HC Deb 17 June 1976 vol 913 cc759-64
Mr. Spearing

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a point about tomorrow's business.

The Divorce (Scotland) (No. 2) Bill and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill have been on the Order Paper all week for consideration tomorrow. Informal notices that circulate among hon. Members and are published in the Press, which prints the timetable of the House, also indicate that those two measures are to be considered tomorrow. But early today the Standing Committee dealing with the Licensing (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill reported. It will be open, under Standing Orders—and I understand that it is intended—to present it to the House for consideration and Third Reading tomorrow.

Such a Bill would take precedence over the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill and the Divorce (Scotland) (No. 2) Bill, which is a short measure, and we do not know how long it will take to consider. It is possible that the Licensing (Amendment) (No. 2) Bill could be discussed for three or four hours tomorrow and reach its final stages.

The Bill is important, because it provides powers for justices to allow licences up to midnight and also gives permission for children under 16 to enter certain bars until 8 p.m. The House can, there- fore, understand that it is a controversial measure covering the whole of England and Wales. I understand that there are different legislative arrangements for Wales, although no Welsh Member sat on the Committee.

No hon. Member will or could receive notice of the business if it is put down. That is an important matter of principle, particularly to those hon. Members from Welsh constituencies. As long as the matter is within the Standing Orders of the House it will mean that no hon. Member who wishes to attend the debate will have notice of it. It may not be possible for hon. Members to put down amendments, and the Official Report of the proceedings of the Committee from 10.30 a.m. yesterday to 4 a.m. today will not be available to us. The protection of the House, the protection of hon. Members, and the protection of the public is at risk. Unless there are Standing Orders which can stop that consideration being taken it is possible that it will be taken without any notice other than that which I am now giving to the House.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to tell the House whether Standing Orders will permit that, and if they do I ask the Leader of the House, through you, if he will refer this procedure to the Sessional Committee on Procedure. If such a procedure is possible, matters arise which are of great importance for the House, for our legislative procedures and for the British public.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I understand that we shall need your ruling and guidance today, and probably tomorrow, on the proper conduct of the House towards this legislation. The main reason for the Bill reaching Report at this late stage is the prolonged and successful filibuster conducted by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and a handful of other hon. Members, which finally petered out at 4 a.m. today. You, Mr. Speaker, should not allow procedural moves, made by hon. Members relating to delays, which they themselves caused, to deprive the Bill of its position in the queue which Standing Orders would otherwise give it.

Mr. Beith

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you bear in mind the position of hon. Members who were not members of the Committee on that Bill? I went to the Vote Office at 2 o'clock today in an attempt to obtain a copy of the amended Bill, but I was unable to get it. It was not available until 4 o'clock, and from a quick and cursory look at the Bill it is apparent that children will be allowed into the bars of public houses when they are unaccompanied by adults. That is only one of the many problems in the Bill.

Will you guide hon. Members who were not members of the Committee but who may wish to table amendments on specific points? Such amendments are bound to be starred and therefore not taken in the way that they would have been had we had more time to consider the Bill. In addition, hon. Members must put down amendments before the House rises today.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) that I shall consider whether the matter and the difficulties to which he referred should go to the Sessional Committee on Procedure.

No one would ask the Government to interfere with tomorrow's business. That would be improper, because it would interfere with the sequence of Private Members' Bills and the arrangements laid down by the House. There may still be time for the other Bills, to which many hon. Members attach great importance, to be taken, even if they are not taken tomorrow.

Mr. Hooley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Not only does the situation mean that hon. Members have had no notice that the matter will be discussed tomorrow; many important medical and social organisations have strong views about the grave social consequences of passing the Bill. Hon. Members can now hardly put down amendments and debate the matter to express the views that important bodies outside the House hold.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Newham, South, (Mr. Spearing) has raised an important point of order, and I am not without sympathy with it. It is unusual for hon. Members not to have adequate notice that a Bill is to be discussed, especially when it is controversial, but it is within the rules of the House. The House has not vested in me, any more than in the authorities, power to change the order of Private Business. The situation is within the rules of the House. I can only say that since the first opportunity for tabling amendments to the Bill will be tomorrow morning. I shall treat starred amendments as though they were not starred. I am sorry for the Department that will have to answer points on amendments that they will not be sure will be called. I shall look with sympathy at starred amendments.

Mr. Spearing

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for clarifying the matter. I want to follow up the remarks made by the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). I think that I heard him say that I was responsible for, or participated in, a filibuster.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke indicated assent.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Gentleman nods his head and confirms that that is what he said. For the record, I wish to state categorically that on the main group of amendments to Clause 1 the Closure was called and carried before I could speak. On the main group of amendments to Clause 2 the Closure was called and carried before I could speak. When a significant manuscript amendment was moved and I called a Division on it, I was not able to speak. In those circumstances, I hope that the hon. Member for Rushcliffe will withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I said that there was a handful of hon. Members who conducted the filibuster. I intended no disrespect to the hon. Member for Newham, South. He was one of the more silent participants in the filibuster, thanks to the ingenuity of the sponsors of the Bill, rewarded by the appointment of our unofficial Whip as a Government Whip at midnight, shortly before the conclusion of our proceedings.

Sir Bernard Braine

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that the whole House will be grateful to you for the sympathetic way in which you have accepted the submission of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). There is a further consideration, which applies to both sides of the argument, namely, that even now the printed copies of the Official Report of some of the later sittings are not available to members of the Committee, who at least sat through the discussion, or to other hon. Members. It is not merely inconvenient; it is a positive frustration of the business of Parliament in arriving at a cool and correct judgment on the Bill if the Official Report of the proceedings is not available by the time the Report stage is reached. Therefore, I hope that it will be possible to defer a debate tomorrow, for the convenience of the House and of the promoters of the Bill, who cannot even now know what amendments, either starred or unstarred, have been put down.

Mr. Cryer

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept your difficulty, in that you cannot alter the order of the business of the House. But Back Benchers look to you for some protection. There are many occasions on which the order of business provides some difficulties to Back Benchers, and we look to you for guidance. Therefore, although you cannot alter the order of business, can you state whether you would deprecate as sharp practice and something that you would in no way encourage any attempt to put the Bill on the Orders of the Day for tomorrow?

Although it is within the Standing Orders and is possible, there are times when Mr. Speaker deprecates a certain attitude.

I recall that I was once the subject of such deprecation. What I did was done very smoothly, and the then occupant of the Chair said that I did it very well. But in a case like this, when the Bill is controversial, when many hon. Members want to be involved in the debate, when inadequate information is provided, and when amendments are starred and cause you difficulties, Mr. Speaker, I believe that there are sufficient grounds for you to say that, whilst you recognise that the Standing Orders permit what is happening, you would frown on such a practice. That would then give hon. Members more time to prepare adequately to debate this important measure.

Mr. Mike Thomas

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker, is it not a familiar and regular practice of the House that the first notice of a motion appears on the Order Paper on the morning of the day on which it will be debated? Is it not also the case that the majority of hon. Members who have consistently supported the Bill are entitled to your protection against the collaboration of a small group of hon. Members who have sought to filibuster throughout the Committee stage, precisely in order to arrive at our present position and to be able to put to you the suggestions that are being made?

Mr. Speaker

Let us bring this matter to a close now.

First, it is an old custom in the House to accuse hon. Members of filibustering when we do not like what they are saying, and if they go on saying it at length. Hon. Members would be surprised to know how often I think it to myself as I sit here. But the hon. Members in question must have been in order, or the Chairman would have corrected them. Therefore, no charge of filibustering can be sustained.

Secondly, it is not sharp practice to use the rules of the House. That is also a very old custom. The group has been able to ventilate its feelings. I hope to be in the Chair in the morning to begin the debate.