HC Deb 25 November 1964 vol 702 cc1291-6
Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

I understand that the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) wishes to raise a point of order with me.

Mr. Thorpe

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. I wish to raise a point of order of which I have given advance notice both to you and to the Minister concerned. It relates to a Question which appeared on the Order Paper yesterday in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) and was addressed to the Minister of Housing and Local Government.

The position is that, the Question having so appeared, it was, in my submission, reasonable to assume, first, that the Question had been correctly tabled as far as the Table Office was concerned, and, secondly, not having been thought fit to be transferred by the Ministry concerned, it was, similarly, appropriately directed to that Ministry.

When the Minister sought to reply to the Question, the effect of his reply was that this was a matter which really touched upon the responsibilities of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, thereby indicating that it was his view that it should have been more properly directed to another Department. I appreciate that whether or not there has been lack of efficiency in the transfer of Questions, and whether or not there has been lack of courtesy in failing to indicate this in advance, these are not matters within the Orders of the House and, therefore, not something on which the Chair should be asked to rule.

This matter was raised, in the most apposite way, by a former Member for Plymouth, Devonport, Mr. Leslie Hore-Belisha, in November, 1929. He had suffered a not dissimilar experience. Mr. Speaker Fitzroy then said: The rule is that Questions should be addressed to the Department with which they are concerned, and, though I would not venture to dictate to the Departments what they should do, it would be convenient if they would give notice to the Member that his Question should be transferred to another Department. I think that that would remove any grievance that the hon. Member may have on this particular question."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th November, 1929; Vol. 231, c. 614.] In my submission, two effects flow from what happened yesterday. First, my hon. Friend the Member for Bodmin is prevented from asking this Question again for the rest of the Session. Secondly, if this is a procedure which, however innocently, is indulged in by Ministers with any degree of regularity, hon. Members will find it very difficult to receive Answers to Questions which they table, and the business of the House will thereby be impaired.

I should, therefore, like to ask whether you feel able, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to give the same advice which Mr. Speaker Fitzroy gave in 1929, so that not only will my hon. Friend be protected from this happening again, but so that it will not occur to any other hon. or right hon. Gentleman in future.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Dr. Horace King)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) for giving me notice that he intended to raise this matter.

I begin by saying that I am quite certain that he did not wish to question the conduct of the Table. The House would, I am certain, wish me to pay tribute to the Table for the invaluable service which it gives to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I do so with pleasure, particularly after my own deep indebtedness to the Table in the special circumstances of the last fortnight.

I have looked up the precedent which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. In that case, Mr. Speaker's Ruling was on a Question which had been transferred. The issue was whether, having transferred it, the Minister who had transferred ought not to have informed the hon. Member concerned as a matter of courtesy. This problem is different. The hon. Gentleman's complaint is about a Question, asked on Tuesday, which he thought ought to have been transferred as a matter of courtesy, and, the Question having been transferred, his hon. Friend being informed. It was not transferred.

As I said last week, the Chair can rule only on points of order. No point of order arises here, or in the precedent which the hon. Gentleman quoted. All that my predecessor in the Chair did was to suggest what would be convenient if a Question had been transferred by a Minister.

I understand that when a Question is transferred by one Minister to another it is now the invariable custom to follow the recommendation which Mr. Speaker Fitzroy made on that occasion, and to inform the hon. Member. Nevertheless, the transference of Questions and the way in which a Minister replies are not matters for the Chair. The responsibility is absolutely the Minister's and the Chair cannot interfere.

I have some sympathy about the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman, but I suggest that his only course, if he feels that he has a grievance, is to take it up with the Minister. It is not a matter for me.

Mr. Hooson

Further to that point of order. As it is quite clear in this case that it was not the hon. Member who thought that the Question should be transferred but the Minister to whom the Question had been directed and who clearly, by implication, suggested that it should have been put down to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, can you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, as a matter of guidance to Ministers, say that in those circumstances it is incumbent on the Minister, at least as a matter of courtesy, to let the hon. Member know that it is considered that the Question should be transferred to another Department?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I am not certain that there is any moment in history when an occupant of the Chair ventured to guide a Minister. If so, it was the last thing the occupant of the Chair ever did in his life.

Mr. Bellenger

Although you say that this is not a point of order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, you have quoted the antecedents in this matter at some length. Would it be possible for you, even though this is not a point of order, to say that Mr. Speaker Fitzroy's advice, or guidance, or whatever it may have been, still prevails?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

Not only did I suggest that, but I said that since Speaker Fitzroy's comment it had never been broken. It does not arise in this case.

Dame Irene Ward

Am I right in assuming from what you have said, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that when there is an alteration of the House of Commons practice, there is no means by which the House itself can ask for a Ruling from anybody about the alteration of the rules of practice of the House? This seems to be a most extraordinary lack of traditional order about matters contrary to the practice of the House. I should like to have your guidance on this point.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If matters of order, or what the hon. Lady described as House of Commons practice, customs and traditions of the House, arose, obviously the Chair would rule. What the Chair is not prepared to rule on is the behaviour of the Government and the Opposition and the way in which they deal with either Questions or debate, as I reminded the hon. Lady last week.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. James MacColl)

I do not want to intervene on a point of order, but to make it clear that it was I who answered the Question, in case it is thought that there was any discourtesy on the part of my right hon. Friend.

The difficulty about transfer was that the Question was badly conceived in two ways. It asked my right hon. Friend to do something through local authorities and not through valuation officers. If my right hon. Friend had transferred the Question to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it would still have been out of order, because it would then have asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer to direct local authorities, which he has no power to do. Therefore, it would have had to be not only a transferred, but a rewritten Question.

My right hon. Friend and I, although we would be anxious to help any hon. Member to deal with a matter if we were approached, did not feel that it was our business to go out of our way and rewrite a Question which an hon. Member had put on the Order Paper.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I think that we may now leave it.

Dame Irene Ward

On a point of order. Surely it is not up to a Minister to decide whether a Question is in order. That is a matter for the Table Office, the officials of the House, and in the last resort the prerogative of Mr. Speaker. I am rather worried by what the hon. Gentleman has just said, although he conveyed it in polite terms, for it is not for Ministers to decide whether Questions are in order.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I hope that the hon. Lady will not try to direct the Chair in the Ruling which it gives. I took it that the hon. Gentleman was speaking as a matter of courtesy and not on a point of order. There is no point of order before the House and I hope that I can now proceed to ask the Clerk to read the Orders of the Day.