HC Deb 01 April 1963 vol 675 cc201-10

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. I. Fraser.]

11.0 p.m.

Sir Eric Errington (Aldershot)

On 27th February last, I asked the following Question of the Minister of Transport, whether he will exercise his powers under Section 27 (7) of the Transport Act, 1962, to obtain from the British Railway boards the mileage of disused lines in each region at the vesting date; and if he will make a statement". To this my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary replied, "No. Sir". I then asked whether "No" meant that the Minister would not exercise his power to obtain this information or that he considered that this was a day-to-day matter with which he could not deal.

The answer which the Parliamentary Secretary gave me was one which, unfortunately, raised the question of your responsibilities, Mr. Speaker, and those of the Minister in regard to Questions relating to the nationalised industries. He said that it was not normal to obtain information from a nationalised board on day-today matters—that is, of course, a matter for the Minister—but he went to add— except when it raises matters of urgent public importance".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th February, 1963; Vol. 672, c. 1244.] This, Mr. Speaker, is a matter for you to rule upon.

Realising that this was a situation which appeared to be open to misunderstanding, I am glad to have an opportunity to have an authoritative statement from the Leader of the House. The importance of these matters to a number of Ministries is obvious, but I propose to confine myself to the Ministry of Transport in my observations tonight.

Erskine May, the 16th Edition, at page 361, makes clear your position, Mr. Speaker, in regard to Questions about nationalised industries. If a Question has been asked and the Minister has refused to answer that Question, the Table will refuse to allow any Questions in the same category. Also, if a Question is one of urgent public importance, you, Mr. Speaker, may in your discretion allow it to be answered.

This, I think, is reasonably clear, but the position of the Minister is more com- plex, in spite of the scope of Questions having been laid down by my right hon. Friend the First Secretary, when he was Leader of the House, on 25th February, 1960, reported in Volume 618 of HANSARD. I accept at once that it is undesirable to have asked Questions of a day-to-day character, such as why the 7.45 from London was a quarter of an hour late in arriving at Aldershot, or something like that, but there are cases when it seems to be doubtful whether they come within the limits which the Leader of the House laid down in 1960. For that purpose I think I ought to quote what he said on that occasion: 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. Perhaps I ought also to read the terms of Section 27 (7) of the Transport Act, 1962: Each Board shall furnish the Minister with such returns, accounts and other information with respect to their property and activities, and the property and activities of any company which is their subsidiary, as he may from time to time require. My submission is that this is not a day-to-day matter dealing with disused railway lines and that the Question is a proper one because it invokes the statutory powers which are given in Section 27 (7) to require information about disused railway lines.

In saying that the leader of the House was repeating what had been laid down as long ago as 1951, but he did go on to say: In addition, they may from time to time be concerned with other questions of broad policy affecting the industries. That was an additional category under which it might be possible to ask further Questions in regard to the nationalised industries. Even if the view I have expressed, that that was a statutory power which was possessed by the Minister, is not accepted, the amount of disused railway lines now and in the future must surely be a matter of broad policy. Particularly, I would submit, is this so when I go on to read the final words which were used by the Leader of the House: We shall try to interpret general policy in as broad a manner as we can. The problem which arises in this case is one which surely will arise in the future in an acute form when the question of disused railway lines may be described as a day-to-day matter, though in any other sense they may involve broad questions of policy in view of the social and political consequences of the closing of railway lines as proposed by Dr. Beeching.

The Leader of the House then went on to reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), who intervened.

I will take up the right hon. Gentleman's invitation"— that is, to define general policy— and see whether, at a later date, we could carry this further. I do not think that I could go further today."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1960; Vol. 618, c. 577, 580 and 581.] My object tonight is to invite my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to accept that my question on this occasion was not a day-to-day matter which encroached upon the managerial functions of the Board, but was one for which the Minister of Transport was responsible under Statute. If the Chief Secretary of State's observation in 1960, amounting to a sympathetic understanding of the positions, means what it says, I submit that mine was a proper question to ask of the Minister of Transport in view of the powers conferred on him by Section 27 (7) of the Transport Act.

I hope also that the Leader of the House will define more particularly the words "broad general policy", because it seems to me that, as the position stands, if someone during the course of subsequent closing of railway lines is minded to ask a question as to whether a particular line should or should not be closed, that might be considered a day-to-day matter or one of "broad general policy". It is with a view to ensuring some degree of certainty, at any rate, that I am glad to have had the opportunity to raise this matter.

11.12 p.m.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

I am glad to be able to join in this debate because many of us on both sides of the House share the hon. Gentleman's view that we should look again at the whole question of what sort of Questions may be asked of the Ministers in charge of publicly-owned industries. As hon.

Members opposite know, I firmly believe in State ownership of certain industries—certainly all the basic industries—but at the same time it is essential that Parliament should have a much greater measure of control than it has at the moment.

It is all very well to say that once a year we get an opportunity to raise wide ranging matters, but my experience is that the points we raise are usually out of date, for by the time we debate the annual reports of the nationalised industries all their significance has already gone.

I am afraid that my noble Friend Lord Morrison of Lambeth was an arch-culprit in this. If he had had his way we would have been allowed to ask only one or two Questions on the nationalised industries. His attitude was that everything should be left to the managements and that we should not interfere with them. But I think that it is wrong that hon. Members should be stopped by the Table from putting down Questions on any matter concerning a publicly-owned industry for which this House has final responsibility.

It is said that if the rule were otherwise the Order Paper would be cluttered up with Questions, and the hon. Member gave an example of a question as to why a train ran fifteen minutes late. That might be the case at the beginning, but I am sure that after a time the commonsense of hon. Members would assert itself and that the vast majority of us would not ask questions on day-to-day or trivial matters.

After all, we are able to ask about minor details of the hospital service. I could put down a Question about the equipment of my local hospital, but I would not do so. Most hon. Members, with the exception of one or two rather odd ones, would not abuse the right to ask questions.

I cannot see how we can go on defending a position where, on certain matters which are the concern of this House, we cannot ask Questions of the Ministers responsible but have the privilege of writing to the chairmen of the boards. I do not like to have to write to the chairmen of boards. I would prefer to have the right to ask a Minister a Question and give him an opportunity of answering. At the end of the day it would be best for the boards of publicly-owned industries to know that Parliament acts as a general watchdog.

In spite of all the difficulties that might arise, I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider this proposal. I can speak for many of my hon. Friends—although not for my party as a whole—in saying that we would welcome a change in this direction.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker (Derby, South)

I warmly support what my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) has said. For nearly four years during the war I had to answer Questions about the transport industries, and for nearly two years I had to answer Questions about the fuel and power industries, which had then been nationalised. I found, in answering 343 Questions about gas, electricity and coal in four months, that it was extremely advantageous to all concerned to have the Questions put. I made it a principle to give as much information as I possibly could in reply to the Questions. I am sure that it helped the industries, and that it was in the national interest.

11.16 p.m.

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

I am sure that the time has come to review the provisional self-denying ordinance made when these industries were first nationalised, and when this House, under the inspiration of my noble Friend, Lord Morrison, gave away the right of Members to ask Questions about the day-today working of the industries—as my hon. Friend reminded us. My hon. Friend referred to the Ministry of Health, for which the Minister concerned has full responsibility, largely because our late colleague, Mr. Aneurin Bevan, believed strongly in the principle of Ministerial responsibility for publicly-owned services and industries, and insisted on being responsible. I only wish the same had been true of other Ministers related to the various nationalised industries.

I remember asking my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) Questions about trains which ran late. Of course a Member would not do that if a train ran late once, but if a train ran late month after month it might be worth putting down a Question on the Order Paper.

I support what has been said by hon. Members on this side of the House, and I am glad that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) raised the subject.

11.17 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said at the beginning of his short intervention that—just for the record—he believed firmly in the extension of public ownership. Just for the record, and equally firmly, I do not; but that is not what we are arguing about tonight.

I suppose half a dozen Ministers are affected by this suggestion, and any one of them could have answered. But I thought it appropriate that I should do so, as Leader of the House, because we are fundamentally concerned with the rights of Members in connection with the expenditure of public money and their right to ask Questions and criticise the Government of the day. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) for raising the point.

He started by asking a question about his own Question, to which he said that he had got an Answer which he did not like, and then he proceeded to the general argument. I will work the other way round and refer first to the fount of experience in this regard—Erskine May. In the latest edition, at page 356, it says: Questions addressed to Ministers should relate to the public affairs with which they are officially connected, to proceedings pending in Parliament, or to matters of administration for which they are responsible. It goes on to apply this to the nationalised industries and says, at page 361, that where a Minister has responsibilities in specific matters set out in certain statutes relating to particular industries, Questions are admissible on such matters. There are two general points. First, there is the power to give directions in the national interest. This applies to all Ministers with responsibilities over nationalised industries in different forms. It is a reserve power—as the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mr. P. Noel-Baker) will agree—and one that should be used sparingly. I am not convinced by his argument about the control of the railways in wartime, when he had a particular responsibility, for the exact reason given by the Minister of Transport when he replied, on 23rd March, 1960, to an intervention by the right hon. Gentleman directed to that point. Of course, hon. Members from all sides of the House can ask my right hon. Friends whether they will not make directions on this or that subject in the national interest.

The other point referred to by Erskine May is the power to require information from the nationalised boards. This is equally a common form provision, but it cannot be taken as requiring Ministers to pass the information on to Members in answer to Parliamentary Questions. Here we come to the most difficult question of all, because what has happened is that successive Governments over the years have built up a sort of case law in this matter. This is something to which the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) rightly referred. He may remember his phrase—" infection by category"—when my predecessor as Leader of the House was putting an argument to the House to which I shall come in a moment. This question of infection by category means—and here again I quote Erskine May—that it prevents the admission to the Order Paper of alt future questions dealing with the class of matters dealt with by the questions to which an answer was refused. One can see, therefore, that this can be a snowballing process and can have a considerable effect in restricting the rights of hon. Members. This is the point with which I am particularly concerned. To complete this side of the story, I should add that you, Mr. Speaker, by a Ruling of yours, made an exception for matters of urgent public importance, the Standing Order No. 9 type of question.

The Erskine May we are talking about is some years old, although it is kept as closely up to date as possible. My right hon. Friend the First Secretary, when he was Leader of the House three years ago, made the latest Government pronouncement on the whole question on 25th February, 1960. The part which was meant to be a slight relaxation of the previous rule was put in these terms by my right hon. Friend: … they may"— that is, Ministers— from time to time be concerned with other questions of broad policy affecting the indus- tries. There is no hard-and-fast formula by which these matters could be identified and opened to Questions in the House.…"— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th February, 1960; Vol. 618, c. 577.] We regarded that as a slight relaxation of the rule and the problem which confronts us tonight is how to translate that good intention into perhaps more practical terms, because it is extremely difficult, as I am sure the House understands. I make it plain that I am speaking partly because my hon. Friend has raised the point in this way and partly because, although this question arises most frequently in transport, what I say, mutatis mutandis, applies to most of the nationalised industries.

The question is whether this new area can be more closely defined. I come to the particular Question of which my hon. Friend complained. As he knows, the Question was put down for 27th February of this year, and it was about the mileage of disused lines. Let us take this point. It is not in argument that this information was available. Nobody disputes that. No discourtesy was meant to my hon. Friend by the Minister. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees. The Minister, indeed, wrote to him—a point which I think we should put on record—to explain why he had taken this view. What the Minister said, if I may paraphrase his letter, was, "Of course I could get this information but I do not think that this is the sort of information that I should get and should transmit in this way to the House." The question comes down to whether—and I take the particular example for the moment—this is a proper matter of day-to-day administration or not. In this case I am quite certain that the Minister's responsibilities were not involved and that it would lay the door open to misunderstanding and criticism in the House to a disproportionate extent if this particular Question was allowed.

It is true, of course, that taking the 1962 Transport Act—and I am talking only on this subject—the Minister has clearly denned statutory responsibilities on closures of passenger lines. This is a fact and, presumably—in this connection—whether or not there may be Questions is a matter for the Table and there can clearly be Adjournment debates. But this is a different matter because this is a Question about what happens to the line after it has been closed.

Although the Minister has a responsibility before this, I think that the responsibility at this point is clearly that of the Board, and that of the Board alone, because the responsibility of deciding what to do with the disused line is a matter of management for the Board; and whether it disposes of it or uses it for temporary sidings, or whatever else it may be, that is nothing to do with the Minister. These were the considerations that led to the decision of which my hon. Friend complains.

Let us ask ourselves whether that decision, which led my right hon. Friend not to give an Answer which he could have collected and acted as a post office, as it were, for my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot, was right. In my view it was right, for this reason; if one admits those Questions one goes the whole way towards admitting a whole series of Questions on ordinary day-today administration—as in the example mentioned by other speakers; the quality of the service, whether or not a given train was late, and so on. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot accepted that it was wrong on these matters of punctuality or otherwise of the service to ask Questions.

However, I think that the hon. Member for Barking made some dissent from this view. The only comment I wish to make on the specific point which has given rise to this Adjournment debate is that if this sort of Question is permitted I think that the door will be open very wide indeed.

Mr. Driberg

The Leader of the House quoted from Erskine May earlier in his reply. Does not that quotation start by saying that Ministers can be questioned about the "public affairs with which they are connected "?

Mr. Macleod

Perhaps, but the Erskine May doctrine is for 1957, so that I think the quotation we must look more closely at is the one of my predecessor, the Leader of the House, to which I referred.

I now come to the key matter. The difficult question is to strike a balance between three things. The first is the right of hon. Members to obtain information and criticise the Government especially when the expenditure of public money is involved. The second is the need to allow the nationalised industries to be free of excessively detailed inquiry into ordinary administration. Certainly we attach great importance to this, obviously more than hon. Members opposite. The third is the ultimate ministerial responsibility for the industry.

It was anxiety on the second—the need to protect the industry against excessive investigation of this sort—that was the reason for the reply that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot received. But this does not mean that hon. Members are denied information. In the specific instance of the Question of my hon. Friend, the argument turned not on whether the information should be provided, but what was the right way of giving that particular information.

I believe that the First Secretary's statement of three years ago is as good a guide as we can contrive for an admittedly difficult problem of definition. However, we are anxious to safeguard the rights of hon. Members. I would like to study what has been said in the light of the views put to me in the debate tonight, particularly concentrating on what I was asked to do; that is, to consider the words "broad general policy" and see if we can find a way in which it may conceivably be possible to carry this phrase a little further.

We must draw the line somewhere and, on the whole, I believe—both in the instance quoted tonight and in the general approach of my right hon. Friends—that we have drawn it in the right place.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

By the leave of the House, we all agree with the Leader of the House in the proposition that we can now obtain more information about the nationalised industries than we can, for example, about the big private monopolies.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Eleven o'clock.