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Ministerial Answers

Volume 978: debated on Friday 15 February 1980

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

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I gave notice at the Table last night. It concerns a peculiar rule of procedure relating to questions. The answers to yesterday's written questions are not yet printed in Hansard, but I shall have to refer to two of them to illustrate my point.

Earlier in the week I tabled two questions to the Secretary of State for Trade. One asked
"if he will carry out an investigation under the Companies Act into recent purchases of Consolidated Gold Fields shares."
The right hon. Gentleman's Under-Secretary of State replied:
"My right hon. Friend yesterday"
—the question was deferred by one day in order that he could say "yesterday"—
"appointed inspectors pursuant to section 172 of the Companies Act 1948 to investigate and report on the membership of Consolidated Gold Fields Limited."
In other words, the Under-Secretary was upholding the principle of openness in commercial dealings and investigating a possible breach of the law. That was an excellent answer.

However, on the same day the hon. Gentleman's immediate superior, the Minister of State, replied to another question asking the Secretary of State for Trade
"what steps he is taking to ensure that United States laws on commodity dealings cannot be evaded through the United Kingdom commodity markets."
The Minister of State answered:
"The laws of the United States do not apply in the United Kingdom and their enforcement is a matter for the United States authorities, acting within their proper jurisdiction."
In other words, the Minister of State was upholding the principle of secrecy in commercial dealings.

One's natural desire is to ask the Secretary of State whether he prefers the policy of the Minister of State or of the Under-Secretary of State. He certainly cannot have both—though at the moment it seems that he can have both, but one would wish to inquire into this matter. However, as is mentioned on page 332 of "Erskine May", there is a rule of procedure dating back to 1871 that states that one of the rare joys of Back Benchers is impossible. Apparently one cannot draw the attention of a superior Minister to the fact that his junior Ministers do not agree with each other.

As I said, it is a rare joy for a Back Bencher to find two junior Ministers in public disagreement. I ask whether you, Mr. Speaker, will reconsider this portion of the rule. One does not want references to answers to questions going on for ever, but in the unusual circumstances, when the Government are supposed to be united but are apparently publicly disunited on a matter of principle, surely it should be in order for attention to be drawn to it.

The hon. Gentleman gave me notice of his point of order. I say to the hon. Gentleman, as I said to the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), that I shall look into the matter and communicate with him.