HC Deb 20 February 1920 vol 125 cc1223-5

I want to ask the Secretary of the Board of Trade a question, of which I have been unable to give him proper notice, but I think he will be able to answer it. It was originally to be raised as a Question of Privilege, but, Mr. Speaker, you have ruled that it ought to have been done yesterday and cannot be done to-day. The question that I want to ask is how it is that in the Vote Office the report of the Standing Committee on Trusts about cotton profits is not available. It appeared in full in the Press yesterday morning. No Member could get a copy of it yesterday, and it is still unavailable in the Vote Office. I should like to ask the hon. Member when copies are likely to be available for hon. Members in the Vote Office, and how it is that it appeared in the Press yesterday?


This is the first that I have heard of this matter. I have had no notice of the question, and I am afraid that any answer that I can give is rather vague. I am extremely sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says, and, as far as I can accelerate the production of this print, I will do so. I certainly was under the impression that it was in the Vote Office, but I will take steps to see that it is there as soon as possible, and that is all that I can say. I cannot explain why it is not there, because the hon. Member has never given me the chance of finding out.


On a point of Order. I am sure that it would be very useful to the House if you, Sir, could give a ruling on the subject. Apparently, what happened was that two days ago this Report was laid in the Journal Office of the House. It was quite impossible for hon. Members to know that a Report had been formally laid in the Journal Office. The next day—yesterday—it was laid in the Library: it was in the Journal as having been laid, and those Journals were accessible in the. Library at half-past eleven in the morning, but the Report had appeared in full in the Press at a very early hour yesterday morning, long before hon. Members could possibly have known that it had been laid at all. May I respectfully ask you to tell the House what the attitude of the Department ought to be in the future? I should very much like to ask you whether Departments ought to send Command Papers to the Press before they have been actually circulated and hon. Members know what are their contents. In Erskine May, page 566, it says that by an order of 20th March, 1871, the Papers have to be laid on the Table in such a form as to ensure a speedy delivery thereof to Members. It seems to be very inadvisable that a Government Department should give the whole information to the Press before hon. Members know in the least what the Paper is about, because very likely there may be favouritism. I do not say for a moment that the Government in this case have favoured any section of the Press, but, if this rule is to hold good, there is nothing whatever to prevent the Government favouring a certain section of the Press, and certain sections of the Press getting information before other sections. Therefore, if I may respectfully ask you, I am sure that it Would be very useful to hon. Members to know what the attitude of the Departments ought to be in the future.


Before you answer that question, may I say, as to favouring any special section of the Press, that it is entirely foreign to any desire of the Board of Trade or of any other Government Department. If my hon. Friend, however, knew of this a day or two ago, surely he might have given me an opportunity of ascertaining what exactly has happened. I could then have given him a complete answer to-day. He says that he knew this a day or two ago, but he has given me no notice. Had he given me half-an-hour's notice, probably I could have found out exactly what has happened, I protest that one ought to have notice of a question of this kind if the House expects an answer.


I have already explained to my hon. Friend that it was going to be raised as a question of privilege, but Mr. Speaker ruled that it could not be done to-day, and I have raised it in the form of a question.


In reply to the hon. Member, I have to say that what I conceive to be the duty of a Department is first to lay papers in dummy on the table here, and then, as soon as there are sufficient copies printed, to distribute copies to the Members. If the Department like, at the same time, to send them to the Press, there is no objection. But there is a strong objection to any Department sending papers to the Press before they are ready for Members. I do not know the facts in this particular case, but I have no doubt that the Under Secretary for the Board of Trade will make enquiries, and be in a position to inform the hon. Member on Monday. I can only say what is the proper and suitable practice to follow.