HC Deb 07 December 1972 vol 847 cc1685-8
Mr. Speaker

I have a Ruling to give.

I will now give the Ruling which I undertook to make in response to a number of questions asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) yesterday.

The right hon. Member first asked me whether a Minister was free to quote out of context advice received from an official without laying on the Table a full record of the conversation or other context within which the question was made. To this I would reply that if the advice quoted is extracted from a document, the rule of the House is that the document should be laid on the Table, if it can be done without injury to the public interest. The authority for that is Erskine May, page 421. I know of no instance, however, where this rule has ever been applied to a conversation, and I do not think that such an application would be easy in practice.

The right hon. Gentleman then asked whether Members were free to table Questions to the Chancellor on any advice which he might have received from the Department of Customs and Excise. The rules of Questions are a good deal more restrictive than the rules of debate, and there are many things which can be said during the course of a speech which cannot be included in the terms of a Question. Questions relating to discussions between Ministers and their official advisers are among those types of Questions cited in Erskine May, page 328, which Ministers have consistently refused to answer on grounds of public policy and which are therefore not in order.

The right hon. Gentleman's third question related to the powers of Select Committees. It is the duty of a Select Committee to interpret its own order of reference, and it is not therefore for me to rule whether any Committee could or could not seek from the Chairman of the Board of Customs and Excise evidence of the type which the right hon. Gentleman described.

In answer to the right hon. Gentleman's fourth and final question, I can only say that there is nothing in itself disorderly in the communication to the House by a Minister of the advice which he has received from any quarter. Whether it is prudent or desirable that he should do so is a matter upon which he must make up his mind in each particular case.

Mr. Healey

I thank you, Mr. Speaker. for your Rulings, which are clear and, if I may say so, very consonant with my own understanding of what the situation was.

I think you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that the situation as you have described it gives a very unfair advantage to the Minister in the House in that you have made it clear that the Minister is free, if he thinks it proper—the House might well have its own views on that question—to quote anything said to him by an official adviser out of context, and the House is in no position to ask any questions of a follow-up nature to discover whether the account given by the Minister is fair and calculated to inform the House properly of the whole situation which is under debate. Could you give the House any guidance whether there is any means by which we might seek to bring the rights of Members more into line with the rights which Ministers have according to your Ruling?

The second question I would put to you is this. Mr. Deputy Speaker, when this matter arose, referred to it as a question of etiquette. I wonder whether you, Mr. Speaker, with your deep experience of these matters, can recall any previous occasion when a Minister has sought in a difficult matter to skulk behind the skirts of civil servants in a situation in which it is impossible for the House to verify or confirm the statements he made as being truly representative of the views of the person quoted. Here there is a question of propriety not only for the House but concerning relations between Ministers and their civil servants.

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman has put two questions to me. With regard to the first, it is possible to pursue the matter in debate. There is nothing out of order in pursuing the matter when a right hon. Gentleman has decided to refer to any advice given. It can be pursued in debate. So far as the other matter is concerned, I shall not comment on the question of etiquette. I hope that hon. and right hon. Gentlemen will carefully consider my Ruling because there are certain things to be read between the lines.

Mr. Harold Wilson

We note what you said, Mr. Speaker. We shall certainly study it to see what is to be read between the lines. We note that the matter is open for debate although not for Questions.

In view of the clarity of your Ruling, would it perhaps not be right that the Leader of the House should undertake to report your Ruling and this exchange to the Prime Minister to see whether, if the House has no redress in this matter, it should not be dealt with for the future by a Prime Ministerial directive to Ministers?

Mr. Prior

I should like to consider what the right hon. Gentleman said. I shall certainly draw my right hon. Friend's attention to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, which you announced this afternoon, and also to the right hon. Gentleman's comments.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I take it that it is not a point of debate about my Ruling.

Mr. Dalyell

A point of questioning, searching after truth.

Do I understand, Mr. Speaker, that, under your Ruling, if it is considered by the Secretary of State for Defence, for example, "prudent and desirable to do so" he may freely quote the views of the Chiefs of Staff, senior Cabinet Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and other officers? Is that to be the position from now on?

Mr. Speaker

I think that the hon. Member must take my Ruling as I have given it. I shall not deal with any hypothetical question.