HC Deb 20 February 1920 vol 125 cc1225-9

I wish t raise a question affecting the individual rights of Members of the House which, I believe, was under discussion yes erday, namely, the limiting of the number of questions to be put by any hon. Member on any one day to three. I should like respectfully to submit to you, Sir, the difficulty in which this places certain hon. Members. When I came to the House first the number of questions to be asked was limited to eight. Gradually that number has been reduced, and now we are only to be allowed to ask three if this ruling is carried out. I presume it will take effect on Monday next, and therefore, with your permission, I take this opportunity of laying before you the case of the party with which I am associated. The number of Members of that party in this House has greatly diminished, but small though we are in number, we represent a very large portion of the country which we come from, and we are inundated with questions on matters of general interest to the people of that country. It is therefore absolutely impossible for hon. Members occupying a position such as is filled by my colleagues and myself to ask all the questions which we ought to put if that number is to be limited to three. I would, therefore, very respectfully submit that individual Members should be allowed to revert to the old practice of asking more than three questions, because in this case it is not only a matter which affects the individual, but it is one which concerns the whole country. I would, therefore, ask you, before you give a final ruling upon the question, to consider the position of the Members from Ireland who sit with me on these benches, and, if possible, to give a favourable reply to my request that no restriction should be put on the number of questions they are to be allowed to ask.


It would be quite inadmissible to make a selection in favour of a particular party. What, if that were done, would become of the National party? How many questions would they claim? Yesterday, when there was some discussion as to the limitation being confined to two or four, I suggested as a compromise, which seemed to be generally acceptable to the House, that the number should be three questions per day. But the limitation as to the number of questions to be put on the Paper applies only to those to be answered orally. There are a great number of questions, in fact I shall say a great majority of them, which are put down to be answered orally which might be answered by letter.

Lieut. - Commander KENWORTHY

May I ask your ruling, Sir, on this further point. I understand that yesterday you decided that the sense of the House—I hope only temporarily—was in favour of this further curtailment of the already limited privileges of private Members, and especially of private Members who form part of a small Opposition. I understand that in future only three questions may be put on any one day by an individual Member for oral answer. Before that decision was come to I had already given very long Notice, as I had been requested to do, of four questions for one day next week—questions which I considered to be of extreme importance at the present moment. I take it that other hon. Members have similar questions of importance. May I ask whether these questions, which were put down before your ruling yesterday, will be allowed to remain on the Paper, although they may exceed three in number.


They can remain on the Paper, but I certainly shall not call the fourth question. The hon. and gallant Gentleman complains that there is a limitation of the liberties of Members, but the object is really to give Members more opportunities. Certain Members, by asking a vast number of questions and by putting supplementary questions, curtail very considerably the opportunities of other Members who are not so forward.


My recollection is that some ten or twelve years ago, when the limitation commenced, very little inconvenience was caused by the arrangement. I venture to submit that one reason why there are so many questions on the Paper is that, as an inevitable result of the war, there are so many questions that require to be cleared up. The other submission, which I make with very great respect, is that it has frequently been found, after Debates in which apparently the sense of the House has been entirely on one side, that the voting has been very much the other way, and I venture to say that mere cries by hon. and right hon. Gentlemen, or the cheers given at Question Time yesterday, afford no real indication of the feeling of the House. Will it not be possible to take some form of vote on the point? I am quite unbiassed in this matter; I have never put down more than two question and I do not ask many, but I do submit this is an important matter which affects vitally the liberties of individual Members.

Lieut.-Colonel GUINNESS

May I point out that it is always at the beginning of the Session that this trouble arises. By the end of the Session it is largely removed, because the arrears of Questions have been dealt with; further, this curtailment is very, very dangerous to the interests of minorities. It does not matter to us on these Benches, but it does matter enormously to a small Opposition if it has not an opportunity of putting questions. We may all perhaps be in that position at some future date. May I put this further consideration—the present system automatically deals with a large number of questions of small importance which, having been starred but not reached, are automatically answered by the written method in the Official Report. If the question is of real importance it is possible for a Member to withdraw it and put it down for another day. Another point is that it is always possible for a Member who wants a verbal answer to his question to get it in the course of the week by putting it down on the right day. During last Session I never failed to get a verbal answer to questions to which I attached importance in that way. The whole trouble arises from the fact that Members very often put down questions on the wrong day, and then regret that they do not get an immediate answer. I would very respectfully suggest that this is a matter of such importance that it is hardly reasonable to settle it just by the clamour of people who happen to be in the House at the time, and it would be more consistent with the liberties of the House if it could be referred to a small Committee.


I will put this to the hon. and gallant Gentleman. Suppose he had been in my place yesterday and had heard and seen what took place. Would he snap his fingers in face of the decision of the whole House, and say, notwithstanding the unanimous demand of the House, "I am going on my own particular line." It is impossible.


May I respectfully ask you whether, in coming to this decision, you have considered the double limitation which is placed upon Members by the entirely novel decision of the Prime Minister not to attend this House to answer questions on more than two days a week. In that sense a double limitation is placed on enquiries by Members, and it hits a very small minority such as that to which I belong. The second point which I wish to submit, with very great respect is—is there not a real remedy which has been indicated in the House several times and which appears to receive general assent, namely, a slight extension of the time allowed for questions each day, say by a quarter of an hour.


I am not questioning the decision taken yesterday; I am saying that I accept and will carry out that decision. There is no doubt, whatever, what the views of the House were.


I have raised this question several times in the House, and the suggestion made to me by the Leader of the House was that a memorial should be got up and presented either to you, Sir, or to him, signed by Members of the House, in favour of the extension of Question Time till 4 o'clock. That is a responsibility which should not be placed on any Member of this House, especially on an Irish Member, seeing that we are only entitled to ask questions practically on one day in the week. For my own part, I wish it had been possible for you, Sir, to have submitted the question whether there should be an additional 15 minutes for Questions to the vote of the House, as you submitted yesterday the question of the number of questions each Member should be entitled to ask. In the absence of an extension of the time for Questions, I am entirely in favour of the decision which you declared yesterday. Any Member of the House is rewarded for his Parliamentary assiduity by being allowed to ask three questions every day. I do not care if I am only allowed to ask one question, provided you do not limit the supplementary questions, because I regard the supplementary questions as the foundation of well-ordered Parliamentary liberty, as the most serious embarrassment of Ministers who do not want to give accurate answers, and as the most scientific method of securing Parliamentary truth.

Several hon. Members rose


I think this conversation must now cease.