HC Deb 04 May 1955 vol 540 cc1690-3
Mr. Hale

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance on a matter which seems to be of importance to all hon. Members and particularly to the hon. Member for Oldham, West? On Monday I put down Question No. 12 to the Prime Minister asking him whether he is aware that in a large number of cases where notification of increase of pension had been sent out the notice has been followed by a notification of reduction in other pensionable payment or supplementary allowance; and what steps Her Majesty's Government propose to take to remedy this hardship. When I looked this morning at the Votes and Proceedings I noticed that that Question had been removed from the Prime Minister's list. On taking the matter up I found that a letter had been sent to me yesterday—received by me this morning—which said that the Question had been transferred to the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) raised this matter with the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance some days ago and received an answer which he no doubt regarded as wholly unsatisfactory. Although there was a limited statement by the Minister on Monday referring to about 4,000 cases out of 1,800,000 people affected, referring only to the question of parents' pensions and having nothing to do with the main question of National Assistance, no answer was given.

In my respectful submission, first, it has always been the practice when, on matters of national importance, the Minister's answers have not been satisfactory, to put down a Question to the Prime Minister and to receive an answer from the Prime Minister. Secondly, in the very special circumstances of the case, I wrote at once to the person who signed the letter—whom I believe to be the Principal Private Secretary to the Prime Minister—pointing out that the Prime Minister had overlooked for the moment the fact that he had informed the House that he had tendered advice to Her Majesty to dissolve this Parliament on Friday, that therefore it would be quite impossible for the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance to answer this important Question, and that, indeed, he might not be the Minister of that Department when Parliament reassembled and the matter was raised again.

The result is that on a matter of deep emotional significance, where a great number of Her Majesty's citizens are finding themselves deprived of an increase notified to them only two months ago, and about which, having come straight here from my division, I put down a Question of importance on Monday, I am being deprived of the chance of an answer, and in my respectful submission—without wishing to use the word out of place—I suggest deliberately deprived, of the hope of a reply on a matter of some magnitude and importance.

Mr. Speaker

I always sympathise with hon. Members whose Questions are in this way demoted, but I cannot assist the hon. Member. I have frequently stated in the House that the transference of Questions from one Minister to another is entirely a matter for them and I have no control over it whatsoever. The hon. Member has made his point, and I am sorry that I am unable to assist him.

Mr. J. Hynd

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that Question No. 74 on the Paper was also put down to the Prime Minister and has been referred to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and has, there- fore, not been answered. As this deals with a matter which not only this country but the whole world is watching with interest, but about which we shall have no further opportunity today of hearing any statement from the Government—unless they do so voluntarily—with regard to their intentions about the Austrian Treaty, and having regard to the great deal of apprehension—which I hope is misapprehension—in Austria as to Her Majesty's Government's attitude to the Treaty, may I ask that the Minister be permitted to answer Question No. 74, or alternatively that we may be assured that a statement will be made before Parliament is dissolved on Friday?

Mr. Speaker

No doubt what the hon. Member has said has been heard, but again the answer which I gave to the hon. Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) must hold. I have received no request for permission to answer this Question.

Mr. Shinwell

May I ask a question of the Leader of the House on business?

Mr. Hale

Before my right hon. Friend does that, I am sure he will not think I am being discourteous if I raise another matter. I had given notice to Mr. Speaker that I would raise two matters, and if I give way to my right hon. Friend—which I would always do, of course, as a matter of courtesy—I might deprive myself of the right of raising my second important point, on which I have written to Mr. Speaker seeking his guidance.

On returning from my constituency on Monday, I addressed to the Prime Minister a Question which appeared on the Order Paper as No. 11. It was: To ask the Prime Minister whether he is aware that a large number of mills in Oldham are now working short time and that some have closed down; and what steps Her Majesty's Government propose to take to deal with the situation in the cotton industry which is one of increasing gravity. The significance of that Question is that this was a subject which the Prime Minister allocated to himself to deal with yesterday. The Prime Minister came here yesterday and made a statement on a limited aspect of the matter, saying that he proposed to accept the advice which we had addressed to him from these benches last Thursday. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I hoped that I was being non-controversial on this, Mr. Speaker; I was seeking your guidance. But it is on record that the Chancellor of the Exchequer said he could not do it and was supported by hon. Members opposite. We said that it could be done, and it is now being done.

The point I wish to put is how on earth is a back bencher to know what the Prime Minister's business is? If it is his business to answer about cotton mills on Tuesday and then shift the subject on to someone else on Wednesday, what protection will hon. Members have from this habitual transference of Questions so that they cannot be answered? On the very day that the Prime Minister asks your leave to make a statement about the cotton industry he has written to me a letter to say that he refuses to make a statement about the cotton industry in answer to my Question.

Mr. G, M. Thomson

May I point out that Question No. 79 about Formosa, which is on the Order Paper for answer today, was put down to the Prime Minister and was transferred by him to the Foreign Secretary, although the Prime Minister personally intervened in the House a day or two ago to deal with the particular point? Is not the Prime Minister wantonly throwing away his last opportunities to answer Questions?

Mr. Speaker

I think that this is really the same point, and I must reiterate that I have no control over the transference of Questions. I might add, however, that my experience of different Administrations in this House does not lead me to the conclusion that because a Prime Minister makes a statement about any aspect of policy on any day he thereafter accepts responsibility for all Questions on that topic in future.

Mr. I. O. Thomas

Would it be in order for me, Mr. Speaker, to put a Question to the Prime Minister, or his representative, asking that he seriously considers the appointment of a Select Committee to consider and report upon the frivolous transfer of Questions?

Mr. Speaker

I think the hon. Member may be in order to make that suggestion. What will happen to it I cannot forecast.

Mr. Hale

May I give formal notice that I shall seek an early opportunity to raise both these matters on consideration of the Consolidated Fund (Appropriation) Bill?