HL Deb 04 December 1928 vol 72 cc382-90WA

had given Notice to move, That it shall be in the power of any Peer who desires to obtain information in writing on any public matter from His Majesty's Ministers, to hand in to the Clerk at the Table a question with that object, indicating at the same time that he wishes for a reply in writing; such question, with any answer given to it, shall be printed in the OFFICIAL REPORT.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, the Motion which I have put on the Paper is of an extremely modest and simple character, and I trust that I need not occupy more than a few minutes of your Lordships' time in explaining what it is. It does not propose, I need not say, to interfere in the slightest degree or in any way with any of the privileges which your Lordships at present possess. It is simply this, that where a noble Lord desires to obtain Some information on a public subject he may be allowed to do so in writing, provided he gives notice of his desire, and that the answer shall be written. It will not then be necessary for a noble Lord to come down to your Lordships' House or to keep the whole of the mechanism of this House in operation while be puts the question orally and receives an oral answer. There are a great number of questions which it is a most convenient practice of your Lordships' House to discuss orally, and I should be the very last person to desire to interfere in any way with that right of your Lordships, which I think is a most valuable one, but there are other questions which, for one reason or another, it does not seem worth while to discuss orally, but upon which it is very desirable to obtain information officially.

The right which I suggest your Lordships might ask for is already possessed by members of the House of Commons. They can put down questions for answers in writing and get them. I do not know how long that has been the practice, but it has been the practice for a good many years, and I think most of us who have had the honour of sitting in the other House will agree that it is a useful, convenient and businesslike way of obtaining information, particularly on questions which it is not worth while to bring before the House by an oral question, still less by a Motion. That is the whole purpose of this Motion. I do not think I should make it any clearer by saying more, and unless something arises in the course of the discussion which requires me to make any further explanation, I propose to leave the Motion to your Lordships' decision with those few words. I beg to move.

Moved to resolve, That it shall be in the power of any Peer who desires to obtain information in writing on any public matter from His Majesty's Ministers, to hand in to the Clerk at the Table a question with that object, indicating at the same time that he wishes for a reply in writing; such question, with any answer given to it, shall be printed in the OFFICIAL REPORT.—(Viscount Cecil of Chelurood).


My Lords, I think if a change of this kind is to be introduced, it should, so far as possible, be done with the consent of the House at large; therefore I rise to say that so far as those with whom I am associated are concerned we certainly think that a useful purpose would be served by the Motion which the noble Viscount has just moved. He has made it quite clear that there is no intention whatever of impinging upon any of the rights of discussion which now exist in your Lordships' House. It has been long recognised that the distinction between questions here and questions in the House of Commons is this—that in one case you ask for information and in the other case you putdown the question for the purpose of having a discussion on some matter of public importance. Provided there is no interference with any of our rights, we on this Bench sympathise with the noble Viscount and hope the Motion may be adopted.


My Lords, the noble Viscount who introduced this Motion referred to the practice in the House of Commons of putting a written question. The analogy between that practice and this Motion is not quite perfect, because, in the House of Commons, as your Lordships are aware, a certain censorship is exercised upon questions which are put down. I hope I am not making a humiliating confession when I say in the presence of one who has occupied the post of Speaker of the House of Commons, that I am afraid I myself have put down questions which were very properly censored. I do not say that your Lordships would follow that indiscreet practice, except possibly by inadvertence, but it is quite possible to conceive of questions being put down for written answers when it might be very impolitic that they should appear on the Order Paper of your Lordships' House. No doubt the Minister to whom the question was addressed would have the discretion of refusing to reply, but there is a danger of questions being put which in the public interest might be undesirable, at any rate in the particular form in which they were put on the Paper. Therefore, if the Motion is adopted—and in many ways it would be a very valuable practice to introduce—would it be possible that in some way or other the form of the question should be considered by somebody who would be competent to deal with it? That is the only danger which I foresee from the practice which the noble Viscount desires to introduce. Subject to that, it seems to me to be a very useful reform.


My Lords, the noble Lord who spoke last raised the question of censoring questions. I do not think it would be desirable to have any censoring of questions in this House. If a Minister to whom a question is put feels that it, is undesirable to give an answer—say on some delicate question of foreign policy, or some question relating tolis pendens, or something of that kind—I think the responsibility of declining to answer might rest with the Minister. If the Minister chose to say that in his view it would be undesirable and impolitic to give a reply to that particular question, that might easily appear in the OFFICIAL REPORT and that would probably be accepted. If it were not accepted, of course it would still be open to the noble Lord who had given notice of the question to raise the matter in your Lordships' House and have a discussion upon it.


My Lords, this is obviously a topic which concerns the Back Benchers if possible more than those who sit upon the Front Benches. Personally I attach the greatest importance to the right which we possess of making irrelevant speeches upon any subject. I think it would be positively disastrous if we parted with the power of raising those discussions, but I do not see that there is any obstacle to free speech in the proposal of my noble friend. I would remind your Lordships, although it is hardly necessary to do so, that this House is the last remaining home of free speech. There is no other place where similar privileges occur. Personally, I am in the habit of asking questions—not that I ever ask inconvenient questions—so that I am affected to some extent by the proposal, but I confess that I cannot see any objection to it. If any noble Lord is interested in a question put down, say, by my noble friend Viscount Cecil of Chelwood, to which the noble Viscount asks for a reply in writing, it would be, I imagine, quite easy to communicate with him and to arrange that if necessary a discussion should take place. I imagine that everybody would behave in a reasonable way and it appears to me that it is a proposal which ought to commend itself to the Front Benches. At the same time, I should like to receive an assurance that there is no danger of any interference with the free discussion to which we are accustomed.


My Lords, the noble Lord has raised a point which had occurred to me also. Perhaps the noble Marquess the Leader of the House will tell us whether, if we have a system of written questions, we shall still be able to debate any question. I should like to have that point made perfectly clear.


My Lords, I do not anticipate that that difficulty could arise, or only to the extent, at any rate, that while a question remained on the Paper and was unanswered it would not be in order for another question to be put dealing with the same point or covering exactly the same ground. I would not like to pronounce authoritatively on the matter, but there is a general Parliamentary rule of anticipation which, of course, has to be obeyed. I only rose to say on behalf of the Government that, in the first place, we entirely agree with the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition that a change of this kind ought only to be carried out by general consent of the House. It is not a question of Party, or even of majority, but a question of the general consent of all sections of opinion in your Lordships' House. Looked at from that point of view we are unable to see any objection at all to the proposal. My noble friend behind me has spoken of the possibility of undesirable questions finding their way on to the Paper. That, of course, is the case now. If noble Lords were in the habit of asking undesirable questions, they could do it easily any day of the week, but I think the answer given by my noble friend upon the Cross Benches, Viscount Ullswater, is complete and there is nothing more to be said on that head. We do not anticipate that in your Lordships' House undesirable, questions ever would be put, but if they were perhaps a private communication by the Minister to the noble Lord responsible for the question would cause him to modify it, or even remove it, and in the last resort, as the noble Viscount said, the Minister could refuse to answer it. He could say that it was not in the public interest to answer it and in that way the difficulty would be overcome.

The only question for us was whether it was proper that this further method of obtaining information from the Government which prevails in another place should be introduced in your Lordships' House. As far as we are concerned, we are anxious to give all the information on in our power, and if noble Lords wish to approach the source of information in writing rather than orally, it certainly does not become His Majesty's Ministers to put any difficulties in the way. I may say that I have consulted my colleagues who sit on this Bench, and they are of opinion that from the point of view of the Government no objection ought to be made to this proposal. I will only say in conclusion that I hope my noble friend who introduced this matter will not expect too much horn it, because it must be in the nature of an experiment. Not very long ago, in the time of my predecessor, a change was introduced in the method of putting questions so that it was possible to attach a "star" to the question which meant that there should be no speech but that only the question should be put, not in writing of course, but verbally. That has occasionally been done, but very rarely. I have observed that that new departure did not lead to very much. That may be the case with this proposal, but there is no reason why it should not be tried, and as far as the Government are concerned we should be quite willing that the experiment should be made.


My Lords, only rise to thank the noble Marquess for the answer which he has given because I think this may in a few cases be a very useful reform. It is not, as the noble Marquess reminded us, a new question. We have been fumbling for some time trying to find some solution of this question, and, as the noble Marquess has reminded us, his pre decessor tried one solution. But I understand that while the questioner and the Minister could not say anything other people could get up and abuse them both. The limitation of speech only applied to the questioner and answerer. Obviously that is an unsatisfactory way.

I should like to utter one word of caution with reference to what the noble Marquess said on the matter of anticipation. I think we must be a little careful about that. I am not at all prepared to say that in regard to anticipation there is a hard and fast rule in this House.


Hear, hear.


I should not like it to be so, because it would obviously limit our proceedings in this House if a friend of the Government, by putting down a question, could prevent anybody else from doing so. Your Lordships would obviously be unwilling to agree to anything of that kind. That is my onlycaveat. But I do feel—and the noble Marquess almost anticipated this—that this would be a very useful little reform, and will probably remain a very little reform. I wish it could be used often, but unfortunately many people put questions dawn upon the Order Paper, not so much because they want to extract information from the Government as to air their own knowledge of the subject. I only wish that in some quarters of the House there were some hope that questions would not be accompanied by speeches.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the Government and to other noble Lords for the kindness with which they have received this very modest and, I hope, inoffensive proposal. My noble friend Lord Beauchamp truly said that the starred ques- tion is a trap for the unwary. I once put down a starred question. I was not allowed to say a word in support of it, but some of my noble friends who attacked it said a great deal, and the result was that I was put in a rather foolish position, not for the first time. As for the question of anticipation, I do not pretend to be an authority in these matters, but I never understood that the rule of anticipation applied to questions. I understood that it was confined to Motions or to Bills, and that there was no objection to putting another question on the same subject as that on which a question was already on the Paper. I feel quite confident that this is constantly done in the House of Commons, and you will repeatedly find many questions upon the Paper in reference to the same subject. I think that there are authorities present in this House who would confirm me in my impression that the rule regarding anticipation applies only to Motions and Bills. I have nothing further to say, except to thank your Lordships for the kindness with which you have received this proposal.

On Question, Motion agreed to, and ordered accordingly.

House adjourned at a quarter before six o'clock.