HC Deb 10 November 1983 vol 48 cc432-4 4.36 pm
Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hesitate to raise this matter because it affects your judgment in the calling of Members. When I last raised the matter of how you would call representatives of the SDP and the Liberal party, I understood that you gave an indication that discussions were taking place between yourself and the leader of the liberal party as to what your judgment might be. An article has appeared in The Times today in the name of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston) which I fear impinges upon your responsibility to the House. I should be extremely grateful if you could give your views on that article so as to allay any fears that might be in the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have read the article with care and although to some extent I can understand the views of my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) the article can be read another way. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johston) was complaining about the way in which the SDP leader or leaders were able to catch your eye in comparison to the opportunities that Liberal Members had. I regard it as a possible veiled attack on the Social Democrats by the Liberal party.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 27 October, after a debate on the National Health Service in which no Liberal was called, you said in response to a point of order that was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce): I am sure that the House would consider it extremely unfair if in every debate … the Chair had to call a member from the Social Democratic party and one from the Liberal party."—[Official Report, 27 October 1983; Vol. 47, c. 528–9.] My intention in writing the article that is published in The Times today was to make it clear to the public at large that this part of the House, which represents 25 per cent. of the electorate — 7.5 million people — would, indeed, consider it profoundly unfair if there were not a willingness to call a member of the Social Democratic party and a member of the Liberal party in every debate

In making this case, Mr. Speaker, I was in no way trying to impugn your character or to raise any doubt about your wish to be fair.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I make it clear that the Opposition deplore the fact that the hon. Member for Inverness, Maim and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston) has gone to the press to make what anyone who has read his article will see clearly is an utterly ill-founded, unwarranted and petulant attack on you. Is it not a fact that, procedurally, the alliance seem to want the penny and the bun and having got the bun they now want to keep it and eat it?

Does not the Liberal article in The Times today show quite clearly that in the previous Parliament the alliance was given extra time for extra seats which it obtained by the shabby process of political defection — a process which involved and represented not one extra Liberal or Social Democratic vote in the country? Is it not utterly consistent with that precedent, which the alliance welcomed at the time, that their now depleted ranks in the House should be reflected in depleted speaking time?

On the basis of the figures in the article written by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber—he said that the allianace now have only 4 per cent. of the seats in the House — are you not in danger, Mr. Speaker, of being over generous by giving them 5 per cent. of the time as that would represent 25 per cent. more time than they are entitled to?

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Irrespective of the merits of the argument, is it not deplorable that an hon. Member should write an article in a newspaper criticising Mr. Speaker? Criticism of Mr. Speaker in the House is most severely limited—it cannot be made except on a substantive motion. How much more so must any criticism be limited when an hon. Member makes that criticism by writing in a newspaper which has absolutely no connection with the House?

The importance of the case is that the House is the guardian of the subject's rights and liberties and that it cannot discharge that function unless there is respect for the Chair outside the House and within it.

Furthermore, may I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that during the recent general election campaign, most hon. Members were opposed by alliance candidates. That is how they were described on the ballot paper although some were Liberals and others were Social Democrats. I have forgotten which was which in my constituency. Nevertheless they all stood as alliance candidates. If every party in the House is allowed as of right — as is suggested — to have a Front Bench spokesman in every debate and if Privy Councillors are also given a chance to speak, Back Benchers will be completely squeezed out.

It is essential that whoever else is involved in this controversy, it should not be Mr. Speaker. Therefore, might I respectfully suggest to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that he take the initiative in this matter and discuss it with party leaders. I make that suggestion as someone who had the honour in the previous Parliament to hold the office which my right hon. Friend now occupies. That would be the correct way to discuss the issue. It should not be discussed through the Chair, much less through the correspondence columns of the press.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that the whole House has listened with interest to the final point made by the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John Stevas), If the Leader of the House wants to discuss the proper method of approaching this matter, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) would be only too happy to listen to him.

The article appears in The Times, which is forever telling us and the world that it is the voice of the British establishment. Is there not an issue of whether The Times is involved in a breach of privilege for publishing the article in question?

The issue of right hon. or hon. Members acting as spokesmen on behalf of the Liberal and Social Democratic parties concerns all members of other parties. The Liberal candidate at the general election in my constituency and the Social Democratic candidate for the St. Helens, South constituency had their election material printed at the same address. It had the same layout and used virtually the same words. The candidates appeared on every public platform together. Is it not the case that the Liberal party and the Social Democratic party are in fact one party and that they are therefore entitled to one spokesman in any debate?

Mr. Speaker

I must answer the point of order that the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) raised with me. Discussions with the leader of the Liberal party have taken place. I have of course seen the article in The Times today. I have no intention of making any public comment myself either on the article, or on the conduct of the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Johnston).