§ Mr. Speaker
I happen to know that the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) is contemplating rising to a point of order, and I think that this would be a convenient moment.
§ Mrs. Castle
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. My point of order is that on the day when the House rose for the Christmas Recess I raised with you what I suggested was an abuse of a Minister's quite arbitrary power to transfer Questions from one Department to another. The case arose on the very matter we have been discussing earlier.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Foot) and myself raised the question of the protection of African witnesses from Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia against civil criminal proceedings in giving evidence before the Monckton Commission. Our Questions could not be reached on the day they otherwise would have been reached when we tabled them to the Colonial Secretary, because, to our astonishment, they were transferred to the Commonwealth Relations Office. Therefore, we had the situation that the House went away without having any information on this important matter.
I suggested to you at that time, Sir, that there ought to be some protection for hon. Members against the quite unreasonable refusal by a Minister to accept responsibility for a matter for which he was clearly responsible, as the Colonial Secretary was in this case responsible for the safety of British-protected persons who were suffering danger under Emergency Regulation No. 35. You, Sir, were good enough at that time to say that you would look into this case, and the Leader of the House also undertook to discuss with the Table whether any check should be put upon the powers of Ministers to transfer Questions in this way and thus evade their 44 clear constitutional responsibility. I should be very grateful, Sir, if you and the Leader of the House have any information to give us on this point.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am obliged to the hon. Lady. I promised to look into the transfer of her Questions and those of the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich (Mr. Foot), and I did so. The result of my inquiries is that there was nothing exceptional about the transfer. The rule which was followed, as far as the Chair and the Table is concerned, is the one which has always been followed, namely, that the Government of the day are responsible for saying which Minister is primarily responsible. There are obviously conveniences about that, and I imagine that is why the rule has always been so.
As to why, in this instance, responsibility was accepted by the Minister to whom the Questions were transferred, that is clearly a matter for which the Government must make answer, but as regards the Table nothing exceptional was done. As the House knows, when the Table receives the document which is the Department's notification to the Member that the Question has been transferred, the Table transfers it as a result of that notification.
On the other matter, I understand that there have been some discussions at official level about how to improve the mechanics of informing Members about transfer. I do not know whether the Leader of the House can help us as to the rest.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. R. A. Butler)
Yes, Sir. You and your predecessors, Mr. Speaker, have repeatedly ruled that the discretion on Questions is a matter not for the Chair, but for Ministers, who alone know the precise limits of their responsibility. We are, therefore, doing no more than following the practice which has been followed by successive Governments in the past.
The suggestion has sometimes been made that the Clerk at the Table should be the final arbiter of the discretion on Parliamentary Questions. We have considered whether it would be possible to recommend any such change of practice to the House, but have reached the conclusion that it would not be possible. 45 While the scope and responsibility of Ministers in some instances Is laid down by Statute, decisions on the responsibility of Ministers are not such as can be made by the mere application of rules. In the last resort the division of responsibility between Departments is a matter for the Government and the Prime Minister. We have, therefore, reached the conclusion that there is no alternative to the present system whereby Ministers themselves are the judges of the proper discretion on Questions.
Now, on the specific subject of Questions about the Monckton Commission, which I undertook before the Recess that we would look into, my right hon. Friends and I have considered what should be the proper division of responsibility, and we have agreed on the following formula. Questions about the Monckton Commission, including its powers and procedures, will be answered by Commonwealth Relations Office Ministers. However, Questions referring to actions which the Northern Rhodesian and Nyasaland Governments have taken, or might take, in relation to the work of the Commission clearly fall within the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies and will be answered by Colonial Office Ministers. We should expect in most instances that Questions on this subject could fall fairly clearly under one or other of these headings. Where a Question does not do so, the duty of answering will fall to the Minister whose responsibilities appear primarily to be involved.
I would say, in conclusion, that I have consulted my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Administration on the mechanics of informing hon. Members and that we will try to make the passage of information to hon. Members about the transfer, or possible transfer, of a Question a little more elastic, and perhaps a little more humane, than it has been in the past. Steps have been taken to advise my hon. Friends of that possible move and we will try to improve things in that respect.
On the general issue, I think that under the circumstances I am following the precedent of this and of other Governments, and that on the particular issue I am going as far as I can to satisfy the hon. Lady.
§ Mrs. Castle
While thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for the action you have taken, is it not now quite clear that the Questions of my hon. and learned Friend and myself were wrongly transferred? Are you not aware that, shortly after the House had gone into recess, the Colonial Secretary himself referred to the subject matter of our Questions in a speech at Leeds on 2nd January, in which he said the following:We recognise the force of this and we are now discussing with the Governments concerned what form an assurance might take.The Governments concerned in this case were clearly the Governments of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland and, according to the Leader of the House, any questions which involve those Governments are the responsibility of the Colonial Secretary, and, therefore, he should have answered the Questions which we put down.
I raise this point to illustrate the fact that at present hon. Members have no protection against misjudgments or misbehaviour by Ministers in this matter. I ask that steps should be taken to have it referred to a committee of procedure which can examine the rights of hon. Members and give them protection against what, in this case, has clearly been an abuse.
§ Mr. Speaker
I understood the hon. Lady to be addressing her remarks to me. Whether or no the transfer was right is, upon principles we have always followed, a question not for the Chair but for the Government of the day. I do not know that we have in existence a procedural body to which the hon. Lady's problem could be referred, but I know that notice will be taken of what she has said, both on the last occasion and again today, on that point.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
As I understand, Mr. Speaker, you invited the Leader of the House to make this statement. With your permission, therefore, I will address my questions to him.
I can understand the difficulty of departing from the general rule that the Government must decide who should answer Questions where there is ambiguity. Nevertheless, does the right hon. Gentleman realise that if it appears to hon. Members, whether in opposition or on the Government back benches, that 47 there is an attempt on the part of the Government to evade a Question by having it transferred to a Minister who is not able to answer it, this will be profoundly unsatisfactory, and the Opposition are not likely to leave it alone?
Specifically on the question of the Monckton Commission, I should like to know where the Prime Minister comes into it. Up to now he has answered most of the Questions relating to the Commission, as being a Royal Commission which he recommends Her Majesty to appoint. Are we to understand that he will not answer Questions about the Monckton Commission in future, and that they will all be transferred either to the Minister of State or Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, or to the Colonial Secretary? Is this not extremely unsatisfactory? For example, if there are further Questions about the terms of reference and the functioning of the Commission, would not these be more appropriately addressed to the Prime Minister?
§ Mr. Butler
The right hon. Gentleman has raised a valid point. I would rather not give an immediate answer, but it is clear that the Prime Minister could not divest himself of answering a Question relating to the Royal Commission, although when such a Commission is established it usually has the opportunity of getting on with its work without very much questioning. But it would be wrong for me to give a final answer on that point today. I would rather consider what the right hon. Gentleman has said and give an answer later.
§ Mr. Gaitskell
I do not see that it make any difference that the Commission has been set up and is working. If a Question arises is it not more sensible that it should be taken by the Prime Minister?
§ Mr. Butler
The most sensible thing is to see how the formula that I have read out works. In reply to the right hon. Gentleman's first observation, there is no desire on the part of the Government to shuffle off Questions and not answer them. We are perfectly ready to be judged by the operation of this formula, and if the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends wish to make representations, either on the Floor of the 48 House or in private, they are perfectly entitled to do so.
§ Mr. Bellenger
The right hon. Gentleman has helped the House in the formula which he has given in relation to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), but is he aware that there are other subjects which come before the House, for example, defence subjects? Questions on these subjects have often been addressed to the Prime Minister, but have been transferred to other Departments. Would it be possible for the right hon. Gentleman to consider the whole question in relation to other Government Departments, and to give some helpful information for the guidance of hon. Members?
§ Mr. Butler
If the right hon. Gentleman would care to put before me any aspect of the matter, or difficulty arising in connection with it, I shall certainly consider it.
§ Mr. Gordon Walker
Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, under the formula that he has announced, the Question relating to the Commission raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) would not, in fact, have fallen to be answered by the Colonial Secretary?
§ Mr. Butler
There has been a good deal of what is called biblical exegesis during the Recess, and it has been somewhat difficult to obtain the exact truth. I have examined the Questions put by the hon. Lady and by the hon. and learned Member for Ipswich (Mr. Foot) during the Recess, and it would appear that they might be considered as dealing with subjects falling under the procedure of the Monckton Commission, in which case their being taken by the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations would be permissible. But, as I have read out the formula, there is reference to action to be taken, or projected, by the Governments of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, and such Questions could, therefore, also fall to be answered by the Colonial Secretary.
§ Mr. Callaghan
May I ask why this afternoon's statement was made by the Commonwealth Relations Minister, when we take into account the fact that although three Governments are 49 involved, the protection of witnesses can be effectively given only by the Governors of Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, who are responsible to the Colonial Secretary?
§ Mr. Butler
That point is covered by the fact that my formula relates to the Commission's powers and procedures, which subjects will be answered by the Commonwealth Relations Ministers.
§ Mr. Callaghan
But what we are concerned with here are surely not the powers of the Monckton Commission but protection being given, by the Governors of the territories, to witnesses appearing before it. Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that he is on a weak point here, and that he should consider the matter again?
§ Mr. Butler
I would say that I am not on a weak point, and that I am covered by the right procedures.