HC Deb 26 July 1971 vol 822 cc167-71

Ordered, That the Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Sheriff Courts (Scotland) Bill may be proceeded with at this day's Sitting, though opposed, until any hour.—[The Prime Minister.,]

Mr. Proudfoot

On a point of order. Since many hon. Members on both sides of the House have been frustrated in the debate because they could not catch your eye, owing to sheer numbers, would it be possible for hon. Mmbers to deposit about 1,000 words in the OFFICIAL REPORT so that their point of view could be recorded, as well as their vote at the end of the debate?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) was kind enough to give me notice that he was going to raise this point of order. I have had the opportunity of considering it but I am advised that the OFFICIAL REPORT is a record of speeches made in the House and that it also contains answers to Oral and Written Questions. It has never been the practice to allow speeches to be read into the record, and I could not allow it to be done without a Resolution of the House to that effect.

Mr. Proudfoot

Further to that point of order. The Executive frequently say, "In view of the length of the Answer I shall circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT". Surely that is already part of the procedure of the House. I believe that in 1924 Mr. Speaker Whitley suggested that Ministers' Answers which were too long should be deposited for inclusion in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

Mr. Speaker

Any process that might lead to the shortening of speeches has its attraction, but I am advised that the procedure to which the hon. Member has referred relates only to Questions, and not to speeches. Therefore, I cannot accept any departure from that procedure without a Resolution of the House. Whether I should welcome such a Resolution is another matter.

Mr. J. T. Price (Westhoughton)

Further to that point of order. The hon. Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) has raised a very interesting proposal, which is often adopted in the United Slates of America. Although I have no intrinsic sympathy with the suggestion that speeches should be deposited and circulated in the OFFICIAL REPORT, I agree that many hon. Members in this honourable House feel disappointed by their failure to catch your eye during this debate—Members of whom I am not one.

I am not complaining, but there are occasions like this when great matters of State are being debated and there is a feeling in the House that far too high a proportion of Privy Councillors and senior Members occupy the debating time of the House. Therefore, I make my protest that although many of us have not had our voices heard in this debate we are nevertheless prepared to make our voices heard when there is a deliberative debate on this issue before the country in the autumn, which is when our voices will really count.

Mr. Charles Curran (Uxbridge)

May I be allowed to add something to what has been said, and put it to you for a decision, Mr. Speaker? Like many other hon. Members, I have sat here for several days suffocated with incubated impromptues and prefabricated phrases that I have been unable to deliver. I suggest that you should give serious consideration to the plight of those hon. Members—there are many on both sides—who have come here ready and eager to speak, and have been frustrated.

I should like you to re-examine the suggestion by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighouse and Spenborough (Mr. Proudfoot) that we should be permitted to put in written speeches. I draw your attention to a precedent which I think has some bearing on the matter. For over a hundred years it used to be the practice in the House that any hon. Member who put down a Question had to get up and read it. The practice of putting Questions in the House seems to have begun in about 1783, and the practice of putting Questions to Ministers was formalised from 1832 onwards.

For more than 50 years it was the unvarying rule of the House that any Member who put down a Question had to get up and read it. In the end, one of your predecessors in the Chair decided that he had had enough of it. The date was 1880, and your predecessor was Mr. Speaker Brand—a very strong, tough-minded Speaker, who, as we remember, put an end to the practice of parliamentary obstruction. [Interruption.] He put an end to one kind of parliamentary obstruction, anyway. I think that the time when we may need a reincarnated Mr. Speaker Brand may not be very far away.

Your predecessor in the Chair, Mr. Speaker, was faced in 1880 not only by the deliberate obstruction which had been begun in the House by the Irish National Party but by the deliberate time-wasting which was organised by Members who put down long and verbose Questions and insisted on reading them out. Mr. Speaker Brand's patience boiled over in 1880 when one Member proceeded to read out a Question running to more than 500 words which he had put on the Order Paper. Having listened to that 500-word epic, another hon. Member, Joseph Cowen, who sat as the Radical Member for Newcastle, made an appeal to the Chair. He asked the Chair—;

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentle man has just spoken of the Speaker's patience boiling over. The temperature is rising.

Mr. Curran

I know that you are fireproof, Sir. Nothing that I or anyone else can do can make any difference to your temperature; you have a built-in thermostat which keeps you completely calm.

With great respect, I ask you to consider the precedent which your predecessor created in 1880 when he was faced with the practice of crowding the Order Paper with long Questions which took a great deal of time to read. When the point was put to Mr. Speaker Brand by Joseph Cowen, that the House really ought not to have to put up with it, this is what your predecessor said: … it was formerly the practice for Members to read their Questions, and the practice has generally prevailed down to the present day. But I am bound to say that latterly the practice has prevailed of putting Questions at such extra ordinary length that I am inclined to think the House would do well to depart from it". The House proceeded to act on the Speaker's guidance.

Your predecessor, Sir, was prepared to establish a precedent regarding the reading of Questions. Is it not possible for you at least to consider the practicability and desirability of creating a new precedent, namely, that Members who want to deliver long and tiresome speeches should do it on paper instead of inflicting them upon us by word of mouth?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman's idea has certain attractions, I think, certainly as regards points of order. The question of speeches is a different matter. What the hon. Gentleman has drawn to my attention relates to Questions.

I realise that, as he says, many hon. Members have been frustrated but no one has been more frustrated than the Chair at the prospect of being able to call only 65 back-bench Members, when there were probably three times as many who wished to speak. I hope that those who consider the organisation of these matters will have regard to that fact and try to ensure that there is rather more time available, particularly for back benchers. There was only one suspension for one hour during the debate just concluded. It is back benchers who gain from a suspension. Front Bench speakers have their time anyhow, whether there is a suspension or not. I suggest, therefore, that if the hon. Gentleman wishes to further the hope of more back benchers being called, he will use his great powers of persuasion through the correct channels. The other matter which he has drawn to my attention relates, as I have said, to Questions, not to speeches.

I think that the time has now come to get on with the other business of the House.