Questions to Ministers

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th July 1964.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Fulham 12:00 am, 14th July 1964

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you received any request from the Minister of Housing and Local Government to answer Questions No. 36 and 37 at the end of Question Time, since these Questions refer to a report by a responsible body which brings into question both the competence and the good faith of the Government?

Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There is a matter on which I would like your help. Some days ago, I tabled a Question to the Prime Minister asking him what reply he had sent to a letter addressed to him from one of my constituents, Mr. Melling, Secretary of the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations, in which Mr. Melling asked that the Government should give facilities for the passing of the Public Service Vehicles (Travel Concessions) Act 1955 (Amendment) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Central (Mr. Short).

To my astonishment, I was informed by the Prime Minister that he had transferred that Question to the Minister of Transport. We are well aware of how anxious the Prime Minister is to avoid awkward questions, but is it not unprecedented, even in his tenure of office as Prime Minister, for a Question to be transferred about a personal letter from one of our constituents? How could the Minister of Transport answer a Question about a letter which was never addressed to him in the first place?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

The hon. Lady will, I hope, understand—because it would get boring by repetition—that the transfer of Questions does not raise a point of order for me. I do not have responsibility for it. It becomes an abuse of points of order if it is raised with me time and again. I hope that we can now stop the practice, because we have had a lot of it lately.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn

Further to your reply, Mr. Speaker, which seemed to include a rebuke to me. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] We know that hon. Members opposite do not want the Prime Minister to answer Questions.

May I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to an answer you yourself gave in the House last Thursday when my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) asked you what the position would be if a Question which would have been out of order if it had been put to a Minister in the first place was then transferred to him after being put down to the Prime Minister? Would it not have been quite out of order for me to have tabled a Question to the Minister of Transport asking him what reply the Prime Minister had given to my constituent? Did you not, last Thursday, promise to look into this point?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I will look at it. There is no subtlety about this. I rule on the regularity or irregularity of a Question when it arises for my decision. What the hon. Lady is contemplating is such a situation which she says would arise as a result of a transfer, but that does not arise for my Ruling now.

Photo of Mr Frederick Bellenger Mr Frederick Bellenger , Bassetlaw

I think that the House is not quite clear about this, Mr. Speaker. Certainly, I am not. I think that the matter should be elucidated for future events, when, perhaps, we have a different Government. Question No. Q8 to the Prime Minister today was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) after the end of Question Time. You permitted that because the Prime Minister said that he was willing to answer it. But when my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) asked for Questions Nos. 36 and 37 to be answered, you said that you had had no indication from the Minister of Housing and Local Government that he was prepared to answer. What is the rule about insisting on answering Questions on the Order Paper after the end of Question Time?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

The sequence in this instance was that I called the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme to ask what I thought he was doing—a supplementary question to Question No. Q6. The right hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) will recall that the scope of the answers to Question No. 6 had run rather wide. I did not appreciate that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme was asking Question No. Q8 in time to stop him. I agree that he went on, irregularly and improperly, to ask Question No. Q8, at which point I stopped him and got him back to a supplementary question on No. Q6.

The second point arose in this way: the Prime Minister, on his feet in the presence of the House, asked leave to answer Question No. Q8 in the middle of that exchange. I treated that as an application for leave to answer it.

Photo of Captain John Litchfield Captain John Litchfield , Chelsea

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I refer to Questions No. 39 and 40, standing in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Commander Pursey), which were not reached for oral answer? Is it not a breach of the customs and courtesies of the House for an hon. Member to make, in the form of a Parliamentary Question, imputations reflecting upon the integrity of a most honourable official in another Member's constituency, who cannot answer for himself in this place, and without the hon. Member concerned having received any notice?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

That is not a point of order for me. There are a great many things in the House for which I do not have responsibility—for instance, the well-known but to me undisclosed activities of the Whips.

Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley

While it is obvious, Mr. Speaker, that you have no responsibility for the transfer of Questions, would you take into account, in curtailing Questions on a particular matter like the Spanish frigates deal, the amount of manoeuvring going on by the Prime Minister and his colleagues in order to prevent the truth about this bogus deal being known?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

In what is called curtailing Questions, I will do my best at all times to carry out what I believe to be in the best interests of the House.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

Mr. Speaker, you told my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), when she asked you about the transfer of Questions, that it was not a proper question to be asked of you and was, therefore, out of order. When my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Swingler) asked a supplementary question of the Prime Minister on the transfer of Questions you also ruled that out of order.

I submit to you, Sir, that my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, when he asked the Prime Minister why he had transferred a Question to the Secretary of State for Defence and then redirected it to himself, was putting a perfectly proper question. If it was not proper, and was out of order, then the Prime Minister or any other Minister appears to be protected from any question about the transfer of Questions which you yourself have always insisted is not a matter for you. If it is not a matter for you, who is it a matter for?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

It is out of order to question a Minister about his reasons for transferring a particular Question. I would rather consider framing the precise reasons—although I can indicate them in general now—and give an express Ruling on those reasons for that being our rule. If the House agrees, I will state the reasons at a convenient opportunity.

Photo of Mr Patrick Gordon Walker Mr Patrick Gordon Walker , Smethwick

At the same time, Mr. Speaker, could you give a Ruling on this further point? Supposing a Question is transferred and becomes out of order because it is addressed to the wrong Minister, at what point would it come within your cognisance as regards whether or no it is in order? Would it come within your cognisance at the moment of transfer, or at the moment it reached the Order Paper?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I speculate here in reply to the right hon. Gentleman. It would be the first time I have become aware of it in its new state. I cannot say precisely what the answer would be: presumably, it would be when it appeared on the Order Paper addressed, if I may put it this way, to the transferee Minister.

Photo of Mr Marcus Lipton Mr Marcus Lipton , Lambeth Brixton

On a point of order. Question No. 68 was originally addressed to the Prime Minister, but was transferred to the Foreign Secretary. It is quite clear that you, Mr. Speaker, have no power in the matter. But the Foreign Secretary has not asked permission to answer the Question. Over that, of course, no one has jurisdiction. Would you arrange for the withdrawal of this Question from the Order Paper, because a written reply from the Foreign Secretary on this matter will be quite worthless to me?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

That would seem a good reason for not occupying the time of the House in withdrawing it. That can be done at the Table.

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Fife West

On a point of order. If I may pursue the point of order initially raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), you will recall, Mr. Speaker, that last Thursday I raised with you the issue of a Question which I had put down to the Prime Minister, asking him how many Questions he had transferred from his Department to others in the last six months. I did not then know the reason why the Table Clerks sent me a card to say that the Question had been transferred, but I subsequently discovered that it was you who had declared the Question to be out of order.

Would you be kind enough to declare to the House the reasons for that? If we cannot ask the Prime Minister the reasons for his transferring of numbers of Questions, does not that put the House in an extremely difficult position? Are you aware that in the two months from 7th May to 9th July, the Prime Minister has answered 84 Oral Questions and has transferred 98—figures given by the Departments themselves?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I spent some time considering the hon. Member's Question, because it puzzled me. I believe that it fell under the heading of the other Question to which I referred—asking a Minister his reasons for transfer—and I do not think that Ministers can be asked that.

Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone

Further to this point of order. Apart from the general problem, which affects many hon. Members from time to time, how is the individual Member to be protected if he puts down a Question to the Prime Minister, which then appears in print as addressed to the Prime Minister, so that the hon. Member assumes that it will be answered by him, but then, on the day when the Question ought to have been answered, the hon. Member receives a note from the Prime Minister telling him at the very last moment that he is not to answer the Question and has transferred it?

When you are considering the general problem and the reasons for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, would you also consider how the individual hon. Member can be protected in such a situation?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

No. I cannot assume any responsibility for transfer. I have said it a great many times and so have my predecessors. I am very sorry, but I cannot do that.

Photo of Mr George Wigg Mr George Wigg , Dudley

On a point of order. Without in any way wishing to add to your burdens in this matter, Mr. Speaker, if you are to make a statement would you be kind enough to have a look at the facts in relation to this Question about an inquiry into what has happened about this Spanish business? Many of us hold the view—

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Order. The hon. Member cannot make a speech about facts under the guise of a point of order.

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Fife West

I want to pursue a little further a matter which I regard as very serious. The Question which I sought to put to the Prime Minister was purely statistical. It concerned information which must be available in the Prime Minister's office. If we are not to be allowed to get that information, we cannot decide for ourselves whether there has been a change of policy in the matter of switching Questions from the Prime Minister to other Departments. I should have thought that that Question was very much in order and very much to the point.

I want to get absolutely clear the reasons why you, Mr. Speaker, are refusing Questions of that purely statistical nature rather than of policy involvements.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I will explain to the hon. Gentleman, but I had better include it in my formal Ruling. I did explain that after much reflection I thought that his purely statistical Question came into the category of the others which I conceived to be wrong.

Photo of Mr Gilbert Mitchison Mr Gilbert Mitchison , Kettering

When you are giving your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, would you please try to help me? If I want to put down an out of order Question to a Minister, is the only way I can do it to put it down to the Prime Minister and let him transfer it? Is that the only way in which I can get it on the Order Paper?

Photo of Mr Arthur Woodburn Mr Arthur Woodburn , Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire

When you give this ruling, Mr. Speaker, which will be rather important, would you make clear whether the House has any right to ask Ministers Questions, because this now seems to be in doubt? Is it purely a matter of courtesy whether Ministers answer Questions? Need they answer Questions? Can they treat the House with contempt if they so desire?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

So far as order is concerned, they are under no obligation to answer, but I have no doubt that the House would deal with them if they adopted that policy.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

Dame Irene Ward rose

Hon. Members:

You have just come in.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Order. The House invites the Chair to serve it in this office. It must treat it with reasonable courtesy and not burden it with either not quite accurately points of order, or so much noise that it cannot hear a point of order addressed to it. I hope that the House will bear that in mind.

Photo of Miss Irene Ward Miss Irene Ward , Tynemouth

On a point of order. When you are considering this matter, Mr. Speaker—and I should say that I have been sitting at the end of the Chamber and no doubt everybody's eyes were turned on you and not on me—will you bear in mind that I am perfectly satisfied with the arrangement for the Order Paper and the way in which Ministers answer Questions?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I do not think that the fact that the hon. Lady is satisfied raises a point of order for me.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Easington

On a point of order. When a previous point of order was raised, Mr. Speaker, you stated that a Minister was under no obligation to answer Questions. It is part of our statutory procedure that there should be an hour devoted to Question Time. Does that not imply that Ministers are expected during the period that is allotted to Question Time to answer Questions addressed to them? Was it not a mistake on your part when you said that Ministers were under no obligation to answer Questions?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

As far as the Chair is concerned, as a matter of order they are not. I did not say more than that. It is quite true that a Minister can decline to answer a Question and be in order. That is all I am saying. Let us think about getting on to our business.

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

Are you aware, Mr. Speaker, that it is the generally accepted view of back benchers that they are entitled to question the Government, but are not necessarily entitled to question individual Ministers? The principle of joint responsibility makes it clear that individual Ministers can answer for the Government, without specifying the Minister. Joint responsibility means that the Government must answer through a spokesman, but the House is not entitled to demand that an individual Minister should answer.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

I want your guidance, Mr. Speaker on how Questions imputing that somebody has sold the plans of the equipment and armaments of our frigates come into the rule against imputing criminal conduct on behalf of another Member. On the latest decisions, I thought that the selling of the plans of our arms involved a criminal sentence of about 30 years. I wonder how these Questions are in order on the basis of the rule that imputing that sort of criminal conduct is against our rules of order.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Because in my view they do not make that imputation.

Photo of Mr Archibald Manuel Mr Archibald Manuel , Central Ayrshire

While you are examining the subject of switching Questions, will you take into your reckoning another facet of the problem, Mr. Speaker? On two recent occasions I have had Questions—

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Order. If it is a matter of transfer, it does not arise for me. I hope that I have made that clear.

Photo of Mr Archibald Manuel Mr Archibald Manuel , Central Ayrshire

I want to deal with my point of order. On two occasions I have had Questions accepted by the Table Office as being in order for certain Ministers. The Department which the Minister concerned has controlled has taken up the matter with the Table Office and said that the Question was not in order and should be switched to another Department.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

It is not for the Department to say whether it is in order. The Department indicates transfer, and I have repeatedly said that transfer does not raise a point of order for the Chair.

Photo of Sir Rolf Williams Sir Rolf Williams , Exeter

May I put in a plea for private Members?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

No. The hon. baronet cannot put in a plea for anything. He can rise to a point of order if he wants to do so, but not otherwise.

Photo of Sir Rolf Williams Sir Rolf Williams , Exeter

That was only the preface of my remarks. I was going on to say—[HON. MEMBERS: "Object."] I thought that I would get the House in the right mood.

Hon. Members:

Object.

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Order. I hope that the House will have the courtesy to allow me to hear the point of order.

Photo of Sir Rolf Williams Sir Rolf Williams , Exeter

I am glad that I have been able to get the House in the right frame of mind.

May I draw your attention, Mr. Speaker, to the fact that we have very limited facilities for private Members' business. I am referring not to private Members' legislation, but to the discussion of Private Members' Motions. Today is one of the rare occasions when we can discuss Private Members' Motions. May I put it to you, Sir, that we should terminate these points of order and get on with discussing the Motion entitled "Vehicles for those Injured in Industry"?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I cannot terminate points of order. I have to hear what they are and to deal with them, if they are proper. I trust that the House will ensure that they are not improper points of order.

Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland

As many points of order have been raised covering a very wide field, could you, Mr. Speaker, for the convenience of the House, state what particular points you are prepared to rule upon? Will you rule on whether we can question the Government on the transfer of Questions? Will you also rule on the point, which seems to me of importance, about all Questions being put down to the Government in general and answered by any Minister? If that is so, it seems anomalous that we divide the week into the responsibilities of different Ministries. For the convenience of the House, can you tell us exactly what you will rule upon?

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

I will rule upon the impropriety of asking a Minister for reasons for transferring a given Question and, on the same basis, the wider one that the Question of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton) involved for me to consider, namely, a statistical question developing out of that line of thought. Those are the two things.

Photo of Mr Edwin Wainwright Mr Edwin Wainwright , Dearne Valley

May I raise a very strong point of order? Am I right in believing that you, Mr. Speaker, are of the opinion that there is a strong feeling in the House against the Prime Minister transferring Questions? Last week, I asked—

Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot make a speech about that, or invite my opinion on any topic of that sort.