HC Deb 12 December 1962 vol 669 cc409-12
Mr. Speaker

I have a statement to make to the House.

I understand that the Leader of the House is now in a position to report to the House the outcome of consultations which have taken place with a view to improving the procedure for Royal Commissions. I must now, therefore, rule upon the constitutional position in the light of which those arrangements have to be considered.

The House will recall that I was asked to consider whether or no our practice now allows us to decline to admit the Gentleman-Usher of the Black Rod, or, by implication, to delay our obedience to his request, for instance, by the further transaction of business.

The answer is, "No". For my assistance an examination has been made of the Journals of the House and of other authority. It confirms the accuracy as a statement of our practice since the Restoration of a passage in Hatsell's Precedents of Proceedings in the House of Commons at page 242 of the First Edition of 1781.

I will read the passage to the House. It is as follows: And, as it is the established custom, that, when the Black Rod knocks at the door, he is immediately let in (without any notice given by the Serjeant to the House, or question put, as is usual in messages from the Lords, and in other cases) I apprehend that as soon as he knocks, all other business, of what kind soever, must immediately cease, the doors must be opened, and, when he has delivered his message, the Speaker and the House must, without debate or delay, go to attend the King in the House of Peers. Indeed a contrary doctrine might lead into much confusion; for if the King came, as was not unusual in the reigns of the Stuarts, on a sudden to prorogue or dissolve the 'Parliament' and the House of Commons 'alone' could, by their forms, by refusing to open the door, or, after the message was delivered, by debating, delaying, or refusing to pay obedience to it, decline going to receive the King's commands, they would thereby have it in their power to resist, and render of no effect, the undoubted prerogative of the Crown.

Mr. M. Foot

Can you tell us, Mr. Speaker, why it is necessary for the House, in inquiring in this matter, merely to go back for its precedents to the Restoration? Would not we get better precedents if we went back a bit further?

Mr. Speaker

I do not know about "better" ones. It is true to say that the House treated the Lord Protector's Black Rod in a fashion which, without historical allusion, I might call "cavalier". But I thought that, for my duty to the House in 1962, 300 years of precedent would do.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)

I am sure that the House is grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement. As you will recall, this arose from the arrival of Black Rod at the time of Prorogation on 25th October, when the House was discussing questions arising out of the Prime Minister's statement on Cuba and the situation in India.

As you said, there have been some discussions between the two sides of the House and I think that the House will agree it is probably unnecessary to try to make separate arrangements for Prorogation, because it is clearly unlikely that a similar situation—that is to say, the moment of Prorogation coinciding with questioning on matters of world importance—would arise.

On the other hand, there are Royal Commissions from time to time and whenever possible we will continue to take these at a time and on a day as convenient to the House as possible. For example, last week there was a Royal Commission at six o'clock on a Wednesday when the business before the House, although of considerable importance, was neither controversial nor likely to attract large numbers of hon. Members.

I hope that these arrangements will be for the convenience of the House.

Mr. Gaitskell

May I thank you, Mr. Speaker, on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends, for your historical researches, and say that, so far as I am concerned, I am not tremendously impressed by the precedent of 1781. Nevertheless, I do not honestly think it worth while making a tremendous fuss about this particular issue. If we can avoid the kind of situation which arose on Prorogation recently and on an earlier occasion, when I think that Black Rod came at about four o'clock in the afternoon, there will not be much reason for worrying.

I should like to ask the Leader of the House whether, apart from the case of Prorogation, which, I agree, is rather special and unusual, he will in future make sure, so far as possible, that Black Rod comes—in other words, that there is a Royal Commission—when the business of the House is relatively uncontroversial and at a time rather later than four o'clock in the afternoon.

Mr. Macleod

We shall certainly always try to do this, but I must enter this caveat. There are occasions—indeed in a sense the occasion last week was one, because of the imminence of the date on which Tanganyika was to become a Republic—when it is essential to have a Royal Commission at short notice. Subject to that, I agree that a time at about six o'clock would be best. We shall always try to take it on a day when business is comparatively uncontroversial.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask a question of you, Mr. Speaker, although it may be that the Leader of the House can reply? On the assumption that Black Rod intervened during Question Time, could we arrange that if there is an interruption of Questions we might have an extension of Question Time?

Mr. Speaker

I think that that is a question for the Leader of the House. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman can assist about it.

Mr. Macleod

In this case it was not, of course, Question Time. To meet the wishes of the House the Prime Minister, at the time of Prorogation, made a special statement on matters relating to Cuba and to affairs in India. Then a considerable period, something like 40 minutes, was taken up by questioning, and the arrival of Black Rod put an end to that.

It may be that we should have allowed longer on that day. I am prepared to accept that criticism, although there were consultations. But, if that is so, the fault is mine and I accept the criticism. So far as the ordinary business of the House is concerned, the normal time of a Royal Commission is at six o'clock, if possible on a quiet Parliamentary day, to meet the convenience of the House.

Mr. Greenwood

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that although the proposal is not as radical as many of us would wish—we should have preferred Black Rod to be admitted only by leave of the House—nevertheless it constitutes a substantial step forward, and, in the spirit of Christmas, I accept it with appreciation.