HC Deb 16 July 1963 vol 681 cc337-41
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a personal statement.

In the course of answering supplementary questions yesterday by the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) and Woolwich, East (Mr. Mayhew) on the possible organisation of an embargo on arms supplies to the Middle East, I referred to suggestions and indications that there might be nuclear weapons in the area.

I wish to make it plain that I intended to refer to missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and I certainly did not intend to imply that nuclear warheads are in the possession of any Middle Eastern country.

In view of the importance of avoiding any misunderstanding on this subject, I thought it desirable to issue a statement immediately to the Press explaining the position and to place copies of this statement at once in the Library of the House. I also wrote, at the same time, to both hon. Members concerned explaining the position and enclosing copies of the statement.

I much regret any misunderstanding that may have ensued as a result of my replies to these supplementary questions.

Mr. H. Wilson

I raise this as a point of order, because I understand that it is impossible for us to question the right hon. Gentleman because the statement he has just made is a personal one. The point of order that I want to put is this: is it not highly undesirable that when a Minister has made a slip—which we recognise can happen to anyone—he should be allowed to correct it by a personal statement, which means that no further questions can be put to him?

After all, it could well be that by making a slip in good faith the Minister would cut out further supplementaries. If, the next day, he makes a personal statement—which properly is the prerogative of private Members and not Ministerial Members—it is impossible for the supplementary that was crowded out the previous day to be put.

I submit, with respect, that if, in future, a Minister makes a mistake—and it can happen to anybody—the correct procedure should be to make a Ministerial statement after Questions, which, naturally, a I of us would accept, being made in good faith as it is, and he should not be free to make a personal statement. I should like to ask whether that can be done in future, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the importance of the point the right hon. Gentleman makes will be noted and understood. From the point of view of the Chair, there is nothing out of order in any way in this personal statement as submitted. It represents nothing more than a non-controversial verbal correction. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] I take that view, rightly or wrongly. The point which the right hon. Gentleman is making is different, and what he said is not strictly for me. What he said will be noted and the House will bear it in mind.

Mr. Wilson

The reason I put the question to you, Mr. Speaker, is that obviously any personal statement has to be accepted by you as non-controversial, and in a case where there has been a slip, or an error of this kind, there may well be a situation in which the House might not wish to regard it as non-controversial.

For example, there might be a situation in which a Minister might accidentally mislead the House on a matter into which the House would wish to probe. Further, as I have said, the very fact of making a mistake may cause Members to drop any further supplementaries which they might otherwise have put and then have no opportunity of putting them when the true facts are given to the House.

With respect, I submit that on future occasions the right to make a personal statement by a Minister seeking to correct a mistake of this kind should be refused by the Chair.

Mr. Heath

I hope that the House will accept my assurance that I had no desire to avoid any supplementary questions by any hon. Member of the House on this point. I understand that I was following precedent in this case in making a personal statement. I do not think that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) will mind my saying that we discussed this this morning. He fully understood that I was making a personal statement and that it would not be possible to ask supplementaries about it. At the same time, I assured the hon. Gentleman that if other Questions are put down on this matter I shall be willing to answer them.

Mr. Speaker

I should like to make it quite plain that, in the capacity of the Chair, I take note of what the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has been saying and I appreciate the importance of it, but I am bound to say that I regarded this personal statement in this context as wholly in accordance with precedent in every way, representing nothing but a verbal correction.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. I submit that the responsibility for a personal statement must rest with the Chair, and only with the Chair. If a Minister makes a personal statement of this kind, which is, or can be, acutely controversial, it involves the Chair. I should have thought that it was a matter for consideration by you, in the light of your Ruling of 7th November, 1960, that when you approve matters of this kind you take this fact into account, Sir.

Mr. Speaker

I always do. On the face of it there is nothing controversial that I could discover about this statement. The hon. Gentleman may be sure that I shall not neglect my duty in the matter. There was not, on the face of it, any sign of anything that could be controversial.

Mr. G. Brown

Further to the earlier point of order. I acquit the right hon. Gentleman the Lord Privy Seal of any suggestion that he misled the House, but the risk here is that if a Minister misleads the House, and then comes back with something which he has told you is personal, and which you accept as personal, he thereby cuts the whole thing off. What we are asking you to do, Mr. Speaker, is to look at this statement in relation to the rights of the House, to appreciate how easily the procedure of the House could be misused in this way, and to rule rather more strictly than you seem to have ruled today. If a Minister, in a Ministerial Answer, misleads the House, his correction of it should be in his capacity as a Minister, and not in his capacity as a private Member of the House.

Mr. Speaker

I understand the point, but I think that it is all the same. I shall look at what the right hon. Gentleman has just been saying, but I did not note any addition to what had passed before. Of course, I shall consider the matter at all times. The difficulty is that one has to trust somebody. Let there be no misunderstanding. If I have submitted to me what is prima facie a wholly uncontroversial statement, it is naturally so treated. If, afterwards, it was found that somebody had done something nefarious, or which was not quite right, no doubt the House would deal with it.

Mr. Brown

What you have just said is the very thing that worries me, Mr. Speaker. [Laughter.] I do not think that this is a frivolous matter. You say that one has to trust somebody, but you, Mr. Speaker, are the man whom we trust. Your office is the office that we trust. If you then say to us that something put up to you by a Minister is trusted because he is a Minister, that cuts off the rights not just of hon. Members on this side of the House, but of all private Members. We are very worried.

What we seek to ask you, Mr. Speaker—and I understand that I am not adding anything; I do not think that there is anything that I can add—is to look again at the situation in which you have accepted a statement from a Minister who has said that it was a personal statement. You believing him, because you have to trust somebody, agree to his making a personal statement, and that robs the House of much of its rights. We are asking you to reconsider whether statements made from the Government Front Bench which have to be corrected should ever be regarded as personal statements.

Mr. Speaker

I have already indicated that I will. I much enjoy the right hon. Gentleman's making sure that I understand the point.

Mr. Brown

Very necessary.

Mr. Speaker

But in the right hon. Gentleman's final effort in that behalf he said something which he ought not to have said—if he will allow me to say so. I do not think that he meant it. It is not the case that if it comes from a Minister a personal statement is regarded by me as non-controversial. I judge that aspect of the matter from whichever part of the House the statement comes.

Mr. Wigg

As there is no doubt in your mind what the issue is, Mr. Speaker, may I make sure that I understand it? Is it not the position that the right hon. Gentleman said that nuclear weapons were in the Middle East; that he now says that they are not—and that you regard that as a non-controversial statement?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman's correction, which is of what he himself had said, was in no sense controversial. That is all that the statement related to.