Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
When the Patronage Secretary moved this Motion earlier in today's proceedings, certain questions were asked about the principles, if, indeed, there are any principles, on which the Government are acting in exercising their privileges in the matter of choosing dates for Motions of this kind. My hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) asked questions yesterday about the, if not unprecedented, at any rate unusually long, delay in issuing the Writ for Hornsey.
I should have thought that that might be some partial explanation for the unseemly haste in applying for the Writ for an Edinburgh constituency but could hardly excuse the delay in applying for the Writ in an English constituency.
Before inviting the House to consent to this Motion, perhaps the Government will explain what they have in mind about all the other outstanding Motions of this kind. There is a certain amount of unseemliness, one would have thought, in applying for the Motion within four or five days of the announcement of the retirement, which I am sure we all regret, whatever our differences in politics, of the hon. Member whose place it is now sought to fill.
I think that most of us would like to express our regret at the reasons which have occasioned that and our sympathy with him in feeling unable to complete his term. That is no reason why there should be so much greater haste in filling that vacancy, because, after all, the hon. Member has not been able to attend our proceedings for a considerable time, in contrast with the quite unexplained, and, I should have thought, unforgivable, action of the Government in leaving the electors of Hornsey without representation for so long a period as three months.
It might very well be that there is an innocent and respectable explanation of that, but if there is, then surely the House ought to be informed of it. One recognises that by long tradition of the House the date on which a Motion of this kind is moved is at the discretion of the party to which the retiring Member belonged. No one would wish to complain of a certain amount of latitude and discretion in the exercise of such a privilege. All parties would want to exercise it from time to time.
However, there comes a point when the exercise of a discretion, without reasons and without obvious explanation, becomes an abuse. Obviously, if the Motion in the case of Hornsey were to be delayed for a very long time, it could have quite important constitutional consequences. Without wishing to delay the House about it, I should have thought that if we are to grant the Government the Motion which they have sought, they ought in fairness to explain the quite unreasonable delay in applying for a similar Writ in the case of the disenfranchised electors of Hornsey.
I assure the Government that this is a subject on which a lot could be said for a very long time. Surely, in the circumstances in which this matter was raised, the Government have had plenty of notice. We ask for some form of explanation. I think that the country would like it and I think that the House would.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) put the point very courteously and with great clarity, as he always does. Would it not be a matter of ordinary courtesy to give some form of reply, some form of explanation, even if that explanation be that this is a matter of discretion and that the Government choose to exercise it? We might not be very satisfied with that, but at least we should have been treated with some form of courtesy.
After all, these rules of the House, these conventions of the "usual channels," are things which have grown up, but they are not basically part of the laws of England. The constitutional law of England is that the people of England shall be represented. Over a short time delay may be a matter of convenience, but to go on indefinitely is, I should have thought, an abuse of the party arrangements and requires at least an explanation. I am not saying that in this case it is necessarily an abuse at all, but surely we should be told the reason for it.
I am sure that the whole House will thank the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) for his expression of regard for Sir Will Y. Darling, and regret at the reasons for his retirement.
The main answer to the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) is that it lies absolutely within the discretion of the Government or the Opposition, as the case may be, to choose the date. Therefore, I can say very little. However, there really is not very much mystery about this. If one examines the dates, the time is very little shorter in the case of East Ham, North than in the case of Hornsey.
I do not think that I am letting any cat out of any bag in saying that in both cases action is to be taken in the immediate future. Therefore, in both those cases, as far as I am aware—I cannot speak for the Opposition, because the discretion in the case of East Ham, North lies with the Opposition, but little birds tell me that things will go right—the matter is to be regularised, as the hon. and learned Gentleman desires. Consequently, I do not think that we need take this matter quite so tragically as the hon. and learned Member for Northampton did.
In the matter of these decisions generally, there is always, of course, a personal consideration to take into account. I am sure that I should be voicing the feelings of the House in regretting the death of the late Sir David Gammans, which occurred at a time of year which was not only tragic for his own family, but also rather difficult from the point of view of the arrangements which have to be made. The time of year now is, so to speak, a season of campaigning for politics, when Easter is over and when the election can be held before Whitsun, and it is a time of year when, by precedent, it is very often the case that Writs are moved.
Therefore, speaking for myself—and I shall be very surprised if the Leader of the Opposition does not agree largely with what I say—the time limit being about the same in both cases, and as both cases are going to be regularised almost immediately, I hope that that will satisfy hon. Members and will assure them that it was worth while raising the matter.
The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) for raising a matter which is causing them and the electors of Hornsey a great deal of concern. It is, of course, the case, as one of my hon. Friends particularly emphasised, that the decision as to when the Writs shall be moved rests, by precedent, entirely upon the party which has previously held the seat. The Lord Privy Seal has given us some explanation and has made the point, a perfectly fair one, that the difference between Hornsey and East Ham, North is not particularly great. In the circumstances, and to avoid any further debate when the Writ for East Ham, North is moved, I am inclined to suggest to my hon. Friends that we might leave the matter there.
May I congratulate the Government upon their delay on this occasion, because when they unaccountably hurried the issue of the Writ for Lewisham, North, so that they might have the by-election on the stalest possible register, their action met with complete and irretrievable disaster?