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Questions To Ministers (Standing Order No 8)

Volume 654: debated on Tuesday 27 February 1962

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May I raise a point of order? I will make it as short as I can. I wish to refer to Standing Order No. 8, which relates to Questions in the House and how we deal with them. In the 16th Edition of Erskine May, page 355, chapter XVII, there is laid down the way in which Questions will be dealt with in the House and your competence, Mr. Speaker, in the way in which you accept them. It says:

"The Speaker's responsibility in regard to questions is limited to their compliance with the rules of the House. Responsibility in other respects rests with the Member who proposes to ask the question (s)."
When one turns to Standing Order No. 8, one finds the normal rules for putting down Questions for Written or for Oral answer laid down.

On the next page of Erskine May, which deals with Questions by Private Notice, it says that we have to ask you, Sir, whether you will accept the Question. Thereafter you rule whether you will accept the Question or not and the initiative comes from the Member concerned.

However, there has been a practice in the House of Ministers of the Government on their own initiative saying, "With permission, Mr. Speaker," and deciding to answer Question No. 44, 46 or 48 as the Minister so feels inclined. The attention of the House was drawn to the matter by the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) on 28th June, 1951, when he asked:
"On a point of order. If Questions are to be selected which have not been reached in the ordinary course, might not some consideration be given to Question No. 45 …?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th June, 1951: Vol. 489. c. 1578.]
to which he wanted an answer. I think that was a perfectly reasonable request, and I want an answer to Question No. 55.

Order. I do not think I need detain the hon. Member further. The rule has been frequently stated. For the moment, I choose what was said by my predecessor on 7th May, 1951, when an hon. Member in a similar endeavour raised this matter and Mr. Speaker ruled:

"If a Minister wishes to answer a Question because he, and not other people, thinks it is of public importance, then he can ask leave to do so, and I can give my permission; but otherwise it has nothing to do with me at all."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th May, 1951; Vol. 487, c. 1588.]
In regard to Question No. 55, it is an "otherwise".

Further to that point of order, it is clear, then, that the initiative comes from the Executive, that is, from the Government Front Bench, who decide on any question they would like to answer.

What I want to submit is that if you accept Questions by Private Notice and you, Sir, make a decision whether the Question shall or shall not be a Private Notice Question, would you not think it fair to all hon. Members to look at the customs we have had in the past and consider whether it would not be in order in future for hon. Members to put Questions to you which they would like to raise on their own initiative? For then you could decide whether those Questions shall be answered orally by the Minister.

After all, you are here to protect us; we are not here to increase the power of the Executive but to curb it. What I submit to the House is that I do not understand, referring to Eskine May and the Standing Orders, how this Ministerial practice has arisen and what authority there is for this practice to have arisen in the House. Further, is it in order if one wished to have this matter corrected to put down a substantive resolution or to ask the Leader of the House to give it his attention?

If the hon. Member wants to change the practice of the House he is, of course, at liberty to put down a Motion and to invite the assent of the House to his proposition. I regard as part of my duty in the protection of minorities to see that Question Time is not further expanded at the expense of other time on behalf of each hon. Member who thinks that his unreached Question is of particular importance. That is the difficulty, and that, I suspect, is why the practice has arisen.