HC Deb 02 February 1967 vol 740 cc798-805
Mr. Heath

The next item of business, Mr. Speaker, after presentation of Bills, is That on this House proceeding to the Orders of the Day, the Consolidated Fund Bill be ordered to be read a second time. I understand that this notice was put on the Order Paper at about ten minutes past Three this morning. I do not wish to go into the circumstances, but this was made necessary by the Count which took place. I merely say to the Leader of the House in passing that in a normal situation the Government would have had a quorum present. That is the whole point about it.

The House passed a Sessional Order on 14th December, to which you have already referred, Mr. Speaker, from which it is quite clear That on Tuesday, 17th January and for the remainder of the present Session, a notice of a motion, amendment or question which is given after half-past Ten of the clock in the evening shall be treated for all purposes as if it were a notice given after the rising of the House: It therefore seems to me that this notice is treated as having been given after the rising of the House. The whole purpose of the House passing the Sessional Order was, I think it is agreed by the Leader of the House, to protect the interests of hon. Members so that they should have a full 24 hours' notice before being confronted by a Motion on the Order Paper which they had to debate. In the present case, that is lacking.

If I may mention a previous case in 1952, Mr. Speaker, there was then no such Sessional Order in existence. Mr. Speaker on that occasion ruled that it was in order for the Government to put down such an Order of the Day, as we did, but he went on to advise the House that even though the Government were entitled to do so, his own view was that because the Bill was a contentious one it would in those circumstances be advisable for the House not to proceed with it.

I believe that in the present case the House has made it absolutely clear that there should be the full day's notice, and this we have not had. I therefore ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, about how it is possible for this Notice of Motion to appear on the Order Paper today and how it is possible for the House to take it.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this point—it is one of considerable importance—and for putting it so courteously and succinctly. The right hon. Gentleman has called attention to the change in the form of the Order Paper today, because this is a matter which falls within my responsibility since the Notice Paper is published by the authority of the House under the direction of Mr. Speaker.

So far as the handing in of notices for the Order Paper is concerned, no distinction is drawn between any Member of the House. The same rules govern notices handed in by the Government as by private Members. A notice which is wholly out of order may be withheld from publication on the Notice Paper but if the irregularity is not extreme the notice is printed and reserved for future consideration.

If an objection is taken to a Notice of Motion on the Notice Paper, Mr. Speaker decides as to its regularity; and if the objection is sustained, the notice is amended or withdrawn.

It is my duty, therefore, this afternoon. in the light of these rules—which right hon. and hon. Members can find in Chapter 18 of Erskine May—to comment on the Notice of Motion relating to the Consolidated Fund Bill, standing in the name of the Government Chief Whip, and the first Order of the Day for the Second Reading of that Bill.

Last night, during the four-minute interval after the Count of the House had been claimed and before the House had been counted out, the Government Whips gave instructions to the Table to table the necessary Motion to enable the Consolidated Fund Bill to be taken today as the first Order.

That would have been entirely within the rules but for the Sessional Order of 14th December last relating to the tabling of notices, which states that a notice of a motion…which is given after half-past Ten of the clock in the evening shall be treated for all purposes as if it were a notice after the rising of the House."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 14th December, 1966; Vol. 738, c. 611.] In regard to the right hon. Gentleman's submission, there is, however, an exact precedent for today's situation in the circumstances of 26th November, 1952, after the House had been unexpectedly counted out on the Second Reading of the Iron and Steel Bill. A Notice of Motion to revive the Order of Second Reading at the next sitting was accepted and tabled after the rising of the House and the Order for Second Reading of the Bill was printed contingently as the first Order of the Day.

On that occasion, my predecessor in the Chair said that this practice was not without precedent after an unexpected interruption of business, by a Count or by Adjournment for grave disorder or some other cause, but that it might be thought inappropriate in the case of contentious business to proceed with such a Motion. He referred to an earlier Ruling given by Mr. Speaker Lowther in 1912 and, in view of the precedents and Mr. Speaker's guidance on that occasion, the Government of the day decided not to move the Motion on the Order Paper nor to seek to move the Second Reading of the Bill on that day but proceeded instead with other business.

As I understand that the Consolidated Fund Bill, while not, perhaps, in itself contentious, is of great importance from the point of view of Commons financial procedure, the course taken in 1952 might seem to be the right course for me to commend to the House this afternoon.

Dr. David Kerr

Further to the point of order. I respect very much what you have said, Mr. Speaker. I think that in considering your recommendation the House would want to bear in mind that the Sessional Order to which you have referred arose from a recommendation not of the Select Committee on Procedure but of the Services Committee, which in turn made the recommendation not in any sense of amending the procedure of the House but in response to representations concerning the difficulties faced by the Government printers in dealing with these matters after 10.30. [Interruption.] I am asked "Who runs this place?" The House took that measure on that advice and as a result of those representations. I think that it was entirely right that it should have done so

I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that in considering what is appropriate as a result of that Sessional Order, and particularly in view of your Ruling that save for that Sessional Order this Motion would have been quite in order on the Paper, these facts should be borne in mind as they are—

Mr. Speaker

Order. When the hon. Member reads carefully my Ruling, he will see that it answers the point which he has raised.

Mr. Crossman

Of course, I accept your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. The issue therefore narrows down to the very precise one of whether the precedent of the Conservative Iron and Steel Bill some years ago, which undoubtedly was contentious and controversial business, can be made equivalent to the Consolidated Fund Bill. I submit to you, Mr. Speaker, that although, of course, it is an extremely important Measure—[Interruption.] The word used here is not "important", but "contentious". The point which I am putting Mr. Speaker—[Interruption.]—I should like to have the courtesy of being allowed to put it peacefully—is whether the word "contentious" can be said to apply to a Bill against which it is almost unheard of to have a Division and which is traditionally a Bill on which private Members seek to have redress of grievance.

I would have thought, Mr. Speaker, that the meaning of your predecessor when he spoke about the Iron and Steel Bill was quite clear. He was saying that when a Government were fighting for a highly controversial Measure, it would not be in order to proceed with it on such an occasion. I would have thought, therefore, that the word "contentious" here could not, or would not, have been used by your predecessor in regard to the Consolidated Fund Bill and, therefore, that it was in order for us to put down the Notice of Motion.

Mr. Speaker

Again, may I say to the Leader of the House that I addressed myself most carefully to the point that he has raised. That was why I said what I did in my Ruling that while it was not a contentious Bill in exactly the same way as the Iron and Steel Bill, it was a Bill of great importance from the point of view of Commons financial procedure". It was on that ground that I was giving the advice which I am giving to the House. Whether the House takes that advice is a matter for the House.

Mr. Crossman

With respect, Mr. Speaker, I should like to put two points to you. I, too, have studied the passage in question, and should like to comment again on it. Mr. Speaker said that this practice was not without precedent after an unexpected interruption of business by a Count or an Adjournment. He then said that if the Bill was contentious it was not in order.

This Motion would retrieve a situation created by an unexpected event. With respect, I suggest that the meaning of the words must apply to controversial legislation, and not to important legislation. If Mr. Speaker meant an important Bill, surely he would have said "important"?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The right hon. Gentleman has put a fair point, and a very reasonable argument. All I can reiterate is that I had given consideration to the point made by the right hon. Gentleman before I decided to give the advice that I have done to the House.

Mr. John Hall

Surely the point is how best to safeguard the interests of back benchers? Is it not a fact that very few hon. Members would have thought it likely that the Consolidated Fund Bill would have been continued today, and therefore many who might have wished to speak on matters to be raised during the debate on the Bill might not be able to avail themselves of that opportunity because they might have thought that it would be put back to the following week? Should not we prevail on the Leader of the House to accept your reasonable suggestion?

Mr. Webster

The next subject for debate on the Consolidated Fund is contentious, and this is something which I hope the Leader of the House will bear in mind. The next item for discussion on the Consolidated Fund Bill concerns some critical remarks by the Estimates Committee with regard to the handling by the Prime Minister of a subject introduced to the House by the Leader of the House himself. Last night, at the time of the Count, the Leader of the House did not grace us with his presence, and so anything that he says is second-hand. The next item to be debated is one that is critical of the handling of the right of Members of Parliament to gain redress for their constituents. This is a matter of the deepest principle, about which everyone in this House feels very deeply, and it is, therefore, surely contentious.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must not debate generalities. He must confine himself to the submission which the Speaker has made to the House.

Mr. Paget

May I appeal to my right hon. Friend to accept the advice of the Chair on this matter? After all, the Government of Malta have postponed the Third Reading of the Bill to remove the visiting forces privileges because they are anxious to hear this debate first before that irrevocable action is taken. I feel confident that, in the mood of the House at the moment, if one insists on going on, as is the Government's right, there will not be any progress because too many people in the House will be too angry about it. I therefore urge my right hon. Friend on this occasion to let us get on with the debate which Malta is so anxiously awaiting.

Mr. Heath

May I, too, suggest to the Leader of the House that he should accept what is the obvious wish of the House, and, moreover, that he should follow all the precedents of his predecessors, not only in 1952, but the earlier precedents, and accept that although the Motion has appeared on the Order Paper, the Government should not move it, but should move on to the next important business, which is the debate on Malta for which we are all waiting?

Mr. Crossmart

It would be easier if the House were unanimous about this, but I am sure that there are many hon. Members on my side of the House who share the view that this is not by any means clear. Mr. Speaker, you have made it clear that this is an extremely important point, and one on which two views can reasonably be put to you. We have only one precedent to go on, that which Mr. Speaker has given us, a clear precedent. We have been told to look at the precedent as the sole precedent that we have for these events. I have taken your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. What we have to ask ourselves therefore is whether. in the circumstances which happened last night, or early this morning, we are bound by the Ruling of the Speaker on the Iron and Steel Bill in 1952?

I would respectfully remind the House through you, Mr. Speaker, of how the circumstances differ between 1952 and now. This is the subject that we have to discuss, whether the 1952 Ruling applies—[HON. MEMBERS: "Resign."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. When there is a cleavage of opinion in the House, noise does not help at all.

Mr. Crossman

I am not going to be prevented from speaking by shouts of "Resign" because Mr. Speaker has given advice on the interpretation of a different Ruling. [HON. MEMBERS: "Mr. Speaker has given his Ruling."] Mr. Speaker has said that in his view this is a difficult case on which there can be two points of view, and I am putting the point of view that this is not an exact equivalent to 1952. After all, let us remember what happened. Here we had the Consolidated Fund Bill, a Measure which has never been voted on, and which is in no sense contentious in that way. Here we had a Bill in respect of which we made it clear—

Mr. Kirk

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The whole of this present exchange is on a point of order.

Mr. Crossman

The point that I am putting to you, Mr. Speaker, is that there is a genuine difference between the circumstances in 1952 and those obtaining now, which would mean that the Ruling would not apply. The difference of circumstance is quite simply this: we were discussing a non-contentious Measure, the Consolidated Fund Bill. Agreement had been reached through the usual channels that the Closure would not be moved. There were only two Tories left at the time. We had made it clear through the usual channels that we would not move the Closure. There were only two back benchers on the benches oppositc.—[Interruption.]

Mr. Kenneth Lewis


Mr. Speaker

Order. There are times when the House lets itself down, and it lets itself down when Members shout instead of hearing and replying to the arguments.

Mr. Crossman

I was saying that the circumstances were such that we on this side had made it clear that, because this was not a contentious Bill, and because we respect the right of private Members, the Closure would not be moved. The debate was going on in a satisfactory way when suddenly a member of the Opposition called a Count which ruled out only his own side.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot on this point of order discuss the circumstances of the Count last night. That may perhaps come on a later debate.

Mr. Crossman

All I was trying to point out was that in our view the circumstances in 1952 differ in a marked way from the circumstances now, but I will accept your Ruling. Malta is important, and since it is your Ruling we shall accept it.