§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Sir Edward Boyle (Birmingham, Handsworth)
I beg to move.That this House, whilst recognising that the public corporations which control the Nationalised Industries should enjoy that large degree of independence in matters of current administration which it vital to their efficiency as commercial undertakings; none the less urges that honourable Members should not be precluded from placing Questions on the Order Paper relating to the nationalised industries, provided that both the subject matter of any such Question is not confined to administrative detail, and the same Question has not previously been asked.This is the first time that it has fallen to me to initiate a debate and I am very pleased to introduce a subject which is obviously of great interest to private Members. Before I go further, perhaps I should say that it had always been my intention at one minute to 4 o'clock to ask the leave of the House to withdraw 1990 the Motion, because I put it on the Order Paper, not in order to get a decision from anyone, but in order to have a discussion. If the House will permit me, it is still my intention to withdraw the Motion at 4 o'clock.
In December, 1951, this House appointed a Select Committee of 11 Members—I quote from their terms of reference—to consider the … methods by which the House of Commons is informed of the affairs of the Nationalised Industries.Hon. Members will know that this Committee produced its first Report on 29th October. In the second paragraph of the first Report the Committee explained that they concentrated on Questions to Ministers becausethe Parliamentary Question was the most immediate and convenient way open to Members to obtain information about public matters.I am sure I am expressing the wishes of the whole House when I say how indebted we are to those right hon. and hon. Members who served on that Committee and produced this Report, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton) and the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams). Their drafts were used as the basis of the Report which was unanimously agreed to by the Select Committee. We all know in this House that it is very much easier to criticise a Report of this kind than to draft it, and I think right hon. and hon. Members of this Committee have left us very much in their debt for the work they did.
I intend this afternoon in the short time we have before us to discuss only one issue raised by this Report. That is the issue which is referred to in paragraph 9, namely, the present practice whereby when a Minister has refused to answer a Question bearing on a nationalised industry, no further Question on the same subject can normally be accepted by the Table during that Session.
I want to explain how this practice arose, then to consider some of its implications and, finally, respectfully to suggest certain ways in which you, Mr. Speaker, might be able at a later date to ease restrictions on private Members without in any way stepping outside the bounds of the Rulings already laid down by your predecessors. Hon. Members 1991 will know that in the section of Erskine May which deals with Parliamentary Questions there is a long list of types of Question which are inadmissible. In the course of this list, we read:(26) Repeating in substance Questions already answered or to which an answer has been refused.The importance of that restriction in Erskine May can be seen in paragraph (4) of this Report. That paragraph points out that this section of Erskine May "has been regarded in practice as ex-tending the prohibition from particular Questions readily identifiable to whole categories of Questions the limits of which are determined by the officials who deal with Questions, subject in all cases to the Ruling of Mr. Speaker." This interpretation of rule No. 26 in Erskine May was stated by my hon. Friend the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works to have dated from the time of Mr. Speaker Fitzroy. He said so the last time this question was debated in this House, as can be seen from HANSARD, Vol. 448, c. 425. I believe that much of the difficulty on this question we are discussing this afternoon lies in the fact that both Mr. Speaker's Ruling, and the section of Erskine May on which our practice is based, date from a time when there were no nationalised industries at all.
May I say a word about the relation between Erskine May and the practice of this House. because I am sure the Committee felt themselves very indebted to the evidence they heard from the Second Clerk Assistant on this subject. The Second Clerk Assistant pointed out in his evidence that Erskine May is an unofficial authority. I paraphrase, but the sense of what he said was that Erskine May is an honest attempt at putting down what is the practice of the House, but that it cannot be treated as a sort of omniscient umpire. I should like to quote from a passage in page xix of the Report, because it shows very clearly how far the practice of the House surpasses the written word in authority. My quotation is from the draft Report of the hon. Member for Wigan, and it quotes the evidence of the Second Clerk Assistant:In reply to the question 'Are the words "in substance" which are to be found here in the new addition'"—1992 of Erskine May—'your basis for refusing to accept whole categories of Questions after a Minister has refused to answer one question? the witness replied"—the witness being the Second Clerk Assistant—'It is difficult to reply to that with a direct answer. The reason is that May is not a kind of charter under which we work. May is an attempt at the moment to set down procedure as best the Clerk who is editing it can do. My grounds for considering that certain classes of Questions might be out of order was the practice when the practice was handed down to me from my seniors. I have been told when I have asked for justification of it that it is under this No. 26 that I get justification for doing so. But it has been pointed out to me that I do not act strictly in complying with No. 26: I act in complying with the tradition and practice as it has been given to me.'That, if I may say so, was a very frank and helpful answer to the Committee's question.
We all realise, because procedure is a living thing, that the actual words of Erskine May can never be regarded as binding. Nevertheless we may also feel that Erskine May ought to summarise procedure as accurately as it possibly can. I respectfully suggest that in a later edition Of this work, Section No. 26 of that part of Erskine May which deals with the type of Questions which are inadmissible might possibly be amplified and made a little clearer to show what is implied.
I turn to our practice today in regard to Questions on the nationalised industries. Those Members who were in the 1945–50 Parliament will remember that on 4th December, 1947, the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. H. Morrison) laid down Government policy regarding Parliamentary answers on the nationalised industries, and his statement is quoted on page vii of the Report, paragraph 8. The right hon. Gentleman said:A Minister is responsible to Parliament for action which he may take in relation to a board, or action coming within his statutory powers which he has not taken. This is the principle that determines generally the matters on which a Question may be put down for answer by a Minister in the House of Commons. Thus, the Minister would be answerable for any directions he gave in the national interest and for the action which he took on proposals which a board was required by Statute to lay before him."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1947; Vol. 445, c. 566.]1993 Then he went on to say:It would be contrary to this principle, and to the clearly expressed intention of Parliament in the governing legislation, if Ministers were to give in replies in Parliament or in letters information about day-to-day matters.That statement of the right hon. Member for Lewisham, South, who was then Leader of the House, of what Questions the Government would answer, was a deliberate act of Government policy and did not arise out of the Nationalisation Acts themselves because there was nothing in those Acts which prevented a Minister from procuring the necessary information from the nationalised boards.
In view of the time before us, I do not intend to discuss the decision made by the right hon. Gentleman. If hon. Members want to study this subject, the Report contains some very interesting evidence printed in the draft report of the hon. Member for Wigan, by Lord Hurcomb, Lord Citrine and Sir Hubert Houldsworth. One thing which always impresses me in my humble capacity of Parliamentary Private Secretary to a junior Minister is the fact that such a large number of people need to be consulted before an answer to quite a simple question can be given, and I think Lord Hurcomb is quite right when he says that if the decision announced by the right hon. Gentleman were ever reversed, it would involve a very large increase in staff Furthermore, I think we should seriously consider the point made by the right hon. Gentleman in his statement on 4th December, 1947, when he said:A large degree of independence for the boards in matters of current administration is vital to their efficiency as commercial undertakings."—[OFFICIAL. REPORT. 4th December. 1947; Vol. 445; c, 566.]It was in order to signify my agreement with that point of view, and to show that I was not questioning it today, that I included the substance of the right hon. Gentleman's words in the wording of my Motion.
In that statement the right hon. Gentleman was concerned only with what questions the Government would answer. He was not concerned with what' questions could go on to the Order Paper, because that was a decision not for him but for Mr. Speaker. In the months which followed his statement. Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown made two very important statements. 1994 First, on 4th February, 1948, he made it quite clear that when a Question was presented to the Table regarding a nationalised industry the Minister himself decided whether it involved Ministerial responsibility or whether it was simply a matter of administrative detail. Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown said:… it does sometimes happen that a Question comes to me, and I have to give a Ruling. The Question, we will say, is about the transport industry or another of, the nationalised industries. It comes to me, and the question I have to answer is, whether this is a matter of internal administration within the industry, or whether there is Ministerial responsibility. I am not prepared to answer questions about railways, about civil aviation, about telegraphs, about everything else that is nationalised. The only thing I can do is to go to the Minister, or telephone, him and ask him what his opinion is and whether this is a matter for which he has responsibility."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1948; Vol. 446, c. 1816–7.]When some supplementary questions arose on that statement, Mr. Speaker explained very clearly that there was no other course he could take because the exact limit of Ministerial responsibility was not something which he was competent to decide. It was something which only the courts could decide and so no other course was open to him but to get in touch with the Minister concerned.
That was one Ruling of Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown. The second Ruling was given on 7th June, 1948, when he made it perfectly clear that once a Minister had refused to answer a Question no further Question on that same class of matters could be admitted to the Order Paper. He said:The Government, in their desire not to interfere in the day to day activities of the boards of nationalised industries, have by what might be termed a 'self-denying ordinance' refused to answer many Questions on subjects which, by a strict interpretation of the statutes might be held to fall within their responsibility. They are fully entitled to do so—that is a matter for their discretion. But such a refusal brings into action. Rule 26 to which I have referred, and prevents the admission to the Question Paper of all future Questions dealing with the class of matters dealt with by the Question to which an answer was refused."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th June, 1948; Vol. 451, c. 1635.]Those two Rulings, added together, give the present practice of the House. I am sorry for reading rather a large number of extracts, but I was eager to get the present position clear before commenting upon it, and I want now, if I may, as 1995 briefly as I can to explain why the present position and the present practice of the House causes anxiety to some of us.
The first reason is a general one. There are very few occasions for the discussion of nationalised industries in this House, and obviously, from the point of view of private Members, the exclusion of whole blocks of Questions from the Order Paper is a very serious matter. It is quite true that we can write letters about the nationalised industries to the chairmen of the Boards, but, of course, the Parliamentary Question has always been a very good and valuable way of ventilating a grievance in public, and, further, the Parliamentary Question, and especially the Written Question, has always been a very valuable way of getting information quickly. I suggest that there is a prima facie case for allowing right hon. and hon. Members the greatest amount of latitude in putting those Questions on the Order Paper which the rules of order and the practice of the House allow.
The second point is one which I would particularly draw to your attention, Mr. Speaker. I shall not be so disrespectful as to suggest that Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown's two Rulings were inconsistent, but I believe that in some of their implications they pull in slightly different directions. The Ruling of 4th February suggests that the Minister is the sole person who can decide whether a given Question is in order or not, but the second Ruling, of 7th June, suggests that once a Minister has given his view on a single Question relating to a given subject, then the Table, and no one else, is the proper authority to rule out all other Questions on that subject.
The difficulty, as I see it, is this. I am not today disputing that particular matters of day-to-day administration should be excluded from the Order Paper; but it seems to me quite clear that a number of individual cases can add up to a rather more important question of administration on which the Minister might be very glad indeed to make a statement, and by giving Ministers rather greater latitude in deciding whether or not to answer Questions on the Floor of the House, we should serve not only the interests of right hon. and hon. Gentlemen but also 1996 the interests of the Corporations themselves.
This point was brought out very clearly the last time we debated this subject, which was on 3rd March, 1948. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Crookshank), the present Leader of the House, who opened that debate, gave an example of this point. He said:For example, the 9.15 train yesterday, in which I had the misfortune to come down to London from Lincoln, was one hour and 20 minutes late. I would not dream of putting down a Question to the right hon. Gentleman about that, because there may be some very good reason for it. I call that day-to-day management. But suppose that I found that the train was an hour and 20 minutes late every day for a month, then I should begin to think that there was something wrong with the administration of this branch of the railway In other words, it is a question of degree. If a thing is repeated and repeated, it means that there is some defect which should be checked. I agree that day-to-day management and the minute details, which in the normal way are dealt with by those who run businesses, should in the same way be left to the boards."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 394–5.]At the end of the debate, that was taken up by Sir John Anderson, who was then a Member of the House, and who said:I would say—and here I take the point of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank)—that if the night mail from Edinburgh is an hour late day after day, weekend after weekend, I think the Question could very properly be put, not with the vain hope that the Minister would lift his finger and intervene to bring about immediately a much better state of affairs, but in order to get information and in order to be able to form a true judgment as to the efficiency of the service."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 438.]In other words, Sir John Anderson, with his wide experience of public administration as well as of Ministerial office, felt that there is an intermediate class of case which goes beyond an isolated point of detail but which involves a rather wider issue, and that in that intermediate class of case it would be in the interest both of the nationalised boards themselves and of hon. Members that Ministers should have every chance of making a statement in this House.
You are, of course, Mr. Speaker, bound by the Rulings of your predecessors in the Speaker's Chair, but let me point out that Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown, in June, 1948, did make one very valuable concession, of which I should like to remind 1997 the House. After stating what would be the practice of the House with regard to Questions on the nationalised industries, Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown went on to say:I have come to the conclusion that in the case of an entirely novel branch of administration, such as that relating to the nationalised industries, the strict application of this Rule might operate more harshly than either Ministers or Members generally would wish. I am, therefore, prepared to make a suggestion which I hope will recommend itself to the House, for the power of dispensing with its recognised rules belongs to the House alone and not to me. I propose to leave the Rule which excludes Questions on matters outside Ministerial responsibility unchanged. But I am prepared, if it is generally approved, to exercise my discretion to direct the acceptance of Questions asking for a statement to be made on matters about which information has been previously refused, provided that, in my opinion, the matters are of sufficient public importance to justify this concession."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th June, 1948; Vol. 451, c. 1635–6.]I think it was implicit in Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown's words, when he made that concession, that he was prepared, if the matter was of sufficient public importance, to allow an hon. Member or right hon. Member to ask a Minister to make a statement before he had in fact found out whether the Minister was ready to make such a statement or not.
I want in the concluding moments of my speech, Mr. Speaker, very respectfully to suggest to you for your consideration two ways in which this Ruling might be interpreted. In the first place, when you are considering whether you will accept any such Question for the Order Paper, I do suggest respectfully, Mr. Speaker, that you might take into account not only the intrinsic importance of the subject matter of the Question, but also the number of hon. Members who are interested in it. It seems to me that if a number of hon. Members desire a Minister to answer a particular question, then that might be taken into consideration by the Chair, as well as the public importance of the matter concerned.
§ Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)
The hon. Gentleman would not go so far as to suggest, would he, that, because a large number of Members might want to ask a Question on something which he himself would agree was purely a detail of day-to-day administration, he would then admit such matters?
§ Sir E. Boyle
As I understand Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown's Ruling, it implied that Mr. Speaker, when he considered an application for any particular Question being placed on the Order Paper, would take into account the public importance of the matter about which the hon. Member wished to inquire. Public importance is a difficult thing, as we all know in this House, accurately to measure, and when Mr. Speaker is measuring the public importance of a Question, I was suggesting respectfully that he might take into account the number of hon. Members interested in the matter, as well as the intrinsic importance of the matter concerned.
§ Mr. H. Hynd (Accrington)
Suppose it to have been organised, as we know it could be organised on a controversial question?
§ Sir E. Boyle
I have far too much respect not only for the wisdom of the Chair, but also for the common sense and critical acumen of the occupant of the Chair, not to be quite sure that he would make inquiries as to whether some rather spurious agitation had not been set in motion. I think that that is a point which the Speaker of the day would be fully competent to gauge.
I would respectfully suggest secondly, Mr. Speaker, that in interpreting your predecessor's suggestion you should be specially ready to consider, the kind of Questions I mentioned earlier, where day-to-day problems of detailed management merge into rather more important issues of general administration. That, I believe, was the sort of case that the authors of this Report had in mind when they drafted paragraph 18, which says:In the case of questions which are not obviously matters of repetition or matters of detailed administration the questions should be allowed to appear on the Order Paper and the Minister would have to answer or refuse to answer on the floor of the House.That is also the kind of case I had in mind when I drafted this Motion, and I would point out that the right of Members of Parliament to ask a Minister to make a statement is a very valuable right and that this privilege might be extended where Questions on nationalised industries are concerned.
I am very sorry that I have detained the House so long when there is not very much time available. We heard a lot 1999 in the days, when this subject was first being mooted of the importance of seeing how we get along. I am all for empiricism in procedure up to a certain point. I have always recognised the force of the remark of Lord Keynes's brilliant pupil, F. P. Ramsay, that the worst kind of woolly thinking consists of treating things which are necessarily vague as if they were precise.
But I also recognise the force of what has been said more than once by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan)—that we have freedom of speech in this House precisely because our procedure is, as far as possible, formalised, and that one cannot have free debate without a considerable amount of formalised procedure.
We should bear in mind also that procedure does not exist for our own benefit. We are here to do the best we can for the country and for our constituents, and where Parliamentary Questions are concerned we must never forget that one of the oldest and most cherished duties of this House is that of redressing grievances.
§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)
I beg to second the Motion.
In view of the fog that has descended upon us and the need to catch an earlier train, and on account of the shortness of time now available, I do so very briefly and almost formally. I should like to endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) has said with his customary ability, and to join with him in a tribute to the work of the Select Committee and particularly to the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams), who put in a tremendous amount of work himself. I express regret that I am not able to deliver a speech at this moment on a subject that interests me so greatly.
§ 3.32 p.m.
§ Mr. Ronald Williams (Wigan)
May I at the outset thank the hon. Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) and the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Renton) very much indeed for the very kind observations they made concerning me? I hope that it will not be presumptuous of me in the slightest degree, since they are both my seniors in this 2000 House, if I. heartily, congratulate them on the manner in which they have put the Motion and the powerful support, which they gave to the Committee's Report.
It would be quite wrong if at this time in the afternoon, having already burdened some of the hon. Members of this House with six closely-printed pages, I should then, take this opportunity and address the House at length upon this subject. Quite obviously, there will be other opportunities to devote one's attention to the very important details which are involved.
But I think that it would be quite wrong of me to refrain from taking the opportunity,, which I am quite sure my colleagues on the Select Committee would want me to take, of thanking the Clerks at the Table, particularly, for the manner in which they exercise an extremely difficult function. They have to deal with an extremely tricky situation indeed. Hon. Members in all parts of the House are greatly helped by the fact, as is acknowledged in the Committee's Report, that they try in all doubtful cases to resolve the doubt in the way most helpful to the hon. Member who has submitted his Question. I know that my colleagues on the Committee would want to be associated with my observations concerning the Clerks in their very difficult task.
The next point which I wish to put is this. At first sight it would appear to be wrong that Members of Parliament should not ask any Questions they like about any subject within the range of the responsibilities of the Minister. While I heartily agree with the observations which were made by the hon. Member for Handsworth concerning the exclusions of Questions relating to detailed administration, I think it is right that some reasons should be given very briefly for the exclusion of these matters, because like my colleagues in the House, I have on occasion resented the fact that I could not ask a Question about what appeared to me to be a matter of considerable importance to my constituents, and that it had to be excluded because it was quite obviously concerned with a matter of day-to-day administration.
I think that this matter could be put in this way: That so far as Questions of detailed administration are concerned, 2001 if responsibilities are bestowed by Parliament upon individuals, the greater the degree of those responsibilities the more important it is that there should be a field of initiative within which the persons who are undertaking the responsibilities should be able to work without undue interference.
By saying to a person, "Get on with the job; use your initiative," that implies that one is saying at the same time, "If you make mistakes we shall quite understand, provided you do not make too many mistakes, and provided that you do not make them too often." The exercise of initiative, in other words, is something which carries with it the right to make mistakes within certain limits. If that is accepted, it becomes difficult to see how it would be right to direct Questions on matters of detail in regard to the work of these large commercial undertakings. No business man of experience would tolerate carrying out work in which he was exposed to questions, on the day-to-day details of the administration of his company, on which, if he has any initiative at all, he should have the right to exercise his judgment.
Finally, I would put the point that it might be felt by Members in the. House that in our proposal that the maximum number of Questions each day should be reduced from three to two, we are cutting down the right of Members to ask Questions. I wish to say very emphatically that that is not our object at all. It is only because most hon. Members exercise a self-denying ordinance that an absurd situation has not already arisen on the Order Paper. It is only because many people do not ask Questions that it is possible for other hon. Members to ask their three Questions. To reduce the maximum number of Questions from three to two would obviously give more Members of this House an opportunity to put Questions.
We feel that although it may appear to be a very small enlargement of the field, it is a small enlargement in a field where it is difficult to have any enlargement at all. I think that the matter should be looked at in that way by Members of this House. I should once again like to congratulate the mover of this Motion for bringing so important a matter to the attention of the House.
§ 3.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Ralph Assheton (Blackburn, West)
I do not intend to discuss in any detail the Report recently presented by the Select Committee, but, as I was the Chairman of that Select Committee, there are one or two observations I wish to make to the House. First, I should like to add my congratulations to those already received by my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) who moved this Motion. He has obviously given a great deal of thought to the matter, and I think the House is very much in his debt for the speech he has made.
This Select Committee is still sitting, and, in due course, it may produce further recommendations. I should like to say that the Committee has worked in the greatest possible harmony, and I am happy to tell the House that, so far, there is no case of any division of opinion being recorded in its minutes. I only hope that we shall proceed to the end of our researches with equal harmony.
The three proposals in the Report have already been referred to, and I do not propose to go into them at any length. We all agreed that Questions on matters of, detail in the nationalised industries are inappropriate. After a great deal of discussion and the examination of witnesses that was unanimously agreed. None the less, we all felt, I think, that Members had been under certain disadvantages during recent years, and that there was room for a little variation in the present practice of the House. Therefore, in paragraph 18, we made the following recommendation:But in the case of questions which are not obviously matters of repetition or matters of detailed administration the questions should be allowed to appear on the Order Paper and the Minister would have to answer or refuse to answer on the floor of the House.Finally, we made the recommendation, to which reference has been made by the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams), to whom we are much indebted for the great amount of work he did as a member of the Committee. The suggestion that the number of Questions should be reduced from three to two was put forward in order to make more likely that, as far as possible, hon. Members got a fair share of the opportunities available for asking a Question. I think that is a reasonable proposal.
2003 I only want to ask my right hon. Friend who, I understand, is to reply to this debate, one question. It is whether the Government have yet had time to consider the recommendations made, and, if so, whether they have any indication to give to the House as to whether or not they will accept them. I think the House should know that the Committee worked with considerable urgency in the latter part of its proceedings in order to get its Report completed in time to make a change during this Session of Parliament, because, if any changes are to be made as a result of our Report, it would be convenient for them to be made with as little delay as possible.
§ 3.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)
I should like to associate myself with the congratulations which have been offered to the hon. Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle), and with the thanks which have been expressed by my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee to the Clerks at the Table and the chairmen of the nationalised boards, and the other eminent witnesses who came before us.
The first time the House discussed the question of Parliamentary Questions on nationalised industries, the present Leader of the House, then in Opposition, said:This is a new field for us to explore, and we want to do so, not on the basis of party, of Government and Opposition, but on the basis how best the House of Commons can deal with the problem. On this issue it makes no difference on which side of the House we sit. We want to try to discover how best we can set up the proper relationship between Parliament and the nationalised industries."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd March, 1948; Vol. 448, c. 391.]I would not say from my own experience that on every occasion since then the use of Parliamentary Questions has always been in that spirit; but I will say that in our Committee, over which the right hon. Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton) presided, we have not looked at this matter from a party point of view, and I think we have reached satisfactory results.
I have spent five of the last 11 years of my life in answering Questions at the Box on industries controlled by the Government. From the end of 1941 to the middle of 1945 I was at the Ministry of Transport, where we controlled the railways, 2004 road passenger transport, road haulage, inland waterways, ocean-going shipping, coasters and the docks. I was asked 30 or 40 Questions a week, but in those days they were usually called.
In more recent times I was at the Ministry of Fuel and Power answering Questions about gas, electricity and coal. It is not possible for anybody to have had that experience without reaching certain quite firm conclusions about Parliamentary Questions and their use. I reached three conclusions. The first is that a Parliamentary Question is a very powerful instrument of public control. It does affect those to whom it is addressed and if something is wrong they seek very quickly to put it right. Broadly speaking, the system of Parliamentary Questions is not the only democratic safegard, but taken in terms of practical results it is well worth the time and trouble and money it costs.
Secondly, I reached the conclusion that, if a Minister is in doubt whether to answer or not, it is always right for him to do so, and by that course he saves himself a lot of trouble, a lot of trouble to others, and he even serves the public interest. Thirdly, I reached the conclusion that the Questions I had answered in both terms of office did not serve to hamper the administration of the industry and did not cramp the initiative, vigour and enterprise with which managements ought to work.
It is with that experience in mind that I have reached these conclusions, and I frankly tell the House that I endorse the main recommendations of the Select Committee, that Questions on matters of detail in the nationalised industries are inappropriate. In substance that continues the present practice. I think the case for doing so is overwhelming. The evidence from the eminent witnesses that we called was unanimous, as were the conclusions of the Committee. The hon. Member for Handsworth approved of it, and I feel sure the House will do the same.
On the question of repetition, there is a certain amount of flexibility on Questions which have been answered. The hon. Member suggested that Mr. Speaker ought to take into account the number of Members who are concerned in a given matter. I feel sure that he will do so if no rigid rules are made. The 2005 Report quotes the fact that while I was in office I answered Questions about dirty coal. There were a great many of them. Action was taken to improve the condition of the coal and Questions became fewer. My successor very rightly answered the first Question put to him on the subject by saying that that was a matter for the Coal Board. Thereafter no more Questions in this Session on dirty coal are to be allowed. There is flexibility, and if the right hon. Gentleman were to get a great flood of Questions he would want to answer them, he would co-operate in doing so, and no doubt Mr. Speaker would allow them.
May I make one observation on the recommendation in paragraph 19? I do not think it will at all increase the number of Questions that are answered in the House, but I think it will ensure a more rapid rotation of Ministers at the Box. The Minister of Fuel and Power now appears on three Mondays out of eight. I want to ask him 40 Questions about 40 recommendations made recently by the Ridley Committee. That is going to take me a good many months to go through. I hope that this new rule means that he will come more often to the Box.
In a debate two years ago about public accountability, which was carried on in an admirable non-party spirit until the present Colonial Secretary got up, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer said that in a debate like that it was impossible for us, with our convictions about the whole principle of nationalisation clearly known and expressed, not to express them again. This is a non-party debate, and I cannot end without saying that in my view the nationalised industries have succeeded pretty well. I believe that the Parliamentary Question has been a factor in that success.
Speaking from my own experience I would say that, thanks to the debates and the Questions which were put, a large number of matters were dealt with which otherwise might not have been dealt with so expeditiously or so well by the nationalised boards. In the first six months that I was at the Ministry of Fuel and Power, 343 Questions passed the Table, of which 250 were on the nationalised boards and on allied questions of administration. As a result, more speedy action was taken about manpower in the mines, about dirty coal, about stopping competitive advertising 2006 between electricity and gas, and about power cuts, and I believe that the great increase in coal output in 1950–51, when the miners gave us that 3 million extra tons, was largely due to proceedings in this House. The present system has worked well, and I am glad that the Select Committee recommend that it should go on.
§ 3.51 p.m.
§ Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)
I will only take one minute, as I know that the Minister needs to have eight minutes. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) has raised this issue. I would join in thanking the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. R. Williams) for the help he gave to the Committee, and in thanking the Clerks at the Table for their valuable evidence.
I started off on the assumption that we ought to take the lid right off, but the evidence has convinced me that to do so would produce an intolerable situation. I say that quite clearly. I wish to introduce one minor element of controversy. If hon. Members examine the constitution of the Labour Party, they will find a long rigmarole about national industries controlled in the interests of the people by something or other. Let us realise that the nationalised industries are nationalisation without any nonsense about democracy, and let us realise what is the ultimate significance of that.
What our Report means I am not quite clear about, but so far as I can make it out, Mr. Speaker, we have handed the baby back to you. In effect, it is you who have to interpret these rather difficult words in paragraphs 17 and 18; and so, as in duty bound, we will ever pray that you will be well guided in any decision you have to make.
§ 3.52 p.m.
§ The Minister of Fuel and Power (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)
I should like to add not only congratulations but thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth (Sir E. Boyle) for taking this opportunity to bring this subject before the House today. It is obviously a most important question. Perhaps the House will agree that it is part of an even bigger question, the relationship of the House to the nationalised industries. Looking through the debates on the subject, one can see that since the industries were set 2007 up there has been a gradual growth and so to speak, consolidation of opinion on certain points, as we are witnessing in the House today.
There is also a similar movement of opinion with regard to the subject in its wider aspect. Although we have controversies in the country and in this House about which industries should be nationalised and which nationalised industries should be de-nationalised, we have now reached the position where it is accepted on both sides that certain industries, and notably the coal industry, are to remain nationalised.
I think there has been a general growth of opinion that once that decision has been taken and we are united about particular industries remaining nationalised, everybody in the country and in this House wants to see those industries thoroughly successful, and that every part of the country wishes these industries to be very successful parts of the national industrial structure.
I should say, for example, with regard to the British Overseas Airways Corporation that it has now become known, not only in this country but throughout the world, as the standard-bearer of British aviation, and I believe that something similar might happen, in spite of the somewhat difficult nature of the terrain, in the case of the National Coal Board. I remember that, at the last Conservative Party Conference, the meeting cheered the success of the National Coal Board and the miners in the job which they have to do for the country in the future.
That is what we want, and what we are discussing today is what is the best way of handling this question. Yet we are really discussing a very narrow point indeed, because even those like my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), who holds the most vigorous views on a variety of political and constitutional questions, have come along and agreed upon the general proposition that it would be very unwise for the Minister to be able to answer in detail on matters of day-to-day administration.
That, I am sure, is quite right, because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Handsworth, I, too, have seen how much work is involved in the preparation of answers to ordinary Parliamentary 2008 Questions, even when the subject-matter is directly within the control of the Department concerned. When it goes out side the Department, and it is a question of getting information from a big public Corporation, another series of difficulties arises, and precautions must be taken as the right hon. Gentleman will remember, in regard to such difficulties as arose about the Scarcroft case.
After the investigation which I had to make last year, I had to tighten up still further the precautions which had to be observed for the absolute accuracy of the information supplied to the Department for the service of this House, but, of course, there is no doubt that the men who have to do that job in the country, in all the necessarily decentralised parts of these great nationalised undertakings, are not men who are used, to working like civil servants in the knowledge that every, single act they take may be questioned in this House.
I may perhaps say, on the narrow and difficult question that we are considering, within the general limit of agreement, that I answered a Question last Session by saying that it was a matter of detailed administration for the National Coal Board with regard to dirty coal. It was only on Thursday—
§ Mr. W. R. Williams (Droylsden)
I know that the time factor is important, but may I ask the Minister if he can give a reply to the question asked by; the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Blackburn, West (Mr. Assheton) as to whether he has given consideration to this Report and what is the result of that consideration?
§ Mr. Lloyd
Yes, but as the answer is going to be so short, and as I am keeping my eye, as an experienced Parliamentarian should, on the clock, I can assure the hon. Gentleman that he will have his answer. I wanted to say that hon. Members know that only yesterday I answered a Question on dirty coal, and that the reason I did not answer one last Session but was able to answer one this Session, was that, the first dealt with the responsibilities of the National Coal Board and the second was something that affected matters for which I can be held to have some responsibility, so we see how very narrow these matters can be.
2009 My function is to answer the question that was put to me whether the Government have yet had an opportunity of considering this Report, and to say that it has been my duty to listen to the views expressed and to make a report on the matter to my colleagues.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.