HC Deb 05 April 1950 vol 473 cc1187-90
45. Mr. Henderson Stewart

asked the Lord President of the Council if he is aware that the present Government policy whereby Ministers refuse to answer Parliamentary Questions dealing with the day-to-day administration of nationalised industries frequently deprives hon. Members of the opportunity of challenging Ministers on matters of public importance; and if he will consider referring the matter to an all-party committee for examination and report.

49. Mr Bossom

asked the Lord President of the Council, as there is so much of the taxpayers' money involved in the activities of the various nationalised industries, if he will take steps to change the policy whereby Ministers refuse to answer Questions dealing with matters of importance connected with such activities.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

The Government are anxious that there shall be all reasonable opportunities for Parliamentary discussion of the socialised industries, but the admission of Questions on day-to-day administration would be inconsistent with the principle that the boards shall be free from detailed Ministerial or Parliamentary supervision of their commercial operations. I think, however, that the hon. Gentleman may have overlooked the Ruling which Mr. Speaker gave on 7th June, 1948, when he said that he would be prepared to exercise his discretion to direct the acceptance of Questions asking for a statement to be made on matters about which information had been previously refused, provided that, in his opinion, the matters were of sufficient public importance to justify this concession. The hon. Members may also have under-estimated the opportunities for putting Questions down under the existing rules.

The matters on which Ministers are answerable to Parliament and on which Questions can be put down in the normal course vary with the different socialised industries and the different socialisation Statutes.

Air-Commodore Harvey


Mr. Morrison

I ask the Opposition not to engage in these philosophical arguments. But in each case they cover a wide range and, in addition to matters of general policy, broadly they include the responsibilities of Ministers in connection with—among other matters—the appointment, salaries and conditions of service of board members; programmes of research and development; programmes of education and training; borrowing by the boards; form of accounts and audits; annual reports; pensions schemes and compensation for displacement; the appointment of consumers' councils and other matters connected with their organisation and operation. Under Mr. Speaker's Ruling, Questions may also be put down about matters of "public importance" for answer at the Minister's discretion, even though they deal with points for which he has no specific responsibility.

No useful purpose would, in my opinion, be served by referring the subject to a committee. I do not follow the statement of the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. Bossom), about so much of the taxpayers' money being involved in the activities of the various nationalised industries.

Mr. Stewart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, for example, passenger services on considerable stretches of railway in rural parts of Scotland are being cut; that when I sought to put questions to the Minister on these matters of public importance to thousands of people the Questions were turned down; that that type of problem is not unusual; and that, therefore, there does seem to be, in the national interests, a case for reviewing the present procedure in the House?

Mr. Morrison

As regards transport, I think the hon. Gentleman is on a weak point. As far as the Transport Commission are concerned, they have dealt, by correspondence—in which, I think, hon. Members perhaps get more satisfaction sometimes than by Questions to Ministers—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Let this be considered apart from sheer partisan political prejudice. This is another example of sheer political prejudice where it ought not to arise.

The Transport Commission have dealt, in letters from Members of Parliament, with no fewer than 3,300 questions and representations which have been put forward. The great majority would, alternatively, have been subject to Parliamentary Questions, on which, I am perfectly sure, hon. Members would not have got as much satisfaction. Moreover, as far as transport is concerned, the House has had an opportunity of no fewer than three Debates in the last four months and a number of shorter Debates on the Adjournment.

Mr. Henry Strauss

When the right hon. Gentleman says "socialised industries "does he mean, "nationalised industries"? If so, is he aware that "nationalised" is the term used in the statutes and not "socialised"? Can he say why he takes such great care to avoid all mention of nationalisation?

Mr. Morrison

If I may say so, the hon. and learned Gentleman is not well fitted to draw a subtle distinction between "nationalised" and "socialised." [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] This is not an occasion to debate the matter, but I think the term "socialised" is a perfectly legitimate term, and I think it is right that great public monopolies—great public concerns—should be the subject of social answerability as distinct from private monopolies, which answer to the antisocial irresponsibility—

Hon. Members


Mr. Stanley

To help those not so well fitted as the right hon. Gentleman to split these ideological straws, would he explain to us on these benches why, in describing one of these great public monopolies, he described it at the beginning of his answer as a socialised industry and, at the end, as a nationalised industry? Had it changed during that period?

Mr. Morrison

That is a perfect illustration of my tolerance and my broadness of view.

Mr. Peter Thorneycroft

Would the right hon. Gentleman take the trouble to inform himself a little more accurately as to what is happening in the transport industry at present? Is he aware that the whole machinery for safeguarding the consumer has completely broken down and that no Question in connection with these diverse problems can get past the Table?

Mr. Morrison

If the hon. Member would approach these matters in less of the atmosphere of fierceness and partisan prejudice and more in the atmosphere of enlightened political science, he would do much better.

Mr. Hopkin Morris

In view of the difficulties in asking Questions about nationalised industries at Question Time, does not the right hon. Gentleman think that an inquiry is necessary in order to put them on to a uniform basis?

Mr. Stewart

In view of the unsatisfactory nature and the undemocratic spirit of the reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter again at the earliest possible moment.