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Deputy Speaker faces Maastricht challenge: Commons ruling on amendment to treaty legislation is criticised

A RARE Commons challenge was tabled last night to a ruling by Michael Morris, the Deputy Speaker, who has refused MPs a vote on a critical amendment to the Maastricht treaty legislation.

Commons motions criticising the Speaker, or Deputy Speaker, are unusual; there have only been about half a dozen criticising the conduct of a Deputy Speaker, known more formally as Chairman of Ways and Means, in the past 40 years - and only one was pressed to a vote.

But Tony Benn, the former Labour cabinet minister, last night tabled a motion 'regretting' the decision of Mr Morris to stand by his March ruling that there would be no vote on Amendment 27 to the European Communities (Amendment) Bill.

Mr Morris had said initially that he would allow a vote on Amendment 27; a proposal that might force the Government to choose between its Social Chapter opt-out and the treaty.

But in a ruling that prompted Labour accusations of political bias, he said yesterday he had taken several factors into account in reaching his decision, 'including the committee's debates, the clarity and effect of the amendment, and its impact on the Bill, which, if brought into effect, must be workable and understandable'. The effect of the amendment is currently a matter of dispute between the Attorney-General, who argues that it would not block ratification, and government critics who say that it would - and would argue that case in the High Court if necessary.

Mr Benn told MPs it was open to them to appeal against the judgement. 'It has never been my understanding that the chairman had any responsibility whatever for considering either the intelligibility of an amendment, or for that matter its effect, if introduced into the legislation.'

That point was reinforced by Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, who said: 'I cannot myself accept that it is the responsibility of the chair to take into account political judgements about the effects of amendments on legislation. Surely the rule of the chair is to determine whether or not an amendment is procedurally in order, and not to make political judgements?'

But he indicated that Labour would not support Mr Benn's motion - because it would in effect throw out the baby, the possibility of getting a vote on Amendment 27, along with the bathwater, or Mr Morris.

Mr Benn's motion, which is expected to be debated tomorrow, argues that the decision of Mr Morris to allow a debate, and then rule out a vote, denied the House 'an opportunity to reach a decision on an issue relating to the applicability of the Protocol on Social Policy contained in the Maastricht treaty, which the Government held to be so important that it sought, and obtained, a special opt-out for the United Kingdom'.