§ Mr. LEACH
I desire to raise, Mr. Speaker, a question relating to the rights of hon. and right hon. Members of the House at Question Time. Yesterday, I addressed to the Under-Secretary of State for Air, to whom I had sent notice of my intention, two questions upon matters which I considered to be of public importance. In his reply he began by saying that it was his intention to combine the two questions, notwithstanding the fact, as I considered it, that they bore little relationship to each other except in a minor degree. Thereby he doubled the length of his answer. He then went on to say that, as the answer was long, he proposed to circulate it in the OFFICIAL REPORT thus depriving me of the oral answer which I had expected. In the course of the afternoon I duly received the type-written reply to my questions, and I am surprised to discover that the answer is not, in my judgment, a long one at all. It consists, in point of fact, of 146 words. Most Members of the House will agree that there are Ministers on the Front Bench, notably the Minister of Labour, who could have given that answer inside 30 seconds. I further observe that, on Tuesday, an answer given orally by the Lord President of the Council consisted of 168 words and that an answer given by the President of the Board of Trade contained 196 words. I also discover that the Under-Secretary of State for Air himself yesterday gave an oral answer which occupied identically the same amount of space in the OFFICIAL REPORT as the answer to my question.
In those circumstances, I seek to know what are the actual powers of Ministers in dealing with answers to Questions. Can they combine whatever Questions they wish and return a single answer to them, however little related those Questions may be one to another? Further, can they refuse to give an oral answer on the ground that the answer—which they have taken care beforehand shall be lng—is too long to be given in the 1582 House? Is that to be offered as an excuse for not giving an oral answer? I suggest that if Ministers are to have full freedom to do exactly as they please in these two respects the public purpose to be served at Question Time may, very easily, be entirely frustrated. I am not for an instant suggesting that this is the attitude of Ministers generally, but I did feel when I received that typewritten answer from the Under-Secretary of State for Air that he was rather guilty of an effort to avoid what he might regard as obnoxious Supplementary Questions.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
The hon. Member has raised a question which is, no doubt, of considerable importance. He will remember, however, what is the usual practice at Question Time in this respect. When a Minister wishes to answer two Questions together, or when he considers the answer too long to be given in the House and announces that he intends to publish it in the OFFICIAL REPORT he always prefaces that announcement by asking the permission of the hon. Member who has asked the Question. Therefore, the Minister, if he receives that permission, is within his rights either in joining the questions together or if the answer is a long one, in publishing it in the OFFICIAL REPORT. I do not think that any Minister ever takes either of these courses without first asking the permission of the Member concerned and it is, of course, within the Member's rights to refuse that permission.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
Presumably the Minister would answer each Question separately, or, in the case of a long answer, would read out that answer, however long, in the House. I would, however, point out that when there are 90 or 100 Questions on the Paper, unless a matter is of public importance it is rather unfair to other hon. Members that a long reply should be read out in the House. The object of publishing replies in the OFFICIAL REPORT is in order that Members may not have their public rights 1583 in this matter curtailed as a result of time taken up in reading long replies. Unfortunately, on this occasion the judgment of the Minister as to the length of the reply in question does not seem to have been very accurate. After considerable research the hon. Member has discovered that the reply only contained, I think, 140 words. I hope, however, that will not occur again.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I thought I had made that quite clear. It is never done without the permission of the Member who has put the question.