HC Deb 17 January 1979 vol 960 cc1741-50

Order for Committee read.

4.51 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

I should tell the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) that I cannot call the instruction that he has tabled on the Order Paper. It is out of order on two counts. First, it seeks to embody in the Bill provisions that are in no way cognate to its existing provisions and scope. Secondly, it is inconsistent with the decision of the House on the Second Reading, when an amendment which would have had the effect of rejecting the Bill because its scope excluded a discussion of proportional representation was negatived by 27 votes to 355.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful to you for your advice on my instruction. If I appear to be arguing with you, it is not that I disagree with your ruling, because I am bound by that, as is the House as a whole. I simply seek further elucidation.

May I refer, on the first point about the instruction being cognate, to page 509 of "Erskine May" which deals with: Admissible Instructions.—(1) Extension of objects. This paragraph reads: An instruction is necessary to authorise the introduction of amendments into a bill, which extend its provisions to objects not strictly covered by the subject matter of the bill as disclosed on the second reading, provided that these objects are cognate to its general purposes. "Erskine May" goes on to give a number of specific examples, one of which is particularly relevant. On page 510 there is mention of the Restoration of Order in Ireland (Indemnity) Bill, the Public Bodies (Admission of the Press to Meetings) Bill and a number of others. In the middle of those examples is the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill 1928. "Erskine May" says that on that Bill, to assimilate the franchises for men and women in respect of parliamentary and local government elections and for purposes consequential thereon, an instruction was put down, empowering the committee to insert provisions dealing with the maximum scale of election expenses. The Speaker stated that it was doubtful whether the committee would be able to entertain this question without an instruction, and that he considered this question cognate to the bill. The instruction was accordingly moved and agreed to. What I would submit to you, Mr. Speaker, is that the question of the method of election is as cognate to this Bill as was the question of election expenses in the case of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Bill.

The second point that you have raised, Mr. Speaker, places the House in a considerable dilemma. You will recall that when the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud) moved his amendment he moved it as follows: That this House, whilst acknowledging that the number of Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland ought to be increased, declines to give a Second Reading to the Bill because its narrow scope fails to provide an opportunity for this House to determine whether or not those Members should be elected according to the principle of proportional representation."—[Official Report, 28th November 1978; Vol. 959, c. 256–7] The wording of that amendment has placed hon. Members in a difficult situation. If they voted for the amendment they could be welcoming, or acknowledging, the argument that the number of Members of Parliament representing Northern Ireland ought to be increased. They may have had doubts about voting for it because of the provision concerning proportional representation. According to the amendment, an increase in seats would require proportional representation. If hon. Members had wanted proportional representation but not an increase in Members they would have had to vote against the amendment.

Hon. Members were placed in a difficult position over the Government's original motion. If there had been a fine balance on this first point, concerning the cognate provision, those of us who wanted to discuss proportional representation, or STV, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) would call it, would have been stymied by the words of the Liberal amendment. They represented a Morton's fork. We should either have had to welcome the increase in seats and debate proportional representation or we should have had to say that we did not welcome the increase and so did not welcome proportional representation.

We are in a difficulty. It is your proper prerogative, Mr. Speaker, to decide what amendments to call. There were two amendments on Second Reading, one from the hon. Member for Isle of Ely and one in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). In your wisdom, you chose the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Isle of Ely. The result has been that we are prevented from discussing something which many of us regard as being of the utmost importance in terms of the way in which Northern Ireland is represented in this House.

Proportional representation for Northern Ireland Members would bring the form of election to this House from the Northern Ireland constituencies into line with the system used there in local government elections, Assembly elections and European Parliament elections. I am sorry to have taken up so much time on this point, but I should be grateful if you could advise us as to how final your decision is.

What is the position of Back Benchers when we have a Bill that has been finely drawn by the Government and on which there is collusion between the two Front Benches, with a view to pushing it through all its stages in one day? This is preventing proper consideration of the important constitutional issues that are involved.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am one of the hon. Members to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) referred. I wished to vote on the basis of supporting proportional representation. I wished to support PR then, as I have supported that principle in the House on previous occasions. However, I was prevented from so doing because of the wording of the amendment, which implied acceptance of increased representation in seats in Northern Ireland. For that reason, although I am recorded as voting in a certain way, I am in a dilemma, and my dilemma remains.

5.0 p.m.

I believe that this House has never debated or decided upon PR per se. It has been linked with devolution and the Common Market, and in this instance with Northern Ireland. I believe that it is proper for us to debate the electoral system under which these new seats would be provided.

Mr. Speaker

I have listened with great care to both hon. Members who have contributed to this short discussion. I have spent a good deal of time considering this matter. First, I wish to inform the House that the Bill that is now before us concerns the numbers of seats, not the method of election. Secondly, there is no doubt that the House disposed of an amendment, with all its difficulties for hon. Members, in most decisive terms when the matter was discussed. There fore, I am afraid that I am unable to call the instruction.

Considered in Committee.

[Mr. OSCAR MURTON in the Chair]

The Chairman

May I deal with the first group of amendments—

Mr. McNamara

On a point of order, Mr. Murton. I regret having to interrupt you before we have properly begun our proceedings on the Bill, but I wish to draw your attention to the provisional list of selected amendments.

Following Mr. Speaker's ruling on the instruction, are you open to argument on the question whether we shall be able to discuss amendment No. 1 and the subsequent amendments in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) and in my name, or amendment No. 16 which appears in the name of the hon. Member for Isle of Ely (Mr. Freud), who unfortunately is not present in the Committee?

The Chairman

Perhaps I should make one general point to the Committee. It is important that I should give a general ruling at this stage.

I wish to remind the Committee that this Bill is a very narrow one. It has one purpose and one purpose only, namely, to increase the number of constituencies in Northern Ireland. All its provisions relate either to that or to the necessary consequential amendment of existing law that such a change involves. Anything else is outside the scope of the Bill and, with four exceptions, all the amendments and new clauses that do not appear on the selection list relate to different purposes and are out of order on that ground. The four exceptions are amendments Nos. 19 to 22, which, in the exercise of my usual discretion, I have not selected.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) asked about amendments Nos. 1, 5, 12, 23 and. I think, new clause 1.

Mr. McNamara

I did not mention new clause 1. I wished to refer to amendment No. 1.

The Chairman

New clause 1 deals substantially with the same point. Dealing with amendment No. 1, I should inform the hon. Gentleman that that amendment. to which others are consequential, would introduce a form of proportional representation that would go well beyond a simple increase in the number of constituencies with which this Bill is concerned.

Mr. McNamara

I wish to thank you for your remarks, Mr. Murton. However, I am perplexed, on the subject of constituencies and Members, as to which comes first, the chicken or the egg. Since you have informed the Committee that you are concerned with constituencies, I of course accept what you say. I also understand that you are exercising your discretion in this matter. However, 1 should like to draw your attention to the amendment that appears in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose)—amendment No. 18—which ties in with new clause 3. The effect of the new clause and amendment No. 18 is aimed not at the substance of the Bill but at the time, place and circumstances under which the Bill will come into operation.

I submit that there are precedents showing how and when legislation on constitutional topics and the franchise should come into operation. I refer you, Mr. Murton, to section 2 of that excellent piece of legislation, the Northern Ireland Constitution Act 1973. In regard to devolution, that Act said: If it appears to the Secretary of State—(a) that the Northern Ireland Assembly (in this Act referred to as 'the Assembly') has made satisfactory provision by its standing orders for the purposes mentioned in section 25(2) to (5) below; and (b) that a Northern Ireland Executive can be tormed which, having regard to the support it commands in the Assembly and to the electorate on which that support is based, is likely to be widely accepted throughout the community, and that having regard to those matters there is a reasonable basis for the establishment in Northern Ireland of government by consent, he shall lay before Parliament the draft of an Order in Council appointing a day for the commencement of Part II of this Act. That Act was rushed through the House in about four hours during one afternoon in 1971 following an appeal in the Irish Court of Criminal Appeal. A manuscript amendment was accepted, which was complementary to my suggestion. It was proposed that the Act should come into operation contingent upon certain happenings. That amendment was put forward by the then Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), and included a provision to the effect that the Act would cease after six months. The Chair was prepared to accept that amendment. I remember the occasion distinctly because only seven hon. Members voted for it. However, it was accepted by the Chair.

The amendments to which I have referred do not restrict the principles contained within the Bill. They seek to define the places and the times when the measure may come into operation. There are adequate examples of similar sections in other legislation. A provisional list has been drawn up by the Chair. I urge you, Mr. Murton, with respect, to consider carefully whether either amendment No. 18 or new clause 3 could be accepted.

The Chairman

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull. Central (Mr. McNamara) for explaining his argument so clearly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that I took considerable care when making my selection. I took that care because there are certain difficulties.

The main difficulty from the hon. Gentleman's point of view is that the Bill is extremely narrow. The two Acts to which he has referred and prayed in aid in the hope that I might reconsider my decision were much wider in scope. Amendment No. 18 and new Clause No. 3 both have the effect of seeking to delay the operation of the Bill until the occurrence of hypothetical events that are in no way concerned with a number of the existing constituencies in Northern Ireland. I have listened with great sympathy to the hon. Gentleman's arguments but I cannot accede to his request.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

The hon. Member for Kingstonupon-Hull, Central (Mr. McNamara) was good enough to refer to new clause 5, which was tabled in my name and which relates to Northern Ireland peers. The hon. Gentleman showed great interest in the matter on Second Reading, when I had something to say, as did he. I invite the attention of hon. Members to the effect of the new clause. It is an important point, although I fully accept that it is extraneous to a House of Commons Bill. I fully accept your decision, Mr. Murton, not to select the new clause. I should have been astonished if you had selected it.

The Chairman

I am a grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) for the comfort and support that he has given the Chair. The hon. Gentleman is correct. The membership of another place is entirely outside the scope of this measure.

Mr. McNamara

You referred, Mr. Murton, to hypothetical circumstances. Despite the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on Second Reading about what is Government policy, and despite what the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) stated was the policy of the official Opposition, the question whether there will be devolved government in Northern Ireland may be hypothetical if the measure before us is enacted as it stands. You will recall that that was the burden of the arguments of some of my hon. Friends.

If one is to argue that something is out of order because it is based upon a hypothetical happening, every piece of legislation that we pass may well be in that category, no matter how widely or narrowly drawn. For example, a progressive system of income tax based upon increasing allowances for the number of children presupposes that two people will come together—a hypothetical possibility—and have children. That approach forgets about the revolution of the pill or the fall in the size of families. I understand that the average family per married couple is 1.9 children.

5.15 p.m.

I do not believe, Mr. Murton, that you are scraping the barrel in trying to find an objection to my proportion. I believe that a proper attitude has been taken to the problem. As is our custom, we have before us a provisional list. With respect, Mr. Murton, I suggest that you reconsider the nature of the rules. To argue on the basis of what might or might not be a hypothetical happening is inconsistent with decisions that have been taken on amendments to other Bills. The example that I have given was based on a widely drawn Bill, but the Armed Forces Bill 1976 was narrowly drawn. It was so narrowly drawn that it was written in longhand. We never received a proper copy of the Bill, because it was rushed through so quickly.

Even if we are concerned with a hypothetical circumstance, surely we may still discuss the matter and still argue the case for the operation of the Bill to come into force when that hypothetical event takes place. With great respect, I do not think that it is for the Chair to say that the aims and objectives of Her Majesty's Government's policies are hypothetical, any more than I think it right to say the same about the policies of the official Opposition. If your decision, Mr. Murton, is based on the word "hypothetical", I suggest, with respect, that we be given a further opportunity to discuss the matter.

The Chairman

I am prepared to drop the word "hypothetical" if that will be in any way of help to the hon. Gentleman. That word does not affect my ruling. The amendment and the new clause have the effect of seeking to delay the operation of a measure that is before us until the occurrence of events that are in no way concerned with the number of the existing constituencies in Northern Ireland. "Hypothetical" might be superfluous. I must stand by what I have said. I am afraid that we cannot incorporate in this discussion that which the hon. Gentleman seeks, and I must stand by the ruling that I have given.

Mr. A. W. Stallard (St. Pancras, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Murton. In your opening remarks you rightly described the Bill as a narrowly drawn measure. It is a tightly drawn but exceedingly important Bill. We are about to discuss an important constitutional issue. It is obvious that there is not a great deal of interest in it in the House, but there is outside, including both parts of the island of Ireland.

Are we not entitled at least to the presence of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or the Leader of the House, or both, on such an important constitutional issue? If you agree, Mr. Murton, that our discussion merits their presence, bearing in mind that the outcome of the Bill may determine the Government's thinking over at least the next five years, and perhaps beyond that, and may give rise to other similar Bills, or Bills that will have an effect similar to the one before us, do you not agree that we are entitled to the courtesy of the presence of the Secretary of State while we discuss such an important matter?

The Chairman

I note the observations made by the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard), but I point out that this is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. McNamara

On a point of order, Mr. Murton. You said that it was not a matter for the Chair. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. Stallard) referred to an interesting point. When this matter was discussed as a clause moved by the then hon. Member for Down, South, Captain Orr, on the Constitution Bill, there voted against this very proposal the Leader of the House, the Home Secretary, and my right hon. Friend who is now the Minister of State. I am sure that he will perform very well for his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, but he is still not the Secretary of State. Almost the only person from the Government who can come in virgin and unsullied in his attitude to the proposals is the Secretary of State.

It seems to me, therefore, that rather than expecting, as my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North has done, that the Home Secretary, the Leader of the House and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should stand on their heads—or do whatever sort of contortion Members do when they get into the Government and change their policies overnight for very facile and very dangerous reasons—the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should be here in his virgin form, young, and unsullied by what has gone on in the past, not having voted, and able to give his opinion on it.

The Chairman

None of that is a matter for the Chair.

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