HC Deb 06 April 1971 vol 815 cc249-53
Sir Elwyn Jones

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask your guidance on a matter which may be of some importance to the House. Last Friday, just after 1 p.m., the hon. Member for Leicester, South-East (Mr. Peel) called for a count while my hon. Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. Peter Archer, was speaking on the Protection of Human Rights Bill, the Second Reading of which had been moved by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dulwich (Mr. S. C. Silkin) half an hour before. As only 38 Members were present the House was counted out.

During the count it appeared that there were some grounds for thinking that the Division bells were not working properly. There was some uncertainty in the circumstances whether the matter could be raised at all during the count on a point of order. Before the matter could be fully pursued the four minutes had elapsed, just as I was endeavouring to submit to Mr. Deputy Speaker that a recount should be taken. In view of the effiuxion of time Mr. Deputy Speaker left the Chair.

The first question on which I seek your ruling is whether a point of order can be raised during a count. The only guidance in Erskine May is that permission to raise a point of order during a count has been refused. That refusal was made by Mr. Speaker FitzRoy on 10th September, 1941. It would seem that the matter depends on the discretion of the Chair. In my submission that cannot be a satisfactory state of affairs. There is no indication as to the principles on which that discretion should be exercised and I submit that it would surely be unacceptable if, for instance, there was a total failure of the bells to ring but because of the Ruling it would become impossible to raise the matter during the count on a point of order. If a point of order can be raised during a Division, it should surely be right for an hon. Member to raise a point of order during a count and to do so uncovered, because I understand the function of the hat is merely to identify the hon. Member who is seeking to raise the point of order during a Division.

The second matter, and this is probably something for consideration by the Select Committee on Procedure, is this. Is there not a case for examining afresh our present procedure which enables a single hon. Member to frustrate the very proper wishes of many other hon. Members, who may want to support or oppose a Private Member's Bill or to discuss an issue of importance which may be raised by a private Member? The difficulty generally arises on Fridays, which is traditionally the private Members' day.

Should there not be some further restriction than there is now on the power of any individual hon. Member in effect to guillotine debate and discussion in the Chamber after—as was the case on Friday—a minimal discussion lasting for half an hour on a matter being considered by the House? This was at about 1 p.m., when there were three further hours available to those Members in the House anxious to continue the discussion. It is somewhat ironic that this matter arose in a discussion on a Bill dealing with the protection of human rights and it would seem that there is occasion for looking at the protection of private Members of Parliament.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Further to that point of order. When you are considering this matter, may I draw your attention to the fact that, as reported in HANSARD, I raised this with the occupant of the Chair who accepted my point of order. My point of order was raised well within the limit of four minutes and it was then explained at length that there were certain parts of the building where the bells were not then sounding. It would perhaps have been possible, as has happened on previous occasions, for the count to have been called again.

I suggest that it might help if you, Mr. Speaker, and the Leader of the House were to introduce a system whereby when the Division bells and the bells for the count are ringing an electronic flash indicator could be put in circuit at the Clerk's table so that if in any part of the building the bells cease to ring the indicator would automatically fuse and it would be known that the bells were not sounding properly. You could then be advised, Mr. Speaker, of the fault and a new Division or count could be called.

Immediately after the House had risen on Friday I was advised by officials of the House that in some parts of the building the bells were not sounding. That meant that some hon. Members would not have had the opportunity of coming to the Chamber to be counted had they so wished.

Mr. Molloy

Further to that point of order. A technical fault occurred on Friday which put Mr. Deputy Speaker in a difficult situation in which she had no alternative but to rule as she did, and her composed dignity helped the House in that difficult situation.

I was in the Library at the time and the bell rang for a short time and then stopped. I waited for one of two things to happen; either for a policeman or an attendant to call out that there was a Division or for the bell to ring again to show that there was a count. Neither of these things happened and I did not immediately make my way to the Chamber. Only when I saw other hon. Members coming to the Chamber did I follow and discover that a count had been called. Had the bell rung properly it is likely that other hon. Members would have come to the Chamber, making a total of 40 or more present so that the debate could have continued.

Would it be proper for you to consider whether the time which the House lost through the technical failure should be restored, particularly as the issue which we were discussing was one of grave interest not only to our nation but to the United Nations and the Council of Europe, namely, human rights?

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Further to that point of order. Apart from the wider issues raised by the right hon. and learned Member for West Ham, South (Sir Elwyn Jones), is not the general principle behind a count to ascertain whether or not there is a quorum, that 40 hon. Members should either be in the Chamber or in the vicinity of the Chamber? If that is the principle, and it is not a bad one, the failure of the bells to ring would not interfere with it. The sound of the servants of the House making their usual call would be heard.

Mr. Leslie Huckfield

Further to that point of order. Following what the hon. Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) has said, I assure him that one cannot hear the servants of the House when one is in Palace Chambers. The occurrence in the Library which my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Molloy) described happened also in Palace Chambers. There were two short sharp bursts of the bell, after which there was complete silence. It was only because of my personal interest in what was happening, since my Control of Personal Information Bill was to follow the Bill under discussion, that I undertook the duty of going round and making sure that hon. Members came across from Palace Chambers. The general presumption of hon. Members who came into the Chamber was that the bells had not rung for a sufficiently long time to indicate a count, with the result that there was a very small attendance when the count took place. I endorse my hon. Friend's request that serious consideration be given to the question of allowing further time for consideration of last Friday's business.

Mr. Speaker

Four quite different matters have been raised. On the first one, whether a point of order is admissible during the taking of a count, I should like to consider that matter, see what my predecessors have ruled and give a considered Ruling on it. On the second matter about a single hon. Member being entitled to call for a count, I understand that is already before the Select Committee on Procedure and I have no doubt that note will be taken of what the right hon. and learned Gentleman has said. On the third point of whether an extra parliamentary day can be requested, that is not a matter for me. On the fourth point, whether or not the bells were working properly, they have been examined by the engineers and none has been found to be defective.

I remind the House—this is not a matter for me, this is what happens—that for a Division the bells ring continuously for 55 seconds, pause for 10 seconds and ring continuously for another 55 seconds. So that for a Division the bells are ringing for two minutes. In a count bells are rung for only half that time. They ring for four seconds, followed by a pause of two seconds and then ring again on that pattern for one minute only. That may be some reason for the confusion. However, the Officers of the House and I will take every step we can to see that the bells are working properly. The other point I will consider, as I have said.