HC Deb 11 February 1960 vol 617 cc668-73
Mr. Speaker

Yesterday, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), rising to a point of order, drew my attention to matters about which he complained relating to a letter that he had received from the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade. Knowing the enormous number of hon. Members who desire to speak today in the foreign affairs debate, I am most anxious not to detain the House. The House was good enough to give me time to look into it, and I think that as a matter of courtesy I should answer promptly.

Much of what the hon. Member was complaining about appears to be directed to the method adopted by the Minister of disseminating information to hon. Members. That is a matter for the Minister. I understand that he wants to make a statement about it, and I have little doubt that the House will think that it is desirable and fair that he should be given the opportunity of doing so.

As far as the matters resting within my responsibility are concerned, the facts are as follows. On Friday last the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Sir R. Robinson) gave notice of the relevant Question to the President of the Board of Trade as one not for Oral Answer. The Question accordingly appeared among the Questions not for Oral Answer on Monday's Order Paper, on page 1587. It was answered by way of Written Answer with commendable promptitude on Tuesday. The Question and Answer appeared in Tuesday's OFFICIAL REPORT, that is, the OFFICIAL REPORT available to hon. Members on Wednesday.

I am unable to detect any irregularity on the part of the Officers of the House in that, and I am unaware of any point of order which arises.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. John Rodgers)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I would like to make a statement on the methods that were adopted to acquaint the House with the first list of those places expected to be eligible for assistance when the Local Employment Bill becomes law.

As you have said, Mr. Speaker, on Friday, 5th February, my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool, South (Sir R. Robinson) put down a Question for Written Answer on Monday, 8th February, which appeared on page 1587 of the Votes and Proceedings for that day. The Question was as follows: Sir Roland Robinson: To ask the President of the Board of Trade, whether he is yet able to announce which places he expects to include in the first list of development districts which will be eligible for assistance under the terms of the Local Employment Bill when that Measure becomes law. The Written Answer to that Question was made available to the hon. Member and to the OFFICIAL REPORT immediately after Questions on Tuesday, 9th February, well within the time normally allowed for answering Written Questions. The Answer appeared in the OFFICIAL REPORT for Tuesday, in column 30.

In accordance with the usual practice, the Answer was given to members of the Press at the House at 3.45 p.m. Also in accordance with custom, the Press at the House were supplied with a summary of background information, all of which had been given to the House on previous occasions.

As a courtesy to hon. Members, I wrote to all those whose constituencies are at present on the D.A.T.A.C. list, but were not included in the list of places announced by my right hon. Friend. I did not write to Members whose constituencies were not on the D.A.T.A.C. list.

To avoid any question of breach of Privilege, those letters were dispatched from the Board of Trade at 3.20 p.m. to arrive at the House at 3.30 p.m. The time of 3.15 p.m. referred to by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) was the time the letters left my office and was affixed by the Board of Trade. They did not leave the Board of Trade until at least 3.20 p.m., and did not arrive at the House before 3.30 p.m.

It is my belief that we have faithfully carried out the normal procedure. My letter to certain hon. Members on both sides was intended purely as a courtesy.

Mr. S. Silverman

I am sure that it would not be in order at this time for me to address the questions to the Parliamentary Secretary that I am sure are in a great many hon. Members' minds. May I, however, put this to you, Mr. Speaker?

According to what the Parliamentary Secretary has said, the procedure adopted here had the effect—and one must infer the calculated and intended effect—of making it impossible for hon. Members in the House to know what the President of the Board of Trade was doing in this matter until after the communication had been made to the Lobby correspondents outside—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. A statement given in writing in answer to a Question put down not for Oral Answer will not appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT until the next morning. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's letter to the hon. Members whom he knew to be affected, although it put them on notice that an announcement had been made to somebody, did not give them any information until the Answer was printed in the next day's OFFICIAL REPORT. By that time it was already in the newspapers, having been given to Lobby correspondents and to the Press at 3.45 the previous afternoon.

It seems to me that a point arises here, if not a point of order, at any rate a point on which you, Sir, might give some help in your capacity of protecting the rights of private Members. It looks as though a device was intentionally used here to protect the Minister from questions by interested hon. Members, and from questions which he himself thought ought to be answered 'because he gave the answers in an explanatory memorandum to the members of the Press, and which is still not in HANSARD and not available to any hon. Member. I submit that, intentionally or not, there was here a grave abuse of the procedure of the House.

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member wishes to pursue his complaints against the Minister about his conduct, he is perfectly entitled to do so within the rules of order and will have the protection of the Chair to do so, but I am quite unable to find, in the history of this matter, any point of order for consideration by me at all. I cannot allow the hon. Member to pursue his complaints against the Minister under the guise of a point of order.

Mr. Jay

Would the Parliamentary Secretary agree that none of these difficulties would have arisen if he had adopted our suggestion and put this list in the Bill? Can he say why—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot, in the interests of hon. Members, allow the House to go back to that battle on this point, which was very entertaining at the time.

Mrs. Castle

Surely this is another example of the quite arbitrary treatment of back benchers by Ministers. If Ministers are to inspire their hon. Friends to put down Questions to enable them to give information to the House, would it not be minimal courtesy for the Minister to inspire a Question for Oral Answer instead of for Written Answer, so that those concerned can have an opportunity of questioning the Minister?

Mr. Speaker

There are two points here. One is the hon. Lady's complaint about the misconduct of the Minister, which is not for me. With regard to the other complaint, it is only fair to say, having looked at the Written Answer, that if someone had tried to give that as an Oral Answer it would have been a matter of great pain to the Chair because it contained a long list of names.

The President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Reginald Maudling)

I decided that this Question was better answered as a Written Answer than an Oral one for the reasons you have explained, Mr. Speaker, as it contained a long list of names. Having decided that a Written Answer was better, we followed what we believed to be the customary practice over a long period, except for the exceptional Act of courtesy by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary. I hope that the House will appreciate this.

Mr. S. Silverman

Would not the President of the Board of Trade have been completely in order, and still within the common practice of the House over very many years, if he had asked your leave, Mr. Speaker, to make a statement at the end of Questions, so that the information could have been given to the House of Commons, and to the Press afterwards?

Mr. Speaker

It may well have been in order but, with respect to the hon. Member, he really must pursue his battle with the Minister and not with me.

Mr. M. Stewart

The President of the Board of Trade said that he had decided that the Question would be best answered by means of a Written Answer. How can he do that? Surely that was decided by the hon. Member who put down the Question.

Mr. Maudling

I think that probably it was a case of two minds thinking alike.

Mr. L. Thomas

In addition to hon. Members opposite who received copies of this letter, there were a number of hon. Members on this side who received copies. I have one myself. I am sure that all of us were disappointed at its contents, but we felt that the receipt of the letter was a genuine act of courtesy on behalf of the Minister. Would it not be a sad day for the House if such courtesy and such gestures, which, in themselves, emphasise the traditional relationship between Ministers and back benchers, were forbidden, or were always to be the subject of the narrow interpretation of a particular point of order?

Mr. Speaker