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Questions To Ministers

Volume 885: debated on Wednesday 29 January 1975

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On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise a point about Questions to the Foreign Office? Today we have reached Question No. 11 plus one or two Questions that were taken with them. We have had about five Questions on the EEC. On Wednesday there are only three Departments up for questioning—the Scottish Office, the Department of the Environment and the Foreign Office. On every other day there are at least four Departments. Could we not have four Departments on a Wednesday—Scotland, Environment, straight Foreign Office Questions and, as we are running up to the referendum, Common Market Questions?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to raise a somewhat different matter but one which is related to today's Question Time. I wish to refer to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who should appear to answer Questions today. Not only has my right hon. Friend been unable to answer any Questions once again, as has happened since the last election, but he has also not been in a position to answer Questions on many of the fundamental issues with which he has been involved.

It is a well-known fact that the Chancellor of the Duchy has to some degree been one of the most important people operating within the Cabinet. Although every other departmental Minister has to come to the House—albeit for only perhaps 10 minutes every four weeks—the Chancellor of the Duchy has not appeared at all. When we consider that he has had his finger in the pie with Finance for Industry, when we consider his involvement with North Sea oil and all the other areas of finance with which he has been involved, I would have thought that it was high time that we had the Chancellor of the Duchy appearing on the Government Front Bench to answer Questions. It is impossible to have them answered on a Wednesday afternoon because that coincides with Questions relating to the Foreign Office and the Common Market.

I understand that the Chancellor of the Duchy is down for Questions today but that no Questions were put to him.

As for the point raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), the Chair is in a difficulty as to how long should be allowed for each Question. For example, today we had Questions about Cyprus. I thought it was right to allow a considerable number of supplementary questions, which took up a lot of time. I remember, very nearly 30 years ago, that Mr. Speaker used sometimes to have a quick run through, with only one supplementary question. That meant that Ministers were not under any pressure at all. It is important to allow the probing of a Minister's attitude. The question whether the rota should be changed is not a matter for me.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would remind you that, although it is the general practice that you, as Mr. Speaker, being supposedly in charge of the affairs of this House, always seemingly have the last say, you would do well—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—to reflect on what you had to say a short time ago in answer to my request. The same request has already been made in the course of this Parliament. We attempted then, through you, to get a change in the procedures so that the Chancellor of the Duchy was in a position to answer Questions. The fact was that on that occasion it was said by the Lord President of the Council that an attempt would be made to readjust the situation so that the Chancellor of the Duchy would be in a position to answer Questions. That was accepted by the House, and I understood it had been accepted by you. It is your duty, Mr. Speaker, to see to it that the Chancellor of the Duchy is in a position to answer Questions, and that can only be done by changing the date.

The hon. Member has extended a number of invitations to me on debatable matters, for example, about who has the last word and who is supposedly in charge. I, of course, have to discharge my duties to the House. The order of Questions is laid down, and on Wednesday 29th January the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was down for Questions but no Questions were tabled for him.

If a Question is put down there is an answer. Also, the Minister has the option of saying that he will answer the Question at the end of Question Time. I do not think that I am prepared to argue with the hon. Member any more. Those who arrange the business of the House will have heard this exchange.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I mentioned earlier that I would raise with you a point of order about the Cypriot situation and the Foreign Office in relation to my Question No. 35. You will recall that the last time the House heard a formal statement from the Foreign Office on the Cypriot situation was 31st July last year. Last week I gave you notice of a request to table a Private Notice Question to the Foreign Office. I did this on two occa- sions. On the first occasion you rejected the idea because the Chancellor of the Exchequer wanted to make a Financial Statement and on the second—

Order. The hon. Member is breaching one of the conventions of the House. The issue whether Private Notice Questions are allowed, the reasons given and any argument about them, are not matters for discussion in the House. Otherwise, I assure the hon. Gentleman, the position of Mr. Speaker would become impossible.

I will not pursue that point but I thought it was relevant to the point I now seek to raise. May I have some clarification from you about next week? You will recall that last week I asked at Business Question Time whether the Lord President could provide an opportunity for the Foreign Secretary to come to the House and make a statement about the Clerides-Denktash talks which were then taking place and are now in phase 2. These were relevant to us as a guarantor signatory to the treaty under discussion. The Foreign Office has confirmed this afternoon that talks are now to be held between Ivor Richard at the United Nations and the Foreign Secretary, and that the Foreign Secretary is now to discuss with Dr. Kissinger the British rôle in Cyprus.

We heard last week from the Lord President that he saw no hope of any statement or debate. I would have thought that when the Prime Minister reports on his American visit next week he should not rule out the possibility of the Foreign Secretary also answering questions about what he had to say both to Ivor Richard and to Dr. Kissinger. I hope that this request can go down the line, because the House is entitled to know something about the talks now taking place in the name of the British nation. We ought to be able to participate and make our point of view known.