HC Deb 08 December 1971 vol 827 cc1291-4
36. Mr. Lane

asked the Lord President of the Council if he will now install a time-elapsed clock on each side of the Chamber, with the object of encouraging shorter speeches.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

The Services Committee has not yet completed its consideration of this proposal.

Mr. Lane

While this may be too drastic an innovation, will my right hon. Friend look sympathetically at any proposals likely to be acceptable to the House that would reinforce the pressures already being exerted by Mr. Speaker in the direction of shorter speeches?

Mr. Whitelaw

I am prepared to consider any proposal which would have the backing of the House as a whole. I cannot but reflect that, when the comparatively small innovation of the television annunciators was introduced, there were objections even to that. Yet I think that they are satisfactory and that everyone now likes them. The idea of clocks in the Chamber would have to be considered very carefully.

Mr. Cormack

Would my right hon. Friend consider cuckoo clocks?

37. Mr. Dormand

asked the Lord President of the Council whether, in view of opinions expressed to him since 8th November, he will now move to amend the Standing Orders of the House to permit the introduction of a period in major debates during which speeches of not more than five minutes' duration can be made, on a voluntary basis.

Mr. Whitelaw

The House will have an opportunity to consider such proposals when the Procedure Committee's suggestion for limiting speeches on certain occasions is debated.

Mr. Dormand

That is a very encouraging reply. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the immense difficulty—sometimes the impossibility—of being called in a major debate? Is he aware that the Chair is being placed in an impossible position in view of the large number of hon. Members who wish to participate? Is he further aware that this practice is carried out in several other Parliaments and is sympathetically referred to in the Second Report of the Select Committee on Procedure? Would not he agree that speaking for only five minutes would be a salutary experience for many hon. and right hon. Members?

Mr. Whitelaw

What I do know is that this proposal should be considered by the House and must be a matter for the House as a whole. It is very controversial indeed as between various Members in all parts of the House.

Sir R. Thompson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us think that this matter is very difficult to settle by altering the rules of the House? Might it not be better settled, as in so many cases, by—if I may dare to say so—a certain myopia on the part of the Chair?

Mr. Whitelaw

I think the answer must be that the House should at a suitable time—and I have promised time—discuss this question and come to its own decision. I realise that this is a matter for right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, and it should be considered on that basis.

Mr. Heffer

Would the right hon. Gentleman and the House be careful about this proposition, because we could get into a situation where some hon. Members, endeavouring to make extremely powerful speeches, might find the effect lost because of the time limit? As one who confines himself to about 10 minutes—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—10 minutes to a quarter of an hour—[Laughter.]—this is no laughing matter but an important issue. There may well be occasions when Members could influence the decision of the House and it would therefore be wrong for the House to introduce a rule which could inhibit Members in deciding the policy of the country.

Mr. Whitelaw

The hon. Member makes an important point that will certainly have to be considered when the matter is debated. I do not in any sense regard this as a laughing matter. My only interest is to be careful not to express any view one way or the other on the proposal.

Mr. James Johnson

On a point of order. Is it not disgraceful that an hon. Member opposite should attempt to influence your conduct in the Chair, Mr. Speaker, by suggesting that you should pretend myopia in order to cut out some speakers whom other hon. Members may dislike?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a matter of order, although it may be a matter for the Chair.

Mr. McCrindle

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that far and away the most effective way of reducing the length of speeches is to make certain that the supply of power to the microphones is cut off after five minutes?

Mr. Whitelaw

My only comment is that the most effective way to decide the length of speeches in the House is for hon. Members themselves to decide how long they wish hon. Members to speak.

Mr. Michael Foot

Would the right hon. Gentleman publish in the OFFICIAL REPORT a list of eminent back benchers in past years, headed by Winston Churchill and Aneurin Bevan, whose whole political careers would have been cut short and whose most important speeches would have been gagged if a rule such as this had been operative? Would he take into account that a limitation on the speeches of back benchers is the best way for the Front Benches to have an advantage over the back benches, and that that is a matter which should be seriously considered when any such issue is to be settled by the House of Commons?

Mr. Whitelaw

If the hon. Gentleman would like any supporting information before the debate and he puts a Question to me, I will be only too pleased to provide any information I can. I must continue to preserve the most careful neutrality possible in this matter and say simply that I note what the hon. Gentleman said, which, of course, is the argument on the other side of the case.

Mr. Speaker

Without departing in any way from the impartiality of the Chair, may I say that the Chair is rather more worried about the length of Front Bench speeches than about the length of back bench speeches?

Mr. Michael Foot

I do not know, Mr. Speaker, whether it is in order to address questions to you on your obiter dicta.

Mr. Speaker

It would be very dangerous for me to allow such questions.