HL Deb 20 November 1984 vol 457 cc488-91

2.53 p.m.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask the Leader of the House whether, in relation to the courteous practice of Ministers offering to write to an individual questioner when they are unable immediately to provide the information relevantly sought, he has considered the difficulty arising through other Lords being in effect denied the information to which they are equally entitled; and what advice he has to offer the House to overcome this difficulty.

The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)

Yes, my Lord, I have considered the difficulty referred to in the noble Lord's Question. In order to help the House, I have thought it worth introducing a new procedure by way of experiment. I have therefore asked all my noble friends on the Front Bench to ensure, whenever they undertake to write to a noble Lord in answer to a question in the House, that a copy of the letter is placed in the Library of the House. I cannot guarantee that this system will work to the satisfaction of all your Lordships, but I hope it will meet the noble Lord's point.

Lord Diamond

My Lords, is the Leader of the House aware that on this further occasion I have good reason to express my deep gratitude to him for the consideration that he has given to the proper needs of your Lordships' House in conducting its business? I hope that he will not consider me difficult to satisfy if I ask him whether it might be worthwhile, either now or at a later stage when he has given the proposed experiment a chance to run, referring this matter to the Committee of Procedure with the suggestion that it should consider whether it might not be right, as a Minister has by this kind of reply given the question the characteristics of a Written Question, to treat his response as turning that part of the question automatically into a Question for Written Answer? This would enable the Answer which the Minister has promised in writing to be reproduced in Hansard within the normal time limits.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for what he said in his first remark. I hope that it will suit the convenience of the whole House to have this trial procedure. As to his second point, I think I should point out that while of course this could be considered by the Committee of Procedure, at the same time it is open to any noble Lord who wishes to proceed along the course he suggests to put down a Written Question himself.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind that this matter has been raised before and that the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, has support in other parts of the House? I have raised the matter myself on one occasion. Will my noble friend consider a little more sympathetically, perhaps, his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Diamond?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I shall of course consider carefully what my noble friend says. I should point out that the procedure to which I referred in answer to the noble Lord's Question is one that I think will suit the convenience of the House. It refers to the case where a Minister is asked a question to which he does not know the detailed answer at that moment. Far better than improvising some answer which may subsequently be proved wrong—the worst of all worlds—he can, under this procedure, say that he will find out and will write to the noble Lord. That procedure seems to accord every benefit to the House. It gives the information that is required. If, then, that reply is put in the Library, it is available to other noble Lords. If we are to proceed down the way of a Written Answer, I think I must say to my noble friend that that way is open to any noble Lord at any time he wishes to proceed on that basis.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that we welcome and support the experiment that he has just announced and further support the proposition that at the end of an experimental period of, say, three months the matter should then be considered by the appropriate committee?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I respond, of course, to the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition by saying that this can certainly be done. I hope it will be found that this procedure works. If so, perhaps it may continue happily and be accepted. If it does not seem to be working, it is of course possible for the Committee of Procedure to consider it.

Lord Wigoder

My Lords, can there be a fixed and generally known place in the Library where such documents may be found?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, yes. I have consulted the Librarian. I understand that letters will be placed in a series of deposited papers held in the Library. This should make it comparatively easy for the Library staff to identify any particular letter. That is the purpose of this procedure, and I hope that it will work.

Lord Wallace of Coslany

My Lords, will the noble Viscount the Leader of the House consider the suggestion that, apart from placing a copy in the Library, a copy could usefully be sent to each Whip's office in the House? I doubt, however, that the right reverend Prelates have a Whip present in the House.

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I am anxious not to become a vehicle for a vast distribution of papers in all parts of your Lordships' House.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, can the noble Viscount perhaps undertake further consultation with the Library Committee? Some of us are not clear as to where deposited papers are put. Would it not be possible for the answer to be found under the name of the Minister who answered the question, or under that of the department, or under the heading of the subject matter? Will the noble Viscount have consultations on that procedure?

Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, of course. I do not know where deposited papers go in the Library any more than does the noble Lord. If I wished to find out I would ask the Librarian and, I hope, receive a satisfactory answer.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that if the suggestion contained in the supplementary question of the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, was agreed to it might inhibit Ministers writing as fully to the noble Lord concerned as they otherwise might do, if they knew that it had to be printed in Hansard?

Noble Lords


Viscount Whitelaw

My Lords, I do not think, on reflection, that I should quite go along with my noble friend.

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