§ The Postmaster-General (Mr. Ernest Marples)
With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I would like to make a statement.
A Motion in my name on the Order Paper provides that an Agreement dated 16th March, 1959, with the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, a copy of which was laid before this House on 26th June, be approved. This Agreement falls within the scope of Standing Orders Nos. 87 and 88. Standing Order No. 87 requires that the Agreement shall not be binding until approved by this House. This requirement has been met.
Standing Order No. 88 requires that the Agreement should be laid forthwith. This, I regret to say, has not been met. For this, I apologise to the House.
Normally, such Agreements are signed, first, by the other party and, later, by the Government. This provides time for arrangements to be made to lay the Agreement before the House as soon as it is completed. But in this case my signature was given first. The reason for this was that the American Telephone and Telegraph Company engrossed the Agreement and sent it to us for signature.
In falling in with this arrangement, we inadvertently prevented ourselves from making that immediate report to the House which Standing Order No. 88 requires. Steps have been taken to ensure, as far as possible, that a similar lapse will not occur again.
I thought it proper to make this statement and offer my apologies to the House before the Motion in my name is considered.
§ Mr. C. R. Hobson
We on this side of the House accept the apology of the right hon. Gentleman, because there must be very few hon. Members on either side who have not transgressed the Standing Orders at some time or other, but there is one question I wish to ask. Why has there been the delay in making this statement? A Motion has been on the Order Paper for 15 days. It was placed 35 in the Library on 25th June. After many requests had been made by hon. Members on this side for the Agreement to be placed in the Vote Office, it finally appeared on 9th July, last Thursday.
Will the right hon. Gentleman pay particular attention to the penultimate sentence in his statement and see that this sort of thing does not occur again?
§ Mr. Marples
I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I will. To comply with Standing Orders where other countries are involved is not always easy. It means that this country has always to sign last. If, for example, we have an agreement with America which involves Congress and the Senate, it almost means meeting in mid-Atlantic to sign and then rushing home to comply with the Standing Orders.
I made my statement as quickly as I could when I learned the facts, after consulting the authorities of the House and other people concerned.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
As one who committed a rather more serious offence of this kind when I was Secretary of State for the Home Department, may I convey some degree of sympathy to the Postmaster-General?
§ Mr. Morrison
In my case, not only did I apologise abjectly, but I brought in an indemnity Bill so that Parliament could either forgive me or not, according to its will. It did forgive me, after suitably caning me in the presence of the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to bring in an indemnity Bill, so that we may discuss him at further length?
§ Mr. Marples
I admire the right hon. Gentleman's ingenuity in many respects—telegram and all—but I do not think that on this occasion I shall follow the precedent which he set.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. This matter may be debated tomorrow, when we come to the Motion in the name of the Minister.