HC Deb 15 February 1984 vol 54 cc261-5

3.30 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am grateful to you for this opportunity to seek your guidance on a matter of considerable importance to my constituents. A publication of Her Majesty's Stationery Office, the "Civil Service Year Book 1984" in column 844, outlining the responsibilities of the Scottish Office regional policy division, clearly includes the subject of steel. I put down a question about the future of the Gartcosh plant in my constituency and about Ravenscraig which was originally No. 5 on the Order Paper. It has now been withdrawn and appears at the very end as question No. 39, transferred to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

My constituents, in common with all the people of Scotland, want to hear about the future of steel in Scotland from the Secretary of State for Scotland. May we have an assurance that a repetition of today's occurrence will be discouraged and that the Secretary of State for Scotland will answer to the people of Scotland for the steel industry in Scotland?

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Fnend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) has raised a most serious matter. The Scottish Office team includes a Minister who is somewhat hopefully designated as the Minister with responsibility for industry in Scotland. The Scottish steel industry is a matter of central concern to everyone in Scotland. If questions about that industry cannot be put to the Secretary of State, that is a lamentable state of affairs. My clear recollection is that we were previously able to put such questions, providing useful opportunities to test Government policy and the intentions of Scottish Office Ministers in this area.

It would be a sad derogation of power from Back-Bench Members for Scotland if the Government were allowed to hide behind a technicality and move matters of fundamental importance out of the firing line at whim. I hope that you, Mr. Speaker, can offer us protection and firm guidance to ensure that the Secretary of State and his colleagues cannot hide from proper scrutiny, as has apparently occurred on this occasion.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A related issue which throws further light on the problem is the practice of some United Kingdom Departments with responsibilities for industry and other matters overlapping with those of the Scottish Office to refer to the Scottish Office letters addressed to them by Scottish Members. The Government seem to be applying double standards in these matters, sometimes choosing to answer questions addressed to them in writing and sometimes referring them away — at their own convenience and not that of Members of Parliament.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. We expect the Secretary of State for Scotland to be the custodian of industry in Scotland. Coalfields all over Scotland are alight. The Secretary of State should have been prepared to make a much-needed statement on Scottish industry. There is a need for a public inquiry into administrative mismanagement—

Mr. Speaker

Order. That is a different point of order, which the hon. Gentleman should raise later on. Let me deal with the original point of order.

Mr. Eadie

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Allow me to deal first with the earlier point of order.

Mr. Eadie


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the hon. Gentleman again to deal with his point of order.

In relation to the earlier point of order, I am not responsible for the transfer of questions. I thought that the hon. Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) said that he had received an apology. As the hon. Gentleman indicates to the contrary, I am sure that the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is present, has noted what the hon. Gentleman said.

Mr. Dewar

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to delay the House, but this matter is of fundamental importance. I would be satisfied, with your ruling that you were not responsible for the transfer of questions if someone was responsible and could offer us protection, but that does not appear to be so. If the transfer of questions in that way is entirely at the whim of Ministers, the House has no control over such arbitrary authority, which prejudices our rights. With all respect — that is not an empty phrase — you are our ultimate custodian. If we can appeal to no one else when the processes of the House are being abused by the Secretary of State, and he avoids answering relevant questions on the Scottish economy, I respectfully suggest that there must be some way in which the House can be protected. If not, we ought to look at ways of introducing rules to give such protection. The present situation is quite intolerable.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Let me call the Secretary of State to answer first.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Younger)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have every wish to answer questions when I can usefully do so. I am advised that all that is required is for the Table Office to be consulted to make sure that the question's wording is correct. There is no difficulty in hon. Member's tabling a question on Scottish industry for me to answer.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Who transfers them, then?

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that my point of order is within your responsibilities. If I remember correctly, when we reached question No. 5 your stricture was that Scottish Questions should proceed apace, yet we reached question No. 6 only after 25 minutes, and it took us a further 25 minutes to get to question No. 11. Without questioning your rate of productivity, Mr. Speaker, will you reflect on the fact that hon. Members who table questions are not called, whereas hon. Members who have not tabled questions, especially Conservative Members, are called repeatedly?

Mr. Speaker

Order. Our rate of productivity with Scottish questions has not been good today. Supplementary questions and ministerial answers were fairly long. I am sorry that we did not get to the hon. Gentleman's question. I do try to call hon. Members whose questions appear later on the Order Paper. Today, 14 hon. Members were so called to speak in Scottish questions. I am genuinely sorry that the question tabled by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) was not reached today.

Mr. Tom Clarke

Further to my point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I point out that I have received no apology from any quarter for the non acceptance of this question. I tabled a question for written answer and the reply, published in Hansard last Friday, suggested that the original question should have been accepted and, therefore, I fully expected that the question would be on the Order Paper today.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that when an hon. Member puts down a question in the Table Office, the practice is that if he is not satisfied with what happens to that question he has the ultimate sanction of going to Mr. Speaker and asking him to adjudicate upon it. My hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West (Mr. Clarke) put down a question that was agreed by the Table Office, which meant that, in effect, it had been agreed by Mr. Speaker, because he has the ultimate authority. My hon. Friend was told at a late stage that he would lose his place on the Order Paper. Not only has he suffered as a result of that chicanery, but Mr. Speaker, who is responsible and who has the ultimate authority for all questions, has also suffered. Therefore, my argument is that Mr. Speaker must be responsible for the questions that are put down. He must have the ultimate authority for whether they are put on the Order Paper or shifted at the last minute.

Mr. Dewar

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I appreciate what the Secretary of State for Scotland said, but it was not an entirely satisfactory solution to our problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made an important point. There was consultation with the Table Office, which was implicit in the fact that the question was submitted and accepted, and appeared on the Order Paper. It is alarming that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, West has been prejudiced at the last minute. If he had been contacted immediately and given an opportunity to redraft his question so that it had the chance of appearing in a good place on the Order Paper, as an oral question, I would understand the interjection by the Secretary of State. There is a case, not for a ruling today, but for the matter to be taken away and considered to see whether guidelines can be drawn up so that hon. Members in that predicament can be helped. We should put into context the situation in which the Table Office accepts a question, and thus by implication says that it is in order, and the Minister, at a late stage, prejudices the position of hon. Members. There is cause for thought. The matter should be looked at in a more considered way. I say that in the hope that you will be able to respond, Mr. Speaker, to what I think everyone on the Opposition Benches considers to be a matter of importance.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that this is a matter of some importance. As the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) said earlier, I am the custodian of the rights of Back Benchers. I shall, of course, take the matter away and look at it again. I say to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that the only questions that have ever been brought to me are those about which there is doubt as to whether they are in order. No question has ever been brought to me on a transfer. It would be putting a heavy load on Mr. Speaker if he had to adjudicate in every case on whether questions should be transferred. However, I shall look at the matter again and make a statement.