HC Deb 20 March 1975 vol 888 cc1861-9

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 Financial Assistance to Opposition Parties not later than Seven o'clock.—[Mr. Coleman.]

3.45 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South):

I have previously drawn the attention of the Leader of the House and of the House to this type of motion which, although not entirely without precedent in the 1970 Parliament, is now becoming an almost standard feature of our proceedings. The right hon. Gentleman was good enough to tell me, arising out of my previous observations, that he would ensure that this matter was considered at the next opportunity by the Select Committee on Procedure.

So important is this innovation that I suggest that it is inappropriate that there be further examples until the House has had the benefit of the considered views of that Select Committee. If we examine the Prime Minister's motion we see that the effect of it is to ensure that the first of the two debates to which we look forward is automatically brought to a close at seven o'clock. From time immemorial the House has succeeded with general satisfaction in combining by agreement two subjects in a normal single day's debate.

All hon. Members, new or less new, will be aware that there are many occasions when it is intimated that the first debate is likely to come to a close around seven o'clock and then the House will move on to the second subject. In all those circumstances not only has there been a flexibility as regards the precise length of time for which the first debate lasted, but it has always been open to the House, as it always should be, subject to Standing Orders, to be the agency that decides whether a debate should be brought to an end.

Mr. Cyril Smith (Rochdale):

We are deciding that now.

Mr. Powell

We are not, and I will explain to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) what is the difference between this motion and the proper way in which the House traditionally decides whether it wishes a debate to be brought to a close.

The House cannot decide that question, nor can the Chair decide whether it is a question proper to be settled by the House, except at the relevant time. It is only when the debate is actually in progress that the House can rationally come to a conclusion whether it ought to be terminated or allowed to continue. That is entirely rational. It is possible suddenly in a debate for a new aspect of the question to arise which requires further examination there and then. The right hon. Gentleman winding up the debate at the Dispatch Box, or seeking to wind up such a debate, might at that stage make a statement putting a new complexion on the subject which the House had been debating. The House, unless it is stopped by its own Standing Orders, ought then to have the opportunity of deciding in the proper way, by the closure, if the motion is accepted by the Chair, being voted on by the House.

Apart from the closure and the fact that that is the proper and logical way in which, subject to our Standing Orders, we should bring debates to a conclusion, if necessary, there is a well understood atmosphere in the House which conveys to hon. Members on both sides whether it is desired that a certain topic should be pursued a little further. The usual channels are, commonly, remarkably efficient in serving the requirements of the House in this respect and in maintaining the necessary communication between the two sides. All that will be brought to an end if it becomes normal—as it is becoming normal—for motions to be placed for decision at 3.30 p.m. which in effect lay down a rigid timetable for the business of that day.

I submit that if this sort of innovation is made, and if we are to have a daily timetable motion on days of this kind—for that is what it amounts to—we should do this deliberately, as the will of the House, expressed after the Select Committee on Procedure has decided the matter.

I suggest that there is no need for the right hon. Gentleman to pursue this motion. If it is the pleasure of the House that today's debate should occupy today's sitting, that will be no more difficult to do than it has proved on hundreds of occasions in the past. Let the right hon. Gentleman therefore not press this motion but be content to see what emerges from the proper consideration of the matter by the Select Committee.

3.53 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North West):

I hope that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) will forgive me if I rise to support the approach which he has made. I agree with him. I think it is invidious for the establishment, the power behind the throne, or the advisers to the Whips Office, to arrange matters in this way. By all means let there be agree- ment between the usual channels and their advisers, but please let us not adopt that attitude regularly. The habit of the usual channels agreeing to switch business in the knowledge that the rights of the back benchers will be precluded, such as will happen with this motion, is becoming too regular.

The Chair always gives time in which back benchers can air their views. The Chair, always within the rules and Standing Orders, goes out of its way to help back benchers. It is the duty of the Chair, as far as possible, knowing that the rights of back benchers must be protected, to try to assist the passage of Government business without depreciating the rights of back benchers.

This motion is debatable. Three or four hon. Members on either side might wish to participate. The Chair is then in a difficulty because it obviously wishes to allow reasonable discussion. It also wishes to proceed with public business. Therefore it might well be that at a given hour, be it five o'clock or six o'clock, the closure motion could legitimately be put on an important motion which is opposed by hon. Members of all parties, on both sides of the House, who might wish to take part in the discussion. All hon. Members agree that you, Mr. Speaker, are brilliant in the Chair. I do not know how you manage to allocate one hour to up to seven Front Bench speakers and probably six back benchers.

This motion is serious. The Government, realising that we deal with public business late on Thursdays because of the discussion earlier in the afternoon of next week's business, know some of the motions will not be reached for some time. However, the closure of a limited debate on an important subject is unfair to back benchers.

There is no urgency about this motion. Indeed, the motion says that the provision is to be backdated to January 1975. There is no need to take it before Easter. If the matter were discussed after Easter, the Government could arrange a day when more hon. Members were likely to be present to support or oppose the motion. I urge the Government to say there is no need to press the motion.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith), who is at present representing the Liberal Party so adequately, will realise that we should then be able to debate the textile industry earlier in the day. We should be able to return after Easter and discuss the other motion, knowing that no one would be upset, and that the desires and objectives of the leaders of the major political parties would not be frustrated.

If the right hon. Member for Down, South agrees to oppose this motion with a vote, I shall support him. I am even prepared to act as teller in the absence of other tellers.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Bob Crger (Keighley)

There is much in what the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) says. He is right. On the other hand, on this occasion I do not think that it should be forgotten that this allocation of time was made partly as a result of pressure by back bench Members to ensure that the textile industry should be debated. To those hon. Members representing textile constituencies, which are facing unemployment and short-time working, it is essential that the House be seen to debate that issue. There is a danger that a long argument on the motion regarding financial assistance to Opposition parties could lead to a reduction of the time available for the textiles debate.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

My hon. Friend misunderstands me. I suggested that we should proceed straight away with the textile debate and allow an extra two or three hours. It is important that textiles should be discussed. The other matter is not urgent and there is no necessity for it to be discussed now.

Mr. Cryer

I do not dispute that. It is a good arrangement. But my hon. Friend's criticism of the usual channels was less than fair because it was only at the insistence of the back benchers that the usual channels and the Leader of the House yielded—for which we are most grateful—to the pressure from back benchers, to hold a debate about an industry which has served the country well but the subject of which does not occupy a great deal of time on the Floor of the House. I think that that should be recognised.

I endorse the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) that we should leave the matter of finance for Opposition parties till another time, though I suspect that we are now immersed so deeply in matters of procedure that it will be difficult to extricate ourselves. However, if we can, and if it means more time for the debate on the textile industry, I shall be happy with that solution.

4.0 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) said, we have a very important debate to follow after seven o'clock. I was anxious to give as much time as possible to that debate. Indeed, I was pressed for it. I withdrew the motion on financial assistance on the last occasion that it was before the House at the request of a number of hon. Members who felt that there was not sufficient time to debate it.

I agreed to find a half day for a debate on textiles. I have found a half day, plus two hours. I did not want that time eroded by another debate. Therefore, I think that the seven o'clock motion is justified today.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said that a new point could arise just before seven o'clock and that there would not be time to pursue it and to debate it. A new point could arise just before ten o'clock in a normal debate or in any other debate which had to finish by a certain time—

Mr. Powell

What is suddenly different about half-days in the House that they have to be safeguarded by this kind of motion?

Mr. Short

I felt that there was a possibility of the second debate being eroded today, as I said, and that it was right to put down this motion, which we discussed through the normal channels.

I was commenting on the argument of the right hon. Member for Down, South about a new point arising just before seven o'clock, and I was saying that a similar point could arise just before ten o'clock.

A great deal of our business is dealt with in short debates. The whole of our secondary legislation is considered in 1½ hour debates after ten o'clock. The EEC debates follow the same pattern. They are in limited time after ten o'clock.

What we are doing is not an innovation. It has been done frequently. But if there is evidence of concern about what the right hon. Member for Down, South described as "this growing practice "—I do not agree that it is growing, although a motion of this kind has appeared on the Order Paper once or twice this Session—I shall be willing, as I promised previously, to ask the Select Committee on Procedure to look at this point when it has finished its present remit.

We have two very important debates today. The second one is of special importance to a great many hon. Members. I hope that we shall agree now to reach a decision on this motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered, That, at this day's sitting, Mr. Speaker shall put any Question necessary to dispose of Proceedings on the Motion relating to Financial Assistance to Opposition Parties not later than Seven o'clock.