HC Deb 06 February 1970 vol 795 cc851-69

Order for Second Reading read.

3.15 p.m.

Dr. M. P. Winstanley (Cheadle)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is a limited and straigthtforward Measure. It contains but 12 lines. There is nothing writ between the lines. Its whole purpose is spelled out very clearly in the Long Title. It requires … the issue of the writ for the holding of a by-election within a specified period from the date of vacation of the seat. The Bill seeks to do no more and no less than that.

My purpose, and I wish to make this very clear, is not to attack any particular political party, because there is ample evidence that each and every party has at some time exercised its discretion in the manner which it has regarded as most

given a Second Reading and sent to Committee.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 32, Noes 49.

Division No. 60.] AYES [3.6 p.m.
Archer, Jeffrey (Louth) Hunt, John Russell, Sir Ronald
Bell, Ronald Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Sharples, Richard
Bessell, Peter Kirk, Peter Sinclair, Sir George
Biffen, John Langford-Holt, Sir Arthur Speed, Keith
Davidson, James (Aberdeenshire, W.) Longden, Gilbert Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne)
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. (Ashford) Mawby, Ray Thorpe, Rt. Hn. Jeremy
Doughty, Charles Montgomery, Fergus Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H.
Drayson, G. B. More, Jasper Winstanley, Dr. M. P.
Fry, Peter Mott-Radclyffe, Sir Charles
Grant, Anthony Pardoe, John TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David Mr. Eric Lubbock and
Hooson, Emlyn Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon Mr. David Steel.
Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham) Hazell, Bert Pannell, Rt. Hn. Charles
Bidwell, Sydney Heffer, Eric S. Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred
Booth, Albert Howie, W. Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)
Boston, Terence Huckfield, Leslie Rankin, John
Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Rees, Merlyn
Chapman, Donald Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.) Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney)
Coleman, Donald Kerr, Russell (Feltham) Silkin, Hn. S. C. (Dulwich)
Devlin, Miss Bernadette Latham, Arthur Urwin, T. W.
Dewar, Donald Lipton, Marcus Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Exeter) MacColl, James Watkins, David (Consett)
English, Michael Macdonald, A. H. Whitlock, William
Ennals, David McNamara, J. Kevin Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Evans, loan L. (Birm'h'm, Yardley) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg) Winnick, David
Foot, Rt. Hn. Sir Dingle (Ipswich) Marsh, Rt. Hn. Richard
Freeson, Reginald Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Ginsburg, David Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe) Mr. Roy Roebuck and
Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Murray, Albert Mr. John Lee.
Hamling, William Palmer, Arthur

favourable to its own interests. Mine is another but very important purpose. It is essential that the House should at all times do what it can to ensure that all people are represented in Parliament by a Member of Parliament. In other words, I regard it as a serious matter if, for whatever reason, a large group of people are deprived of what I believe to be the very valuable services of a Member of Parliament, irrespective of his party.

In deciding whether or not the Bill is necessary, it is obviously wise to look at the existing provisions. They are contained within a series of enactments: the Representation of the People Act, 1949; the Recess Elections Act, 1784—Section 26 in particular; the Election of Members during Recess Act, 1858; the Elections in Recess Act, 1863; and various Motions in respect of the privileges and procedure of the House.

To explain the effect of these various enactments and Motions it might be simplest to refer to Chapter 10 of Erskine May, page 176. There, under the heading, "Vacancies during a Session", we find: When the House is sitting, and the death of a Member, or other cause of vacancy, is known, Mr. Speaker is ordered by the House, upon a Motion made by any Member, to issue his warrant to the Clerk of the Crown for a new writ for the place represented by the Member whose seat is thus vacated.

In page 180, under the heading: Issue of Warrants by the Speaker during the Recess we read: When vacancies occur by death, by elevation to the peerage, or by the acceptance of office, the law provides for the issue of writs during a recess, due to a prorogation or adjournment, without the immediate authority of the House, in order that a representative may be chosen without loss of time, by the place which is deprived of its Member.

I draw particular attention to the words: … without loss of time, by the place which is deprived of its Member". They make clear, I suggest, the idea that to be deprived of a Member of Parliament is a deprivation of some importance of which notice should be taken.

Erskine May also deals with the various procedures to be adopted, and these are spelled out in more detail in "Parliamentary Elections", by Norman Schofield, who refers to the manner in which those various procedures are adopted. I will return to that matter later when dealing with the specific provisions of my Bill, but it should be noted that the existing various provisions do a number of things. In certain cases, particularly on the issue of a Proclamation, both the House and Mr. Speaker are bypassed by the procedure. The writ is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery without intermediary intervention by either the House or Mr. Speaker. Again, neither the House nor Mr. Speaker has any discretion at any time under the provisions relating to Recess elections, according to which Mr. Speaker "shall" issue the warrant.

Therefore, by seeking to alter the existing provisions we seek not to limit the discretionary powers of the House or Mr. Speaker, but merely to add to what has already been done in earlier enactments.

How do these enactments work? I have obtained details of the times waited from time to time by constituents for the holding of a by-election. They reveal no particular pattern. Indeed, they reveal a capricious state of affairs in which the time of waiting has varied between one month and eight months. Nor, when one looks at the different results, can one see any pattern. There have from time to time been accusations of gerrymandering which may sometimes have been justified, but, on the results, one sees occasionally that either there was no gerrymandering or that the gerrymanderers were not very good at it, because the result has not been favourable to the party normally regarded as having control of the date on which an election is held.

To quote one or two examples, I give merely two of the Conservative Party. The Orpington seat, which became vacant, was left empty for five and a half months before it was later filled by my hon. Friend, who has filled it with such distinction ever since. On the other hand, the Ludlow seat, which was, regrettably, vacated on the death of the then Member on 5th April, 1960, was left vacant for seven months before it was filled by the hon. Members who now acts as an Opposition Whip. We were thus deprived of his services for far too long. There seems to be no reason for this length of delay.

As for the party opposite, the recent examples are the most significant. There are two with opposite results, both seats being Labour-held. At Swindon we waited for seven and a half months, but then the seat was won by a Conservative. The seat at Newcastle-under-Lyme was vacated by the tragic death of the former Member on 19th February, 1969. It was not filled for eight months, until 30th October, 1969, a very long time indeed to leave people without representation in this House. In the end, of course, the result was no change in the actual representation.

Lest it should be suggested that I am discriminating in any way, I regret to say that I have to go rather a long time back in the records before I can find a sufficient supply of by-elections for which the Liberal Party were in control to arrive at a statistically significant sample.

However, it is interesting to note that we proceeded with all possible haste in filling the vacancy caused by the sad death of Mr. Clement Davies in Montgomery. But we did not proceed with quite the same speed in Carmarthen, when one of the candidates was a Labour candidate of a rather unusual kind. I say no more. It merely shows that we, like the other parties, have from time to time used the existing provisions in what we rightly or wrongly believed to be our interest.

It is interesting to note that there has been general acceptance in all parts of the House from time to time that this sort of practice is undesirable. I believe that it matters. We should not leave people without a Member for a long period. First, it is very bad for the prestige and standing of this House for accusations of gerrymandering to be bandied about the Chamber or in the Press, quite irrespective of whether they are subsequently justified by events. Secondly—this is the point on which I want to concentrate—I believe that it is even worse to deprive the public of the services of a Member of Parliament in this House.

I do not delude myself into thinking that as a Member of the House I have any great powers to influence major aspects of Government policy—perhaps I have no more power than hon. Members opposite—but I say straight away that t have found to my great satisfaction, as have other hon. Members in all parts of the House, that my powers to sort out administrative muddles and cut through bureaucracy from time to time, whether in a Government Department, a local government department or in industry, on behalf of my constituents are very great indeed. This is something which we all value.

We have to recognise that we live in a society in which—rightly, I think—Government obtrudes into our lives more and more often. I say that it is necessary: I am all for freedom, but it seems to me that there is no great freedom without a house or without a job. This implies Government intervention. Once one has Government intervention, the individual is from time to time in jeopardy.

Secondly, we live in a world in which institutions are becoming larger and larger. Industries, whether Government-controlled or private, are becoming bigger and bigger. We have to accept this. In many fields of activity there is no real substitute for size; but once we have size, we get insensitivity, sometimes in- humanity, and a lack of accountability of one kind or another. We get very real feelings of frustration among people involved in these large organisations, feelings that they cannot get their point of view put over, and the kind of feelings of resentment which, I think, have manifested themselves recently in some rather serious ways. We must be aware of these.

Remember that the main remedy for the ordinary individual is his Member of Parliament. I yield second place to nobody in defence of a free Press, or of broadcasting, or in support of the new arrangement, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, but it is my belief that the real, fundamental defenders of civil liberties are the Members of Parliament—of all parties. Therefore, it is a very serious matter to leave numbers of people without a Member of Parliament.

I am not, I hope, putting forward my own record with any immodesty. I happen to have a very large constituency, and I have from 40 to 50 letters a day from constituents about their problems with which I have to deal. Who dealt with such problems in Swindon for those eight months? Who dealt with such problems in Ludlow for seven months? Who dealt with such problems elsewhere in the long time gaps left even by the Liberal Party long ago in leaving constituencies unrepresented? These are important matters, and we in this House, who have the interests of the House at heart, and who know the importance of liberty, and know how much a Member can do for his constituents, would not, I am sure, wish to interfere with them by leaving people unrepresented in that way. So we must do something about the situation.

I am putting forward a simple method of doing it, merely by requiring that the writ shall be issued within a specified time. It would be issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery automatically on the expiry of four months following the date of the vacation of the seat, unless the writ were issued as a result of one of the other procedures in existing legislation.

There are four possible objections which may be raised to this course. The first is that it may take away a party's right to choose a date. It does not. A party has this discretion already, and it will have it in the same way as it now does up to the expiry of four calendar months. If it has not exercised that discretion within those four calendar months, then the procedure I propose would follow automatically. So I do not think that that objection is valid.

The second argument may be that this takes away from the responsibility of Parliament. I have dealt with that already, in a sense, by pointing out that there are already circumstances in which Parliament is by-passed. Similarly, it may be argued that it would take away from the discretion of Mr. Speaker. That is not so. As I have already pointed out, under various Statutes Mr. Speaker "shall" issue a writ; they merely lay down that he "shall" do so and do not give him discretion.

The fourth objection is one that I am anticipating I may hear later—that this kind of thing ought to be done by the Government. I agree, of course; but the Government have had ample opportunity to do it.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

All Governments.

Dr. Winstanley

All Governments have had ample opportunity, and, indeed, have had ample reminders from Members of the House. I have been looking through Early Day Motions. It is most interesting. I have lots of these Early Day Motions here, and it is interesting to see the names of Members supporting them, including the names of certain Members who are now in the Government, and I hope that now they are in the Government they will be taking the same attitude to this proposal as they used to do.

Mr. Fergus Montgomery (Brierley Hill)

Do not believe that.

Dr. Winstanley

Members of the Conservative Party have supported this idea. One was the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) when he was the Member for Kidderminster, and there were a number of others. So it is not a party matter. Back benchers have always recognised the importance of getting a seat filled in a short time. Back benchers of all parties have reminded their Governments of this.

Certainly if the Government were now to say, "This is something which ought to be done and we are going to do it", our course would be obvious. I am only saying that they have had ample opportunity to do it and have not yet done it.

Finally, there are three possible difficulties in a provision of this kind. The first is the position with regard to the long Recess. One does not wish to require an election to be held in August, for instance. However, I believe that the period I have prescribed in the Bill, the four months' period, puts that right. There would be four months and 21 days, and that should be adequate to avoid that difficulty. The Long Title has been drawn so as to make it possible to vary this in Committee if it were felt necessary to deal with the matter of the Long Recess.

Secondly, there is the matter of a dying register. Nobody would wish that an election should be held on a dying register, but I believe that the provision for the four months' period is enough to allow for that. It could be held sufficiently early, or it could be held over, during a period up to some five months altogether. But, again, the Long Title of the Bill does not preclude the inclusion of a Clause to deal specifically with that.

The third difficulty is the possibility of requiring the holding of a by-election shortly before a General Election. I need hardly remind the House that it is rare for the Opposition to know when there will be a General Election, and very often it is impossible to predict; so an opposition party may move the issue of a writ and require a by-election to be held on the eve of a General Election. Once again, this point is met by the wideness of the Long Title, and could be dealt with, if necessary, by a Clause added in Committee.

We have little time, and I want to hear the Government's answer and the comments of other hon. Members. I believe that it would be valuable to amend the law in this way. Alternatively, if hon. Members do not like the Bill, it can be amended, or the Government can say that they will do the job. It would be of immense value if the House demonstrated clearly its belief in the House and in the importance of Members of Parliament.

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

The Liberal Party is having a field day today. I do not begrudge them the opportunity of which they have taken advantage, and I rise to support the Bill.

My record on this subject is long and reasonably honourable. As far back as 25th January, 1957, I opposed a Motion for the issuing of a new writ for the Lewisham, North by-election. I said that the object of the Motion then before the House was to ensure that the by-election should take place on 14th February, the day before the new register was to come into effect. I thought that this was an abuse of procedure, because the new register contained about 8,000 changes from the old one. Nothing was done about it. The Question was put and agreed to, but the by-election took place on the date selected by the Government of the day.

Undeterred by my unlucky experience on that occasion, I opposed the Motion for the issuing of a new writ for the Orpington by-election on 20th February, 1962—

Mr. Montgomery

I well remember the hon. Gentleman weeping crocodile tears for the poor electors of Orpington who had been disfranchised. Will he explain why he did not weep crocodile tears last year for the poor electors of Newcastle-under-Lyme and Swindon?

Mr. Lipton

My capacity for weeping crocodile tears has evaporated with the passing of the years. On 20th February, 1962, I formally opposed the Motion for the issuing of a new writ for the Orpington by-election. I criticised the dubious behaviour of the Government in connection with the Orpington by-election—behaviour which I regarded as an abuse of democracy. I said: The absence of a statutory requirement allows a convenient base to be selected for a by-election."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th February 1962, Vol. 654; c. 220.] I pointed out that those who decided what would be the convenient date were the political headquarters of the party in power at the time.

No one objects, of course—and certainly I do not think that the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) objects—to a certain degree of political games- manship, because obviously the day selected can have an important effect on the final result. In the case of Orpington, the seat was vacated on 1st October, 1961, and the writ was not moved until 20th February, 1962. There can, therefore, have been no argument about holidays, for example, for not holding the election earlier. It could easily have been held towards the end of November, say, without difficulty. But the then Government decided that it would be a good idea to postpone the election for as long as possible.

When I opposed the Motion, I got on that occasion a reply from the Government. The right hon. Member for Enfield, West (Mr. Iain Macleod), who was then Leader of the House, congratulated me on having made an admirable speech, but that is all he did. He also quoted a few old cases from the time when the previous Labour Government were in power, and so there is not much to choose between any of the political parties when it comes to this kind of legal manipulation. I would like to see this power of manipulation reduced on the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Having put the record straight as far as I am concerned, I want to say how very much I support the Bill. I go further. I would like to move an Amendment to the effect that a General Election must take place on a date five years after the previous election. Then, we would not get all this manipulation, holding people in suspense and having an election at any time the Prime Minister of the day thinks desirable.

Mr. Speaker

Order. That goes wider than the Long Title of the Bill.

Mr. Lipton

I must agree with you there, Mr. Speaker. Far be it from me to trespass upon your tolerance.

I warmly support the effort being made by the Liberal Party today. It it unfortunate that the same point has not been taken up by one or other of the Conservative Members of the House, because then we might have a coalition or Tory, Liberal and a few Labour Members and force the Government to change their attitude. My hon. Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is smiling, but a smiling face does not indicate necessarily a friendly attitude to the Bill. I am afraid that our arguments today will not convince my hon. Friend that he should accept the Bill on behalf of the Government. However, I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading and, if necessary, I will ask the hon. Member for Cheadle to move the Closure when the time comes so that hon. Members can vote on the subject.

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Keith Speed (Meriden)

First, I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) and say that we on this side of the House support his Bill. With respect to the hon. Member for Brixton (Mr. Lipton), a number of my hon. Friends and I moved such an Amendment when the Representation of the People Bill was in Committee, as I am sure the Under-Secretary of State will recall.

The long delay between a vacancy occurring and the writ being moved for a by-election is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Between 1952 and 1958, there were no delays lasting over four months. Between 1959 and 1969, there were 114 by-elections and in no less than 29 there were delays of over four months, 19 Labour-held and 10 Tory-held seats. Last year, there were six delays of over four months, including the by-elections at Swindon and Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Everyone agrees that no party has been dressed in a white sheet over this matter. We have all made our mistakes, and all parties have used this device in the past to try and further their ends. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Christopher Ward) and the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock) will testify, this rarely achieves the result which the party holding the seat sometimes wishes.

As the hon. Member for Cheadle said, the problems of the electorate are paramount. Like the Under-Secretary of State, I was elected to Parliament at a by-election. In my case the delay between the vacancy occurring and the writ being moved was just over four months. We all know that there is a convention whereby two hon. Members of the same party as the previous hon. Member try to look after his constituency and help, but clearly that can never be 100 per cent. satisfactory. In my case, the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. William Wilson) and the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Leslie Huckfield) did a first-class job in my constituency, but they did not get the 40 letters and telephone calls daily which I receive and, indeed, they could not have coped if they had. These problems do not end when a writ is issued. There must be many occasions when constituents have real problems in which a Member of Parliament could help. Apparently they are denied the right to go to anyone with a view to solving them.

The number of by-elections averages 12 a year due to death, retirement, resignation and the rest of it. It means that we are dealing with a possible 10 per cent. turnover of Members in the lifetime of a Parliament.

The problems of the dying register have been mentioned. We have a new register coming out in February, and clearly one cannot have a by-election in the Christmas period. Then there are the problems which arise between 1st July and mid-September. I am sure that the solution put forward by the hon. Gentleman of four months will cover these problems, whenever a vacancy occurs. There has been a maximum period of four months for the writ to be moved, followed by a further three or four weeks of campaigning before polling day. This should be in our minds when we look at the timing.

The selection of a candidate is sometimes put up by the political parties as a reason why there should not be a four-month delay. One can envisage a situation where a Member has died suddenly in tragic circumstances, as happened with my own predecessor. Clearly it would be unseemly and could cause great distress if the selection procedure began straight away. But no one can say that four months is an undue delay. If a Member died today, a month elapsed and then the selection process started, I am sure that the parties could make arrangements in that time.

It is interesting to note that, in the days of very narrow majorities between the 1964 and 1966 General Elections, when all parties had a vested interest in returning Members as quickly as possible, these delays did not occur. Clearly it can be done, and there is no problem from a constituency point of view.

Look what happens in local government. Under various Acts, in either county or borough district councils, two electors can petition and demand a poll within 30 days. They can draw to the attention of the local government officer the fact that there is a vacancy and a roll has to take place within 30 days. Thus this is covered in local government. What the hon. Member for Cheadle is trying to do is to cover parliamentary affairs, too.

There is the problem of the last six months of a Parliament. None of us knows when that is, because it lies within the power of the Prime Minister. All we know is that under various Acts Parliament has five years to run from the date of the original convening of the Parliament. The present Parliament was convened on 18th April, 1966, and will have to be dissolved by 17th April, 1971. Polling day will have to be 17 days afterwards, excluding Sundays or holidays; in other words, 7th May, 1971, is the final date of the present Parliament.

In Committee it should certainly be made clear that the last six months of the statutory limit of Parliament would be declared to be not covered by the Measure. It would clearly be a nonsense, if an hon. Member dies or resigns in November or December of this year, to hold a by-election knowing full well that, whatever happens, the Prime Minister will have to go to the country by 7th May.

It may be argued, Mr. Speaker, that this is something which should be resolved by your Conference. My objection is that, with the greatest respect, some of your Conference decisions have not always been accepted by the Government of the day. Secondly, there is widespread agreement by all political parties that this is open to abuse. We have not done our duty in the past, all right, but we have repented. It may be a death-bed repentance, but let us go forward on that basis. The other argument is that this is a Measure which should be dealt with by the Government and not a back-bencher. We on this side will co-operate with the Government to the full if they chose to bring something forward.

It would be a simple Measure, with a simple Committee stage which would commend itself to the electorate. Last year public opinion began to get very angry about some of the delays that took place. This has happened in the past. The time has come when we should ensure that representation in this House is denied to as few people as possible for the shortest possible time. We regard this Bill as a very useful democratic reform of our electoral system and it will prevent growing abuse of that system by political parties of all persuasions. We hope that the House will give an unopposed Second Reading to the Bill.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)

I am sure that the House is eager to reach a decision on this important little Bill and I will not detain it long. I would like to express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Cheadle (Dr. Winstanley) for what I regard as a long-overdue Measure. The fair-minded, non-partisan way in which he has presented his case will certainly meet with a great deal of approval by many on these benches, if not in other parts of the House, for whom I cannot speak.

One point which the hon. Member made eloquently, and which I want to underline, was the very real concern for the individual and for his rights involved in the failure to elect a Member of Parliament for a constituency which has been deprived of its sitting Member. This is a very grave detraction from democratic rights and it is one that this House should in no circumstances countenance. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed) said that we have all been guilty.

The facts prove conclusively that this is so. The simple fact is that so long as the ground rules invite this type of expedient behaviour, then certainly the situation will not be put right. For that reason, among others which I will not go into now, I wholeheartedly support the Bill and hope that the House will give it an unopposed Second Reading.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I oppose the Bill. Over the years I have taken an interest in these matters, as some hon. Members who have been here for three or four Parliaments will know, and I regard the question before us as being among the most important business with which the House can deal.

On the question of principle, I take the view that the system requiring hard and fast dates for elections in other countries is not always the most democratic. For instance, the United States has a two-year system for the equivalent of this House, the House of Representatives, and it is in no way superior to ours. I submit that it is far inferior. Within 12 months, America turns to electioneering, and it does so on the first day of the second year. I do not think that anyone disagrees about that.

Hon. Members


Mr. Mendelson

I am talking about the House of Representatives, which has an election for which there is preparation every two years. Because a third of the Senate also has to be elected every two years, Senators are absent from Washington for the senatorial elections six months from the beginning of the election year to mend their fences.

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, we must some to the Bill, which is about by-elections.

Mr. Mendelson

I intend to come to the Bill without delay, Mr. Speaker, but it has been argued as a general principle that it is desirable to have a fixed date, and I am adducing general arguments of principle before turning to the details, which I think it is perfectly legitimate to do.

The Bill involves the same principle of a rigid date, because it would impose a limit by which the by-election must take place—[Interruption.] As I am one of the few Members present speaking probably for very many opposing the Bill who share my view, I think that the promoters should give me a chance to be heard as they have been heard.

Having established the point of principle for my opposition, I come to the details, which have to do with the working of democracy. That is the argument adduced by everyone who has spoken in the debate; there could be no other basis for such a reform than to argue in terms of improving democratic arrangements. But, far from doing that, the Bill would be hostile to democratic arrangements, and that is my detailed reason for opposing it.

I attach great value to the work of the political organisations outside the House. Obviously, the House has meaning only in so far as it is backed up by, and works against the background of, democratic political organisations outside. One could have what Members considered the most perfect arrangements for holding by-elections, as one could for holding General Elections, but if these did not allow the greatest possible freedom of activity for democratic political organisations outside the House they would be of no use, however perfect they were in theory. In my detailed opposition to the Bill and similar proposals, I argue that we must give flexibility to democratic political organisations outside the House to make their own arrangements and come to their own decisions.

The situation is not always the same in each constituency. I have knowledge only of the Labour Party and the Labour Party constituency organisations that make their own arrangements. Like the hon. Member for Meriden (Mr. Speed), I entered the House at a by-election, and I know that it was very important to consult a hundred or more organisations affiliated to the constituency Labour Party. I do not want to say much about Conservative constituency associations, because I have no real knowledge, apart from what has been published by academics and others, of the detailed working of their system. The same applies to the Liberal Party. But I know that for one of the three major democratic parties in the country it is absolutely essential that all the affiliated organisations should have a great deal of time to go through their own process of selection. Not only must the constituency party go through that process but affiliated organisations—perhaps as many as 68 trade unions, for instance—

Mr. Montgomery

The hon. Gentleman has made great play of this point. Can he explain why, in the constituency of Swindon, Mr. Francis Noel-Baker announced on 9th February, 1968 that he would resign, he did not resign until 7th March, 1969, and there was no by-election until 30th October, 1969? It took a very long time for a candidate to be chosen there.

Mr. Mendelson

I allowed the hon. Gentleman to intervene because I believe that any intervention, however farfetched, should be heard, but that is wholly irrelevant. I am addressing myself to the generality of all cases, and the way in which the system works. My right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. Philip Noel-Baker) has on many occasions addressed himself to the special position of his son. It is not for me to add to that discussion and go into details about the state of health of any hon. Member. I am talking about what applies in 629 constituencies, as I know it and have known it for a lifetime. I repeat that it is of the essence of the democratic process that not only the constituency Labour Party but all affiliated organisations should have plenty of time—as much time as they think they require—to go through their process of selection. [Interruption.]

I do not know why hon. Members opposite are so impatient. I have been speaking only for three-and-a-half minutes. Surely I am entitled to put my point of view, just as they have put theirs. I make so bold as to say that the most democratic aspect of the internal organisation of the Labour Party in this country is the selection of its parliamentary candidates. That is precious to us, and it is very important that enough time should be taken about it.

I do not want to carry the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) along with me. I do not care about his opinion of the internal processes of the Labour Party. What I care about are my colleagues in the party and the trade union movement outside.

Mr. Ian Mikardo (Poplar)

I know that my hon. Friend is very fond of me, and I am sure that he will understand if I ask him whether, in the thesis that he is expounding, he asked the national agents of the Labour Party whether they thought that a period of four months would be long enough. I have more than a hunch that if he does they will say that they do so think.

Mr. Mendelson

My hon. Friend knows that I am as fond of him as he is fond of me. I know him very well, and he will know that I shall never be guided by any opinion of the national agents of the Labour Party.

As I was saying, the most democratic aspect of our procedure is the selection of parliamentary candidates. When I was adopted I attended a selection conference of 189 delegates. I put that on the record against the smaller numbers which have recently been published, which are not typical of the situation. I know that many of my colleagues have been adopted at similar large gatherings of delegates which have to come to a decision.

I represent a county constituency where the affiliated organisations are of a scattered nature, and where the situation is more difficult than it is in a closely-knit town or city constituency. In a large county constituency the trade unions have small branches scattered over the area, which meet together less frequently than do the organisations in towns or cities. Surely they must all have an equal chance. It would be quite hostile to the democratic spirit if organisations which exist in a small and closely knit area and can meet every three weeks or more frequently should have an advantage over organisations in more widely-scattered areas which meet less frequently. Everybody must be treated equally.

Mr. Eric Lubbock rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; butMr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

Mr. Mendelson

It is of the essence of the democratic process that all organisations should be equally treated, and it should be possible for all organisations to make an equal contribution. If that is to be ensured there must be flexibility. It must clearly be seen that there is equality for everybody concerned.

There is no real difficulty about this. Although one side or the other may complain from time to time, taking it over the years the process has allowed for all the organisations concerned to have the time they need for this procedure. In the end, we have the full expression of the point of view of all the affiliated organisations entitled to make their contributions—[Interruption.] I am being interrupted by a number of hon. Members opposite. I have said that I am not interested in their processes of selection. We have seen recently—

Mr. Lubbock rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Friday next.