HC Deb 29 March 1960 vol 620 cc1143-5
Mr. Speaker

I happen to know, because he courteously gave me notice, that the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) wishes to raise a point of order with me and I think that this is the best moment to do so.

Mr. S. Silverman

With your indulgence, Mr. Speaker, I should like to raise a point of order which, I think, may be of general interest to hon. Members on both sides of the House. On 23rd March, I sought to put down the following Question to the Foreign Secretary—

Mr. Speaker

We are going to be in the same difficulty as the hon. Member in that our rules prohibit us from reciting the terms of a Question sought to be put down and refused. I shall be obliged, I suppose, to indicate the effect of the Question and perhaps the hon. Member can do it that way.

Mr. Silverman

I am aware of that, Mr. Speaker, and I only sought to read the Question on this occasion because I think that the point I have in mind cannot really be adjudicated without reference to the terms of the Question, so that hon. Members may have some knowledge of the point I have in mind and will appreciate what I am putting.

The Question which I sought to ask was in these terms, "To ask the"—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member can help me by making the point which Iknow that he wants to make by summarising the effective words from the text and not reading it.

Mr. Silverman

I sought to put down a Question to the Foreign Secretary asking what instructions he would give concerning events in South Africa to the United Kingdom delegation at the next meeting of the United Nations. On the advice of the Table, I altered the Question a little so as to ask not what instructions he would give, but what consideration he would give to the matter. It was even then held that the Question was not in order and on reference to you. Sir, you upheld that Ruling.

The reason for that Ruling, as I understand it, was that on 7th December last the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs had answered a similar Question. In his Answer he made it clear that, in his opinion, these matters being well within the domestic sovereignty of the Union of South Africa, the United Nations had no jurisdiction and, therefore, it was impossible for him to give any instructions concerning it. The view had been and remained that this was not a matter with which the United Nations was concerned, and, therefore, no instructions could be given.

It was held—I do not complain of it —that under our rules, unless there is sufficient change of circumstances, when a Question of that kind has been answered it cannot be repeated in the same Session. I therefore sought to ask a Question framed rather differently, which was ultimately approved and is now upon the Order Paper.

In view of that, I was a little surprised to see in yesterday's OFFICIAL REPORT that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) had asked a Question, which again I need not read, although it is in the OFFICIAL REPORT, which seems to raise substantially the same point as I had sought to raise. It is perfectly true, without refining too much upon it, that there are some differences, but I submit that the differences are not material and that in his first supplementary question my hon. Friend asked the very Question which I had sought to ask.

I do not complain of that, because I agree that the matter had become urgent and that it was important to the House of Commons that the Foreign Secretary should have the opportunity of dealing with it. However, it would be most unfortunate, and I think that many hon. Members on both sides of the House would resent it, if our Standing Orders were to be more elastically or benevolently interpreted with regard to some hon. Members than with regard to others. I hope that you, Sir, will think Iam justified in raising this point.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising this, because I would hate anyone to think—not only the hon. Member, but anyone—that the rules were adjustable as between one hon. Member and another. It is not so. My decision may be right or it may be wrong, but it is bona fide taken on a principle that the hon. Member well understands, because we discussed it together.

I took the view that the Written Answer to which he has referred, of the Minister of State, on 7th December last, had the effect—I think that the hon. Member put it substantially correctly— of precluding any other Question during this Session requesting the intervention of the Government at the United Nations upon the topic covered by that Answer. That is the point.

In my view, there was a difference of substance between both the first and second versions of the hon. Member's Question and the Question proposed by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan). The difference is this. The hon. Member and I, in discussion, were seeking some new factor to get out of the difficulty created by the Question of 7th December. Indeed, we parted company with myself suggesting ways by which the hon. Member might get round the difficulty. That was some time on Thursday.

After we had met, there came the news of this specially appointed debate before the Security Council. That seemed to me to be so pregnant with ability to raise Questions in the field the hon. Member was looking for that I took steps to see that some communication should be made to him. I regret to say that that was not possible, it being Friday. It was not the hon. Member's fault. I think that he was not here. We could not get the suggested Question to him until we could do so by telephone on Monday morning.

The hon. Member will see that the essential distinction between the Question asked by the hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East, and his own Question, which now appears on the Order Paper for tomorrow, on the one hand, and the two Questions which he sought to put down before, is this. Both the Private Notice Question and the hon. Member's Question down for tomorrow hang and depend upon what has arisen as a result of the appointment of the special debate for the United Nations to debate the matter. That may be right or it may be wrong, but it is my decision and it in no way depends upon distinctions between hon. Members.