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Questions To Ministers

Volume 122: debated on Tuesday 2 December 1919

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asked the Lord Privy Seal whether his attention has been called to the fact that, notwithstanding the recent limitation to four of the number of questions for oral answer which may be asked by any one hon. Member on the same day, the questions put down for oral answer are generally greatly in excess of any number that can be so replied to; and whether, in order to give equal opportunity to all Members of obtaining oral answers to their questions, steps will be taken, either to further limit the number of such questions put down for any one day, or to limit the number of days per week for which any one Member may put down questions for oral reply?

I think it might be desirable that each Member should be limited to two questions each day, but this is a matter for the House to decide.

The House will remember that Mr. Speaker, after assuring himself that his action had the approval of the House, limited the number to 4, and I suggest that my hon. Friend might, with advantage, ask Mr. Speaker, after questions, whether he would be prepared in the same way to still further limit the number.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that although many Members may have the maximum of four questions down on one day it may only be on one day a week? Will he consider the fact that the number has already been reduced from eight to four, and make that the average for the week rather than for one day?

As I have said, this is really a question for the House, and it is the general wish that has to be taken into account rather than the view of individual Members. Perhaps if my hon. Friend will put the question I suggested to Mr. Speaker it may be possible to ascertain what the view of the House is.

Will the House have an opportunity of expressing its views before any change is made, seeing that there are many hon. Members who would resist most strongly a further reduction of the number?

I cannot add anything to what I have said. On the last occasion a change was made by Mr. Speaker when he had satisfied himself it was the general view of the House. I suggest a question can be put to him and he will be able to judge what the wish of the House is.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman remember that Mr. Speaker specifically asked at the beginning of this Session that questions should not be put down referring to individual cases? Will he do what he can to influence the House as far as possible to act upon that suggestion?

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will have regard to the fact that a number of hon. Members put down questions and do not take the trouble to ask them, but get them put by a deputy, thereby preventing questions in the name of hon. Members on the Paper who may be present from being reached. Will he see that Members who put down questions are here to ask them?

Has the right hon. Gentleman considered the alternative method contained in the question, as to a limitation in the number of days per week on which any one Member may put questions down for oral reply?

As regards the last question, I do not think it would be found practicable to work it. As regards the suggestion of the hon. Member (Mr. Rose), it seems to be an eminently reasonable proposal, but I cannot hold any hope that anything I might say would influence hon. Members in that direction. In reply to the hon. Member (Mr. Billing), it would appear to be obvious that questions on the Paper should be put by hon. Members in whose names they stand.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an opportunity of declaring its opinion whether an additional fifteen minutes should be allowed for questions? Is he not aware that perhaps ques- tions are the most important business of this House, and that even more useful and more important are the supplemental questions? Can he therefore give the House an opportunity of discussing this matter in its entirety, so that its will may be declared on a matter which is essentially one for the House itself?

I agree with most of what the hon. Member has said, but I do not see any easy method of having such a discussion as the hon. Gentleman suggests. It would be difficult to give a day, and we have no time before the Recess. With regard to the suggestion that a further quarter of an hour should be allowed, the Government have no objection to that if it is the wish of the House. I would suggest the hon. Member should himself get Memorial signed. If it were signed by half the Members of the House, that would settle the question.

Is the right hon. Gentleman not aware that I am not the proper person to do that? I am only one amongst many.

I am not in the least aware of that. The hon. Member, I think, is one of the, most competent Members.

Will the right hon. Gentleman put down a Motion to amend Standing Orders, and leave it to a free vote of the House?

May I call your attention, Sir, to the matter as to which the Leader of the House said that I should ask your guidance, and that is as to whether there should be a further limitation of the number of questions which might be addressed any afternoon orally by a Member?

Before you give an answer, Sir, may I draw your attention to the fact that to-day there were ninety-seven questions on the Paper actually got through. In view of the fact that private Members have so few opportunities of questioning the Government, I would ask before you give your ruling to give the House an opportunity, to which the Leader of the House already alluded, of deciding whether a, better solution of this matter would not be an extension of the time for questions?

If as I understand you are bound to take the sense of the House on this very important matter, may I very respectfully put it that it would be as well to postpone this until all Members of the House have an opportunity of knowing what is the question that will be decided?

The question put by the hon. and gallant Gentleman shows the impossibility of my taking the sense of the House now. It is quite clear that, although possibly a majority may be in favour of limiting the number of questions, a considerable minority would be opposed to it. I cannot possibly undertake to decide the matter. It must be a question for the decision of the House. It might be better to go on for the rest of this Session with the arrangements we have got now, and at the commencement of the new Session, when we generally overhaul our procedure to some extent, we might then consider the question whether it would be desirable to limit the number of questions which any Member can ask on any one day. There is also the possibility of extending the time allowed for questions. In that connection I would remind the House that in 1916, by Resolution of the House, the period was extended from a quarter to four to four o'clock for that Session. That is one solution of the difficulty, but I very respectfully must decline to pronounce ex cathedrĂ¢ any decision. On a former occasion the House almost unanimously were favourable to a reduction, and there was no difficulty in introducing the change.

Might I suggest that a large number of questions on the Paper, which relate to individual eases, might quite reasonably be put down as unstarred questions, and if the Member regarded the answer to the unstarred question as unsatisfactory he could have it repeated as a starred question?

May I ask, Sir, whether you would be prepared to consider the suggestion that any Member who puts a question down, must be present to ask that question himself? In the case of personal matters, would it not be better that the general practice should be to write to the party concerned when the answer would be much more full and will thus avoid wasting public money by putting the question down on the Paper?

That, again, I think, is a matter which I must leave to hon. Members who know what motives actuate them in asking questions.