HC Deb 25 February 1960 vol 618 cc577-86

Hon. Members have recently inquired about the scope for Questions on the nationalised industries.

With your permission, Sir, may I say that we must adhere to the view that Ministers can answer Questions only on matters for which they have a recognised responsibility. Otherwise, they would inevitably find themselves encroaching upon the managerial functions entrusted to the nationalised boards.

Ministers would, of course, answer for the matters which the industries are required by Statute to lay before them, and for appointments, finance and matters on which they themselves have statutory powers or duties. In addition, they may from time to time be concerned with other questions of broad policy affecting the industries.

There is no hard-and-fast formula by which these matters could be identified and opened to Questions in the House, but provided Questions on the Paper relate to Ministers' responsibilities for matters of general policy, they will consider sympathetically the extent to which they can properly reply.

Mr. Gaitskell

It may perhaps be convenient, Sir, if I confine my questions to start with to the statement made by the Leader of the House about Questions on the nationalised industries, and return a little later to the business for next week.

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is not the case that Ministers are also responsible for obtaining information, and that if hon. Members wish to obtain information on particular points which are within the powers of the Minister to obtain there is no reason why he should not give that information?

Secondly, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware that there is some concern that it is not only a matter of Ministers refusing to answer Questions which some of us think might be anwered, but also a matter of the Questions being refused by the Table? I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether the Leader of the House could comment on that point, or whether you would care to consider the matter. It is, of course, a greater difficulty for hon. Members if their Questions are refused altogether by the Table than if it is merely the decision of the Minister that he cannot answer them.

Mr. Butler

Naturally, Ministers wish to supply as much information as it is possible to provide if it does not contradict what I was saying, namely, encroach on managerial functions entrusted to the nationalised boards, and falls generally within the broad categories mentioned in my statement. I am sure that my right hon. Friends are particularly concerned to pay attention to what the right hon. Gentleman has asked.

Under the rules of the House the responsibility for accepting Questions comes under your jurisdiction, Mr. Speaker, and I suggest that if we could see how this works out, the difficult task of interpretation being left to you and to the Officers of the House, we would perhaps be able to see whether the spirit in which we have made this statement is being implemented. That is why I stated, in my original statement: … provided Questions on the Paper relate to Ministers' responsibilities … I was safeguarding the position of Mr. Speaker and of the Table.

Mr. Gaitskell

Would you give us your Ruling on this point, Mr. Speaker, because, as I have said, there is a difference between Ministers saying that they will not answer a Question which, frankly, gives the House an opportunity of pursuing it, and sheer inability to get Questions on the Order Paper?

Mr. Speaker

Yes, there is a real difficulty here and I confess that I do not know the answer to it. What the Table does is governed by the rules of the House in accepting or refusing Questions. This is a curious instance in which the rules of the House are set in operation by what Ministers do. It has been the same under various Governments.

I think that the principle is roughly as follows, though I do not want to be held to it, because I am speaking "off the cuff". It is that a refusal by a Minister to answer a Question counts as an Answer, so that the Question cannot be asked again. By extension of that admirable doctrine, a refusal by a Minister to answer Questions in a given category counts as an Answer to all the Questions in that category, so that hon. Members cannot table Questions in that category.

Of course, if Ministers were to say at any one time that they would now be willing to answer Questions in a category in which they had not been willing to answer them before, and would do so publicly—I mean not by means of a private communication to the Table—then that would change the application of the rules of the House in that instance.

I do not know how to change that, and, of course, it would be quite unworkable if Ministers were to give an ad hoc assent relating to a particular Question in a hitherto refusable category. I cannot help the House further than that. The Table must have some consistent principle by which it operates.

Mr. Gaitskell

Perhaps, Sir, you would bear in mind that the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House has said that there is no hard-and-fast formula by which these matters could be identified and opened to Questions in the House. If that is borne in mind, the Clerks of the Table might perhaps interpret the Questions put by hon. Members rather more broadly than they have done in the past.

Mr. Speaker

I took it that the Leader of the House was saying that in relation to the hard-and-fast category by which Ministers might not govern their willingness or unwillingness to answer, but it would not be possible to have flexibility at the Table were the Table required to operate on no known principle.

Mr. Peart

The Leader of the House said that he would see how this worked, but there has been no change. The statement made by the right hon. Gentleman really concerns what is normal practice. If, Sir, as you have said, there were Questions in certain new categories, and the Leader of the House said that we could ask Questions in those categories, then we could accept his statement, but so far as I can see there is no change.

Mr. Driberg

Would you be good enough, Mr. Speaker, to confirm for the guidance of the House that your doctrine of infection by category does not apply to those Questions which are cast in the familiar form of asking the Minister if he will issue a general instruction to a board about a matter of policy, rather than of day-to-day administration?

Mr. Speaker

I think it is clear that this would fall into a field—I do not recall the right hon. Member's precise words—in which the Minister had statutory responsibility, as in the context he has for issuing general directions under the material statutes.

Mr. S. Silverman

May I ask the Leader of the House, whether, in his statement, he was intending to convey that there was to be a new practice, that there were to be new categories, in which Ministers would accept responsibility so that the Table could accept Questions? If that is his intention, would he say what these new categories are?

Mr. Butler

I have stated the statutory powers, responsibilities and the broad points on which Ministers have been in the practice of answering, and I also limited my statement—and this is the answer to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart)—by saying that we could not encroach upon managerial functions.

The only new point in my statement relates to Ministers' responsibility for matters of general policy. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) is quite right in saying that there is no very great extension. We shall try to interpret general policy in as broad a manner as we can.

Mr. Shinwell

I had something to do with inserting certain words into two nationalisation Acts. It is perfectly true that the words which govern the responsibility of Ministers are "general policy". The Minister operates within those provisions—"general policy"— but these words have never been clearly defined. Would it not be possible to provide a definition? It would not require to be a very wide definition, obviously, but a narrow one, yet one that would clarify the situation and enable Questions to be put within the provisions of the new definition?

I would remind the House that at the time the Acts were introduced we were exceedingly anxious not to allow hon. Members to interfere with day-to-day administration. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] That is perfectly true, but a variety of issues have emerged since on which Members desire to have information, and it is quite invidious that they should be compelled to write to the nationalised boards for information and very often not receive answers in reply. Would it not be possible to define what is meant by "general policy"?

Mr. Butler

One of the objects in making this statement was to elicit opinion, because I was not prepared, on the points put to me by Members on both sides and by my right hon. Friends, to go any further today. I find considerable opposition on both sides of the House to the idea of interfering with these industries. I will take up the right hon. Gentleman's invitation and see whether, at a later date, we could carry this further. I do not think that I can go further today.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable discrepancy between the attitudes of different Departments in this matter? For example, the Postmaster-General answers, very readily, Questions about the British Broadcasting Corporation and matters connected with it which seem quite detailed, whereas the Minister of Transport does not answer Questions concerned with the British Transport Commission that are quite general. Would my right hon. Friend try to find a way of harmonising these things, if only on the principle that he himself has laid down today?

Mr. Butler

We have always recognised a distinction between the General Post Office and the B.B.C. and the other nationalised industries. I was not speaking of the Postmaster-General's responsibilities or of the B.B.C. today.

Mr. F. Noel-Baker

Could the right hon. Gentleman illustrate his statement by telling the House what effect it will have on a matter about which many of us on this side of the House have lately tried to extract information, either from the Minister of Transport or from the Chairman of the British Transport Commission? We were seeking to find out what we considered to be a matter of general public interest—the membership and, incidentally, the remuneration of the area boards of the railways. We were told by the Minister of Transport that he could not give it because he was not responsible for area boards. We were told by the chairman of the Commission that it was inconvenient to give it, though this sort of information is given by the chairmen of other nationalised corporations. Can we take it that, under the new dispensation, the Minister will use his influence to obtain information from the Commission and give it to the House of Commons?

Mr. Butler

One result of the interest of the House in this matter is that there has been a conference with my colleagues principally concerned with a view to trying to get the answering policy more co-ordinated and equal between the various Departments. That might well be the result of this statement. My colleagues desire to approach Questions put by hon. Members in the House in as sympathetic a manner as possible. That is why I suggest that we should give this matter a trial run.

Mr. Mitchison

I understand, Mr. Speaker, that what you said about the attitude of the Table in these matters depends on the principle that a Minister's refusal to answer a Question in a certain category counts as an Answer to the Question. Are we to understand that that applies only to nationalised industries and, if so, why? Or, if it applies to other cases, what would happen, for instance, if the Foreign Secretary stated that he would not answer any Questions about Germany for the next three years?

Mr. Speaker

I was speaking of the category of the nationalised industries. The House will remember that, in principle, Ministerial responsibility may there exist over a wider field than that in which Ministers—of Governments of any complexion—have been prepared to answer questions. That is why what I was saying I wish to relate to this matter of nationalised industries now under consideration.

Mr. Ellis Smith

Has the right hon. Gentleman's attention been drawn to the Motion on the Order Paper in the names of the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent, dealing with Parliamentary control of finance? Does he agree that there is growing public concern about this matter and, if so, will he give sympathetic consideration to the constructive proposals in the Motion?

[That this House, conscious of the necessity of protecting the historic right of private Members to exercise control over public expenditure and to draw attention to public needs before the granting of supply, is of opinion that it is expedient to set up a Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr. Speaker, to examine and report upon the methods by which, in modern times, Parliament can best be assisted to safeguard its control of finance; and is further of opinion that such a committee should be non-political in its membership, which should comprise Officers of the department of the Clerk of the House, the Comptroller and Auditor General and a qualified accountant.]

Mr. Butler

Yes, I have read the Motion, but I do not think that we could accept its suggestions necessarily as they are made. It is a matter of wide public interest, and I have been engaged in a series of consultations with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, through the usual channels, and with a number of my right hon. Friends principally concerned. There will be no easy solution of the problem and I do not want the House to think that there is. That there is a problem is, I think, apparent, and if some of us can get together and discuss it. I shall be only too glad.

Mr. Ellis Smith

While I am relatively satisfied with that answer, will the Leader of the House give an undertaking that he will consult the Speaker and the learned Clerks, who are most experienced men in these matters? They should be brought into whatever is being considered.

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. I have been doing a certain amount of research into this matter and it appears that the manner in which we conduct the business of Supply dates approximately from the days of Mr. Balfour, so that it has quite a respectable parentage. If we are to look at this matter, we must look at it sympathetically.

Mr. Gower

While it may be my right hon. Friend's desire and intention to liberalise answering Questions about nationalised industries, there seems to be an irresistible tendency, with the passage of time, for restrictions to increase. Is it not harder now to ask Questions about some Departments than it was some years ago?

Mr. Butler

I am glad to be able to inform my hon. Friend that, following my talks with some of my colleagues, they are in a very good mood, so that we had better wait and see how this works out.

Mr. Speaker

We are getting in a bit of a muddle in the sense that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) went back to the general question of business. Courtesy demands that I should look to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition if we are to go back to that.

Mr. Grey

On a point of order. Will you, Mr. Speaker, give consideration to the fact that we have an important debate following this and see whether, in future, when important debates have to take place, and there is limited time, statements of this kind can be left over to another day?

Mr. Speaker

I must not allow the hon. Member to tempt me into expressing hopes.

Mr. Gaitskell

Can the Leader of the House say when we are likely to have the debate on accommodation for hon. Members? He will have noticed the Motion on the Order Paper.

[That this House, recognising that the accommodation, facilities and amenities available to honourable Members, the staff of the House and the Press are at present entirely inadequate to enable them to discharge their public duties as efficiently as they would desire, believes that the time has come to implement the proposal of the Select Committee on House of Commons Accommodation, 1953–54, for the establishment of a unified control of the Palace of Westminster under this House; and is therefore of opinion that a House of Commons Commission should be appointed forthwith with the powers and duties proposed in the Select Committee Report, including the consideration of the machinery required to establish such unified control.]

Mr. Butler

As I have pointed out before, we are in the important period of the Estimates. I cannot give an undertaking that there will be a debate in the immediate future, but we have it in mind for as soon as we can arrange it.

Mr. de Freitas

Is the Leader of the House aware that for three days next week, Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, we are to debate matters connected with defence and on two days of next week, Wednesday and Thursday, we are to debate matters connected with aviation, civil and military? In arranging future business of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman see that debates on kindred subjects are spread more evenly throughout the Session?

Mr. Butler

It is a coincidence that we should have the Civil Aviation (Licensing) Bill in the midst of our debates on defence and the Air Estimates. That is not done on purpose. It is a coincidence, but I will examine what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Mr. Zilliacus

In view of the impression created in the country by the announcement that an early warning radar station is to be established, which is to give four minutes' warning, could not the right hon. Gentleman find time for a full debate on civil defence, with particular attention to the Government's announced policy of evacuating 12 million people?

Mr. Butler

On business questions, I cannot answer the merits of the hon. Member's question, but at present no such debate is envisaged, although it would have to be discussed if it were desired.

Mr. Rankin

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what allocation of time is intended on Wednesday as between the debate on civil aviation and the following debate on the Highlands and Islands Shipping Services Bill?

Mr. Butler

I think that we had better see how we get on.

Mr. Donnelly

Can the Leader of the House say how he is getting on in his desperate attempts to have a debate on the railways?

Mr. Butler

I should have thought pretty well.

Mr. Rankin

The right hon. Gentleman gave me a rather vague answer. Altogether apart from how we get on with the civil aviation debate, can he assure us that we will have plenty of time for the Recommittal, Report and Third Reading stages of the Highlands and Islands Shipping Services Bill?

Mr. Butler

Yes, Sir. We do not want to crowd out that important piece of Scottish legislation. We shall see what we can do.