HC Deb 04 February 1969 vol 777 cc221-4
Mr. Shinwell

On a point of order. My point of order, of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker, is less controversial than the last with which you have dealt and I am not certain that it is a point of order.

I am seeking your guidance in a matter of some interest to hon. Members. It relates to Questions which are sent to the Table Office and sometimes rejected, for no doubt valid reasons.

A few days ago, I submitted a Question—I cannot discuss its merits—to the effect of asking the Prime Minister whether a speech made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Strasbourg last week represented Government policy. It was rejected, on the ground that, when Ministers go abroad, they obviously represent Government policy when they speak. That seems somewhat of a mystique to me, but, naturally, I did not want to quarrel with the Table Office.

Today, when I came to the House, I noticed on the Order Paper Question No. Q1, from an hon. Member on the other side, asking the Prime Minister: … whether the speech of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary at The Hague on 8th November, 1968 … represents Government policy ". I went to the Table Office and asked why my Question had been rejected. I was told—I cannot understand the distinction and perhaps you might clarify it for me and others—that, if a Minister goes abroad to the Council of Europe and makes a speech, his speech cannot be questioned by hon. Members, but that if he goes to The Hague to address another conference, which may be quasi-official, his speech can be directed to the notice of the Prime Minister, who may be asked whether it represents Government policy.

I was also told—I think that I should tell the House this—that this is not contained in Erskine May, but is the practice of the House and has been, I believe, for some time. Yet I was not aware that it was the practice of the House. As I am baffled by this distinction, would you please clarify it for me, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for putting his points of order so courteously. I was advised of it just before I came into the Chair, and since I came into the Chair, I have received further advice from the Table on the issue which is raised. It is quite a fine point.

I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman. He wanted to ask whether a statement by a Minister at the Council of Europe represented the policy of Her Majesty's Government. It is in order, from time to time, to ask whether the statement of a Minister represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government, but if the Minister is speaking at an official body on behalf of the Government, the Table argues that obviously his speech represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government. The Council of Europe is such an official body. The difference between that Question and the Question on the Order Paper which was allowed today is that the latter asks about a statement made by a Minister at The Hague, and whether it represents Government policy. The Hague meeting, however, was an unofficial meeting.

I have a note here, which I will read to the House: The distinction, I agree, is fine, but it is quite clear that the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to ask the Prime Minister whether public speeches made by Ministers at non-official gatherings, either in this country or abroad, such as the conference at The Hague, represent the policy of Her Majesty's Government. If, however, it is desired to ask about a speech made at an official conference, such as the Council of Europe, whose meetings are held pursuant to treaty, we must assume that the speech was made representing Her Majesty's Government. A Member cannot therefore, ask the Prime Minister whether such a speech represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government, since that is self-evident. He can, however, ask the Minister concerned directly about policy matters covered in his speech.

Mr. Shinwell

Further to that point of order. I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for what you have said, but if a Minister goes abroad to an unofficial meeting, whom does he represent? Himself? If he represents himself, who pays his expenses? If his expenses are paid by the Crown, surely we are entitled to ask Questions.

Mr. Speaker

I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman's question. But that would seem to be a reason for not asking a Minister a Question if he has attended even an unofficial meeting.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Fred Peart)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, it might help if I comment. This is a difficult question. You have courteously looked into the matter and given your advice on the information you had received. This is a very fine point and is, I suggest, the sort of subject which should be looked into by the Select Committee on Procedure. I would certainly like that to be done.

Mr. Thorpe

Further to the point of order that has been raised and arising out of the remarks of the Leader of the House. It will be within your recollection, Mr. Speaker, that every time a Prime Minister, whatever the complexion of the Government, is asked whether the speech of a Minister represents Government policy, he always answers in the affirmative; that is, unless the Minister has been sacked before the Question was tabled, in which case matters would speak for themselves.

Since this method is used as an opportunity—a perfectly proper one—for hon. Members to seek wider elucidation of matters raised in a Minister's speech, and as this method is regularly used, I urge that the matter should be looked into, particularly since the distinction between the types of Question tabled on this subject is fairly thin.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Question time is important and all sorts of new problems arise during Question Time. I am grateful to the Leader of the House for his comments. During the year a number of issues have been raised about Questions and I hope that the Committee on Procedure will take note of the advice of the Leader of the House and will look into this and any other points concerning Question Time which interest hon. Members.