HC Deb 10 February 1960 vol 617 cc464-7
Mr. S. Silverman

Mr. Speaker, may I raise with you a point of, I think, general interest which is causing some anxiety to some of my hon. Friends and to myself? It concerns what appears to be a most remarkable breakdown in the machinery which the House has to enable Ministers of the Crown who desire to do so to communicate urgent information to the House. Yesterday, about 3.30, while I was sitting on the bench here, I was handed a letter which had a slip attached to it marked "Immediate". It was timed 3.15 and it contained a circular letter from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade.

It is clear that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade thought that this was a matter of urgent interest which he ought to communicate to hon. Members interested at the earliest possible moment, since he sent it, not merely to me, but to a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It was, of course, of the greatest urgency and importance because it dealt with the list of places to which the President of the Board of Trade's powers under the Local Employment Bill, when it becomes law, will attach.

You will remember, Sir, that during the passage of that Bill—Second Reading, Committee stage, Report stage and Third Reading—many of us were concerned—

Mr. Speaker

I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but no doubt it is sufficient for the point which he is making to assume it to be a document of the greatest urgency.

Mr. Silverman

The point that I am making is directly relevant, because the Minister knew from the debate how many hon. Members were anxious to have the information as early as possible. The letter said—I propose to read it, if I may; it is very short—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

This is a point of order which, to some extent, trespasses on other business, and I would be grateful if the hon. Member could make his point fairly without the assistance of the letter. If he cannot do so, then I shall trust his discretion.

Mr. Silverman

I fully appreciate and share the anxiety of the House to get on to the important debate which we are to have shortly, but I regard this matter as of the greatest importance and I think that it would be wrong of me to ask you, Sir, for a Ruling upon it without placing you in possession of the facts. I will try to do it as shortly as possible. [HON. MEMBERS "Get on."] I can understand that a great many hon. Members opposite are perfectly satisfied with what the Minister told them, because they have been favoured at the expense of hon. Members on this side.

Mr. Speaker

I am anxious to hear the hon. Member's point of order. I hope that he will not present some kind of political argument between one side of the House and the other about it. I want to hear about the facts.

Mr. Silverman

I do my utmost to resist provocation, but I do not always succeed, Sir.

The circular states: May I draw your attention to the reply made this afternoon by the President of the Board of Trade, announcing the list of places expected to be initially eligible to receive Government assistance under the Local Employment Bill. You will see that a part or all of your constituency, though on the present D A.T.A.C. list, is not included. I appreciate that this may be a disappointment to you and others to whom I am sending similar letters, but we feel that if our policy is to be effective it is necessary to concentrate assistance where it is most needed. You will see, Sir, that although this refers to an Answer by the President of the Board of Trade, it does not refer to any Question to the President of the Board of Trade nor to any hon. Member who asked such a Question. The reason for that may be that, on looking at yesterday's Order Paper, I can find no such Question, either among the list of Questions for Oral Answer or among the list of Questions not for Oral Answer. In spite of that, there appears in c. 29 in HANSARD a Written Question to the President of the Board of Trade by the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir R. Robinson), followed by the Minister's Answer. This page in HANSARD is dated 9th February.

So far as I have been able to discover, no hon. Member addressed a Question to the President of the Board of Trade on this or any other subject on 9th February. Nevertheless, there is virtually a whole column of areas which are to get assistance under the Bill. This was clearly a matter which the Government thought they ought to communicate, as a matter of urgency, to the House and which hon. Members, as a matter of urgency, wanted to have. Unless I am right in suggesting that the whole machinery of communication has broken down through neglect or abuse, it would seem to follow that the Minister's procedure was adopted not so much to communicate information at the earliest possible moment, but to withold it until he had communicated it to the Press outside.

I think that this is a matter of great seriousness. There is very great anxiety among thousands of Her Majesty's subjects about local unemployment, the effect of this legislation and the Government's intentions. I submit to you, Sir, that it is preposterous that the machinery of the House should be so abused as to protect the Minister from being asked Questions and supplementary questions in order that we should understand what is in his mind and what the Government are doing.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Member for raising this matter. I make no complaint against him in saying that I knew nothing of the matter until this moment. Without prejudice to any decision as to whether it raises a point of order or a point, I would like, if the House would agree, to acquaint myself further with the facts and consider what I can do to help.

Dame Irene Ward

Further to that point of order. As you are so kindly inquiring into the matter, Mr. Speaker, will you bear in mind that the Minister did not bother to send me a letter?

Mr. Speaker

Not even the hon. Lady's complaint against the Minister can be for me, but I will look into it.

Mr. Loughlin

Further to that point of order. There are a number of hon. Members who are in precisely the same position as the hon. Member for Tyne-mouth (Dame Irene Ward), who have not yet received this urgent information.

Mr. Speaker

That may be another matter, but I will seek to get information about it.

Mr. Short

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, when looking into this matter, to inquire why Lobby correspondents were given an explanatory memorandum on this matter which has been denied to hon. Members of the House?

Mr. Speaker

I will collect as much information as I can and deal with it in so far as it is, or appears to be, within my province.