HC Deb 13 December 1955 vol 547 cc1014-6
Mr. Swingler

Mr. Speaker, I want to raise a separate point of order concerning another custom of the House, namely, the custom of Ministers transferring Questions to other Departments. I am sorry to bother you with another point of order, but I wish to draw your attention to a point which affects the rights of private Members.

Last week I wished to put on the Order Paper a Question concerning a message to local authorities issued in the names of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I addressed it, I think quite properly, to the Minister of Housing and Local Government for answer today. I received a note from the Ministry stating that the Minister of Housing and Local Government had today transferred the Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and it appeared on the Order Paper today as Question No. 85.

Yesterday, I protested to the Ministry of Housing on the ground that the name of the Minister of Housing and Local Government actually appeared on the circular to local authorities, which was the subject of the Question. As there is a Minister of the Crown who is responsible for local government affairs, and as this concerned a question of economy of capital expenditure by local authorities, I think it was proper that the Minister of Housing and Local Government, who was first on the list today, should be responsible for answering the Question, but the Minister himself wished to evade his responsibility in spite of his name being on the message by transferring the Question to the Treasury, which happened to be at the bottom of the list of Departments for which Ministers were answering today.

May I ask you whether a private Member has any protection against the practice of Ministers transferring Questions to other Departments, without any apparent remedy in the hands of the Member putting down the Question? I put it to you that one should be entitled to insist that a Question that concerned a circular issued in the name of a Minister of the Crown should be answered by that Minister of the Crown in this House, because he is responsible for these affairs. Notwithstanding that it appears to be the situation that the Minister can transfer that Question to another Department, has the Member who initiated it no means of altering that situation?

Mr. Sandys

Apart from the question of order, which is naturally for you to decide, Mr. Speaker, in referring to the right of Ministers to transfer Questions to other Ministers, in view of what the hon. Member has said, I should like to point out that he has himself explained that his Question related to a circular signed by both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself. It was, therefore, doubtful whether the Question should be addressed to the Chancellor or to me. I should like to point out that, while I am the Minister of Housing and Local Government, I am not responsible for all expenditure by local authorities in all fields, and that the Question related to the overall expenditure of local authorities not only in my field, but in the fields of other Government Departments, and that it seemed more appropriate that the Chancellor of the Exchequer should reply to the Question.

Mr. Speaker

This is a matter with which I have frequently dealt. The hon. Ministerial responsibility. We really do Swingler) will see from what has been said how difficult and, indeed, how impossible it would be for me or the learned Clerk at the Table in any way to control this matter. It is entirely a question of ministerial responsibility. We really do not know quite accurately what are the limitations of the responsibility of individual Ministers. This particular Ques- tion seems to have concerned both, and it is for Ministers and not for me to say who should answer it. It is impossible for us to help in that matter. I know that this has been a frequent source of complaint by Members, but I do not see what the answer to the hon. Member's point is.

Mr. Swingler

The point I wish to make is that if the matter is the responsibility of two Ministers, ought not both Ministers to accept responsibility and ought it not to be possible to put down Questions to both Ministers rather than to have one Minister shuffling it off to another?

Mr. Speaker

It happened by the luck of the draw, as one might say, that this Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer was postponed too late for it to be reached, but, theoretically, it might work the other way and I am afraid that there is nothing which I can do about it. Ministers and ex-Ministers, of both parties, are well aware that this is a practice which has caused irritation to hon. Members and I am sure that it will be reduced, and has always been reduced, to a minimum.

Mr. D. Jones

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the reverse had been the case, would the Question have been transferred from the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Minister of Housing and Local Government, so that it could not have been answered by anyone?

Mr. Speaker

That is purely speculative.