HL Deb 14 November 1956 vol 200 cc311-26

3.17 p.m.

LORD SALTOUN rose to ask the Leader of the House whether the fact that our predecessors wisely preferred that many of our Rules should not be committed to writing, excuses noble Lords from finding out what they are and insisting on their observance from wherever they may happen to be sitting in the House. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I was first led into this matter some years ago when I was asked by several noble friends on both sides of the House what were the Rules of your Lordships' House and what had gone wrong on any particular occasion. Eventually, I drafted a paper which I submitted, very humbly, to a very high authority. In the end it found its way to the Procedure Committee where it still remains. The Rules which I shall refer to this afternoon I learnt the hard way, the way in which one finds out what is inside eggs. I have myself broken most of those Rules. I am sorry to say, and it seems to me that it makes wasted pains when noble Lords (not themselves Back Benchers) come into your Lordships' House and say: "I know your Lordships' House has no Rules" and then proceed to break every Rule we have got. I know several noble Lords on both sides who have done that quite often in my experience, and that was one of the things that led me to draft my paper.

We are very fortunate in one way, and that is that order in this House is the duty of the whole House. The Lord Chancellor is not in the same position as the Speaker in another place; it is the House as a whole that has to preserve order. In practice, and certainly in my experience, that has always been the duty of the Back Bench Members on both sides of the House, because Front Bench Members are political in their outlook and are opposed in outlook, and I think it would be an unhappy thing if those Members should find themselves charged with the duty of preserving order, for then political suspicions would undoubtedly creep in. If the Leader of the House intervenes, he is not intervening as Leader but as a great Member of the House, one of our most respected Members, who is voicing the opinion of the House.

The Business on the Order Paper is brought before the House by the Clerk at the Table calling it, and no Peer may question it or interfere save by arrangement, as in the case of Private Notice Questions and Government statements. Once, quite inadvertently, I broke that Rule and I shall never forget the mortification and, let me say frankly, shame which came upon me when I realised what I had done; and I determined never to do it again. I am glad to say that that was probably the only case in my experience where that Rule has been broken.

No Peer may make a speech or interrogative statement on matters arising out of Starred Questions. That is in Standing Orders. Some Rules are contained in Standing Orders, and what I wish to do in that case is to put before your Lordships what I have always understood to be the customary meaning of the Rule. When I first entered your Lordships' House an old Peer came to me and said, "Now look here, this is not the House of Commons. Starred Questions are asked to get information from the Government; supplementary questions are asked to pinpoint that information and make sure the Question has been answered If you are not satisfied, you have your proper recourse in putting down an Unstarred Question or a Motion and taking up the matter in that way." On one occasion in your Lordships' House, a noble Lord asked a Question of the Lord Chancellor of the day who did not want to reply to it, and the questioner asked, I think, eleven supplementary questions, and eventually he did get a reply. On another occasion a noble Lord asked the same Lord Chancellor a Starred Question and got a reply giving the fact, but it was not the reply the noble Lord wished for, and on that occasion he asked seventeen supplementary questions—but did not get any for'arder. I think that that is an excessive use of supplementary questions, and the House has it in its power to call to order a noble Lord who tries to ask so many.

Government statements made by permission of the House must not be made the occasion of speeches. The House will decide when a brief comment exceeds that limit. That is the practically universal rule, owing to the wisdom of the Front Benches on both sides. I think that there has been only one occasion when I have been in the House when a very proper development of that took place. On that occasion a noble Lord moved that the matter be immediately debated, and that was carried and it was so debated. That was in order.

There is another Rule which is very ancient—that no Peer may cross the House between the Mace and the Table. That is Standing Order No. 18. As a matter of fact, I did that once and a noble Lord called at once, "Order, order!" arid in a few minutes the whole House on both sides was resounding with cries of "Order, order!" and I learned my lesson. Not a great time ago a noble Lord, who had a considerable position in his Party at the time, walked straight across the House in front of the Lord Chancellor on the Woolsack. I cried "Order!" but nobody took it up and he crossed the House successfully. I was told that on a later occasion when f was not present that noble Lord did the same thing five limes in the course of a debate. If the whole House had cried "Order, order" when I called out, he, too, would have learned his lesson and would not have made that mistake. Another Rule of very long standing is that no Peer may read his speech. I think that that is covered by the general direction that a certain latitude in the observation of these Rules is always permitted by the House, and the House will itself decide when that latitude hrs been exceeded.

No Peer may criticise personally any official or Member of the House of Commons or quote from the speeches of Private Members made during the current Session. I have known that Rule transgressed more than once in your Lordships' House. In fact, a noble Lord opposite directed my attention to the fact that it was transgressed the other day by no less a person than the Deputy Leader of the House. who quoted passages from a speech of the Leader of the Opposition in another place. The noble Earl has asked me to express his regret that he could not be here to-day to answer for his sin—presumably in a white sheet. As a matter of tact, if he had put in a "that", he would have got away with it as perfectly proper. Speeches by Members of Her Majesty's Government in another place may be quoted, of course, since Government policy is identical in both Houses and one must be exact when referring to the Government's views. It is usual for us to refer to the House of Commons as "another place". I think that that is rather antiquated, because we no longer blind ourselves to the fact that the House of Commons exists and I am not at all sure that it is courteous to continue to do so.

Then there is an important and controversial Rule, that no Peer is entitled to make a second speech, even with. the permission of the House, except that the mover of a Motion may speak in reply or any Peer may correct a mis-statement—that is, with the permission of the House. Noble Lords may have noticed that often when a noble Lord has asked a question of the Government and the noble Lord who is replying does not touch upon the point that has been asked, as the noble Lord speaking for the Government sits down the noble Lord who has asked the question jumps to his feet and says. "Before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask what is the reply to my question?" Such a case occurred the other day when the noble Viscount. Lord Astor, intervened in that way before the noble Marquess who leads the House had sat down after making a statement. That enforces what I have to say. This is a fiction which we have introduced for the purpose, because it is assumed that a noble Lord has interrupted while the other noble Lord is still speaking and that he is really continuing his speech.

I have heard it said by one noble Lord who has been known to speak more than once in debate that, "Of course, the House can do anything; of course, the House can allow anybody to speak if it so desires." I think I can answer that simply by saying that the Standing Order is really perfectly clear, and to say that the House can permit anything is very much the same as saying that one Parliament cannot bind another. Of course, there is nothing to prevent Parliament passing a Statute saying that anybody who did riot commit a murder should be hanged. It is true that Parliament can do anything. But the assumption is that the House will not lightly break its own Standing Orders for any noble Lord. Therefore, I submit that the Standing Order ought to be observed, and that no noble Lord should speak twice, except with the permission of the House, and to correct a misapprehension. If Government policy has not been properly enunciated, then another noble Lord ought to be able to speak for the Government in that case.

That brings me to another point which concerns this Rule, and it is this. Quite often it has become the practice in your Lordships' House, when a Bill goes through Committee, for the Government to accept various points that have been made, and to say that they will take them into consideration and produce an Amendment at a later stage. If that should be on the Report stage, we are virtually doing Committee work on a Bill on the Report stage, and the temptation to noble Lords who are opposing the Government to speak more than once is very great. I humbly submit that where new clauses, or important and controversial Amendments, are introduced into a Bill after the Committee stage, the Government might take into consideration the practice of re-committing the Bill, and then having—it would have to be by agreement on both sides—a formal and short Report stage afterwards. I think that that would cover the situation, and it would preserve our Rules, as I think they should be preserved.

The next Standing Order is the most important matter of all. It says that should any Peer transgress these customs, he should be reminded of them by a cry of "Order, order!" from Peers on the Back Benches on either side; and should he fail to perceive his error, the cry should be taken up from all parts of the House. That is important, because supposing a noble Lord on our side of the House starts to make a speech on a Starred Question, one tries to be alive to it and cry Order, order!"; but unless noble Lords opposite support us, it really is not effective. It is as a House that we should preserve our Order, and not as a Party. In the same way, supposing some noble Lord should do such an unlikely thing from the Benches opposite as to make a transgression of the Rules of Order and I should cry Order, order!", I should hope that noble Lords opposite would not think it a political matter, but that some of the noble Lord's friends on the other side would do the same. In that way we shall keep our House as it ought to be kept.

There are a few other Rules which I think I might mention to your Lordships. There is an old custom, which has not been used much lately, that if, without injustice to a minority, the House is of opinion that no new matter is being introduced into debate, the House can signify its intention of that by crying "Divide, divide" I have been attending debates in your Lordships' House since about 1908, and in the old days there used to be a Rule which was rather carefully kept: that if a noble Lord speaking in debate had made a point that you were going to make, you did not repeat it to the House, but made your speech only on new matter. I feel that that would often shorten speeches.

There is another Rule of which I think your Lordships might like to be reminded. It is that, should heat be engendered in the debate, it is open to any noble Lord to move that the Clerk at the Table be asked to read Standing Order No. 29, referring to asperity of speech. Then there are one or two other points. I remember when I first began to attend debates in your Lordships' House suggesting to my father that certain matters might well be debated in the House. The reply I got was: "No. Foreign affairs are not discussed in the House, save by agreement between the Leaders on both sides, and then only in the way that they decide". In ancient days your Lordships debated foreign affairs with considerable heat, and I think the reason for the introduction of that custom was the invention of the electric telegraph. I should like to say that in this House in the last few days I have not felt that we were suffering at all from a lapse of that custom, because I have appreciated as much as anybody in the House the way in which noble Lords opposite have handled recent affairs.

There is one Rule which I have broken and which I have not mentioned, although it got me into great trouble. No noble Lord except the Mover and the Seconder of the Address may come into your Lordships' House wearing a sword. I once came to an opening of Parliament in uniform and in my robes, and when we went outside the late Lord Badeley (then Sir Henry Badeley) noticed that I was wearing a sword and he took me to task most severely. I had frightful fears of being handed over to the Lord Chairman and perhaps being committed to some Tower for that breach. Happily it occurred to me to ask Sir Henry when the Rule had been introduced, and he said that it had always been the Rule. I said: "No, it has not always been the Rule, because swords were worn at the debate on the Exclusion Bill in (I think it was) 1672; and I know they were worn then, because they were drawn". After all, there is the carpet in front of the Front Benches to remind us that at one time we wore swords.

There are other Rules, to which I do not think I need refer, because your Lordships all know them. Your Lordships know that it is out of order for any noble Lord except a Bishop to take part in debate when seated on the two front Bishops' Benches; and there are other Rules like that, but none of which come into play so much as those that I have mentioned. I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, the House to-day seems to be in a mood, I will not say of self-flagellation, but certainly of self-examination of our errors of omission and commission. First of all, there was the noble Lord, Lord Teviot, who reminded us of one matter in which we seem to have fallen from grace; and now there is the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, who, with great experience and erudition, has drawn attention to others of our shortcomings. I do not think we should complain of that in any way. On the contrary, I think we should be extremely grateful to the two noble Lords in question. It is all too easy for us all, with the passage of time, to get slack about the performance of duties which may seem quite unimportant in themselves, but which, when taken together, cannot be neglected without impairing the whole spirit of the House. That, I think. is a danger against which we must all guard.

The noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, in his extremely interesting speech, has enumerated some of the practices, which have grown up in this House over the centuries and which we all accept, although we do not always know the causes which originally brought them into being. The reason for sonic of them, of course, we know. We know why we bow to the Throne when we enter the House, or at least why we are enjoined Ito do so by the Standing Orders of the House. Some of us carry out that duty—and we do it, of course, because the Throne stands beneath the Cloth of Estate, and the Cloth of Estate is the special province of the Crown. But why is it wrong for us, as the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, reminded us, to cross the House between the Mace and the Table? I have never been able for certain to find out the answer One explanation which is given to me is that to cross the House between the Mace and the Table is in effect to interpose oneself between the Lord Chancellor and the House. It is similar to passing between the Lord Chancellor and a noble Lord who is at the time addressing the House; and that, equally, as your Lordships know, is never allowed. That may be the explanation. In any case, I have always been told that it is a heinous offence to pass across the House between the Mace and the Table, and I hope that none of your Lordships will ever be guilty of it.

Then the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, spoke about what should be our proper behaviour over Starred Questions. He said that the purpose of such Questions differed as between the two Houses of Parliament. In another place, in his view—a view which lie derived, I gather, from an older Member of the House when he first came here—these Questions were accepted as being a proper method of "chivvying" the Government: and the noble Lord went on to add that in this House we dc not indulge in practices of that kind, and that, here, Questions are merely asked for the purpose of genuinely getting information. The noble Lord pointed out that if we want to "chivvy" the Government, we have perfectly good opportunities of putting down an Unstarred Question or of moving a Motion.

My Lords, I should not like to be taken as personally accepting the noble Lord's view on the purpose of Starred Questions in another place. I imagine that that view would be hotly disputed by Members of the House of Commons. But it is certainly true that, here, the purpose genuinely is to seek information. We can, of course, continue to ask supplementaries to extract further information—so long as we do not overdo it. But if any noble Lord is found— and noble Lords are sometimes found—after rising to ask a supplementary question, to be making a series of statements or, indeed, something very like a speech without any further question emerging at all (and I have seen that happen quite often) he is always called to order by the whole House. And that, as the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, has told your Lordships, is absolutely right.

For this House—and it is one way in which we do differ from another place—is not ruled by a Speaker. It is ruled by what is known as the sense of the House, and the sense of the House is interpreted not only by the Leader of the House, but also, and far more effectively, by the House as a whole. Members of your Lordships' House, therefore—not only on the Front Benches but on the Back Benches, too, and not only on one side of the House but in all parts of the House—should, in my view, be very jealous to call attention to any infractions of the rules and regulations of the House. It is a duty that lies upon each one of them.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, referred in his speech to a good many other Rules and customs of this place. I do not propose to traverse again all the ground he has covered so well. But I should like to say a brief word on one or two points—not points arising from Standing Orders, but points which arise from the unwritten customs and traditions of the House, which are perhaps more difficult to interpret. There is one custom which is not, I think, in Standing Orders, but which is nevertheless extremely important. It is that no speech should be made after the reply of the Mover of a Motion. I have known that rule to be broken, but I have always thought that it was a mistake. I am sure that, for the neatness and convenience of debate, it is far better that any noble Lord who wishes to intervene should come in before the reply to the debate. Then, of course. the Mover has his own opportunity of adding whatever comments he wishes to make. But for other people to come in after that is, I think, ragged and rather hard on the noble Lord who has already answered the debate and has no further opportunity of replying to additional points which are subsequently made.

Then there is the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, that the read- ing of speeches is alien to the tradition of the House. That is, of course, perfectly right; but we must interpret it fairly liberally. First of all, there are some noble Lords who have not great experience in public speaking and simply could not address your Lordships except with the use of a great volume of notes, and perhaps even a text. In addition, there is the position of Ministers. Ministers are in a position of great responsibility. They speak for the Government, and very often they have to stick to a certain formula of words, on which the Government may well be challenged later. Clearly, in a case like this, the speech—or some portion of it—may have to be read.

Then, there was a point raised by the noble Lord about quotations from debates in another place. I believe the accepted ruling is that Commons debates of the current Session are not to be quoted verbatim except in the case of Ministerial statements. I think I am right in saying that statements that have been made in previous Sessions of Parliament can be quoted, but not those in the current Session. I sometimes wish—perhaps because I am at present sitting on this side of the House—that it were possible to quote verbatim some of the statements of the leaders of the Opposition in another place. But that is not the practice at present, though I think it is one which the House might wish to consider at some future time. The present Rule, as I have already said, is that it is only Ministerial statements made in the current Session of Parliament that can be quoted verbatim.


My Lords, is not the point that you cannot answer in one House speeches that have been made in another House? The reason that you can quote a Ministerial statement in another place is because it is an ex officio pronouncement on the subject. Therefore. we in this House can deal with ex officio pronouncements in another place, but we cannot quote speeches.


The noble Lord is no doubt absolutely right. All I meant was that some of us may sometimes feel that the Leader of the Opposition might equally be making an official statement of the policy of his Party. I am not saying that, in this particular matter, an alteration ought to be made, but it seems to me to be one of those points which might at some time be further considered. Of course, statements made by the Government of the day in another place are binding in both Houses of Parliament, and therefore it is proper that they should be quoted.

There is one other point which I should mention. Peers should not preface their speeches by saying that they are speaking as representatives of any association or body. I would draw particular attention to this because I have noticed several infractions of it in the last few years. Peers have said that they speak for this association or that. That is really quite wrong. Even if they are quite frank about it, it is not in keeping with the traditions or the character of this House. Noble Lords sitting in this House sit here in their own personal capacity—and in their own personal capacity only—and they cannot be a delegate for anybody else. Those are the main points with which I wish to deal.


My Lords, might I ask the noble Marquess a question on that point? It seems to me that it is a matter of some importance. I quite appreciate that one cannot make a statement on behalf of some outside body; but it is a method of getting to the notice of the House views which are important. Surely it would be right to say that this matter has been considered by some body and these are its views, without necessarily speaking for the body?


I suppose all these things are very largely a question of how it is done. I have noticed some noble Lords saying, "I have been asked to represent the views of one or other body": at least, I seem to recollect one or two cases of that kind. That is wrong. If, however, a noble Lord likes to say, "I happen to know that this or another body has expressed certain views", that is presumably information open to all noble Lords. I do not see why he should not use that particular device if he wishes.

Then, there is this further point, which was referred to by the noble Lord. It may happen that, during the passage of a Bill, a certain matter may be raised on the Committee stage which may cause a good deal of discussion; arid thereupon the Government may say, "We think we had better postpone this until the Report stage." That often happens in this House. The noble Lord criticised that practice—I think very naturally, if I may say so—because he pointed out that on the Report stage a noble Lord can speak only once, whereas on the Committee stage he can speak as often as he likes: and if the point was a very important one, the House might be to a certain extent precluded from giving it the full examination that it should have. To my mind, that is a strong argument and I agree that it would be far better that we should re-commit than that we should break the Rules of the House by allowing noble Lords to speak two or three times on the Report stage. The only consideration I would put before your Lordships is this. I hope that it would not be too frequent a practice, because, if it were, it would lead to an immense slowing up of the business of the House. If every time something could not he settled on Committee stage we had to re-commit the Bill, that would lead to an immense expenditure of time.


My Lords, surely that is a matter of degree. If a Member gets up and says a couple of words in explanation of something, that is all right; but if he makes a long speech, lasting a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes, I agree with the noble Marquess.


I agree. Actually, we do not in practice have much difficulty about these things, which are usually discussed between the Parties and settled amicably on both sides.

Finally, the noble Lord brought up a very interesting point which concerned foreign affairs debates. I confess that I had not heard it before. Apparently, in old days, it was the custom in your Lordships' House that questions of foreign affairs were not raised except by agreement between the Parties. In practice I do not think one can make an absolute rule about that. An issue might crop up about which feeling runs very high—an issue which the Government of the day might feel it dangerous to discuss; and yet the Opposition might feel it essential to discuss it. In a case of that kind the Opposition must, in my view, have the opportunity of raising that subject. But, my Lords, surely what the noble Lord recommended is exactly what happens. We all know very well that, if, for instance, noble Lords opposite want to raise some particular aspect of foreign policy, what happens is that the Leader of the Opposition comes and says a word to me and we arrange for it to be put down. I cannot recall a single case since I have been in the House where the Government of the day on either side of the House has refused a debate on foreign policy, against the will of the Opposition. So, although the Rule does not in theory any longer exist, the practice still obtains.


The noble Marquess surely means "against the will of the Government"? He said "Opposition".


What I had in mind was that it is the Opposition who usually wish to raise these issues and they would come to the Government.




And say, "We should like to raise this question."




And the Government would either say, "That is quite all right" or they would try to dissuade them. If they failed to dissuade them, the Opposition would have a right to raise the question if they wished.


I think the noble Marquess said the word wrongly. I wanted to put the word right.


I am afraid if the noble Lord misunderstood me, that was my fault.

In conclusion, my Lords, I am sure we agree in all parts of the House that in drawing attention to these matters, the noble Lord has performed a most valuable service. As he has told us this afternoon, he has actually drawn up a paper on the customs and traditions of the House—written and unwritten—for the use of noble Lords. He was good enough to show this to me, and I asked his permission to submit it to the Procedure Committee, as it seemed possible to me that the combined experience of that body might be able to amplify what he had already included in the Paper. I frankly admit to the noble Lord that the Committee have kept it far too long, not because they were in any way, I can assure him, opposed to the distribution or the nature of his paper, but merely because they were concerned with other matters. For any part I may have had in this delay I should like to make the noble Lord my most sincere apologies. I suggest to him that by far the best thing now will be for the Committee to return the paper to him so that he himself can produce it. If the noble Lord will allow me, I shall make that recommendation to the Committee at their next meeting.


I am very much obliged to the noble Marquess.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to intervene for a moment or two to say how grateful I am, as a comparatively new Member of this House, to have been able to listen to the considerations put forward by both noble Lords who have raised these questions to-day, and to express my great indebtedness to the noble Marquess for the competent and explanatory way in which he has dealt with both the speeches made by the noble Lords behind him. It is not without significance that both these items came from the "other side of the Border." It is evidence of how careful Scots are. That is what sometimes gets the Scotsman his reputation for meanness, when really his is the most generous of all the races. Being careful is not a question of meanness at all; it is simply that a Scotsman strives always to be accurate, although it may sometimes be that he is called "mean," or, less offensively, is described as "pernickety."

At the instigation of the noble Lords, Lord Teviot and Lord Saltoun, we have been applying our minds to things of great importance, as I consider them. I come to this House imbued with a sense of the importance of its traditions, and anxious to conduct myself in accordance with those traditions. To the noble Marquess I would say that he has done a signal service to this House to-day, with the guidance of my noble friends on the "other side of the Border," by putting into one issue of our Hansard what seems to me practically to amount to an Erskine May—an Erskine May edition of Hansard that will be of great use to us in the days that lie ahead. I predict for this day's Hansard a very big call and I hope that the printers may be able to meet this increased call. I am indeed glad to have been able to listen to all that has been said to-day, and I shall certainly make great use of the OFFICIAL REPORT as a means of guiding myself in the future. I have got to know things to-day, and I shall be glad to remind myself of them from time to time—thanks to the careful way in which the two noble Lords put their Questions, and to the extremely kind and useful way in which the noble Marquess replied to them.

House adjourned at four o'clock.