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Debates (Selection Of Speakers)

Volume 307: debated on Thursday 5 December 1935

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I rise on a Question of Procedure. What I am about to say is in a way a reflection on the Chair, but in that the custom started before you, Sir, honoured us with your presence there, it is no reflection on you. It has been the custom of Parliament that there should be His Majesty's Government, supported by its followers, and His Majesty's Opposition. We have recently seen the Opposition splitting itself up into various sub-parties, with the result that they are given a preference as to speeches. In the last Parliament, fortunately or unfortunately, as one may think, there were 500 supporters of the Government and 100 supporters of His Majesty's Opposition, and yet in every Debate we had two speeches from the Opposition to one from followers of the Government, and I see this tendency spreading. It is not our business as followers of the Government how the Opposition care to split themselves up, but I have noticed, even in this Parliament, that the Independent Labour party are trying to establish their claim to separate speeches on every point.

In that admirable speech which you made to us when you were going to the Chair, you said that Parliament was already suffering from a lack of cut and thrust in debate. It is going to be impossible to have any cut and thrust if there are to be two or three speeches against the Government to one in their favour. It is impossible for back bench Members of the Government to go to the Government themselves. Their attitude is like the attitude of all Governments. The more followers they have, the less they speak, and the more they vote the better. Consequently I appeal to you as the defender of our privileges. We do not ask for any special treatment at all for the majority; we ask only to be put upon the same level as the Opposition, and for nothing less. It is in that belief that I make these remarks to you, Sir, to see if we can get a little more justice for the followers of the Government in the present Parliament.

The hon. and gallant Member kindly gave me notice that he was going to raise this question to-day, and it raises in my mind such very important issues that I have put down the reply I propose to make to them, and will read it to the House: Had the hon. and gallant Member put his question to me in the form of complaint against my selection of which Member during a debate happened to catch my eye, I should have ruled it out of order as a reflection on the conduct of the Chair, for dealing with which there is a proper Procedure laid down. But he has framed his question as a request for information not specifically on my conduct, but upon the procedure adopted by previous Speakers as well as myself. That makes it difficult to answer in the abstract, as I cannot speak for former Speakers, but can only reply for myself. It is quite true what the hon. and gallant Member has said, that the increase of parties in this House has made the task of the Speaker in giving a fair opportunity to all shades of opinion to be given expression to more difficult than it was when parties were less numerous. To call upon speakers according to the numerical strength of parties would not, I think, improve the character of our debates. If, however, he will realise that it has always been the practice, and I hope always will be the practice, in this House for minorities to get not only their full share, but, if anything, a more generous share than majorities, of opportunities of expressing their views, he will see that the speeches on the whole have been fairly divided between the different parties in the House. That, at any rate, has always been my endeavour. It is not easy to judge of these matters unless Members are present throughout the sittings. It is probably best to leave the decision to the Speaker of the day, and, if there is a complaint, to deal with it by the proper Procedure.

May I ask you, Sir, how you count speeches like the two that were made by the hon. and gallant Member for Wallasey (Lieut.-Colonel Moore-Brabazon) in the last Parliament about Standing Orders which were delivered by him as a supporter of the Government, but which were very savage attacks upon the Government of the day? Would a speech of that description be counted as one on the Government side or not?

May I, with the greatest respect, ask further, whether there can be elucidation of a point such as this? During the last two or three Sessions it will be remembered that when His Majesty's Government introduced certain legislation there was a very considerable number of Members in the House who were opposed to that legislation, greater in number, I think, than the other Oppositions combined. In a case like that it might sometimes occur that there might be one speech for the Government and three speeches from the various shades of normal opposition before the wholehearted opponents of the Measure were reached at all. May I ask if consideration can be given in such cases where there is clearly an alteration in the ordinary swing of the pendulum between speeches for the Government and the Opposition, and when a matter of vital importance is before the House?

That only emphasises what I have said that the multiplication of parties in the House makes it more difficult for the Speaker of the day to select the speakers, but I think that on the particular occasion to which the hon. and gallant Member refers, that party had ample opportunity to voice its views.

I should like to thank you for your remarks, Mr. Speaker, and to say that we all have the greatest confidence in your selection.