Orders of the Day — STANDING ORDER No. 22

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th May 1976.

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10.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

I beg to move, That in the opinion of this House the use of Standing Order No. 22 on 13th April 1976 ought not to be cited or drawn into precedent on any future occasion.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I have not selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Lambeth, Central (Mr. Lipton).

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

The first thing I have to say about this motion is that it is only in a technical sense a criticism of the behaviour of the occupant of the Chair. I recognise that it is such in form, as indeed it was bound to be. I also recognise and acknowledge with gratitude the proper sense of the Leader of the House that, that being such, time should be found to debate it and to dispose of it.

It is for the Chair, and for the Chair alone, on any particular occasion to apply, within its wisdom and discretion, the Standing Orders and the precedents of the House. Nevertheless, the House remains the master of its procedure, of the use of precedents and of the Standing Orders themselves. From that it follows that, should it appear to the House that the interpretation given on a particular occasion to a precedent or to a Standing Order is, if I may use a phrase taken from another content, "unexpected or surprising", the House is entitled—indeed, it is the duty of the House—to ensure that for the future the use of that Standing Order is in accordance with its own mind and its own wishes.

After that preliminary, I turn to the actual case, because it is of the nature of the motion that it deals with an actual case, that which gave rise to the motion. First, I should like to remind the House of the tenor of Standing Order No. 22, which, significantly, dates from the 1880s, the years in which the procedure of this House was being abused to destruction for other purposes by a certain element. It runs, Mr. Speaker or the chairman, after having called the attention of the House, or of the committee, to the conduct of a Member, who persists in irrelevance, or tedious repetition either of his own arguments, or of the arguments used by other Members in debate, may direct him to discontinue his speech. There are two criteria set out in the Standing Order whereupon it becomes operative. One is that a Member is guilty of irrelevance. The alternative is that he is guilty of tedious repetition. But those in themselves, or either of those in itself, are not sufficient. He must persist in either or both—irrelevance or tedious repetition—before the Standing Order becomes operative.

If that is the tenor of the Standing Order, I ask the House to consider it in the light of the circumstances on 13th April, not only at which I was present myself but of which I have, of course, refreshed my memory.

I submit that in no natural sense of the term could it be held that persistence, either in irrelevance or in tedious repetition, had characterised the speech to which the Standing Order in question was applied.

It so happened that on that occasion, as the House will see from c. 1180 of Hansard, the hon. Member for Horn castle (Mr. Tapsell), who had been present during the greater part, if not the whole, of the relevant speech, remarked that he believed that the ruling was a very dubious … precedent and that it could establish a dangerous precedent for the future."—[Official Report, 13th April 1976; Vol. 909, c. 1180.] The object of this motion, if it commends itself, is to ensure that the interpretation that was given on that occasion to Standing Order No. 22 does not become a precedent. The reason why I believe it is so important that it should not become a precedent is that I cannot but believe that a great many speeches which have been made in this House on famous as well as insignificant, occasions, if they had been subjected to the same criteria as the Chair on that occasion applied to the speech of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse), would have been speedily brought to a termination.

Putting it in other words, it seems to me that uses of debate which the House recognises as legitimate and as fulfilling some of the purposes of the House itself would be found to be outside the rules of order if the use of Standing Order No. 22 on that occasion were accepted as forming a precedent.

Of course it is improper to persist in irrelevance after attention has been drawn to it; but it is not, and has not proved to be, beyond the capacity of hon. Members who wish to engage the attention of the House to discover methods of avoiding repeating the same irrelevant point, or at any rate of persisting in it in a manner which was recognised as such by the Chair.

Repetition is perhaps of the essence of debate; but repetition need not be tedious, even though it is lengthy—and even if it should be tedious, it does not have to be persisted in, but can be replaced by other forms of repetition, to the entertainment of the House.

In short, there are ways in which—we all know and understand this, Mr. Speaker—the purposes of Parliament are served by debate being carried on at considerably greater length than would be necessary for recording the point at issue if we were paying for it as a telegram. Some of the greatest occasions in this House—some of them occasions on which an important purpose on behalf of those whom we represent has been achieved—have been characterised by a skilful use of the time of the House—a use which, on those occasions, was never found to offend against Standing Order No. 22.

Therefore, it is important, if we do not wish in a real manner to impoverish our potentialities and procedure, to establish the exceptional and extreme character of the circumstances which justify the application of Standing Order No. 22.

I feel that it would be distasteful to argue at any length the application of Standing Order No. 22 on the particular occasion of 13th April. Therefore, I content myself with stating simply that where the attention of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North was drawn to an irrelevance by the Chair, he desisted from that irrelevance, even though he might subsequently on another ground have incurred displeasure of the Chair for a further irrelevance. I do not consider that anybody reading his speech could feel that it fell within the natural description of "tedious repetition", still less of persistence in tedious repetition.

The fact that a speech may try the patience of the House, the fact that a motion which it is hoped might be dis- posed of in a short time takes longer to dispose of, the fact that one hon. Member in occupying the time of the House may disappoint other hon. Members in engaging the attention of the Chair, are not considerations envisaged in Standing Order No. 22. They cannot therefore be taken into account in deciding whether this particular application of Standing Order No. 22 should form a precedent. Those are matters with which the House of Commons has other ways of dealing—and we have found them in practice to be sufficiently effective ways.

Therefore, I ask the House to record—not necessarily by passing this motion but in the form of the debate which is now taking place—that it attaches value to the ability of an individual, or a group, or an Opposition, to use the resources of parliamentary ingenuity and eloquence and to press them to the limit—which is strictly defined in terms of Standing Order No. 22 in its natural interpretation. Since those conditions were not fulfilled on 13th April, we should not in future regard Standing Order No. 22 as falling to be interpreted in the light of that ruling.

10.43 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I hope that we may be able to dispose of this matter fairly speedily. When I say that, I do not mean that I regard it as unimportant, in any sense. Because I believe that a motion such as this had to be dealt with, we provided time when the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) indicated that he wished to press his motion.

One reason why this House functions successfully—more successfully than many outside sometimes suggest—is that the respect for the Chair on all sides is strong and persistent and such motions as this are rarely needed. That is one of the indications of the strength of the authority of the Chair in all parts of the House. That is why such a motion—a motion that implies criticism of the Chair— should be debated. I am not saying that that is an invitation for further motions to be tabled about the Chair, but I am saying that to indicate that this is the proper way to deal with the matter.

I hope very much that at the end of this debate we shall be able to dispose of this discussion—not by the passage of the motion, but by recognising that the view of hon. Members in different parts of the House will be taken into account for the future as to the way in which rules are made. I think that is the right way for us to deal with this question.

Standing Order No. 22 has been used on eight previous occasions to ask an hon. Member to discontinue his speech and resume his seat. It should not be thought that the Standing Order has not been invoked before.

The conditions in which the Standing Order was invoked on this occasion must be taken into account. Debates on the motion to adjourn for a recess are in a somewhat different category from general debate.

The right hon. Member for Down, South referred to the need for hon. Members to use ingenuity in order to say what they wish to the House. That ingenuity must be applied particularly in Adjournment motions because it is not within the rules of order that general arguments should be elaborated. They must be directed to the particular motion.

It says in "Erskine May" that it has frequently been ruled that discussion on any matter that is irrelevant to the motion is out of order. The Chair has interpreted this on numerous occasions as meaning that debates on recess Adjournments must be confined to a statement of reasons why the House should or should not adjourn without an elaboration of detailed arguments.

The Deputy Speaker in charge on this occasion warned the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Stonehouse): All this detail of cases is irrelevant. That ruling was fully in accord with rulings made in virtually every similar debate over many years. I recall many of these debates since I took part in them. All hon. Members who participated in them recognised that it was not possible to enlarge upon the general arguments that might be relevant in general debates. The arguments must be directed solely to the question whether the House should adjourn at a particular time.

Since the elaboration of argument in these debates is out of order, it might be considered that a declared intention to make a long speech is an announcement by an hon. Member to disregard the rules of order. During the debate, the right hon. Member for Walsall, North said after having already occupied seven columns of Hansard:But 1 have only just started, Mr. Deputy Speaker. What I have said so far was just the preamble … I am raising a number of matters and I shall go on until 10 o'clock if need be."—[Official Report, 13th April 1976; Vol. 909, cc. 1170–1174.] That may have been a light-hearted comment, but it did not sound quite so light hearted when it was made. I remember how my heart sank and I dare say the heart of Mr. Deputy Speaker sank with a similar thud. He was entitled, of course, to take the whole of the circumstances into account. The Speaker has a special right to exercise the rule about relevance in Adjournment debates.

The right hon. Member for Down, South referred to the 1880s, when this Standing Order for demanding that a speaker should resume his seat was invented. I dare say that it was used against Charles Stewart Parnell. When he was once asked how he had become such a master of the Standing Orders of the House, he replied, "By breaking them". It was in breaking them that his knowledge became so great. I am not saying that hon. Members should be incited by that example. Just as all hon. Members have their rights, so Deputy Speakers and even Speakers have their rights.

I fully accept what the right hon. Member for Down, South said, that he was presenting only a technical criticism, so I hope that this debate will not be taken as a criticism in any respect of the Deputy Speaker who occupied the Chair at that time. He was exercising his judgment in circumstances which are particular to Adjournment debates. He is widely respected in the House, so this debate should not be construed as any sort of criticism of him.

I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the House would not wish it to be believed that some new precedent was being set on that occasion. I am sure that that was not the desire of Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that he believed that he was acting in conformity with previous precedents. There are a number of precedents, as I said, when this Standing Order has been invoked previously, when the Chair, during Adjournment debates, has made frequent requests to hon. Members to avoid the breach of order which is involved in persistent irrelevancy. I hope that it is in that spirit also that the House will judge this matter.

I repeat that it is necessary for us to have these debates when the Chair is criticised. It is because this outlet is available that we have so few disputes. I am sure that any future occupant of the Chair will take into account what is said in this debate. I dare say that something more is still to be said. I am not saying that the last word has been spoken by myself or even by the right hon. Member for Down, South. However, I hope that the House will be eager to dispose of the matter speedily, and that it will accept what I say—that we are not seeking to criticise what the Deputy Speaker did on that occasion, but that we are agreed that no new precedent has been set by what occurred, and that on that basis we can dispose of the matter altogether.

10.54 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Stonehouse Mr John Stonehouse , Walsall North

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) for putting down the motion and for the excellent way in which he moved it. I welcome the conciliatory speech of the Leader of the House. I agree that there is in the House a unanimous view, which certainly I share, of respect for Mr. Deputy Speaker and an acknowledgement that he has absolute right to make a decision about the application of Standing Order No. 22—or, indeed, Standing Order No. 23, which he also applied in regard to myself on that day. That had the extraordinary effect of ejecting me from the House soon after I had had a cup of tea in the Tea Room—at least I was able to have that. I hope the House will recognise that while Mr. Deputy Speaker has rights and responsibilities, which we all endorse, an individual Member, however small the minorty party to which he belongs, also has rights and responsibilities to say what he believes is correct. If as a result he is ruled out of order during a debate, there should not be undue condemnation of him for an action which he took believing it to be proper in the ven- tilation of ideas and facts that he thought were relevant to that occasion.

The ruling out of order of contentious matter, which happened, I submit, during the debate on the motion for the Adjournment on 13th April, is only one example of the gradual decay of Parliament, and of this House in particular. I believe that the House of Commons must turn its attention to this slow decay. In tonight's debate on the Army, reference was made to the non-attendance of hon. Members, and, at one stage, of Ministers as well. This happens time and time again. The pages of Hansard are littered with references by hon. Members to the fact that the House is deserted. It happens not only on Fridays, but on other days as well.

In discussing the application of Standing Order No. 22, we should remember that this is not a decision taken out of context—it is taken in the context that there has been a change in the way that this House goes about its business. There is far too much reluctance to grasp the really serious issues of the day. A lot of the power in economic affairs has been moved to a third chamber, situated at Congress House, of the TUC.

Standing Order No. 22, which we are now considering, was applied on 13th April, in my submission, not because of tedious repetition—which is why it should be applied—but because the content of the speech was becoming embarrassing to certain hon. Members. With regard to the length of the speech, I assure the Leader of the House that when I referred to the debate going on until 10 o'clock it was a light-hearted remark, made in response to Mr Deputy Speaker's interjection. The length of the speech on that occasion, when one deducts the interruptions, was only half an hour.

I have looked at precedents for recent debates on the Adjournment of the House, and I find that many other hon. Members have taken much longer than that. Hon. Members who have participated in recent years—particularly when the Conservative Party was in government—have used the opportunity of the motion for the Adjournment to range over a whole number of issues. One hon. Member, on one occasion—I think it was three years ago—spoke for over 50 minutes, and during his speech he was interrupted by the Chair only once. I do not think, therefore, that there can be any criticism of myself about the length of my speech.

As for being tedious, that is a matter of opinion. I cannot comment on that, but I can say that my speech was not repetitious. Many issues were raised in it within the general context of the growth of corruption in one form or another to which I was drawing attention and upon which I wanted the House to spend more time. This is not the occasion for me to expand on the point that I was raising in that debate, but I assure the House that my points were serious. There will be other occasions when I can raise them, and I intend to do so.

I regret very much that that incident took place. I have no quarrel with either yourself or your deputy, Mr. Speaker. I have the greatest respect for you both. You have a duty to perform. Of course I adhere to any ruling, and I hope that it will be accepted that an individual Member must make his position clear where he believes that a point of principle is involved.

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Member for Down, South, whom I regard as one of the greatest parliamentarians this House has produced in recent decades. I am grateful to him for the outstanding position he took on the question of the appointment of a Select Committee to consider the case of the right hon. Member for Walsall, North last year—it now seems so long ago that I have forgotten all about it. The right hon. Gentleman has done a signal duty tonight by introducing this debate in the terms that he did.

I have had the opportunity to consult him, and we who have with others signed the motion accept the spirit in which the Leader of the House has spoken to it, which implied acceptance of the points that are being made. In view of that spirit, I have the authority of the right hon. Member—and certainly I support the suggestion—to say that we will not press the motion to a Division.

11.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

It would seem a little ungracious if I did not from this Opposition Bench say that I entirely endorse what the Leader of the House said and, in particular, that there is no reflection against the integrity or competence of the occupant of the Chair on that day. I particularly welcome what was said by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), when he made clear that he was satisfied to have the debate rather than press the motion I have no wish to prolong the proceedings. I entirely agree with everything that the Leader of the House said.

11.4 p.m.

Photo of Mr Enoch Powell Mr Enoch Powell , South Down

In asking the leave of the House to withdraw the motion I think that it will be necessary to secure, with the consent of all who have put their names to it, that it disappears from the Order Paper. I anticipate that that will be done.

Having said that, Mr. Speaker, in the light of the debate, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I should like personally to express my gratitude for the way in which the House has dealt with a matter concerning the Chair.