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Procedure (Select Committee)

Volume 728: debated on Thursday 12 May 1966

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

Select Committee appointed to consider the Procedure in the Public Business of the House; and to report what alterations, if any are desirable for the more efficient despatch of such Business:

To consist of Eighteen Members:

Mr. Arthur Blenkinsop, Mr. Channon, Mr. Donald Chapman, Mr. Denis Coe, Mr. Roy Hattersley, Mr. Eric S. Heffer, Dr. David Kerr, Mr. Selwyn Lloyd, Mr. John P. Mackintosh, Mr. Edward Milne, Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth, Sir William Robson Brown, Sir George Sinclair, Mr. David Steel, Mr. Turton, Dame Irene Ward, Mr. W. T. Williams, and Mr. Woodburn.

Power to send for persons, papers, and records:

Power to report from time to time.—[ Mr. John Silkin.]

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they do report first on—
  • (a) the times of sittings of the House;
  • (b) methods of voting.—[Mr. John Silkin.]
  • 11.34 p.m.

    I want to protest against what I can only describe as the castration of the Committee of Procedure. I want also to say to my hon. Friends that since the hour is late, I do not propose to press my protest to a Division and if they want to go home they are at liberty to do so. It is also incumbent upon me to declare a certain negative interest. I have been, and it is quite possible that I am being, and will be, accused of being annoyed because I have been left off the Committee on which I served in the preceding year. It is perfectly true that I am annoyed but it is equally true that on this occasion I have let go by the portion of the Question which was read out, appointing the members. When this was put down on the Order Paper last Friday I did not try to amend it in the sense that I could have done to insert my own name. I can only say, and I hope that hon. Members will believe me, that my interest in this case is not purely personal.

    The point here is that this Committee is being appointed with Instructions, first to consider times of sittings, and secondly to consider methods of voting. It cannot consider anything else unless these two things have been considered. Many hon. Members of this House believe that those two things should be considered. But whether they should be considered first, above all things, before any other question, is something that the House ought to think about.

    On the question of the timing of sittings, I hope that my hon. and right hon. Friends when they come to reply to this will assure us that they will consult all Members of the House, because this is something highly personal. All of us would have some preference about times of sittings. Some of us would rather have the House sitting earlier and some of us might even like it to sit later. This is something about which I hope we are going to be consulted.

    One thing that the Committee is not going to be able to do is abolish the reason why the House sits very late. The principal causes of this House sitting very late are Committee stages of Bills. In past Sessions the Committee of Procedure has considered financial procedure and Supply. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer went so far as to say, in his Budget speech, that the Committee had not gone far enough in considering this matter. It is recommended that all this, if I may so call it, mumbo-jumbo that we have just been through in the last few minutes, when the House went into Committee, then out of Committee and back into the House, back into Committee and then back into the House again, should be abolished. The Chancellor said that the Committee of Procedure did not go far enough and the reason why it did not do so was because it did not consider the process of legislation, which is the most important thing with which this House has to deal. After all, this House is a legislature and the things which normally keep us late on most evenings are Committee stages of Bills, and in particular the Committee stage of the Finance Bill, as every hon. Member who sat through the last Finance Bill will know very well.

    This Committee on Procedure will be totally unable to deal with this until it has considered the question of times of sitting in the abstract, in other words we can start earlier, in the morning, but there is nothing to stop us ending as late in the evening as we may already do. There is nothing to stop us dealing with different stages of Finance Bills or anything else on the Floor of the House until the Committee on Procedure considers legislative procedure which, under this Instruction, it will not be able to do.

    The second thing which the Committee is asked to consider is methods of voting. It is a fact that in other legislatures, both on the Continent and in the United States, voting procedures take longer than in this House. We are annoyed because we go through a sort of cattle-pen called a Lobby and we take 10 minutes to decide an issue. In fact, we take three minutes, because seven of the 10 minutes is the time allowed before whoever is in the Chair says, "Lock the doors". Those seven minutes have an essential purpose, as anyone who has been in certain parts of the premises which one does not usually discuss on the Floor of the House knows full well. It requires seven minutes to get out and get into the Lobbies, especially on an occasion as in the last Parliament when the Government might depend upon one's vote.

    My hon. Friends correct me. I understand that the period of time before the doors are locked is six minutes. In any event, only four of the 10 minutes are spent in the actual voting. No electronic procedure in the world can save a great deal of time if that is the amount of time taken by our present procedure.

    In other legislatures, one vote can take as much as half an hour. Yet this issue of four minutes is regarded as more important then any other issue of procedure which the House can discuss. I submit that there are other issues which could be discussed.

    My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, as head of an executive in the country, in the first major speech in the present Parliament has at long last conceded the case for what we commonly call specialist committees or, as he put it, committees concerning themselves with administration in the sphere of Government Departments. He conceded the case, and he said that their mode of formation, their procedure and their powers should be discussed between the usual channels, by which I presume he meant the Chief Whips and the leaders on each side.

    If there are to be specialist committees of the House, is it not possible that the House itself ought to have had some share in those discussions? For many years, Members of all parties have been saying that the House ought to have specialist committees to consider the functions of the executive. Now it has at long last been conceded by an executive, but the House itself is not to discuss it.

    There is not even an assurance in the speech that they will be Committees of the House. One trusts that they will be, but there is no assurance in the speech. Yet I would suggest that it is conceivable that the Committee of Procedure ought to be considering not four minutes of voting, but how those committees should be set up and what their procedure should be.

    I submit that they ought not to be Select Committees in the sense in which the House now understands, because, for example, they would have no power to decide themselves whether they should meet in public or in private. Hon. Members may not realise that a Select Committee of the House cannot decide that by a majority. A Select Committee can meet in public, but it must meet in private if one single Member objects. That is hardly democratic. They used to meet in public until 1939. Since then, because of the war and for other reasons, they have continued to meet in private. But a specialist committee should be able to meet in public or in private and be able to hear evidence in public or in private, as it feels the need. If it were a Select Committee, it could not do so. Surely points such as this are worth considering.

    Let me take another point, which is that of the appointment of Committees.

    A month or two ago Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon caused the subject of Vietnam—which is of major interest to a country which has its troops at war there, irrespective of the view that one takes of it—to be debated throughout the United States, by the simple process of saying that he wanted it discussed. It was discussed because he was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. In this country he could not have done so because the Members of such a Committee would have been appointed by the Chief Opposition Whip and by my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip. They would have chosen the "safe" Members on each side of the House.

    When Committees are appointed in this way, can one honestly feel that before the war a Churchill would have sat on an India Committee, that some of the right hon. Gentlemen opposite whose views on Rhodesia differ from those of their leaders would necessarily sit on a Commonwealth Committee and that some of my hon. Friends—as indeed one of my hon. Friends pointed out in a debate on Procedure in the last Session—whose views on Vietnam differ from those of their leaders would necessarily sit on a Foreign Relations or Defence Committee?

    If, as the Prime Minister said, we are to have specialist committees, we as a House should elect them, not by a simple majority as has been the historic tradition, but on a basis of proportional representation, so that every group of opinion, from those in favour of Ian Smith in Rhodesia, to those of my hon. Friends who believe that our policy in Vietnam is wrong, is represented in proportion to its size.

    My hon. Friends are, of course, entitled to disagree with me on these things if they wish. All I am saying is that these things should be considered. They deserve consideration, not merely through the usual channels, but by the House itself. If, at long last, we are to have specialist committees, the House itself should consider the issues.

    This Committee on Procedure is limited to considering two things first. It is to consider the times of sitting—before it has considered the question of committees, before it has considered whether, if the House sits earlier, this will interfere with the meetings of committees or anything else—and, secondly, it is to produce a method of voting which will save perhaps four minutes.

    There are other issues which ought to be discussed. I apologise to my hon. Friends and to hon. Gentlemen opposite for keeping them here at this late hour, but I think that what I have said deserved saying. This House has many issues of procedure to consider, and it ought to be allowed to consider them.

    11.48 p.m.

    I do not propose to get involved in a detailed argument with the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) on the various issues which he has raised.

    I think we all have to remember that the hon. Gentleman, through no fault of his own, has not yet been in Opposition, and only came into the House in the last Parliament. Anyone who is in Opposition soon becomes aware of the immense value of procedure if the Opposition wish to delay a Government who are introducing pernicious legislation, and therefore I would hesitate before throwing overboard all the machinery which we have tried to build up over the centuries and have in its present form today.

    I have risen to take part in this discussion only because the Leader of the House is in his place. He will recall that at the beginning of the last Parliament I raised with him an issue which was followed by a Motion on the Order Paper. There is a similar Motion on the Order Paper in this Parliament, and it calls for the setting up of a Select Committee on Science and Technology.

    This Motion was put down at the decision of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee which, as hon. Members know, is an all-party Committee, bringing in people from outside the House, as well as from both Houses of Parliament. We have been told by those who have worked on that Committee that there is a crying need for more time to be made available than has hitherto proved possible, owing to the Parliamentary time available in the Chamber, for the study of reports from the Privy Council, the Atomic Energy Authority, the National Research and Development Corporation, and similar bodies whose work is vital to our economy. All too seldom does Parliament consider their reports.

    On the Order Paper today there appears Motion No. 39, signed by the hon. Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer), Chairman of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee; my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price); the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Lubbock): the hon. Member for Westhoughton (Mr. J. T. Price);, myself; the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. Carol Johnson) and about six other hon. Members. We feel very strongly that this matter requires urgent attention. I point out to the Leader of the House that what disturbs me about the Motion is that the only thing about which there is any urgency for the Committee to consider is the question of the times of sitting and the method of voting. I would like to have seen this matter given an early priority for consideration by the Committee, and I hope that the Leader of the House will be prepared to give us some hope that at a reasonable date the Committee will consider this very important point.

    11.51 p.m.

    I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) for raising this matter, even at this late hour. Although I do not agree with a great deal of what he said, it is important that back benchers should assert their rights in the House of Commons, and I go a long way with him in his criticism of the terms of reference of the Select Committee on Procedure.

    From time to time we all get a little browned-off over the question of going through the Division Lobbies, but going through the Lobbies, especially when one's party forms the Government, has quite a salutary effect on Ministers, because it is the only time of the week when back benchers are able to buttonhole a Minister and ask him what he is doing about something or other. That is a privilege that I am deprived of in Opposition, because shadow Ministers have not quite the same influence. But this is one of the important reasons for physically going through the Lobbies, rather than voting in some other way. It means that Members of Parliament have an opportunity of being together and discussing matters, and are able to buttonhole Ministers much more easily than under any other system.

    I agree with the hon. Member, also, that the points that the Committee on Procedure is being asked to consider are by no means what I would put on my list of priorities of what needs to be considered in connection with the reform of the procedure of the House of Commons, but I do not agree with him on the question of "mumbo-jumbo", because I have timed this procedure on more than one occasion, and although it appears to waste a certain amount of time I very much doubt whether the total time taken in moving the Mace from the Table and putting it down amounts to two minutes a day. It may look longer, but I do not think that cutting it out would save such an amount of time as would enable us to have many more powerful debates than we have been able to have in the past.

    The House is seized of the fact that it is not just because we have had a Socialist Government for 18 months—I blame my own party just as much for it—that with the more complicated system of modern society the legislative assembly is rapidly losing control of the Executive. That is why there is a demand in the House for specialist committees to consider the various problems. As back benchers are all too well aware, it is very infrequently that we get the opportunity of nailing a Minister on any subject, and we feel that with this system of Select Committees we would have a better opportunity.

    I do not think that we can carry this matter very much further tonight, having made our protest to the established authorities in the House—the Leader of the House, and so on. It is unfortunate that the Committee has been given these terms of reference, because I agree with the hon. Member for Nottingham, West that there are subjects of far greater importance, particularly on the question of Select Committees and how we get some grip on the Executive. I do not go all the way with the hon. Member—he would not expect me to—but I do think it unfortunate that these two minor matters are given priority over other matters for the Committee to consider.

    11.56 p.m.

    The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
    (Mr. Herbert Bowden)

    The House is now discussing the Question

    "That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they do report first on—
  • (a) the times of sittings of the House;
  • (b) methods of voting …"
  • The reason for adding this Instruction, which is different from the Motion on Procedure which appeared on the Order Paper earlier in the week, is that, on reflection and on re-reading the contributions made from both sides in the debate on the Gracious Speech—the speeches from the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Liberal Party, from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, from my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) and others, it was obvious that they thought that in our consideration priority should be given to sittings of the House. That is wide enough to permit us to cover morning sittings, later sittings, if it is so wished, or a complete change in the sittings of the House. An additional reason for the priority is that the Select Committee on Procedure, immediately before the election, when it had finished its deliberations at that point was considering sittings of the House after considering Supply procedure.

    The second priority—methods of voting—was put in because here, again, it was brought out during the debate on the Queen's Speech. It does not in any way prevent consideration of any other matter than Procedure, but we should first like reports on these two items.

    The Prime Minister, in exchanges across the Floor today with the Leader of the Opposition, promised that within the next week or 10 days discussions would take place through the usual channels on our proposals for specialist committees. It will not be necessary for this to go to the Procedure Committee because there is already a great deal of information in the House as a result of earlier discussions. Having discussed it through the usual channels—and, I hope, having reached agreement—it will then be for the House to approve the form of the specialist committees.

    The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) referred to a Select Committee on Science and Technology. This, too, was being discussed immediately before the election through the usual channels. One view was that it could be tacked on to the Committee on the Nationalised Industries. That proposal was rejected by the hon. Gentleman himself and other hon. Members. We have not yet continued those discussions in this Parliament, but we shall do so, and I think that in a reasonable time we shall see the Committee set up.

    There is no bar on the Select Committee considering anything at all, but we feel that we would like reports on these two items first.

    Question put and agreed to.


    That it be an Instruction to the Committee that they do report first on—
  • (a) the times of sittings of the House;
  • (b) methods of voting;
  • Five to be the Quorum.—[ Mr. John Silkin.]