§ Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As was made clear during the exchanges at Energy Question Time, it is common knowledge that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will today give a written answer in which he will detail assets to be sold by the Government, pursuant to a statement that he made in the House some weeks ago. It is also common knowledge that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has briefed the press on the contents of his reply.
By question No. 1 today my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, North (Mr. Evans) specifically asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he hadany plans to privatise or denationalise any publicly owned energy assets.I believe that reference will be made in the Chancellor's written reply to energy assets that are to be sold off. Those assets are in the legal ownership of the Secretary of State. He holds them as a result of legislation passed by the House.
If a Minister, when he is answering for his own responsibilities, does not answer a direct question, but later in the day another Minister answers the question in written form, as a result of which he is not open to oral questioning, is that not a gross contempt of the House? Is not that manipulation such as we have not experienced in the House in recent times? Is it not gross arrogance on the part of the Government? Do you not have responsibility, not just to maintain the rules of order, but to ensure that Parliament is a meaningful place in which legitimate questions, properly asked, receive non-deceitful answers?
§ Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I asked the Secretary of State for Energy a specific question about BP shares. We are now told by the press that there is a written question for answer which deals specifically with BP shares. I understand the dilemma of the Secretary of State. It is clearly stated in "Erskine May" that it is permissible for a Minister to refuse to answer a question because there is another similar oral question on the Order Paper, but it is not permissible for him to do so if the other question is a written question. Serious doubts about the whole practice of the placing of questions arise from the question on the Order Paper to which we are all referring.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has now joined us. In view of his wide experience of selling shares, from Amersham to Britoil—his experience could hardly be described as very successful — would it not be reasonable for him to give us now the statement that he ought to have made? As the Leader of the House is here, would it not be reasonable for him to whisper in the Chancellor of the Exchequer's ear that this controversy could be quickly settled if the Chancellor were now to give to the House, in an oral statement, the answer that he is giving to the press through a written question? That would help us to get on with today's business.
I know that it does not come within your purview, Mr. Speaker, to state in what form questions should be answered, but it may be within your purview to tell the Government that, in view of the refusal of the Secretary of State to answer a specific question relating to energy, 786 if there is anything in the Chancellor's written answer which relates specifically to energy they should answer the question orally now.
§ Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I draw your attention to written question No. 337 in the name of the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). As we all understand, that question is to be the vehicle which the Chancellor of the Exchequer will use to answer the question on asset sales. However, it does not refer specifically to energy sales. I accept that you are not responsible for the content of ministerial answers, but I asked a specific question on sales, on a matter for which the Secretary of State has direct responsibility. I also asked the Secretary of State to deny the leak in The Times today which foreshadowed the announcement which the Chancellor is apparently due to make.
Finally, I appeal to you, Mr. Speaker, as the protector of Back-Bench Members. Is there not a grave danger that if Ministers are embarrassed by questions for oral answer, which have to be tabled a fortnight before they are to be answered, they will get round the problem by asking one of their hon. Friends to table a friendly question for written answer? That is not in the interests of the House of Commons or the country.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I have to protect the time of the House. I think that I should give a ruling on the matter.
§ Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It appears that the Chancellor of the Exchequer wishes to avoid making a statement to the House and that he is skulking around the corridors issuing briefings to the press. The importance of this matter extends beyond the question immediately at issue.
Last Thursday the Leader of the Opposition asked the Leader of the House for a statement to be made on the Government's public expenditure plans. That issue is tremendously important to all Back Benchers. On your election, Mr. Speaker, you restated your commitment to the protection of Back Benchers. Every city in the land is under threat from the effects of the cuts in the National Health Service — [Interruption.] In my constituency, Mr. Chairman, the Yorkshire regional hospital—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am not the Chairman. However, I have the drift of his supplementary question.
§ Mr. Madden
It is imperative that, before the House rises for the recess, the Chancellor should make a statement on the extent of public expenditure cuts. Every Member of Parliament—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I think that I have the hon. Member's point. I believe that I can deal with the matter. We are about to move on to discuss the motion on the Adjournment of the House. It would be eminently reasonable to discuss this subject on that motion and suggest that the House should not adjourn until a statement has been made.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Whilst one would wish to bow to your suggestion that the debate on the Adjournment provides a suitable opportunity to raise this issue, I doubt whether the Leader of the House, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or the Secretary of State for Energy will be present during that debate, in view of their usual attendance in the House. Would it be in order for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to give to the House the information that he is about to convey in a written reply? If he will not do so, are we not entitled to suggest that, in view of his wider responsibilities, the Leader of the House should comment on this reprehensible action?
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Apart from anything else, you are the custodian of parliamentary behaviour. On question No. 19 I asked the Leader of the House if he could imagine any previous Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer whom he and I have known — Selwyn Lloyd, Reggie Maudling, Iain Macleod, or Tony Barber—behaving as the present Chancellor of the Exchequer has behaved. They would have come to the House and made their statements, whatever the issue. I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that this action represents a change in parliamentary behaviour. The Leader of the House, who really cares about parliamentary behaviour and good manners, seemed to accept that that was a valid point. May I suggest that the House could overcome this impasse if the Leader of the House had a gentle word with the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the good manners shown by his predecessors.
§ Mr. John Smith
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I ask you to rule on one of the points that have been raised. Is it in order for a Secretary of State, who is in possession of information that is to be given by a colleague later in the day, to refuse to impart it to an hon. Member who asks a specific and direct question about it?
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I do not think that I need take any more points of order, as I think I have been helped enough. My ruling on the point of order raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) is that that is frequently done. We may regret it, but it has frequently been done in the past.
§ Mr. John Evans
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I very much regret having to raise this issue again. I have never quarrelled with the Chair, and do not intend to do so now, but you suggested this might be a suitable subject to raise on the motion on the summer Adjournment. Although I accept that the question that was asked may be a suitable subject for such debate, my question is for you to answer. I should like you to rule on whether Ministers have behaved properly in answering questions in the House. Surely that is not a subject for debate. It is for you to give a ruling on that, Mr. Speaker, and you may have to give some thought to it.
§ Mr. Speaker
When the hon. Gentleman raised his first point of order he said that I was not responsible for the answers that Ministers gave at the Dispatch Box. That is sadly the fact. Well, perhaps not sadly, but gladly the fact. I am not responsible for what is said from the 788 Dispatch Box and, furthermore, I know nothing of this supposed leak. What I do know is that the question tabled by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller) was put on the Order Paper on Friday and that Ministers have up to a week to answer written questions. I have no knowledge whether this question is to be answered today, or some time before the House rises.
§ Dr. Owen
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think I might be able to help you on that last point. Since you initially ruled we have had a conversation about when the written reply can be expected, and the Treasury has informed us that the answer will come over to the House at 4 pm. Thus, in 20 minutes' time the question and answer will be available to the House. Hon. Members may be tempted to continue to probe this issue until the answer is delivered. I understand that it would then be in order to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10, on the basis of the information contained in that answer.
It is rather strange that we should be tempted to raise points of order until that question is answered, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Leader of the House are in the Chamber and can solve the problem very easily. I suggest, Mr. Speaker, that they are putting you in an extremely difficult position. Having heard this controversy, it is perfectly open to the Leader of the House to respond now. It would have been open to the Government to argue that they were holding back the information until the Stock Exchange closed, but that is clearly not the case if the Treasury intends to reveal the information at 4 pm.
Earlier, Mr. Speaker, you said that such a refusal frequently happened. That may or may not be the case, but many of us would like you to rule on whether that should happen and whether it is right that it should happen. Ministers often use written answers to reply to questions that should be answered by statements. However, that is not the issue today. The point is that the first question on the Order Paper to the Department of Energy relates, in part, to the statement which the Chancellor of the Exchequer intends to give in the form of a written answer. We would like a ruling on that rather narrow and specific point. Is it in order for a Minister to refuse to answer at Question Time on the basis that a written question will be answered at a later date?
§ Mr. Hal Miller
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps I can assist you. Under the Labour Government in 1974 exactly the same situation arose in my case. A question to the Secretary of State for Industry about British Leyland was pre-empted by a written answer.
§ Mr. Smith
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would it be in order for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement to the House now? The House knows that he must have in his possession the answer that he proposes to give in written form. He is probably sitting with it in his hand. Is there anything in the rules of order 789 that would prevent the Chancellor of the Exchequer from making a statement? The House clearly wants one, but the right hon. Gentleman clearly does not wish to give it.
§ Mr. Speaker
If the Chancellor of the Exchequer wants to make a statement there is no reason why he should not make it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Now."] Order. I must be allowed to finish what I was saying. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to do so, there is no reason why he should not make a statement after the statement on the EC Budget Council.
§ Mr. Smith
On a new point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can the Chancellor of the Exchequer make a statement at the end of the statement on the EC Budget Council? Many hon. Members are incensed at what is happening, because the issue is important. Would it be possible for the Leader of the House to get to his feet now to say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will make a statement immediately after that on the EC Budget Council? That would greatly help the House.
§ The Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Biffen)
To help the House, may I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other hon. Members that, after the statement that is to be made by my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will seek to catch Mr. Speaker's eye.
§ Mr. Speaker
The hon. Gentleman has raised one point of order already and has heard the remarks of the Leader of the House. I do not propose to take any more points of order on this matter.