HC Deb 29 July 1959 vol 610 cc497-502
16. Mr. Ernest Davies

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation what action he proposes to take on the recommendations of the Select Committee on Estimates on roads; and what consequential changes in the roads programme will be made.

Mr. Watkinson

The Report will be carefully studied and a detailed reply will be submitted to the Committee as soon as possible.

Mr. Davies

If the Report is now being studied and a detailed reply is to be submitted to the Committee, why did the Minister rush in and reject the Report before it had been given consideration? Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the remarks he made in his two speeches at Hendon and at Stamford rejected the Committee's findings and were insulting to the members of that Committee?

Mr. Watkinson

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I would like to say this. There are two quite separate issues here. As to the relations between my Ministry and the Select Committee, we shall proceed strictly in accordance with the normal, conventional procedure, and the Committee has been so advised. Of course, the publication of the Report gave rise to widespread comment on the road programme as a whole. Whether that comment was in line with what the Committee intended I do not know, but it was certainly my job as Minister, in the light of the widespread comment arising from publication of the Report, to make the position of my Ministry quite clear, and I make no apology for that.

Mr. Peyton

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that if he had not made some statement on that occasion, bearing in mind the nature of the occasion and who was present, and as the subject concerned roads, the impression would have been highly misleading and he would have been taken as having no effective answer to the allegations, which indeed he has?

Mr. Watkinson

As my hon. Friend says, there are two issues here. As to the Select Committee, I have taken all the steps I can to ensure that the Select Committee is fully aware that I yield to no one in my respect for the House of Commons and its institutions but, as my hon. Friend has also said, the whole progress of the road programme could have been impeded if there had been a feeling that the widespread criticism of it in the Press as being improperly planned and executed might lead to broad changes in the scope of the programme. Tne speech I made was in front of contractors and local authorities actually engaged on the road programme. As I said before, I make no apology. It was my duty as Minister to make the position of my Ministry quite plain.

Mr. H. Morrison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that criticisms of Ministers by the Estimates Committee or the Public Accounts Committee have occurred before and Ministers have to put up with it? It is part of what they are paid for. Could not the Minister have let the thing take its ordinary course and be a bit patient? Further, is he aware that before this Ministers have had to wait before replying to the Committee? May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that, since we have these Committees in the House of Commons, it is important that they should be treated with respect?

I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that instead of coming here and saying that he has nothing whatever to apologise for, would it not be better if he had a little Parliamentary docility and humility and said to the House of Commons that he is sorry he did what he did in the heat of the moment? [HON. MEMBERS: "He has."] He has not. No, Sir, with great respect, the Minister has said that if he has upset the Committee he is sorry about that, which is a different thing altogether. I ask him to say that he regrets that in the heat of the moment he got rather wild about it. If he did that, the House, which is the most forgiving institution on earth, would let him off.

Mr. Watkinson

There is not so much difference between the right hon. Gentleman and myself as he thinks. Last week, I took the earliest opportunity I had to say in the House of Commons that I was very sorry indeed if I had been in any way discourteous to the Committee. I have also taken further steps to make sure that the Committee is quite aware of my position.

What I am dealing with in this answer is not the relations between either myself, as Minister, or my Department and a Select Committee of this House, but a broad issue of general and fundamental policy of my Ministry which arose from the publication of the Report. I have said that it is certainly the duty of any Minister in that circumstance to make his position quite plain. May I add that I did exactly the same with regard to the Report of the Select Committee on the Air Corporations, when no comment was aroused in this House at all.

Dame Florence Horsbrugh

Does my right hon. Friend realise that there is a great difficulty here and that some of us who have been Ministers and have suffered under this procedure know it? It is that a report can come out with statements that might affect work going on at that time and those who are carrying it on, such as local authorities, wish to know about it. There is bound to be a considerable gap before the Department's reply can be published, so does not my right hon. Friend think it would be a better plan in the future if a new system could be evolved under which the Report would not be published before the Department received it, giving sufficient time for a reply from the Department to come out nearer the time when the Report comes out?

Mr. J. Griffiths

On a point of order, Sir. In circumstances of this kind, where a Committee set up by the House reports to the House and the Minister feels that the matter is so urgent that he cannot wait for the normal procedure of a departmental reply, would there not be a case in which the Minister could come to you, the Speaker of the House, and ask your permission and that of the House to make a statement? Would not that be a proper way to handle a matter of this kind?

Mr. Speaker

I do not wish to express an opinion one way or another on this controversy, but certainly if a Minister feels he wants to make a statement on a matter which concerns the public interest and the interest of his Department, in a proper case I would allow it.

Mr. Griffiths

Are we to take it. Sir, that you have received no such request?

Mr. Speaker

I have received no such request from anyone.

Sir G. Nicholson

On that point of order, Sir. Will you make it plain, if you agree, that once a Select Committee has reported the matter is public property and is a proper matter for public discussion? After all, it does not follow that the Department will send a reply; it may not wish to do so. Surely if the Report is public property, anybody—a Minister or a member of the general public—is entitled to comment on it?

Mr. Speaker

There is a good deal of weight in that.

21. Mr. Ernest Davies

asked the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation for what reasons he departed from the normal procedure of replying to the First Report of the Select Committee on Estimates relating to trunk roads by making a statement to the House or by sending a memorandum containing his observations to the committee.

Mr. Watkinson

As in the case of the recent Report of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries, widespread public comment was aroused by the publication of the Report. This comment whether in line with the Committee's report or not raised major policy issues.

It was therefore my duty to make the position of my Ministry quite plain on these issues at the earliest possible opportunity, not as a reply to the Committee but to ensure that the momentum of the road programme is not impeded. I have already expressed my regret, and I certainly express it again in the clearest possible terms, if the Committee thought me guilty of the slightest intentional discourtesy.

Mr. Davies

Is it not clear from that reply and from the earliest exchanges which have taken place that the Minister still does not regret the fact that he made this speech outside the House and that these so-called apologies which he has made are really those of a petulant child whose vanity has been offended? [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Is it not a fact that he stated that this Report was misleading and inaccurate and that the Committee had given only cursory attention to consideration of the road programme? In those circumstances, is it not a matter for the House and not for speeches outside?

Mr. Watkinson

I do not take that very seriously, because the hon. Gentleman—I certainly do not accept the very misleading letter of his in The Times this morning—has been responsible for bringing into my Ministry the nicest and biggest lot of letters we have ever had while I have been Minister, on the whole saying, "Get on with the road programme, and good luck to you". So I have no complaint at all.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Enfield, East (Mr. Ernest Davies) will soon, after the General Election, have to make all his speeches outside the House?

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