HC Deb 27 November 1975 vol 901 cc1053-7
Mr. Stanley

I wish to raise a point of order arising from an answer I received to a Written Question I put to the Secretary of State for Industry yesterday. I asked: what is the total number of staff envisaged for the NEB showing the breakdown by grade; and how many in each grade have been recruited to date. The Minister refused to answer. Instead, he said: This is a matter for the National Enterprise Board. I believe that two substantive points for the whole House arise from that reply. First, I believe that it constitutes a clear extension of the topics on which Ministers are legitimately establishing a tradition of not answering Questions. I say that because my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Hayhoe) recently put a similar Question to the Secretary of State for Employment on the staffing of the Manpower Services Commission. That Question was answered fully and properly and the information he sought was given as a Written Answer in column 752 of the Official Report on 12th November. It seems, therefore, that the answer which I received yesterday marks a clear reduction in the degree of ministerial accountability to the House which has been established so far.

Secondly, I am advised by the Table Office that because a Minister has answered that the staffing of the NEB is a matter for the NEB and not for Ministers, no further Questions to Ministers on that subject can be accepted by the Table Office.

It will be self-evident that if the House accepts without challenge that it is open to Ministers in this way permanently to block Questions about the staffing of the NEB, it is equally open to Ministers on future dates to block other aspects of parliamentary inquiry about the NEB's work in exactly the same way.

I accept that the extent to which Ministers are accountable for bodies for which their Departments have responsibility but which are situated outside the Department is not clear cut. You may feel, Mr. Speaker, that this question should be examined as a matter of urgency by the Select Committee on Procedure. I firmly suggest that for a body of the policy significance of the NEB, which disposes of so much public money, the House should not be satisfied with anything other than total accountability.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley) for putting his point of order. This is an issue for the whole House, not for a particular Government. I dislike blocking answers, but I think that some system of blocking answers has to be used. Its original purpose was to prevent the tedious repetition of the same Question over and over again. This is a matter which should be looked into, and I have no doubt that those concerned will consider the point which the hon. Member has legitimately put.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

I undertake to look into this matter. Perhaps I could contact you, Mr. Speaker, and the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Mailing (Mr. Stanley).

Mr. Peyton

I am obliged to the Leader of the House for his reaction to my hon. Friend's valid point. I hope that he will agree to make a statement. I am sure he will recollect that when the NEB was being set up by legislation, Ministers repeatedly said that they could not understand why the House should be so worried about accountability as the NEB would be accountable to Ministers and Ministers would be accountable to Parliament. It would be dangerous if the NEB were to be put in quarantine.

Mr. Short

There is a real point at issue here. If it meets the wish of the House, I shall look into it and either see that a statement is made to the House or make a statement myself.

Mr. Russell Kerr

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that there will be widespread support throughout the House for the point of view you have just expressed—especially on the Labour Benches?

Mr. Gorst

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When the Leader of the House is considering that matter, will he also consider the dangerous precedent that is set? If a Minister refused to answer a Question on the ground that an organisation, be it the CBI or even perhaps the TUC, was not his responsibility, in that way he could block answers to any Questions.

Mr. Speaker

The suggestion has been made that the Procedure Committee might look into this matter. The hon. Member for Hendon, North (Mr. Gorst) has raised rather a wider point than the one raised by the hon. Member for Ton-bridge and Mailing.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) said. When my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House considers this matter, perhaps he will look back into recent history, when he will see that when Labour was in Opposition Back-Bench Members had difficulty in getting Questions accepted by the Table Office on similar organisations set up by the Conservative Government, not least the Price Commission. Although we complained about it at that time, we want to see a refreshing new look at this matter, and it lies ill within the mouths of Conservative Members to raise it.

Mr. Peter Walker

When the Leader of the House is preparing his statement, will he bear in mind that over the past week Ministers have given detailed information about the NEB? A detailed answer was given in reply to a Question on all the investments of the NEB. It is remarkable that Ministers are answering some Questions in great detail and not answering others. The House has a right to know on what basis that judgment is made.

Mr. Short

I shall look into all aspects. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) can be assured that I shall also look into the record of the previous Conservative Government.

Mr. Tebbit

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The reason for raising this matter as a point of order is partly that it is for the Chair to protect the House against the Executive and against the Executive's attempts to mislead the House. Would it be in your power, Mr Speaker, and would it not be right if it is in your power, to order that the Question concerned shall be accepted by the Table Office so that it can be placed on the Order Paper? The issue can then be cleanly and easily resolved without bothering the Leader of the House to come forward with a statement which might or might not resolve the matter.

Mr. Speaker

I shall consider the matter. This is a House of Commons matter and I hope that it can be considered as a question for the whole House. The House of Commons took or accepted a certain decision on this issue I think in 1947. The Chair is bound to some extent by what the House agreed and by what has since been convention and custom. One or two cases have come to me where I have been able to make a judgment and I have certainly not been in favour of blocking answers in those cases. The House should have the fullest opportunity to resolve this matter. May we leave it there?

Mr. Stanley

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful for what you said. In the light of what you and the Lord President said, will you confirm that, notwithstanding the answer I received yesterday, the Table Office will continue to accept Questions on the staffing of the NEB?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member has made his point, and the Leader of the House has promised to look into it. That is as far as we can go today.