§ Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The other day my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) asked for a debate, under Standing Order No. 20, on the seaman's dispute, and he was turned down. Today, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) asked for a debate under Standing Order No. 20, and he was also turned down.
For many years I have noticed that Back Benchers have sometimes been granted debates under Standing Order No. 20—or, as it used to be Standing Orders Nos. 9 and 10—and that Front-Bench spokesmen, who have then made an application, have usually been turned down.
This is a matter of great importance. Over the years we have had many debates on issues affecting seamen and on trade union strikes. How on earth can any hon. Member obtain a debate under Standing Order No. 20? In my 24 years here I have known Speakers of all sorts—and sizes—grant Standing Order No. 20 applications from Back Benchers on precisely such issues as this. I should like to know how a Back Bencher or an occupant of the Opposition Front Bench can obtain a Standing Order No. 20 debate on a matter of this importance. Are we reaching a stage when it will not be possible to discuss such issues unless they fall in Government time or Front-Bench time generally? Such a situation would represent a serious departure from the rights of Members of this place as we now understand them.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Do the hon. Members for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) wish to raise points of order on the same issue? If so, I shall respond to them in one reply.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
Further to the previous two points of order, Mr. Speaker. Admittedly you are not responsible for this, but as extra time was given in 1967 to what I shall call the Steel Abortion Bill, can you not understand—
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
My point of order relates to the rights that attach to debates in this place and points of order that are being raised in the Chamber. Many of us have not heard such disingenuous nonsense. There are calls for a debate on the dispute affecting the National Union of Seamen. We heard these calls last week and we have heard them again today. The Opposition, quite rightly in a democracy, are able to initiate half-day debates, a one-hour debate or a three-hour debate. Why should the time of the House be taken up when it has other important debates before it, when it is clear that if the Opposition feel so strongly about the mad idiots in the 29 NUS who want to destroy seamen's jobs, they could have a debate on them? Why should we be kept here listening to this disingenuous rubbish?
§ Mr. Speaker
I can answer both the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heifer) and the hon. Member for Selly Oak by saying that it is an extremely onerous responsibility of Mr. Speaker to decide whether to grant an emergency debate that will take precedence over the orders that are set down for this day or the next day. The Chair must take into account all the criteria that are set out clearly in Standing Order No. 20, to which I draw the attention of hon. Members. One of the criteria, as the hon. Member for Walton well knows, is the other opportunities to raise issues before the House, and these have been mentioned by the hon. Member for Selly Oak.