HC Deb 12 December 1961 vol 651 cc221-4
Mr. Speaker

I wish to make a statement to the House about the provision of documents for the use of hon. Members in debate, first, to prevent any misunderstanding of the disjointed Rulings which I gave on 29th November in the course of the debate on the renewal of the Licence to the British Broadcasting Corporation, and, secondly, to announce a new arrangement which should greatly assist hon. Members.

On 29th November, I twice spoke of the responsibility of the Ministry or Department for making documents "available". It is the word "available" which is susceptible of misunderstanding. If hon. Members will look at the statement of the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury on 17th July, 1956, they will see that in the case of a document more than two years old, which is out of print, reprinting will be undertaken if the demand for copies is sufficient to justify the expenditure involved. The decision whether or no to reprint must be made by Ministers. If a reprint is made, then the document is available in the Stationery Office and can be obtained by a Member free of charge on application to the Vote Office, subject to the necessary physical delay and provided that the Stationery Office is open.

To make documents available in the Stationery Office is, therefore, the only obligation which the Government have publicly undertaken, and in fairness to the Government I wish to make it plain that I now know that which I did not know on 29th November, not having been so informed, namely, that the Government had faithfully discharged that obligation in relation to the Licence which would be superseded by the Licence which the House was then invited to approve.

In practice, some Departments have gone further and made available in the Vote Office such documents as they thought necessary for a particular debate. When I gave my Ruling on 29th November I was under the mistaken impression that all Government Departments did this, and, under that impression, used the expression "available" as meaning available in the Vote Office.

Since then, however, the Leader of the House has been good enough to consult me and has agreed to the following suggestion: that a Minister in charge of an item of business will in future:

  1. (a) in the case of documents which may fairly be deemed to be needed for that debate and which are held by the Stationery Office, be responsible for having a reasonable number of copies put in the Vote Office and
  2. (b) in the case of similar documents which are out of print be responsible for deciding whether or no to reprint, and, if the document is reprinted, for having a reasonable number of copies put in the Vote Office.
I hope that this suggestion will prove greatly to the advantage of the House and I am most grateful to the Leader of the House for agreeing to it.

This arrangement is an advance on the 1956 position for the convenience of the House; it does not replace it. An individual Member, therefore, may apply to the Vote Office for any paper exactly as before.

I am sure, however, that an hon. Member, when told that a document is out of print, will, in the interests of economy, see if his needs can be met from the considerable resources of our own Library before pressing for a reprint.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Iain Macleod)

I am sure that the House will be grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for that very clear statement. It goes, as you have said, beyond the 1956 practice to which we have hitherto adhered, but as what you have just said is for the greater convenience of hon. Members we should, naturally, be very ready to follow it.

Mr. Gaitskell

I associate myself with the Leader of the House in thanking you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement. May I just put one question to you? The statement is a little complicated. Does it amount to this, that in future the practice which you believe to have been followed, namely, that Departments should make available in the Vote Office such documents as they think necessary for a particular debate, will now be followed by all Departments?

Mr. Speaker

That puts it most concisely, in so far as I can remember the total content of my disjointed Rulings on 29th November.

Mr. Bellenger

I should like to comment, Mr. Speaker, on that portion of your statement in which you said that it will be left to the discretion of the Minister to decide whether the document is of sufficient importance for a reprint to be ordered.

In these days, when we have machines in the House which can make Photostat copies of documents, it would not be difficult to run off a few copies and make them available for Members, because when a Minister brings forward a subject for debate it is very important that hon. Members should be adequately equipped for the debate.

Mr. Speaker

Yes, of course. It is because they ought to be adequately equipped that all this has arisen. However, I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his suggestion. He will realise that a document out of print might be so remote from the substance of the debate that it would be ridiculous to exercise ourselves about it either by printing or Photostating it.

Mr. Marsh

While I am grateful for the assistance you have given on this issue, Mr. Speaker, surely the problem which led up to your statement today arises precisely out of the fact that the Minister responsible for the Department regarded even the relevant document—the Charter itself, which was relevant to the discussion—as unnecessary.

Mr. Speaker

Order. In no conceivable circumstances can that arise now. I do not wish to be understood as regarding the Charter as relevant to the debate at all when we resume it. I am just not expressing a view about it. What had happened was that they had reprinted, only I did not know and the hon. Member had not found out.