HC Deb 02 February 1978 vol 943 cc719-22
Mr. Spearing

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order concerns the Instruction for the next-but-one item of business. Briefly, I drew the attention of the House to this matter on Thursday last, 26th January, referred to at column 1643 of the Official Report. As I understand it, Instructions to a Committee of the whole House are normally debatable under Standing Order No. 45, although the timetable motion carried last Thursday requires this Instruction to be decided forthwith.

The current "Erskine May" points out, on page 455, that time table motions have usually either excluded the possibility of Instructions altogether, or, if tabled and selected, provide for a short debate prior to decision. Thus, it seems that prohibition of debate today marks a new departure in procedure for which so far no reason has been given. I submit, however, that the motion could have even more unusual and novel effects. If passed it would make it possible for the Committee to consider a new clause tabled by the Government which otherwise would be out of order. This is shown by the tabling of New Clause 8, with consequential Amendment No. 191, which widens the scope of the Bill by adding words to its Long Title. I understand that it is unusual for the Government to table such an amendment, but I wish to draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, to the likely effect of so doing in conjunction with the timetable motion that has specific reference and time allocation to the new clause.

On this occasion it may be that both the new clause and the enlargement of scope will not provoke disapproval, since the Government may claim that they are tabling New Clause 8 to give effect to undertakings already given. The undertaking was made as long ago as 1st December last year, some eight weeks ago, but only now can we debate this in the context of a guillotine.

You may be aware, Mr. Speaker, that earlier in the proceedings of the Committee the Chair and the Committee have been placed in difficulties, since the restricted terms of the Long Title and the Bill as drafted have ruled out of order a number of amendments that had been tabled but could not be debated. Now the Government not only wish to widen the scope of the Bill; they have provided a specific slot in the timetable for their new clause to be debated, which, had it been tabled earlier by a Back Bencher or, indeed, by Her Majesty's Opposition, would have been ruled out of order. Thus, earlier relevant debate would have been prohibited on what later may become within the scope of the Bill.

In this instance it may be that the change in scope of the Bill, whilst significant, is not wide, but that is not the central point. Procedurally, it now appears that a Government can, half-way through a Bill, when some of its most important clauses have been disposed of, produce an undebatable Instruction which permits the enlargement of the scope of the Bill, and provide themselves with an exclusive slot for their new amendment, while effectively preventing anybody else making use of the enlarged scope. If that is indeed the case, I submit that it is a procedural innovation of some significance, the implications of which will be readily apparent.

I therefore hope that it will be possible for you to confirm or correct the procedural position that I have described. If, indeed, this mechanism is technically in order, I submit that its use to change the scope of a controversial constitutional Bill, guillotined in equally controversial circumstances, is a matter of which the House should take note, since some may believe that it should not be a precedent and should never happen again. I apologise for the length of this point of order, but I believe that a ruling from the Chair is required by the circumstances now before the House.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Instruction that appears on the Order Paper prima facie is contrary to item 4 of the timetable resolution which currently governs the proceedings on which we are about to enter. Paragraph 4 says that No Motion shall be made to change the order in which the Bill is to be considered in Committee or on Consideration. The House passed that, so surely, under the normal rule that once the House has taken a decision it cannot countermand that decision in the same relevant time period, the Chair is stopped from putting this Instruction to the House by the resolution of the House already passed, which says that no such provision shall be taken. I read it again: No Motion shall be made to change the order in which the Bill is to be considered in Committee or on Consideration. I realise that it is the intention formally to take this Instruction before entering on to the other business under the timetable resolution, but it appears on the Order Paper not as an item to be taken before the European Assembly Elections Bill but to be taken encompassed within that timetable. That being the case, I repeat my contention that the resolution already passed by the House to stop the Chair from putting this Instruction to the House.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) for giving me notice of the point of order that he wished to raise. I do not quarrel at all with what he said on the matter of procedure. He may well be correct in his contention that this is the first time that this provision has appeared in an allocation of time order, but my answer to both hon. Members is that, whether this is so or not, the fact remains that this order, with all its provisions, was agreed to by the House on 26th January. No rule of order is infringed thereby.

If it were necessary, I could read it to the House, but the House discussed it during the debate on the timetable motion, and it is my duty to carry out the order that the House has made.

Mr. Jay

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. In order to avoid any impression that the Government are not merely altering the rules in the middle of the game in a way that applies to one side only, surely there is a further point that arises on the Notice Paper listing the amendments to the Bill.

The Foreign Secretary's new clause appears as New Clause 8, on page 1292 of the list of amendments, but the amendment to the Long Title of the Bill, No. 191, appears later, on page 1338. As matters now stand, we shall discuss, apparently, the amendment to the Long Title, which is to put the new clause in order, after we discuss the new clause. I ask for your guidance on the question how it can be in order to discuss New Clause 8 before we have considered the amendment to the Long Title which puts this discussion in order.

Mr. Speaker

What I am concerned with is the Instruction. What happens in Committee is not my concern at the moment. I am concerned with the Instruction, and I have ruled on it.

  1. STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS, &c. 29 words