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Ministerial Statements In The Two Houses—Suggested Telephonic Communication

Volume 91: debated on Friday 22 March 1901

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I beg to ask the First Commissioner of Works whether he will arrange for telephonic communication between the Government Benches in the Houses of Lords and Commons, to facilitate Ministers in answering questions about which it may be necessary they should in emergencies consult, with the object of having the same information supplied to both Houses of Parliament.

Cannot the right hon. Gentleman devise some means of communication so that we may have the information this House is entitled to?

[No answer was returned.]

I beg to ask the First Lord of the Treasury whether, seeing that an import ant statement was made yesterday at half-past four in the House of Lords, of which nothing was known by Ministers in this House at twenty minutes to six, he can arrange in future to afford this House the same information as is given in another place.

The Government are always anxious that this House should be at no disadvantage in comparison with the other House with regard to information. But the hon. Gentleman has put his question under some misconception as to what really took place yesterday. The language of the question almost indicates that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had volunteered a statement in the other House, and that no corresponding statement was volunteered here; in other words, that the Government took the initiative in the House of Lords. I agree that it would be most improper for the Government to volunteer to the House of Lords a more or less elaborate statement on a question of foreign policy while no parallel course was taken in this House. But that is not what happened-What happened was that when Lord Lansdowne reached the House of Lords at half-past four o'clock yesterday, private notice of a question was given by Lord Spencer. That question was answered by Lord Lansdowne at a time when, usually, this House has completed the business of the day as far as questions and answers are concerned. It is to be regretted, no doubt, that such an instance should occur; but so long as you leave to each House the privilege of putting questions without previous notice, some accident of this kind is almost certain to occur. On the whole, I should say that it is not this House so much as the other House which has suffered most by the system. It has constantly happened that the Secretary of State for War or for the Colonies has been met on coming here with private notice of a question which he was prepared to answer, and which he has answered, without having the opportunity of communicating with his colleagues in the other House. That is what occurred yesterday, and, unless you are never to answer a question without notice, I do not see how such an accident can be avoided. I can give the House a positive assurance that we shall do our very best to see that all information of public interest which is conveyed to the other House shall at the same time be conveyed to this House.

May I ask why, if Lord Lans-downe was prepared with the answer in the other House, the right hon. Gentleman was not prepared with an answer in this House?

LordLansdowne was asked when he came down whether he could answer the question. I was never given any notice of the putting of the Question at all.

Does the right hon. Gentleman say that Lord Spencer had not previously given notice of the question?

No. Sir, it was private notice. I had had no notice at all, or I should have done my best to give the House information.

My question was why, if Lord Lansdowne was prepared with an answer in the other House, the noble Lord was not prepared with similar information for this House.

That seems to be a most unreasonable question. It is impossible to expect anyone but the head of a Department to have, in the form which can at once be given to the public, the latest information on every matter. No doubt there was present to the mind of the Under Secretary the telegram on which Lord Lansdowne based his answer; but if my noble friend had received notice of the question he would have had to consult Lord Lansdowne as to the form of the answer.

The right hon. Gentleman does not appreciate the point of the complaint. The statement of the Foreign Secretary was made at half-past four in the House of Lords, and what I wanted to suggest was that when a statement of that kind has been made in the House of Lords the Foreign Secretary should see that the information is conveyed to the House of Commons.

Yes, Sir, I think it would be a very good plan if, when any statement has been made in one House, communication of the fact should be made to the other House. But according to all practice and precedent the Foreign Secretary had every reason to think that we in this House had long passed the stage when it is possible to deal with such a matter by way of question and answer.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Under Secretary had received private notice of the question from the hon. Member for West Waterford some hours before?

The hon. Member is mistaken. Private notice of a question was sent to my noble friend. That question was not in my noble friend's Department, but in that of the Secretary of State for India, and he answered it.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that for the future the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs will put his representative in this House at once in possession of the important information which may come to him, so that that information may be conveyed simultaneously to both Houses?

[No answer was returned.]