the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill to report that grave disorder had arisen in the Committee, and that he resumed the Chair of the House as Deputy-Speaker and suspended the sitting for half-an-hour under Standing Order No. 24.

I understand that it is contended that the Deputy-Speaker suspended the House before the Mace was replaced upon the Table, and I am now asked what is the constitutional position if that contention is correct.

I am not prepared to accept the theory that no proceedings can take place when the Speaker is in the Chair and the Mace is not on the Table, since, for instance, when an offender is brought to the Bar of the House, the Mace is on the shoulder of the Serjeant at Arms. But I think it likely that, though certain proceedings can be taken without the Mace being on the Table, no vote of the House, even if it were arrived at unanimously, could be properly taken in these circumstances.

The House will understand that I have had only limited time, in relation to other duties that had to be performed also this morning, and I know of no precise precedent. But it is my view that suspension upon grave disorder, arising pursuant to Standing Order No. 24, is not an operation which would be invalidated just because the Mace was in the wrong position. It has the characteristic of being an act of the Chair in isolation as the servant of the House rather than an act of the whole House itself, like a vote is. My view, as I say, is that in these circumstances suspension is not invalidated by the Mace being in the wrong position.

Mr. G. Brown

While expressing the gratitude of the whole House for the way in which you have dealt with this problem in the short time available to you, Mr. Speaker, may I perhaps presume upon your remark, that you have not, understandably, had a lot of time, to offer a few considerations which I am sure that many of us would like you to take further into account. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] This is obviously a matter which we need to get clear, and I am sure that most hon. Members will be glad to have a further Ruling by Mr. Speaker after further consideration.

The point about the occasion when somebody is called to the Bar of the House would seem to be, according to statements in Erskine May, that the Mace must be either upon the Table or be borne before Mr. Speaker. In the case of somebody called to the Bar, it is clearly being borne before you, Mr. Speaker, and is still evidently visible as the symbol of your authority. Our point about last night was that, since we were then presuming to meet as a House, the Mace was not at that stage visibly evident as a symbol of that authority. I, too, have tried to consult what precedents exist.

Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask for your guidance?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) is already addressing me on a point of order. I will hear the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) about his point of order afterwards. I cannot take in more than one at a time.

Mr. Brown

The precedent I would like to commend to you, Mr. Speaker, is a statement quoting the words of a Mr. John Hatsell, who was Clerk of the House from 1768 to 1797 and who was the author of the book which preceded Erskine May, and which, until Erskine May, bore the same relation to the House as Erskine May does nowadays. Hatsell, as quoted by Mr. Norman Wilding, in his book on Parliament, says: When the Mace lies upon the Table the House is a House; when under, it is a Committee; when out of the House, no business can be done. First, I submit to you that last night the Mace was not upon the Table and, therefore, we were not a House. As the Mace was, in fact, out of the House, no business could be done. Further, as evidenced by Mr. Hatsell's doctrine having survived beyond the end of the eighteenth century, it is pointed out by Wilding that in the middle of the nineteenth century it once happened that the House was forced to postpone its sitting because the officer who held the key of the Mace cupboard was missing. Since he was missing, the Mace could not be obtained, and since the Mace could not be obtained it was ruled by your predecessor at that time that the House could not sit. I therefore submit, secondly, that there is ample precedent on which to rule that we nowadays require the Mace to be in its proper position.

My third submission is that this is an ancient precedent and is, therefore, not lightly to be set aside. As best I was able in the short time available, I inquired how old this precedent is. It will be known to us all that none of our present-day precedents has stood for ever. Indeed, nothing about the law of this country has stood for ever, since the Common Law has been built up by decisions taken and precedents established. But I have discovered that in 1640 Mr. Pym said: … it is a new doctrine, that wee can doe nothing without a Speaker, or the Mace. By the end of the seventeenth century it had already become generally accepted that the Mace must be brought into the House before the House could consider itself properly constituted. That is the view expressed in a pamphlet issued by Her Majesty's Stationery Office and written by the present Deputy Serjeant at Arms, appearing as Document No. 3 in the series called, "The House of Commons Library".

It is the sum of my three submissions, which we ask you further to consider, that, for more than 200 years, it has been the practice that the Mace being in the House means that it is in its proper place—on the Table or on the Serjeant at Arm's shoulder—and that there is no provision for its being anywhere else in the House.

I therefore submit that many of us who care for the traditions of this House and for its authority would be greatly indebted to you if you would consider this matter still further, taking into account all the precedents, among other things.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I would like to say that I made a statement because I understood that it was the common wish of the House that I should do so, but I do not think that that extended my invitation to allowing irregular discussion of the matter now. I do not say that to be discourteous, but because I think that we should put some limit to it. Sir Lionel Heald.

Sir L. Heald

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you give us your guidance and Ruling? At the conclusion of proceedings last night it was understood that you would give a Ruling on this matter, and you have been good enough to give it. Are we to understand that that Ruling is not debatable? I understood that that was the position, and I must apologise for intervening earlier in order to object to the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) making a speech on the matter.

I would ask, in the interests not only of the particular points which gave rise to this but of many occasions in the last few days and before, that it should be laid down quite clearly that, when the Chair has ruled upon a point of order, it is not possible for it to be further debated.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is perfectly right where there be a firm Ruling, but there may, of course, be the circumstances in which the Chair, before making a firm Ruling, is inviting such assistance as the House can give him. That, I confess, is not so in this case but, in view of what the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) said, I will look at the right hon. Member for Belper's precedents and, of course caring for the traditions and rules and regulation and practice of the House as much as anybody, if I entertain any suspicion that my Ruling is thereby rendered in any way wrong, I will say so. Otherwise, it is a firm one.

Mr. Grimond

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. While I appreciate that you cannot take notice of what happened in Committee, is there some method of drawing the attention of the appropriate authorities to the fact that proceedings would be greatly assisted if the sound amplifying system were improved? A great deal of trouble has arisen because it appears that the microphone suitable for the Chairman is behind and not in front of him.

Further, while I appreciate your Ruling that it is not essential for the Mace to be on the Table to constitute a sitting of the House, when you are further considering the points raised by the right hon. Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown), as, I understand, you have kindly undertaken to do, will you also consider informing the House what are the absolute criteria which must be fulfilled to constitute a proper sitting of the House as a House? I have always understood that mere occupation of Mr. Speaker's Chair was insufficient and that other criteria had to be fulfilled. The House would be greatly obliged, if, in due course, you would give your Ruling upon that matter as well.

Mr. Speaker

I do not want to range over hypothetical regions. I am satisfied that in this context there is no invalidity in what happened thereafter in the totality of last night's circumstances, upon any conceivable view—and I really have looked at that—even if the Mace was not upon the Table at the moment of suspension.

On the extraneous matter of accoustics, I have received complaints from hon. Members. I have noticed that hon. Members tend to have their ears glued to the loudspeakers much more than before. I have also noticed that I sometimes fail, when speaking in a normal way, to make myself heard. I was proposing this very day—I have been deflected by other matters—to write to the Minister of Works asking that the whole matter should be looked at in the Recess. I do not think that there will be an opportunity before that.

Mr. Bellenger

Is not the effect of your Ruling that the deliberations of the House or in Committee, are not invalidated by the position of the Mace, Mr. Speaker? If that be so, can you tell the House why we should go through this procedure of removing the Mace from the Table and putting it below?

Mr. Speaker

That is not the effect of my Ruling. What I have said was that in my view the validity of the act of suspension pursuant to Standing Order No. 24 is not dependent upon the Mace being in the right place.

Mr. Gaitskell

I am sorry to trouble you again on this matter, Mr. Speaker, but I think that you will agree that it is important in the history of Parliament. You were kind enough to say that you not had very much time to consider it, and we all appreciate that. I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) and the Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Orkney a and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), in asking whether you would give further and more comprehensive consideration to this question, for I feel that it would be very useful if you carefully considered your Ruling on the whole question, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked, as to what precisely has to be done before we can sit as a House, when it is necessary to have the Mace there, and when it is not necessary.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentle man the Leader of the Opposition lets me get past Scylla, but navigates me into Charybdis and invites me to give Rulings on hypothetical circumstances which do not arise. I am not being discourteous about it, but there is peril in spreading the matter too wide.

Mr. Ellis Smith

There is another fundamental issue which I do not want to raise now, but on which I would like advice, Mr. Speaker. The incidents of last night occurred in Committee. What redress do hon. Members have in respect of the conduct of the Chair in Committee if Mr. Speaker does not deal with it?

Mr. Speaker

If I heard the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) rightly, he was seeking to raise with me something which happened in Committee. That he cannot do, because, I do not have any official relation with that at all.

Mr. Ellis Smith

I accept that, Sir, but if we cannot raise it with Mr. Speaker, whose historical duty is to defend private Members, what redress have private Members?

Mr. Speaker

That does not help me. I do not preside over what happens in Committee.

Mr. G. Brown

In view of what you said to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, may I, at the risk of incurring some displeasure, submit this to you, Mr. Speaker? You said that your difficulty about considering your Ruling further and the point made to you by my right hon. Friend and by the had right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party was that to do so led you towards the Charybdis of hypothetical cases.

May I submit that this is no longer hypothetical case, for it has actually occurred? We conducted last night some proceedings which appeared to some of us not to satisfy the requirements which, from our reading of the precedents which you were good enough to allow me to quote, and which have existed over 200 years, would have been required. Does not that mean that this case is no longer hypothetical? If your Ruling stands as it appears to stand at the moment, we appear to have upset those precedents on an occasion which, you have been good enough to say, you have not had much time to consider.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry, but I have no authority to allow the right hon. Gentleman to argue about it now. I do not mean any sort or kind of discourtesy. What I meant was that there was a problem in concrete from for me to decide in the first instance, namely, whether or not suspension is invalidated because the Mace is not in the right position. I do not want to go outside that and consider other circumstances which might arise hereafter in some other way. That is what I meant.

Mr. Brown

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and only because the mater is of enormous importance and for no other reason, and as we have no other opportunity to put the point to you except when you are kind enough to make a statement, may I make a further submission? I have submitted precedents over two centuries. We believe those precedents to be valid. May we ask whether you would be good enough further to consider your Ruling and indicate on what occasions and under what circumstances it shall apply and whether you will consider the precedents and previous Rulings before a new Ruling is established?

Mr. Speaker

I have said that I will look at what the right hon. Gentleman put to me and, of course, I will. But I do not propose to say anything else about it, unless I find that my Ruling was wrong.

Mr. Gordon Walker

In the interests of ourselves and our successors, who might be misled, may I suggest that you later give us the reasons which led you to think that these proceedings were not invalidated? Our successors and ourselves might otherwise be misled about what does or does not constitute a House in other circumstances. If your Ruling were given just like that, and without reasons, it might be held to go much further than you intend. I fully understand and appreciate your desire not to give reasons in general, but on this occasion you might consider it worth your while to do so.

Mr. Speaker

If it be thought that there might be any dubiety—that is the word—about the matter, I will say that my Ruling applies to nothing at all except to circumstances where the Mace is not in the right place and when there is a suspension under Standing Order No. 24.

Sir H. Butcher

You have been good enough, Mr. Speaker, to say that on behalf of the House you will conduct a certain amount of research into our precedents. If, as a by-product of such research, it is found that in recent years the habit of discussing certain Rulings with the Chair has increased, may I ask you not to hesitate to say so, so that we may conform to the more orderly methods of our predecessors?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member. Since I came into the service of the House I have been trying gradually to get round to that position and I have had much help from the House.

Mr. Denis Howell

On a point of order. Would you also take into account, Mr. Speaker, the new procedure of the Patronage Secretary intervening in our affairs—

Mr. Speaker

In no circumstances can the hon. Member have a right to address me about that now.

Mr. Donnelly

On a point of order. May I venture to suggest that when the Minister of Works investigates the microphones, he considers not only new microphones but the possibility of reverting to the pre-war practice of not having microphones, which might help the proceedings of the House generally?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member. I am sure that all the technical aspects will be considered, including, I hope, some examination of the microphones which we had before and which seemed to be satisfactory.