HC Deb 26 February 1906 vol 152 cc802-4
EARL PERCY (Kensington, S.)

I beg to ask the Secretary for Foreign Affairs whether he has any announcement to make with regard to the future arrangements for answering Questions dealing with foreign affairs.


Perhaps the House will allow me to make my statement a little general, with regard both to answering Questions and to debate. It does require some adjustment and some indulgence on the part of the House to enable me to combine with attendance in the House the work of the Foreign Office. But I have never felt that it was in the interests of the House itself not to give some latitude of that kind, because I think it is in the interests of the House that it should not accept the doctrine that it is impossible for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to be a Member of the House of Commons. I hope that what I now ask the House to accept will leave to it at least as much freedom of effective discussion as it has been the practice for the House to have in recent years. First of all, I would ask the House to bear in mind that both the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Prime Minister are now in the House of Commons. That, of course, strengthens the House in regard to debate, and as regards debates on Foreign Office questions I shall, of course, so arrange the work of the Office that I shall be always in the House when any foreign question is under discussion. I think it is possible to do that, because debates on foreign affairs are not of excessive frequency, and when they do take place they do not last for more than a day or two days without intermission. With regard to Questions, I do not think it is possible, at any rate without strain and inconvenience, for me to be present in the House on four days every week; and what I would ask the House to accept is an arrangement by which I shall be present on two days in the week. I shall be present in the House, for instance, next Thursday, which, in addition to this day, will be two days this week, and in subsequent weeks I shall be present on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Mondays and Wednesdays I would ask the House to accept Answers from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Local Government Board, if it is more convenient to Members to put Questions on foreign affairs on those days. As to supplementary Questions, the late Government asked the House to accept at one time a total restriction, and latterly a very considerable restriction, on such Questions. I assume that they did that because inconvenience had arisen owing to the giving of supplementary Answers. I am quite willing to revert to the original practice of not restricting supplementary Questions so far as I am myself concerned; but the House must bear in mind that a certain risk attaches to supplementary Answers, which are received abroad without full understanding of the circumstances under which they are given, and are scrutinised as considered statements with a deliberate intention behind them. I must therefore ask the House for an equal discretion, so far as I am concerned, as to answering these Questions. I hope the House will accept that arrangement, and will see that under it the liberty of the House will not be in any way interfered with in regard to Foreign Office questions.


May I express our thanks for the courtesy with which the right hon. Gentleman has endeavoured to meet the wishes of the House? The arrangement he now proposes is, I think, the best that could be arrived at under the circumstances. I will only venture to express the hope that the rule as to supplementary Questions not being addressed to the Secretary to the Local Government Board in the absence of the Secretary of State may not be too rigidly adhered to. Something which fell from the Prime Minister the other clay seemed to imply that I quarrelled with the arrangement which enabled the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to continue to sit in this House. That was very far from my intention. What I had in my mind was the arrangement by which, when last a Foreign Secretary sat in this House his Under-Secretary sat here also. No one would regret more than myself the withdrawal of the right hon. Gentleman from this House, and I hope he will long continue to take part in our debates.

Forward to