MINISTERS' ANSWERS AND STATEMENTS (SUPPLEMENTARY QUESTIONS) (Hansard, 27 February 1951)
HC Deb 27 February 1951 vol 484 cc1915-24
Major Guy Lloyd

I should like to ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, with regard to what happened following the statement of the Prime Minister yesterday; after which, as I understand it, a right hon. Member opposite was able to prevent any further discussion on the subject, or any further question, merely by uttering the words that he begged to give notice that he would raise the matter on the Adjourn- ment. He has not done so as I notice up to date. So possibly, Mr. Speaker, though only possibly, the question of good faith might arise.

Apart from that, there is also the question of effectiveness which might arise because, as you, Sir, are well aware, it takes a long time, it is quite a chance in fact, whether one is ever able to raise the matter on the Adjournment. So that on the question of effectiveness it might be possible to close the discussion on a very vital matter arising not out of Questions, but out of a very important Ministerial statement. It might be possible to close any discussion or further question, either by the Leader of the Opposition or anybody else, for quite a long period of time.

I suggest, Sir, that some of us are rather distressed by what may be a wrong interpretation of your Ruling yesterday to the effect that even if it was not a Question, even if a statement had arisen out of an original Question, none the less the mere uttering of this abracadabra, those magic words, "I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment," closes discussion for a long and perhaps indefinite period of time. I should be very grateful if you would tell me if I am correct in assuming that that is so or whether in fact a Ministerial statement can in future not be closed down by the mere uttering of these magic words.

Mr. Speaker

I hope I shall be allowed to answer the question which has been addressed to me. If anybody takes objection to what I say I have no objection to anybody raising the matter, but surely I might be allowed to answer the question first of all.

I have gone into the matter carefully, and I am obliged to the hon. and gallant Member for Renfrew, Eastern (Major Lloyd), for having raised this question. I am quite satisfied that under our customary procedure—there is nothing written—if an hon. Member says he is going to raise the matter on the Adjournment that stops further questions. An example happened today in Question Time, and in my view there is no difference whether it comes from a supplementary question to a statement or a supplementary question in answer to a Question itself. Therefore I am satisfied that so far as the custom of the House is concerned that procedure is correct, and I had no alternative whatsoever but to accept the point of order presented to me.

I admit that it was somewhat unusual, but the circumstances also were somewhat unusual. I quite agree that when a statement is made, Members should have ample opportunity to elucidate various points about which they may have difficulty. But that does not of course mean unlimited questions. That could not be. Therefore I think the matter for the House to consider—I have not fully considered it myself—is, should the rule remain absolutely firm, and therefore, as the hon. and gallant Member put it, be possibly open to abuse? Or, on the other hand, should the responsibility be entirely thrust on the Speaker for accepting or not accepting? Because if he said, "I accept it," then hon. Members who still wanted to ask Questions would feel aggrieved. That would be thrusting a little more responsibility and a heavier burden on the Speaker. I should be glad if hon. Members would consider these points, and, indeed, I should be quite prepared to consider any representations which are made to me.

There is one further point on which I would ask for consideration. I know that hon. Members were anxious to ask questions. It is rather difficult sometimes when we have statements. This practice, which was begun before the last war, has been carried on ever since, and it sometimes develops—as yesterday it developed—with a good deal of heat. After starting off yesterday with a complicated statement which required study and consideration, we had a good deal of heat. It really developed into a kind of disorderly debate. That is not very dignified for Parliament.

Can we do anything about that? That is another consideration I should like to put. Could not we return to what happened once upon a time when these statements were made in the House on a Motion for the Adjournment with an agreement that debate should not go too long? It is very difficult for the Prime Minister or any Minister to be crossexamined—up one moment, down another, with questions being fired at him. It is much better if he is able to make a considered statement. Then points could be put to him in a more considered way. That is what I should like to say to the House, but so far as the procedure yesterday is concerned I stand unrepentant, because I think I had no other option.

Mr. Churchill

As I understand, Sir, you have the power to bring questioning to an end. Why was it necessary for this measure, this step which you thought was right to be taken yesterday, to be left to a Private Member of the House by invoking this doctrine of saying he would raise the matter on the Adjournment? You surely have the power, not only by the rules of order, but by your own personal appeal to the House; by the power of calling other Business, and, if I may say so, by the respect entertained for the Chair, to do it yourself. I do not see why it was necessary that the right hon. Gentleman opposite should have been employed at all.

Mr. Speaker

I quite agree. I suppose I had the power but, if hon. Members remember, I had appealed to them to consider the matter, to read the statement, and perhaps later on we might have debated it. But no notice was taken of this and I confess that I rather jumped at the straw which was handed to me. There are dangers about it which I quite admit. It was my intention in any case to close down Questions, to the indignation, no doubt, of something like 30 or 40 rather heated hon. Members.

Mr. Churchill

On this question I think we are indebted to you, Sir, for having given us a Ruling on whether there is any difference between the Adjournment operating on supplementary questions put as the result of a Question or put as the result of a statement. Your Ruling is that it makes no difference.

Mr. Churchill

I am very much obliged to you, Sir. It would have been very awkward if it did, because obviously the Opposition would never facilitate Government business by asking Questions. It would have been a very great pity if that had occurred. But I suppose on the present Ruling that you have given the Government can, on any day, make a statement at any length, on any subject, however controversial, however unexpected, and immediately afterwards an hon. Member from behind them can, with perfect Parliamentary deportment, say, "In view of the grave importance of this statement to which we have all listened with so much pleasure, I beg to give notice that I will raise it on the Adjournment, whether I ever get an Adjournment or not."

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I gather, Mr. Speaker, that you have invited some expression of opinion about this matter. I should like to say as Leader of the House, and speaking, I hope, for my right hon. Friends, that I think our view would be that it is best for Mr. Speaker to exercise a wise discretion as to when he thinks a sufficient number of questions have been put in relation to the subject. I think that that is better than other devices being brought into play. But, of course, the questions did go on for a long time yesterday. I should prefer myself that Mr. Speaker should continue to exercise his undoubted right of discretion and, that when he thinks there has been enough, he should bring the questions to an end.

Mr. Speaker

That raises the two questions which I put. Should I automatically accept notice that an hon. Member will raise the matter on the Adjournment, or should I use my own discretion to accept or not accept? Those are the two points. It is only fair to say that I got notice of this matter only this morning. I should like to have all these questions looked up and then I should like to have time to consider the matter. I am perfectly willing—if it is now made clear—to use my own discretion. If an hon. Member thinks that he wants to stop a lot of supplementary questions, I shall accept that notice or I shall not, and I shall stop the business as and when I think the dignity of the House demands.

Mr. Eden

You have asked us to consider this matter, Mr. Speaker, and I am sure that the whole House wishes to consider what you have said. One point of substance arises which has not yet been touched upon. In the ordinary course, when an hon. Member gets up to say that he would like to raise a matter on the Adjournment, that normally happens as a result of a Question and the hon. Member who gives that notice is the one who has asked the original Question. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes. I am telling hon. Members, who perhaps have not been here quite so long, that that has been the position in this House for a great many years. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It is the normal practice. I stand to be corrected. All I am saying is that that should be considered because, of course, that in itself is a safeguard against, shall we say, any hon. Member attempting to stop the discussion merely because he does not like the questions which are being asked.

Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison

I understood you to say, Mr. Speaker, that you wish to consider the matter. For the guidance of the House, might we know what the position would be if a further statement were to be made on the same subject tomorrow, for example?

Mr. Speaker

That is a hypothetical question.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Attlee)

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) is quite correct in saying that in former days it was always the hon. Member who had asked the original question who said that he would raise the matter on the Adjournment. But I have noticed of late years that, quite often, someone comes in and hunts someone else's hare. I think we might have a Ruling on that.

Mr. Speaker

I should be very glad to give a Ruling. I noticed what the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden) said, and I knew that he was not quite accurate. As the Prime Minister said, I have known other hon. Members to come in and jump the claim. I should be quite prepared to rule that, as far as Questions are concerned, the notice must be given by the Member who asked the original question.

Several Hon. Members

rose

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Churchill.

Mr. Mitchison

On a point of order. Should I be in order—

Mr. Speaker

We are still on the first point of order, and I have called the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill).

Mr. Churchill

I am only anxious, in order to clear up the matter as much as possible, to know whether you, as Speaker, have a right to be a judge of a statement by an hon. Member that he will raise a matter on the Adjournment and to accord it or to deny its validity, as you do in regard to terminating Questions and so forth. I should only like to know what your decision is upon that.

Mr. Speaker

I should like to have time to consider that. I gave an ad hoc Ruling about hon. Members who asked a Question. I think that was simple; but I think that I might have time to consider further matters.

Mr. Mitchison

On a point of order. Should I be in order now if I were to move that, in view of the very satisfactory nature of your replies, this matter be considered on the Adjournment?

Mr. Speaker

I do not quite know what I should rule. I think I can rule that I will not accept that Motion.

Sir Herbert Williams

May I bring the matter back to the fundamental practice of the House? None of us has a right of audience in this House unless either we are asking a question or answering one or speaking on a Motion. The new practice which has grown up of making statements is quite contrary to the rules of debate. No Minister ought to be permitted to make a statement unless, first of all, he moves the Adjournment of the House. You said that yesterday there was a disorderly debate. It was a disorderly debate in the sense that many who took part made statements, used arguments and did not ask questions. I think that this practice will only be brought to an end if we return to the fundamental rule that we have no audience in debate except on a Motion.

Mr. Henry Strauss

May I ask your guidance, Mr. Speaker, on one point regarding the custom of the House? Am I right in assuming that an hon. Member should only give notice that he will raise a matter on the Adjournment if that is, in fact, his intention, and that it would be improper for him to give notice unless he proposed to take immediate steps to endeavour to raise the matter at an early date?

Mr. Speaker

I would not accept that. I cannot tell what the intention of an hon. Member may be. To tell the honest truth, I shall be quite frank with the House and say that it is often a very great help to me, because one knows what supplementaries are, and sometimes someone keeps raising a hare which has nothing to do with the original question. Then a sensible hon. Member gets up and says, "I will raise this matter on the Adjournment," and I am very grateful to him.

Mr. Strauss

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I was not seeking to put any additional burden on you, Mr. Speaker. I was only asking, for the guidance of hon. Members themselves, whether I was right in assuming that no hon. Member ought to make that statement unless he had that intention.

Mr. Poole

On that point, Mr. Speaker, may I respectfully suggest that you have no means of ascertaining whether the hon. Member does intend to raise the matter on the Adjournment, because the mere signing of the book in your office does not mean that an hon. Member intends to raise it. He might seize any opportunity when the House terminates its ordinary business earlier than usual. It would be beyond your power to discern what an hon. Member's intentions were.

Mr. John Foster

May I put one consideration, Sir, which I ask you to take into account when you are studying this matter? As I understand it, the rule which has grown up in the House and which, as you stated, is not written down, depends on the rule of anticipation. The rule of anticipation is that, when the supplementary questions are going on, if an hon. Member says that he wishes to raise the matter on the Adjournment, the custom has grown up for the Chair to rule that the matter which is to be raised on the Adjournment would be anticipated by further supplementary questions. The principle underlying the rule about anticipation is that the further debate which is being anticipated will prove a more effective means of debating the question. Therefore, the rule has grown up that supplementary questions will anticipate the more effective debate raised on the Adjournment.

The point I want to make for your consideration is whether the fact that nowadays the Adjournment is balloted for means that it is not an effective means of discussing the matter. Therefore, supplementary questions do not anticipate this as the least effective means of discussing the matter. My suggestion is that this would reconcile the views of the Leader of the House and of all those who thought that the mere use by an hon. Member of the words "I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Motion for the Adjournment," is not sufficient to stop further questions and answers. It would leave the matter in your discretion, Sir, because, if you thought that the matter could be more effectively raised on the Motion for the Adjournment, you would they say that the supplementary questions were anticipating the final Adjournment Motion. May I also call your attention to Standing Order No. 9, which says that it is in your discretion, Mr. Speaker, to decide whether the rule of anticipation shall be applied by stating that the matter being anticipated could be effectively discussed at the time when it is to be discussed.

Mr. Speaker

I am not really prepared to go as far as the hon. and learned Member for Northwich (Mr. Foster) indicates. There has been a custom, which we have had for a long time, and, from even the questioner's point of view, I think it is very often rather convenient for shutting out further supplementary questions and enabling other hon. Members to proceed with their questions. Actually, it is based on the rule of anticipation, and I quite admit that it would have been right to use it yesterday, perhaps more than on any other day, because the whole subject was governed by a Motion which. I gather, is coming before the House on Thursday week.

Lieut.-Colonel Lipton

In the further consideration which you have been good enough to promise, Mr. Speaker, in connection with the right of hon. Members to raise matters on the Motion for the Adjournment would you please bear in mind that the present system provides that hon. Members shall ballot for the Adjournment Motion. In those circumstances, it is possible for hon. Members who will not raise a matter at all in the House to ballot for the Adjournment Motion on exactly the same basis as hon. Members who have given notice in this House of their intention to raise a matter on the Motion for the Adjournment. Will you please, therefore, consider the desirability of giving some priority to those hon. Members who state their intention to raise a matter—

Hon. Members

No.

Several Hon. Members

rose

Mr. Speaker

If I might say so to the House, we have only a limited time today, for we cannot suspend the Rule. We have taken nearly half an hour already on an interesting point, but one which I should like, if I may, to have the opportunity of considering in all its implications. I think we might now get on with the business.

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