It would be for the convenience of the House if I indicated now my decision as to the selection of amendments in tomorrow's debate. I have looked at these amendments carefully. It appears to me that arguments in respect of all of them would be relevant to the general debate. I intend to select the amendment standing in the name of the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition.
Representations have been made to me, perfectly properly and courteously, that I should call the amendment standing in the names of the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) and a considerable number of other hon. Members. In my last week as Speaker, nothing would be easier or more pleasant for me than to accede to any request such as that. But I am afraid that I must say what I think to be right on what is a procedural matter. It is important that the Chair should try to maintain the procedures of the House.
This is not a judgment on the merits of the question. I fully realise the importance of and deep feelings about
unemployment. But the Select Committee on Procedure, in its Second Report in the Session 1974–75, did advise an experiment about allowing for another vote. It stated:
For the reasons set out in the preceding paragraphs, Your Committee do not recommend that Standing Orders should be amended to make a general and permanent change in the sense suggested by Mr. Steel. However, they consider that the House may find it useful to proceed by way of an experiment, as Mr. Speaker has proposed, confining such an experiment to the proceedings on the Address in reply to the Queen's Speech.
I extended that recommendation on my own authority to an amendment after the four-day debate on devolution. I am now asked to extend the innovation to a one-day debate, although on a very important topic. That would go far beyond the Select Committee's Report. It would be a precedent involving a basic change in the procedures of this House. I feel that such a change in Standing Orders should be made only with the authority of the House as a whole.
I am very sorry about this, and I assure the House that no pressures at all have been put upon me to rule as I have. I am disappointed—I understand the feelings of hon. Members—to have to say "No" during my last week, but I must do what I think is right.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate the point made at the very end of your ruling but draw attention to one relevant constitutional matter connected with the ruling and the interpretation of the change of rule.
In the years leading up to the change of rule and the advocacy of the experiment, it was pointed out time and again that it is frequently the case that in a matter of major policy—and obviously this applies, as you have indicated, Mr. Speaker, only to matters of major policy—there is an understanding between the Government Front Bench and the official Opposition Front Bench about giving special place in our proceedings to matters of basic policy. But then any segment of opinion in the House—however important, however numerous and however representative of a segment of opinion in the country—is not in a position to make itself heard in the centre of our political life.
That is why the change of rule was advocated, and I draw attention to the fact that the official Opposition have now put on the Order Paper an amendment which specifically seeks to amend not so much the motion put down by Her Majesty's Government as my amendment. From the text, it is apparent that the two points attacked are the major points in my amendment.
I believe that I carry opinion in all parts of the House in suggesting that if a vote is not allowed on my amendment, the House will be prevented from coming to a decision on the disagreement about the economic strategy on which the two Front Benches are united, and which I seek to question.
It is purely on those constitutional grounds that I take the unusual step of urging you, Mr. Speaker, to reconsider your decision and to come to a different one.
The hon. Member has put that point to me already today, and I assure him that I considered it very carefully. It would be very easy for me, in my last week, to say "Yes", but I must do what I think is right. This is a very important procedural point for the House as a whole, and I cannot take it upon myself to depart from what is, I think, the spirit of the rules. I may think that the rules should be altered or I may not, but as things are I cannot do it. I beg the hon. Member to accept that no pressure has been put upon me to rule as I have. I have done it believing it my duty so to rule in preserving the procedure of the House.
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept entirely, Mr. Speaker, with respect, the case you put forward, but I recall that there have been occasions, before you became Speaker, when my hon. Friends and I have had amendments called in this House—not under this new procedure but long before it was ever dreamed or thought about. May I therefore, with respect, Mr. Speaker, ask you to reconsider your decision, on the basis not of this precedent but of previous precedents under previous Speakers? One such example that I recall was a debate on Vietnam, and there have been other issues on which amendments put down by Labour Back Benchers have been called.
Many of us in this House, Mr. Speaker, wish to express a positive opinion, and to be able to vote for the action we believe it to be necessary for the Government to take. We are now being edged into a position, much against our will, where we may have to vote in a non-positive way, or in a negative way, when what we want to do is to tell the Government the changes we believe to be essential, without voting entirely against all Government policies on unemployment.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one who, were the amendment to be selected, would not be voting for it, I support the points made very reasonably from the Government Benches. I was the person who drafted the proposal from the Select Committee on Procedure. Unfortunately, when the Committee accepted the recommendation, it did so with the very narrow restriction that the experiment should be confined to the proceedings on the Address in reply to the Queen's Speech. You then extended that experiment, Mr. Speaker, with total acceptance by the House, to the general debate on devolution.
We face the difficulty that an amendment—which I think was tabled first—representing a perfectly clear and specific point of view, and attracting a large number of signatures, is preempted. It could have been open to selection but for the fact that the official Opposition have, quite properly, put down their amendment. This is an intolerable position, and since, Mr. Speaker, you have already extended the advice—it can only be advice—from the Select Committee on Procedure, you are now free, with respect, to consider extending it further.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You have mentioned quite rightly, with respect, Mr. Speaker, that the circumstances of the devolution debate were unique. Over 100 Members on the Government side feel that the present level of unemployment is a far more important issue than any of the devolution proposals. There are 11- million good reasons, Mr. Speaker, for urging you to change your mind.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If we are to exercise democratic principles in this country, they must apply to an important debate such as the one on unemployment. The opposition to the Government proposal must be heard not only from the official Opposition but from the Government side as well. We hope, Mr. Speaker, to be able to put forward constructive proposals.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope, with respect, that you will reconsider your ruling, bearing in mind that Members of Parliament have a duty to scrutinise the work of the Executive. You will no doubt appreciate that Back-Bench Members of the majority party do not have any part in decision making. Important decisions have been made by the Cabinet concerning the economy.
One way of drawing attention to the very strong feelings within the majority party concerning the present state of the economy, and the very high level of unemployment, is by putting down amendments. If these amendments are not called, and no action is taken on them, so that we are denied an opportunity of voting, there may well be a tendency for the Executive to regard them as so much paper, without any effective force or feeling behind them.
As already indicated, 104 Members of the Labour Party have signed the amendment. Therefore I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give earnest consideration to reviewing your decision and setting a precedent, otherwise one is bound to ask what level of unemployment must be reached before the House of Commons is prepared to change its procedures. In such circumstances the standing of the House with people outside is bound to be adversely affected.
When reflecting on this matter, Mr. Speaker, I hope you will take into consideration the intellectual ferment that takes place here concerning the right to speak. One would like simply to be able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, without first having to write one's name on a list or slate.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw to your attention the fact that, had it not been for the signatories to the amendment in question demanding a debate on unemployment repeatedly during business questions on Thursday after Thursday, such requests would not have been acceded to and that, following the motion by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) under Standing Order No. 9, the request to grant this debate came about? Therefore, the very basis of the debate springs from those hon. Members who tabled the amendment. For that reason, we ask you to change your mind.
Taking first the remarks by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Small) about the shortness of speeches and about who is likely to catch my eye, I might say to him that he will have a very strong claim because his speeches are always very brief and because tomorrow's debate is exactly the kind of debate on which I should have liked to operate a time limit had I been given power to do so. But I have not been given it, and I greatly regret that.
With regard to the remarks of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery), if I had allowed a debate under Standing Order No. 9, I should not have been in my present trouble. I said that I thought that there should be a full day's debate, and it is that which has put me on the horns of this dilemma.
I shall consider the matter carefully again. Speaker Brand closured a debate without any authority to do so. Speaker Gully failed to suspend a sitting when he might have done. In each case, the Standing Orders were altered afterwards.
But my difficulty is that if I select the amendment in question on this occasion, it would be very hard to say why, whenever there was an important debate, the same precedent should not be followed. I do not think that I should tie a millstone of that nature round the neck of my successor.