HC Deb 17 March 1965 vol 708 cc1279-84


Mr. Speaker

I have a statement to make to the House about one aspect of Questions, and I apologise in advance for the length of it.

Supplementary questions are not a matter of right. They are solely within the discretion of the Chair, but by the practice of my predecessors and myself Members have been led to hope that they may be called to ask a supplementary ques- tion if they have a Question on the Order Paper which is answered together with another Question.

It may not have escaped the notice of the House that lately Members on both sides of the House appear to have been studying the Order Book and putting down Questions somewhat similar to Questions already on the Paper. I can only assume that they hope that their Questions, although too low down in the list to receive an oral Answer if called separately, will, in fact, be answered with the early Question and that they will by these means gain a chance of being called to ask a supplementary question. If they are, the result is to deprive other Members of their right to get an oral Answer to their Questions which were on the Paper—a right which it is my duty to try to protect.

I will point out that there is nothing in itself wrong in similar Questions appearing on the Order Paper for the same day if the same point occurs separately to individual Members. The element of disorder arises only if it appears that Questions are being duplicated as a result of a deliberately organised campaign, and then only after a considerable number of similar Questions have established the campaign beyond doubt.

On the last occasion that the Chair intervened publicly, my predecessor held his hand until 25 Questions had appeared on the Paper. It would be difficult to apply the rule applied by my predecessor to the present problem, since the numbers of these late Questions are much smaller. It is often a matter of two or three late Questions tacked on, if I may use that expression, to an earlier one, and in many cases it is not possible to establish that this is done on purpose.

The matter will no doubt be considered by the Committee on Procedure, and I shall welcome their guidance in the matter and that of the House when the Committee reports. I have, nevertheless, been disturbed about the extent to which this practice has been growing and apprehensive lest it should reach unmanageable proportions before the Select Committee on Procedure is able to make its report. I am sure that the House will appreciate that if seven Questions were tacked on to each of the first 10 Questions to the Minister who was at the top of the list, we should never get beyond Question No. 10 if supplementary questions were allowed for each one of them.

The matter was brought to a head yesterday afternoon when I was shown 25 Questions which had been brought in that morning by one Member at the last possible time for giving notice, addressed to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, who already had some 60 Questions addressed to him on the Paper for Thursday. I examined the Questions and noted that, although they were in the names of different Members, 18 of them appeared to be in the same handwriting. I then observed that they could be divided into seven groups, each of which was similar to a Question which appeared in the first 15 Questions addressed to the Secretary of State for Education and Science for Thursday. The largest group was one of nine Questions, all practically identical.

I hope that the House will agree with me that in these circumstances, which may be repeated, the Chair must take action without waiting for the report of the Committee on Procedure. This is what I propose to do. I am, however, anxious to take that course which is least likely to prejudice the issue to be determined by the Committee or to make it more difficult to adopt whatever solution the House may eventually think best.

The best course, in the circumstances, appears to me to allow these tacked-on Questions to go down upon the Order Paper, but to exercise a discretion in the calling of supplementary questions. I therefore propose in future, while doing my best to preserve a fair balance, to regard Members whose Questions have late numbers, when Questions are answered together, as having no more reason to catch my eye for a supplementary question than Members who have no Questions on the Paper. For the purpose of deciding what is a late number I shall draw the line somewhere about No. 50, or No. 10 in the case of a Question addressed to the Prime Minister

There may be many alternative answers to this problem and many things which could be said for or against each of them. I do not, however, see how I can avoid making a choice here and now, and I hope that it will commend itself to the House until such time as the Committee has reported.

Mr. Shinwell

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that the other day my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rowley Regis and Tipton (Mr. A. Henderson) made a submission to you on this question because the procedure which had been adopted in the House was preventing hon. Members from having their normal Questions answered by members of the Government. [HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] I hope that the House will be satisfied that the matter should be left in your discretion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Speech."] The House will be gratified that you have—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I was assuming that the right hon. Gentleman had risen on a point of order. I do not think that we can have a general discussion of this subject now. I appreciate his kindness in expressing gratitude for the proposed state of affairs.

Mr. Shinwell

What I am proposing to do, Mr. Speaker, with your consent, and irrespective of the rude noises from the other side of the House, is to thank you for your submission to the House pending—this is perhaps a point of order—submission to the Committee on Procedure; and in the meantime to accept your discretion on matters of this sort. Can it be clearly understood that, subject to your discretion, there is no intention of abandoning normal supplementary questions? The House is dull enough as it is.

Mr. Speaker

I did not say anything about that. The circumstances which I described were, in my view, slightly abnormal.

Mr. William Hamilton

I thank you for the letter which you sent me this morning, Mr. Speaker, and I fully accept the inference of guilt which it carried. It was my handwriting which was on the Questions put in yesterday. I hope that you will be aware that the exercise was done with intent. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I ask you to bear in mind that the abuse of Question Hour started not on this side—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. As I pointed out, whoever started it, both sides have been doing it. I propose to put a stop to it. I do not think that it will assist the matter to bandy accusations now.

Mr. Hamilton

You have made a Ruling, Mr. Speaker, as I understand it, on what you propose to do with regard to supplementary questions to Questions which appear after No. 50. It would be as well if you bore in mind, when deciding that, that the reason why Questions are put down after No. 50 is because the Notice Paper has been monopolised for months in advance by hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Speaker

I do not want any advice from the hon. Gentleman. I seek to discharge my duties as fairly as I possibly can. I shall not be able to work this without an occasional injustice, but it will be unintentional.

Mr. Snow

On a point of order. The substance of your statement means, in effect, that the responsibility for sorting the present abuse of the Order Paper lies with a recommendation which may come before the House from the Select Committee on Procedure.

I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, as a point of order, in dealing with the House on these matters, does not a great share of the responsibility for the number of supplementary questions fall on the Chair? Although I place no particular importance on the figures I have produced, I have been looking back on the records and I find that since 1954—very approximately; I put it no higher than that—there are about 120 per cent. more supplementary questions per Question being allowed by the Chair.

Mr. Speaker

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I have reason to think that he is himself a member of the Committee on Procedure. I have no doubt that in due course the Committee will be receiving statistics. I do not commit myself to saying that the conclusion to be derived from them is that derived by the hon. Gentleman at the moment. If I were given a chance I would hope to have an opportunity of perhaps discussing other matters, but I do not think that in this instance that can arise on what I have been saying.

Mr. Michael Foot

When you said to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) that you did not wish for advice from hon. Members on this matter, Mr. Speaker, is it not quite open to hon. Members to offer advice on these matters, particularly when my hon. Friend was stating, I thought perfectly clearly and perfectly courteously, that when he adopted the course which he took he was doing it only to deal with another abuse which. Mr. Speaker, has not been dealt with by your statement? I would, therefore, ask you whether you would accept the advice of my hon. Friend on this matter?

Mr. Speaker

Not on this matter. My statement does not give rise to anything, except what I said in it. It was made on a quite distinct point and all this is irregular. I like advice from hon. Members if made on the right occasion, but I must choose the occasions on which I can receive it.