HC Deb 09 July 1964 vol 698 cc620-8
Mr. Stonehouse

On a point of order. May I raise with you again, Mr. Speaker, a question which I raised with you on Tuesday? I apologise to you and the House that I have to raise it again, but it concerns the increasing transfer of Questions addressed to the Prime Minister to some of his colleagues.

According to Erskine May, it is possible for Questions to be redirected, but the assumption in Erskine May is that there was some confusion in the assessment of departmental responsibility when the original Question was put down, and Erskine May could not have anticipated the new situation which has arisen in the last few years in which the Prime Minister is taking a groater direct interest in matters of policy and is taking personal responsibility on these subjects in speeches in the country.

It is my submission to you that the Prime Minister should be accountable to the House of Commons as well as being accountable to interviewers on television. As you will have seen, there is only one Question today on the Order Paper to the Prime Minister which has, in fact, stayed there and remained addressed to him. Although the Table had accepted five or six further Questions, all those Questions have been transferred elsewhere.

Is it in order, in particular, for the Prime Minister to run away from his responsibilities in regard to our relations with Spain? I refer, in particular, to Question No. 69 on the Order Paper, addressed to the Secretary of State for Defence. This was originally put down to the Prime Minister, as it is clearly his responsibility to co-ordinate the actions of Ministers. How is it possible for the Secretary of State for Defence, unless he has been appointed Deputy Prime Minister, to co-ordinate the actions of the Foreign Secretary, the President of the Board of Trade and other Ministers in regard to our relations with Spain?

May I also refer you to the fact that a number of my hon. Friends, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) put down responsible and serious Questions to the Prime Minister for answer today which have all been transferred? I believe that this matter is of some constitutional importance and it is of interest to back bench Members on both sides of the House. I ask you whether you would consider, without necessarily replying today, how the rights of back bench Members can be protected in this matter.

Mr. Speaker

That is not the point of order. It is not a matter about which I can help the House and, for that reason, it is no good raising it with me. As the House knows, this is a matter of complaint very often, and that has resulted in a mass of precedents by my predecessors which all say, in effect, the same thing, which is what I had to say on Tuesday: I cannot accept any responsibility for the transfer of Questions, I have no power to prevent it and, therefore, it does not raise a point of order.

If hon. Members want authority for this statement they will find two good samples from my predecessors in column 1242 of 18th February, 1953 and column 869 of 27th July, 1953. I do not think that I will cite them to the House, because they are of a familiar type. It is not a matter about which the Chair can help the House.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Would it be a point for you, Mr. Speaker, if a Question were transferred from the Prime Minister to another Minister which would have been out of order had it been put down to that Minister in the first place?

Mr. Speaker

That might arise if objection were taken to the Question being in order in any circumstances. I follow the point which the right hon. Gentleman makes. I should have to decide whether the Question was in order in the circumstances in which it appeared before me—irrespective of whether it arrived at its destination from Minister B or stayed with Minister A.

Mr. Shinwell

May I direct your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that we submit our Questions to the Clerk at the Table? On this occasion the Questions were addressed to the Prime Minister. Surely in those circumstances the Clerk at the Table is in a position to say whether the Questions are properly addressed to the Prime Minister, or should be addressed to some other Minister.

To take an example, if I submitted a Question to the Clerk which dealt with the subject of housing, he would immediately direct my attention to the fact that it should be submitted to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. If I submit a Question addressed to the Prime Minister, surely the Clerks are in a position to inform we whether it is properly addressed to the Minister responsible. Does the matter not, therefore, to some extent, come within your responsibility?

Mr. Speaker

With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, the practice of transfer is very well established and of long standing. No doubt if the Clerks seeking to help the right hon. Gentleman saw an obvious instance of the kind which he has been discussing, they might say, "Would it not be better to start this off with Minister X or Minister Y?". But transfer is effected on an intimation from the Departments which are acting for Ministers, and we could not undertake responsibility for censoring them in any way. I am sorry, but it cannot be done.

Mr. Lee

Would it fall within your province, Mr. Speaker, in the case of a Question which I put down to the Prime Minister last week in which I asked whether he would instruct other Ministers? Obviously, only the Prime Mnster can do that. But it did not prevent him from transferring it to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Speaker

As I have indicated, transfer is not a matter within my responsibility.

Mr. Swingler

May I correct an impression which my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stone-house) may have inadvertently given? One of the Questions to which he referred is my Question No. 68, which was originally and properly put down to the Prime Minister two or three days ago. Yesterday, the Prime Minister transferred it to the Secretary of State for Defence, presumably on the ground that the leakage probably took place from that Department.

Yesterday I protested, and this morning I received a letter from the Prime Minister in which he has agreed to transfer the Question back to himself. With the agreement of the Table it will be transferred to next Tuesday, and the Prime Minister will answer it.

I do not know what lesson is to be drawn from this. It may be the lesson that if all hon. Members will forward a letter to the Prime Minister, making a special request, they may be able to get some of their Questions transferred back.

Mr. Speaker

The only lesson for me seems to be how very wise I am not to accept responsibility for transfers.

Mr. Callaghan

While accepting that you have no responsibility for the transferring of Questions, Mr. Speaker, the Table Office has a mechanical responsibility in connection with transfers—mechanical in the sense that it must record the transfer from the Prime Minister to another Minister. May we ask you to inquire from the Table Office, and to inform the House, how many Questions have been transferred by the Prime Minister during the last week or two, how many are intended to be transferred and how many requests have been made to the Table Office in this connection?

Mr. Speaker

The question must be to me. If it is a question to me it must be treated as a Private Notice Question.

Mr. Wigg

Is it not true that our procedure normally works quite well, but we have reached a point in the last few days where the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence obviously want to "dodge the column". Is it not a fact—

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

On a point of order—

Mr. Speaker

I understand the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) to be addressing me already on a point of order. I cannot receive two at once.

Mr. Wigg

My point of order is that our long-established practices have seemed to work perfectly well up to the last few days when we found that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence, for their own political reasons, have sought to "dodge the column".

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must not make speeches about it. Let him develop his point of order if he likes, but not speeches.

Mr. Callaghan

May I take it, Mr. Speaker, that you would be willing to answer a Private Notice Question on how many Questions were transferred by the Prime Minister?

Mr. Speaker

I did not say that I would be willing to answer a Private Notice Question, but if it is submitted to me I will consider it.

Mr. Snow

On a point of order. This has to do with Questions and is not about the transferring of Questions. May I ask whether hon. Members have any protection from Ministers who are not answering Questions when, according to the Order Paper, they should be answering them? I ask you this because I have had two letters from Ministers.

The first concerns a Question which I put down to the Secretary of State for Education and Science. This letter I received at approximately six o'clock last night, saying that he was very sorry not to have been able to answer my Question.

The second letter is from the Minister of Transport, to whose Ministry a Question which I had addressed to the Ministry of Agriculture had been transferred. He says that he is very sorry that although the Question has been transferred to him for answer next Monday he will not be able to answer until next Wednesday.

Have not hon. Members some sort of protection? Are they not entitled to expect an Answer according to the timetable of the Order Paper?

Mr. Speaker

This is an instance I would know nothing about. I cannot possibly do anything from the position of the Chair about that. If the hon. Member has objection about what happened, the issue is between him and the Minister.

Mr. W. Hamilton

May I pursue your point with reference to what was last mentioned before you answered my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow)? I have already submitted Questions to the Table asking the Prime Minister if he will say how many Questions have been put down to him for Oral Answer during the last six months and how many of these have been subsequently transferred to other Ministers.

It would seem to me that that is quite clearly a Question which only the Prime Minister can answer. It may well be—and I have not yet been out to the Table Office to see why the card has been sent to me—that the Question only requires amendment, but if it means withdrawal of the Question, does not this raise a very substantial point which comes within your purview as protector of the ordinary back benchers of the House?

Mr. Speaker

I try not to neglect any of my duties, but one of them is not to rule upon hypothetical situations.

Mr. Mitchison

Would you allow the Leader of the House to tell us whether he is willing to refer this question to the Committee on Procedure? It seems to me to be one of general interest and proper for that Committee.

Mr. Speaker

We had better deal with it in this way—what has been said will have been heard. It is desirable that we should get on with the business.

Mr. Ross

Surely there is a relatively easy way out—that instead of a Question being transferred to another Minister the Prime Minister should be transferred to another place.

Mr. Speaker

That appears to be a slightly disorderly question of order. Mr. Harold Wilson. Business question.

Miss Bacon

On a point of order. This is on another question. You will recall that yesterday I sought to ask a Private Notice Question of the Home Secretary with reference to his apology to the Court of Criminal Appeal on the de Courcy affair. Two things will be noted. The first is that today is probably the last time on which the Home Secretary will be answering Oral Questions in this Parliament. [An HON. MEMBER: "The last time ever."] The proceedings in the Court of Criminal Appeal were not made known until too late on Tuesday afternoon to put down a Question for today. While you did not give your reason why I was not allowed to ask the Private Notice Question, I assume that it was probably because my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg) had an allied Question, which is Question No. 56 on today's Order Paper.

In view of the seriousness of this position and the serious state of affairs arising out of the apology by the Home Secretary, may I ask whether, if the right hon. Gentleman asks permission to answer Question No. 56 orally, you will give him permission?

Mr. Speaker

I can only say that I have not received any such request. That is the limit to which I am entitled to go.

Mr. Fletcher

Further to the point of order.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

It is not a point of order.

Mr. Fletcher

May I ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Is it not a serious matter when the Home Secretary is rebuked by the Court of Criminal Appeal for a matter for which he is answerable to the House, namely, the proper control of a prisoner, and he then tenders an apology to the Court of Criminal Appeal? Would it not be in accordance with precedent if the right hon. Gentleman took the earliest opportunity of giving an explanation to the House?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that that gives rise to a point of order. Mr. Harold Wilson. Business question.

Mr. Driberg

On a point of order. In view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Miss Bacon) has said, may I say that my Question appeared on the Order Paper only through the customary courtesy and helpfulness of the Table Office, who allowed it to be put down as soon as it was in order and not before? May I, with great respect, submit to you that there is at least one precedent during your own tenure of the Chair for your taking the initiative in indicating to a Minister in a case such as this that you would be prepared to allow him to answer a Question orally, even though he had not given you previous notice of his wish to do so?

Mr. Speaker

If I did that I must have done it in error and I do not wish to repeat it.

Mr. H. Wilson

Further to this point of order. Could you give some advice and guidance to the House on this question? Repeatedly, when hon. Members on both sides of the House seek to table a Private Notice Question they are ruled out on the ground that there is a Question on the Order Paper.

It would be useful to the House to know whether such a rule is mandatory on you or discretionary. In this case the Home Secretary's responsibility is very clearly involved. He has then to go to a court outside and, in the most grovelling manner, apologise for his incompetence, and we are not able to put what would have been a normal Private Notice Question on such an issue because there is already a Question on the Order Paper to which, when it comes up, the Home Secretary does not even trouble to reply.

In those circumstances, could we be told whether you have any discretion to allow a Private Notice Question if there is a Question on the Order Paper and there is reason to think that the Minister concerned is not going to answer it?

Mr. Speaker

I must say to avoid any confusion that it is not right, with respect, to assume the reasons for which a Private Notice Question was disallowed. That is a matter which we do not state. The rule about the other thing is stated on page 362 of the current edition of Erskine May in these terms: A question cannot be asked by private notice in order to anticipate a question of which notice has been given. The latter must first be withdrawn; withdrawal becomes effective on publication of an Order Paper no longer containing the question. That practice is mandatory on me.

Mr. Denzil Freeth

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would not the whole question be solved much earlier if there were a little co-operation and coordination between the Front Bench and the back benches opposite?

Mr. Speaker

That seems to make it more imperative to get on with the business question.