HC Deb 17 December 1959 vol 615 cc1651-8
Sir T. Moore

On a point of order. You will be aware, Mr. Speaker, that Question No. 126 stands in my name on the Order Paper. I originally tabled this Question for answer by the Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend courteously replied to me in a letter to say that it would be answered shortly by the Minister of Defence. But as you will have noticed, Mr. Speaker, I ask in the Question for the information to be given before the Recess. Will you permit anyone on the Front Bench who might be responsible for answering for the Ministry of Defence to answer this Question now?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Baronet knows my practice in the matter. I do not do such things unless I have received a request from the Minister to do so. Such a request I have not received.

Mrs. Castle

On a point of order. May I ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on an important point of procedure? Under the Emergency Regulations now operating in Nyasaland, and, in particular, Regulation 35, African witnesses before the Monckton Commission who say anything that is likely to undermine public confidence in the Government of Nyasaland or the Government of the Federation are liable to imprisonment. We have had evidence in answer to a Question earlier today that three men have already been imprisoned under that Regulation.

My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Foot), and myself, tabled Questions to the Prime Minister asking what protection would be given to witnesses before the Monckton Commission, to protect them from imprisonment if they give their honest opinion on the situation in the Federation. The right hon. Gentleman informed us that he had transferred the Questions to the Commonwealth Relations Office. We therefore consulted the Table and drafted the Questions in such a way as to make it clear that we were concerned with the personal safety of African witnesses in Nyasaland and in the two Protectorates of the Federation.

We were then informed, again to our astonishment, that the Questions had been transferred to the Commonwealth Relations Office. I suggest that two very important points arise from this. The first question is what kind of jurisdiction the Federal Government are operating over a Commission which is appointed by this House and what kind of final say the Federal Government have. Otherwise, why is the Commonwealth Relations Office considered to be answerable for the behaviour of African witnesses in British Protectorates?

That is the first question and I suggest a very important constitutional one, because by transferring these Questions to the Commonwealth Relations Office the Government have the very nice result that they are able to avoid answering Questions this morning before the Recess whilst the flatter is fresh in the public mind, Question No. 20 having become Question No. 90 and my hon. and learned Friend's Question become No. 89.

The second question is: what possible jurisdiction can the Commonwealth Relations Office have over the operation of emergency regulations in Nyasaland? In view of the entirely arbitrary way in which the Prime Minister transfers Questions to avoid his responsibilities, ought not this whole matter to be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure, so that some control is exercised by the House over the way Ministers transfer Questions and, therefore, deprive hon. Members of the opportunity of raising urgent matters at the most appropriate time?

Mr. Speaker

I have heard the hon. Lady's point of order. I have great difficulty in helping her at all myself because, as she and the House would know, the question of transfer is nothing whatsoever to do with the Chair, nor is the underlying question, relating to what might be or what might not be the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Relations Office in this matter.

As to the suggestion of what should or should not be referred to the Committee on Procedure, that would appear to be a matter for the Leader of the House in this context, but certainly not for the Chair.

Mr. Foot

Further to that point of order. The two Questions to which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) referred now appear as Nos. 89 and 90 on the Order Paper. As my hon. Friend has said, they were originally put in a somewhat different form to the Prime Minister. The two Questions were put to the Prime Minister generally with reference to the position arid the protection of all witnesses before the Monckton Commission. Thereafter, those Questions were redrafted by my hon. Friend and myself to bring the matter within the jurisdiction of the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Questions are now framed with reference simply to Nyasaland and the Northern Territory, which are the responsibility of the Colonial Secretary.

The question I wish to put is whether there is a completely unfettered discretion in the Government to transfer Questions from one Department to another, even when the Questions may be quite clearly designed to fall within the province of the first Department.

Mr. Speaker

As far as the Chair is concerned, that ability to transfer is wholly unfettered. The Chair plays no part in the matter. The House no doubt would have its remedy in another way should something go wrong in that field, but it would not be a matter for interference by the Chair.

Mr. Gordon Walker

I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you could give consideration to this problem during the Recess, because the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) is extremely important. The Questions have actually been transferred to a Ministry which has no responsibility for the matter in question. It is clear that the Commonwealth Relations Office has no responsibility for British Protectorates and that the Questions were designed to refer to British Protectorates.

It is surely a very grave abuse of the practice of the House when a Question is transferred to a Ministry which is not responsible for the matter, with the result that we cannot raise it, whereas if it had been transferred to the Ministry which has responsibility it would have been reached at Question Time. I submit that this is a very grave abuse of the normal practice which we all expect in the House and I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that you should give attention to this matter and give us your advice on it after consideration.

Mr. Speaker

I will certainly look into this particular case, because I really have not considered it or had the opportunity to consider it at all. But I conceive this to be the position—that the transferee Minister, if I may use the phrase, would not have the Question put down to him on the Order Paper at all unless his Ministry was, in fact, accepting responsibility. The Ministry might be doing so rightly in law or wrongly in law, but the Question would not get on the Order Paper if it did not do so. I will look at this to instruct myself, but I adhere to the position that the transfer is not the responsibility of the Chair, because the Chair cannot be made responsible for deciding whether or not a transfer is appropriate.

Dr. Johnson

On a point of order. Is the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) aware that her own five-minute speech on a point of order and, prior to that, another question which was entirely out of order for another two or three minutes—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—prevented my asking—

Hon. Members

That is not a point of order.

Mr. Gordon Walker rose

Dr. Johnson

Excuse me, but I am very firmly on a point of order, because I wanted to point out that these two things prevented my asking Question No. 60 on a point of public interest to which I have been awaiting an Answer for about five weeks. I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you would request certain hon. Members opposite to remember that other hon. Members have rights in the House.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that all hon. Members on both sides of the House will remember the rights and interests of other hon. Members. In my experience, all Questions which are not reached on any day are questions of great public importance.

Mr. Callaghan

Instead of addressing your admonition, Mr. Speaker, to my hon. Friend, would you not point out to the hon. Member for Carlisle (Dr. Johnson) that the point of order was raised at the end of Questions and. therefore, he was not estopped by anything that my hon. Friend said?

Mr. Speaker

I do not propose to descend into any discussion as to the consequences.

Mr. Rankin

Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore). I ask you, Mr. Speaker, as the guardian of the rights of hon. Members, to guide me in this matter. It is our right to put Questions, and over a long period Questions have been put, on this matter of the Pegasus aircraft contract. I was assured last week by the Minister of Aviation that the matter would be decided soon and that we would hear the decision in reply to Questions which we put in this House.

Yesterday, it was announced in the Press that a decision had been reached and most of us expected that an announcement would be made in the House today. As my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Leith (Mr. Hoy) points out, we were informed that we would hear a decision in the House on this matter. Surely it is a deception on the House, and almost an insult to hon. Members, that, while we are promised an Answer in the Chamber to Questions which have been put to the Minister responsible, a Press announcement is made before the House rises and the Government slip away without facing up to the consequences of the decision about which we were informed in the Press yesterday. Are we not to have a statement from the Government?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order. I hope that hon. Members will be careful not to raise matters which are not points of order under that guise, because we are consuming the time available to hon. Members for business later in the day.

Mr. Driberg

Further to the original point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle). You, Mr. Speaker, were good enough to say that one point which she raised was a matter for the Leader of the House. I wonder whether we can ask the Leader of the House to look into it and perhaps to make a statement, if not now, immediately after the Recess? Secondly, when you, Mr. Speaker, advise us that you have no responsibility at all for transfers, which, of course, we accept, it is the case, is it not, that, in practice, the Table acts, as it were, as the agent of the Chair? Presumably, the Table has discussions or consultations with the various Departments when a transfer takes place. If a transfer seems, prima facie, to be quite wrong or evasive, has the Table any rights in the matter at all? Can the Table say to the Department. "Look here, that's a bit steep"?

Mr. Speaker

The answer to both parts of the hon. Member's question is, "No". The Table does not have consultations with the Department consulted.

Mr. Swingler

This is a very important point—

Hon. Members

Sit down.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)

I was quite prepared to intervene when you, Mr. Speaker, mentioned the Leader of the House, and I am ready to take up the suggestion of the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) that this matter should be looked at. I do not quite accept her reference to the Select Committee on Procedure. I am not sure whether there is such a Committee. We had a Select Committee. What happens usually in this difficult matter of Parliamentary Questions, their transfer and the time that they are reached, is this. There must be a degree of consultation with the Table and also a degree of responsibility accepted by the Administration, because it is due to Ministers that Questions are primarily transferred.

While quite acknowledging the responsibility of the Government and of the Leader of the House in this matter, I would ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether we might make contact with the Table and perhaps, by a series of discussions, reach a little more satisfaction. If I could pursue the matter on those lines, we might he a little more happier.

Mr. Callaghan

We are obliged for what the right hon. Gentleman has said. May I ask him whether, in looking into this matter, he will endeavour to reach an accommodation with the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations that all Questions on the subject of the Monckton Commission shall not be answered by simply one of those two Ministers, but shall be divided between them according to the nature of the Question? It may well be that they have decided that all ought to go through the Commonwealth Relations Office. If that is so, it would be extremely unsatisfactory to my hon. Friends, in view of the special relationship which the Secretary of State for the Colonies has with the two Northern Protectorates.

Mr. Butler

I would not accept, prima facie, that there has been a wrong decision about Questions Nos. 89 and 90, although I understand the regret that they were not reached. However, the point raised by the hon. Member about the responsibility of the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations would have to be discussed by me with these Ministers concerned, and I will certainly do this.

Mrs. Castle

While thanking the right hon. Gentleman for that very helpful reply, may I ask him whether he will consider the point that when a transfer is made the reason should be given to the hon. Member tabling the Question? This would enable an hon. Member perhaps to judge whether a serious constitutional problem is involved, as I suggest there is in this case. Surely it would be intolerable to the House if the Government were acting on the assumption that responsibility for the conduct of the Monckton Commission is a matter for the Commonwealth Relations Office and thus, by inference, for the Federal Government and not for this Parliament.

Mr. Butler

I have undertaken to discuss this matter with my right hon. Friend and hon. Friend concerned. For the time being, I would rather say no more, except to reaffirm what has been said.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

I hope that hon. Members will be careful to adhere strictly to points of order if they so describe them.

Mr. Thorpe

When dealing with this matter, will the right hon. Gentleman consider whether it should not be referred to the Board of Trade on the basis that the Monckton Commission was launched on a fraudulent prospectus?