HC Deb 27 April 1970 vol 800 cc875-81
Mr. Blaker

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I should like to return to the subject of the grouping of Questions by Ministers, which is, I think, a point of considerable substance, and in regard to which I detect a deterioration in Ministerial practice in recent months.

The Paymaster-General today has declined to take with the Question he was answering a number of other Questions, some of which, I understand, were put down on the first day when Questions were open for today, although he took a Question from his own side which was, I think, No. 76.

It will be within your recollection that last Tuesday the Prime Minister took Questions Nos. 09 and Q 10 which were put down by his hon. Friends, not on the first day when Questions were opened for that day, with an earlier Question he was answering. That, I understand, is contrary to the practice which the Prime Minister had told the House earlier he would be following.

I would suggest, Mr. Speaker, that in view of this recent trend it might be possible for you to have a word with the Leader of the House to see whether a system could be adopted which would be fair to all hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me deal with each point as it is put.

As the House knows, I deprecate the raising of points of order during Question Time for one reason: I seek to protect hon. Members who have put down the Question, which they think of some importance and to which they want to get an Answer.

The hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker) has raised the point of grouping by Ministers. It has been ruled over and over again from the Chair —as the hon. Gentleman will see if he turns up the last Report of the Select Committee on Procedure—that grouping is not a matter for the Chair. No doubt the House and the Government will take notice of the criticisms which are being made.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

On that point of order, Mr. Speaker. With respect, I fully understand your Ruling as to the selection of Questions to be answered lying with Ministers, but there is surely also a matter for you.

If a Minister exercises his choice and selects particular Questions to answer with the Question called, the practical consequence of that practice is likely to be that those hon. Members whose Questions are selected will catch your eye for the asking of a supplementary question.

But in view of your general duty—which, if I may say so with great respect, you discharge so conscientiously—of protecting hon. Members generally, if it appears to you that a Question low down on the list has been selected and an earlier Question has not been selected by a Minister, might not any possible injustice to the Member concerned be prevented if you decided, in the exercise of your discretion, to call also those hon. Members whose Questions had not been selected but which were earlier on the Order Paper?

Mr. Speaker

From time to time the Chair does that, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. In this case, the next Question to be called had to be from the other side of the House, and the fact that an hon. Member's Question has a late number on the Order Paper does not prevent his being called in the general running. But grouping is not a matter for me.

The Paymaster-General (Mr. Harold Lever)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I may take the opportunity to point out that the three Questions selected were all Questions asking for a statement. The other Questions asked for particular points of information. Two out the three Questions came, as it happened, from hon. Members on my side of the House, and one of them from the other side of the House

Preparation of Answers is done in line with those obvious commonsense rules, and are only submitted to me some time before, although, of course, I take responsibility for them. But the simple rule is for the convenience of the House. If hon. Members prefer to have a miscellany of seven or eight Questions all lumped together, I will try to meet their wishes. But I do not think that they will be advantaged by it.

Sir J. Eden

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are there not two distinct points involved? One point concerns the question of Ministers' responsibility. It was surprising to every hon. Member, I think, that, initially, the Paymaster-General said that he did not accept responsibility and had no knowledge.

Secondly, there is the point of Questions put down late on the list; the matter, for instance, of the similarity of Questions No. 75 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North (Mr. R. W. Elliott). He has been waiting, I understand, for an Answer from the Department since 3rd April on the subject of the acute shortage of solid smokeless fuel in the City of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I understand that supplies there have run out this morning. It would surely have been appropriate for that Question to have been called.

Is it the case, Sir, that you would not normally wish to call a Question which appeared later than No. 50 on the Order Paper? If that is your Ruling, it places many of us in very great difficulty, particularly with the substantial grouping of subjects under the heading. Ministry of Technology ". That heading covers a very wide range, as this afternoon's Questions can show.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is raising the subject of late-numbered Questions. I have said from time to time from the Chair that I do not automatically call a late-numbered Question if it is answered with a Question which is earlier in number, for the very reason which has been pointed out in the points of order, that late-numbered Questions probably, in almost certainty, are put down later than lower-numbered Questions. But I must emphasise again that the matter of the grouping of Questions is not one with which Mr. Speaker can interfere in any way. He has to take the Order Paper as it comes.

Dr. Winstanley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The point is not so much, as has been suggested by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter), which Questions are selected but which Questions are not selected. Whereas my Question No. 47 was tabled on the first possible day, the reason given by the right hon. Gentleman for his not selecting it was that it did not ask for a statement, but it does ask for information, for which the other Questions also asked.

You have ruled, and I accept your Ruling, of course, that the matter of the selection of Questions, and their grouping, is within a Minister's discretion, but where there is any possibility that that discretion may be used, as it were, in a negative sense—to fail to select certain Questions which might otherwise have been expected to be answered—is there not a good case for this subject to be looked at once again by the Select Committee on Procedure?

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the House is looking carefully at what are very substantial points of order being raised at the moment. The Chair, however, has never been responsible for grouping.

Mr. Crouch

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House is very jealous of its opportunity to question Ministers, particularly on matters pertaining to the nationalised industries. They have the opportunity to write to the chairmen of the nationalised industries, but they very much value Question Time, which is infrequent enough, when they can put Questions on the nationalised industries and supplies to the public to the Ministers concerned.

The Questions to the Paymaster-General were on a very sensitive subject which arouses considerable concern throughout the country. It is felt, certainly by me, that the right hon. Gentleman did not do justice to the sensitivity of the Questions in not grouping them with other Questions relating to them.

Mr. Speaker

These are points of value, but they are not points for the Chair.

Mr. Lawson

As one who has had very considerable experience, Mr. Speaker, in grouping Questions and having Questions grouped, may I ask you yourself to study the Questions? You will see that there are two distinct sets of Questions. The Question which was called distinctly asked for a statement on the present position and how the future position will be handled. Each of the Questions not reached asked for information about the amount of fuel available, or what the amount of fuel available in future will be. They are two distinct sets of Questions, and I certainly would have objected to having them grouped together.

Mr. Speaker

Order. This is one of the difficulties. From time to time hon. Members complain that too many Questions are grouped together and today they complain that too few have been grouped together. This is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. Lubbock

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not clear that you are being put into a very difficult position indeed in that hon. Members are addressing points of order to you on something over which you have no jurisdiction? You have explained to the House on a number of occasions that you have no say in the selection of Questions to be grouped. Nevertheless, at least a dozen hon. Members have been putting points of order about the discretion exercised by the Paymaster-General in connection with this group of Questions.

It is not the first time in recent months that this matter has been raised with you. I believe that it was raised the other day in connection with Prime Minister's Questions. We know that you are very keen to defend the interests of back benchers. Anything which you could do in this respect you certainly would do within the extent of your powers. So I am appealing to you to ask the Paymaster-General and other Ministers, who. clearly, have not been selecting Questions in the manner the House would wish, to set out for the guidance of hon. Members just how they are exercising this power.

It is perfectly clear, in the case which we have discussed this afternoon, that it is on the legalistic question whether or not someone has asked for a statement. Many other Questions, not only those which have been mentioned, but Questions Nos. 47, 58, 68 and 75 were all closely connected with this subject, yet the Paymaster-General refused to select them on the semantic ground that they do not ask for a statement. If Ministers would set out for the guidance of hon. Members exactly the criteria they are using, in future we could devise the manner of Questions which would not be ruled out under the rule whereby hon. Members who come in very much later might not be called. If you took this step it would be of great assistance not only to the House, but to you in the exercise of your discretion.

Mr. Speaker

In his preamble the hon. Member said that this matter is one for which Mr. Speaker has no responsibility. No doubt observations that have been made today will have been noted by the House and interpreted in the way which hon. Members think fair.

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

I will look into this matter very carefully. I know that there are arguments about it, but I will examine it and report back to the House.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

On a point of order. I thank the Leader of the House very much for his words on the point which has been put, through you, Mr. Speaker, to him.

A point which is also worrying hon. Members is that when a number of Questions are selected for grouping, which is not in your discretion, earlier Questions on the same subject do not get answered. This is an easy way of dodging having to answer a particular Question.

Mr. Speaker

This is a point which has been made before. As a general rule, I do not call the late-numbered Questions.

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