HC Deb 14 February 1964 vol 689 cc799-812

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. I. Fraser.]

4.17 p.m.

Mr. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I wish to take advantage of the fact that no hon. Member has claimed the Adjournment debate, or, if he has, has withdrawn, in order to draw the further attention of the House to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), but I do not raise it as a point of order with you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will explain the difficulty. My predecessors and I have always deprecated the introduction of subjects in an Adjournment debate unless due notice has been given to the Minister concerned. The reason is really, that, apart from the House of Commons point of view, an ex parte statement without reply is not a very valuable Parliamentary proceeding.

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) is in order in raising this matter. I cannot prohibit him from doing so, but I deprecate the practice unless notice has been given to the Minister.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Can you tell us, Mr. Speaker, which Minister is responsible for the procedure of the House?

Mr. Speaker

In this context, the Leader of the House.

Mr. Brockway

I hope that I should be the last hon. Member to wish to take an unfair advantage. I think that you, Mr. Speaker, and right hon. and hon. Members, will appreciate that I have raised this matter on very many occasions. I am glad to see that the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Leader of the House is now present. I should like to emphasise how much we appreciate that he has found it possible to attend.

Not merely do I express appreciation of his attendance, but I would also thank him for the way in which he has received a deputation on this matter and discussed it with us in the most courteous and friendly way. I assure him that I would not want to have taken advantage of his absence to raise the matter if I had thought that it would be to the detriment of views that he will express.

On nine occasions now during the last 10 years I have introduced a Bill against racial discrimination. That Bill has always been accepted by the House on First Reading. There have been occasions when it has been debated, but on not one occasion has a vote on the Bill been challenged in the House. Other steps have sometimes been taken, such as talking out the Bill, to prevent a vote from being possible.

I suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that it is almost without precedent that a Bill has been accepted for First Reading on nine occasions over 10 years, sometimes reaching debate, but, by methods of procedure and not by the straight challenge of a vote on its principles, has been prevented from reaching further stages.

As the years have passed, support for the Bill has increased, and it is now sponsored by hon. Members from each of the three parties. I think it likely that if there were a free vote there would be a majority for it in the House of Commons. In those circumstances, as a back bencher—and I am sure that I am speaking for other back benchers—I urge on the Leader of the House that some opportunity should still be given for consideration of the Bill and for a vote upon it, and that some consideration be given to the procedure of the House on his recommendation so that back benchers may have a greater opportunity if year after year they seek legislation but, by methods of obstruction, are prevented from realising their hopes.

When the point of order was being raised, hon. Members opposite suggested that the objection was not necessarily to the principle of the Bill, but to the Second Reading being passed without greater consideration. I have already said that the Bill has been discussed, but I emphasise that when I have introduced the Bill I have taken great pains to challenge those hon. Members opposite who are opposed to it to vote against it there and then and not to repeat their previous conduct of merely taking advantage of the rules of procedure to prevent the Bill from going further. Even if the Bill had been allowed a Second Reading, there would still have been the Committee stage.

Mr. Dudley Williams (Exeter)

The hon. Member knows that in Committee stage one cannot deal with the principles behind a Bill. It is absolute bunk to say that it is possible to send a Bill to Standing Committee and get it into shape when there has not been an opportunity adequately to discuss it on Second Reading.

Mr. Brockway

Apparently, the hon. Member has not even read the Bill. If he had, he would have known that the opening Clauses would have allowed him to discuss the principle. There is first a definition of discrimination.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are wandering into the region of discussing legislation on the Adjournment. We must get back to the procedure point.

Mr. Brockway

I wanted just to refer to what the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Dudley Williams) has said. I have challenged hon. Members opposite who are opposed to the Bill to vote against the Motion for its introduction. They have not done so, but have been satisfied to use the routine procedure of the House to hold up a Measure which has been introduced on nine occasions. I turn my eyes from the Chair to the Leader of the House and ask him, well understanding the consideration which he has given to the matter, whether, in the quite extraordinary and exceptional circumstances which I have described, he will now give the House an opportunity to discuss the Bill.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) knows that during the nine years that he has introduced his Bill I have consistently opposed it on every occasion and by every method which is open to me under the procedure of the House.

Mr. Brockway

Except by voting against it and challenging it.

Mr. Bell

The hon. Gentleman knows that I have never sought any kind of anonymity in my opposition to his Bill. When it has come on for debate on Second Reading before 4 o'clock on a Friday I have stood up and opposed it and given my reasons for doing so, and if it came to a vote I should vote against it.

The fact is that the Bill has never come up for a debate of more than a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, if indeed that long, and the hon. Gentleman can hardly expect to get through on the nod a Bill of this intensely controversial nature. I cannot say more than that, because if I do so I shall be out of order. The Bill is a complete innovation in the laws of England, and the hon. Gentleman expects it to go through on the nod and with the passive acquiescence of those who are opposed to it.

The hon. Gentleman raises the matter this afternoon on the Adjournment as some issue affecting the procedure of the House. If the hon. Gentleman, or indeed any other hon. Member, has a Bill which he thinks is a good one, and if he is able to get it on for discussion at the start of our proceedings on Friday, no procedural difficulties or objections could stop it being fully debated and voted on at the end of the day. This Bill has not been debated and voted on during the nine years which the hon. Gentleman has brought it forward because he has not been able to bring it before the House until some time after half-past three on Friday afternoon, and I see no reason why one should leave a matter of this magnitude to be decided by the vote of a few people who are here on a Friday and who will not have heard the merits of the Bill being debated. That, as far as I am concerned, really disposes of the matter.

I think that this rule of our procedure is an exceedingly sensible one. If a Bill is of such a character that it arouses no opposition on either side of the House, we say that it can go through on the nod on a Friday afternoon because there is unanimous support for the principle, and there can be no question of its opponents being aggrieved because there are no opponents. The Bill then goes forward to be examined in detail in Committee.

But where there is a disagreement on the Second Reading principle, that should be debated, and to insist that it is not an abuse of procedure. It is a necessary element in our procedure that where there is opposition but there is no opportunity for debate the Bill should not go forward.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)


Mr. Bell

I am not going to give way on an occasion like this.

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough raised one further point which I mention only because it might seem superficially to have some merit. He said that his Bill had been accepted for First Reading on nine occasions. We know what that means. Any Member can put forward a Bill by drawing it up and presenting it at the Table, and in due course it appears in the Vote Office as having been read the First time and ordered to be printed by the House of Commons. No procedure takes place in this Chamber with regard to it. If the matter is brought forward under what we call the Ten-Minute Rule, the Motion is not really that the Bill be read the First time but that leave be given to introduce a Bill. Even if one disagrees with a Bill, or is going to disagree with it, I do not see why a Private Member should not have his Bill printed and circulated so that hon. Members can look at it. That is all that it amounts to. There is no question of approving the principle of the Bill.

All that I say to the Leader of the House is that this is not a rule which has led to any abuse. It is a necessary rule for the proper protection of the legislative process against ill-considered and possibly controversial Measures slipping through in an anonymous way. I am quite happy to stand up and make my objection if it is thought desirable that hon. Members should do so.

The hon. Member for Eton and Slough knows that I have never disguised my opposition to his Bill. I have stated it in this House and I have debated it publicly outside. I never fail to mention it in the local newspapers which he and I share. I have opposed it for eight years. It is now coming up for the ninth year, and I shall oppose it again. My position is as clear as daylight. I do not mind anyone knowing that I oppose a Bill. I do not mind a change in the procedure which requires hon. Members to stand up when they oppose a Bill, but the rule about objecting is basic to the proper functioning of the House.

4.31 p.m.

The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd)

I apologise to hon. Members, but I was given no notice of this Adjournment. I have to catch a train very shortly to fulfil an engagement, so I hope that hon. Members will excuse me if I speak now. I thank the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) for his courteous reference to me.

I should like to refer to two points. First, as to the merits of a particular Bill, it would be out of order for me to go into any detail. My views of the principle of the matter, however, are the same as those expressed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary recently in answer to a Question.

As for the point of procedure, I am the servant of the House, and if there is a general feeling that this point should be examined I am quite willing that it should be. I agree that there is a strong case for not allowing Bills to go through on the nod, without any opportunity for a debate, when an important principle is involved. But hon. Members have raised the question whether there should be some alteration in our procedure and, as I say, I am quite willing for this matter to go to the Select Committee on Procedure, the setting up of which I shall propose shortly, if that is the wish of the House.

4.32 p.m.

Mr. Eric Lubbock (Orpington)

Hon. Members opposite should not be allowed to take refuge in the assertion that their refusal to give a Second Reading to a Bill is always on the ground that it is controversial, because my Bill which came up this afternoon, and in connection with which this point was first raised by the hon. Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher), is totally uncontroversial. It has the support of two hon. Members from each of the three main parties, and outside the House I have received the support of the Married Women's Association and the National Council of Women.

If those hon. Members who objected this afternoon—and there were several of them—had cared to read the Bill I am positive that they would have found that there is nothing in it to which they could take exception. I could only assume that many of them come into the Chamber to object to Bills without ever having read them. This is what I find so loathsome about this Friday afternoon procedure. Last week it was possible for us to identify the objector, and to his embarrassment he had to own up before the whole House. But this afternoon there were so many hon. Members present on the benches opposite that we were not able to identify the culprits who objected. That is a great shame. I should like the constituents of those hon. Members who objected to know about it.

Mr. Dudley Williams

The hon. Member seems to have the idea that we are frightened of being identified. When I object to a Bill, I make it clear. In fact, I did not object to his Bill, and indeed I have not objected to any Bills this afternoon. But I have objected to a great many in the past, and I think I have done a public service by stopping them from getting through. The hon. Member talks about culprits as though hon. Members who object are criminals. In fact, I am more democratic than he is.

Mr. Lubbock

The hon. Member is adopting a most peculiar attitude. But I am glad that he intervened, because it shows up hon. Members opposite in their true colours.

There is one other point I want to make. Hon. Members on this side of the House allow legislation to go through if it is non-controversial. We had an example this afternoon, in the Riding Establishments Bill, of which I am privileged to be a supporter. That Bill will do a great deal of good, and I am glad that it went through on the nod. But it is no good hon. Members opposite bringing Bills here on Friday afternoons and expecting them to get through on the nod and then objecting when Bills come up from this side of the House. It is quite clear that their reason is political. The Minister of Health came to my constituency last week and said that the Liberals cut no ice in Parliament. How can he have the insolence to say that when his own supporters are blocking a useful Measure which I have attempted to introduce on no less than six occasions in this House? This attitude is hypocritical in the extreme, and we intend to expose it at the coming General Election.

4.36 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

I appreciate that the Leader of the House has met us to some extent in the undertaking which he has just given that he will examine our procedure and will refer this matter to the Committee on Procedure which is being set up, but I hope he will go even further and that the Patronage Secretary will convey this message to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that the undertaking which he has given is not sufficient. We also feel strongly that the Bill to which my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) has referred, and which has teen debated and had a First Reading in this House for no less than nine Sessions, should have the opportunity of being fully ventilated in the House of Commons. I hope that representations will be made through the usual channels that Government time should be afforded either on a Friday or on another occasion so as to enable this Bill to be properly discussed at an early opportunity.

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, who is not in his place at the moment, but who will read what is said, will take no notice of the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Islington, East (Mr. Fletcher). He will, of course, read them and, I hope, reject them. We have procedures in the House which, very often, hon. Members find to their inconvenience. Many sit through a debate and are never called to participate in it. That is because our procedures says that you, Mr. Speaker, select the speaker, and very often you leave a great number of people disappointed.

A large number of Questions are put down every day except Fridays for answer and many of them remain unanswered. You, Mr. Speaker, have heard many times—

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about procedure. Why is this the one procedure which should be conducted from a seated position?

Mr. Doughty

The custom of the House says that that should be so, and certainly we on this side of the House intend to maintain the custom of the House. After Questions have been continuing till half-past three, hon. Members sometimes get up and say, "Will you. Mr. Speaker, give permission for the Minister to answer Question No. so-and-so", which is their Question. They know that the Minister has not asked for that and that you have no power to order it. It is an attempt to try and shift the procedure of the House to suit a particular hon. Member. This is exactly another one of those procedures.

We have a procedure for Bills on Fridays which is well known to every hon. Member. There is, first of all, a Ballot. The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), as far as I know—I may be wrong—and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) have not been successful in the Ballot, or, if they have, they have not been in a very high position. If they had been they could have put down any Bill. Had their own Bill been in front it would have had a full debate and been subjected to the treatment of the House by way of revision or otherwise in accordance with the rules of the House. But sometimes when one is defeated in the game, one sometimes says, "Let's blame the rules; let's blame the referee or the umpire". That is exactly what is happening as far as this Adjournment debate is concerned.

Everyone knows that if a Bill appears towards the end of the Orders of the Day, and it is of a controversial nature, even if it were debated and a Division were taken upon it and it might get through, some hon. Member is going to object to it. Our rules of procedure say that if any hon. Member objects to a Bill when the Order for it is read at four o'clock, then it is not on that occasion given a Second Reading. I personally, and I am sure that a great many other hon. Members think as I do, think that that is a good rule. Bills allowed a Second Reading are discussed by only a few hon. Members during the Committee stage. All hon. Members may come to the House on Friday, even though some do not do so, and it would be highly undesirable to say, "This is a highly controversial Bill"—or it may be that it is not controversial—"and it is complicated and we want it fully discussed", and then say that it should go straight to a Committee.

Friday is private Members' day, and many hon. Members, including myself, have been influenced in the way in which we regard a Bill and whether we vote for it or against it by what has been said by the hon. Member who introduced it. I can recall the case of one Bill—I will not mention names—to which I was opposed. The hon. Member who moved the Motion for a Second Reading said that he had heard that there were objections to certain of the Clauses in the Bill. He said he was prepared to consent to Amendments to those Clauses during the Committee stage, so I changed my view. In fact, the Motion went to a Division and I voted for it.

That was because the matter had been debated and discussed and hon. Members had had the advantage of knowing what were the views of the mover of the Motion and what was meant by the provisions in the Clauses of that Bill. The matter having had full and proper discussion, that Bill got a Second Reading. Had the Bill come up for acceptance on the nod I and other hon. Members would have said, "Object". When an hon. Member is prepared to explain the object of his Bill and accept Amendments in the Committee stage and persuade the House that it is a proper Measure that answer would not have been appropriate.

At the end of the day there are, of course, a large number of hon. Members who think that the Bills they wish to introduce are excellent Measures. Every hon. Member thinks that his Bill is excellent and should be put on the Statute Book as soon as possible. But they cannot expect that other hon. Members will always agree with them. That being so. I see no reason for changing our procedure.

May I indicate what would be the consequences of a change? There would be shovelled—I use the word advisedly—into Standing Committees a lot of Bills, some controversial and some not, which the House would have had no opportunity of discussing. This House of Commons is not a legislative sausage factory for turning out a number of Bills without discussing them. We are here to discuss the affairs of the nation and make the laws of the nation, openly and after full and proper discussion has taken place on the proposed legislation, whether it be Government legislation or that introduced by Private Members. Except in the case of entirely non-controversial Bills that cannot be done until there has been fair and proper discussion, and I hope that there will be no change in our present perfectly proper procedure.

Hon. Members may say "Object" when they are still seated, and that is done by hon. Members on both sides of the House. It is the usual and proper way to do it. If one stood up to say "Object", it would make no difference, except that the hon. Member would be standing up at the same time as Mr. Speaker, which is contrary to our rules. That being so, I hope that it will be conveyed to the Leader of the House that a large number of hon. Members, including myself, think our procedure is very good. It allows for discussion, within the time of the House, on Private Members' Bills. Although some may not get a Third Reading, there are Private Members' Bills which are given a Third Reading every Session. I have no doubt that a great many hon. Members will be disappointed because their Bill has been rejected.

May I give a word of advice to those who wish to introduce Bills under the Ten-Minute Rule Bill procedure and in other ways: try something non-controversial. I am sure that no hon. Member would object to a Bill which is non-controversial.

Mr. Lubbock


Mr. Doughty

That only shows what influence the Liberal Party has in this House. Its members sit down and pass idiotic remarks.

Mr. Lubbock

Absolute nonsense.

Mr. Doughty

The hon. Member now stands to make that remark, but it does not matter much whether you are standing up or sitting down.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. and learned Member must address himself to the Chair.

Mr. Dudley Williams

The hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) will not be here for long.

Mr. Doughty

For these reasons, I hope that those who try to introduce Bills under the Ten-Minute Rule Bill procedure or by handing them in to the Table and getting leave for them to be printed will confine themselves to noncontroversial Measures which I am sure hon. Members on this side, and probably on the benches opposite, will have great pleas are in seeing on the Statute Book.

4.45 p.m.

Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)

In contradistinction to the opinion of the hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), I welcome the assurance of the Leader of the House that he is in favour of this matter being pursued by the appropriate Committee. In spite of the cloak under which hon. Members NA ant to hide their attitude to the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway), what is at stake is a Measure which is supported by all denominations in this country. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has given it—

Mr. Dudley Williams

On a point of order. Is it right that an hon. Member should accuse other hon. Members of acting under a cloak? Is not the assumption that one is not behaving in an honest fashion?

Mr. Speaker

I do not know what sort of cloak is in question. One cannot tell.

Mr. Mendelson

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has given the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Eton and Slough a warm wel come. The Leader of the Liberal Party has given it an equally warm welcome. The Leader of the House of Commons, speaking for his party and with the authority of the Cabinet, has said that he supports the principle of it. Our procedure is deliberately abused if it is not made clear who are the members on the Conservative benches who, in spite of the opinion expressed by the Leader of the House—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes to Five o'clock.