Questions to Ministers

– in the House of Commons at 4:03 pm on 28th July 1981.

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Photo of Dr Edmund Marshall Dr Edmund Marshall , Goole 4:03 pm, 28th July 1981

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise to seek your guidance on a situation that has arisen as a result of written answers that I have received to parliamentary questions that I have tabled to the Home Secretary.

On 19 June 1981 I asked whether he will list the 1981 electorates of the proposed new constituencies provisionally recommended by the Boundary Commission for England for the counties of Humberside, Merseyside, North Yorkshire, South Yorkshire and West Yorkshire. The Minister, the hon. and learned Member for Royal Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Mayhew) replied: I am obtaining this information and will publish it in the Official Report as soon as it is available."—[Official Report, 19 June 1981; Vol. 6, c. 471.] At about the same time eight of my hon. Friends tabled similar questions for their respective parts of the country. They all received virtually the same answer from the Minister.

The weeks went by, but still no information appeared. As we were beginning to approach the Summer Recess, I tabled a priority written question last week asking whether the information I had sought would be published in the Official Report. On 23 July, the same Minister gave the following written reply: I shall write to the hon. Member."—[Official Report, 23 July 1981; Vol. 9, c. 202.] As yet, I have received no such letter from the Minister.

My point of order is twofold. First, as the Minister has undertaken to publish the information in the Official Report when it is available, and as it looks increasingly likely that the information will become available during the recess, is there any way in which you, Mr. Speaker, can arrange for a special edition of the Official Report containing all the information sought by my hon. Friends and me to appear during the recess?

Secondly, as on 8 May the Minister had already given a full written answer to the hon. Member for Upminster (Mr. Loveridge), providing the corresponding information for proposed constituencies in Greater London, is there anything that you can do, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that the questions tabled by my hon. Friends and myself receive equally full and helpful replies?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice that he wished to raise that point of order, for that enabled me to look into the matter. Had he not mentioned the possibility of a special issue of the Official Report, I would have sought to dissuade him from raising his point of order, as the content of answers and speculation about the reasons of Ministers are not, never have been and, I hope, never will be the responsibility of the occupant of the Chair. As to his suggestion about special arrangements being made for the publication of the answer he is expecting, I regret that I do not consider that such an innovation would be justified.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am one of those who tabled a question and received a written answer on 29 June, four weeks ago. That means that any Minister can get away with an answer by saying that he will publish the information in the Official Report and, if a recess intervenes, no answer will be available for four months. I know that it is not your responsibility, Mr. Speaker—

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that my ruling made it clear that I am not responsible for the content of Ministers' replies or the way in which they answer.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

I appreciate that you, Mr. Speaker, have no direct responsibility for Ministers' answers to questions, but you have a general overall responsibility for the protection of the rights of Back Benchers. That has always been one of Mr. Speaker's traditional roles. Will you seriously consider this matter again, especially now that a recess is imminent? It is wrong that Ministers should be able to evade answers indefinitely, and that problem would seem to come under the general ambit of your role in the protection of Back Benchers.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I am always conscious of my responsibilities to guard the rights of Back Benchers but, by and large, they are rights within the House. Without committing myself, I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman has said.

Photo of Mr Arthur Lewis Mr Arthur Lewis , Newham North West

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you consider this matter, will you consider your comment when you said that they are "rights within the House"? Mr. Speaker must guard the traditions of the House. That is vastly different from the question asked by my hon. Friend. The problem now ceases to be a matter for my hon. Friends. The Minister has told the House that he will publish the reply in the Official Report. Therefore, Mr. Speaker surely has a right to guard the traditions and rights of the House.

If a Minister wants to be shabby and treat a Back-Bench Member from either side with contempt, if he refuses to give an answer or wishes to be rude, he is entitled to do so. But if he says to the House that he intends to do something, he has made a pledge to the House.

That is where you, Mr. Speaker, have a right to say that, as custodian of the House, and since a Minister has promised to do something, you are in charge and you want to know the reply.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is an experienced Member of the House and I will take seriously what he has said.