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Questions To Ministers

Volume 927: debated on Monday 7 March 1977

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I call the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) to raise his point of order.

You were kind enough, Mr. Speaker, to say that I could raise a point of order on Question No. 18. My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) put a perfectly reasonable Question to the Secretary of State for Industry in connection with the Post Office. I came in with a supplementary question on the profiteering of the Post Office at the present time. The Minister did not answer any questions on this, and you, taking your cue from that, suggested that the Minister could not answer my question.

We are in a difficulty with the Department of Industry. When we put down Questions relating to nationalisation to the Department of Energy we generally receive answers, but when we put Questions to the Department of Industry about the Post Office we do not. The Post Office is an important organisation which charges the people of this country Large amounts of money for their telephones, stamps and so on, and it is suggesting that it will put up prices. Unless we get answers to our questions, we shall have to go back to having a Postmaster-General operating on the Government Front Bench.

It might help the House if I first answer the point of order. There might then not be any other points of order. The Post Office is now a public corporation. The only Questions permitted on the Order Paper are those that come within the limited field for which, by law, the Secretary of State for Industry is responsible. That, no doubt, explains a lot of the difficulties.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I was intrigued to see Question No. 18 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) because I was surprised that it had got there at all. Can you advise how it is that a Question to which the Minister is so ready to say "This cannot be answered because it is not my responsibility, and the Question should be directed to the Post Office" appears on the Order Paper? Why does not the Minister, as he has no responsibility for the subject, redirect the Question before it comes here? As a rule, he has a fortnight in which to see Questions.

I put it to you, Mr. Speaker, that we are in a genuine dilemma about being able to question the activities of the Government in the business of industries for which they are directly responsible, namely, the nationalised industries. If this had been a Question, for example, about how much investment had been made by British Leyland last year in new machine tools, I am sure that we should have received an answer, but on the Post Office, never.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not right that this lack of accountability about the Post Office stretches far beyond prices? I seek your guidance on a particularly worrying matter. The Deputy Director General of the Post Office has refused to give me any information about an admitted discriminatory practice in my own constituency concerning the giving of credit to people who live in what the Post Office calls good streets and not to others. I have attempted in many ways to get answers from Ministers in this respect. Is this a question of privilege? If it is neither a question of privilege nor one that I can raise with the Minister, it appears that Members of Parliament are hamstrung in their attempts to get fair play for people in their constituencies.

With reference, Mr. Speaker, to what you said about ministerial responsibility, may I inform you that this morning I was advised that a Question that I put down last Monday for Oral Answer next Monday by the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection asking what representations he had personally received about the mounting increase in gas prices had been transferred to the Department of Energy? Could you, as the custodian of Back Benchers' interests, advise us how Ministers can be prevented from arbitrarily avoiding Questions the look of which they do not like?

Further to the point of order about Question No. 18, Mr. Speaker. We know how partticular the Table Office is about accepting Questions. Therefore, clearly it is in some quandary with the Department of Industry. Would it be possible for new guidelines to be laid down as to exactly what responsibility for the Post Office is taken on the Floor of the House?

If no other hon. Member wishes to raise a point or order, I shall reply to the matters that have been raised.

First, I say to the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner) that I cannot help him if he cannot get an answer from a public corporation. With regard to answers by Ministers, again I am not responsible and the hon. and learned Member must pursue that as best he can in another way.

The transfer of Questions by Ministers is again not my responsibility. This is a very old system that is adopted—it has operated in the House ever since I have been here and, I think, since long before that—that when Ministers feel that Questions ought to be answered by another Department, they transfer them.

The Question on the Order Paper is there because it deals with one of the responsibilities of the Minister, and that is the approval of capital projects by the Post Office.