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Parliamentary Debates

Volume 127: debated on Friday 19 February 1988

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9.34 am

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I did not want to raise this matter last night because to do so would have eaten into the Adjournment debate that had already commenced. Will you, Mr. Speaker, look into the events in the House of yesterday and the day before on the basis that the maintenance of good order in the House is dependent on you and also on hon. Members trying not simply to stick slavishly to the Standing Orders, but to stick to them in spirit as well?

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was one of the hon. Members whose local authority areas were directly affected by the order before the House. During the debate, which was fairly short, more than half an hour—more than one sixth of the time available for the debate — was taken up by Conservative Members who had no direct involvement in the areas covered by the order.

Throughout the debate on Wednesday, which was devoted to the proposed dismemberment of the Inner London education authority, only four Conservative Members who represented ILEA areas spoke. Other Conservative Members rose to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, and they are entitled to do that. However, several Opposition Members who represent ILEA areas were not called as there was not enough time because those Conservative Members took part.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, you ruled, quite rightly, that any hon. Member had a right to take part in any debate. On Wednesday, when two of my hon. Friends from Scotland wished to raise legitimate points of order during the debate on ILEA, you told them that it was an ILEA debate. Therefore, my hon. Friends sat down and did not take up time in the debate.

It lies within the power of the Chair not to alternate from one side of the House to the other, but to choose speakers who are affected directly by a subject under debate. My right hon. and hon. Friends believe that it is extremely important that you should not be trapped, as you were yesterday, by the circumstances that were forced upon you by the actions of Conservative Members.

Opposition Members are moving to the view that either there is a deliberate organised effort on the Conservative Benches to crowd out hon. Members who have a legitimate right to speak, which was characterised during Scottish Question Time not long ago, as you may recall, Mr. Speaker, or there is a case for some increased discipline on the Government Benches — [HoN.

MEMBERS: "What is the point of order?"] My point of order— [HoN. MEMBERS: "There is no point of order.] We now have a voluntary Chair—(Interruption.]

Order. A point of order has been put to me and I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would be brief.

My point of order, which I thought I had made clear at the beginning of my comments, is that order in this House is dependent not simply on slavishly following the letter of the Standing Orders of the House or on accepting your rulings—which should be accepted—but on general behaviour and attitudes. It would have been possible for us today to have arranged for the Labour Benches to be full of Labour Members representing constituencies—[Interruption.]

Order. I believe that I understand the drift of the hon. Gentleman's point of order. Will he bring it to a conclusion?

In those circumstances, Mr. Speaker, can you confirm that it lies within your power to choose speakers other than by alternating from one side of the Chamber to the other if you believe that, in fairness to those present, and to the people they are attempting to represent, it would be better for you not to follow that practice? From time to time you vary that practice, particularly during debates on Fridays.

The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) has raised an important point. He should know—it would be right for the House to know —the cause of the trouble last night. The motion passed last Friday, restricting the debate to an hour and a half curtailed the proceedings. Had that time been allowed, I suspect that every hon. Member who wished to be called would have had that opportunity. That is not a matter for me. The hon. Gentleman talks about being trapped. I am afraid that the Chair was trapped in having to put that motion at 10 o'clock.

As to the general proposition, of course what the hon. Gentleman suggests would be possible. However, it might be to the detriment of the right hon. and hon. Friends of the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras if I adopted that practice as a regular method of proceeding. I will bear in mind what the hon. Gentleman has said.

May I say, apropos of last night, that up to the time when I returned to the Chair, every hon. Member who had been called from the Government Benches represented a rate-capped authority. Subsequently, I called two other Government Members who made brief speeches. One of them represents a Nottingham seat and was not from a rate-capped authority but he was in order, and the other lives in a constituency that has been rate-capped and I believe that he had as much right as any other hon. Member to express his point of view.

However, I shall certainly bear in mind what has been said by the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras. I appreciate that the life of Back-Bench Members is one of great frustration. It is my constant desire to ensure that as many of them as possible are called. It would be of great help to the Chair if I had the authority under the Standing Orders to limit the length of speeches. I regret what occurred last night, but I hope that in future the Chair will be supported.