HC Deb 21 July 1966 vol 732 cc879-85

Mr. Gwynfor Evans On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I have leave of the House to take the Oath now in the Welsh language?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) for indicating to me that he might make this request this afternoon. I have had time to consider it.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that as Speaker I am bound, as he now is, by the practice and rules of the House. He is fully entitled to raise this matter, as he has done, at once, and he has done it courteously. I sympathise with his desire to speak in one of the great languages of the United Kingdom, especially as both my father and my mother were Welsh. What I am going to say, however, is in line with the Ruling giving by one of my predecessors, who himself spoke fluent Gaelic, but who, like myself, was bound to observe and uphold the rules of the House.

The rule is that hon. Members must address the House in English. The hon. Gentleman will find it in Erskine May, on page 441. The purpose of the rule is not to elevate the English tongue above others, but to ensure that the valuable contributions to debate which all hon. Members make can be understood by the others. My predecessor, when he was asked to permit a speech in Welsh, reminded the House of the words of St. Paul in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, Chapter 14, verse 9: …except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? The rule is also based on practical considerations. The OFFICIAL REPORTERS in the Gallery are not required to have any knowledge of the Welsh language and it would make their task infinitely more difficult if hon. Members were to speak in languages other than English. I hope, therefore—and I speak most sincerely—that the hon. Gentleman will understand that, in ruling against his request, I am not doing so in any sense of rebuke or of any disrespect to a very noble language, but I must rule as I have ruled.

Mr. Gwynfor Evans

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say that this Parliament is the only Parliament that Wales has, that Wales is a nation with a national language that has been spoken there for nearly 2,000 years and that the people of Wales will regard it as an affront if that language cannot be spoken now in this House at least to take the Oath?

In view of the great national awakening in Wales, may I ask you again to allow me to take the Oath in Welsh?

Mr. Speaker

I appreciate—

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. One of the rules of order of the House is that when Mr. Speaker is on his feet hon. Members remain seated.

I appreciate the utter sincerity behind the remarks of the hon. Member for Carmarthen but, as I have said, I am bound by the rules of the House.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. While I respect your Ruling, could not the difficulty of the OFFICIAL REPORTERS be got over by employing a tape recorder, which does not understand English or Welsh?

With regard to precedent, are you aware that your predecessor, in ruling on the question of the Oath in the time of Mr. Charles Bradlaugh, frequently made mistakes and that sometimes there is a need for discarding precedents? Are you also aware that when this House goes to another place the Queen's Assent is in the language of Norman French—" La Reyne le veult." I respectfully submit that the commonsense thing in these circumstances is to make a new precedent.

Mr. Speaker

The House is bound not only by precedent, but by its rules and its orders. I have a duty to the House to keep it to the rules and the orders. I am frequently invited to Wrest once the law to your authority ". The answer I must always give is that It must not be … 'Twill be recorded for a precedent; And many an error, by the same example. Will rush into the state: it cannot be. If the House wants to change its rules and its orders it can do so, but I must carry out the rules.

Mr. Hooson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I understand, the request of the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwnfor Evans) is not that he should address the House in Welsh, but that he should take the Oath in Welsh. While I appreciate your Ruling with regard to the practicality of this, in that we must understand each other across the Floor of the House, nevertheless, as this is the on!), Parliament in the United Kingdom for those who are Welsh speakers, English speakers or Gaelic speakers, surely they are entitled to take the Oath in their own language. That is surely a different matter.

The hon. Gentleman has already taken the Oath in English and has thereby shown that he acknowledges that English is a common language for us. Nevertheless, as the Welsh language is his language, as it is mine, surely it is a perfectly reasonable request that he should be allowed to take the Oath in Welsh. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am being addressed on a point of order.

Mr. Hooson

It is my recollection that the late Sir Winston Churchill used Welsh in the House and was not thereby called for a breach of order. When the Office of Secretary of State for Wales was set up by the last Labour Government, Welsh words of acclamation and congratulation were used in the House by hon. Members who were not called out of order.

I quite understand that English is the language of the House, but do I understand that, from the precedents, your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, is that the hon. Member cannot take the Oath in the Welsh language? This is a matter of the greatest importance to us in Wales. If this is to be the Parliament of the United Kingdom, at least we have the right to be heard. I ask for your Ruling. I respectfully submit that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to take the Oath in Welsh.

Mr. Speaker

I have heard the hon. and learned Gentleman at length because I have a deep feeling for the hon. Member for Carmarthen, who desired to take the Oath in Welsh, and I appreciate all the deep issues. I am aware of all the factors which the hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned. I have made the Ruling. He must accept it.

Mr. Elystan Morgan

Without challenging your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) has taken the Oath in the English language and is, therefore, a sworn Member of the House. As I understand his request at this stage is that he should translate that Oath into the Welsh language, which is his first language, as it is for many of us.

Mr. Speaker

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I understood what the new hon. Member was seeking to do and that the House understood. The House knows that he has taken the Oath in English and I rule as I have ruled.

Mr. Bence

On a point of order. Am I to assume from your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, that if a Welshman, born in a remote part of Wales and learned only in the Welsh language, was duly elected to the House, as he could not speak English, would not be eligible to serve in the House?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member knows that the Chair never rules on hypotheses. The Ruling is as I have stated.

Mr. Stainton

Further to that point of order. I hope to make my observations quite objectively and humbly, but it struck me that your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, was very much tilted within the terms of a discourse or debate in the House. I could not myself relate it with a Ruling or precedent on taking the Oath.

Mr. Speaker

When an hon. Member asks to take the Oath, he has to speak to take the Oath. In this case, the hon. Member wished to speak in another language. Erskine May lays down that hon. Members must address the House in English.

Mr. Heffer

I am not a Welshman. May I respectfully ask whether the Leader of the House will consider sending this matter of taking the Oath to the Select Committee on Procedure so that it can consider the taking of the Oath in Welsh or any other language which is acceptable within the United Kingdom Parliament?

Mr. Speaker

It is always in order for Parliament to change its own rules and procedure. It is not in order for Mr. Speaker to do so. If the House chooses to decide otherwise, it can always do so.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie

As a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, I welcome the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans). Wales has made history today by sending the hon. Member here. The point is abundantly clear. I am sure that it is the wish of the House that he should be able to take the Oath in his own language. That is entirely different from addressing the House. Speaking as one who acquired English as a foreign language, I consider that any hon. Member taking the Oath should be able to do so in the language of his heart.

Mr. Speaker

I have as profound a sympathy with the Gaels as with the Celts, but I have ruled on this issue. The House may choose to debate it at some time, but it must accept my Ruling. We must get on with the business.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Herbert Bowden)

With respect to yourself and your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, which every hon. Member understands perfectly well, I think that a valid point is at issue and that it may be an advantage for a Select Committee to consider this matter, if that is the wish of the House. If an hon. Member has taken the Oath in English, and would like to take it in another of the great languages of the country, perhaps he should be allowed to do so. I understand that there is provision for a Member to affirm if he does not wish to take the Oath on the Testament and there is probably also a provision somewhere—I will check this—for a Member who might be a Hindu or Parsee, for instance, to take the Oath in his own way. Perhaps this is an issue which we can consider sympathetically.

Sir D. Renton

Surely the important thing about taking the Oath is that it should bind the conscience of the hon. Member. If the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) feels in his own mind that his conscience will be more greatly bound by taking the Oath in Welsh, having already taken it in English, I humbly submit that he should be given the opportunity of taking it in Welsh.

Mr. Speaker

I am surprised that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should question a Ruling of the Chair. I want the House to understand that the Chair has ruled. It is in order for the House to change its rules at any time and if it did so it would obviously take into consideration the various arguments and the various factors which have arisen in today's rather important discussion. I must ask the House now to accept my Ruling and to get on with the business of the day. Mr. Grimond.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I called the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond).

Mr. Grimond

On a point of order. Without in any way wanting to dispute your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, may I, through you, ask the Leader of the House what steps he has in mind for carrying out what most of us would regard as a very desirable reform? There are many hon. Members who feel that addressing the House in Welsh is totally different from taking the Oath in Welsh, which is a personal matter for the hon. Gentleman.

We are greatly encouraged by the right hon. Gentleman saying that he will consider this matter, but what form will that consid2ration take?

Mr. Bowden

There has not been much opportunity as yet to give this matter a great deal of thought, but I think that the right thing to do is to look at the precedents, to consult the Clerks and the Chair and to talk about this matter through the usual channels in the first place.

Mr. C. Pannell

On a point of order. The Oath is governed not by Mr. Speaker, but by Statute. There would have to be a new enactment to alter the Oath.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

On a point of order. Are we to assume, after all, that the hon. Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Gwynfor Evans) has now made his maiden speech?

Mr. Speaker

This is something on which the Chair might be given discretion. I rule that he has not made his maiden speech. I end this matter by saying that I am sure that the House will want to welcome the new hon. Member and to congratulate him on raising an issue, on which he rightly feels keenly, with such dignity and courtesy.