Business and Sittings of the House

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 22nd October 1947.

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Photo of Captain Harry Crookshank Captain Harry Crookshank , Gainsborough 12:00 am, 22nd October 1947

The economic crisis has been before the country for a long time, and we were all under the impression that there were some grounds for thinking that it had by-passed the Government. They were the ones who did not know. I do not wish to go into details, which are of interest to no one except the right hon. Gentleman, as to when he did or did not read Erskine May, but he said that a good deal of time which was reputed to be Government time was at the disposal of the Opposition. We are talking, however, of the time which used to be at the disposal of Members on both sides of the House, not about anything to do with the reasonable time which is at the disposal of the Opposition. I hope the Lord President will allow the Amendment I have moved to go to a free vote of the House, because it concerns every Member of this House. He said that all Governments, at once time or another, had had to move the sort of Motion which he had moved. Without having an opportunity for research while sitting on the Front Bench, I will take it from him that all Governments have done it. I should doubt it myself, but whether they have all done it or not, I should be safe in asserting that except in time of war no Government had done it for three successive Sessions. That is the situation with which we are faced today.

The Lord President tried to reinforce himself by quoting something that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said on a previous occasion. Just as the new Secretary of State for War accuses the Conservative Central Office, quite wrongly, of having specially detailed reporters after him, it looks as though the Lord President has some "research assistants" spending all their time reading my right hon. Friend's past speeches. I can only express the hope that those research assistants are on the pay roll of Transport House, and are not civil servants. I do not see why the State should pay civil servants to do it in order to give points to the Lord President. They ought to be doing something for the good of the State as a whole, and not educating themselves and the Lord President.

I am astounded that the right hon. Gentleman, this year, could make a speech on this subject without making any reference to the Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, which the House set up to investigate this problem, among others. Last year it would not have been possible, on the corresponding occasion, for the Lord President to have said much about it This Committee, on which I had the privilege to sit at the order of the House, under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Newton (Sir R. Young), was appointed in August, 1945. It was instructed to sit in spite of the fact that the House was not sitting. We worked hard and produced three Reports, the last of which was presented, not in the last Session of Parliament, but in the one before. That report was dated October, 1946.

I must say in the absence—I cannot see him—of the hon. Gentleman that, speaking for my colleagues on this side of the House who sat on that Committee, we think it regrettable that the Lord President did no even refer to our recommendations on this subject of Private Members' time. We do not ourselves boast that we did good work, but we put our time at the disposal of the House, and I think it rather discourteous that the right hon. Gentleman did not even mention the fact that we made some suggestions on this subject. He says, as I suppose others before him who have had to move a Motion of this kind have said, that it is necessary to get the Government's business through. He, more or less, put it on the grounds that it was necessary to get the Government's legislation through. I only hope that after this Debate some hon. Gentleman will find it sufficiently interesting to look through our Report and, possibly, through some of the evidence, and he will find that, in point of fact, the right hon. Gentleman did not believe in Private Members' time at all. He is not for it. He does not think it a good thing. Therefore, he is quite happy to come here today and suggest that we should not have any this year. He is on record as saying, in the evidence on page 140: Quite honestly, I thought them"— that is Private Members' Debates— for the main part a waste of Parliamentary time. Later, in reply to a question from myself, he said: I am bound to say that I did not miss the loss of those Private Members' days, and I do not believe I would if I were a Private Member I think the time of the House could be occupied with something much more useful. The trouble is that the right hon. Gentleman belongs to that very select company of Members of this House who got office almost at once after entering the House, and if one looks up his very distinguished Parliamentary record one finds that he was only on the back benches for less than one year; and people like myself who sat on the back benches for ten years, and others who sat much longer, do realise the value and importance of Private Members' time. I thought that the Prime Minister would have welcomed Private Members' time because it gives opportunities to Private Members and also many opportunities to junior Ministers. One could have tested their strength and failings and one might have had quite a different change in the "second eleven," even before now, if some of the young secretaries had had to come Friday after Friday to win their spurs. Private Members have had, under Private Members' time, real opportunities in raising matters of interest to themselves or their constituencies, subject, of couse, to a ballot which they would not have had otherwise.

It is no answer to say that there is plenty of time given to the Opposition. The Opposition is an essential part of the running of the House and of our general constitutional system, but so are Private Members. Let us be quite clear about that, because the right hon. Gentleman I do not think gave a satisfactory reply to that fact. I think that more than half of the present Members of the House have had no experience of Private Members' time, and they can only take the statements made by the right hon. Gentleman or by me or some of my hon. Friends who have sat here for a long time. We must be quite clear that there are two questions at issue. There are Private Members' Bills and Private Members' Motions The right hon. Gentleman tried to make out that there had been only three Private Members' Bills which ever amounted to anything, and I think that the reference which he made in his speech suggesting that the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) had in some way tried to make a stooge of him, was going a bit far.

To take Bills first, the opportunity has been afforded to hon. Members in the past to promote Bills and they were not always party Bills; that is to say, they received support from all parties, and a great number were passed. They were by no means limited to the three to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. A note by the Clerk of the Committe on page 169 of our Report shows the average number of Private Members' Bills passed in any Session. This may be rather astonishing news to the House. In the 20 years between the two wars the average number of Private Members' Bills per Session which passed into law was 10.8 I do not know what.8 of a Bill is, but that is where one gets in statistical matters, and we will make it 11 for the sake of argument. Eleven Bills became law whereas 56.3 were introduced but not passed. That is a creditable achievement of legislative output on the part of Private Members. We are going to be deprived of that possibility.

The second thing is Private Members' Motions. That is an entirely different question. It is open to Private Members to initiate Debates, again as a result of a ballot, and I feel rather tenderly about that loss of Private Members' time, because it was on a Private Members' Motion that I first made a speech in this House; and it is a good opportunity for other people to make their first speeches. A great number of those who subsequently obtained distinction in the House will be found to have spoken then for the first time. It gives an opportunity for hon. Members to raise all sorts of matters, whether of great consequence or trivial consequence to their constituents. While it is true that under the present system of Adjournment Debates they have half an hour every day, and something has been done, it is nothing like as much as used to be the case, and no one can pretend that half an hour was enough for the great bulk of the questions raised on Adjournment Debates daily during the last Session.

I plead with the right hon. Gentleman to reconsider the whole position and not to press this Motion today. I say that the right hon. Gentleman is definitely against Private Members' time. He does not like it. He has no personal experience of it, and he wants to do away with it. Every successive year that this Motion is passed makes the chances for the future more remote. We may hope to get over what may be for one year, but now it is two years and next it will be three years. If this Parliament ends and there has never been any Private Members' time at all, I wonder if it will ever come back? If it does not come back the right hon. Gentleman will have had his way, because he does not believe in it. There is no doubt about that because the evidence says so, and he does not contradict it.

The curious part is this—and this is another point which I want to put because I think that it is important—that the gist of the right hon. Gentleman's speech today has been that it is necessary to have all the legislation which the Government want; that there are certain opportunities for right hon. Gentlemen here on these Benches to initiate Debates as the official Opposition, and that that is quite enough. That is the gist of his argument.