HC Deb 16 February 1976 vol 905 cc951-5
Miss Richardson

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise with you the events of last Friday afternoon, a few minutes before 4 o'clock, at the conclusion of the debate on the Domestic Violence Bill. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Law Officers' Department had sat down, after replying to the debate, a fraction before 4 o'clock. Your Deputy rose to put the Question as the clocks, from what we could see, swung over to 4 o'clock and as the first of the four chimes of Big Ben was striking.

As Mr. Deputy Speaker was putting the Question, he interrupted himself to call the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) to speak, and my Bill was thereby talked out. I have some witnesses who say that the digital clock in front of you also moved to 4 o'clock when the Question was being put.

I cannot see why my Bill was ruled out in this way. It is bad enough to have Bills talked out in the proper manner—though that system is incomprehensible to the public—but to have it talked out by mistake makes an absolute mockery of this House. I would like your ruling on the matter.

Mr. Speaker

Having often presided at 4 o'clock on Friday afternoons, I understand the frustration of hon. Members when their measures are lost because one hon. Member claims his inalienable right to stand in his place if he wishes to object to a Bill.

The rule regarding the stage at which a Question is fully put—and Mr. Deputy Speaker had not fully put the Question when the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) rose to seek to catch his eye—is that until the occupant of the Chair has collected the voices the Question is still before the House.

Since the hon. Member rose in his place, Mr. Deputy Speaker did what anyone else would have done—certainly what I would have done—and called him to speak. Until the voices are collected, the rights of minorities in this House—unpopular though they may be—allow one hon. Member to get up in his place and thus cause difficulties.

Miss Richardson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand what you have said and if that had happened before 4 o'clock, I could have had no complaints. I might not have liked it, but I would have had no complaint. My argument is that the clock said 4 p.m. and the first chime of Big Ben had struck—after all the bits that go before—which I gather is Greenwich Mean Time and is used by navigational aids all over the world. That happened when Mr. Deputy Speaker was on his feet and had begun to put the Question. In my submission, he therefore had no occasion to call the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West to speak, since it was then 4 o'clock.

Mr. Speaker

It is clear from Hansard that Mr. Deputy Speaker had begun to put the Question before 4 o'clock, but at the time the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West rose, Mr. Deputy Speaker had not gone so far as to take the voices. I can only rule that we are unable to get round this matter, disappointing and frustrating though it is for the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson). Mr. Deputy Speaker did what anyone else who had been in the Chair would have done in the circumstances. I fear that the hon. Lady can only seek to get her Bill through at another time.

Mr. Whitehead

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not wish to challenge your ruling, though you will appreciate the indignation felt by many hon. Members at what happened to the Bill presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Miss Richardson). It was not opposed in any speech by any hon. Member, nor did any hon. Member seek to shout "Object" at 4 o'clock.

It would be in the interests of the House if we investigated a method of ensuring that the clock used by Mr. Deputy Speaker—which apparently told a different time from the clocks used by hon. Members—could be synchronised with another clock which could be seen by hon. Members.

It may be possible to quote a precedent for this situation. On 16th June 1972, a Bill of my own fell in a somewhat similar way, between two votes at the hour of 4 o'clock, an hon. Member having risen in his place so that the Question could not be put. On that occasion, the matter was referred to the Select Committee on Procedure and, at a later stage, the Government moved a business motion allowing the Question to be put forthwith, though opposed, after 10 o'clock. I realise that it is a matter for the Government and the usual channels, but I hope that it might be something you could take up with them.

Mr. Speaker

Arrangements are being made to see whether the flashing light might be installed on both sides of the Table to indicate the interruption of business. The same procedure applies at 10 o'clock at night. The Chief Whip keeps a watch because he has to move the Closure if an hon. Member is on his feet at 10 o'clock. The same applies on Friday at 4 o'clock. When the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West stood up, it was open to the hon. Member for Barking to move the Closure, although I do not think that she would have obtained it because the debate was late in starting.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was it in order, when Mr. Deputy Speaker was on his feet putting a procedural motion, for the hon. and learned Member for Thanet West (Mr. Rees-Davies) to interrupt him and to delay the business as he did?

Mr. Speaker

Yes, he was in order. That has been done many times. I regret to tell the House that I have done it myself in days past.

Mr. John Mendelson

Those hon. and right hon. Members who are frequently here at 4 o'clock on Friday know that it would be unsatisfactory to accept the position as outlined. This matter is in no way unique. Not infrequently at 4 o'clock when there is strong opposition to a certain piece of legislation a small group of hon. Members wish to do their damnedest at the last moment to prevent the Chair from putting the Question. I am not mincing my words, because the Bill we were debating on Friday is of great social significance and people are perturbed about what has happened to it. It is clear that as the occupant of the Chair was on his feet it was wrong for any hon. Member to try to interfere with what the Chair was doing at that moment. I make the strongest possible appeal to my right hon. Friend the Lord President to intercede and announce that the Government will take immediate action to ensure that the legislation can proceed.

Mr. Peter Bottomley


Mr. Sneaker

I shall call the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) next in a moment. I have outlined the correct procedure. If the House wishes to change the rules, the House may do so. It is within the power of the House. I only interpret the will of the House. Mr. Short.

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

Of course, we all accept what you say, Mr. Speaker, but there is a tremendous sense of grievance amongst many hon. Members at what occurred on Friday. If it will help, I will examine the matter, and discuss it with you and my hon. Friends to see whether we can find a way out of the difficulty.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Some hon. Members who were here on Friday and on the previous Friday recognise a certain inconsistency in the arguments put forward last Friday on the Domestic Violence Bill and those put forward on the previous Friday on the Representation of the People (Armed Forces) Bill. Is it possible for the Domestic Violence Bill to come up on the following Friday, as did the Representation of the People (Armed Forces) Bill, when it will receive a Second Reading unless there are cries of "Object"? I do not accept what the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) said. An hon. Member who supported a Bill which was opposed would be able to time the end of his speech to exactly 4 o'clock, and there might be a myriad hon. Members who wish to continue the debate but would not be able to because the hon. Member had sat down one second before 4 o'clock.

Mr. Speaker

I have answered that question. If the hon. Member has sat down on time and another hon. Member jumps up, either the Closure is moved or the occupant of the Chair says "Debate to be resumed. What day?"