HC Deb 11 June 1980 vol 986 cc564-70
Mr. Straw

On a point of order Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a matter about which I have given you and the Lord Privy Seal notice regarding the important issue of responsibility for questions on EEC matters. The House will recall that on 29 and 30 May negotiations were conducted in the Foreign Affairs Council of the EEC on the critical question of our contribution to the EEC budget and that that settlement was reported to the House by the Minister involved in those negotiations, the Lord Privy Seal, on 2 June.

In the course of his statement to the House, in column 1045 of the Official Report, the right hon. Gentleman explained that there would be credits arising as a result of the rebates which would be granted and that for 1980 we expected to be paid before the end of the financial year 1980–81. What was not explained was exactly how those credits were to be paid, and whether they would be paid in cash or in kind.

On 4 June, the due date, I tabled a question to the Lord Privy Seal asking for clarification on what he had said in the House two days before. I asked how much of the rebate on the United Kingdom's contribution for 1980 will be paid in cash and when ; and how the remainder will be paid, and when. I checked that question with the Table Office, which raised no objection to it whatever and said that it was in order for the Lord Privy Seal. It went down on the Order Paper and came out of the ballot as No. 4. It was, therefore, certain to be reached on 18 June. Six days later, the Lord Privy Seal's office wrote to me stating that the question had been transferred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for answer. I am aware of the convention that it is up to Ministers to decide which questions they answer and which they transfer. While I object to that, I am not seeking to challenge that rule.

However, I believe that the conduct of the Lord Privy Seal raises two other separate issues. The first is whether it is in order for a Minister to wait six days before deciding to transfer a question. Secondly, and more important, it raises the question whether it is in order for a Minister, having accepted responsibility for a particular line of questioning—as the Lord Privy Seal unquestionably had in the months leading up to the Foreign Affairs Council negotiations and in his statement—to decide suddenly, and without notice to hon. Members, that he will no longer answer questions on that issue and to transfer them to other Ministers.

It is my submission that that is an abuse of the rights of hon. Members and that it places them in an intolerable position. After all, we have only one opportunity a month to ask such oral questions, and if they are suddenly transferred without any notice or warning whatever we lose that chance. This deal was negotiated by the Lord Privy Seal and he answered questions on it on 2 June. My question sought clarification not on what the Chancellor of the Exchequer said—the Chancellor was never mentioned at any stage during the negotiations—but on what was said by the Lord Privy Seal.

Unless there is a change, Mr. Speaker, one is left with the impression that the Lord Privy Seal is seeking in an underhand way, to avoid responsibility for the settlement made in Brussels two weeks ago.

Mr. Jay

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As one who put down a similar question and similarly had it transferred, may I ask whether that is not, at the very least, an unsatisfactory procedure in the case of the Brussels deals? If a Minister goes to a meeting in Brussels and reaches an agreement and explains it and answers questions about it in the House but says, when specific questions are put down to him, that it has nothing to do with him, surely that is not satisfactory.

Mr. Skinner

What complicates the matter is that on the same day that my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), put down questions, I attempted to be a little more cautious about the matter in order to ensure that I got an answer. My attempt was a relatively simple one. I put down a question asking the Lord Privy Seal when he had last met other EEC leaders. That would have enabled me to ask a supplementary question on the specific point.

I had an idea that had I taken the option that was taken by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn the chances were that my question would have gone to the bottom of the list to be answered by the Chancellor of the Exchequer on a day when perhaps he was not even answering oral questions. I, therefore, took the precaution of putting down a general question in order to extract the answer in a supplementary question.

I then came up against the block, Mr. Speaker, that you brought in a few weeks ago. What I wish to impress upon you, Mr. Speaker, particularly in view of the fact that you said that you would look at the matter again to see how it had worked after a few months, is the situation today. On this specific question my hon. Friend has been shown how the Government operate in order to avoid answering questions.

I have now demonstrated to you, Mr. Speaker, that in order to get round that some of us have to take the other precaution. I hope that very soon we shall be allowed the opportunity to put down general questions in order to extract information which the Government are dilatory in providing or about which they refuse to answer.

Mr. Speaker

I am much obliged to both hon. Members and the right hon. Member for the way in which they have submitted their points to me. I must repeat that the transfer of questions by a Minister is not a matter in which the Speaker has ever sought to intervene.

I think that the second point raised by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) was valid. It is a discourtesy and it is unfair when Ministers do not, within two days—as indicated twice by the Select Committee on procedure—notify an hon. Member if they intend to transfer a question. When that happens, the question falls lower in the list. I am quite sure that now that Ministers have been reminded of the report of the Select Committee on procedure—and the advice of the Leader of the House—the procedure will be observed.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)


Mr. Speaker

I shall conclude in a moment.

In relation to the issue of open questions raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I think that, by and large, the scheme is working well. We could ruin our Order Paper if we had open questions to all Ministers.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I entirely agree with what you have said, Mr. Speaker, about the normal practice of the House. As you have reiterated today, the transfer of a question should normally take place within two days. I have looked into the point raised by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), as you have, Mr. Speaker, and I shall be happy to carry out a further investigation into the matter.

Having accepted that point, I hope that it will be of benefit in the future. In fairness to my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, I have to say that two Departments are involved in a transfer and I believe that it would be wrong to jump to conclusions about where the delay occurred. Because the matter has now passed on, I am afraid that I cannot rectify the hon. Member's complaint. However, I shall do my best to see that delay does not occur in future.

Mr. Foot

May I, on behalf of the House, thank you for the statement you made, Mr. Speaker, in response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). On the issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), your statement to the House was made without any decision by the House, though no doubt the House is waiting to see how the matter works out. Some of us are anxious to see how it works because we are not sure that it should apply in all cases.

I do not think that the statement by the Leader of the House on the major point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn is satisfactory. It is not for the Leader of the House to say that he is not quite clear where guilt now resides and which Department is more responsible. We are not interested in that. We want a proper statement and an apology from the Minister responsible.

Therefore, I think that the Lord Privy Seal, representing the Foreign Office—if the Foreign Office is responsible for the action taken—should, in the light of what you have said, make a statement to the House. I think that that would be the proper thing to do. That, I think, would ensure that the same thing never happened again. There is no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn has sustained a serious grievance and we wish to ensure that other hon. Members do not suffer in future.

Mr. Freud

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. We have now spent eight minutes on this point of order. Would it not be a good idea if the Lord Privy Seal answered the question raised by the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) so that we might all be put out of our agony?

Mr. Spearing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that the protection of the House should extend, through you, to Back Benchers in relation to the responsibility of Ministers? Is it not also a fact that the Foreign Office, having taken upon itself the responsibility to negotiate our financial arrangements with the EEC at the meeting of the Council of Ministers and in a statement in the House by the Lord Privy Seal, has transgressed in transferring a question relating to that agreement and that statement? According to the usually expected standards of the House, a Minister answers on those matters for which he is responsible.

Mr. Speaker

I made a statement on that matter earlier. My reference to the two-day notification period was couched in sterner language than usual. I think, therefore, that I have looked after the interests of Back Benchers. I must say to the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), concerning open questions to Ministers, that I propose, until the House instructs me otherwise—I am the servant of the House and I am expected to be the guardian of its traditions and customs—to follow the rule on open questions to Ministers which I have been pursuing. The rule has worked very well indeed.

Mr. Shore

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I believe that, apart from the matter that you have, if I may say so, adequately dealt with concerning the discourtesy shown to my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), there is an issue of great importance to the whole House. It arises from the inevitable interaction of events in the European Communities and the fact that, by the common practice of successive Governments in this House, one Department has taken the lead in answering questions relating to the EEC as a whole.

We all understand that at a certain point of detail it is right and proper that the lead Department, as it were, should invite other Departments to answer questions. But where matters are absolutely central to the operations of the Community, it is essential that those who are responsible and who negotiate the settlements—the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Lord Privy Seal and the Foreign Secretary—should be available to answer questions, particularly after having made a statement.

This point is obviously relevant to the whole idea, habit and practice of giving 20 minutes of Foreign Office time to answering questions on the EEC. Are we now to understand that many matters which are central to our relations with the EEC are to be deleted from the responsibility of Foreign Office Ministers when it comes to questions in the Foreign Office time? I very much hope that that is not so. I believe that the House requires a definite answer and assurance on this point.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept that the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) has raised a point of substance, as has his hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw). Because it is a point of substance, we must assess the facts and issues. We cannot dispose of it by an off-the-cuff statement. I have given an undertaking, following your ruling, Mr. Speaker, that we will look at this matter. I will certainly look at the perhaps even more important point made by the right hon. Gentleman to see what the situation is and then we can have discussions through the usual channels.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. This could happen again ; it has to a lesser extent happened before. As it is possible for a Minister to transfer a question to another Minister—I realise that this is nothing to do with you, Mr. Speaker—may I, through you, ask the Leader of the House whether it would be equally advantageous in certain situations to transfer a question back to the Minister to whom it was addressed in the first place?

Mr. Speaker

I was very generous in allowing the hon. Gentleman to make his point.