HC Deb 22 November 1979 vol 974 cc574-81
Mr. William Hamilton

I wish to raise a point of order on a matter that has caused much dissatisfaction among several of my hon. Friends. I refer to what took place last night at the end of the debate on the Blunt case. Several Opposition Members wanted to vote against the Government on their motion in order to show their opposition to the way in which successive Governments have handled the issue. We went through the proper procedures in order to attain that end. Mr. Speaker, you will appreciate—and I hope that the House will appreciate—that exercising their vote is an important right of hon. Members. It hon. Members are deprived of that right, for any reason, they have a genuine grievance.

I have checked the tape recordings of what took place in the House last night between 9.59 pm and one or two minutes past 10 pm. Those tapes do not accord with the record in Hansard. There was a collection of voices. Voices were clearly heard on the tape saying "Aye" and "No". Despite that, we were denied the right—for whatever reason—to exercise our vote. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, will listen to those tapes and decide whether we have been shabbily treated. I do not know what steps can be taken to remedy that. Perhaps we can record a vote retrospectively. If we can record our dissent from the way things happened at 10 o'clock last night, I shall be obliged.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Before anyone else contributes, it would be as well if the House had the advantage of my views.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), with his customary courtesy, dropped me a note this morning. Mr. Deputy Speaker informed me last night that during the course of the Adjournment debate of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) the hon. Members for Fife, Central and for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) raised this question. I tell the House at once that I was deeply disturbed at the thought that any hon. Members felt that they had been denied the right to vote.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is the elementary right of all hon. Members to force through a Division—even if they are in a minority of two. I accept that, and I have always worked on that principle.

There is a mistake in Hansard. It reports what happened later as if it had happened on the closure. The House was crowded last night when the incident occurred and we all expected a Division. When I accepted the closure motion from the hon. Member for Fife, Central, I fully expected it to be followed by a Division. As a rule, an hon. Member moves the closure only in order to make the House come to a decision. The House is aware that there was some confusion the first time that I put the Question. Hon. Members were shouting and I had the impression that there were some hon. Members, on both sides of the House, who were not aware whether they should have shouted "Aye" or "No". I hope that the House will recall that. That is why I put the Question a second time—to help the House.

I accept that the whole House has a right to ask "Why was there not a Division?". However, I heard an overwhelming "No". The House will remember that I put the Question twice. I know that on the tapes there are voices saying "Aye". Those voices are not very loud. Normally, as the House knows, if hon. Members want a Division they shout loud enough for the whole House—not only me—to hear. I accept that it is my responsibility to listen for the faintest shout. However, the objection should have been raised immediately, because at that point the matter could have been put right. It would not have been the first time. If any hon. Members had said "We wish a Division", I would have replied "I shall put the Question again". The House will know that I have sometimes done that in order to ensure that everyone has a sense of fair play.

I remained in the Chair while the Chamber was emptying. No one protested that he had wanted a Division. I sat here for three minutes after the Division. [HON. MEMBERS: "There was no Division."] I apologise. I sat here for three minutes after I had put the Question. I asked the right hon. Member for Openshaw, who was speaking on the Adjournment, to wait until the House emptied and I told him that I would time the debate from the moment that he got up to speak. During that time, I had no indication from anyone that there was any dissatisfaction.

I can only say to the hon. Member for Fife, Central that I wish that there were some way to put this matter right. If anyone had wanted a Division, there is no reason on earth why I should deny that right.

Mr. Hamilton

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry, but that does not accord with the tapes, which make quite clear that some voices said "Aye" and others said "No". That is how the House indicates that it wishes to vote. That was the situation last night, but we were denied that chance. I very strongly protest that we were denied that fundamental right.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The time to pursue that issue was last night.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I simply wish to ask whether it is the first time that an hon. Member has called in aid a tape in order to determine an issue. The tape has never been recognised as being of use in the records of the House—only Hansard. This is an important precedent. I do not think that we have any right to take the tape into consideration until a Committee of the House has decided that that should be done.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. It may be the first time, but I am very anxious to ensure the right relationship with the House on this question. The House is aware that there is nothing at all in it for me in whether a Division is called. I am here to protect the rights of those who want a Division, and I try to do that. However, they certainly did not shout loudly and they certainly did not protest immediately. It was done about five minutes later, after the Adjournment debate had started. I see no advantage in pursuing the matter.

Mr. Grimond

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish in general to support the legitimate desire of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) for a vote. The point that I wish to emphasise is slightly different. There were many on both sides of the House who thought that certain questions were left unanswered at the end of last night's debate and who wished to express their qualified dissatisfaction with how the matter was being left.

It appears from column 520 of yesterday's Hansard that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) moved the closure. That is correct. But Hansard also records that the closure motion was negatived. In my recollection, that is incorrect: the closure was carried. The important point is that the motion moved by the Government was then put to the House and was negatived. That means that the Government were defeated last night, and that does not appear in the Hansard record. May we have a guarantee that that will be corrected?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman probably did not hear me say that Hansard is incorrect in that matter. I have explained that what appears in Hansard should have been related to the Question that was put later.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Because of the confusion last night and the fact that by the time we managed to get down the aisle you had disappeared from the Chair—[Interruption.] I do not see anything wrong in that. He cannot stop there for ever, but he had gone—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me tell the hon. Gentleman that there are limits to what I take from him. Let me warn him that I have taken a lot from him in this Parliament and he must be careful before he makes charges.

I have a few words to say to the hon. Gentleman. I was in the Chair for more than three minutes after the Question was put. Many hon. Members left, and I waited until the Chamber was clear before calling the right hon. Member for Openshaw. I shall not sit here and listen to the hon. Member for Bolsover make false statements.

Mr. Skinner

That matter is not on the BBC tapes, Mr. Speaker, but what is shown on the BBC tapes is that throughout that period there were three separate occasions when there were two distinct sets of voices. It matters little who was doing the shouting. The fact is that on the BBC tapes there were two distinct sets of voices.

In my view, especially because there was concurrence between the two Front Benches, who had no desire to vote, you, Mr. Speaker, had to pay special attention to the fact that there were hon. Members, maybe only a small minority, wishing to vote. Because it was only a few, and all the Front Benchers and Back Benchers were not shouting in unison, it was important to ensure that there were at least two voices shouting. It is pretty clear from the tapes that we have heard that that was the case.

On that basis, it is important that the Hansard record should be changed in order that that is corrected and it is necessary for us to put on record that in future, when some of us are not prepared to go along with the Front Benches and the cosy consensus, we should get a chance to register our votes in the Lobby.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has made his point of view clear, and so have I.

Mr. Fell

Further to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis), Mr. Speaker. Will you consider the whole question of where and when tapes, as distinct from Hansard, should be called in aid? What is the situation in regard to BBC tapes? This is not the BBC; it is the House of Commons.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important question. I understand that on one occasion the tapes were played several times in order to hear the interruption of an hon. Member. Obviously what Hansard hears and what the tapes can pick up from the microphones—which are in a different part of the Chamber—can be different. I think that the Select Committee on procedure could, with advantage, look at this question.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was one of those present at the end of the debate and through a good deal of it. I was one of those who were repelled at the massive exercise of brushing dirt under the carpet that went on in the House yesterday. I wished to record my vote against it. I support entirely the submission of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). There were only a few of us, but we made an audible sign of our wish to vote, and we were denied it.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Does not the whole of this exchange exhibit the wisdom of the rule of the House, from time out of mind, that directs Mr. Speaker not to rule on a point of order unless it is raised on the first possible occasion?

If this point of order had been raised on the first possible occasion, Mr. Speaker would have been in the Chair, hon. Members who had heard the actual exchanges would have been present, and there would have been no arguments about the tapes and Hansard. Is that not the traditional wisdom of the House, which prevents Mr. Speaker from having to rule on a situation that has become indeterminate because of the fallibility of the memories of both Mr. Speaker and the whole House caused by lapse of time?

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman.

Several Hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call Mr. George Cunningham. If the hon. Member for Fife, Central wishes to pursue the matter after that, I shall allow him to do so. We will pursue the matter a little longer. I am being tolerant with the House, because the Chair itself was involved. I do not want anyone to have any lingering sense that there was prejudice on the part of the Chair against any minority. It is because I have so deeply in me the feeling that that must be avoided that I am allowing the points of order to be pursued.

Mr. George Cunningham

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. For the further clarification of this issue, would you allow me to say that I have on many many occasions called for a Division when both Front Benches did not want one and when I was the only Member calling for a Division? I never had the least difficulty in making my voice heard sufficiently strongly and repeatedly so that there was no doubt, and the Chair accorded a Division. But if the trumpet sounds an uncertain sound, the Chair has a genuine difficulty which we should understand.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make clear that the reason why there were "No" voices from the Government Front Bench was to enable the important debate on the infirm being raised by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Openshaw (Mr. Morris) to take place? If the "No" voices had not been raised, that debate would have been lost.

With regard to the principal point that has been raised, there undoubtedly was confusion in the House last night because of the juxtaposition of the two Questions. Of course it is to be regretted if any hon. Member was unable to exercise his right to vote, but I suggest that your statement, Mr. Speaker, has put the whole issue in context and that we would be wise to leave it where it is.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that the House will now be prepared to leave the matter there. I call Mr. Hamilton to conclude.

Mr. William Hamilton

I just want to put on record, Mr. Speaker, the fact that in what I said there is no reflection on your behaviour, but I hope that there is none on mine, either. When I raise my voice nobody can be under any misunderstanding that it is me. Let nobody pretend, least of all the Leader of the House, that the voices were not heard. They were, and I repeat that they can be heard very clearly on the tape. The tape clearly indicates that there were some Members of this House who wanted a vote in this House.

I hope, Mr. Speaker, that you will take this opportunity of putting on record that wherever the confusion may have been, it was not with those of us who wanted the vote. It went out on some programme last night that owing to confusion among those who wanted the vote, they did not get a vote. There was no confusion among us. We were quite clear what we wanted, and we were denied it.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am biting my tongue and I hope that hon. Members will bite theirs, because I believe that we can gain no advantage in pursuing this matter further. Ballot for notices of motions for Monday 10 December.

Mr. Canavan

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I am not taking any more points of order on that matter. The hon. Member will resume his seat.