HC Deb 25 January 1967 vol 739 cc1497-500
Mr. Speaker

Yesterday, as reported at column 1272 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, I undertook to give a Ruling on the subject of a Ministerial Answer voluntarily given after 3.30 p.m. to a Question which had not been reached during Question hour and to consider the effect of the absence from the Chamber of the Member who had put down the Question. It would clearly not be fair to allow a Minister to give an answer to a Question which an hon. Member had deliberately withdrawn. My predecessor in the Chair in 1910 refused to permit a Minister to answer in such circumstances. Hon. Members will find this case in the footnote (p) on page 356 of Erskine May.

But, as the House knows, the mere absence of a Member does not imply the withdrawal of a Question. If a Member is not present when his Question is called and he has not moved to withdraw or defer it, the Questioner in any case receives a Written Answer. The same page of Erskine May from which I have already quoted gives instances in footnote (o) where Ministers have, in the public interest, made statements in answer to Questions by Members who did not respond to Mr. Speaker's call to put a Question. The latest of these instances relate to a Question answered in just such a way as Question No. 50 yesterday to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I therefore consider on reflection that had the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce Gardyne) not been in his place yesterday I should still have been bound to allow the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer to answer his Question.

On the other hand—and this arose in a supplementary point of order—the House may wish to know that I am always informed immediately of the withdrawal or deferment of a Question during the course of Questions and that in such an event I should certainly adopt the course followed by my predecessor in 1910 if the Minister offered to answer such a Question after it had been withdrawn or deferred, except when it had been answered as one of a number of Questions which are answered together.

Perhaps I should add that a Question cannot be deferred if the Minister at his discretion decides to answer it together with an earlier Question asked by another Member. In such cases the Questioner's instruction to the Table to have his Question postponed has to be disregarded.

The House will appreciate from what I have said that there may be several variants in what seems at first to be a simple practice and that this justifies my request yesterday to the House that I should delay my complete Ruling and rule formally on this subject today.

Mr. Heath

Further to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. The House is grateful to you for your very clear Ruling on this matter. Although it is not a matter for order but one of the customs of the House, would you not agree that for many years it has been the custom that Ministers observe the courtesy of informing Members when they intend to answer a Question which is unlikely to be reached—that can never be a clear judgment—in order to help a Member to be in the Chamber when he may have judged that in the normal way his Question would not be answered orally?

Mr. Speaker

I must stand where I stood yesterday and state that I cannot enter into that kind of question. I am not aware of how completely the practice to which the right hon. Gentleman refers has been observed.

Sir C. Taylor

Has it not always been traditional that if a Minister wishes to answer a Question at the end of Questions he should write a note, which is put on the Notice Board, saying, "If by any chance your Question"—No. 40, No. 50 or whatever it is—" is not reached today, I propose to ask the leave of the House to answer it after Questions"? That may only be courtesy, but it is certainly traditional.

Mr. Speaker

That is a point for the hon. Member to make to the House, but I am not prepared to comment on it.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

May I thank you for the Ruling which you have given to the point of order which I raised yesterday, Mr. Speaker? May I add a comment in the interests of accuracy? There seems to be some misunderstanding about the fact that I was not in my place when the Question was called yesterday. I was standing behind the Chair and therefore not in a position to put the Question if it had been called in the normal way. I should add that in the interests of accuracy.

Mr. Speaker

That is a matter of geography. It does not affect the Ruling that I have given.

Mr. Callaghan

Further to that point of order. I would always think it proper to notify a Member in circumstances in which it seemed likely that his Question would not be reached. Although I do not wish to pursue this too far, in fact a message left the Treasury yesterday but apparently it did not arrive here. I should like the House to know that. I stood on what I regarded as the traditional position when the matter was challenged in the House, but I always inform Members, and I very much regret that the message on this occasion did not reach the hon. Member concerned.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order. Is it the right of a Minister to answer a Question after the end of Questions or is it not subject to the consent of the House? If it is subject to the consent of the House, cannot the House withhold its consent if it considers that the Minister concerned is not treating the House with due courtesy?

Mr. Speaker

The position is that in the kind of Answer to which the hon. Member refers, or indeed a statement, a Minister usually begins, "With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House". That is a formula. The Minister has the right to come to the House and to answer a Question which has not been reached on the Order Paper, just as he has the right to come to the House and to make a statement. But he traditionally begins with that formula because this House is traditionally a courteous place.

Mr. Will Griffiths

Further to what has been said by the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, surely the important point is that the Chancellor knows and we all know that Questions which are put down for Oral Answer and are very low on the Order Paper may not he reached. We can guess from experience that often they are not reached. With the resources which Ministers have, I think that they have an absolute duty to see that hon. Members are told when it is intended to answer the Question or to make a statement. We all appreciate the courteous content of what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said, but back-bench Members are entitled as a right to a notification that the Minister intends to answer their Question even if it is not reached and they are not present to ask it.

Mr. Speaker

I think that if the hon. Member studies the Ruling which I gave he will find that I have covered most of the points which he raised.