HC Deb 08 November 1967 vol 753 cc1028-35
Mr. Speaker

I wish to clarify a clumsy comment I made yesterday during Question Time in answer to a point of order raised by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey). I was asked whether Ministers, in their Answers to Questions, could refer back to Answers given during the previous Session. I observed that while such references were not out of order, the practice, if extended, could be embarrassing to hon. Members who put Questions. Hon. Members will find this observation in col. 833 of yester-day's HANSARD.

I owe it to the House—and, indeed, to the Prime Minister, about one of whose Answers the matter arose—to make it clear that it is not out of order that references to answers given in a previous Session should from time to time be made. In the case to which my attention was drawn, the previous Answer referred to was given five months ago, before the Summer Recess.

While, therefore, I remain of the opinion that references to Answers made long ago may be unhelpful to hon. Members, the practice of referring to Answers given in the previous Session is not, as such, out of order. Indeed, if the Answers have been recently given, this will doubtless be in the mind of the hon. Member who has asked the Question, and the time of the House can be saved thereby.

I hope that this makes the matter clear beyond peradventure.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Dalyell. On a point of order.

Mr. Dalyell

I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker, that I wish to raise on a point of order a matter of principle which is of some concern to the rights of all hon. Members.

Yesterday afternoon I handed in to the Table Office two Oral Questions to the Secretary of State for Education and Science, two Written Questions to the Secretary of State for Defence, and an Oral Question and five Written Questions to the Minister of Public Building and Works on the matter of the proposed staging post on Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean.

These Questions were found all to be in order, and with characteristic courtesy and good humour the Clerk at the Table Office on duty said, "You are nearing the campaign limit", or words to that effect.

To my surprise this morning, none of these Questions appeared on the Order Paper for future answer. On inquiry, I found that the Principal Clerk of the Table Office, for what was said to be "for my own good", had withheld these Questions from the printer. Consequent on my inquiry this morning, I received the following letter at two o'clock from the Principal Clerk of the Table Office: You will recall that when you recently visited the Table Office one of my colleagues mentioned that the number of questions which you had down on Aldabra was nearing the point at which there was a possible danger of disallowance of further questions on the grounds that they were 'multiplied with slight variations on the same point'. (May, p. 355.) By yesterday you had 39 such questions down; and in view of the fact that Speakers have occasionally in the past intervened at this stage or earlier, I felt it my duty to withhold from the paper the 10 further questions which you had brought in last night, until I had had the opportunity of discussing the matter with Mr. Speaker. This I have done, and he has asked me to let you know that in his opinion 50 questions in total is the absolute maximum which he is willing to permit in this case. I have accordingly sent your 10 questions to the printer, in the form agreed between yourself and the Table Office. I put it to the House that two questions arise. First: should questions from an hon. Member be withheld without his knowledge which are acknowledged to be in order and accepted by the Table Office? Secondly, while I freely confess to conducting a so-called "campaign"—I myself prefer to call it a systematic inquiry to establish facts about the military, financial and scientific consequences of a potential British staging post in Aldabra before the Government's decision is taken—is there anything wrong in a Member of Parliament putting so many Questions to 11 different Ministers?

Finally, Mr. Speaker, would you care to comment on the doctrine that a Member of Parliament who sets himself up as an inquisitor of an aspect of future executive policy should be ruled out of order?

Mr. Speaker

I might, first, say that I am sorry that the hon. Member should not have accepted, as most of the House has accepted over many years, the discretion of Mr. Speaker in matters of the kind he has raised. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, no"] Order.

As the hon. Member knows, past Speakers have sometimes ruled Questions out of order on the ground that they multiplied with slight variations on the same point. I regret that I should have had to find it necessary to apply this rule in the case of the hon. Member.

As far as I am aware, none of my predecessors has ever laid down a particular number at which this rule should always be applied. I think that it is quite right that this should be so, since some matters are more complex and more detailed than others. I do not think that in exercising my discretion as I have done on this occasion I have unfairly deprived the hon. Member of the opportunity of exploring the matter fully.

I understand that on an earlier visit to the Table Office the hon. Member was advised that the number of his Questions—it was 39 up to last night—was such as to raise the possibility of the rule being applied; and that the matter would be referred to me this morning. I myself was informed of this today and I was satisfied that the Table Office had acted quite properly in holding back the Questions which the hon. Member handed in yesterday evening until the matter had been referred to me today.

Mr. William Hamilton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some very important questions arise from that Ruling—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—which we as back benchers cannot allow to go unchallenged. You will be aware that several of us have an inquisitorial nature. You will no doubt be aware, as many hon. Members are aware, that if my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) is not allowed to put down more than 50 Questions, there is a quite easy way of getting round that position by farming out his Questions.

My hon. Friend, if he knows anything at all, will get a dozen of us each to put in 20 Questions and the consequence will be not 50, but 240 Questions. I ask you very respectfully, Mr. Speaker, very seriously to reconsider the statement you have just made.

Mr. Speaker

I have no comment to make on the very clever Parliamentary advice which the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) is giving to his hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). It has been the custom for many, many years—it was not invented by this Speaker—that there should be a limit to the number of Questions which were infinite variations on one topic. I am afraid that I must abide by that custom.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Further to the point of order. As one who is not unknown to ask Questions, I hope that you will bear in mind, Mr. Speaker, that the previous campaign for systematic inquiries conducted by my hon. Friend saved the country millions of pounds. Surely, there should be cautious treatment of any suggestion of suppressing Questions by my hon. Friend. If we are not to pursue campaigns, Mr. Speaker, for what reason are we in Parliament?

Mr. Speaker

I am certain that the hon. Member will acquit me of any opinion on any of the campaigns which hon. Members seek to pursue. On their merits or otherwise, Mr. Speaker has no opinion whatever. He has, however, to apply common sense and see that while no hon. Member is deprived of his right to put down Questions, there is a limit to what otherwise could be an infinite variety of Questions that he would put on exactly the same topic. That, I think, makes complete sense. I hope that we can move on.

Mr. Rankin

Is not a slight change in procedure involved in the Ruling which you have just given, Mr. Speaker? You have referred to the discretion of Mr. Speaker, which we all accept, but if what you have just said becomes a Ruling the discretion of Mr. Speaker would seem to disappear and it will be replaced by a rule of the House. There is flexibility in the discretion of Mr. Speaker, but there would be no flexibility in a rule.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for what he has said. Certainly, Mr. Speaker is not endeavouring to make a new rule.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Without referring in any way to the present case, is it not a fact, Mr. Speaker, that when a Question has been answered, or the Answer has been refused, it cannot be asked again by an hon. Member during the same Session? If, however, an hon. Member can find a new Question to raise on the same subject, is it not reasonable that he should try to probe the Executive with that new Question and not be ruled out of order merely because, as the subject is a large one, it is possible to ask a great number of Questions on it?

Mr. Speaker

All these factors are in the minds of Mr. Speaker and of the Table when making the kind of decision which they make.

Mr. Heffe

Further to the point of order. The whole House will, I think, agree that this is a serious matter. I would like to ask you two points, Mr. Speaker. First, can you tell the House when the first Ruling was given, which Mr. Speaker gave it and on what precedent this is based? Secondly, on what occasion, if ever, has the House pronounced upon this matter? This will enable us to get our minds clear about future procedures.

Mr. Speaker

I have already given the Erskine May reference. There have been numbers of occasions when this sort of thing has happened. As far as I am aware, there has been no recent general pronouncement in the House. The matter has arisen only because one hon. Member has questioned the use of the discretion of Mr. Speaker.

Dr. David Kerr

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether, in coming to your conclusion, you took into account the alteration in the procedure for Questions which has obtained during the last year or so? I ask this because it seems to me that the decision of the Table Office to delay until your considered opinion could be obtained deprived my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) of the right to get his Oral Question down in such time as to allow him to pursue it by the traditional House of Commons method of supplementary questioning.

This is a different matter, I submit, from the number of Questions which my hon. Friend has posed on a particular subject. It is a matter of considerable consequence if hon. Members are to be deprived by a decision of the Table Office, which is not answerable to the House, of the right to pursue a matter by supplementary questioning.

I would like further to ask, Mr. Speaker, whether you would be kind enough, for the benefit of your successors, to comment on what is becoming increasingly a matter of difficulty for us back benchers. I refer to the establishment of procedure by case law. What has happened in the past may be merely habit but the moment that you pronounce that 50 Questions are the maximum this fact will be referred to by yourself and your successors as being the established procedure of the House. That is a precedent which, in all fairness to all of us, we would want to look at carefully and to do so without any disrespect to your opinion or to your right to publish that to the House.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the House for considering this matter. A public Ruling was given in 1953–54, at Vol. 524, c. 1905/6. There were, however, similar private Rulings as early as 1899 on the same issue and later in March, 1957.

I am apprised of the problem raised by the hon. Member in the first part of his question concerning the danger of de- priving an hon. Member of the right to get an Oral Question on the Order Paper. The position concerning Questions in general is that hon. Members submit their Questions to the Table. If the Table in some way objects to the Question on any ground whatever, the hon. Member concerned has the right to come to Mr. Speaker. Similarly, if the Table is in any doubt, it asks Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker's task is to protect the interest of every Member of the House, but also to protect the interest of the Order Paper. In a matter involving a multiplicity of Questions around the same subject, in my opinion a limit must be drawn from time to time.

The last thing that Mr. Speaker would want the House to think is that there is anything inflexible in the number 50. This is a matter which must be left to the discretion of Mr. Speaker, and, indeed, of the hon. Member in question. Most hon. Members have accepted the point of view which has been put to them from time to time over the years. I hope that we can now get on with business.

Mr. Hooley

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you care to clarify the period of time over which this Ruling would apply? It is clear that to put down 50 Questions in one week on one topic might be considered unconscionable, but over a longer period even 50 Questions might not be an unreasonable number.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member should not ask me to do what the House would not wish me to do by laying down hard and fast numbers or periods concerning this matter.

Sir C. Taylor

May I say, Mr. Speaker, that I think that most hon. Members will be grateful to the Table Office for the advice, help and suggestions which it has given to hon. Members over the years?

Sir S. McAdden

Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that by far the great majority of hon. Members are perfectly happy to leave this matter in the discretion of Mr. Speaker? I think that most hon. Members are. While there might be apprehensions against a tyrannical Speaker exercising despotic will, hon. Members need not worry too much. There is an excellent way, well laid down, of getting rid of tyrannical Speakers. We are happy with the one we have got.

Mr. Speaker

There was an ominous suggestion in what the hon. Member has said in trying to help Mr. Speaker.