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Consolidated Fund Bill (Debate Arrangements)

Volume 531: debated on Tuesday 27 July 1954

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

May I raise a matter in connection with Thursday's business, Mr. Speaker, as it affects all back benchers on both sides of the House? For the first time in the history of the House, I believe, there has appeared on the notice board in the Lobby a notice giving the subjects for debate on Thursday evening. Never before has such a notice appeared in connection with a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill, and I think the House ought to be given some explanation whether this constitutes a precedent and whether in future Members have to submit their names and subjects to you, or through the usual channels, in connection with such a debate.

I would remind you, Mr. Speaker, that one of the historic rights of back benchers is to raise any subject that they choose on this occasion. Whether so intended or not, it is an infringement of the rights of back-bench Members that such a notice should be put on the notice board. I hope that, having considered the matter —I gave you notice that I intended to raise it at this hour—you will give your attention to it and perhaps, in your wisdom, you may find that in future it would be far better that such a notice should not be put on the notice board, particularly when it is in juxtaposition to a similar notice relating to the Adjournment. The two kinds of debate are of a quite different character. I hope that you will be able to guide us in this matter.

I am glad that the hon. Member has brought the matter to my attention. The incident, of course, arose out of what I understood was the wish of the Opposition, to devote more time than usual to the claims of back benchers in these debates, rather than the absorption of all the time by a regular Front Bench Motion. That is a motive with which I sympathise. Hon. Members have written to me asking that I might notice them when the latter part of the debate takes place on Thursday, and these things were posted up.

Of course, I must make it clear—and I am glad of this opportunity to do so—that the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill enables any hon. Member to speak on any matter which touches the administrative responsibility of any Minister who is in receipt of any of the grants comprised in the Appropriation Bill, and the publication of the fact that notice has been given by hon. Members that they intend to raise certain subjects in no way limits the scope of the debate. I will take into account what the hon. Member says, and I am sorry if it was misleading in any way. I am glad of the opportunity of putting it right, but I want to make it quite clear that the rights of hon. Members are in no way affected.

Further to that point of order. Is it not unusual, Mr. Speaker, for the official Opposition to use the debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill in order to have a debate on a matter which is disclosed beforehand? It is most unusual to organise such a debate for back benchers because that has the effect of depriving other back benchers of raising the subjects which they may wish to raise, especially in view of the fact that, most unusually, in my respectful submission, the vote was taken on a Motion from the Government benches in a recent discussion on the Consolidated Fund itself. Therefore, if we have three or four back benchers organised by the official Opposition beforehand, the vote might easily be taken in that case before any back bencher has the opportunity of raising his grievances.

On that I should say two things. First of all, I have no knowledge of any organised effort on the part of these hon. Members. They wrote to me individually requesting that I might, if I could, give them a chance to speak on the Consolidated Fund Bill, and, as I thought that it would be for the general convenience of all hon. Members to know what subjects were likely to be raised, I agreed, because more than one hon. Member is interested in a particular subject. As regards this procedure having any effect on the rights of hon. Members, I am sure that is not so, because hon. Members, as I have said, are entitled to speak on the Consolidated Fund Bill.

May I point out, Mr. Speaker, that there has been no organised attempt to arrange subjects by back benchers? The suggestion that we made to you, Sir, was that this time should be allocated from seven o'clock onwards to back benchers, not only on the Opposition side of the House, but also on the Government side. There has been no organisation of any kind. It was simply suggested to you, Mr. Speaker, that you might make the arrangement.

Perhaps I ought to say that I do not think that the misapprehension to which the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has given voice is generally shared, because, since the publication of the list, I have had further requests from hon. Members who wish to raise their own subjects, so I think that disposes of that.

Further to the point of order. The period to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) is referring is the period after seven o'clock on Thursday. Up till then, arrangements have been made through the usual channels, and no one has dissented from them. But now, contrary to all procedure and practice, there appears in the Lobby a list of subjects, starting with Brazil, for debate at seven o'clock on Thursday. What is a back bencher to do? I have not been in the habit of communicating with the Chair on these matters, because it was never the practice to do so. It was the practice on the last day, the Friday, when it was a matter for the Chair to allocate the time.

I want to write to the Home Secretary and tell him that I propose to raise the question of the hydrogen bomb, which appears to be a matter of importance. How do I do it? Do I write, or am I to pop in during Brazil or during Suez, or during someone else's one and a half hours, or do I say that I am going to assert, on the one day in the year that I am entitled to do so, my privilege as a back bencher to act like a back bencher, to speak like a back bencher, and to say precisely what I think? This is the one day on which that privilege is there, and we are very reluctant to let it go without at least a little argument about it.

I have not in any way let it go. It is still open to hon. Members under the Standing Order to do as they please, but my experience of debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill is that the general convenience of the House is achieved if we take one subject after another continuously rather than fly from China to Peru, or from Brazil to somewhere else.

Further to the point of order. I was going to seek your guidance tomorrow, Mr. Speaker, because I wanted to know, as a matter of constitutional interest, whether I should be entitled to speak before the formal Motion was put on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I gather that it is the privilege of hon. Members, if they so desire, to speak on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I notice that the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison), who is very cognisant of constitutional matters, decided that there was going to be a debate on iron and steel. As a back bencher on this side of the House, I have much more important things to raise than iron and steel, and I have no desire to sell my heritage for a mess of pottage. I was going to seek your guidance tomorrow, Sir, as to whether, if I so desired, I might assert my constitutional right to speak on the Consolidated Fund Bill before the Motion was put formally to the House.

With very great respect, Mr. Speaker, I always understood that before Supply was granted there was a right to seek to redress grievances. As I understand it, right hon. and hon. Members opposite are prepared to overthrow all that, and formally to pass the Consolidated Fund Bill. Surely, it is true that once we have voted the money, we put ourselves in a very weak position. I have no desire to put myself in a weak position.

When I discuss matters affecting my constituents and my part of the world, I do not want to let the money pass if I want some of it. I think it far better, if I may say so with great respect, that if I want to raise grievances arising out of matters which affect my constituents, I should be allowed to do so before the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South gets the headlines for his iron and steel. My constituents are much more interested in the matters that I want to raise than in the right hon. Gentleman talking about iron and steel. I wish to ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, as to whether I shall be entitled to speak on the Consolidated Fund Bill before the Motion is formally put to the House.

In reply to the hon. Lady, this is, of course, purely an arrangement made through the usual channels for the general convenience of the House and has nothing to do with me. The Question will be proposed from the Chair, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

The Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill is exempted business and the debate can go on all night, but if this is to be put formally at the beginning of the business of the day, it is part of the business, and it comes to an end at 10 o'clock.

I am extremely obliged to you, Mr. Speaker, for your Ruling. In raising this matter I have no quarrel with the usual channels. The House would obviously find itself in chaos if arrangements of this kind were not made. The only point I want to raise is the matter of the notice. It has been put on the notice board for the first time, and may I say, with great respect, that I hope that it will be the last time?

As far as I understand, there is no reason in precedent why the Opposition could not officially raise a subject on the Consolidated Fund Bill without taking the Motion formally at all, thereby leaving the House in possession of that subject after the first subject, officially declared, has been exhausted. It is not unusual—in fact it has happened very frequently indeed—for the official Opposition to indicate through the usual channels that it wishes to raise a certain subject on the Consolidated Fund Bill, but there is no reason why the House should not be left in possession of the Consolidated Fund Bill after the official Opposition has actually had its say.

I do not know whether I can be helpful, but I wish to be. The problem for the Opposition was that we wanted a debate on iron and steel. We have very strong feelings about the sale of the iron and steel undertakings to private capitalism. We not only want a debate but a Motion; we not only want a Motion, but a Division. I believe that that is the proper fighting line for the Opposition to take in the matter. If, we left it on the Consolidated Fund Bill, we could not get a division. [Interruption.] Of course we could not, because we cannot vote against the whole of the Supply for the country, including old-age pensions, and so on. I do not want to play into the hands of the Government. Nevertheless, we have normally, on many such occasions before, had Motions and taken the time of the House on those. It is within the jurisdiction of the Opposition, and of course we consulted our friends about it.

However, we had had representations that back-bench Members wanted to raise various smallish matters affecting constituencies and not appropriate for the debate on the Adjournment on Friday. It was because we wished to meet the desires of back-bench Members that, in consultation with them this course was taken. But of course, Sir, I submit that it does not prejudice the right of the House to continue at a later hour on Thursday the debate on the Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill and for such matters then to be raised as hon. Members may wish.

I think that that is perfectly right. Of course, I never thought that it did prejudice that right. I think that when the Question is proposed, "That the Bill be now read the Third time," that is exempted business, and there is nothing that can stop the debate except the will of the House itself.

May I put a further point to you, Sir? The practice and rules of this House depend on precedent. By posting a list, I submit that you have created a precedent which the House in future can only deal with by a Motion.

I want to submit that to put up a list is equivalent to putting up a list of the speakers in the order in which they are to speak. It is a fact that this is the practice in another place. Any hon. Member who goes to another place in the afternoon may, if he wishes, see who is to speak and in what order and adjust his tea-time accordingly. It is not the practice of this House, and although you may have a private list of speakers in a debate—and I believe that you may—you do not publish it; although you may have a private idea in your mind as to what subject is to be allowed on the Second and Third Reading of the Consolidated Fund Bill, you would not publish it. I hope that you will acquit me of any disappointment in this matter, because I have been fortunate in getting the opportunity to raise a subject on Friday.

I will take into consideration what has been said. I am very anxious not to create in the minds of hon. Members any confusion as to their own rights. This was a list of those who had actually applied up to date to speak on the Thursday. I think that it would probably have been as well that it should not have been published. I am always to take advice from hon. Members and I shall do my best about it.