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Opposition Front Bench

Volume 649: debated on Thursday 16 November 1961

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We are beginning a new Session, Mr. Speaker, and I wish to raise a matter with you which I would like you to consider. In doing so, I make no reflection on the Chair whatever, nor am I expecting a reply today.

Earl Attlee was responsible for the introduction of some ideas into this House which, in my view, have led to an organic weakness in Parliamentary practice. Tonight, there will be announced the names of the Labour Party committee which will be elected to represent those on this side of the House. I shall accept the constitutional results of that ballot and make no complaint about it, but I make a fundamental objection to what I am going to say now— [Laughter.]—which is the result of what I complained about earlier and which, in my view, is completely out of harmony with established Parliamentary practice. It is that a number of hon. Members of this House are selected and not elected. They sit on the Opposition Front Bench, which is quite out of harmony with historical Parliamentary practice.

As a result of this practice, Mr. Speaker and other occupants of the Chair call them both at Question Time and to speak in debates. In consequence, they get preferential treatment over many other hon. Members who have served this House in many ways and for so long. Therefore, I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you will be good enough to consider this practice and give us your views upon it so that we may eradicate this weakness which I have seen grow up in Parliamentary procedure.

Surely the hon. Member would not wish to put upon me and my office things which are not my concern. I do not in any sense direct where hon. Members sit or what hon. Members should sit on either Front Bench. I do my best, in allowing hon. Members to catch my eye for supplementary questions, not to bestow all the benefits upon the Opposition Front Bench, but the burden at the moment is very great. We are not making very good progress with Questions. I hope to have the help of the whole House on this, including the Front Benches.

What my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) is trying to bring to your notice, Sir, is that some hon. Members occasionally leave their back bench positions and go on to the Opposition Front Bench and then are fortunate enough to catch your eye. Is it absolutely necessary, to achieve that object, for hon. Members to go on to the Opposition Front Bench when they are not entitled to sit there by a prescriptive right? Could they not make their speeches, possibly just as effectively, from the back benches?

I think that the right hon. Member is referring to a matter of a private arrangement within the Opposition, about which I know nothing. As for this business of dodging on and off the Front Bench, I am not quite sure whether it works invariably to advantage, because, in practice, when one looks for an hon. Member where he was a moment ago he is not then there.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that for a great many years the prescriptive right to sit on the Opposition Front Bench, apart from that of a Privy Councillor, has resided with the Leader of the Opposition? That has happened under successive Leaders of the Opposition other than those of the Labour Party.

Further to the matter raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith), is it not the invariable practice of the Chair—apart occasionally from Privy Councillors, about which there is a great deal of controversy and also a great deal of confusion—to grant preferential treatment in calling hon. Members who sit on the Front Bench from time to time? Is not that the position?

Is not my right hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) correct in his assumption that if those who are assigned—not elected—by the constitutional methods practised by the Labour Party to sit on the Front Bench— [Interruption]. I am addressing you, Mr. Speaker, and I am not to be deterred by any murmurs from the other side of the House.

Not even from the noble Lord the Member for Dorset, South (Viscount Hinchingbrooke).

I shall continue to address my remarks on this subject to you, Sir.

I am asking whether it is not the invariable practice of the Chair to do as I have suggested. Would it not be rather more conducive to the harmony in the House, and a less objectionable practice, if those who sit on the Opposition Front Bench were selected in a constitutional fashion by all the Members of the Oppo- sition and the rest were allowed to sit on the back benches and take their chance along with others? Would that not be preferable?

There are a very large number of hon. Members wishing to speak today in the debate which is to follow. In so far as this is a matter for the Chair at all, I find there was a Ruling by my predecessor in 1939–40, OFFICIAL REPORT, Volume 361, c. 27–28. I wonder whether, to save the time of the House, I might in that way answer the right hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members by giving that reference?

Following the point raised by hon. and right hon. Members opposite, it will be in the recollection of hon. Members present that only ten minutes ago you, Sir, called the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) before calling the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. I think that that answers the point.

What happened then was that I saw the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) first. I should not like it to be regarded as a precedent in any direction whatsoever.