HC Deb 19 November 1970 vol 806 cc1441-4
Mr. Arthur Lewis

The point of order I wish to raise arises from an incident which occurred during Question Time, but I would also raise it as a matter of general principle. As a result of long custom and practice, you give a certain amount of preference, if I may say so with respect, privilege, to Front Bench Members and what are euphemistically called "shadow" spokesmen when they rise to put questions or supplementaries. The House has long accepted this. If, as is sometimes the case, a Front Bench spokesman takes longer than usual, we accept it.

It has never been the custom in the past, but it is becoming a custom now, for some of these Front Bench spokesmen to put constituency questions and then expect to have the same right to long supplementaries, sometimes two or three supplementaries, which means that other hon. Members are prevented from raising constituency points. This happened this afternoon when certain hon. Members opposite wanted to raise matters but you—and I mean no disrespect—found that enough time had passed and you moved on to the next Question. May I suggest that either you or the usual channels ensure that these Front Bench spokesmen are told that if they want to raise constituency questions they should go to the back benches and ask them there. Mr. Speaker would then know that it was not an official approach from the Front Bench.

Mr. C. Pannell

Further to that point of order. Before you answer, Mr. Speaker, I think that most Members on this side of the House would agree with me that my hon. Friend only ever speaks for himself—[Interruption.] The arrangements for the Opposition Front Bench have historically been a matter for the Leader of the Opposition. With great respect, it would be presumptuous even of Mr. Speaker to appear to tender any advice to the Leader of the Opposition on how he was conducting business.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Speaker is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for advising him what to do. This is a point of order, but it is not a new one. It has been raised again and again by back benchers when in opposition who are worried about the amount of time taken by the Front Bench. I said as recently as last week that it is for the Opposition Front Bench to decide what value and what importance they attach to certain questions, coming in with supplementaries even if it means depriving back benchers of the right to put a question. It is by no means new. It has happened in Parliament all the time. When I was a back bencher I suffered from it.

Mr. Lewis

Further to that point of order and with great respect, I am afraid that both my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) and yourself have missed the point of my remarks. I was raising an issue which happened this afternoon. I do not in any way criticise either Mr. Speaker or the Leader of the Opposition, or question the rights of the official Front Bench spokesmen to raise matters. The House has never objected to that, nor have I. What we do object to is when a Member uses his Front Bench position to raise constituency matters of which the Leader of the Opposition has no knowledge and then tries to usurp that Front Bench position to gain an unfair advantage over both Mr. Speaker and the House when such matters ought to be dealt with from the back benches.

Mr. Speaker

The House will note the strictures of the hon. Gentleman on the behaviour of Front Benches. It is not for Mr. Speaker to comment on it.

Mr. Jennings

Further to that point of order. Has not the time arrived when the powers-that-be should examine the priority calling of Privy Councillors? Once a Privy Councillor has moved from the Front Bench and taken his place on the back benches he should be treated on a basis of equality with every other back bencher and should take no precedence in being called.

Mr. Speaker

No priority exists for Privy Councillors at Question Time unless they are on the Front Bench. I can assure the House that when I am calling Members to ask supplementary questions there is no priority for Privy Councillors. On the general question of priority, it is quite a time since Procedure Committees recommended to the House that the priorities given to Privy Councillors should be taken away and that Mr. Speaker should judge the issue and call Members independently of Privy Councillorship. The House took no action, and I can take no action until the House instructs me to do so.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Further to the point of order. The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) has always been difficult for successive Oppositions, as the Leader of the House knows. I think that it is possible to work out a rough and ready scheme to give effect to what my hon. Friend has asked for. It is usual for junior spokesmen on the Front Bench, whatever their party, to go to the back benches to put questions on behalf of their constituencies and to take their chance with other back bench Members. It is difficult for senior Front Bench members to go on to the back benches, but if they have a Question on the Order Paper, as happened today, they are entitled to go to the back benches, although naturally they would not wish to take too much time since they have other facilities for debate.

This matter can be sorted out. If you would leave it to those principally concerned to try to sort it out, Mr. Speaker, it need not trouble you too much.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. This is a matter for the House, not for Mr. Speaker.