HC Deb 20 July 1970 vol 804 cc44-8
Mr. Mellish

On a point of order. This is an entirely new point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a matter that concerns back benchers on both sides of the House. It concerns what took place on Friday afternoon. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter), although a new Member, recognised early in the morning that Government business would soon be dealt with and, as I understand it—and I have checked this—he contacted your office and asked for advice. He then phoned the Ministry of Technology. I have been in contact with the telephone people in the House to confirm the actual time, and I know that at 11.30 on Friday he phoned the Ministry and expressed a desire to raise a matter on the Adjournment. At 1.41 p.m., which is approximately two hours and ten minutes after he had been on the phone, he tried so to do.

Your Deputy, Mr. Speaker, was in the Chair. I must make it clear at once that there is no criticism of his Ruling. He referred, quite properly, to the Ruling given by Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster on a similar occasion in 1964. He ruled, in effect, that while my hon. Friend could raise the matter, the House would deprecate his doing so because no Minister was present, and went on to say, quite properly, that Ministers must be given adequate notice to make sure that the Minister could be here.

As a consequence, there were a number of points of order which lasted for over half an hour. I repeat, because the time factor is important, that at 11.30 that morning my hon. Friend had given the Ministry notice at the private office. That is all he could do, and two-and-a-half hours later he was still trying to raise this matter. Neither the Minister of Technology nor any of his Ministers turned up or made any attempt to do so. As a result, it was in effect ruled that my hon. Friend could not go on with this debate.

That being so, this argument about adequate notice adds up to this. No hon. Member could have done more than my hon. Friend did, and credit is due to him as a new Member. But, due to the failure of the Minister and his Junior Ministers to turn up, that means that the House will not be allowed to discuss a matter of importance to back benchers. If that is carried to its logical conclusion, any Minister could take the sort of arrogant attitude that some Ministers might take.

I ask you seriously, Mr. Speaker, for the protection of hon. Members on both sides, to rule that adequate notice for a case of this kind was given and that the Minister of Technology should have made every possible effort to come here to answer my hon. Friend, who was raising a matter which to him was of fundamental importance.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. William Whitelaw)

Further to that point of order. In answer to what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I recognise at once the absolute duty of the Government to ensure that Ministers are available to this House whenever they are given reasonable notice. Extra Adjournment debates after the business of the House has finished early have in the past, under all Governments sometimes caused difficulties of this sort. It should be recognised that last Friday the arrangements between the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) and the Scottish Office worked perfectly well. I regret that there was a misunderstanding thereafter on the part of the Minister of Technology. I apologise to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) for any inconvenience which he was caused over this matter.

I should like also to tell the House that, if hon. Members will give reasonable notice, as much notice as they can, to Ministers—I am not disputing about the notice in this case—and if they will be good enough to inform my office that they wish Ministers to turn up for an Adjournment debate, I will certainly see that Ministers are available for those debates.

Mr. Speaker

May I deal with one matter first? I am glad that the Opposition Chief Whip did not venture to criticise my Deputy. It would be impossible for the Chair to accept any criticism of the conduct of the Deputy in the Chair. He ruled perfectly accurately and in detail on Friday. This problem has arisen from time to time. The business set down for Friday packed up very quickly. There was a first Adjournment debate and then there was a second Adjournment debate. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) made every effort he could to secure the presence of a Minister for a third Adjournment debate. He failed. The Chair ruled, not that he had no right to speak, but that this is a place where we hear both sides and that an ex parte debate is not a very good parliamentary exercise.

The hon. Member for Northfield accepted the advice of the Chair that it would be unwise to proceed in that way. What he did do—and what his colleagues helped him to do—was to protest against the unavailability of Ministers and, on the unavailability of Ministers, I think the Leader of the House has made a very forthcoming declaration.

Mr. Carter

Further to that point of order. May I ask the Minister of Technology—[HON MEMBERS: "No, you may not."] May I ask the Leader of the House, then, why it was that on Friday an official of the Minister's office made a public statement that I did not contact them until 12.15? As this was highly inaccurate, would he contact his colleague the Minister of Technology and ask him to issue a correct statement? As a further point, may I ask the Leader of the House to carry out an inquiry to ascertain precisely where the Ministers of Technology were?

Mr. Harold Wilson

Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, would it not be better to close this incident now by expressing the thanks of the House to the right hon. Gentleman for the very forthcoming answer he has given on what was an unfortunate circumstance, but one which we know can happen, and for his very clear assurance that we shall have his very weighty authority to see that it does not happen again?

Mr. Whitelaw

I thank the right hon. Gentleman. In answer to the hon. Member, I do not wish to prejudge what happened last Friday at all. I hope that the House will feel that I have been thoroughly forthcoming as to the future. I think that it is much more satisfactory, on that basis, to let byegones be byegones.

Mr. William Hamilton

On a point of order. You, Mr. Speaker, are here to protect minorities amongst other things, and my hon. Friend gave the Ministry at least two-and-a-half hours' notice. We should like to know whether there was a Minister in the Ministry of Technology's London office or not on Friday. If there was a Minister there and he refused to come here, clearly this was an attempt to infringe the liberty of the minority, the minority being my hon. Friend and several of us who were anxious to discuss this matter. Also, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that one of his Ministers was so incompetent last Friday as to vote in both Lobbies?

Mr. Whitelaw

On the last point made by the hon. Member, I must say that I did not know that that was something which was confined to the Ministers of any one Government at any one time. On the other point, I hope that I have made my position as Leader of the House perfectly clear. I recognise at once—I hope that the House recognised this in what I said to it—that I am here to protect the interests of minorities, and that I will do. I have said that I will go into the whole circumstances of last Friday. That I am certainly doing, and I have given my personal assurance for the future, provided that hon. Members will also inform my office, which I am entitled to ask. I hope that on that basis the hon. Gentleman will feel that everything possible has been done to ensure that the rights of minorities are protected in future.