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Adjournment Debates (Mr Speaker's Ruling)

Volume 465: debated on Tuesday 24 May 1949

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I should be grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you could clarify for the House the rule concerning the conduct of Adjournment Debates. On 24th February, as reported at column 2036 of the OFFICIAL REPORT, you stated that you felt that when a particular subject was under discussion it was a great pity to go away from it, but that officially anybody could talk about anything he liked on the half-hour Adjournment provided that it did not involve legislation. On Friday, 20th May, a Ruling was given that the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes):

"… must relate his remarks to Government or Ministerial responsibility."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th May, 1949; Vol 465, c. 843.]
It was also stated that only matters for which the Minister of Labour was directly responsible could be raised in that Debate. This Ruling confined the Debate very narrowly indeed, and it was clear that there was considerable misunderstanding of the position in all quarters of the House. I feel that some clarification is required as to whether matters for which there is no Minister responsible can or cannot be raised on the half-hour Adjournment.

The reference which the hon. Member makes to what I said is, of course, rather out of its background, because there I was objecting to an Adjournment Debate being initiated when a Minister was not present in order that one might be initiated for which a Minister was present. Therefore, Ministerial responsibility had very much to do with that point. As regards what was ruled by Mr. Deputy-Speaker on Friday, he was perfectly correct in what he said. That has my full approval. Perhaps now I might clarify the situation by giving this Ruling.

The rule against debating matters on the Adjournment which involved no Ministerial responsibility is a particular application of the general rule of relevancy which is fundamental to our proceedings. The old practice of the House still remains that on substantive Motions there is practically no limit to the subjects which can be debated—on substantive Motions. But Debate on the Adjournment is governed by two rules that bar the discussion of matters involving legislation and matters for which no Minister is responsible.

The considerable increase in recent years of Debates on the Adjournment has naturally produced a number of instances where decisions on this subject have had to be given by the Chair. These have been consistent in maintaining the rule, though considerable latitude has been exercised on occasions in the past. But where discretion has been so exercised a tendency to irregular Debate has developed. Such a course if followed frequently tends to impair the value of Adjournment Debates in raising grievances for remedy by administrative action.

On 31st January, 1940, Mr. Speaker FitzRoy said:
"There is a very sound rule in this House that questions for which the Government have no responsibility cannot be raised on the Adjournment, and I think the House will realise that once we depart from this rule, it might lead to dangerous courses."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 31st January, 1940; Vol. 356, c. 1228.]
In the next two columns he further clarified the point. Similar Rulings were given on 28th April, 1944, at columns 1161 and 1166, and on 14th October, 1946, at column 752. On 10th December, 1946, at columns 991–2, I gave another Ruling to the same effect, which I had prepared after giving careful consideration to the matter.

Thank you very much, Sir, for giving that Ruling and clarifying the position. I think you will appreciate that that Ruling limits very narrowly indeed the number of occasions when subjects for which no Minister is responsible can be raised in this House. I do not know whether at some future occasion it would be possible to suggest how those occasions might be increased. On Friday the Minister of Labour did in fact accept responsibility at an early stage in the Debate for the subject which was being raised. I wonder whether it would be possible on those occasions which are marginal cases where there is a dispute, that guidance could be given by the Chair after having ascertained in advance exactly what the scope of the Debate is. In those circumstances, I think it would help the House.

Last Friday's Adjournment Debate arose from a Question which I asked the Minister of Labour on 3rd May about whether he would come to a general agreement with firms on a particular matter. The Minister replied on that occasion:

No, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 802.]
That is, he would not take steps to come to a general agreement. That was interpreted by the Chair last Friday as meaning that the Minister had no responsibility. I think on consideration, Sir, you will realise the difference between a statement by a Minister that he is not taking, or does not intend to take, certain action, and a Ministerial disclaimer of responsibility. I trust that the former will not rule out further discussion on the question.

It is very difficult for the Chair to know what a Minister is going to say. Very often it would be a great help if the Minister would get up and say exactly where his responsibility lay. I do not think that it is possible for the Chair to give a Ruling in advance. He must let the subject come before the House and then, if it is out of Order, it is very difficult not to say that it is out of Order. I am bound to say that the occupant of the Chair last Friday obeyed the rule very well indeed.

I agree entirely with what you have been saying, Mr. Speaker, as far as we can follow this rather difficult discussion. On the other hand, if a Minister takes responsibility by answering a Question then clearly that responsibility cannot later be divorced, can it?

The answer to the Question was that the Minister would take no action. I do not think that he admitted any responsibility.

Once a Minister answers a Question saying that he does not propose to do a certain thing, even if it is an answer showing inaction, he takes responsibility by having answered the Question.

No; I would not accept that as a definite rule. I do not think that by answering a Question saying "No," one is accepting responsibility.

Will you consider the point a little further, Sir? I think this raises a question of some importance. A Minister can say that he has no responsibility and, therefore, he declines to answer a Question. If he answers a Question saying, "I propose to take no action on the matter," I suggest that by his reply he is taking responsibility.

I should like to know exactly what the wording of the Question was before deciding on that, I confess that I do not carry them all in my head.

May I submit the wording of the Question to you, Mr. Speaker? On 3rd May, I asked the Minister of Labour—

"before making the facilities afforded by his Department available to commercial firms, he will come to a general agreement with them that no political tests shall be imposed on employees supplied by him."
The Minister's answer was:
"No, Sir."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd May, 1949; Vol. 464, c. 802.]
May I submit that that answer was not a disclaimer of responsibility, but purely and simply a statement that he did not propose to come to an agreement with these firms. In these circumstances, I submit that further discussion should not be ruled out of Order.

Reverting to what was said by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Eden), is it not a fact that, if a Question gets past the Table, it has in fact been accepted as one for which a Minister is responsible, because I have had numerous occasions when Questions have been turned down on the ground that the Minister refused responsibility? If the Question is accepted and answered, and there is no positive disclaimer of responsibility, should we not then be allowed to raise the question on the Adjournment?

Very often, a Question put down is allowed by the Table as a sort of scout in order to find out what the answer will be, and if the answer is in the negative—that the Minister is not responsible—we do not allow any more. Very often, a Question gets through merely for finding out whether a Minister is responsible or not.

Are we to understand from your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, that whenever a Minister chooses to say "No, Sir," as he very often does, automatically he disclaims responsibility? Surely, that is most unsatisfactory? The majority of my Questions get "No, Sir" for an answer.

Sometimes we have to be very firm with Ministers; sometimes they are quite prepared to answer Question and we have to say to them, "You have no responsibility, and you ought not to answer it." We must stick to the Rules of the House.

Does it not follow from your last answer, Mr. Speaker, that a Minister's disclaimer of responsibility is not conclusive, but merely evidence against the view that he is responsible, and that it is by no means conclusive that he has no responsibility?

Yes, I think I agree with that, but the responsibility itself must remain with the Chair as to whether there is Ministerial responsibility or not.

While I appreciate what you have said about the difficulty that arises in Adjournment Debates, Mr. Speaker, when it is decided by the Chair that the scope is strictly limited, am I not right in saying that precisely the same limitation applies to the Minister who replies as to the hon. Members who take part in the previous Debate?

Yes, that is perfectly true, but I cannot say that it is always observed.

You have in the past ruled on a number of occasions, Mr. Speaker, that the rules governing the Motion for the Adjournment are considerably wider in their scope than the rules governing Question time. This is particularly the case in regard to the difficult and important problem of Questions to Ministers about the conduct of nationalised industries. Can we take it that your Ruling today does not mean that the rules governing the Adjournment are being, as it were, tightened up and assimilated precisely with the rules governing Question time?

It has always been the case that the conduct of nationalised industries could be discussed on the Adjournment, and that is not interfered with in the slightest degree.

While it is perfectly clear that the Minister of Labour has no responsibility at all in respect of a Question concerning a particular contract of employment between particular employees and employers, is it not true that his powers of conciliation in industry, his responsibility for it and his control of unemployment benefit and of employment exchanges make him answerable in this House for any question which involves the general principle of employment, such as was involved here?

This was a particularly difficult case, and I thought it had been handled very well by the occupant of the Chair, if I may say so. In such a difficult case, would it not have been of some assistance to the Chair and the House if, right at the beginning, the Minister had stated whether and how far there was any responsibility? That is always a great help to the Chair in these matters.

As you have ruled, Mr. Speaker, that the Chair has an overriding responsibility in regard to whether the Minister is answerable or not on a particular subject, in this case, the Chair presumably had already decided that the Minister was responsible when the Question was accepted, and, that having been the case, could we be told why the Chair changed its mind in the interval before the Adjournment?

I never said that the Chair had decided that the Minister was responsible. We allow Questions in order to find out what the answer will be, and the answer in this case, was "No, Sir."

While it is clear that the House cannot debate any question unless there is Ministerial responsibility for it, the difficulty seems to arise if the Minister answers the Question in the negative and merely says "No, Sir." That might have two meanings; one, that the Minister accepts responsibility but does not propose to take any action in the particular case, or, two, that he does not accept responsibility. How is the House to know whether he accepts responsibility or does not accept it, and how are we to know whether we may debate the matter or not?

That was exactly my difficulty and the difficulty of the Chair, but, judging by the case, I came to the conclusion that there was no Ministerial responsibility in the matter.

In fairness to the Minister of Labour, it should be pointed out that early in the Debate, in the middle of the speech of the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. H. D. Hughes), the right hon. Gentleman did answer a point of Order raised by me, and said that the Minister of Labour certainly had a responsibility, and he went on to define it. I think that was of some assistance, but there was a good deal of misunderstanding, which I think we must recognise.

I do not think we should pursue this discussion further. I think we have clarified the position somewhat; at least, I hope we have.