HC Deb 01 February 1967 vol 740 cc510-4

3.30 p.m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Mr. Speaker, following your suggestion that I raise this afternoon a point which I think may infringe the privileges of the House, I now do so. It arises out of the counting out of the House just before midnight last night, when a Count was called in the middle of my speech—and that, in itself, was a great loss to the nation. However, it is the matters that flowed from that that I submit to you.

The best description of what happened is reported in The Times.today. The report of what happened after the count had been called reads as follows: Then, to the astonishment of the few M.P.s inside and members of the public, as Labour Members began to stream back to make up the quorum so the debate could continue, a Government Whip…ran down the middle of the Chamber, waving his arms and calling: 'Keep out, Keep out'. The effect of that was that a very important debate on an Order arising out of the prices and incomes legislation had to be abandoned before we had the official Government reply to what were very stringent criticisms and on matters which could have repercussions outside the House if the Government reply is not on the record. What was within the view of Members who were here was that the Whip ran down the Chamber, as is described in the newspaper report, waving his arms and actually touching people's arms and persuading them outside the precincts not to come in and form the quorum.

We all know the procedures of the House. My hon. Friends who were making their way from the Libraries and other parts of the building were met by the crowd of Government supporters moving back, intimating that it was over. It is within the knowledge of every hon. Member that, when the bells ring, sometimes wrongly, people are put off from coming to the Chamber when they are told that the business is off. I suggest that the action of the Whip spoiled a quorum at a time when we ought to have had it.

I want to quote a precedent which I think is analogous to the point I am putting to you, Mr. Speaker. The precedent I want to put to you occurred in the Committee Corridor in 1949. It was suggested that an hon. Member was prevented from going to help form a quorum in a Standing Committee. I will read the complaint which was made by the then hon. Member for Ashford, Mr. E. P. Smith, on 30th November, 1949: I rise to ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, in regard to an incident which occurred yesterday morning and of which I have given you notice. Standing Committee E was summoned to consider the Censorship of Plays (Repeal) Bill. We did not have a quorum. Subsequently the hon. Member for Queens University of Belfast…informed me that as he was making his way along the Corridor to the Committee someone had accosted him and endeavoured to dissuade him from attending."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th November, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 1150.] Sir, your then predecessor in the Chair gave his Ruling on the following Monday, 5th December, as follows: I have to inform the House that I have received a report from the Serjeant at Arms on the incident which was raised last Wednesday. After considering the report—this was the case of Mr. Christopher Powell, the House will remember—I have come to the conclusion that there is prima facie evidence that Mr. Powell did endeavour to persuade the hon. Member for Queens University of Belfast…not to enter Standing Committee Room E on the morning of Tuesday, 29th November. Whether or not such an interference constitutes a breach of Privilege is a matter for the House and not for me to decide. I must point out, however, that the hon. Member for Ashford…did not bring the matter to the notice of the House until 24 hours too late to be able to avail himself of the precedents given to matters of Privilege raised at the earliest possible moment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1949: Vol. 470, c. 1535.] I suggest that the incident which occured last night is on an equal standing. The then Mr. Speaker had to say that the November, 1949 incident had not been raised in the House in time. I do not think that in this instance that suggestion can be made. I gave you, Sir, notice this morning and attempted to raise it, but delayed it until this hour at your suggestion.

There is this one extra point. If in 1949 the then Mr. Speaker ruled that there had prima facie.been a breach of Privilege, when the matter affected a Standing Committee, I submit that it is even more so when it affects the Chamber. The first legislation we pass when we assemble in a new Parliament provides that no Member shall be obstructed from doing his duty as a Member of Parliament. I submit that, however inadvertently the Government Whip did it last night, he obstructed Members of Parliament—he deliberately obstructed members of his own party and, as a consequence of the move that flowed from that, he obstructed hon. Members on this side, too.

The net result of that was that an important debate was inconclusive and that we did not have a Government answer to very stringent criticisms, some of which came from the Government side of the House, in particular from the hon. Member for Doncaster (Mr. Harold Walker). I submit, based upon the precedent I have quoted, that last night's incident is a matter for you to give your Ruling upon, Sir.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that no Member of the House was obstructed from entering the House by any Whip and that, in particular, every member of the Opposition who was in the building was able to enter the Chamber but that, nevertheles, there were no more than four of them present?

Mr. Harold Walker

Mr. Speaker, before you give your Ruling—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Member seeking to address me on this point of order?

Mr. Harold Walker

Yes, Mr. Speaker. Before you give your, Ruling, I wish to comment on the factual content, because, as the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) said, there were hon. Members on this side who were extremely anxious that the Parliamentary Secretary should reply and who share the hon. Gentleman's deep concern at the fact that that could not happen because a Count was called and a quorum was not present.

However, Sir, I must draw your attention to the fact that, when the Count IA as called, there were other hon. Members present on the opposite side of the House who were not obstructed from leaving the Chamber, who in fact left the Chamber and who, had they remained, could well have provided the quorum.

Mr. Winnick

Further to that point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to address me on the same point of order?

Mr. Winnick

Yes, Sir. First, may we know whether any Member has actually complained to you that he was obstructed from coming into the Chamber? Second, pursuing the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls), would you not agree, Sir, that this is purely a matter of sour grapes because Conservative Members could not find numbers enough to sustain the attack which they made on the Government last night?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not entertain false points of order at any time. The first question the hon. Gentleman asked has no relevance to the matter at all. The second was a political observation.

The hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) has raised with me a point of order which he wishes me to consider as a matter of Privilege. I shall do what I usually do in such cases, availing myself of the leave of the House to consider it and give a Ruling in 24 hours.