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On a point of order. May I seek your guidance and advice, Mr. Speaker, on what I consider to be a very important matter, touching the rights of all back benchers?
Last Thursday, when the Leader of the House announced the business, he said, in col. 661, that the first item for today would be the Vote on Account of the Civil Estimates and Defence Central Estimates. This is the business which we understood would be taken first and it was on my Party Whip as the first item of business. Then, suddenly this morning we read on the Order Paper that the Order had been changed, so that this Vote cannot be discussed at all. I would remind the House that this is a Vote of £3,240 million, which we as back benchers are now precluded from discussing. It might as well be water going under the bridge.
I would like to know from you, Mr. Speaker—perhaps I may remind you that you, too, were once a back bencher—what protection back benchers have against their rights to discuss this matter being taken away. Also, by what authority does the Leader of the House change the business of the House without advising the House that he intends to do so? This is an infringement of the ancient rights of back benchers. Many of us came here prepared to speak on this and are now denied the opportunity. What remedy have we, Mr. Speaker? Will you guide me?
Mr. Gresham Cooke:
Further to that point of order. I, too, like my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne), was interested in this subject, and I went to see the Clerk of the House yesterday afternoon to confirm my view of the Order Paper that it would be first business today. He confirmed what I saw on the Order Paper in the Lobby—which I think is put there by your authority, Mr. Speaker—that it would be the first business. I then asked him whether one would be entitled to speak on it and he said, "Certainly." On that, I spent two hours in the Library last night going over all the Votes on Account for the last four or five years, since 1964: I satisfied myself that this one is by far the biggest ever and that it represents a rise of over £1,000 million since 1964. I, too, was prepared to speak on this subject today.
I now find that if it is brought up at 10 o'clock tonight, no back bencher can raise anything, and that if it is put forward to Monday evening, as I gather it might be, it would then fall under the guillotine when again no back bencher could speak to it. It seems to me that, on constitutional grounds, there is a real grievance here, since we will have no opportunity of raising grievances before voting Supply—an opportunity which we should have. Therefore, I raise this with you, Mr. Speaker, very seriously on behalf of myself and other hon. Members who are interested.
Mr. J. T. Price:
Further to that point of order. A grant of Supply of this magnitude is certainly important, particularly to back benchers, but if we are discussing this in the absence of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House—
I am not his keeper or his batman.
If we are discussing what my right hon. Friend has done, is it in order for hon. Gentlemen to suggest that this is due to some fault on his part? This is a Supply day, within the determination of Her Majesty's Opposition. A great deal of criticism has been made here and elsewhere of consensus politics, and since the hon. Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne) is shooting his arrows at the Leader of the House, I want to know whether this is another aspect of consensus politics. What responsibility do the Leader of the Opposition and the Opposition Chief Whip bear for the change of business? These are fair points, Mr. Speaker, and if you would not mind ruling on them all at the same time, I should be obliged.
I can rule only on the point of order. I must point out, first, that the order of items of business appearing on Whips which are circulated among Members of Parliament does not come within my purview. The Chair knows nothing officially of such nefarious documents.
The arrangement of the business for today, since it is a Supply day, is in the hands of the Opposition. It is not unknown, from time to time, for the order of business and, indeed, the business itself as announced on a Thursday to be changed between the announcement on Thursday and the appearance of the Order Paper on any particular morning. It is inconvenient to hon. Members if, like the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke), they have been to the Library and prepared a speech which they cannot make today. I can only state the position factually.
The Vote on Account is, roughly speaking, an instalment payment. All the items coming within the Vote on Account may be discussed in various forms at various stages during the passage of the Estimates and Supply through the house. I have looked up the recent record. It is not usual to stage a debate on the Vote on Account, although it is debatable.
As to the change which has made it impossible for a debate to occur today, I understand that up to yesterday the Vote on Account item preceded the Motion which the House is about to discuss. The result of changing the order of business means that it will be impossible, if the debate on the foot-and-mouth disease Motion lasts until 10 o'clock, to debate the Vote on Account; it will be impossible to take any item of Supply after 10 o'clock. There still remains Monday, which will be the last day on which the Vote on Account can be debated this year. As to whether it should be put in a position on the Order Paper to enable it to be debated, that would be a matter for the Opposition. Mr. Speaker has no control over the Order Paper. He is the slave of the Order Paper, as he is the slave of the House. I have some sympathy with the points of order that have been raised, but they are not matters for me.
Further to my point of order. While I am grateful for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker—even though I have no remedy—are we to take it that on any Supply day the business previously announced by the Leader of the House may be altered subsequently, meaning that the right hon. Gentleman's announcements have no worth at all?
The hon. Gentleman has been long enough in Parliament to know that there are frequently changes in the order of business between what is announced on a Thursday and what transpires during the week.