HC Deb 11 November 1976 vol 919 cc659-63
Mr. Emery

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

I spoke to you last night and you advised me that because of the guillotine it would be for the convenience of the House if I raised this point of order now. I have given you notice of the point which is before you.

Last evening it was necessary on three occasions for you, Mr. Speaker, from the Chair to give a casting vote. This is the first time since 24th July 1862 that it has been necessary for a casting vote to be given on agreeing or disagreeing with a Lords amendment. At that time Speaker Denison, as reported in column 785 of Volume 168 of Parliamentary Debates, made a specific ruling.

That is the only occasion on which such a decision had to be made by the Chair. It might interest the House to learn that among other proceedings on that day was the Second Reading of the Union Relief Aid Bill.

In dealing with the casting vote given by Mr. Speaker, "Erskine May" is quite clear. On page 403 it states: If the numbers in a division are equal, the Speaker, who otherwise does not vote, must give the casting vote. In the performance of this duty, he is at liberty to vote like any other Member, according to his conscience, without assigning a reason; but, in order to avoid the least imputation upon his impartiality, it is usual for him, when practicable, to vote in such a manner as not to make the decision of the House final". That, Mr. Speaker, is what you did last night. If you had voted with the Opposition the decision would have been final. "Erskine May" continues: and to explain his reasons, which are entered in the Journal. For greater accuracy I have obtained from the Library—because Hansard has not yet been published—the exact quotation recorded of the reason that you gave. It says: Mr. Speaker: As the House knows, my vote is guided by precedent, and I vote with the Ayes. As I have pointed out, Mr. Speaker, the only precedent goes back 124 years. It is interesting to note that the records at that time are, of course, only a summary of the debate, together with a summary of the reasons. It was not until 1909 that Hansard became a precise record of our proceedings. Therefore, it seems that it is of importance that we should be able to clarify the position for the record, and it would be helpful if you, Mr. Speaker, were willing to assist the House in this matter.

"Erskine May" states that there are two important facts which the Chair must consider in this matter. One I have already dealt with, but the two principles, again on page 403, are the principles on which the Speaker gives a casting vote: The occasions on which a Speaker is required to give a casting vote must always be rare, and in seeking to deduce principles upon which such a vote is given, the precedents of the last two centuries are relevant … the decisions of successive Speakers have not invariably been consistent"— but the principles emerge, and they are two. The second— that, where no further discussion is possible, decisions should not be taken except by a majority"— does not arise in this case, but the first, and I believe the most important, is that the Speaker should always vote for further discussion, where this is possible". My points of order are two—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is raising a not unimportant issue. The question of the vote of the Chair is of great significance to the House, and this is a question that may well be referred to in future days.

Mr. Emery

Therefore, the two questions that I should like to ask are, first, whether you would assist the House, Mr. Speaker, by explaining further than just as a matter of precedence the reason for your vote; and, secondly, as a matter of order, whether the first principle as enunciated in "Erskine May"— that the Speaker should always vote for further discussion, where this is possible was one of the reasons in your mind before you came to your decision.

Mr. Skinner rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have a considered reply to give to the House and perhaps the hon. Gentleman would be kind enough to let me give it.

The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) was good enough to tell me last night that he intended to raise this question.

I must first make it plain to the House that the discretion of the occupant of the Chair in casting his vote is absolute. In the first edition of "Parliamentary Practice" published in 1844, Sir Thomas Erskine May wrote, and I think the hon. Gentleman quoted: In the performance of this duty he is at liberty to vote like any other Member according to his conscience, without assigning a reason". This sentence has remained word for word unchanged in each of the 18 succeeding editions of "Parliamentary Practice".

It follows therefore that the discretion of the Speaker or Deputy Speaker cannot be challenged in the House on a point of order; and it is only as a courtesy to the hon. Member and to the House that I am giving a brief explanation of the position as I see it, because I thought it was wise that this statement should be made.

Sir Thomas Erskine May also refers in the first edition to a convention that in order to avoid the least imputation against his impartiality it is usual, when practicable, for the Speaker to vote in such a manner as not to make the decision of the House final and to explain the reasons, which are entered in the Journal. This was the point that the hon. Gentleman made. This phrase has also remained unchanged in later editions and is always an important factor in the mind of the occupant of the Chair, as it was last night.

Some principles may be deduced from the reasons which have been given by my predecessors, and these are explained in the pages following page 403 of the current edition of "Parliamentary Practice". Casting votes have, however, in the past been extremely rare and it is not always easy to deduce from these principles—such as they are—what I might call the collective wisdom of my predecessors over the last century and a half. In some cases the principles may conflict with each other; on other occasions there may simply be no principle which is applicable.

Where there is no precedent, the House must accept that in such cases any Speaker or one of his deputies will observe absolute fairness as between both sides of the House; and I do not think that the House can do other than put their trust in the occupant of the Chair to do this.

Before I leave this point, may I refer in passing to the practice of the Press and the broadcasting media of referring, no doubt colloquially, to the Chair having given its vote "for the Government" or "against the Government." This may be the practical effect of the casting vote, but it would be wrong for it to be assumed either inside or outside this House that the Chair gives any consideration at all, in casting its vote, to the effect it will have on the policies of either the Government or the Opposition.

Finally, may I say that last night the casting vote concerned a decision of the House on a Lords amendment. This is one of the few clear cases where there is an absolutely direct precedent, and in this House the fact that a precedent goes back a long way has never been held to invalidate it.

As the hon. Member for Honiton has reminded us, on 24th July 1862—before any of us was present—when the numbers were equal on a question for disagreeing to a Lords amendment, Mr. Speaker Denison said that he would support the Bill as passed by the House of Commons. In the light of such a clear ruling by one of my predecessors, no occupant of the Chair, to my mind, could possibly depart from it.

In view of what I have said, the House will understand that I can allow no further points of order on this matter.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am on my feet. I am not taking any points of order on the question of the vote of the Chair.

Mr. Skinner

Not on this specific point.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let the House understand that I am not taking any further points of order on the question of the voting of the Chair.

Mr. Skinner

On the generality of questioning your ruling, Mr. Speaker, even though it is accepted, as you have demonstrated, that your ruling is absolute, I wish to inquire whether it is in order for all hon. Members to question the ruling, as has been demonstrated by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) today.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman raises a wider point, and I accept that he is not challenging in any way what I have said on the voting last night. Of course, hon. Members may from time to time ask questions. What is not in order is to criticise any ruling of the Chair, except by way of putting a motion on the Order Paper.