HC Deb 02 July 1997 vol 297 cc215-8

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

9.35 am
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your advice and guidance. On page 167 of "Erskine May", the author writes: In the Commons no place is allotted to any Member: but by custom the front bench, on the right hand of the chair, called the Treasury bench or government front bench, is appropriated for the members of the administration. The front bench on the opposite side, though other Members occasionally sit there, is reserved by convention for the leading members of the Opposition. It is not uncommon for senior Members, who art constantly in the habit of attending in one place, to be allowed to occupy it as a matter of courtesy. I draw three matters to your attention, Madam Speaker. First, two weeks ago hon. Members from the Conservative Opposition placed green cards on the Opposition Front Bench and attended Prayers in preparation for Scottish questions. I drew the matter to your attention, and hoped that, as I had done so, you would accept that a precedent had been established and green cards could be placed on that Bench.

Secondly, there is nothing either in "Erskine May" or in any Standing Order that I have been able to obtain that allocates any other Bench behind the Opposition Front Bench to any particular Member from any particular party.

Thirdly, accepting that there seemed to be no precedent to prevent us from doing so, my colleagues and I put green cards on a number of spaces in preparation for this afternoon's Budget debate. My colleagues came here this morning to pray in those places, expecting that that would establish their position for the business of the House today.

I seek your guidance, Madam Speaker. It is not my intention to cause difficulty today—[Laughter.]. I simply want to establish that this Parliament is in one respect different from the previous Parliament, and, indeed, from any recent Parliament, in that there is a substantial large block of Members from a third party.

With the help of the Library I looked up the records, and found that when that was last the case, in the 1920s and 1930s, the leader of the then Liberal party spoke regularly from the Front Bench. I ask your guidance, Madam Speaker, as to how the will of the electorate as expressed at the general election can be properly reflected in places in the House.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I ask you to reflect on two things? First, the matter is one which hon. Members ought to be able to sort out without involving the Chair—as on the occasion several weeks ago, when I placed a green card in the place at present occupied by the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). The Liberal Democrat Chief Whip rang me and explained what had happened before, so I did not use the card and did not provoke an incident.

Secondly, there are occasions when an hon. Member comes to the House with a prayer card, to take a place which is later used by a senior member of his party, a matter which I hope can pass without comment. We must move on, and the Liberal Democrats should not do again what they have tried to do today.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has been slightly disingenuous in his description of what happened today, and there are matters that touch directly on your authority. Having been in the Chamber since before 9 o'clock, I can describe what happened. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) is right that we should be able to sort out these matters, but that is not the case. The Serjeant at Arms and your Secretary came into the Chamber—making it clear that they were doing so on your instructions—and told senior Liberal Democrat Members that what the Members were seeking to do was unacceptable, as the Benches above the Gangway were reserved for members of the official Opposition, while those below the Gangway were a free for all for anyone.

Given that the Serjeant at Arms made clear to senior Liberal Democrat Members what your ruling was, it is a gross discourtesy, not to the House but to you, that five Liberal Democrats have sought to assert themselves on the Opposition Front Bench. I hope that the House will understand that the Liberal Democrat Members could have been in no doubt about your ruling. It is clear that senior Liberal Democrat Members either have not sought to assert control over junior Members or have deliberately flouted what you said.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I have been in this House for 18 years, and the system of prayer cards is an abuse of our procedures, which should be brought to an end. The reality is that many hon. Members come into the Chamber allegedly to pray, but, in fact, all they are doing is booking their seat for the day. We all know that that is true and we should stop it. I ask you to set in train an inquiry into how that matter can finally be resolved. If I want a seat in this House, I will come in and take it. If a prayer card is on the seat that I have selected, I will remove it in the event that the Member has not turned up to pray.

What happens is an abuse and I appeal to you to bring this silly practice to an end immediately.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance in respect of the proper construction to be placed on the passage in "Erskine May" to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) referred. You will be aware that the passage refers to the fact that the Opposition Front Bench is reserved by convention for the leading members of the Opposition. Am I correct in saying that the convention has force only so long as it is universally recognised within the House, and that if it fails to continue to have universal recognition, its effect as a convention is diminished? Am I also correct in saying that if an hon. Member breaches Standing Orders, the Chair has the opportunity, the right and the obligation to exercise certain disciplinary powers? If there is a breach of convention, am I correct in saying that those powers are not available to the Chair?

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. In respect of the convention described by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the critical issue is that it is defined by reference to the reason for the rule. The reason for the rule is, undoubtedly, to allow the proper conduct of business in this place. The official Opposition sit where they always do to deal properly with the business of the House. In that context, the Liberal Democrat Members are out of order, as the business of the House cannot be conducted if they remain in their place.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Unless I misheard him, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that, from time to time, the Opposition Front Bench could be occupied by senior Members of this House. I am looking at Liberal Democrat Members, and in no circumstances could any of them be described as a senior Member of this House. Am I right that the success of Parliament and this House of Commons—and of this Chamber in particular—is based upon convention, tradition, precedent—

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)


Mr. Winterton

My hon. Friend is right. Is it not time that tradition, trust and precedent—which have led to the success of this House and made it the envy of the world—were implemented and honoured again?

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I hesitate to intervene in a war on the Opposition Benches, but it does not really matter where a person sits for Prayers, because the Lord is no respecter of persons. However, it does matter for the convenience of the House. Therefore, it is proper for the official Opposition to sit in the appropriate seats. Equally, with a degree of good will on all sides, Benches should be reserved for the enhanced numbers of Liberal Democrat Members, and those Benches should properly be those above the Gangway. With a degree of good will on all sides—and without bothering you, Madam Speaker—the House can surely reach a decision.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, I am a very tolerant person, but it seems to me that common sense would dictate that we have either reserved seats or a free for all. I do not mind which it is, but it must be one or the other. We cannot have seats reserved for some and a free for all for others.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I am not sure whether Prayers have made us any better tempered. I wish to refer to the Dispatch Boxes. I have not been a Member for as long as some of the earlier speakers, but I understand that the Dispatch Boxes play a special role in the life of the House. It is traditional for Ministers to speak from one Dispatch Box and for the Leader of the Opposition, or his nominated subordinates, to speak from the other. Would it not be inconvenient for the House if the Leader of the Opposition and his immediate subordinates had to put prayer cards in each day to have access to the Opposition Dispatch Box?

Madam Speaker

Have hon. Members finished with their points of order? Good.

It is custom and practice that the Opposition Front Bench is reserved for the official Opposition, and I shall see that that is maintained. It is also custom and practice that the area below the Gangway is for the minority parties. I shall look at all the points of order that have been put to me this morning, but I have never known grown-up people to behave—[Interruption.] I want my voice to be recorded. I have never known grown-up people to behave in such a crass and childish manner. I think that it is time that Members of this House grew up. If they do not, I shall want to see the leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties very soon.

I hope that those Members now on the Opposition Front Bench who are not members of the official Opposition will do me the courtesy of removing themselves right now while I am on my feet. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I am taking no further points of order. We have business in this House, and I hope that hon. Members will resolve this in the next hour and behave in a more adult fashion. I am ashamed of this morning's proceedings.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Is it on another matter?

Mr. Willis


Madam Speaker

No, it cannot be on the same matter. I have made my ruling.

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