HC Deb 10 April 1974 vol 872 cc451-5
Mr. Speaker

I shall now rule on a matter raised by the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) on Monday and yesterday.

I should perhaps first dispose of the hon. Member's suggestion that I ought to have made a formal ruling yesterday. When the matter was raised by the hon. Member on Monday, I said, I shall consider the hon. Member's point and if necessary communicate with him further."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th April 1974; Vol. 872, c. 44.] I did not on reflection consider that any such communication was in fact necessary. The practice of ruling after 24 hours, to which the hon. Member referred yesterday, relates solely to matters of privilege, of which this is not one. It was, therefore, in no way incumbent upon me to give a ruling yesterday

Turning to the substance of the matter, I will read again the passage from Erskine May which I read on Monday: He"—

that is Mr. Speaker— has also directed that a notice of motion should not be printed, as being obviously not a proper subject for debate, being tendered in a spirit of mockery, or being designed merely to give annoyance or as irregular. In this case, the hon. Member's motion suggested that a letter from the Prime Minister should be examined by the police to ascertain whether it was" authentic, or another embarrassing forgery". The letter was from 10 Downing Street on 4th April:

"Dear Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop,

Thank you for your letter of 26th March.

It is clear from a study of the Debate on 25th March, and the cutting enclosed with your letter, that there was a genuine misunderstanding about the point that Michael Meacher was making. His intention was, as was made clear in the House, to refer to the new rate rebate scheme, but he appreciates that the words he used were ambiguous and has asked me to convey his apologies for this.

Yours sincerely,

Harold Wilson."

In my view, the hon. Member's motion fell within each of the first three categories I have stated above—not being a proper subject for debate, being tendered in a spirit of mockery, and being designed merely to give annoyance. Therefore, ipso facto it was a motion of extreme irregularity. In my view, the Clerk at the Table was right to withhold the motion from the printer.

But may I explain, as this is a new House of Commons, the custom in these matters. If the Clerk decides that a motion or Question should be withheld, he informs the Member concerned. If the Member does not accept that view, he should ask for the matter to be referred to me. If I decide to uphold the view of the Clerk at the Table, the Member is informed, and if the Member is still dissatisfied he can come and see me to argue his case further. If, at the end of this process, he is still dissatisfied, he can raise the matter in the House, and if he disagrees with my ruling he can challenge it according to our procedures—in other words, by a motion.

The object of this procedure is to save the time of the House. I regret that it was not followed in this case.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The issue of principle is whether a Clerk, without reference to the Speaker, can reject a motion tabled by a Member without any explanation why he judges it to be out of order. It is something that can affect every Member of the House. In this case, Mr. Speaker, no explanation was given by the Clerk why he rejected my motion. Erskine May states quite clearly on that point, If the irregularity is not extreme, the notice is printed, and reserved for future consideration. Since the Clerk gave no evidence to support a view that the motion contained an extreme irregularity, he had neither the power nor the right to suppress it. The issue of detail, Mr. Speaker, is this: were there valid reasons justifying the Clerk at the Table in rejecting the motion on presentation of those valid reasons to the Member concerned, which he did not do?

You have read out, Mr. Speaker, the later extract from Erskine May and your ruling is that each of those grounds applies to the motion that I submitted. I submit to you that that is not the case for the following reasons. First, the statement—

Mr. Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member is contesting my ruling, he may not do it in this way; he must do it by motion.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is the first moment that I have learned either from you or from any Clerk of the House the grounds on which it was claimed that this motion could not be accepted. If you refuse to allow me the opportunity of suggesting why you should reconsider your ruling after the first time you have given me the reasons why the Clerk originally made it, of course you will leave me only the alternative of a substantive motion on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

I am not at all afraid of being threatened in that way. In fact, it was suggested to the hon. Member that he should come and discuss the matter with me, according to the practice that I have laid down. That has applied in very many instances. It saves a great deal of the time of the House, when the Clerk withholds a motion, and the hon. Member concerned objects, if the hon. Member is advised to come and see Mr. Speaker about it. I should then gladly have discussed the matter, listened to the hon. Member's arguments, and perhaps ruled differently. As the hon. Member did not accept the custom of the House on this matter, I cannot allow it to be argued further today.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a different point, Mr. Speaker. It is a matter of great importance that Clerks of the House should not arbitrarily withhold from Members the right to table motions, giving no reason for so doing. This is a sufficiently important matter for it to be raised and dealt with on the Floor of the House rather than in camera, because it affects the right of every Member irrespective of the merit of the motion

If the Clerk concerned had sent to me the reasons why he rejected the motion, the course of action which you state would have been appropriate, Mr. Speaker. He did not do so. It was rejected without any explanation whatsoever. This is the first occasion—[Interruption.]—the Patronage Secretary is not dispensing patronage at the moment; nor is he in Mr. Speaker's Chair; he is merely interrupting a point of order from a sedentary position, and he should know better.

I suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that you should instruct the Clerks that if they wish to follow the procedure of rejecting a motion which has already been accepted by the Table Office, they should, without exception, communicate to the Member concerned their reason for doing so when they have not consulted you on the matter, as in this case. There are substantial grounds—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that I can let the hon. Member go much further. I take his point and I am perfectly certain that the Clerks at the Table have done so. I have given the reasons why I did not think that this motion should be sent to the printer. I am not trying to be at all personally offensive, but I think that Clerks give hon. Members credit for a little common sense. They probably thought that the hon. Member's motion was an attempt at a joke, and a fairly obvious one at that.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one who has on many occasions approached the Clerks at the Table and at all times found them most courteous and helpful, may I say that it has been my knowledge for almost 30 years that when the Table Office said that in its opinion a matter was out of order and that I had the right to go to Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker would invariably immediately arrange a discussion on the matter

Therefore, I cannot see that it matters whether I am told the reason by the Clerks at the Table. They invariably give the reason, but whether they do or not, the fact is that I may see, and have on occasions been to see, Mr. Speaker to discuss the matter with him, and invariably he has helped me, with the aid of the Clerk, to get the sort of motion that I want on the Order Paper. If an hon. Member wants help to get a difficult motion on the Order Paper, he should work with the Clerks and with Mr. Speaker, and they will get a difficult motion on the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker

This is all very interesting. I am grateful.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have asked the hon. Gentleman to conclude the matter. I think that he has had his say.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Merely as a courtesy, I beg to ask leave to give notice that I shall raise this matter on a substantive motion