HC Deb 31 July 1963 vol 682 cc449-55

The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the practice of answering Questions relating to the nationalised industries.

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

With permission, I will now answer Question No. 45.

Yes, Sir. I have been considering this matter with my right hon. Friends who answer for the nationalised industries.

Questions can at present be asked on a Minister's exercise of the power he has to give a general direction in the national interest to a nationalised board, provided that the direction is one of general and not of local application. There is, however, no corresponding rule about the admissibility of Questions seeking general statistical information. Answers to many Questions of this kind have been refused and this has brought into operation the rule against repeating in substance Questions to which Answers have already been refused by the responsible Ministers.

Against this background the Government have decided to adopt the following practice. Ministers will consider sympathetically giving answers to Questions seeking statistical information on a national basis about a nationalised industry. The new practice should allow some Questions to be asked that cannot be asked now, and should not disallow any Questions that are now allowed, so I hope that it will be regarded as a useful improvement.

Sir E. Errington

I should like to thank my right hon. Friend for this extension in respect of Questions, but there are two matters to which I should like to refer. The first is that my original Question dealt with the mileage of disused railway lines. Would that be a Question which would now be answered under this new ruling? Secondly, would Questions arising out of the closure of railway stations be answered by Ministers?

Mr. Macleod

As my hon. Friend fairly said, the whole of this matter arises from a Question which he put to which an Answer was refused. He objected to that and he had an Adjournment debate to which I tried to reply and in which both sides of the House joined. It is as a result of that that I have made my statement today. The answer is "Yes". My hon. Friend's original Question, under these new suggestions, would have been answered and so would any others in a similar category. This, therefore, is a clear illustration of a specific advance.

As for Questions on closures, this new practice does not affect the ordinary rules which have grown up in relation to policy. What the change does is to enable hon. Members to obtain from Ministers, without being pushed off on to the board, general statistical information on a national basis.

Mr. Strauss

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am sure that all of us on this side of the House will welcome this change in the practice? The old situation was obviously an anomaly and it was high time that it was altered. This is a step in the right direction. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his Answer appears to be somewhat qualified? He says that Ministers will consider sympathetically giving answers to Questions seeking statistical information cm a national basis about a nationalised industry. But should he not tell the House that Ministers, wherever possible, will give such information? Has the qualification any hidden meaning? As it stands this is rather strange.

Mr. Macleod

No, Sir. I would be quite prepared to adopt the words which the right hon. Gentleman has used. I view this as the meaning of "sympathetically"; but it is possible to envisage circumstances, for example, where there was a dispute about wages and conditions of service, where this procedure might be inappropriate. I am prepared to say that I mean the word "sympathetically", which I used, in exactly the same sense as the words which the right hon. Gentleman used.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

While wholly welcoming this change, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he will clear up the point about consumer consultative councils in relation to nationalised industries? Are we to be allowed to ask Questions about the work of these councils?

Mr. Macleod

No, Sir. I should not have thought that that came within the ambit of my statement, which confines itself to general statistical information in relation to a nationalised industry. It does not relate to a consumer council.

Mr. Bowles

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that no decision has ever been taken by this House, even since the time of the Labour Government—and I think that it was Herbert Morrison, as he then was, who was responsible for the present position—by which we have been prevented from asking Questions on the day-to-day running of a nationalised industry? We have had two debates on this matter and I hope that now we shall get back to the fundamental principle of being able to ask Questions about anything, as we can about the Army and the National Health Service, and so on. The nationalised industries must not be put into a category by themselves.

Mr. Macleod

I personally take the view that that goes too far. I should have thought that if we put the House in the position of being able to natter day by day at the nationalised industries, those industries would not be able to run in a way that commercial undertakings are run. If I remember the quotation aright, and I think that it comes from Tennyson, about broadening down "from precedent to precedent", that is exactly what the House does, and I thought that this was the right follow-up to the anxieties which hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed.

Sir J. Duncan

Did my right hon. Friend hear the Minister of Transport answer a Question this afternoon on closures of stations? Will it be possible, under this new procedure, to ask the Minister whether he will be closing a line or authorising the closing of a line or station?

Mr. Macleod

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport hissed in my ear as I got up, "You can always ask". I do not adopt that as my answer. I think that my hon. Friend takes the whole sense of my answer much too far. I ask my hon. Friend to study the words I used.

Mr. T. Fraser

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what he means by making available statistical information on a national basis? May I give the right hon. Gentleman an example? The Secretary of State for Scotland is responsible for electricity in Scotland, whereas the Minister of Power is responsible for it in England and Wales. I understand that neither of these Ministers could give information for the whole of Great Britain. I assume, therefore, that responsible Ministers would give information for the areas for which they were responsible, but that would not mean on a national basis.

In any case, hon. Members from Scotland and Wales often apply themselves to the consideration of questions of some importance to their respective countries and they wish to have information on a Scottish or Welsh basis from a United Kingdom Minister. Will they get that information and only on a national basis?

Mr. Macleod

The hon. Member is defining "national" a little too narrowly. There is a phrase which appears frequently in the public Statutes dealing with the nationalised industries. We talk, for example, about the "national interest". We do not mean that in terms of Scotland or Wales, or even England, or Northern Ireland, as the case might be. It is a general basis, and I rest my answer on that.

It would be wrong for me to attempt to give an answer on any individual case, because the right thing to do is to proceed, as I have said, by precedent, and on the basis of whether the different Questions which hon. Members might wish to put are accepted by the Table and answered by the Minister.

I have given the specific instance which led to all this. The Question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir E. Errington) was out of order, or, rather, was not answered under the procedure which has appertained up to today, but from now on that sort of Question will be answered.

Sir K. Thompson

We look like losing some of our present rights, in view of what my right hon. Friend has said. I understand from the Minister of Transport that railway closures would require his final approval. There is, therefore, clear Ministerial responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has now said that the Minister will not reply to that kind of question. That seems to me to be wrong.

Mr. Macleod

May I repeat a sentence from what I said? The new practice should allow some Questions to be asked that cannot be asked now"— and I have given an example of that— and should not disallow any Questions that are now allowed". Any Question, whatever it may be, which is now allowed, will be allowed under the new practice. Obviously this is an extension, otherwise it is meaningless.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this now.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. There is a point which comes within your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. The Leader of the House has used the word "allowed". The question whether a Question is allowed is not one for the Leader of the House, but for the Chair. It is for the Minister to please himself whether he answers, but it is an odd constitutional doctrine when the Leader of the House gives a ruling which governs the Chair. Perhaps we may have your advice on this, if not today, then tomorrow.

Mr. Speaker

Nobody governs me but the House. We are slightly affected in which Questions are properly admitted to the Order Paper, because in circumstances which are well known to the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg), who knows the practice, the practice of Ministers in refusing to answer Questions in a certain category affects the way in which we have to act.

Mr. Wigg

Further to that point of order. I take the sense of your reply, or I believe I do, Sir, but I still assert that it is an odd constitutional doctrine for the Leader of the House to say to hon. Members, as coming from him, that a Question will be allowed. It is possible for the Chair to allow or disallow a Question in the light of what is the practice of the Government, but it is wrong for the Leader of the House to use the word "allowed". I should have thought that that was the prerogative of the Chair alone.

Mr. Speaker

Sometimes words are very apt and sometimes words have ambiguous meanings. I did not take it as something which the Leader of the House should not have said. I thought that he was obviously referring to what is the practice in a respect which we all know about.

Mr. Wigg

Further to that point of order. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] If hon. Members opposite do not care about how this House works, I do. It is not a question of an exercise in semantics, or of what you happen to think today, Mr. Speaker. It is a question that what is now said, unless it is challenged, will enter into our normal practice, and in three months' time or six months' time we shall be confronted with a statement by the Clerks behind the Chair, only doing their job, on the basis of what the Leader of the House said.

I am not trying to make a captious or carping point, but submitting that the Leader of the House ought not to be permitted to use the word "allowed", or, if he uses it, it should not pass unchallenged. If he will be good enough to say that what I have suggested is not what he said, then I shall be entirely satisfied. But if he will not say that, then I shall challenge it and continue to challenge it today and on every possible occasion, because the matter of allowing Questions is not a matter for him.

Mr. Macleod

It seems a thorny road to pursue trying to make a relaxation which is designed to help hon. Members, and which I genuinely believe will help hon. Members. The word "allowed" was not used in relation to a dictum from me in any way. May I repeat the sentence: The new practice should allow"— this is not me saying this, but the authorities of the House— some questions to be asked that cannot be asked now… I believe that the illustration which I have given, which led to this statement, will show that a number of Questions in future will be answered by Ministers which up to now they have not answered. This must be for the general advantage of the House.

Mr. Speaker

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Dudley and the right hon. Gentleman. Let us now try to deal with the law of defamation.