HC Deb 28 June 1971 vol 820 cc30-2
Mr. Alfred Morris

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I inquire whether later today the Leader of the House will be arranging for a statement to be made on the contradiction by M. Pompidou in his speech at Saint Flour last Saturday on the terms for the continuing entry of New Zealand's dairy products into Britain, announced to the House of Commons last Thursday, in the event of British entry to the Common Market?

Mr. Speaker

That is not a point of order.

Mr. George Thomas

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for not having given you prior notice of this point. You will have noticed that once again Welsh Questions have been interrupted and we have not been able to get all our Questions answered. I do not want to be unkind to the Leader of the House on his birthday—we wish him a happy birthday—but may I ask whether you have received representations that the Welsh people shall be given a fairer deal?

Mr. Speaker

What I have noticed is that Welsh supplementary questions and Welsh answers are both very long indeed.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I gave notice to your officials last Friday that I wished to raise a point of order at the end of Questions today. I am not sure whether you have been advised of this. Perhaps you will now rule as to whether I should state my point of order now or after the statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Speaker

It would be convenient if the hon. Gentleman did it now.

Mr. Lewis

I am obliged, Mr. Speaker. Last Wednesday I raised a point of order, to which you kindly replied on Friday. Your statement is contained in columns 1771–72 of the OFFICIAL REPORT. I will not go into the details as they are recorded, but you were good enough to give me what I thought was the substance of the point that I had raised on Wednesday.

You will recollect that my point of order was that, although accepting and appreciating that it is a long standing rule that Ministers may transfer Questions to any other Department which they feel can more appropriately answer because the matter is within its responsibility, it is nevertheless the case that if a Minister deliberately switches a Question so as to avoid answering it, particularly when it is a Question that is personally put to him and one which only he can deal with, he is abrogating the principles of the rules of order of the House for which you, Mr. Speaker, are responsible.

The rules lay down the days when Ministers shall answer Questions. On Friday I put two further Questions of an entirely different character asking the Prime Minister whether, when he was dealing with radio and television broadcasts and speeches that he was making on matters concerning the Common Market, he would take certain action to ensure that he personally would, in one instance, attend and address the Trades Union Congress. In another instance, I asked him to take personal action.

Surely it is wrong and means that a Question cannot be answered properly if the Minister, in this case the Prime Minister, deliberately switches the Question to another Minister who has neither the power not the opportunity to take action which has been requested. To give an illustration, if I want to put a Question to the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is on an extremely important point with regard to the transfer of Questions. I am fully seized of the importance of the point and, in the interests of the time of the House, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to be fairly brief.

Mr. Lewis

I had hoped to have concluded my submissions by now, Mr. Speaker, but if hon. Members opposite will not keep quiet it makes it difficult. If, as is now the case, I want to put a Question to the Prime Minister to ask him if he will go to France to discuss with M. Pompidou the statement he made which is in complete contradiction of the remarks which the Prime Minister has attributed to M. Pompidou, and if I put such a Question to the Prime Minister, surely it cannot be right for the Prime Minister then to ask the Minister for Public Building and Works to reply. I do not want the Minister for Public Building and Works to go to Paris to discuss statements which were made to the Prime Minister.

If this abuse on the part of the Prime Minister is continued, he can abrogate the rules of the House by refusing to answer any Question, even though it is within his own personal responsibility. All that he has to do is to switch it to any Minister who is not in any way connected with the subject and hon. Members will thereby be debarred from asking the Prime Minister Questions on it and the Prime Minister will be able to overcome the rules of procedure and the Standing Orders by transferring Questions deviously and in a dishonest way.

Mr. English

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you consider at the same time the practice of transfer where an hon. Member asks a Question of a Minister and it is then transferred to another Minister, which in essence changes the meaning of the Question? The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is particularly guilty of this. If an hon. Member asks the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs a Question, the only way of getting the point home if that Question is transferred is to ask the other Minister what the Foreign Secretary meant by his statement, which is not appropriate to another Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) might have solved his problem by asking the Minister for Public Building and Works what he thought the Prime Minister meant, which would have shown the stupidity of the transfer in that case.

Mr. Speaker

I have said that the hon. Member for West Ham, North has raised an important point, although I deprecate the epithets used in putting forward the point. I will consider this. I have ruled on a previous occasion and directed that a change be made. I will consider whether in this case it is right that I should do so. I would add that I think this business of the transfer of Questions requires consideration. I do not think that it is altogether a matter for the Chair; I think it may be a matter for other people to consider, but I promise to rule if necessary.