HC Deb 02 May 1969 vol 782 cc1821-7

Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Question [25th April], That the Clause be read a Second time.

Question again proposed.

2.8 p.m.

Sir Lionel Heald (Chertsey)

I desire to raise a point of order of which I gave notice last night. It is of a rather curious nature, because it affects very seriously the rights of private Members and it also has considerable public interest.

The business that has just been called appears in the Orders of the Day for today, but in the Order Book of the House of Commons for Thursday, 1st May, 1969, which I obtained yesterday afternoon, Friday's business is set out and includes 25 Private Members' Bills but not the Divorce Reform Bill.

Similarly, in the Daily Telegraph and The Times this morning the business of the House for today is set out, but the Divorce Reform Bill is not mentioned. I have ascertained by research that under the present procedure that is inevitable.

When I raised this matter yesterday I inadvertently used language which might have been understood to suggest that the Leader of the House had acted im- properly in allowing arrangements to be made for the Bill to come on today. It was not, of course, mentioned yesterday, and I was raising the matter on the basis of a rumour that I had heard; I had had no official indication. I now understand that it was the operation of Standing Order No. 5(3) that resulted in the inclusion of the Divorce Bill as second in order in today's proceedings.

It is a very remarkable case because, looking back to the last occasion when the House was dealing with this Bill, I find that on Saturday, 26th April there was a Public Bill list. The item "Divorce Reform" in that list had a dagger against it, and on the first page I find that a dagger means "Given precedence by the Government." Having seen that, I thought it meant that the Bill was being adopted as a Government Bill, that no question of Private Bill procedure would arise and that we would be told yesterday in the Business statement whether or not the Government had decided to give time for it. I was led to believe that there was nothing to do except wait.

Yesterday, I suddenly heard "The Bill is coming on tomorrow." It now appears that the note "Given precedence by the Government" does not mean what we all thought it meant, but that it means that it has been given precedence by the Government in the past when it was down for a morning sitting. Therefore, there has been a glorious misunderstanding.

The justification that I claim, I hope hope not improperly, for raising this matter is this. I had the opportunity of a conversation with the Leader of the House this morning, when I assured him that I had not intended to make the slightest reflection upon him and he said that he entirely accepted that and had not regarded my action as a reflection. He also confirmed my view that under the existing system there is no provision for giving hon. Members any advance notice that a Private Member's Bill will be down for consideration until this morning.

Therefore, anyone who came here yesterday afternoon would naturally, as somebody has told me he did, get the document which was issued yesterday afternoon, to which I have already referred, and would say, "Let me see if the Bill in which I am interested is on tomorrow". He would look at it and would find that the answer was "No". The Bill would not be there.

Surely something ought to be done about this. It has been brought to my notice that this is a matter of concern to the public through the newspapers. Both The Times and the Daily Telegraph this morning list today's business, but neither mentions the Divorce Reform Bill. I am told that that is inevitable, and, of course, one never accuses them of incompetence and inefficiency. The answer is that they were not in a position to get the information until the Orders of the Day came out this morning. Imagine the position of a Member—I know that there are at least two of them because I have had communications from them this morning—who went to bed last night assuming that the Bill was not coming on today, who had made other arrangements for today and now finds that the Bill is on the Order Paper.

Another thing is that one sees from the House at the moment what the result has been—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Sydney Irving)

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is addressing the Chair on a point of order. Part of what he has said has been by way of a personal statement which I am sure the Leader of the House would have been glad to hear. The right hon. and learned Gentleman must allow the Chair to bring his point of order to a close.

Sir L. Heald

May I add this point, Mr. Deputy Speaker? It is not a matter which concerns merely the opponents of the Bill. I know that supporters of the Bill have also been in the same position. May I remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that whatever one's views are, this is a subject which is of interest to very large numbers of the public, and if it should appear to them that this House has treated this matter more or less with contempt in that there are very few Members here today and Members who have their names to Amendments are not here it would be very unfortunate.

What I am suggesting is that you might think it proper, at any rate, to support an application that this matter should be considered urgently by the Committee on Procedure, because it seems from what I have said that it is absolutely necessary that some new procedure should be instituted.

2.15 p.m.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving the Chair notice of the point that he intended to raise. I want to make it absolutely clear that the Chair understands the anxieties expressed by the right hon. and learned Member.

It would be better if, first of all, I made the procedural position clear. Under the House's Order of 31st October last, today is one of the days on which Private Members' Bills have precedence. The same Order, read in conjunction with Standing Order No. 5, paragraph 3, provides that on certain days Private Members' Bills are to be arranged on the Order Paper in the following order: Consideration of Lords Amendments; Third Readings; consideration of Reports not already entered upon; adjourned proceedings upon consideration; Bills in progress in Committee; Bills appointed for Committee; and Second Readings.

Today is one of the days on which this order of precedence has to be observed. The Divorce Reform Bill as reported with Amendments from Standing Committee D, was first considered on Friday, 25th April. At 4 o'clock on that day the debate was adjourned. When asked to appoint a day for resumption of the debate, the hon. Member in charge said "Monday next". Accordingly, the Bill appeared among the ineffective Orders on Monday last. Under the usual procedure it has been carried forward day by day. It has been shown among the ineffective Orders on each day this week, although this was not apparent yesterday since, because of a strike, the ineffective Orders of the Day were not available.

The Bill will, however, be found in its due place on Thursday's printed paper issued this morning, on page 6467. Today the Bill appears among the effective Orders of the Day in second place, in accordance with the Orders of the House to which I have referred.

The effect of the statement that I have made is that, as far as the Chair is concerned, it would be in order to proceed with the Order that is on the Order Paper today. In fact, the Chair could do nothing about having it otherwise. As to other remedies, the House may wish to support the right hon. and learned Gentleman in having this matter considered elsewhere.

Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

Further to that point of order and your very full Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I say that despite the fact that your reply, on the face of it, seems reasonable, and should perhaps be accepted by hon. Members, the arrangements for today's business and the manner in which hon. Members have been informed have created a tremendous amount of inconvenience, particularly to those hon. Members who live a great distance from the House. Not having been notified that this business was to be transacted, many hon. Members who have taken a great interest in the Bill and who would have been here, feel that they have been cheated—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have expressed the view from the Chair that the Chair may well share the concern of hon. Members about what has happened. I have ruled, however, that it is in order and the Chair has no power to alter the Orders of the Day.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

I understand that, of course, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and, in common with the rest of the House, I appreciate the fullness of your statement which will give us guidance on future occasions when we have time to read it and consider it more carefully.

Further, I do not wish it to be inferred upon from what I put to you that I am suggesting anything against anybody. It appears that we have got into an unfortunate situation inadvertently. I am prepared to accept, for the purpose of what I am saying, that the matter is not debatable. It has been explained how we got into this situation, and that is not debatable. That is my premise. But that does not mean that there are not other processes for now discussing what we should do, having got ourselves into this difficulty.

I do not claim great knowledge of the procedure of the House, but it appears to me that the only way in which we can now discuss what we should do in the situation into which our procedures have put us is on a Motion to adjourn the debate. That would enable us to exchange views across the Floor as to what should be done in this situation. I should like to know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, whether that would be in order and whether you would accept such a Motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. and learned Gentleman has submitted that I should accept a Motion that the debate be adjourned. At this stage, I could not accept it.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Further to the point of order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have ruled on the point of order, and I have refused the hon. and learned Gentleman's submission. There is no more to be said on that.

Mr. Farr

Then may I put to you an entirely fresh point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker? Last Friday, the Divorce Reform Bill was permitted to be postponed till the following Monday. If, in the first place, it had been postponed until this Friday, it would have appeared immediately on the subsequent Order Paper in its proper place and none of this confusion would have arisen.

My point of order is this. Was it in order for this Private Member's Bill to be postponed in the first place to a Monday, which is not a normal day—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman heard the whole of my Ruling, but the effect of it was to say that what has happened has been perfectly in order. We must proceed.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present;

House counted, and, 40 Members being present

2.25 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not wish to raise any point on your Ruling save to ask your guidance on how we should deal with the matter hereafter. You have said, in effect, that it requires investigation, but I am not altogether sure how it should be done. I am a member of the Procedure Committee, which is why I am particularly interested. Is it within the power of the Chair to ask the Procedure Committee, in the interests of the House in general, to examine the position, or must it be raised by hon. Members on the Floor?

The situation today appears to have arisen out of the Order of the House passed on 31st October. I should have thought that, if that Order had been examined by whoever ought to have examined it in the light of House of Commons procedure the weakness in it might have been seen. I refer to the weakness so ably outlined by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald), and to which you yourself referred, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in your Ruling.

I wonder whether, not wishing to interfere with today's debate but with a view to the future, it is possible for the Chair, having been made aware of the difficulty, to send the matter for examination to the Procedure Committee. Perhaps you would be good enough to say how we should proceed, so as to put the matter straight.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Robert Melish)

Perhaps I can be of help to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. First, I express to the House the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his absence. He has an engagement in his constituency

Forward to