HC Deb 02 December 1981 vol 14 cc266-8
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a topic of importance to hon. Members on both sides of the house, which justifies taking up two minutes. I refer to what happened last night. I do not blame the business managers because no one knows what Irish Members will do. Last night the business of the House collapsed unexpectedly early and there was a windfall bonus of parliamentary time—a scarce commodity. I therefore applied for a second Adjournment debate—not on a stone cold subject. I wanted to pursue the curious circumstances of the sale of public assets in the form of the British Leyland tractor line at Bathgate. Ministers had not given a proper reply on that issue in the debate on the Public Accounts Committee report, possibly for reasons of time.

All that I asked last night at one minute past eight o'clock was that one of the 11 Ministers in the Treasury, Department of Industry or Scottish Office should listen to what was said. However, the ruling of November 1979 was invoked by the patient and courteous Mr. Deputy Speaker who suggested that I was infringing the conventions—not the rules—of the House. It was implied that we should perhaps look again, as a House, at that convention.

I understand, Mr. Speaker, that you might consider it to be less than reasonable to embark on an Adjournment debate at three minutes to ten o'clock. On the other hand, when two hours or more of prime time are available and so many hon. Members want to raise problems, might not the inflexible eight o'clock bar be reconsidered? This is not a party issue. Indeed, a Conservative Chairman of Committees who heard what was said voted in the Lobby with those who opposed the motion for the Adjournment of the House. Would you care to rule on the matter, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was also present last night and I raised a point that requires clarification. On 13 January 1975, I rose to raise a different subject from the subject of the then Adjournment debate and the then Speaker, Mr. Speaker Lloyd, said: I must state the position as stated by my predecessor on 14 February 1964: `My predecessors and I have always deprecated the introduction of subjects in an Adjournment debate unless due notice has been given to the Minister concerned. The reason is really, that, apart from the House of Commons point of view, an ex parte statement without reply is not a very valuable parliamentary proceeding.' That is the position of the Chair."—[Official Report, 13 January 1975; Vol. 884, c. 161.] On that occasion I was trying to raise a subject different from that of the preceding Adjournment debate. Ministers were sought but had not been obtained. I therefore made a brief intervention. The then Speaker did not attempt to stop me in any way. He merely stated that point of view.

I understand that it is now the position that if an Adjournment debate is applied for at one minute past eight it is not possible to hold it. Does the ruling of 1964, reinforced by the then Speaker, Mr. Speaker Lloyd, still apply in that if an hon. Member rises and there is still time for the debate, he can proceed and the speech cannot be stopped by the Speaker, although he might deprecate the matter? Is that the position, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I well recall the incident when the hon. Gentleman totally disregarded my predecessor, who indicated that he would deprecate the hon. Gentleman rising to pursue the Adjournment debate. None the less, the hon. Gentleman decided to do so. Mr. Speaker indicated that he had no authority to stop him. He could merely express his opinion.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who raised the point of order, for giving me notice that he would do so, and for the courteous way in which he has made it. On the substance of the matter, I repeat what I said in my earlier ruling in November 1979 and to which no exception was taken by any hon. Member when it was made, or since. I said: it is unreasonable, after 8 pm to call on Ministers and their advisers to be ready to answer an Adjournment debate of which no notice has been given to the House. The House does not know the matters that are likely to be discussed. Only the individual concerned knows … A Minister is not expected to answer off the cuff. What he says is Government policy and is said on behalf of the Government."—[Official Report, 16 November 1979; Vol. 973, c. 1661.] I now add that the essence of the debate on the Adjournment is that it should deal with matters for which Ministers are responsible. If a Minister is not there to answer it, the whole purpose of the procedure is lost. That is why my predecessors and I have always deprecated such occurrences—not merely my immediate predecessor but, as "Erskine May" will indicate, predecessors long before.

I can understand the distress of the hon. Member for West Lothian that his application should have been made just too late to allow the customary procedure to be operated. Nevertheless, I must adhere to my previous opinion. My judgment is that a time limit should be drawn somewhere and that eight o'clock is a reasonable time at which to draw it. I propose, therefore, to continue to follow the existing practice, unless and until the House indicates to me that it wishes me to do otherwise.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)


Mr. Speaker

I hope that that can be accepted, especially by a member of the Chairmen's Panel, on the basis on which it is made.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

If members of the Chairmen's Panel are precluded, perhaps I, too, may be precluded. With great respect, Mr. Speaker, you have given an opinion and the House usually accepts your opinion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Always".] You said that you hoped that it would not be challenged. Do we not have a Procedure Committee? Would it not be possible for the matter to be referred to that Committee, so that the House may be given a chance to voice its opinion? Our only way of doing so now is to disagree with Mr. Speaker's opinion. If the matter were discussed in the Procedure Committee, I and other hon. Members may wish to put forward a point of view that would contradict your view, Mr. Speaker. If I did so now, I may be asked to leave the Chamber. I suggest that the matter be referred to the Procedure Committee—

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

We do not have one.

Mr. Lewis

Then we should ask the Leader of the House to set up such a Committee to deal with this matter.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for the courteous way in which he has made a fair point. When the Select Committee on Procedure is in existence, I have no doubt that this is one matter that could justly and fairly be referred to it.

Mr. John Wells

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Naturally, I bow to your ruling, as we all must. However, it is fair to point out that your ruling is somewhat at variance with the ruling of Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster.

Mr. Speaker

That may well be. I have given my ruling. The hon. Gentleman quotes a ruling that was indeed given, and to which mine is related. I suggest that he should take time to consider it. If the House wishes to change that, the House itself must decide. As guardian of the rights and responsibilities of the House, I have expressed my judgment.