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Private Notice Questions

Volume 892: debated on Monday 12 May 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order arises from the present situation in regard to sterling, but I am not using this procedure as an excuse to draw attention to the unwillingness of the Government to make a statement and to their determination, seemingly, to draw the bedclothes over their heads. I refer to a Private Notice Question which apparently, from the tape, was submitted spontaneously by my hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor), Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) and myself, each seeking a statement from the Government on their intentions in view of their seeming lack of success in holding the current exchange rate of sterling.

In accordance with the traditions of the House, I submitted that Private Notice Question very early this morning. I have not communicated it to anyone else, yet that fact is now evidenced on the tape. I cannot believe for one moment that the information emanated from yourself, Mr. Speaker, or any of your officers, and I am, therefore, driven to the conclusion that the information must have been divulged by the Treasury.

This is an unfortunate practice, and it draws attention to an incident which should be the subject of an inquiry to determine that when an hon. Member submits to you a Private Notice Question, he should do so in the belief that it will be treated as a confidential matter between him and the Chair. I find it most disturbing that information of this character should have appeared on the tape in respect of the submission by my hon. Friends and myself. I hope that the House will deem that it is a matter of such significance that it deserves investigation and a statement, Mr. Speaker, on your behalf.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) has described the circumstances. I should like to make it clear that I did not know that either he or my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) was putting in an application for a Private Notice Question. It is, therefore, impossible that the leak could have come from us. The three names are mentioned on the tape whereas each of us knew only of his own application. I am certain, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry, that it could not have emanated from you. Mr. Speaker, or your office.

I wonder whether you could make an investigation into the names of all the people who knew about the applications so that we could perhaps trace whose fault it is that the information appeared on the tape.

This instance is of very wide concern to the House because the fact that a statement on this subject is or is not made is of importance in terms of the value of sterling and the confidence which people hold in the currency. There could be motive in disclosure of the fact that the application for a Private Notice Question had been turned down, and that motive could be either sinister, or, to say the least, highly political.

I believe that the House would do well to ask you, Mr. Speaker, to make an investigation into who is responsible for this and how hon. Members can be protected in the event of their Private Notice Questions not being accepted, because of the implications for confidence in the currency?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As I was the third Member to apply for a Private Notice Question, it may make it easier for investigations to proceed if I make clear that I did not keep secret the fact that I had put down a Private Notice Question. However, I was unaware that my hon. Friends the Members for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) and Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) had put down similiar Private Notice Questions.

There are two quite different issues here. The first is the wisdom of putting down Private Notice Questions relating to sterling and the making of statements concerning sterling. I shall not go into that issue today, although I have strong views on whether it is helpful. Perhaps I had better not say more than that.

On the subject of Private Notice Questions generally, the Chair is put in an intolerable position if hon. Members communicate to the Press either that they are putting down a Private Notice Question or that one has been refused. I am not saying what has occurred in this case, but it does sometimes happen. If this practice continues, if hon. Members say that they intend to put down a Private Notice Question and then say that the application has been refused, or if there is in this House reference to disallowment Private Notice Questions I may have to refuse to exercise my discretion, and ask the Procedure Committee to lay down the rules by which Private Notice Questions are to be governed.

This is a difficult matter on which the Chair has to exercise discretion. That discretion can be exercised only on the basis of complete confidence and on the basis that hon. Members do not refer to it.

It is clear from what my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathchart (Mr. Taylor) said that he told the Press that he had put down a Private Notice Question, but I would point out that the tape refers to three such Questions being submitted and therefore the information could not have come from any of those who were submitting the Questions.

I should, therefore, like again to put my question to you, Mr. Speaker. What action do you feel you are able to take to protect hon. Members and to inquire from what source the information emanated that three Questions had been put down?

I shall return no specific answer to that specific question, but I am not prepared to leave the matter where it is. I shall certainly make such inquiries as are open to me as to how this has happened. How far I shall get, I do not know. I have stated the general position that one can continue to exercise this discretion only on a basis of confidence.

I have no wish to take this matter beyond the patience of the House and I hope that I am sufficient of a parliamentarian to know when I am getting near the limit. Is it your intention, Mr. Speaker, to make your findings known to the House?

Order. I shall make that decision when the time comes, depending on what I find. The hon. Member must leave it to me. I am aware of the seriousness of the point which he has raised, and I am certain that the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Treasury, the Leader of the House and the Whips Office are equally aware of the seriousness of it. This is a vital House of Commons matter, quite apart from the immediate context in which it has arisen. I will do the best I can in this situation and what I report to the House will have to be a matter for me.