HC Deb 10 June 1953 vol 516 cc226-9
Mr. Driberg

I am grateful to have the opportunity of seeking your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on a matter which seems to affect the right of Private Members to submit Private Notice Questions for your consideration.

Yesterday, Mr. Speaker, I sought to submit for your consideration a Private Notice Question to the Foreign Secretary on the detention by the United States authorities of Mr. Cedric Belfrage, a British subject resident in the U.S.A. for many years and now detained on Ellis Island without the hearing of any charges and without bail.

I was informed that it was not possible for you to consider a Private Notice Question yesterday as you had gone to the Thanksgiving Service at St. Paul's Cathedral; and I was asked to defer the submission of my Private Notice Question for one day, until today. I must in fairness explain that it was made quite clear to me by your Secretary that if I did agree to this delay there was no guarantee that the Question would be accepted by you; but, on the other hand, I was also assured that my right to submit it as a question of urgency would not be prejudiced by this short delay.

Accordingly, I submitted the Question today—only to receive a note from your Secretary as follows:— I am asked by Mr. Speaker to say he regrets he cannot accept your Private Notice Question about the treatment of Mr. Cedric Belfrage, as there is already a similar Question on the Order Paper for Friday, 12th June. On looking at the Order Paper I find that this Question was handed in yesterday by the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. Baker). The hon. Member has put it down, as he is perfectly entitled to do, for non-oral answer next Friday. Since it was handed in yesterday, this Question was, of course, not on the Order Paper at the time at which I was asked by your office to defer the submission of my Private Notice Question for one day without prejudice to my right to submit it.

I realise, Mr. Speaker, that there has been what may be described as an unfortunate series of coincidences—unfortunate for a British subject who may have to remain in detention for some days more before his case can be raised in this House, and then without the benefit of supplementary questions; more fortunate, perhaps, for the Foreign Office Ministers who may thus be saved embarrassment. But I do submit to you with great respect, Mr. Speaker, that it is also unfortunate that your attendance at a function—which in itself we are all very glad indeed that you should have attended—should have the incidental effect of interfering with the ordinary processes of this House and the rights of its Members; and I would ask you to be good enough to indicate what steps can be taken to meet this difficulty.

Mr. Speaker

This is, as the hon. Gentleman has said, a concatenation of unfortunate circumstances. I was away yesterday at Church. I am never away except on duty of one sort or another, and therefore I knew nothing of the hon. Member's Question until the House sat. This morning when he resubmitted it, it was, I felt, estopped by the rule which says that if there is a Question on the Paper it is incompetent to allow a Private Notice Question. I do not know what remedy the hon. Member has got. I ought to say also that, on the merits of the hon. Member's Question, I do not say that I would have allowed it as a Private Notice Question. The real lesson for me seems to be not to go to church in the morning.

Mr. Driberg

With great respect and gratitude for what you have said, Mr. Speaker, there are two possible alternatives. One—which you might consider in due course, not, of course, today—is whether in such a very rare case it would be possible for some alternative procedure, such as the consideration of Private Notice Questions by your Deputy. Secondly, if you thought that, on merit, a Question was acceptable—in view of the fact that a British subject is eagerly awaiting bail and release day after day —if the Foreign Office spokesman were willing to answer it today, you might cut the Gordian knot by allowing it to be answered forthwith.

Mr. Speaker

I will consider what the hon. Member has said.

Mr. S. Silverman

I take it that the object of the original rule that there cannot be a Private Notice Question where there is a Question on the Order Paper is to avoid duplication of Questions, but does that principle apply when the Question on the Order Paper is for non-oral answer? If a Question is on the Order Paper for non-oral answer there is no opportunity whatever for supplementary questions in the House or for a statement in the hearing of the House. Therefore, it would look, in principle, as if the presence on the Order Paper of a Ques- tion for a non-oral answer ought not to impede, in a proper case, an hon. Member who got your permission for asking a Private Notice Question on the same subject, having regard to the difference in procedure in the two cases.

Mr. Speaker

I think there is no difference in principle between a Question for oral answer and one for non-oral answer. Very frequently Questions for oral answer which appear on the Order Paper for the day with the appropriate asterisk are not reached. I see no difference in principle in that matter. The object of the rule is not only to prevent duplication of Questions but also, to some degree, to preserve the right of the hon. Member who has put the Question down.