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Ministerial Statements

Volume 885: debated on Monday 27 January 1975

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asked the Lord President of the Council if, in the light of recent objections to the practice of arranged Parliamentary Questions, he will now reconsider his attitude to the proposal of the Procedure Committee in the Parliament before last that Ministers should be able to make written statements in the Official Report in cases when an oral statement is inappropriate.

I am not aware of any general dissatisfaction with the long-standing arrangements for Ministers to make written reports to the House in response to Questions. A system of written ministerial statements would have disadvantages for the House as well as advantages. I think that if it is to be pursued we should ask the Procedure Committee to look at it again.

Will the Lord President acknowledge that the Procedure Committee, in the 1970–74 Session of Parliament, looked at this very thoroughly, took evidence on the subject, and recommended that this proposal should be accepted? Does he recognise that there are more and more occasions when Ministers have to make statements but there is no time at 3.30 p.m. for an oral statement? It is unsatisfactory that hon. Members should have to sift through Written Answers trying to distinguish between that information which is being provided because someone has asked for it and that information which is being provided because the Minister feels an obligation to supply it. Since this is merely an extension of the practice we have of distinguishing between oral Questions and oral statements, may I ask how long it will be before the House does the sensible thing and allows Ministers to put these statements where we can readily find them?

I recognise that there is a problem. I recollect the difficulty which arose about this before Christmas. There is also a reluctance on the part of many Members to allow Ministers or hon. Members to write anything into Hansard which is unrelated to Questions. However, I feel that it would be worth while again referring this matter to the Select Committee on Procedure and allowing it to look at the issue.

While the right hon. Gentleman is thinking about this, will he bring his mind to bear on the allied question which will arise concerning Questions, Answers and statements? In the light of the Prime Minister's statement last Thursday and the ending of the doctrine of collective responsibility, how will hon. Members know, when they receive an answer—oral or written—whether it represents the collective view of the Government or the view of the Minister concerned? This is a serious point, in that in many cases decisions of all sorts are taken in the light of answers to parliamentary Questions. How shall we know? Will there be a special mark on the Order Paper, or a special statement with each Question and Answer?

Questions to the Prime Minister are another matter. The doctrine of collective responsibility is completely unimpaired.—[Interruption.] All we are doing is following a precedent of 43 years ago.

Has my right hon. Friend within his Department a medical practitioner who could give attention to the bile duct of the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), in view of the repeated difficulty he appears to have in this House with that organ? Will he accept that the difficulty associated with written statements is not that they are not distinguishable from Written Answers but is to do with the fact that they sometimes appear on the last day of the Session, before we go into recess, and concern important matters?

Fortunately, I am not responsible for the human organs of the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit). As to the second part of my hon. Friend's question, there is always a problem immediately before a recess. The Government have many announcements to make. It is always a matter for question whether they are made in the House orally or by a written statement, or by a statement outside the House. All Governments have experienced this piling up of statements immediately before a recess. It is a difficult problem.

Knowing how willing the right hon. Member is to respond to any suggestions from the Tory side of the House, may I express the hope that he will look at this matter again? There ought to be some way whereby Ministers can distinguish from other information the answers that they are volunteering. For instance, this afternoon a very important statement on housing is being made in the guise of an answer to a Written Question. This is undesirable.

Turning now to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) about Cabinet solidarity, it is difficult to believe that all the answers given by the Secretary of State for Trade command the total agreement of every Member of the Cabinet. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to exercise his ingenuity and consider this.

I have already replied to the latter part of the right hon. Gentleman's question. I realise that there is a problem about statements. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would be the first to complain if we had too many oral statements at the beginning of each day's business. They take up a great deal of time. It is a matter of deciding as best we can. These matters come to me for decision. I must bear responsibility for them. I try to hold the balance between written and oral statements to prevent the business of the House being unduly delayed by oral statements.