Questions to Ministers (Transfer)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th July 1964.

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Photo of Sir Harry Hylton-Foster Sir Harry Hylton-Foster , Cities of London and Westminster 12:00 am, 20th July 1964

I regret that I must now take up some time. I apologise to the House in advance for the length of what I have to say. I undertook to tell the House why I felt bound to rule out of order a Question to a Minister about the transfer of a Question.

The practice of transferring Questions has been long established, but it has never been the practice to allow Questions relating to the transfer of an individual Question. It is significant that, although the practice of transferring Questions has, as the House knows well, been the subject of protest by hon. Members from time to time, under Governments of varying political complexion, no instance can be found of such a Question being allowed.

The principle underlying our practice is that Ministers are jointly responsible to the House and the determination of which Minister should be responsible for answering any particular Question is a matter of internal arrangement between Ministers. It forms no part of the public administration to which in the words of Erkine May Questions to Ministers may be directed.

The House may think that it would be inadvisable to change our practice. If Questions about an individual transfer were allowed, each transfer would be liable to be followed by a question asking why the Question had been transferred. Our time for questioning Ministers upon their public administration is already hard pressed and the House might not wish to have it in part consumed by the discussion of purely procedural points.

I turn to the proposed Question of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. W. Hamilton), which did not relate to the transfer of an individual Question. The hon. Member sought to ask merely for statistics relating to Questions transferred.

After reflection, I came to the conclusion that the Question could not be allowed. If the practice of disallowing Questions about an individual transfer rests upon the principle to which I have referred, it is difficult to see how, without inconsistency, the same principle does not rule out a Question relating to multiple transfers.

But, in any event, there was another obstacle to the proposed Question. Our practice does not allow Questions which require information set out in accessible documents. For example, one of my predecessors declared that a question seeking information which an hon. Member could get from HANSARD was out of order. The reference is to Parliamentary Debates (1901), Vol. 90, c. 207.

The transfer of Questions is a matter of record, since they are all noted upon the Notice Paper. The calculation of them may take time, but that does not affect the principle. We have done what we could to assist the hon. Member by the services of the Library and the Table Office. I understand that the hon. Member has now, in fact, been given all the information for which he sought to ask in his original Question to the Prime Minister.

It is not the intention that this Ruling should extend to the proposition that the Prime Minister may not be questioned about his general practice in answering Parliamentary Questions. Such a Question was allowed in November, 1963, and another to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Fife, West last Thursday.

There remains the problem raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle) on that day. I should like to express my gratitude to her for allowing me, in the interests of the time of the House on that occasion, to defer my Ruling until today.

I find that Questions regarding letters or representations to one Minister have frequently been transferred to another Minister. My predecessors have always taken the view that they had no power to intervene if Ministers considered that the subject matter of the correspondence made it more appropriate to be answered by the Minister to whom it was transferred.

The earliest Ruling in our records is from 1933, on 20th November, when a Question about a report from the British Medical Association which had been sent to the Prime Minister was transferred to another Minister. Similar Rulings were given in 1938, in regard to a Question about a resolution sent direct to the Prime Minister from a national organisation, and, again, in 1939, on 11th May, in relation to a Question by the then hon. Member, now the right hon. Member, for Easington (Mr. Shinwell).

The transfer of Questions about letters to Ministers has, therefore, been well established for over 30 years. In these circumstances, it would not be within my power to exercise control, even if I considered that I should be justified in so doing.

With regard to the hon. Lady's point that the sense of the Question had been altered as a result of the transfer, this, again, has been ruled on by my predecessors. On 19th June, 1946, a Member complained that a Question dealing with repeated requests made to one Department was entirely altered in meaning when transferred to another Department. A similar point of order was raised in July, 1951. In both of these cases, my predecessors said that they had no powers in the matter.

Where transfers have been made that might appear to alter the sense of a Question, it has been the practice of the Clerks, for some Sessions now, to make drafting alterations so as to preserve the original sense of the Question, but they only so act if their attention is drawn to the correction required, and their attention was not so drawn in this case. Had the hon. Lady wished, she could have asked to have her Question altered "the Prime Minister" in terms. Further than this, I cannot help her.

so as to refer to a letter addressed to

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

I am sure that the whole House will be grateful for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you one question in connection with it?

You have said that Questions are a joint responsibility of the Government and that it is a matter for the Government which Minister replies. In that case, would it be in order to put down a Question addressed simply to the Government, without specifying any Minister, leaving it to the Government to decide who should reply to it?

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

I shall look at the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion. I do not propose to rule upon it "off the cuff". I do not think that it has ever been our practice.

Photo of Mr Emanuel Shinwell Mr Emanuel Shinwell , Easington

Does not your statement, for which we are grateful, Mr. Speaker, mean, in effect, that the Prime Minister can transfer every Question addressed to him on the ground that he transfers his responsibility to his colleagues?

If that be the position, and I understand that it is, following your statement, and since the point is whether we are allowed to put a Question to the Prime Minister on a subject of this kind, would it be permissible, in view of what has been said and of the position now stated to the House, to ask the Prime Minister by a Question whether in future he will determine how he will answer Questions addressed to him?

Unless that is done, we might as well abandon that part of the Standing Order which provides that, at 3.15 p.m. on two days a week, the Prime Minister will answer Questions.

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

If the right hon. Gentleman reads my statement, he will find that I have fairly covered that. I shall look at the particular Question when it is tabled, but I think that it goes to the general practice of the Prime Minister in answering Questions which, I pointed out, was not covered by this Ruling.

Photo of Mr Stephen Swingler Mr Stephen Swingler , Newcastle-under-Lyme

I thank you for your Ruling, Mr. Speaker. I understand from it that Questions about transfers are ordinarily out of order because one cannot ask a Minister about a transfer when he has shed responsibility for a Question by transferring it. But I do not see the application to my Question which you ruled out of order last week. That was a Question to the Prime Minister about a Question which he had previously transferred and which he subsequently reaccepted, by so doing reaccepting responsibility for the Question and its subject matter. It seems to me—there may be no precedent about this—that in such a case, where a Minister re-accepts responsibility for a Question which he had originally transferred, it ought to be in order to ask him about his original action which was within his administrative responsibility.

The Minister has, by his second action, accepted responsibility for the matter and, in that case, I should have thought that it came within the Ruling in Erskine May that one may ask a Minister Questions about those things which come within his administrative responsibility. His re-acceptance of a Question in the House is, surely, a matter which is within his administrative responsibility.

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

I entirely appreciate the hon. Gentleman's interest and the courteous way in which he raises with me again now what he wanted to ask the other day. If he will look at the Ruling which I have given, he will see that the principle upon which we go would cover the circumstances, a transfer away and a transfer back being the same as a single transfer. If he will look at my reasons—the House may regard them as right or wrong—he will, I think, find that they govern the point which he has raised.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn

May I support the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), that we should be given a definition of what lies within the administrative responsibility of the Prime Minister, so that we may be guided in putting Questions to him? Do I understand from your reply to my right hon. Friend, Mr. Speaker, that you will give us a Ruling on that point?

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

No. I have ruled—if the hon. Lady reads what I have said, I think that she will see the point—that one may ask the Prime Minister about his general practice in the answering of Questions, and this is so because it is akin to the allocation of responsibility between the Prime Minister, on the one hand, and Departments, on the other. That is a different point. I think that the hon. Lady will find that it is clear enough from the Ruling.

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Fife West

May I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your statement, and raise two or three points with you?

The first arises in regard to Questions information on which is accessible in certain documents to which you referred. Is it not a fact that very many Questions are asked in the House about which information is available in the Monthly Digest of Statistics and other documents? It is true that the information which I eventually got from the Table Office and the Library together could have been got out by myself by going through every Order Paper for the last six months. But if all Questions of this kind are to be ruled out on the ground that the information is available, no matter how much work is involved, the Order Paper will be very considerably curtailed, since many of us put Questions down to which we already know the answers.

Would you appreciate, Mr. Speaker, that your statement today, as I understand it, very much weakens the position of the ordinary back bencher vis-à-vis any Minister? So far as I can gather, any Minister can transfer any Question to any other Minister whatever without any redress for, or question by, the hon. Member originally posing the Question. It is quite clear from your statement that the Prime Minister will go on transferring Questions, completely unquestioned and unchallenged, as has been done during the past three or four months.

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

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the precedents, he will find that they are quite firm about it. As regards Questions, an hon. Member may not ask for information which is all available in the publicly accessible documents; they are available to him, he knows them, they are in HANSARD, and so on.

With regard to the second point, I am not strengthening the position of Ministers against back benchers or of back benchers against Ministers. I am merely trying to discover what the practice is, and on what it is based, and to follow it. As far as I am concerned, the hon. Gentleman can do what he likes to Ministers, apart from Questions. The question is what he can rightly put in a Question. The practice for a very long time now has been that one may not ask questions about transfers of individual Questions.

Photo of Mr William Yates Mr William Yates , The Wrekin

It would appear from your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, as all Questions are the responsibility of the Government, that it would be the best advice to back benchers to direct all their Questions to the Prime Minister, and he would then decide which Questions should be transferred to the various Ministers as he felt inclined. I am just looking at this proposition, because it might be of advantage to back benchers and it might be of advantage to our procedure if such were the practice.

But I would suggest, following your Ruling, Sir, that a step further should be considered by the House: if a Question is in order and is directed to a Minister, it first having been submitted to the Prime Minister, then that Minister must answer and it cannot be transferred a second time. One transfer we could all endure, but a second transfer would seem to put power far too much into the hands of the Executive, and that is what we are here to resist.

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

The hon. Gentleman's suggestion will have been heard, but I cannot, on this Ruling, undertake to advance improvements. That is for a suitable body to consider.

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

Since one of the purposes of Questions is to bring very important matters and the Government's actions and inactions before the public, and since these would not necessarily be revealed by the fact that the information exists in some deep recesses of documents, would it not be a great disadvantage to the purpose of the hon. Member tabling the Question, which is one of the most important elements in democracy, if there were too strict a reading of this Ruling and if it were interpreted as meaning that Questions could not be asked in public about anything which was available in documents?

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

I should not wish it to be any stricter that the practice imposes upon me. I did not invent it.

Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn

I am sorry to return to my earlier point, Mr. Speaker, but I listened very carefully to your statement and could not find anything in it dealing with my point. At the moment, the Prime Minister's behaviour is purely arbitrary. For example, he transferred my Question about a letter from Mr. Melling, but considered my Question about about a resolution sent to him by the Methodist Church Conference. This means that hon. Members are totally in the dark about what the Prime Minister considers comes within his responsibility.

Therefore, to help us in the timing and direction of Questions, could not we invite the Prime Minister to tell the House what, in his view, falls within his administrative responsibility from the point of view of Questions?

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

It is all right to ask the right hon. Gentleman what his practice is in answering Questions. What the hon. Lady is saying appears to come within that principle. That is all right.