§ 10.9 p.m.
§ Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)
I beg to move,That this House, having regard to the stated intention of the Leader of the House to order a Private Member's Bill, namely the Divorce Reform Bill, to be brought before the House for further consideration at 10 o'clock p.m. on Thursday, 12th June, thereby giving to that Bill preference and priority over all other current Private Members' Bills, despite his profession of Government neutrality towards the contents of the Bill, and his refusal to accept it as Government business or to accept any Government responsibility for it, declares that such action by the Government is in contravention of Standing Order No. 15, is unconstitutional, and constitutes a grave abuse of Parliamentary procedure by the Executive.It will best assist the House if I confine myself to the contravention of Standing Order No. 15. I hope that I have a proper sense of modesty in moving this Motion, having regard to those who support it, who are right hon. and hon. Members with a far more responsible background than mine. The Standing Order provides for two kinds of business, and only two, in this House—Government business and Private Members' business. By putting this Motion on the Order Paper, the Government have admitted that there is a basis for this discussion.
I recognise the fairness and propriety of the Government's decision in setting it down ahead of the Bill. This is a very unusual and extraordinary thing—not in any deplorable way: but it shows unusual honesty on the part of any Government. They have said, "We are neutral about this Bill. There is the Bill and there is a Motion put forward by five Privy Councillors and another hon. Member saying that the Bill should have much more consideration than it has had before."
This is not a wrecking Motion. I emphasise that. It raises a question of great importance: what is the status of Private Members' Bills when the Government have not made up their minds whether they support them or not? We have had a Motion from the Prime Minister which would enable the House to sit for one week, two weeks or a month at one time. Many people do not realise that. This Motion will not necessarily 1798 stop the House from sitting at Four o'clock tomorrow afternoon.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot debate the Motion which has just been passed.
§ Sir L. Heald
I was not debating it but merely stating the consequences of Mr. Speaker's decision. We are, therefore, considering a very grave matter. The House is now empowered to continue to discuss the Bill for the next 48 hours. Where does that place the House?
We must consider the consequences. The Bill is being given preference in consideration over 25 Private Members' Bills which are already down for consideration tomorrow. What is the justification for this? It could be that the Government have decided that although this is a Private Members' Bill, it is of such interest, importance and benefit to the nation that it should be given this special privilege. Have the Government so decided?
We then come to a small but interesting point which I know has been considered by many authorities in the House. If hon. Members look at the next item on the Order Paper, they will see that, at the side of the heading "3. Divorce Reform Bill" is a curious thing called an asterisk. That is believed to indicate that it is Government business. I have tried to ascertain the origin of the asterisk, but it is not possible to find the answer. It is like so many other excellent things in this House. It has been used in the past for such a long time that, like some hon. Members, nobody knows how they ever got here.
However, it does not have any sanction and one of the purposes of my Motion is to find out what it means. It is one of those convenient things of the moment which enable people to say that they are authoritative if it suits them, while, if it does not suit them, they can say that they do not mean a thing. That is the position of the asterisk and my Motion is, therefore, designed to discover the atmosphere, from the Government's point of view, as we come to discuss the Bill.
You will remember, Mr. Speaker—I am not sure that you will, but, notionally, you will—that I have on more than one occasion asked the Leader of the House 1799 to state the attitude of the Government towards the Bill. He has replied that it is an attitude of definite neutrality. However, the fact of putting an asterisk to the Bill has been understood, as it has for nearly a hundred years, to indicate that it is Government business. What is Government business? If I am told later in this debate that Government business means that the Government accept responsibility for the Bill, I would be perfectly prepared to withdraw my Motion, for then one would have an entirely different situation.
At present if there is an organisation, a great personality, somebody of great importance in the country who thinks that Amendments should be made to the Bill and if he goes to the Prime Minister and says, "I should like to discuss the possibility of amending the Bill", he will be told—I believe that he has been told—"This is nothing to do with the Government. You must see the sponsors of the Bill." Is that a really satisfactory situation in relation to a great moral and social subject of this kind?
This is the first moment that this star has appeared by the title. Divorce Reform Bill. Until now it has been omitted. I am fortified by a rather splendid precedent on February 28th 1888, which I shall not quote in detail because I assume, as we always do, Mr. Speaker, that all these matters are within your memory. This matter was raised by Lord Randolph Churchill. He raised exactly the same point as I am raising. He asked whether the Government were accepting responsibility for the Bill, or not? If not, then it should not be proceeded with. If we look at Standing Order No. 15 we find that only two kinds of business can be considered by this House. Standing Order No. 15 says:The orders of the day shall be disposed of in the order in which they stand upon the paper, the right being reserved to Her Majesty's Ministers of arranging…"arranging" is a very good word for Her Majesty's Ministers—government business whether orders of the day or notices of motions in such order as they may think fit".It was under that rule that last night, to their great credit, the Government put this Motion on the Order Paper.
1800 There are only two kinds of business, Government business and private Members' business. If this were still private Members' business it would be with the other 25 Private Members' Bills tomorrow which, as we understand, are now intended to be blotted out. We know that there is one that the Government does not want. Therefore, it will be convenient to them if the sitting should go on as it could tomorrow so as to blot out that particular Bill.
§ Mrs. Lena Jeger (Holborn and St. Pancras, South)
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not recollect as I do that in 1938 a Conservative Government set a very respectable precedent by giving Government time to enable A. P. Herbert's Bill, as it was popularly known, to complete its full stages in Parliament?
§ Sir L. Heald
I do recollect 1938, as the hon. Lady obviously does.
Returning to Standing Order No. 15, there are these two alternatives, Government business and private Members' business and no third kind of business—hermaphrodite, bastard, whatever we like to call it—but that is what this Government, and I agree previous Governments, have allowed to exist. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I am not talking about party political matters. I know that one or two hon. Members opposite with whom I have been associated recently in some nefarious operations in this House, do not regard this sort of thing as a party political matter.
This is a House of Commons matter—a matter in which the country is very much interested.
§ Sir L. Heald
Very well, we shall get on with it. The Standing Orders of the House of Commons are being twisted to get the Government out of difficulty. I shall not speak at great length. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Someone may say that is a good thing and it may be good that we should not speak at great length. I speak, I hope, with reasonable modesty in this matter as the first sponsor of a Motion which has, I venture to think, rather formidable support. I speak with modesty because I have the support of people who have held great positions of responsibility in the House of Commons. They, I believe, will deal with 1801 other aspects of this matter. I am concerned with the procedural aspect. If the Leader of the House will get up at a later stage of the debate and tell us one or two things, I should be prepared, for my part—as far as I can control matters—to withdraw the Motion.
The first thing would be for the right hon. Gentleman to agree that the present situation, under which the Government can use Private Members' Bills as a convenient way of not opposing ideas and movements of which they may disapprove but which, they think, may affect the voting results at the next election, should be stopped. We should know now and for the future whether the Government really support this kind of Bill.
When I say that, hon. Members should remember the Abortion Bill. The Government abdicated their responsibility. They said that it would be all right. I, in a very modest way, and others pointed out that Clause 1 of the Abortion Bill would result in appalling consequences. It has done so.
§ Sir L. Heald
No, Mr. Speaker; I do not think that anybody wishes to debate it. Most people would regard it as fairly obvious in view of the results which it has had. That was the Abortion Bill.
There have been other Bills—and Mr. Speaker will not want me to refer to them—[Interruption.]—on which the same thing has happened. I shall leave the other aspects—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Mr. Speaker, but it is difficult when—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. It is difficult for the right hon. and learned Gentleman to address the House against a background of conversation.
§ Sir L. Heald
As I have said, this is not a filibustering speech. It is a speech introducing a Motion of great importance. I shall leave other aspects of the matter to my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I earnestly ask the House to realise that this evening we are engaged in a very important discussion. I only remind the House that the power of the Government to interfere with private Members' business is a very recent thing. One hundred 1802 years ago, the difficulty was—[Interruption.] Of course, hon. Members opposite have never read the history. One hundred years ago, private Members had almost complete control of the business of the House. Machinery had to be introduced to allow the Government to have any control of business. It was so introduced. When it was introduced, very little was left in doubt. Definite rules were laid down. One of those was the principle, to which I have already referred, of Standing Order No. 15. The Government can, if they think right and so desire, choose particular items and say that they are public Government business. That they have done in this case. The fact that they have done it means that this is a subject which, even in their view, is one of major importance. I sincerely hope that the House will consider it in that way tonight.
§ 10.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
The right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) said that this was a matter which concerned the whole House of Commons. I entirely agree with that view. How the House divides and allocates its time and how the Government use their authority in this respect are important questions. I do not think that anyone will dissent from that statement. Moreover, I imagine that no one can dissent from the right hon. and learned Gentleman's statement at the beginning of his speech that the Government have shown considerable magnanimity in being prepared to accept and put down this Motion at this stage in our proceedings. I hope that the magnanimity which the Government have shown in that respect will meet with some response from hon. and right hon. Members opposite. The Government are entitled to it, because they have recognised, by accepting that this debate should take place now, that the House itself should decide the question. Therefore, I hope that, when we proceed later, assuming that the Motion is rejected, hon. Members will take that into account. I think that the Government are perfectly entitled to make that appeal.
However, when the right hon. and learned Gentleman proceeded from that point to say that his Motion is not a wrecking Motion, one could not accept 1803 that. In Parliamentary terms, it must, I think, be regarded as a wrecking Motion. It could hardly be stated in stronger terms. It says that what the Government are doing is "unconstitutional", that it is a "grave abuse of Parliamentary procedure". If such a Motion were to be carried at this stage of our proceedings, it would be a wrecking Resolution. I do not think that anyone should discuss or vote upon the matter in any other sense. It would be hypocritical for any hon. Member to press the matter without acknowledging that it is in Parliamentary terms a wrecking proposal, that is, a proposal designed to wreck the Bill which it is proposed later to discuss.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
But, surely, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that it might still be right for the House to decide that a Bill had been brought forward on the Order Paper in the wrong order, in an improper way, but still consider that the Bill might be right in substance. The fact that the Bill is a good Bill does not mean that anything can be done with Parliamentary procedure to get it through.
§ Mr. Foot
I understand that point exactly. But I am saying that, if this Motion were carried, it would in its effect be wrecking in the Parliamentary manner that we know when wrecking Amendments or Motions are moved. No one can dispute that, and I think that that is a fair acknowledgment for hon. and right hon. Members opposite to make; it would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise. If the Motion were carried, it would be improper for the House to proceed later with the debate. Therefore, it is a wrecking Motion in that sense.
§ Sir D. Glover
The hon. Gentleman sets himself up on these occasions as the conscience of the House. Is he really saying that, even though we are 1804 going contrary to all our Standing Orders and all our Sessional Orders, just because we want to debate a particular Bill though we are out of order we should debate it? If that is what he is advocating, anarchy looms very close to the House.
§ Mr. Foot
I am not setting myself up as the conscience of the House or as any greater authority than any other hon. Member has. I am trying to present an argument, and this part of what I am saying is based on the fact—and I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now agrees with me, even if other honourable but less learned Gentlemen do not—that it is a wrecking Motion if the House votes on the matter and votes in that sense.
§ Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)
If my hon. Friend deems this to be a wrecking Motion why, if it is a Private Member's Bill, are the Government taking this action at all?
§ Mr. Foot
That is a separate part of the argument, to which I am coming in a moment. I cannot put all the arguments I wish to present in one sentence. I was dealing with the claim of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who said that it was not a wrecking Motion. I think that on consideration he takes a different view.
§ Mr. Foot
I do not see how anybody can reach a different conclusion. Those hon. Members who may take a different view on this aspect of the matter are deceiving themselves, even if they do not deceive other hon. Members.
The main burden of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says is that there are only two forms of business—Government business and Private Members' business, and that there cannot be any blurring of the distinction between the two. Whatever the Standing Orders may say, and I do not think that they say that, that has not been a principle which has previously been accepted in the House. It was not accepted in the case of a previous Divorce Bill, which is extremely apposite to this matter. In that case it was not considered by a Conservative Government of the 1930s 1805 that there was only Government business or private business. They blurred the distinctions for a very important reason.
§ Mr. Foot
I shall come to the reasons why they should have reached this conclusion. But I am first pointing out that it is not the case that the present Government have suddenly decided to blur the distinction between Government and private Members' business. This has been done on previous occasions. It was done in the case of the Divorce Bill introduced by Mr. A. P. Herbert and, I understand, in the more recent case of a Gaming Act of 1963, when a Conservative Government also blurred the distinction between Government time and private Members' time, in my belief for a very good reason.
Why is it that Governments at certain stages in our Parliamentary procedure decide that it is necessary to say, "We have not made up our minds as a Government to support this Measure, but we think that it is right that the House of Commons should have the opportunity of deciding"? These are two different things, and in previous cases Governments have found this to be a convenient distinction.
§ Mr. Foot
I have given way several times already.
It is a very reasonable conclusion for previous Governments to have come to and a reasonable conclusion for the present Government to have come to. All of us know that there is a whole variety of subjects, such as divorce and matters that touch on religious opinion perhaps, that are not directly concerned with party political battles, and that if we were to say that such Measures were to be presented to the House only if a Government and Cabinet could be unanimous about them they would never have the opportunity to be discussed by the House at all.
It would be a grave infringement of our Parliamentary possibilities and opportunities if it were to be said that the only kind of major Measures which are able to be presented to the House of Commons are those upon which the 1806 Cabinet must reach unanimous agreement and can uphold collective responsibility. If it were to be the case, then a whole series of major reforms would have been held up, not merely the kind of major reforms of this social character that have been brought forward in the lifetime of this Government, but also Measures of a social character brought forward in the history of previous Governments.
All of us know that, for example, in matters of divorce, the Roman Catholic Church holds very strong views, and sticks steadfastly to those views. Are we to say therefore that measures of that character should not be brought forward unless the Cabinet was cleared of its Roman Catholic members? That is the claim if we say that this kind of measure must be made into a Government Measure.
§ Mr. Foot
If this principle were to be operated, that all Measures of a major character must command the unanimous approval of the Cabinet before they could be presented and before time was provided for them, it would be a potent cause of breeding intolerance in our public life, because it would mean that many people who hold strongly to their religious convictions in the Cabinet would have to be forced out of the Cabinet on that account. These are the consequences of the argument presented by hon. Members.
This is why I believe that this matter is one of major importance for the House. It is not a question merely of the Government saying that this Bill has priority over other Measures, although they are perfectly entitled to do so; it is not that the Government are saying that all the other Private Members' Measures will have to be dropped if this proposal to debate this subject is accepted. The Government have given fairly clear undertakings on this, that they will do everything they can to protect the other Private Members' Bills affected tomorrow—that is if the time is taken up so much in the debate that those Measures have to fall. That is not necessary. There is plenty of time available for proper discussion of this question and of the other matters.
If that were to be the decision of this House by supporting this Motion, and 1807 the House were to be denied the opportunity now to decide on the question of divorce reform, it would bring Parliament into utter contempt. This is not a subject which has been suddenly brought in, in a rushed debate. This is a matter that has been debated in the country for years, generations. Many of us remember the debates in 1950 and 1951 when the present Minister of State at the Welsh Office introduced her Bill. Many of us remember the establishment of a Royal Commission which examined the matter with the utmost care. Many of us remember the detailed debates which took place on the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). There is hardly a single social subject that has been examined in greater detail by commissions, bodies, outside this House and by this House, on a whole series of occasions. No one can say that this is a Measure that is being rushed through.
The Government are not abandoning their neutrality. All that they are saying and it is a very common-sense thing, is that the House has a right to make up its mind on this subject and they are going a little further, and saying that the House has a duty to make up its mind. I understand perfectly hon. Members who oppose this divorce Bill and wish to present arguments against it and fight it. They are perfectly within their rights. But I do not think that they are in their rights to complain that the Government are providing the opportunity for the elected representatives of the people to decide on this question. What would be a denial of the rights of the House of Commons as well as what many of us believe the elementary individual and human rights of tens of thousands of people who have been waiting in agony and grievance for years—
§ Mr. Foot
I apologise, Mr. Speaker. What would be a denial of the proper procedures of the House is if, instead of proceeding, as I believe the whole country expects us to do, to settle this question now, with each of us saying what conclusion we have reached, by some Parliamentary device we were to be prevented from making that choice. 1808 It would be an abuse of Parliament and I hope that the House will reject the Motion.
§ 10.46 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) is no doubt right in saying that, if the Motion were carried, the likelihood of the Bill reaching the Statute Book would be considerably diminished but that does not justify describing the Motion in any ordinary acceptance of the term as a "wrecking" Motion, for it is a Motion which has a substantive purpose and importance in its own right.
The hon. Gentleman's argument that any hon. Member who is in favour of the Bill ought, in order to get the Bill, to jump the question which the Motion poses and automatically vote against the Motion is as good as to say that if we decide on a course of action it does not matter about the procedures of the House, about the proprieties, about the related powers of Government and backbenchers, but that we should go straight to our purpose. I do not think that approach has been characteristic of the contributions which the hon. Gentleman has made in this House. I believe that we have a duty as well as a right to consider the very substantial point which is posed by the Motion.
The question of precedent has already been touched upon and I dare say it will feature largely before the debate concludes. Nevertheless, I do not think that precedent is the heart of the matter or that we can decide the question the Motion poses by looking at precedent. You, Mr. Speaker, in the Chair of this House, are bound by the rules of the House; and in the interpretation of the rules you are bound by the precedents. Once you have satisfied yourself, on the best consideration and advice you can take, that precedent lies one way, you, as Speaker, have no alternative before you but to follow precedent.
But the House, in considering this Motion, is in no way bound by precedent. Even if it were shown—and I do not know what will emerge—that there were more or less precedents for what the Government are attempting to do, it would nevertheless be valuable and right for us to consider whether those precedents ought any longer to be valid. 1809 The House is master of its own procedure and can at any time decide that the manner in which its business has been conducted hitherto is defective or capable of being improved and ought to be improved. So, although no doubt the question of precedent will feature in the debate, it is not the central matter.
The central matter is, precedent or no precedent, the abuse of power. Standing Order No. 15 gives the Government, because they are the Government, the right to marshal the Order Paper, the right to determine on most Parliamentary days what business shall be taken and in what order. The House accords that right to the Government for the sake of the public business, in order that the Queen's business may be carried on. Therefore, the House gives the Government the power to decide what business shall be taken and to exclude other business.
The Government in this House, under our forms of order and procedure, have very great powers indeed which, in other circumstances, could be used quite tyrannically. But we accord them these powers and we use them with the degree of understanding with which we are all familiar because we recognise that in the end the Government must be carried on; that those Measures which are necessary—necessary not in the opinion of this or that hon. Member but in the opinion of the Government—must be brought before the House at the time when the Government think they should be and must be debated and, if possible, decided by the House at the option of the Government.
But these are matters where the Government on their own responsibility come forward and say, "This is necessary in the public interest". They take responsibility when they exercise the power; but the moment they use that power in connection with a Measure of which they do not assert on their responsibility that it is public business, that it is necessary for the carrying on of the Government, then we set up a situation of power without responsibility—the well-known and trite metaphor from which I will not quote, but which will be in the mind of hon. Members.
When the Government in this House are properly exercising the right which Standing Order No. 15 gives them, they take responsibility for every element in 1810 the Measure or the business to which that procedure is applied and for its consequences. If a Measure is passed on the Government's responsibility, then we know afterwards whom to blame for the outcome.
They do not exercise the power of Standing Order No. 15 without sanction. The sanction is that which attends on the exercise of all power in a democracy—that of being criticised and called to account. Consequently on Government business, all points, however small, however detailed—
§ Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)
Surely it is Parliament that ought to be blamed, not the Government, since it is Parliament that passes legislation, not the Government.
§ Mr. Powell
But my hon. Friend must consider the circumstances in which Parliament passes legislation. If a Bill goes through as a Private Member's Bill, no member of the public is entitled to blame the Government, but if a Bill goes through because, and only because, the Government have used their power to secure its passage procedurally—
§ Mr. Powell
Perhaps I could complete my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry). Perhaps I went a little too far when I said— [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I assure hon. Members that noise does not help the case that they wish to support. Mr. Powell.
§ Mr. Powell
The argument is so strong that it is not necessary to claim that the legislation would pass only because the Government have used their power under Standing Order No. 15. It is only necessary to claim—and this no hon. Member of the House can deny—that the passage has been greatly facilitated [Hon. Members: No.] and may well have depended upon the interposition of the Government's powers.
1811 In those circumstances, the public ought to be able to say—and it is the meaning of responsible Government that the public ought to be able to say—"We know where the blame lies. This Measure is in effect because of action taken by the Government." But the Government slip out from under that responsibility. They do not come to the Dispatch Box and justify one clause after another in the Bill—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
The right hon. Gentleman does not justify his policy— [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Ridley
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Surely the difference here is that there will be no Whips on. How can my right hon. Friend claim that the Government facilitate the passage of the Bill when they do not put the Whips on? I can see the force of the argument when hon. Members are whipped in support. That is a different matter. But surely he, with his constitutional knowledge, will agree that Parliament is sovereign in the passage of legislation.
§ Mr. Powell
I do not believe that any hon. Member here doubts why we are having this debate and why we will sit tonight. It is because the Government have done for this Bill what is not normally done for a Private Member's Bill. The probable effect, and in many cases the intended effect, of that being done is to secure its passage.
§ Mr. Powell
Therefore I repeat that the Government are here exercising power without responsibility. They are securing or promoting a legislative result without submitting themselves to the normal responsibility for what they bring about by the use of their power in this House. In short, this procedure is an abuse, whether covered by precedent or not, of the principle and philosophy underlying Standing Order No. 15.
§ Mr. Ben Whitaker (Hampstead)
Will the right hon. Gentleman, as a democrat, agree that it is much better that important issues are debated fully and decided by Parliament than debated in speeches outside Parliament?
§ Mr. Powell
They can, with advantage, be debated in both ways.
I was about to deal with the second major point made by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. I join with the hon. Gentleman in his concern that the procedures and potentialities of this House should not in any way be narrowed. The hon. Gentleman said that certain matters require to be maturely deliberated on and perhaps decided in this House, even though they are not made the subject of Government policy and are not covered by the doctrine of the collective responsibility of the Cabinet. Yes, indeed, I agree with him. But we have procedures for doing that. The opinion of the House can be tested and debates can be secured by the Motion procedure. If we wish to ascertain the opinion of this House, or of the country, on any matter, there is a whole range of procedures by which debate can be secured in this House. But those procedures do not involve the Government using the power and privilege which are given to them to carry through public business upon which the Cabinet has collectively decided, as a mantle for covering matters where there is no such responsibility and no such Government being done tonight, in any way be recognising the impropriety of what is being done tonight, in any way by impoverishing the ability of this House to debate, at whatever length, any subject we wish to have before us.
Whatever the outcome of this debate, I do not believe that this matter can now be left here. I do not believe that the House can remain satisfied with a situation in which the Government can interpose their special powers to lift one Measure out of many from the general run of private Members' Measures covered by rules which the House itself has approved and give it the special treatment which is justified only where the Government are prepared to say, "This, on our responsibility, is in the public interest".
Whatever we decide to do about this Motion tonight, I believe that the House 1813 ought to remit to the committees which consider its procedure the real difficulty, and I submit the real abuse, which is being exposed by the debate on this Motion. My right hon. and learned Friend by putting this Motion before the House at this point, and the Government by enabling the debate on this Motion to take place at this point, have performed a real service to the future procedure of the House of Commons.
§ 11.1 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
It is a matter of some surprise to me, except when my own passions are aroused, that when the passions of individual Members are aroused they put points without considering the alternatives to the points which they advocate.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) accused the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) of a degree of exaggeration in that he said that this was a wrecking Motion when it was not a wrecking Motion. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was making a fair point. I think that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale probably was exaggerating.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West, was, I think, greatly exaggerating in the remainder of his speech the point originally made by the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), and the reason is simple. It can be put in one question: what procedure is available other than the one the Government have adopted? It seems to me that in many ways the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey had a perfectly good point, but perhaps because of his reasons for introducing the Motion in the first place, his desire to oppose the Bill as a whole—I put it no higher than that; I do not know his motives—he has applied a perfectly good point in the wrong way. It seems to me that it is perfectly valid to say that the Government should not have to adopt a procedure of this kind to see that the will of the House of Commons is obeyed.
§ Mr. English
We are to have a vote, and we shall soon find out.
What is the position with Private Members' Bills? We agree, as a House of 1814 Commons, upon the amount of time available for Private Members' Bills, and then we have a lottery to determine how the law should be altered. If the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Sir D. Glover) really believes that this is the best procedure that man could devise for altering—
§ Sir D. Glover
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. If I am fortunate enough to be called to speak, I shall try to reduce the temperature of the debate. I do not think that we are in anything like the trouble referred to by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), and indeed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton (Mr. Powell). We have a number of procedures which we could have adopted and not got ourselves completely out of order as we have tonight. I do not think that we need get as excited as we are doing.
§ Mr. English
We are by no means out of order. We are in the situation of a somewhat unusual precedent in that this Motion is being discussed at all. But since it is being discussed, and since there is a valid point involved—a point which has been made in three different ways already—let us make clear what the point is. The point is that this Motion criticises the Government, and it does not matter in this context whether it happens to be a Labour or a Conservative Government because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale has already pointed out, there are precedents in both cases. This Motion criticises the Government for using their power over the timetable of the House to put a particular Bill in an order of precedence to which it otherwise would not be entitled. But why would it not be entitled to it?
The hon. Member for Ormskirk interrupted me at a point when I was saying that Private Members' Bills in this House are a lottery. It is wrong, in my view—other hon. Members may or may not agree—that the legislation of this country should be the subject of a simple lottery system—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The whole procedure governing Private Members' Bills cannot be discussed on this specific Motion.
§ Mr. English
I am aware of that, Mr. Speaker, but I hope you will allow me to make the point that, the order of precedence having originally been decided by a lottery, then by virtue of a Standing Order which this House has passed, if a Bill is opposed for a sufficiently long time it automatically slips down in the order of precedence. What this means in effect is that however many Members approve of a Bill, if it happens to be controversial, it will automatically slip down in the order of precedence within private Members' time. This means that one should pass legislation in Private Members' time only if nobody disagrees with it.
We should realise that the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey has raised a very good point. But it is totally unfair of the right hon. and learned Member and of the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West if they then blame the Government for endeavouring to put the matter right in the belief that a large number of hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to have the matter discussed because those hon. Members believe that many people whom they represent wish to have it discussed. I am not entering into the merits of this Bill, but it seems to me that if hon. Members object to the system whereby time has been given to this Bill, it is not their duty merely to suggest that the Government are wrong in giving time on behalf of the country and of the House, but to suggest that the House should have a better system for determining how Bills of this controversial nature should come before it.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Interventions prolong speeches. Many hon. Members wish to speak. I saw three hon. Members trying to intervene at that moment. Mr. John Hall.
§ Mr. John Hall (Wycombe)
Would not the result which the hon. Gentleman seeks be achieved if the Government were prepared to adopt as their own business a Private Member's Bill which they favoured?
§ Mr. English
It seems to me that the cure is worse than the disease complained of. I do not think I am exaggerating 1816 the point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey when I say that he suggested that because a tiny star appears against the third item on the Order Paper, the Government have therefore gone beyond their own policy of neutrality in order to approve of a Bill. The hon. Member is suggesting that the Government should go beyond that point. He cannot have both. His intervention and the original point of the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey cannot both be valid. If it is suggested that, instead of this procedure, the Government should adopt the Bill as their own business and policy, what becomes of the original point?
My point is that it is totally wrong for hon. Members to suggest that the Government are wrong in trying to rescue the House from a dilemma in which it is placed by its own procedures. What we should consider is whether there there should be a simple way in which the House can declare that it, as a whole—back benchers and Front Benchers, as private Members—wishes to give precedence to subjects which have precedence in the minds of the country. If that could be so, the case of the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey and the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West would fall to the ground. But since that is not so, what other procedure is available than the one adopted by the Government and which is objected to tonight?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I would remind the House that many hon. Members wish to speak and that brief speeches will help.
§ 11.12 p.m.
§ Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)
The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) rather ruined his argument, because he said that he did not like the way in which Standing Order No. 5 works, under which Private Members' Bills are chosen by Ballot. But this is the Standing Order under which we work, and it is in the light of that that we must consider the procedure adopted tonight. I agree with the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) that this raises a very important Parliamentary point. This is not a wrecking Motion, because, if it were carried, the Bill would take its 1817 proper place in the business tomorrow and would be third, I think, in the list of Bills selected. By adopting this course, the Government have lifted it out of the priority which it had under Standing Order No. 5 and treated it as if it were Government business.
I agree that there have been precedents. Eskine May says:…the Government is given a control over the time of the House which is very far-reaching…This control is the result of a process, extending over the last century, whereby an ever-increasing proportion of the time of the session has been appropriated to the Government.I am interested, not because of the merits of the Bill, but because I believe that, in recent Sessions, the Government have used methods to take more of Private Members' Time for those Private Members' Bills which they prefer.
The Leader of the House said at Question Time that this is not the first time, but there is this difference. What the Government have been doing in recent Sessions is to push through selected Private Members' Bills by using the suspension rule late at night. That has not been done previously. A. P. Herbert's Bill and the Gaming Bill which was discussed in 1963 were not pushed through late at night. The nearest analogy to the procedure which the Government are adopting is the one given by the Leader of the House at Question Time—the Divorce (Scotland) Bill. I looked up the debate. The present Secretary of State for Scotland objected when the then Leader of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd) put the Divorce (Scotland) Bill at the end of the day's business so that it could be taken then.
The difference between the Divorce (Scotland) Bill and this Divorce Bill is, first, that that was a Bill which was being pressed by the Lord Advocate, as the present Secretary of State for Scotland said, and it was, to that extent, therefore a Government-sponsored Bill, although it was introduced by Mr. Hendry. Secondly, it was a Bill upon which there were going to be no Divisions at all; there were no Divisions; it went through within an hour and half after 10 o'clock on 21st July, 1964.
Thirdly, and what is rather more important, the excuse which my right hon. 1818 and learned Friend the Member for Wirral gave for using that procedure for that Bill was that that was a Scottish day: there were Scottish Estimates all day, and he thought it would be convenient for the Scotsmen to go on to deal with a Scottish Bill, when the alternative would have been that Scotsmen would have had to sit on a Friday, and Scotsmen are disinclined to sit on Fridays. Therefore, he chose that course. I am not defending my absent right hon. and learned Friend. I am explaining to the House the difference between the procedure adopted on that Bill and the procedure adopted on this Bill—and, indeed, on the Abortion Bill last Session.
It is quite wrong, in my view, that Bills on which there are quite substantial minority views should be pushed through the House late at night. Quite frankly, I think the House is getting worse and worse in this matter of all-night Sittings. It is quite wrong, and I believe that we ought to adopt other methods for dealing with contentious legislation than that of pushing it through late at night.
What other procedure is available to the Government? That was the question asked by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West. Surely, if this Bill is important, if the Government wish to have it, so that they afford time for it, without taking responsibility for it, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) was saying, they can devote a Parliamentary day—a proper Parliamentary day, not a Parliamentary night—for the discussion of it. I would have no objection. I personally think that there is great merit in parts of the Bill. There is one Clause to which I am very sure we ought—
§ Mr. Turton
I am sorry. I was putting that as an aside, Mr. Speaker.
There is nothing to stop the Government from giving proper time to the House for discussion of the Bill, and in that case it would not be necessary for them to use the procedure they are using tonight.
Whatever conclusion is come to on this Motion, I would ask the House to give thought to this problem of what we do 1819 when we want to get a Bill considered when there are is a substantial minority in opposition to it. We have not found the right answer. We cannot draft legislation well in the early hours of the morning, and we ought to find a way different from this.
I personally believe, unlike the hon. Member for Nottingham, West, that Standing Orders No. 5 and No. 15 are correct. I believe that they are being twisted to a certain extent by the procedure which has been adopted tonight and which, I admit, has been adopted on rare occasions in the past. The House should beware of making this a regular practice.
§ Mr. English
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that Standing Orders of that character apply an automatic procedure, irrespective of the circumstances, irrespective of the occasion, irrespective of the will of the House or of the country, to every Bill once it has gone into the lottery? Is it not better that the will of the House should prevail?
§ Mr. Turton
The will of the House prevails on every Bill that is introduced. But, as all hon. Members are potential legislators, it is difficult for even the hon. Member for Nottingham, West to judge whether one potential legislator is better than another. From very long Parliamentary practice we have adopted the system of the Ballot, and by and large it works very well. I speak with some feeling. When I came to the House as a new Member 40 years ago I drew first place in the Ballot and I made my maiden speech on that occasion—and I have always thought that there is a lot to be said for Standing Order No. 5.
Whatever view one takes of this situation—whether the Government have acted unconstitutionally or irregularly or not—the House should beware of this habit of thrusting through contentious Bills late at night. It does not make for good legislation and it is an abuse of the Rules of the House.
§ 11.22 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)
Perhaps I should intervene at this stage, although I am not seeking to wind up the debate. I have found the debate already interesting and stimulat- 1820 ing. The House is always at its best on a subject such as this when the issues cut across parties and the Measure—although I must not be involved in it—is supported on all sides of the House and opposed on all sides of the House. Inevitably, on procedure Motions the House produces some extremely interesting speeches. I pay tribute to the speeches which have been made, and to the manner in which they have been made—and to the way in which the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) moved the Motion.
The Motion, which he read carefully and in detail, reveals a measure of partisanship—but not in a party sense; but the tone of his speech, I am glad to say, was rather different. I also thank him for giving me notice privately of the way in which he would approach the subject. I will follow the pattern set by the right hon. and learned Gentleman and others. It is also right, Mr. Speaker, to heed your appeal for brevity and for an effort to put arguments concisely. I am grateful, too, for the remarks of the right hon. and learned Member on the evidence of the Government's neutrality and for the fact that he confined his speech to the issues of principle involved.
The posture adopted tonight is not a new posture of any Government to take. My hon. Friend the Member of Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) explained that in an effective speech. That view was repeated by my hon. Friend the Member of Nottingham, West (Mr. English). The Father of the House has admitted that there are precedents, and he has admitted that previous Administrations used Standing Orders Nos. 5 and 15. On the other hand, the right hon. Member of Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) argued that we were not necessarily confined to following precedent. But I stress that it is not a new posture of any Government to take.
I suggest that the most comparable and recent case was that mentioned by the right hon. Member of Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton)—the Divorce (Scotland) Act, 1964. Whether or not the debate then was short, the same principle applied. The then Leader of the House, the right hon. and learned Member for Wirral (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), has signed this Motion which is somewhat remarkable. I respect his views, 1821 and I have great admiration for him. But he enabled that Measure to pass through Parliament and, whatever one may say about the time involved, the principle is the same.
I am not referring to isolated cases. I have with me a long list of similar cases. Hon. Members may refer to other cases during the discussion. During the past 20 years or so, about five Measures a year have, in this context, been given special help by the Government of the day to get the Royal Assent.
This point is not engaging the attention of some hon. Members, who are questioning whether social Measures of this importance should be handled by Governments rather than by private hon. Members. The right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey made this point, and I thought that the Father of the House sought to emphasise it.
I take the view which my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale expressed in his inimitable way; that in certain circumstances the Government are right—indeed, they have a duty—to enable the House to make up its mind on important matters which affect the community, which are not of a party kind, which are moral in nature, which may be of a religious kind, and on which opinion is divided not only in the House but in the country generally. It is right that the Government of the day should enable the House to reach a decision and that the Government should exercise neutrality, as we have done in this case.
§ Mr. Peart
I am explaining that it is right for any Government—it has been done by Conservative Administrations—to give the House an opportunity to 1822 come to a decision on an issue of this kind. As the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) aptly pointed out in an intervention, the Whips will not be on when we come to the Bill, and that is how it should be.
§ Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)
Is the right hon. Gentleman saying that in the past this procedure has been adopted by Conservative Governments when matters of great controversy have been raised and at the expense of a whole day of other private hon. Members' Bills which lie ahead of this Bill on the Order Paper?
§ Mr. Peart
Reference was made to a previous divorce Measure in the 'thirties and I have given the example of the Divorce (Scotland) Act, in respect of which the then Leader of the House made an announcement to the House, as I did in this case, at business question time.
Even the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West admitted that there were precedents, although he argued, cogently from his point of view, that we shoud not be bound by precedent. I am merely saying that the principle has been established. There is no doubt about that. I have looked into this matter extremely carefully. [Interruption.] I assure the House that the principle has been established. I believe it to be a good principle. It is that on a major matter of this kind it is right for the Government to enable the House to come to a decision. Then it will be for the supporters and the opponents of the Bill to state their cases and have the argument. I think the time had come in this case for us to make a decision and I think we made the right one.
§ Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)
I can appreciate my right hon. Friend's difficulty, but I am more interested in what a Labour Government has done than what Conservative Governments have done. Could my right hon. Friend tell us on how many occasions he has followed the procedure we are now following and which subjects were the basis for the allocation of time?
§ Mr. Peart
I have given examples. I say that this is the right procedure whatever Government there is; I am not arguing a party case. The debate has not been conducted on the basis of whether we have a Labour or a Conservative Government; the principle has been accepted by Governments of different complexions. I am arguing that time should be given for the House itself—not the Government—to make up its mind on an issue of the importance of that which possibly we shall debate later tonight. I think this is right.
§ Mr. Peart
Mr. Speaker has appealed to hon. Members to remember that many wish to speak. I hope that if the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr. John Hall) catches Mr. Speaker's eye he will make his speech.
It is the Government's view that in a number of social fields, including divorce, the Government as a Government should remain neutral, but the House should be entitled to come to a decision. Particularly in the case of an important issue like the present one, which has been long delayed, and in the light of the concern inside and outside this House, it is not only right but necessary to assist the House in coming to a decision one way or the other. This Government, like other Governments, believe that divorce is such a case. I believe this is right, but if the House wishes I am prepared to consider sympathetically that the general grant of Government time for Private Members' Bills should be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure. There may be argument about this, but I believe I am right to respond to a very serious point put by the mover of the Motion and also by the Father of the House. I will look into this because I think it important.
Another point which has been touched on is whether enough consideration has been given to possible Amendments to the Divorce Reform Bill. Of course, a further opportunity lies ahead in the present Sitting, and there will no doubt be other matters debated in another place. I cannot elaborate on that. I have no doubt that those concerned with the Bill might argue that the Bill now before the House is the result of changes we 1824 made to a previous Bill, and that therefore the propositions which they are making are the result of previous deliberations by the House.
May I now insert a small procedural point which I know will interest the mover of the Motion? This concerns putting an asterisk to the title of a Bill. The decision to use an asterisk was made by the authorities of the House. This has gone back over a long period. It is not easy to find the specific time when the use of an asterisk began, but it has existed for many years. The House knows that the Order Paper shows by the use of an asterisk which are the Orders of the Day. We are asked, if the Government are neutral on the Divorce Reform Bill, why was the asterisk used? That is a fair question. The view of the House authorities is that facilitated Private Members' Bills are best dealt with in that way. This has been the practice, and it is not unusual. This is not to say that the Government agree with the Bill, as I said. It is merely that time will be provided so that the House can come to a decision. Indeed, the Government also gave this Motion priority. I am glad that reference has been made to the magnanimity of the Government. I hope that this will be recognised.
The procedure of the asterisk has obtained since before the war. It has not happened only to this Bill. Sixty Bills have been treated in this way.
The Motion is esssentially a procedural one. I hope that, in view of the assurances that I have given, especially that in relation to the Committee on Procedure, and in the context of the precedents, the sponsors of the Motion will be content with the action which has been taken both in respect of their Motion and in respect of the Bill.
§ 11.36 p.m.
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
The Leader of the House has made a very emollient speech, but if the Government believe that it is right that the House should have time to discuss a great social and moral issue why must it be in the middle of the night? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) said, the timing of this in itself is a very doubtful approach.
The Leader of the House expressed the original and rather strange doctrine that 1825 there are issues on which the Government believe it right to be neutral but on which the House should be given the opportunity to make up its mind. To achieve that, the asterisk is applied to a Private Members' Bill on the advice of the authorities of the House. That broadly is the basis on which we are proceeding.
Before I say any more to the Leader of the House, I want to acknowledge the service which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) has done the House tonight and the way in which he recognised that this is a House of Commons matter. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend already realises that the service that he has rendered to us has been put to good use.
It is false to argue that the Motion is a wrecking one. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) said, a good Bill cannot be put through in the wrong way. That is the simple answer we give to those who assert that this is a wrecking Motion.
I was sorry to hear the speech of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot). No one defends more stoutly the rights of the House of Commons and, on occasion, the rights of private Members than he does. I cannot help feeling that in a different context he would have made a different speech.
I want to discuss the practical consequences of the Government's action. I am not qualified to argue the constitutional rights and wrongs, although I have put my name to the Motion. Certain practical consequences may flow from the way in which the Government are going about this. The Leader of the House is entitled to say that this is not a new procedure. We accept that. Of course Government time has been given to Private Members' Bills before, but it is also true that no Government have gone so far in developing the regular practice of hedging their bets on Bills involving difficult social questions and matters of sensitive social reform and in developing a sort of hybrid Bill. It is the regular use of this procedure—we have had four prime examples of this practice in the lifetime of this Government—which so many of us find objectionable.
1826 Whether or not it is constitutionally wrong, I am sure that in its effects it is dangerous. It is natural, as the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale said, that the Government should want on some of these matters to take the temperature of the water, to take the voice of the House of Commons, although, I must add, the voice of the House of Commons on a Private Members' Bill, taken when private Members' votes are taken, is not always a reliable guide to what opinion in the House of Commons may be. We have had examples of that.
While it may be an advantage for the Government, for the subject matter of the Bill and for those who may be affected by the Bill quite other consequences flow. There may be grave disadvantages, as we have seen with the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill.
Both the Private Members' Bill and the Government Bill systems possess very great advantages. Both systems by themselves work well. It is when the Government bring them into doubtful union that they develop a certain course and we get, as, I believe, we shall get with this Bill, the worst of both worlds. I would have thought that our mechanism for Private Members' Bills was a great deal better than even we think.
Of course, there are failures and disappointments, sometimes repeated, for hon. Members. An hon. Member may have to persist one, two, three or four years, as hon. Members have done with various projects and ideas, but that mechanism provides certain safeguards. It promotes public discussion and, very often, second thoughts. A Bill which is lost under the private Members' machinery in one Session comes forward in a different form the next Session, and there have been examples of this. Indeed, there is a long list of Bills which have been dealt with in that way.
§ Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)
Was A. P. Herbert's Bill any the worse for the fact that the Tory Government of the day facilitated it? I think it is right to say that every Divorce Bill of the last hundred years, save for one minor amendment, has been a Private Member's Bill and no Government have touched it.
§ Mr. Deedes
It happened by a freak that I was in the House in another 1827 capacity when A. P. Herbert's Bill was passed. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that the circumstances of that Bill were quite exceptional. It is an error to try to draw too many conclusions from what happened to that Bill. I certainly would not wish to cite that instance for either the defence or the prosecution.
§ The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)
What would the right hon. Gentleman say about the facilitating of the passage of the Divorce (Scotland) Bill on 21st July, 1964?
§ Mr. Deedes
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman heard what my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton said about the circumstances of that Bill. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will do me the honour of listening to my argument. I have accepted precedents and that other Governments, Tory and Labour, have done this, but I am trying to show what may flow from the regular practice of doing this.
The safeguard, to which I have referred, on Private Members' Bills to some extent replaces the safeguards guaranteed in Bills for which the Government have given responsibility from the start, including the rigours and disciplines of Departmental work. No one who has seen this process at work in a Government Department will doubt its thoroughness. A Bill which comes before the House—as the Divorce Reform Bill, if it were a Government Bill, would come before the House—which has been through a Government Department has not only had ample preparation, but it has had the benefit of consultation, and I stress consultation.
There is an obligation in a Bill for which the Government are wholly responsible to carry out certain consultations, which in this instance have not been carried out. I will not go into detail, but it has not been done. It is that process alone which leads me to think that it is impracticable and dangerous to split Government responsibility in a matter of this kind—in other words, as the Leader of the House has put it, to display neutrality at an early stage until an unspecified point, and thereafter to assume responsibility when it is too late.
1828 Certain processes are implicit in Government responsibility for a Bill, which in the case of the present Bill are now beyond recall. One at least of these is Departmental concentration on what is passed, which leads to the spraying of the Amendment Paper with Government Amendments on most Government Bills which come forward. Where are the Government Amendments on the Paper to this Measure? Does the Leader of the House doubt that if this were a Government Bill, there would be a large number of Government Amendments—drafting Amendments, possibly, but there would be a large number of Government Amendments to the Bill? Perhaps there will be in another place. That remains to be seen.
For certain Measures—I certainly include this subject—those consultations are indispensable. There is one other difference between the process which the Leader of the House described to us and the process which the Bill is suffering, or enjoying. When a Government are responsible for a Bill from the start, the Department tends to think its consequences through. At least, it thinks them through more thoroughly than happens on a Private Members' Bill the future of which is uncertain until the last moment. Why should a Department concentrate upon the likely consequences of a Bill when no one knows until a very late stage whether it will be a reality or not? With a Bill of its own, however, the Department knows exactly where its responsibilities lie.
§ Mr. Ridley
Can I believe my ears? Do I hear my right hon. Friend advocating legislation by the Civil Service?
§ Mr. Deedes
My hon. Friend has mistaken my argument. I shall not take up time by repeating it. I am pointing out that the Private Member's Bill is an admirable mechanism, and the Public Bill is a better mechanism than is sometimes supposed, but when the two are mixed there is trouble. That is the short point I make.
I was stressing that more thorough attention is given to the future consequences of Bills when the Government assume responsibility from the start than is likely to be given to a Private Member's Bill. That is certainly true of two Private Members' Bills of which we have had recent experience, the last being the 1829 one promoted by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill.
I add in passing that the present Bill provides an example of what I am saying. I shall not dwell on the matter, but it is conceded—I put it in a detached way—that certain financial aspects may be deficient, and it is also, I believe, assumed that certain remedies may be applied in the future, perhaps in the next Session. I find it difficult to believe that, if the Government had been responsible for the Bill from the start, these things would not have been joined together so that we had the satisfaction of a single Measure and knew where we were. To my mind, that in itself is an indication of the detrimental way in which the Government are proceeding.
§ Mr. John Mendelson
Is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that among all the Measures which my right hon. Friends have brought forward as a Government since 1964, there is not one in which the financial provisions have been found to be deficient since their passage?
§ Mr. Deedes
The hon. Gentleman is deliberately eluding the point I am making. I have accepted the precedents. Both Governments have done it. But I say that making it a regular practice increases the dangers of the practice.
§ Mr. Deedes
It is not even a simple matter of the Government waiting to hear the voice of the House, waiting to see which way the cat jumps, to put it crudely, and then deciding to give time. I must say that the expression "giving the House time" seems, in the circumstances of our consideration of this Bill, most inappropriate. What it means is, "Tell the House to sit up all night". That is the effect of it. The Leader of the House said that the Government think it right to give the House an opportunity to make up its mind on a great moral issue. So we can sit here all night on the Bill, as we should have done from 10 o'clock were it not for this procedural Motion. He knows that that is humbug.
Personally, I do not not mind. I think that the House works well late at night. I do not quarrel with late night sittings. They have their virtues. But there is 1830 something cynical in a Government's attitude which says, "If you want to talk further on this great moral issue, you can sit up all night". It was done on the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill; we spent not one but two nights doing it, but I do not think that the Bill was improved thereby. It may be rough on the House. It may turn out to be a great deal rougher on the Government. First, they stand open to the charge of being guilty of denial of Government responsibility. I insist, with my right hon. and learned Friend, that the action over the Bill is a denial of full Government responsibility.
I am not entering my views about the Bill, but I am rather moved by some of the letters I receive urging the passage or the holding up of the Bill. What those who write cannot be expected to know is that they are not getting an absolutely first-class Bill. I will not describe it as second class, but it is not first class. They can have no knowledge of the methods being used, which are not the best we can apply to Bills of this kind, or the consequences. They are probably not much interested in whether the Government are acting constitutionally or not. They are interested in what the effects will be.
A profession of neutrality, a declining of full responsibility, and then allowing the Bill to go through by the misuse of Parliament is a disturbing combination. The tragedy is that some of those whom the Bill seeks to protect are far more likely to suffer from this than those who are now responsible for this action.
§ 11.52 p.m.
§ Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)
The House will be relieved to hear that I shall detain it for only a couple of minutes, and possibly even less—that is, for only about two minutes on the Motion, but later, when we come to the Divorce Bill, I shall feel free to talk gently through the night and into the small hours if necessary, or even into matins and lauds or vespers and compline tomorrow night.
I am disappointed that the Government have taken this step. I confess with equal frankness that the reason is that I do not like the Bill. But the Motion is not asking me to express my disappointment, but asks me to say that what the Government are doing is unconstitutional, 1831 and the fact is that it is not. What I am concerned about tonight is the facts, and Governments have been doing this for years. That is a fact. Nothing is more important than a fact. All the Standing Orders and rules of procedure fall flat on their face before a fact. As used to be said a thousand years ago, Contra factum non valet argumentum. No argument stands up against a fact The Motion asks me to deny a fact, and that I will never do.
§ 11.53 p.m.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
I must declare that I have an interest in seeing the passage of the Bill, being one of its sponsors. But whether or not the Bill passes is an entirely separate issue from whether we should pass the Motion.
Although the two issues are entirely separate, it is curious how many hon. Members colour their opinion about on according to what they think about the other. I must congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy) on being an exception to that, because he has not allowed his dislike for the Bill to allow him to support the Motion.
It must follow that hon. Gentlemen who dislike the Bill will like the Motion, because the result of passing it would be seriously to incommode the Bill. I am not a bit surprised by the large number of hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in favour of the Motion, because they want to see the Bill defeated.
§ Sir D. Glover
I think that my hon. Friend is being unjust to many of his colleagues on both hides of the House. I support my hon. and learned Friend on the Motion. He is doing a great constitutional service to the House. Here is a matter of great constitutional importance. I propose taking no part in the Bill.
§ Mr. Ridley
I can only say to my hon. Friend that it is clear that there is a preference on the part of the Government in favour of the Bill, as a result of which they have given time to it. To some extent I go along with what he says. The only part of the speech of the Leader of the House which I found utterly unconvincing in what was otherwise an acceptable speech, was when he said that the 1832 Government accepted no responsibility, and were entirely neutral. How can they be neutral, providing time tonight for us to discuss the Bill? Parliamentary time is important. Without time, nothing passes, with time Bills roll inexorably on, with, of course, that notable exception, the Parliament (No. 2) Bill which, despite limitless quantities of time, never found its way to the Statute Book.
This preference which the Government have given the Bill must mean that they accept a particular responsibility for it. It is idle and foolish to pretend that they do not. Would the Government have given the Bill time if it had meant that divorce was much more difficult, if it had become impossible? Would we still be considering it tonight? Of course not. There is no doubt that this is a preferential act on the part of the Government, in making time available.
The question that must be considered is whether they were right or wrong to do so. There are, broadly speaking, three courses of action which the Government could have taken in relation to the Bill. They could have made it a Government Bill, or they could have left it to the vagaries of the Private Members' Bill procedure, or they could have taken the course which they have taken. I ask hon. Gentlemen whether they would have liked this to be a Government Bill. Would they like the Government Whips to be put on on a matter like this? There is not doubt that on matters of conscience, of religion, personal and sexual matters—and many of these are—it is totally obnoxious to put a Whip on.
Therefore, a straight Government Bill is out of the question. Equally, if it were a Private Members' Bill, it would not have a hope in hell of passing. I take great pride in having, with two or three hon. Friends, almost single-handed, defeated a Bill brought forward by the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Hugh Jenkins). It came second in the Ballot one year and like Horatio we manned the bridge night after night, and prevented it passing. Tiny minorities can prevent a Private Members' Bill becoming law. So we are left with the one alternative, which the Government have chosen.
There is one other point, and it is whether the Government, having been partial, having taken responsibility for putting this Bill down and given it 1833 preferential treatment, should accept responsibility for the content and form of the Bill. This is the last point made by opponents of the Bill, with great force by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes). Of course the Government must give an opinion. When I have written to them about the Bill and its predecessor last year, they have answered my letters with opinions, on the assumption that certain words remained in the Bill. I submit that with a Bill which has not got the Whips on, the Government cannot say categorically "Our opinion is that this or that or the other should prevail" because they cannot enforce it by pushing their majority through the Lobby in support of their point of view. It would be totally wrong for the Government when adopting the procedure which they have adopted to say "It is our intention that Clause 1 should be this way or that way" when they have no majority and no whipping power. They can only interpret and comment as the Bill goes through.
The alternative advocated tonight would mean that we have the Whips on and this is an intolerable alternative. Under the circumstances, the Government are probably right to do what they are doing. Otherwise this House would have to admit that under its present procedures there was no means by which personal, almost religious reforms could be raised and discussed. But I believe that the Leader of the House is right to refer this matter to the Select Committee because, unless we can have a debate as to how the procedure can be improved, these various dilemmas can never be resolved. As the situation is, it is clear that there is no other way in which the House can legislate even if there is a large majority for any given Measure. I shall therefore vote against the Motion.
§ 12 midnight.
§ Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)
The Motion questions the Government's neutrality. The right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) heads a distinguished list of supporters of the Motion. I want to ask him when he and they got this sudden conversion. I am sure that he will recall that, on 17th December last, on Second Reading, with less eloquence but certainly with more force, I made every one of the points contained in the Motion.
1834 Although I had a short term in the Whips' Office at one time, I do not profess to be very knowledgeable about procedure, but I know some little about it. The House will forgive many things but it will not forgive lack of courage and in my own case I am sure that, if I did not support the Motion, I should be rightly accused of political cowardice.
I do not want to be told by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House what happened under Conservative Administrations. I was not responsible for them. But I, my family and all belonging to me have had a lot to do over a lifetime with creating the possibility for my right hon. Friends to sit where they are now. That does not give me greater claim than anyone else but it does not give me less. I know that the House does not particularly like hon. Members quoting speeches, least of all their own, but I want to recall what I said on Second Reading. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General spoke of the Government's neutrality but said that they felt this was a matter of great important on which the House should come to a conclusion. I asked him why, in that case, the Government did not have the courage to introduce the Bill themselves. I said:I have been filled with sadness by some of the attitudes of the Labour Government. I have reported it to the highest authorities in the Labour Government. They are doing things which they should not be doing and they have done things which they should not have done. The have introduced social legislation which is no part of Labour philosophy."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 17th December, 1968; Vol. 775, c. 1086.]
§ Mr. Mahon
The last thing I wish to do is to embark upon a legal argument with the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Mention has been made of moral difficulties and moral principles. I betray no secrets when I say that the present Government are very concerned about the future of another Bill. It is not a Bill involving moral principles, but it will have an effect on the old principles in which the Labour Party believed. Therefore, confusions and conflicts arise over many other kinds of legislation than that which we are now discussing.
1835 The people have a right to know whether the Cabinet has been neutral in this matter. People wish to be reassured. I have supported with great conviction the activities of the Labour Party. On this occasion I want to be reassured.
I have said that I am not satisfied about the situation in regard to Private Members' Bills as against Public Bills. We live in a world in which tremendous pressures are exerted from outside, some of which are for the good of the country, some of which are evil. Sometimes these outside pressure groups, which we all know exist, can take on in this House an importance which they do not deserve.
The Government recently have taken up a stance on two occasions to my knowledge, first on the Abortion Bill, and now on the Divorce Reform Bill. Maybe there are more, but those two are well known to me because I have been involved in both over many months, indeed years. The neutrality of the Government on those Measures has been questionable. I do not say this with relish.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has returned to the Chamber, because I am coming to my final point, in which I wish to put to him a question. I am trying to keep to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, to be brief. My right hon. Friend has said that he will consider our dilemma and will consider the matter in relation to the Select Committee on Procedure. I ask the Leader of the House, knowing the dilemma of some of my hon. and right hon. Friends, remembering how unhappy many of us are, whether it is wise for the Government to embark on this course.
The Sunday Times on 8th June in "Spectrum" contained a rather alarming statement by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). It is headed, "Crisis for divorce reform", and it states:We have twisted the Government's arm to get this time"—my hon. Friend's name is then quoted—and now, because of the low state of morale in Parliament, the Bill is in danger. If we falter it will mean that this Parliament is finished in terms of reform.I do not know whether my hon. Friend wishes to intervene to elaborate that statement or whether the Leader of the 1836 House wishes to say which arm was twisted, whose arm was twisted, or whether it was in this House or in another House. This is the position. I am surprised that neither my right hon. Friend nor my hon. Friend wish to respond.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
My hon. Friend may be sure that if I catch Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye, I shall be commenting on that.
§ Mr. Mahon
No matter what eloquence my hon. Friend may use—and we are used to that— it is hardly the right language to use on such an important Bill to say that they had to twist the Government's arm. It was never part of my book, but I am finding so many things which are part of my book are not shared by other hon. Members.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) spoke about Catholics. I am a Catholic and I am also a member of the Labour Party. It may interest my hon. Friend to know that I have been one almost as long as I have been the other.
My hon. Friend asked what the position would be if all the Catholics were tipped out of the Cabinet. I can assure him that, examining today's Cabinet, no great constitutional crisis would occur. I do not think that it would cause too much ruffling in the dovecotes on the other side of the House either. I suppose that we have had our day, but it may be that it will come again and we shall be able to add a little more enlightenment.
I do not believe that the Government are neutral on this Bill. A great deal more elucidation will have to be given before I believe them to be neutral. I am aware of the pressures existing outside this House. I want to know from my Government whether this is the position. Of course they deny it, but I tell them, 1837 with every atom of truth at my command, that I do not believe them to be neutral in these issues.
The Government will have to convince not only me, but the rest of the country, which feels, as I do, that it is happening too regularly. Are they telling the ordinary people of this country that, in an argument going on in this House on such an important matter, in which their homes, families, marriages and particularly the children of this nation are so vitally concerned, they are completely neutral? Speeches have been made about the conditions of our children over many years—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)
Order. The hon. Gentleman must not debate the issues in the Bill.
§ Mr. Mahon
I agree, and I bow to your decision, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Nevertheless, how do they feel about this Bill being debated right through the night and perhaps the following day?
Do the Government really think that this is the right way to deal with this Measure? Of course it is not, any more than it was the right way to deal with the other social legislation. If the Government want a decision on this Bill, I have no objection. I do not want my will to override anybody else's, but if that is what the Government want they ought to realise that only 291 hon. Members have voted on this issue. There were 188 votes in favour of giving the Bill a Second Reading, and 103 against.
We are being sympathetic to the sponsors of the Bill. On many Fridays they could not mount the Closure, yet here we are getting ready to debate this Measure into the early hours of the morning. The Government have a lot to answer for in this regard. I do not mind hon. Gentlemen opposite cheering. On some other occasion I may be able to say what I think of them. The argument this evening is with the Government. I do not believe that they are neutral, and I do not believe their expressions of neutrality.
§ 12.16 a.m.
§ Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)
I am sure we all agree that the House is indebted to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) and his right hon. and hon. Friends for giving us the opportunity to have this 1838 debate. I am happy to follow that by saying that the House is indebted to the Leader of the House and to the Government for taking the further steps that were necessary. There could not have been this debate unless the Motion had been tabled, but equally there could not have been this debate unless the Leader of the House and the Government had taken the necessary steps to ensure that there could be a debate. This is a good example of the proper use of the power of the Government to arrange the business of the House, and it would be less than generous not to recognise that action on the part of the Leader of the House and the Government. I think that that action was taken because the Leader of the House rightly recognises that there are matters of great concern to this House as a House of Commons, and most hon. Members who have participated in the debate have done so in that spirit.
A number of very important matters have been canvassed during the debate. In view of Mr. Speaker's wish that speeches should be brief I shall not canvass those arguments again. I want to refer to only two points. I stress the importance of not placing too much emphasis upon precedent. Reference has been made in particular to the Divorce (Scotland) Bill. The Secretary of State for Scotland rather suggested that that was a precedent for what the Government were doing tonight. I have looked at the Committee stage of that Bill, and I find that it was most bitterly opposed by the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Secretary of State for Scotland, so I scarcely think that had he remembered that he would have cited that as an example to support what is being done here. In any event, one cannot really rely on these precedents unless one looks at them and sees what time was given.
That brings me to my second point, and this really is the heart of the matter that we are considering tonight. As the Leader of the House said, of course there may be occasions on which the Government ought to give time to Private Members' Bills to enable the House to come to a conclusion, or, to quote the right hon. Gentleman, "to make up its mind on great matters which affect the community".
1839 That is all very well if what is given is time, but some of us feel that to make it possible for "a great matter affecting the community" to be the subject of a debate starting at 10 o'clock and going on through the night makes very little sense and does very little, if anything, to restore the reputation of this House. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) may make his speech if he catches Mr. Deputy Speaker's eye. This is especially the kind of debate where impatience with other people's arguments is out of place. Hon. Members may disagree with them, but they should have patience with them. It is my view, and it may be shared by others, that many people in this country think, to use an expression which is common in my part of the country, that we are daft to discuss these sorts of things in the early hours of the morning. It entirely escapes them how, between the hours of 10 at night and 4, 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning, we can properly come to conclusions on matters that affect their lives.
There are some who feel that it is not a very accurate use of words to call this procedure "giving time". There is a big difference between the Government coming to the conclusion that there is a great matter affecting the community upon which the House should come to a decision, and then following up that decision by giving the House Government time—which is what, to the best of my knowledge and researches, happened on the Divorce (Scotland) Bill—and merely suspending the Rule, thus making possible the discussion of that matter at what most people would regard as a quite unearthly and wholly unsuitable time of the day or night.
§ Mr. Percival
There is a very good attendance upon this particular Motion because I think and hope that a substantial number of hon. Members regard this Motion as important. But, as one who has heard practically every Word of the progress of this Bill, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the attendance on this Motion is far greater than the attendance has been upon the Bill itself. I express the opinion that it is far greater 1840 than the attendance will be upon the discussion of this Bill at 4 o'clock in the morning, if it is proceeded with.
The hon. Gentleman is emphasising my point. We all know that when such matters are discussed during the night, any member of the public coming in here at 4 o'clock in the morning and seeing the number of Members taking part in the debate on this great matter affecting the community would think we were daft and would wonder how on earth we felt that with such a small attendance we could do justice to their needs and desires. [Interruption.] I have no doubt that if the hon. Member for Harrow, East has views to the contrary, we shall see him—
§ Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)
I am obliged to the hon. and learned Gentleman. I was wondering what would happen if members of the public came here one morning at 11 o'clock and looked around for some of the lawyers. I wonder whether the lawyers would be here or whether they would be pursuing their business elsewhere.
§ Mr. Percival
I cannot help observing that that is the kind of bad-tempered and ill-mannered comment which has no place whatever in a debate of this kind. But if the hon. Gentleman wants a more precise answer to that comment, may I invite him to look at the Committee Reports of the Divorce Reform Bill and see how many practising lawyers were regular attenders on that Bill. He may then have the good grace to apologise.
There are so many important points arising that we are apt not to distinguish the one from the other, and I want to make clear a point which seems to me to be important above all in the future interests of this House, from the point of view both of doing a decent job and of it being apparent to the country that we are doing a good job of work. I question the habit of discussing great matters affecting the community at the unearthly hours at which it is becoming the practice to discuss them. That makes it appear that I am in sympathy with the Motion. It is a matter for individual Members whether they vote upon it or not. It is very unfortunate that this question arises on such a controversial Bill, because that has the effect that any vote on the Motion would inevitably be 1841 coloured by the views of individual Members on the Bill, and that might be regrettable.
§ Mr. John Lee (Reading)
'As one who has many reservations about the Bill and is by no means certain to vote for its Third Reading, may I put it to the hon. and learned Gentlemen that it would have been more fortunate if the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) had not put it in such tendentious and explosive terms as to amount almost to a censure of the Leader of the House?
§ Mr. Percival
It is not for me to comment on that. If the hon. Gentleman heard my right hon. and learned Friend move the Motion, he will agree that he did it in very measured terms, whatever the terms of the Motion may be. Few hon. Members have had very much in mind the terms of the Motion: we have all been aware that there is something at stake here which is of importance to the House in the long run. It is the important general issue rather than the wording of the Motion with which we are concerned. It is for the House to decide whether there should be a vote and for individual hon. Members to decide how to vote, but, in view of the highly controversial nature of the Bill and the connection which there may be felt to be between the Bill and the Motion, it might be an unrepresentative decision if there were a vote.
§ 12.28 a.m.
§ Mr. Roy Roebuck (Harrow, East)
It is a pity that the hon. and learned Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) ignored Mr. Speaker's request for brief speeches. Instead, he treated us to one of those typically long and meandering speeches of his, delivered with all the verve of a pettifogging provincial attorney pursuing a case of someone summoned for not having a dog licence. For those who oppose the Motion, that is a splendid thing, but the issue which the House must determine is a narrow one. It is whether the House, as this country's representative body, should come to a determination on a matter which affects every adult person in the land at some time or other, and which has been debated for more than two decades inside and outside the House.
One hon. Member opposite thought that there should be a better procedure 1842 for these matters; and, with his usual courtesy and charm, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has agreed to consider that. The House should be able to have a straight vote on whether it should have more time for Measures like this. That, in effect, is what we shall be called upon to determine tonight, but by rather a roundabout route.
§ Mr. John Hall
I am rather concerned by the hon. Member's earlier remarks. He said that we would be discussing a Measure affecting every adult in the country. Is he assuming that all of us would be involved in divorce proceedings?
§ Mr. Roebuck
The hon. Gentleman may rest assured that he is not likely to be beseiged by large numbers of ladies who wish to take him away. That is not the point. This concerns the state in which most people live together, and it is a matter of considerable importance.
I thought it particularly unfortunate that such people as the hon. and learned Member for Southport and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) should have made a great deal of the House having to discuss the real kernel of this matter in the early hours of the morning, and then should have proceeded to discuss all the peripheral and preliminary issues at such great length as to ensure, should the Motion be rejected, that we shall be discussing the Measure to a very late hour indeed.
I was not at all impressed by what the right hon. Member for Ashford said when he accused my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) of defending the Government in pursuing a method which was oppressive of the House. My hon. Friend, of course, was doing the exact opposite. The Government are not trying to get through some measure of Government business. They are seeking to give private Members more time to determine an issue of considerable importance.
This was underlined when the right hon. Member for Ashford complained that if we went ahead and discussed the Measure there would have been no consultation with outside bodies. It is the complaint of many private Members that they are not consulted enough 1843 while outside bodies are consulted. Similarly, the right hon. Gentleman advanced an argument that Government Departments would not be consulted, but the complaint of many hon. Members is that Government Departments and civil servants are consulted far too much and private Members of the House not enough. So I dismiss those arguments of his.
It has been suggested that this is not a wrecking Motion. I should feel more confident that I could accept that argument if the fugleman were not the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), who, over several months, has been opposing the Bill in question with all the vigour he can command. I should have been far more easily persuaded that this was not intended as a wrecking Motion if some other private Member had headed the list of hon. Members sponsoring it.
The Leader of the House and the Government are to be congratulated on giving the House the opportunity to determine this matter. It is quite wrong, offensive and untrue to suggest that the Government have in some way been trying to interfere with private Members' time. Over the last year private Members have had more time than private Members have had at any such time in the past 30 years. I should have thought that something which every back bencher ought to applaud.
The argument about precedents also falls to the ground, because if one is proud of this House and proud of its sovereignty one must acknowledge that it can reverse its decisions, and can change its mind, when better views come forward. That was the only part of the speech by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) with which I found myself in agreement. I wish he would come to the House more and talk more about this sort of question. I do not know where he has gone now. I hope nobody has given him £2,000 and a passport to Wales, and that we shall be hearing more from him on this and other matters in the future.
It has been suggested that the correct procedure would be for the Government to take over this Measure. That point was put by my hon. Friend the Member 1844 for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon). I would ask those who support this view to consider it very carefully indeed. The proposed Bill is not a party political proposal at all. It is one on which many citizens have deeply held religious views and it is quite proper that they should seek to impress those upon Parliament. If we made this a Government Measure we should also be making a religious issue a party-political issue, and we have not had that sort of thing in this House or in this country since the time of the early Education Acts. It would be a most retrograde step if Measures of this sort were made issues of party policy, or if the onus of introducing such Measures were put on the Government, of whatever party-political complexion.
I think the Government and the Leader of the House have fulfilled their obligations to private Members very well indeed. They have not sought to be oppressive. They have, indeed, given private Members freedom to come to a determination on this important matter, and for those reasons I think the Motion should be defeated.
More: if those who have made speeches in support of the Motion believe that it is not intended as a wrecking Motion and want to get on to discuss the important matters ahead of us, they ought to seek an early opportunity to withdraw the Motion and to let the House get on with discussing those important matters.
§ 12.36 a.m.
§ Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)
The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Roebuck) argued that the Government were right in facilitating the passage of what he said many people regarded as a most important social Measure. The Motion objects to the priority which the Measure is being given. If it is a most important social Measure, it is extraordinary that none of the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who drew one of the first eight places in the Ballot thought fit to give that place to the Bill.
§ Mr. Kimball
I was discussing the first eight places in the Ballot, for the Motion is necessary only because none of the right hon. or hon. Gentlemen who 1845 drew the first eight places in the Ballot decided to give his place to what hon. Members have argued is a most important Bill.
The Leader of the House said that the procedure for dealing with Private Members' Bills warranted some review, particularly as we are having this debate. If he looks at the eight days used for Second Readings he will see that at least two were not exactly wasted but were used for debates which could have taken place on Motions and for Bills which made good Parliamentary debating points to annoy hon. Members opposite. They can hardly be said to have been devoted to Bills which it was even hoped would reach the Statute Book this Session.
The most extraordinary idea has grown up that hon. Members who introduce Private Members' Bills should expect to get them through the House within the first or second year of introducing them. That has never been the case. Hon. Members will recall that the Racial Discrimination Bill came under starter's orders year after year and regularly failed at the first fence—but there was no argument that that should be given Government time. The Animal Boarding Establishments Bill appeared four times on the Order Paper before it completed its Parliamentary course.
We have seen the abuse of Parliamentary procedure to which the Motion refers used no fewer than five times by the present Government. As a result, three Bills have reached the Statute Book. Our existing Private Members' Bill procedure protects minority rights in the country—I am not suggesting that the interests of all married women in the country are in any way a minority right—and, in general, under normal Parliamentary procedure no controversial Private Members' Bill should ever get through, provided that people feel strongly enough about it to organise proper opposition. I agree that Bills which draw the first eight places are very difficult to defeat. They often fail in Committee or on Report when enthusiasm and support for them lapses during the long, hot days of May and June. In this case we should be under-estimating the efforts of the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Peter M. Jackson) if we 1846 thought that his support and enthusiasm for this Measure would ever lapse.
We must also consider the position of people who are opposed to these Bills and the great expense which the House puts on bodies when they try to oppose Private Members' Bills. The opposition is very expensive. It involves letters to hon. Members and it involves the Press and television and advertising generally, and some organisations even find it necessary to employ a public relations man as a very expensive fifth wheel to the carriage in their campaign against Parliamentary legislation. Women's organisations and others who have been opposed to the Bill might in this case have been right in saying, "We will not waste our money and organisation in this Session of Parliament when the Bill is drawn and running only in place nine in the Ballot." They might have taken that view, considering that the Measure could have been defeated by normal Parliamentary tactics had not the Government decided to cheat.
§ Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)
The hon. Gentleman has used the phrase, "had not the Government decided to cheat," which seems to represent the terms of the Motion.
In a situation in which the Government are faced with the introduction of a Bill not for the first time but for the third time in a period of five or six years and in which, for the third time, it gets a Second Reading and there is clearly a considerable body of public opinion in favour of it, surely it is the duty of the Government to do two things: first—
§ Mr. Richard
I am not trying to poach the hon. Gentleman's time but to put a serious proposition.
Does not the hon. Gentleman think that, in those circumstances, the Government, whatever their party, have a duty, first, to be responsive to the thrice-expressed opinion of the House, and, secondly, to public opinion outside?
§ Mr. Kimball
I understand that the sponsors of the Bill have not agreed to 1847 any substantial Amendments being made since the Measure was introduced. My original point, therefore, holds good; that if this is such an important Bill, why did not one of the eight hon. Members in the Ballot decide to give it his place? That is my principal reason for saying that we should vote for the Motion and not give the Bill the priority which the Government are now seeking to give it.
Just under 300 hon. Members took part in the Ballot on 5th November and, as the Father of the House said, every one was a potential legislator. Twenty-seven were fortunate, some of whom were wise in choosing a non-controversial Bill which is now almost on the Statute Book. Why should this Measure and the hon. Member who has given it his Ballot place get preference over all the others, simply because the Government do not have the guts to say, "We want the Bill" and so make it a Government Measure?
§ 12.33 a.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), I would not say that when the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) tabled the Motion, he intended it to be a wrecking proposal. I suspect that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's innocence is equalled only by the innocence of the Government Chief Whip who, with great magnanimity, saw to it that this Motion would come up for discussion at this late hour, and before the Bill.
I am certain that the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is deeply interested in constitutional questions, is genuinely committed to a search for the aetiology of the asterisk, a matter about which he spoke with great skill I am equally certain that the Chief Whip wanted to be sure that equity would be shown in every respect of those who take an opposing view to the sponsors of the Bill.
However, one cannot be so certain that a debate of this kind, interesting and fascinating though it is, will raise the status of this House. Hon. Members must be aware that, irrespective of the merits of the Bill, about which one cannot speak at this point, the question whether or not the Bill will be passed affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Britain.
1848 I do not think that, after so many years have passed and when the House has resolutely shown its desire for change on so many occasions, it becomes the House or helps its status to be spending so much time on a Motion of this kind, which will be interpreted by the outside world not as a fascinating constitutional discussion but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale interpreted it, as a wrecking Motion which the opponents of the Bill are using to dash once again the expectations and hopes of vast numbers of citizens.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. The hon. Member must not drift into the merits of the Bill in which I suspect he is interested.
§ Mr. Abse
My interest is of course based not only on the merits of the Bill which I hope we shall be discussing. My interest is in the general question. The general question is how we can bring about a position where matters of great importance, matters where quite clearly the community has shown that it is interested, matters which have been discussed and debated for so long, can be brought to a conclusion.
There was a time when I would have said all Governments had a long and dishonourable tradition in eschewing legislation which impinges on human relations and I would have said that they did it out of cowardice and for wrong reasons. In my time in this House I have seen a certain convention built up. It has not been formalised but conventions grow, like the asterisk perhaps, in a curious way. The convention which has grown up and eventually been accelerated under the Labour Government is a convention that when public opinion sufficiently shows itself on an issue, the House, each hon. Member, should have an opportunity of expressing a view and coming to a conclusion. This is something for which this Parliament I believe will be remembered. [Interruption.] It may be that my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) feels dismayed, but I think that when the history of this Parliament is written, despite our interest in acute party issues, it will be seen that this was a Parliament which, however clumsily, did attempt to grapple, even in a fumbling way, with social questions which were not shirked.
Therefore, I do not believe that this Government is worthy of criticism on this 1849 score. Rather they have shown that they are trying to provide for all hon. Members an opportunity of determining these issues. They have done it again. The Leader of the House has made clear that the Government have taken the bold decision that they want to have this matter resolved and are determined that it shall be resolved. I hope that the fact that this discussion is taking place at this bizarre hour on a constitutional issue will not in any way weaken this resolve. I hope that in the way it has gone on up to the present where hundreds of hon. Members, have as it were, twisted the arm of the Government—that may be a clumsy way of expressing it but it is a way of saying it—because they want the Bill, that will go on too.
§ Mr. Abse
No, I am not giving way. I think the House has to try to think how to formalise what is going on but not in a way which will gain for a Government either praise or opprobrium for a Bill which cuts across party lines. It may be that the suggestion by the Leader of the House that these matters should be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure
§ would be valuable so far as we can search for a way in which a Government could in Government time and not at odd hours allow a Bill to be pursued when the House and country have shown they want it discussed with the Whips off, showing that the Bill as such does not belong to the Government.
§ I hope that the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey will believe that we have had a good discussion and had the opportunity through the intervention of the Chief Whip to have such a discussion. Through the intervention of the Leader of the House we have had some good suggestions. He gave a hint that he hoped the time would come when he would ask leave to withdraw the Motion. So that the community outside can have respect for this House knowing that it will deal with social problems, I hope that moment has come.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Mellish)
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Question put, That the Question be now put:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 166, Noes 62.1851
|Division No. 252.]||AYES||[12.50 a.m.|
|Abse, Leo||Emery, Peter||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)|
|Archer, Peter||English, Michael||Jenkins, Rt. Hn. Roy (Stechford)|
|Ashley, Jack||Ennals, David||Johnston, Russell (Inverness)|
|Ashton, Joe (Bassetlaw)||Evans, Ioan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham)||Fernyhough, E.||Jones, Rt. Hn. Sir Elwyn (W. Ham, S.)|
|Awdry, Daniel||Fisher, Nigel||Jones, T. Alec (Rhondda, West)|
|Barnes, Michael||Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Judd, Frank|
|Barnett, Joel||Foot, Rt. Hn. Sir Dingle (Ipswich)||Kenyon, Clifford|
|Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood||Foot, Michael (Ebbw Vale)||Kerr, Russell (Feltham)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Forrester, John||Lee, Rt. Hn. Jennie (Cannock)|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Fraser, John (Norwood)||Lee, John (Reading)|
|Booth, Albert||Freeson, Reginald||Lestor, Miss Joan|
|Boston, Terence||Garrett, W. E.||Lipton, Marcus|
|Boyden, James||Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.)||Loughlin, Charles|
|Boyle, Rt. Hn. Sir Edward||Gray, Dr. Hugh (Yarmouth)||Luard, Evan|
|Greenwood, Rt. Hn. Anthony||Lubbock, Eric|
|Brooks, Edwin||Grey, Charles (Durham)||Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.)|
|Brown, R. W. (Shoreditch & F'bury)||Gunter, Rt. Hn. R. J.||MacColl, James|
|Buchanan-Smith, Alick (Angus, N & M)||Hamilton, William (Fife, W.)||MacDermot, Niall|
|Buck, Antony (Colchester)||Hamling, William||Macdonald, A. H.|
|Cant, R. B.||Harper, Joseph||Mackie, John|
|Carmichael, Neil||Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Hart, Rt. Hn. Judith||Marks, Kenneth|
|Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony||Haseldine, Norman||Mason, Rt. Hn. Roy|
|Crossman, Rt. Hn. Richard||Hattersley, Roy||Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.|
|Dalyell, Tam||Hay, John||Mayhew, Christopher|
|Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford)||Healey, Rt. Hn. Denis||Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert|
|Delargy, Hugh||Hobden, Dennis||Mendelson, John|
|Dell, Edmund||Hooley, Frank||Mikardo, Ian|
|Dewar, Donald||Hooson, Emlyn||Millan, Bruce|
|Diamond, Rt. Hn. John||Hornby, Richard||Mitchell, R. C. (S'th'pton, Test)|
|Dickens, James||Horner, John||Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)|
|Dobson, Ray||Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas||Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)|
|Driberg, Tom||Howie, W.||Morris, John (Aberavon)|
|Dunnett, Jack||Huckfield, Leslie||Morrison, Charles (Devizes)|
|Dunwoody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e)||Hunt, John||Murray, Albert|
|Edwards, Robert (Bilston)||Irvine, Sir Arthur (Edge Hill)||Newens, Stan|
|Ellis, John||Jeger, Mrs. Lena (H'b'n & St. P'cras, S.)||Oakes, Gordon|
|Ogden, Eric||Robinson, Rt. Hn. Kenneth (St. P'c'as)||Tapsell, Peter|
|Oram, Albert E.||Rodgers, William (Stockton)||Taverne, Dick|
|Orbach, Maurice||Roebuck, Roy||Thomson, Rt. Hn. George|
|Orme, Stanley||Ross, Rt. Hn. William||Thorpe, Rt. Hn. Jeremy|
|Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, S'tn)||Rowlands, E.||Tinn, James|
|Paget, R. T.||Scott, Nicholas||Varley, Eric G.|
|Palmer, Arthur||Sheldon, Robert||Vickers, Dame Joan|
|Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles||Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney)||Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne Valley)|
|Parker, John (Dagenham)||Short, Rt. Hn. Edward (N'c'tle-u-Tyne)||Walden, Brian (All Saints)|
|Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)||Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N. E.)||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Pavitt, Laurence||Silkin, Rt. Hn. John (Deptford)||Whitaker, Ben|
|Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred||Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich)||Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick|
|Pentland, Norman||Silverman, Julius||Williams, Mrs. Shirley (Hitchin)|
|Perry, George H. (Nottingham, S.)||Sinclair, Sir George||Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)|
|Price, Christopher (Perry Barr)||Skeffington, Arthur||Winnick, David|
|Rees, Merlyn||Small, William|
|Richard, Ivor||Spriggs, Leslie||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Ridley, Hn. Nicholas||Stonehouse, Rt. Hn. John||Mr. J. D. Concannon and|
|Roberts, Gwilym (Bedfordshire, S.)||Strauss, Rt. Hn. G. R.||Mr. Ernest G. Perry.|
|Alldritt, Walter||Harvie Anderson, Miss||Pym, Francis|
|Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton||Heald, Rt. Hn. Sir Lionel||Ramsden, Rt. Hn. James|
|Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay)||Hiley, Joseph||Rees-Davies, W. R.|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Hill, J. E. B.||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Black, Sir Cyril||Hogg, Rt. Hn. Quintin||Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey|
|Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S.W.)||Kerby, Capt. Henry||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Body, Richard||Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham)||Russell, Sir Ronald|
|Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.)||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Campbell, B. (Oldham, W.)||Knight, Mrs. Jill||Sharples, Richard|
|Clegg, Walter||Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry||Silvester, Frederick|
|Cordle, John||Longden, Gilbert||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|Corfield, F. V.||McAdden, Sir Stephen||Tilney, John|
|Errington, Sir Eric||McNair-Wilson, M. (Walthamstow, E.)||Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.|
|Farr, John||Maddan, Martin||Waddington, David|
|Fortescue, Tim||Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.)||Ward, Dame Irene|
|Fraser, Rt. Hn. Hugh (St'fford & Stone)||Mahon, Simon (Bootle)||Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard|
|Gibson-Watt, David||Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Worsley, Marcus|
|Goodhew, Victor||Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles||Wright, Esmond|
|Grant-Ferris, R.||Onslow, Cranley|
|Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds)||Page, Graham (Crosby)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hall, John (Wycombe)||Percival, Ian||Mr. Peter Kirk and|
|Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)||Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch||Mr. Marcus Kimball.|
§ Question put accordingly and negatived.
§ Sir Stephen McAdden (Southend, East)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you could give me your advice, for the protection of the interests of private Members, a subject which we were discussing until a few moments ago. You will have noticed that the Motion was one to which I had added my name. I had hoped to have opportunity to express my view about it, and I am sure that, given the chance, you would have used your discretion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and called me. Unfortunately, such benevolent action on your part was frustrated by the action of the Government Chief Whip, on a Private Member's Bill, in moving the Closure.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)
Order. That point has already been dealt with. The Closure was carried. The hon. Gentleman cannot raise it further.