Northern Ireland (Questions)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 14th July 1970.

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Photo of Mr Arthur Latham Mr Arthur Latham , Paddington North 12:00 am, 14th July 1970

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to seek your guidance and to draw the attention of the House to a difficulty I am encountering and which I believe will be of concern to many hon. Members and should be of concern to the House as a whole. As I understand it, if a British subject is in a foreign prison it is admissible to table Questions to the Foreign Secretary. If a British subject is in a prison in the United Kingdom it is admissible to submit questions to the Home Secretary. What I am finding is that in the case of a British subject imprisoned in a gaol in Northern Ireland it is not admissible to submit Questions to Ministers in this House because there is a denial of Ministerial responsibility.

May I draw your attention to the fact that I have made two attempts to take direct action, as it were, by attempting to contact the Governor of Armagh Gaol? Yesterday morning he was not there; yesterday afternoon he could not be found, and today he is off duty. It does seem that it is quite wrong that this House should be unable to inquire about the circumstances and well-being of one of its Members. I am seeking your guidance as to what remedy there is open to us to try to redress this anachronistic, anomalous, ludicrous and unsatisfactory situation.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I am obliged to the hon. Member for letting me know that he was to raise this matter. I cannot comment on the ubiquity or lack of ubiquity on the part of the Governor of Armagh Prison, but there is little comment I can make on the substance of the submission the hon. Member had made beyond expressing broad agreement with his interpretation of the facts.

Northern Ireland is neither an independent foreign country nor a colony, and many aspects of its administration have been removed by the will of Parliament from the direct control of the United Kingdom Government. This situation is inevitably reflected in the rules governing Questions. I believe, however, I ought at this point to make clear to the House, to the hon. Member and to new hon. Members that it does not accord with our custom or convention that the refusal of Questions should be raised in the House as a point of order. If a Member believes his Question has been unreasonably rejected by the Table Office he can always require an appeal to be made to me. Such appeals are not inevitably doomed to failure. [Laughter.]

If, however, an appeal is unsuccessful I am always ready to discuss the matter with the hon. Member who, if still dissatisfied, then has two courses open to him. On the one hand, if he disagrees with the Chair's interpretation of the rules he has the conventional remedy of a Motion of censure upon Mr. Speaker. If, on the other hand, he believes the rule is bad and ought to be changed, he can put down a Motion requesting that such a change be made. The mere raising of a point of order, however, confers no power on the Chair and no alteration of the accepted procedures of the House can flow from it. I hope that that helps the hon. Member.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

Further to that point of order. Of course, Her Majesty's Government are not responsible for what happens to a prisoner in a foreign gaol, but we can none the less put Questions to the Foreign Secretary asking him to make inquiries or to make representations on our behalf. Is not our link with Northern Ireland in those respects for which Her Majesty's Government are not directly responsible the Home Secretary? In the same way, can we not put Questions to the Home Secretary asking him to make inquiries and to make representations in matters in which he is not directly responsible on which, like the Foreign Secretary, he has grounds of access to that Government?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

The hon. and learned Member has put a little more deeply the point put by his hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Latham). The uniqueness of Northern Ireland is the fact that we have handed over the administration of law in Northern Ireland and many other functions of government in Northern Ireland to Northern Ireland.

Photo of Mr Kevin McNamara Mr Kevin McNamara , Kingston upon Hull North

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I agree with your observations with regard to the uniqueness of the Northern Ireland situation, but, with great respect, I should have thought that events arising from last August had satisfactorily shattered the convention that had existed in this House over the responsibility of this House and the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on questions concerning Northern Ireland. In this particular case, is it not the fact that the British Government, through General Freeland, have responsibility for internal security in Northern Ireland? Therefore, the noble Lord in another place, the Minister of Defence, is responsible for security there and any question on the treatment of inmates of Armagh Prison is undoubtedly a question of tremendous security importance. Therefore, would it not be in order to put down Questions to the Minister of Defence, or his representative in this House, concerning prisoners in Armagh Gaol?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I have ruled and I have been asked for my advice. My advice is that this can be pursued in one of two ways, either by a vote challenging the Ruling of Mr. Speaker and his interpretation of the rule about questioning, or a Parliamentary Motion seeking to change the rule which some hon. Members find at the moment very onerous.

Photo of Mr Stan Orme Mr Stan Orme , Salford West

Further to that point of order. You stated, Mr. Speaker, that certain powers have been handed over to the Northern Ireland Parliament, but surely you will recall that Section 75 of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act gives this Parliament sovereign power over the whole of the United Kingdom including Northern Ireland. Surely in those circumstances and at the same time when 12 hon. Members are being sent from Northern Ireland to sit in this Parliament there is a right of this Parliament to question any aspect of what happens in any part of the United Kingdom. I should think this a basic right which we are given safeguarded under the 1920 Act.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. Every hon. Member knows the clause at the end of the 1920 Act, but this does not affect my Ruling.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

Mr. Speaker, your Ruling is of immense importance if we are to have devolution in Scotland, Wales and, possibly, in England as well as the present devolution in Northern Ireland. May I offer you the analogy of the United States where, even in a federal State, it is not the case that Congress is precluded from investigating anything. Congress may investigate matters even when they are in the province of the State. So could this House through a Select Committee. It seems clear that what this House could do through a Select Committee it ought to be able to do in the form of a Question to a Minister.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

I am not responsible for Mr. Speaker McCormack and the Government in Washington, but the Ruling I have given is clear. One has Parliamentary ways of examining it, and there is indeed a Motion on the Order Paper examining the whole issue.

Photo of Mr Alex Lyon Mr Alex Lyon , City of York

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you reconsider the answer you gave to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), which seemed in some respects to go rather further than some of the Rulings which previous Speakers have made on this issue? Surely it is the case that the Home Secretary does have a departmental responsibility to make representations about the conditions of affairs in Northern Ireland to the Northern Irish Government. In that respect, therefore, he can be questioned either as to the representations he has made or to ask him to make further representations. In that respect, therefore, he should be asked a question along these lines about conditions in Armagh Prison.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Barking

Despite the existence and responsibility of the subordinate Parliament and Government at Stormont, of which you have reminded us, Mr. Speaker, is it not the case that Her Majesty's Government have reassumed responsibility for law and order in Ulster? Does not that mean that the case of the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) is part of a whole area of responsibility with which Her Majesty's Government here are now concerned?

Can I further ask you, Mr. Speaker, for guidance? There are a number of matters —for instance, the day-to-day administration of the nationalised industries—on which Ministers are not responsible to the House at Question Time but which an hon. Member can raise in debate. Would it be in order to raise this matter in an Adjournment debate?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

It would be in order to raise this matter on the Motion which is on the Order Paper, which includes this and a whole series of kindred matters in what is a unique and historic occasion.

Photo of Mr Reginald Paget Mr Reginald Paget , Northampton

May I ask you once again, Mr. Speaker, if you will reconsider and give us your Ruling on this narrow point. In many cases we have devolved our whole responsibility, as with the Colonies which have become independent. If one of our citizens is imprisoned there we may then, through our Foreign Secretary, make representations, and we may put Questions to the Foreign Secretary asking him to do so.

In Northern Ireland the position is that we have not devolved all; we have devolved part. As to that which we have not devolved, we can put Questions to the Ministers who are responsible. As to that which we have devolved—this includes prison administration—we cannot put a Question to a Minister who has responsibility, because no Minister is responsible for prison administration. However, precisely because no Minister is responsible we can put a Question asking that representations or inquiries be made in exactly the same way as we do so in any prison outside Ulster anywhere in the world where we are not responsible. I ask you to reconsider this narrow point. Mr. Speaker.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

The hon. and learned Gentleman is merely putting again what has already been put very clearly—the difference in the position of Northern Ireland from Colonies, on the one hand, and foreign countries, on the other. I must abide by my Ruling.

Photo of Mr Eric Ogden Mr Eric Ogden , Liverpool, West Derby

Is it not rather sad, Mr. Speaker, that matters of this kind have to be raised as narrow points of order when everyone in the House, including, I hope, the Prime Minister, knows that the point we are getting at is that it would be a good thing if the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) who is at present in Armagh Gaol were released as an act of mercy and clemency? This would be a good thing for progress in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

That is not a point of order for me.

Photo of Mr Ernest Fernyhough Mr Ernest Fernyhough , Jarrow

Everyone in the House knows that when we pass the Estimates we vote a subsidy to the Northern Ireland Government. On which of the Estimates in the Consolidated Fund Bill, which we shall deal with next Monday, would it be in order to raise a discussion on that part of the subsidy which goes towards keeping closed or open gaols in Ulster?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

The hon. Gentleman must examine the Estimates himself. I cannot help him in that way.