HC Deb 11 April 1960 vol 621 cc883-7
Mr. Frank Allaun

May I have your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Earlier in Question Time considerable dissatisfaction was expressed at the refusal of the Minister to give the House certain information. I am in this difficulty. I tabled another six Questions last week. I assure you that none of them involves security measures relating to these contracts. In view of the Minister's Answers this afternoon, it is almost certain that his reply to my Questions will be, "I can give you no information".

Is it in order for a Minister to refuse information to the House when a miscalculation of at least £110 million is involved, and actually far more than that?

Mr. Speaker

I am concerned with rules of order, and not, with respect, with speeches attached to them. So far as the rules of order go, it is in order for the Minister to refuse to answer in certain circumstances. I cannot order him to do so.

Mr. Shinwell

We had just now a repetition of an incident that occurred during Question Time one day last week when a number of Questions were telescoped and answered by the responsible Minister. Before one of the hon. Members who had asked one of the Questions could put a supplementary question, another hon. Member who had a Question of a similar kind on the Order Paper gave notice that he proposed to raise the matter on the Adjournment. The first hon. Member was therefore prevented from putting his supplementary question. There have been two similar occurrences today.

I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you would look at the matter again to clarify the position, because it inhibits an hon. Member from putting a supplementary question which, not only to himself but to the House, may be of some importance. At the moment, he is prevented from asking his supplementary question if another hon. Members interrupts to give notice that he will raise the matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Speaker

I follow the right hon. Gentleman's grievance, but it has been like that for all time and it is not for me to change the rules of the House. If the House likes to change them, it is for the House to do so. I hope, as I said the other day, that hon. Members will not lightly adopt the process of giving notice, because of its effect upon the rights of other hon. Members.

Mr. Rankin

Further to that point of order. When a point of order is raised, or notice of an Adjournment is given, must you automatically accept that, Mr. Speaker, despite the fact that a good many hon. Members might want to put supplementary questions? Is the acceptance of the notice not within your discretion?

Mr. Speaker

No. I receive, as the House as it were, notice from hon. Members. I cannot resist the process of receiving it. If I were very quick in calling the next hon. Member I might get out of it that way. That happened on one occasion, but I was not quite quick enough to dodge it this time.

Mr. Gaitskell

May we have your advice, Mr. Speaker? I think there is some genuine concern in the House about the possible abuse, if that is the word, of giving notice of the Adjournment. You told us that it was not within your power to change the rule. Could you advise us in what way some modification might be made? For example, it might be out of order to give notice to raise the subject on the Adjournment if an hon. Member who had a Question down had not had an opportunity of asking a supplementary question. Could this be considered in some way, and could you tell us how it could be done?

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that I cannot consider it. It would have to be considered by the House through the usual channels if it wanted a change in the practice. So far as those who advise me could help me, I would be delighted to assist on any point where request was made to us for a suggestion. I had better not say much about it in case I find that the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is not in fact as attractive as it sounds to me.

Mr. Callaghan

May I revert to the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Frank Allaun) on Questions Nos. 27 and 28 about the nature of the reply of a Minister where the matter is in front of the Public Accounts Committee? My hon. Friend has intimated to you that on this very serious matter, in which many millions of pounds of public money are involved, he has put down a further six Questions. The point I want to put is this. It is quite clear that the Minister is entitled to shelter himself under the guise of what is necessary in the public interest and say that he does not propose to give the House any information. May I ask whether you would at least advise him in this sense, that he is not entitled to say to the House that because the matter is before the Public Accounts Committee he is not willing to give the House the information for which my hon. Friend is asking?

Mr. Speaker

That is exactly what he would be entitled to do, as I understand it. What he is not entitled to do, on what we were discussing earlier, is to give as the reason for not discussing the matter in the House the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General has reported about it.

Mr. Wigg

Further to the point of order about giving notice of the Adjournment. Surely there is no Standing Order about it. It is the custom for the Chair to accept notice by a Member, as in this case. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Mr. Jeger). If an hon. Member puts down a Question and thinks that all the Questions have been exhausted, out of courtesy to the Minister he gives notice that he will raise the matter on the Adjournment, but there is no reason why the Chair should from that moment cease to accept supplementary questions.

The second point is one of very great substance. The Minister of Aviation presents Estimates to the House and they are printed. Then, before they come into operation, the right hon. Gentleman can come to the House and, without exposing policy, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his Budget Statement, rather by way of an aside, announces that those Estimates are to be reduced. All we are permitted to do, in the cut and thrust of Questions, is to elicit from the right hon. Gentleman what major change of policy has taken place since he tabled his annual Estimates and before their coming into operation. Is it not a grave abuse of the traditions and procedure of this House for right hon. Gentlemen to adopt the method which has been adopted in this case?

Mr. Sandys

Further to that point of order. I should like to deal with the point made about the Public Accounts Committee. There is nothing to conceal because all this will come out in a report to the House. [HON. MEMBERS. "When?"] There is no question of concealing matters, but I was rather anxious not to cause offence or to commit an impropriety by reading to the House what in fact would be a summary of a letter sent to the Auditor General as a result of the Public Accounts Committee's inquiries. Perhaps I could take your advice on this, Mr. Speaker? If you consider that it would be proper to do so, I should be happy in reply to a later Question to give that information.

Mr. Speaker

It is not from the point of view of order improper for the Minister to do that, but, as the House knows, it would be unusual, because I think in the past it has been usual to adopt the method of awaiting the information from the Public Accounts Committee, merely because I suppose that is a more complete opportunity of investigating a particular point. It is not out of order for the Minister to do that if he wants to do it.

To go back to the first pant of the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), I am afraid I cannot agree with the view he put. It is not a Standing Order but the practice of the House to give notice, and that brings into operation our rule against anticipation. That is why it is done.