HC Deb 17 June 1937 vol 325 cc552-7
45. Mr. Churchill

asked the Prime Minister whether he is in a position to define more exactly for the guidance of the House the limits within which he is prepared to answer questions relating to events in India; for instance, will information be given to Parliament in respect of any matter concerning which the Governors or the Governor-General are responsible to Parliament, either acting in respect of their statutory duty or in their individual judgment within the ambit of the India Constitution Act; whether in these respects information will be given as asked about facts and events in India in order that the House may judge the situation, and whether the special responsibilities of Governors are rightly exercised or not exercised; whether, for instance, any summoning of Indian Provincial Legislatures or any refusal to summon them is justified; secondly, whether information will be given on facts and events which lead or are likely to lead to the use of British or Indian troops, or concerning the protection of minorities, or to loss of life either to the troops or the civil population; further, whether provincial autonomy is deemed to be in operation for the restriction of Parliamentary questions in provinces where no Ministry has been formed which possesses the confidence of the Legislature; and whether provincial autonomy will still be deemed to be in operation notwithstanding executive power being resumed in any province by the Governor in accordance with the statute; lastly, in view of the ultimate responsibility of Parliament, as provided for in Section 93 of the Government of India Act, for the issue of any proclamation by a Governor of a province assuming to himself emergency powers in the case of a failure of the constitutional machinery of a province, and of the further responsibility of Parliament, as provided for by the said section of the Act, for the continuance of such emergency powers, whether he can assure the House that it shall be able to obtain regularly whatever information it may require for the discharge of its duty?

Mr. Garro Jones

Before this question is answered, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, how it comes about that this question which was on the Order Paper yesterday in the name of the right hon. Member for Epping (Mr. Churchill) and was not put on account of his absence, appears on the Order Paper to-day? Secondly, may I ask whether you can assure the House that questions of this length will not be ruled out if submitted by other hon. Members? In putting that point of Order, I am not making any complaint against the right hon. Gentleman whom I admire, but only to ensure that all hon. Members will receive precisely the same treatment.

Mr. Speaker

This question, which appeared yesterday, was postponed by request, not because the right hon. Gentleman was not present. With regard to the other part of the hon. Member's question, all hon. Members will receive exactly the same treatment.

Mr. Wedgwood Benn

May I ask you, Sir, how it comes about that a question is put to the Prime Minister relating to the rights of hon. Members of this House to ask questions? Am I not right in supposing that the right to ask questions is exercised by hon. Members, subject to your Ruling, on the practice of the House?

Mr. Churchill

On a point of Order. Is not the question directed not so much to the right of hon. Members to ask questions, but to the practice which Ministers propose to follow in answering them?

Mr. Benn

Is it competent for the Prime Minister, in giving as much or as little information as he likes, to decide the subjects on which he proposes to give information?

Mr. Speaker

The answer which the Prime Minister will give to this question will be of great use to the House, because the responsibility of Ministers in Indian affairs has changed, and I think it will be of great assistance to hon. Members in putting questions on the Order Paper.

Mr. Benn

May I ask whether it is the right of the Prime Minister to decide what information we may ask for, and whether it is not really a matter for the Chair to rule, subject to the long standing practice of the House?

Mr. Speaker

Undoubtedly that is the case, and I do not think the Prime Minister will give any ruling. He can only say what is the responsibility of Ministers.

Mr. Benn

May I put a final point? Will the answer of the Prime Minister, whatever it may be, in any way affect the rights of hon. Members to ask any questions which you rule to be in order relating to India?

Mr. Speaker

Most certainly not.

Mr. Sorensen

May I ask whether you propose to draw the right hon. Member's attention to your observations yesterday?

Mr. Speaker

I do not like repetition.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Chamberlain)

As the answer is long and detailed, I will, with the permission of Mr. Speaker and the House, make a statement at the end of Questions.

Mr. Maxton

Can the Prime Minister give a day to debate the answer?


The Prime Minister

I must apologise to the House if my answer exceeds the length ordinarily regarded as appropriate for an oral answer, but my right hon. Friend's question does not lend itself very readily to a brief reply. Let me make two points clear at the outset. The first is that I do not regard the Government of India Act, 1935, as having produced, until Part II of the Act relating to Federation is brought into force, any such change in the relationship between the Central Government of India and Parliament as to justify or necessitate any change in practice and policy in regard to question and answer in this House relating to the operations of that Government. The Governor-General of India in Council still remains, so long as Part XIII of the Act is in operation, responsible through the Secretary of State for India to Parliament here. There is, of course, a well-known and well-established convention in relation to the fiscal policy of the Indian Government, but, apart from that, the Central Government remains legally subject in respect of all its operations to the direction and control of His Majesty's Government in this country.

The second point is that the question at issue in relation to the Provincial Governments seems to me one not so much of the limits within which my Noble Friend in another place or the Under-Secretary of State in this House will be prepared to answer questions, as one of the limits which this House ought to regard as imposed on previous practice relating to questions by the passage of the Act of 1935. Parliament deliberately decided, in passing that Act to place upon Ministries answerable to Provincial Legislatures the responsibility for the conduct of the government of a province. This responsibility was not plenary, inasmuch as there are certain powers placed by the Act at the disposal of a Governor for certain specified purposes, and the effect Of the Act and of the Instrument of Instructions—also approved by Parliament—was to leave the Governor free in the last resort to decide these matters as he himself thinks required for the due discharge of his responsibility to this Parliament, even if the advice tendered to him by his Ministers would have led to another decision.

From these facts I draw two conclusions: first, that, in so far as Ministers are responsible to the Provincial Legislature for the government of the province, it would be entirely inappropriate if this House were to call in question or to criticise by question and answer their policies and activities. As the House is well aware, the broad general principle underlying the process of question and answer in this House is that a question should not be put to a Minister unless he is responsible for the subject-matter, and is in a position to intervene and to secure that a particular line of action is either taken or abandoned. In so far as a matter is within the control of Ministers in a Province my Noble Friend the Secretary of State in fact no longer has any such responsibility.

On the other hand, the Act specifically provides that to the extent to which a Governor's special powers are involved and to the extent accordingly to which he acts either without consulting, or otherwise than on the advice of, his Ministers, he is subject to direction and control in the first instance by the Governor-General and, through him, by the Secretary of State: in other words, that he is answerable in the last resort to this Parliament. In the light of these facts I suggest to the House that the broad general guiding principle which ought to be adopted as to the admissibility of questions on Indian provincial affairs is that such questions ought not now to be regarded as in order unless it can be shown either that the action at issue was taken by the Governor without consulting his Ministers, or against their advice, or, alternatively, that the Governor was in possession of powers applicable to the case which in fact he failed to exercise. But I also suggest to the House that even this right as so defined ought to be used with discretion and restraint, and that His Majesty's Government must themselves exercise a careful discretion as to the extent to which it is expedient in any given case to supply information "about facts and events" in an Indian province. I hope that I am justified in assuming that in every quarter of the House there is a desire that provincial self-government in India should work, and work well: I cannot believe that this is possible unless we in this House frankly recognise the new distribution of responsibilities.

I have attempted to state what I regard as the governing principles in general terms, and I doubt whether any useful purpose would be served by attempting to estimate whether, in the light of the principles I have suggested, the various categories of questions which my right hon Friend has given as examples could or could not be answered. I should prefer to leave it to hon. or right hon. Members to decide for themselves whether a particular question can or can not appropriately be offered, and to the judgment of Mr. Speaker to determine whether it can be accepted or is out of order. I think that my answer can be taken as covering all the specific instances raised, with one exception. My right hon. Friend asks whether provincial autonomy is deemed to be in operation in restriction of Parliamentary Questions where a Ministry is in power which does not possess the confidence of the majority of the Legislature. My answer to this question is emphatically in the affirmative. In the Provinces where, owing to the refusal of the majority party to accept office, the Governor has succeeded in securing Ministers from another party or other parties to undertake the public-spirited but difficult duty of carrying on the Government, the Ministries so formed have accepted full responsibility for the government of the Province, and so long as these Ministries are in office I certainly cannot admit that the action of the majority party in refusing to accept the invitations which were extended to them justifies the view that the Ministries in power who are answerable to the Provincial Legislatures and to their constituents, are also answerable to this House.

Mr. Sorensen

May I take it that pending the co-operation of the Legislative Assemblies, questions can still be put to the Under-Secretary of State for India regarding those matters that will be dealt with by the Legislative Assemblies when they are in operation?

Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Member address this question to me?

Mr. Sorensen

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Speaker

Certainly hon. Members can put questions down, but I should not like to give a definite Ruling before I see the questions themselves.