HC Deb 19 April 1983 vol 41 cc164-71 3.34 pm
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarvon)

I beg to move, That Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant for the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the borough constituency of Cardiff, North-West in the room of Michael Hilary Arthur Roberts Esquire, deceased. I move the writ for the Cardiff, North-West by-election for three clear reasons. First, there is a vacancy there following the sad death of Michael Roberts on 10 February. The people of that constituency need to be represented in Parliament when important legislation such as the Finance Bill, the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill and the Data Protection Bill are going through the House.

Secondly, with escalating unemployment, controversy about a nuclear bomb factory at Llanishen in the constituency and a threat to the Health Service, which is a major employer in Cardiff, North-West, there are numerous issues in the constituency that need to be debated as a matter of urgency. A by-election gives an opportunity to do so in such a way that the eyes of the media and the attention of Ministers is drawn to the debate.

Thirdly, all four parties have been geared up for such an election since March. The candidates have long been chosen and all have started on some aspects of their campaigns. The press widely reported 21 April as the likely date for the by-election. Then 5 May became such a hot favourite that last Monday Conservative Central Office deemed it appropriate to take the unusual step of informing the Press Gallery that there would not be a by-election on that date.

Deliberately or accidentally, the electorate and the parties have been led a merry dance by the Government's shilly-shallying on the election. It is time for the uncertainty to be put to an end. I am therefore moving that Mr. Speaker do issue his warrant for a writ, which means that there would be a by-election, in accordance with the statutory timetable, no later than Thursday 19 May.

No doubt I will be accused of breaking the convention that the party holding the seat moves the writ, but it is a convention and not an immutable rule. The Speaker's Conference of 1973 decided not to make it a rule. As such, the convention is for the guidance of wise men and the slavish obedience of fools. It was to give the Conservative Government an opportunity to move the writ if they saw fit that we held back last week after giving notice of our intention. They have not done so.

There are precedents for our action. Ten years ago the writ for the Tory-held Berwick-upon-Tweed seat was moved from the Back Benches. That writ was blocked by the then Tory Government, but the voters, when in due course the election took place, took revenge on the Government and elected a Liberal to the House. In 1962, 20 years ago, when the Tory Government delayed the Orpington by-election, the voters similarly took revenge. The Government have salutary precedents to warn them of the harvest that they reap when they hold back by-elections.

The timing of by-elections has been a controversial subject down the years. In 1973, when the Speaker's Conference considered the matter, it recommended that a by-election should be moved within three months of a vacancy arising. The conference further recommended that if that timescale meant that the by-election might clash with local elections—as would have happened on 5 May in Cardiff— the by-election should, if practical, be held earlier. It was practical to hold the by-election earlier in Cardiff, but the Government chose not to do so. If it was impractical to hold the by-election earlier, the Speaker's Conference suggested that the period should be lengthened by the shortest possible additional time. In this case, the shortest period means that the by-election would be held on Thursday 19 May. That is what we are seeking in moving the motion.

It is true that in the 1973 Conference a recommendation was made that a relaxation of the three-month rule should be made in the fifth year of a Parliament to avoid the by-election and general election running into each other, but, as the Prime Minister repeatedly reminds us, we are not in the fifth year of this Parliament.

However the possibility of such a general election, rumours about which were dampened with petrol this weekend by Government spokesmen, brings us to the heart of the matter. The Government do not want to hold this by-election at all if there is to be a June general election in case vibrations from Cardiff rock the Tory election gunboat off its course. If there is to be a June general election, let the Government come clean now. Six or seven weeks notice have been given for several general elections since the war. We are now within seven weeks of 9 June. The Government should tell the House what their intention is. If the writ for this by-election is delayed until 9 or 10 May, as some people have suggested, the by-election may well not occur at all but be lost in a general election.

The Government fear a bad result in Cardiff, but they fear even more the issues that will be raised in such a by-election campaign. They do not want to debate unemployment, but they know that in Wales, which has suffered devastating cuts in steel and other industries, they cannot escape facing the music on the jobless issue. Nor do the Government want to discuss their plans for privatising health care after the general election, but the Cardiff, North-West constituency contains the huge Heath hospital, so the Government cannot avoid that issue in a by-election.

Dr. Dafydd Huws, Plaid Cymru's candidate, has already made the Falklands an election issue. The last thing that the Government want is the Falklands factor rebounding on them in such a by-election as electors seriously start to question, for the first time, the wisdom and folly of last year's south Atlantic war in which so many service men, especially from Wales, died. That is the last thing that the Government want to discuss in the run-up to a general election.

Only yesterday, there was a significant demonstration outside the royal ordnance factory at Llanishen, which is in the heart of the Cardiff, North-West constituency. That factory hold 50 tonnes of uranium ready for the nuclear weapons which are so beloved by the Government. Nine people were arrested. As we have seen at Greenham common and elsewhere, the last thing that the Government want is an open debate on nuclear weapons policy. That is what they will have to do if they face the electorate in Cardiff, North-West in a by-election.

The Government are right—they dare not face those issues in a by-election at this critical point in the Government's stage managing of a general election year. They dare not face the people on those issues. In a general election, they will subsume those issues into a gladiatorial presidential fight which they hope to win by default. Therefore, the people of Cardiff are to be deprived of a by-election and the opportunity to focus on the issues that worry them.

In a few minutes, a Government spokesman will., no doubt, try to move, through a doubtful constitutional device, a way in which to evade a by-election in Cardiff, North-West or, at least, to avoid one if a general election is to be held in June. The Government will try to stretch the by-election timetable to its limit in the hope that the by-election like the issues, can be subsumed in a general election. They are cowering like petrified sheep in the most distant corner of a far field.

The Government's touchiness about the by-election is a touchstone of their vulnerability in a general election when it eventually takes place. They will show today how prepared they are to face up to the issues as they are perceived in Cardiff and Wales.

The Cardiff, North-West by-election is where the Government will begin to meet their Waterloo. I beg to move that a warrant for the writ be issued without further prevarication or delay.

3.43 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)

I fear that I have a dessicated contribution to make to this debate after the high drama of the speech of the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). As he elaborated his arguments, I began to feel some anxiety for the Plaid Cymru candidate in Cardiff, North-West, who seems to have started on his expenses well in advance of any likely election.

I hope that it will be helpful if I make clear the Government's position on the matter which the hon. Gentleman raised in his motion. As the House knows, these are always issues of some complexity, with different considerations necessarily applying in each case. Nevertheless, although there are no fixed rules, there are conventions and guidelines in these matters which I believe, are generally accepted. In particular, the House will, I am sure, recall the conclusions which were reached by the Speaker's Conference on Electoral Law in 1973 and which were set out in a letter dated 26 November that year from Mr. Speaker Lloyd to the then Prime Minister. The hon. Member for Merioneth referred to that.

Mr. Wigley


Mr. Biffen

I am sorry—Caernarvon. Even 50 per cent. accuracy is generous with Plaid Cymru.

The main conclusion of the conference was that the motion for a writ for a by-election should normally be moved within three months of a vacancy arising. In the present case, that period has not yet elapsed and will not do so for three more weeks. Furthermore, it was concluded specifically that it was inexpedient for by-elections to be held … at the time of local elections in April/May. This, of course, is entirely relevant to the present case, with local elections pending on 5 May.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

The right hon. Gentleman is walking for cover.

Mr. Biffen

I need not elaborate further on that point, as the reasons behind such a recommendation are obvious. However, I should perhaps just mention that the recent boundary changes reinforce the case on this occasion for separating the by-election from the local elections. Even so, it is worth pointing out that the normal three-month guideline to which I have referred does not expire in the present case until some days after the date set for the local elections.

Finally, I refer to the further convention, which I think is generally recognised, that it should be the party whose Member formerly occupied the seat which should have priority in choosing the date of the by-election. I regret that the hon. Gentleman, by moving his motion today, has disregarded this customary practice, especially since, as I have explained, the Government are on this occasion wholly within the conventional practices, which have come to be generally accepted, in these matters.

May I say to the leader, and 50 per cent., of the Scottish National party that the moment it is accepted that a random majority of this House can determine when by-elections are held, we shall have crossed a Rubicon that we would do well to consider. Moreover, that would be strongly to the disadvantage of minority parties. The hon. Gentleman's action raises wider issues on which the House may well wish to ponder.

Meanwhile, however, I beg to move, as an amendment to the hon. Gentleman's motion, in line 1, after "That" to insert "on Tuesday 10 May".

3.47 pm
Mr. John Silkin (Deptford)

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-East (Mr. Wilson) asked for your advice, Mr. Speaker, about the conventions and etiquette of the House. Your advice was that, while conventions could not be 100 per cent. binding, the fact remains that, while conventions exist, they ought to be observed by the House. It is for that reason that I support the amendment of the Leader of the House.

I have great sympathy for much of what the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) said, as the Leader of the House will know. I also believe that the Speaker's Conference is the proper place for the House to arrive at the decisions which govern things such as by-election rules. There might be a case for changing those rules and conventions, but the proper place to do so is the Speaker's Conference.

I am reinforced in that view, Mr. Speaker, by studying the letter that your precedessor—Mr. Speaker Lloyd—wrote to the then Prime Minister on 26 November 1973. He said that the view which was expressed in the letter was the unanimous view of every member of the Speaker's Conference. That Speaker's Conference included not only the Government and the Opposition but the minority parties, whose representatives were so vociferous a moment ago in supporting the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley). Perhaps they should get a new leader—[AN HON. MEMBER: "They do not want you."] Their leader was, therefore, at the Speaker's Conference. The best advice for the House is to accept the amendment moved by the Leader of the House, and to consider a new Speaker's Conference to see whether the rules are correct and whether the convention should be preserved or changed.

Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)

Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on whether the precipitate haste of the Welsh National party in moving the writ today is concerned not with enfranchising the people of Cardiff, North-West but with the fact that its candidate in Cardiff has already jumped the gun and is incurring election expenses?

Mr. Silkin

I am not an expert on that. It must be left to the returning officer for that by-election.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call another hon. Member, I would remind the House that the time spent on this debate will come out of the time allocated for the debate on East Anglia.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Bermondsey)

I shall be brief, Mr. Speaker. May I first declare a special interest in by-elections and, secondly, like you, Mr. Speaker, an interest as a past resident of Cardiff, North-West. I am unhappy that the Leader of the House proposes a 44-day run-up to the Cardiff by-election, which, if the dates most widely speculated about for a general election are correct, would produce the dissolution of the House before the date of that by-election.

I speak from new, recent but clear experience when I say that an electorate that does not have a Member of Parliament for a period suffers great loss because there is much work for Members of Parliament to do. The electors of Cardiff, North-West, as the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) said a moment ago, should be represented on the important issues that the Government are, with increasing speed, rushing through the House so that the decks can be clear in case the House is dissolved after 5 May.

I hope that the House will respect the fact that the reason why the convention which as applied, and which should perhaps apply in normal circumstances, should not apply in the shadow of a general election—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Bring back Tatchell.

Mr. Hughes

—is that it would deprive the Cardiff electors of a chance to air and vote on their issues at a separate election earlier in May.

Mr. Wigley

May I respond — [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The cries from Conservative Members show that they do not like what we have to say about Wales. However, I wish to respond to the amendment moved to my motion. Is there a precedent for such an amendment to be made to such a motion? The Leader of the House has moved an amendment that would provide for the warrant to have the writ moved on 10 May. That is the last possible day within the three-month convention. If the maximum period starting on 10 May were enacted, the by-election would be on Thursday 8 June. During that period is the Spring bank holiday, which is highlighted in the Speaker's report as being inconvenient for holding such elections. But even more serious is the likelihood that a general election will have been called in the intervening period, and the opportunity to highlight the problems of Cardiff will be lost.

I cannot accept the amendment, but I ask you to rule, Mr. Speaker, whether there is a precedent for it and whether it is in order.

Mr. Speaker

I rule at once— it is in order or I would not accepted it.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 306, Noes 60.

Division No. 117] [3.54pm
Alexander, Richard Finsberg, Geoffrey
Alison, Rt Hon Michael Fisher, Sir Nigel
Ancram, Michael Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)
Anderson, Donald Fookes, Miss Janet
Atkins, Rt Hon H.(S'thorne) Foot, Rt Hon Michael
Baker, Kenneth(St.M'bone) Forman, Nigel
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Forrester, John
Banks, Robert Foster, Derek
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Fowler, Rt Hon Norman
Beaumont-Dark, Anthony Fox, Marcus
Bendall, Vivian Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh
Benyon, Thomas (A'don) Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)
Benyon, W. (Buckingham) Fraser, Peter (South Angus)
Berry, Hon Anthony Gardiner, George (Reigate)
Best, Keith Gardiner, Sir Edward
Bevan, David Gilroy Garel-Jones, Tristan
Biffen, Rt Hon John Garrett, John (Norwich S)
Biggs-Davison, Sir John Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian
Blackburn, John Glyn, Dr Alan
Blaker, Peter Golding, John
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Goodhart, Sir Philip
Bottomley, Rt Hon A.(M'b'ro) Goodhew, Sir Victor
Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W) Goodlad, Alastair
Bowden, Andrew Gorst, John
Boyson, Dr Rhodes Gow, Ian
Braine, Sir Bernard Gower, Sir Raymond
Bright, Graham Grant, Sir Anthony
Brinton, Tim Gray, Rt Hon Hamish
Brittan, Rt. Hon. Leon Greenway, Harry
Brooke, Hon Peter Grieve, Percy
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'n) Griffiths, E.(B'y St. Edm'ds)
Brown, R. C. (N'castle W) Griffiths, Peter (Portsm'th N)
Browne, John (Winchester) Grist, Ian
Bruce-Gardyne, John Grylls, Michael
Bryan, Sir Paul Gummer, John Selwyn
Buck, Antony Hamilton, Hon A.
Budgen, Nick Hamilton, James (Bothwell)
Burden, Sir Frederick Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)
Butcher, John Hampson, Dr Keith
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Hannam, John
Chalker, Mrs. Lynda Harrison, Rt Hon Walter
Chapman, Sydney Haselhurst, Alan
Churchill, W. S. Hastings, Stephen
Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n) Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael
Clark, Dr David (S Shields) Hawkins, Sir Paul
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Hawksley, Warren
Cockeram, Eric Hayhoe, Barney
Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S) Haynes, Frank
Coleman, Donald Heath, Rt Hon Edward
Cope, John Heddle, John
Cormack, Patrick Henderson, Barry
Costain, Sir Albert Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.
Cowans, Harry Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)
Cranborne, Viscount Holland, Philip (Carlton)
Critchley, Julian Hordern, Peter
Crouch, David Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Crowther, Stan Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd)
Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli) Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West) Hughes, Roy (Newport)
Dewar, Donald Hunt, David (Wirral).
Dickens, Geoffrey Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Dormand, Jack Irvine, Rt Hon Bryant Godman
Dorrell, Stephen Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)
Dover, Denshore Jessel, Toby
Duffy, A. E. P. John, Brynmor
Dunn, Robert (Dartford) Johnson, James (Hull West)
Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G. Jones, Barry (East Flint)
Durant, Tony Jopling, Rt Hon Michael
Dykes, Hugh Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith
Eden, Rt Hon Sir John Kaberry, Sir Donald
Eggar, Tim Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald
English, Michael Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine
Evans, Ioan (Aberdare) Kershaw, Sir Anthony
Evans, John (Newton) King, Rt Hon Tom
Eyre, Reginald Knight, Mrs Jill
Faith, Mrs Sheila Knox, David
Fell, Sir Anthony Lamont, Norman
Fenner, Mrs Peggy Lang, Ian
Latham, Michael Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Lawrence, Ivan Raison, Rt Hon Timothy
Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel Rathbone, Tim
Leadbitter, Ted Rees-Davies, W. R.
Lee, John Renton, Tim
Leighton, Ronald Rhodes James, Robert
Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Lester, Jim (Beeston) Ridley, Hon Nicholas
Lewis, Sir Kenneth (Rutland) Rifkind, Malcolm
Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'Ioo) Robertson, George
Lloyd, Peter (Fareham) Rossi, Hugh
Lofthouse, Geoffrey Rost, Peter
Lyon, Alexander (York) Royle, Sir Anthony
McCrindle, Robert Rumbold, Mrs A. C. R.
Macfarlane, Neil Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
MacGregor, John Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
McKay, Allen (Penistone) Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
MacKay, John (Argyll) Shelton, William (Streatham)
MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Shepherd, Richard
Macmillan, Rt Hon M. Shersby, Michael
McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury) Short, Mrs Renée
McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st) Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)
McQuarrie, Albert Sims, Roger
Madel, David Skeet, T, H. H.
Major, John Smith, Sir Dudley
Marland, Paul Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Marlow, Antony Speed, Keith
Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Speller, Tony
Marshall, Jim (Leicester S) Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Marten, Rt Hon Neil Sproat, Iain
Martin, M (G'gow S'burn) Squire, Robin
Mason, Rt Hon Roy Stanbrook, Ivor
Maude, Rt Hon Sir Angus Stanley, John
Mawby, Ray Steen, Anthony
Mawhinney, Dr Brian Stevens, Martin
Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Stewart, A.(E Renfrewshire)
Mayhew, Patrick Stokes, John
Millan, Rt Hon Bruce Stradling Thomas, J
Mills, Iain (Meriden) Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley
Mills, Sir Peter (West Devon) Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman
Moate, Roger Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.
Monro, Sir Hector Thompson, Donald
Montgomery, Fergus Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)
Moore, John Thornton, Malcolm
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Tinn, James
Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw) Townend, John (Bridlington)
Morris, M. (N'hampton S) Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes) Trippier, David
Morrison, Hon P. (Chester) van Straubenzee, Sir W.
Morton, George Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.
Moyle, Rt Hon Roland Viggers, Peter
Mudd, David Waddington, David
Murphy, Christopher Wainwright, E.(Dearne V)
Neale, Gerrard Wakeham, John
Needham, Richard Waldegrave, Hon William
Nelson, Anthony Walker, Rt Hon H.(D'caster)
Neubert, Michael Walker, B. (Perth)
Newton, Tony Watson, John
Normanton, Tom Weetch, Ken
O'Brien, Oswald (Darlington) Wells, Bowen
O'Halloran, Michael Wells, John (Maidstone)
Onslow, Cranley Wheeler, John
Osborn, John Whitehead, Phillip
Page, John (Harrow, West) Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Page, Richard (SW Herts) Whitney, Raymond
Palmer, Arthur Wickenden, Keith
Park, George Wiggin, Jerry
Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil Wilkinson, John
Parris, Matthew Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Pawsey, James Winterton, Nicholas
Percival, Sir Ian Young, Sir George (Acton)
Pollock, Alexander Younger, Rt Hon George
Porter, Barry
Powell, Raymond (Ogmore) Tellers for the Ayes:
Prior, Rt Hon James Mr. Robert Boscawen and
Proctor, K. Harvey Mr. Carol Mather.
Allaun, Frank Mitchell, R, C. (Soton Itchen)
Alton, David Ogden, Eric
Ashton, Joe Parry, Robert
Atkinson, N.(H'gey,) Pavitt, Laurie
Bennett, Andrew(St'kp't N) Penhaligon, David
Bradley, Tom Pitt, William Henry
Bray, Dr Jeremy Richardson, Jo
Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith) Roberts, Allan (Bootle)
Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P) Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)
Canavan, Dennis Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)
Cartwright, John Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)
Cryer, Bob Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Cunningham, G. (Islington S) Sandelson, Neville
Dixon, Donald Skinner, Dennis
Dubs, Alfred Soley, Clive
Eastham, Ken Stallard, A. W.
Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're) Steel, Rt Hon David
Ellis, Tom (Wrexham) Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)
Field, Frank Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Flannery, Martin Thorne, Stan (Preston South)
Freud, Clement Wainwright, R. (Colne V)
Hardy, Peter Watkins, David
Home Robertson, John Welsh, Michael
Homewood, William White, Frank R.
Hooley, Frank Williams, Rt Hon Mrs (Crosby)
Hoyle, Douglas Wilson, William (C'try SE)
Hughes, Simon (Bermondsey) Wright, Sheila
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Young, David (Bolton E)
Litherland, Robert
Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W) Tellers for the Noes:
McNally, Thomas Mr. Dafydd Wigley and
McTaggart, Robert Mr. Donald Stewart.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, agreed to.