HC Deb 14 February 1973 vol 850 cc1294-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, at this day's Sitting, Mr. Speaker shall put any Question necessary to dispose of Proceedings on the Motion relating to Value Added Tax on Children's Clothing not later than Seven o'clock.—[Mr. Prior.]

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Kimball (Gainsborough)

I think I am correct in saying that this motion is debatable. In seeking to debate it, I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, as the protector of minorities in this House and also as the protector of the rights of the Opposition—rights which hon. Members on both sides of the House have a very great interest in preserving.

I submit to you, Sir that this motion on the Order Paper requiring the important debate on the subject of value added tax on childrens' clothing to be finished by seven o'clock is a gross interference with the rights of the Opposition. Time is being taken away because the Government have tabled a Private Member's Bill for discussion after seven o'clock. It may be argued that this is not the case, but the Government are convicted of doing this because, since the Anti-Discrimination (No. 2) Bill has a star against it on the Order Paper, it can be assumed that it is a Government Order of the Day. Therefore the Government have taken away the rights of the Opposition on a very important day.

What is worse, Mr. Speaker—and this is why I appeal to you—is that these circumstances could arise only where Government and Opposition were in agreement. This is an unwholesome situation to any private Member of the House of Commons. Further, as I understand it, the Government are giving to Opposition Members an opportunity which they do not give their own back benchers, because the Government have chosen to make this Private Member's Bill a Government Bill and the Opposition have agreed to this device.

The motion that we are now debating can be debated for as long as you, Mr. Speaker, are prepared to allow. As I see it, it would be possible for us to have three Divisions. We may discuss this very important motion until such time as it is necessary to move the Closure. That will be one Division. Then there will be another Division on the main Question. That means that 20 minutes will have gone. I see that after this motion there is to be a Bill under the Ten-Minute Rule concerning badgers. Some of us may wish to say a few words about that. Thus, before we even reach the Opposition's Supply time there will have been nearly half an hour's delay.

You, Mr. Speaker, are the protector of the interests of the Opposition and of private Members. I appeal to you to do what you can to see whether this motion can be withdrawn, as it should be.

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Marcus Lipton (Brixton)

Before we are drowned in the crocodile tears of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball), I beg to move, That the Question be now put.

Mr. Speaker

I do not accept that motion.

4.2 p.m.

Mr. James Ramsden (Harrogate)

Before the House agrees to this motion which I take it, is necessary in order that time may be found for a Private Member's Bill later in the day, I think that we are entitled to ask for one or two reassurances from my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

While I appreciate the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Gains-borough (Mr. Kimball), I have no wish to join him as a champion of the rights of the Opposition and their entitlement to their time on these occasions, though it is a respectable argument. However, some of us have been concerned, and not only in this Parliament, with the treatment of Private Members' Bills. Some of us were worried under the Administration of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite and again last October that the Government should have been prepared to give selective treatment to certain Private Members' Bills at the expense of others.

I shall not go back into past history, but when the Private Member's Bill concerned with vasectomy narrowly failed on a Friday, my right hon. Friend's predecessor, in what admittedly was a rather special case, took steps to ensure that it should be given Government time to complete its remaining stages. A number of us were not too happy about that, and we raised the matter with the then Leader of the House and obviously he took the point. I received a letter from him last October giving fairly explicit assurances that he regarded the instance in question as a very special case and that it was unlikely to be repeated. It is not very long since last October. Here we have another instance of selective treatment being given to a Private Member's measure.

I do not go into the merits. I simply say that there are strict rules embodied in the Standing Orders of the House about private Members' legislation and the amount of time that it should have. If those rules exist I believe they should be kept and then people will know where they are. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will give us some reassurance about how he intends to handle these matters in future because there is real disquiet among Government back benchers. I do not make too much of it, but apparently last Friday week's proceedings were attended by a certain amount of disturbance from the Public Gallery, and that does not square with the proper dignity of proceedings of this House.

4.4 p.m.

Mr. Robert Mellish (Bermondsey)

It is right to put on record that the Opposition are appreciative of the way in which the Government have handled this matter. Those right hon. and hon. Members who were present last Friday week will know what happened when you, Mr. Speaker, because of the rules of the House, were unable to accept a closure motion on a matter concerning hon. Members on both sides of he House.

When our Supply Day came up, in the usual way we selected the matter that we wished to discuss and we asked the Government whether the debate could be arranged to conclude at seven o'clock in order that the Anti-Discrimination (No. 2) Bill might come forward for normal debate and be decided one way or the other at ten o'clock. In suggesting that, I thought I was being helpful to the House.

This is Opposition time. I make it clear that this proposition came from the Opposition, and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his co-operation

4.5 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. James Prior)

I appreciate the reasonable manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Kimball) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Ramsden) have raised this matter. I want also to tell the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) how grateful I am for the view that he has taken.

On the Friday before last, we were faced with a very delicate and difficult situation of the kind which confronts Leaders of the House from time to time. I believe that it was in the interests of the House as a whole that in this very exceptional case some arrangement should have been made to meet what were the wishes of a great many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides and to avert what could have been a difficult situation to the House as a whole. It was with that in mind that I said plainly from this Dispatch Box that the Government could not give time of their own, and it was then that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey made his suggestion.

I believe that it is in the interests of Governments of all political parties that we do our best to stick rigidly to the rule which has been made. Once we start to transgress a rule we get into the difficulties about which a number of my hon. Friends have been telling me in the past few days. I do not believe that we should make new rules which lead us into more trouble than is involved by sticking to existing rules. In this case I believe the House has been better served by the action which has been taken. But I hope that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that these are very exceptional circumstances and that they will treat them as such.

Mr. William Clark (Surrey, East)

Before my right hon. Friend sits down, will he answer one question? It has been the tradition that Private Members' Bills are subject to a free vote. May we be assured that both sides of the House will have a free vote?

Mr. Prior

I do not think that that is a question for me to answer. I should be very surprised if they did not.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, at this day's Sitting, Mr. Speaker shall put any Question necessary to dispose of Proceedings on the Motion relating to Value Added Tax on Children's Clothing not later than Seven o'clock.