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Private Notice Questions (Leader Of The Opposition)

Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 18 December 1957

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

I wish to raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given you notice, and which would appear to be a matter of substance. I think it may appear that a decision that you gave reflects on the status in this House of the Leader of the Opposition. I refer to a Ruling you gave on 10th December, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), who is acting as Leader of the Opposition while the Leader of the Opposition is abroad, sought to ask a Question by Private Notice.

My right hon. Friend wanted to ask the Prime Minister what proposals Her Majesty's Government would put forward at the Conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. My right hon. Friend said he was well aware that a Question in those terms had been put down before and answered by the Foreign Secretary. During the short debate, if I may use that term, about that matter on 10th December, the objection which was felt was because you, Mr. Speaker, rested your decision not to allow that Private Notice Question on the fact that a similar Question had been previously answered. You referred to the Answer which the Foreign Secretary had previously given in reply to that similar Question, and you said:
"That Answer is a complete answer and is a reply to a Question which is indistinguishable in matter from that submitted by the right hon. Member for Llanelly."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th December, 1957; Vol. 579, c. 1082.]
I am not arguing about that, but merely stating these facts so that the House will know the context in which I am raising this point of order. The argument which developed on that occasion was that the substance of the Question was a matter of urgency and importance. No one doubts the importance of that conference, which has probably been the most distinguished conference in Paris since 1919. No one argued about the importance of the conference. The argument was that in the rapidly changing circumstances of the time a Question, though the same in words as another Question not long previously answered, became different in its application. However, you did not accept that.

I should have been satisfied but for what happened the next day. The next day a Private Notice Question submitted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly was accepted and permitted to be asked and, substantially, it was in exactly the same terms as the Question that he had sought to ask the day before. It was substantially the same, but the word "now" was added. That seems to me to be a distinction without very much difference.

That brings me to a further question, Sir. I thought that your Ruling put the Opposition at a considerable disadvantage. As you know, I have been into the precedents of the Rulings on Private Notice Questions by the Leader of the Opposition. I am not armed today with any Standing Orders, but there is no question that by custom, precedent and convention the Leader of the Opposition is deemed to be in a position different from that of all other Members of the House. He does not speak on behalf of himself. He does not normally put Questions on the Notice Paper. He asks Questions by Private Notice on matters which he, as Leader of the Opposition, considers are urgent or important to the Opposition itself.

I am fortified in thinking this by what happened in 1945. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) was then Leader of the Opposition and he used the procedure of the Private Notice Question and in so doing came under some fire from this the party then on the other side of the House. Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown ruled:
"It is not the custom for the Leader of the Opposition to put Questions on the Order Paper. The only way in which he can put a Question is by Private Notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th October, 1945; Vol. 415, c. 242.]
The Private Notice Question asked by the right hon. Gentleman would not appear to have been a matter of urgency and importance. The right hon. Gentleman was asking what were the total numbers of troops disposed in various countries. Nevertheless, it was, in the opinion at least of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford, important. Two days later Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown again said:
"It is the custom of this House for the Leader of the Opposition not to ask many Questions but to ask those which are of an urgent important character, and he never puts a Question on the Order Paper but puts it by Private Notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st November, 1945; Vol. 415, c. 629.]
I could cite many other cases but you. Mr. Speaker, will know the sort of examples to which I am referring. I have been through these precedents, but one does not need to go back any further than 1945, and before and since then a convention seems to have grown that the Leader of the Opposition, speaking on behalf of half of the House, has a status different from that of any other Member of the House. This has grown by custom, practice and convention. [Interruption.] I hope that hon. Gentlemen on the other side of the House will not become impatient, because I have been speaking of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford when he was the champion of their rights when they were in opposition. Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite may want another champion of their rights after the next Election.

This custom and precedent which were extended to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford did not disappear when he ceased to be Leader of the Opposition, and I think I speak for many of my hon. Friends when I say that a degree of affront was felt on this side of the House the other day. We felt that the Leader of the Opposition, or his deputy, in his absence, was not allowed to put a view which was strongly held on this side of the House.

You will understand, Mr. Speaker, that in asking you for your Ruling I appreciate that your position is a great one as the interpreter and custodian of our Standing Orders and our privileges. The Leader of the Opposition, too, has a great position, and I would ask you, Sir, to bear in mind that the Leader of the Opposition is the principal critical voice of the country—

The hon. Member would not deny what I am saying if the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford were sitting in the place of the Leader of the Opposition.

The voice of the Leader of the Opposition is the principal critical voice in the country. His is a position as responsible and as honoured as that of anybody in this House. It should, if possible, be enhanced.

I should be grateful, and the disquiet on this side of the House would be alleviated, Mr. Speaker, if you could tell us what is the result of your investigations into this matter.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) gave me notice that he would raise this matter in a general way, and I am very glad indeed to answer his question if it dispels the misunderstanding which, apparently, exists about it.

The question which he really put to me was how far I could refuse to accept a Private Notice Question from the Leader of the Opposition. The matter is really quite simple. Past Speakers have ruled that it is the custom in this House for the Leader of the Opposition not to ask any Questions but to ask those which are of an urgent, important character, and that he never puts a Question on the Order Paper but puts it by Private Notice. I accept that. That is the custom of the House. Indeed, the factor of urgency is not, in practice, insisted on in the case of the Leader of the Opposition.

The hon. Member will see in Erskine May, page 362 of the latest edition, that
"Questions which are asked without appearing on the paper are governed by the same rules of order as questions of which notice has been given."
Some, though not all, of these rules are listed in May, pages 358 to 360 under the title, "Examples of inadmissible questions." For instance, paragraph (26) says:
"Repeating in substance Questions already answered or to which an answer has been refused."
The hon. Member refers to a Question which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) sought to put on 10th December last. The right hon. Gentleman was as much bound as any other hon. Member by the ordinary rules, and I had to refuse it because, though important, it was fully answered by the Foreign Secretary in answer to a Question by another hon. Member on 4th December.

I have already dealt with this matter at some length, when it was raised before, and today the only thing I should like to say, since the hon. Member has now raised his difficulty, is why I allowed, on the subsequent day, a Question by the same right hon. Gentleman, which, the hon. Member says, differed from the other only because the word "now" was in it.

That is not the case. If the hon. Member has it, he will see that the original Question as I recollect it, and paraphrasing it as well as I can, was: would the Prime Minister make a statement as to the proposals which Her Majesty's Government proposed to lay before the N.A.T.O. conference? I think that that was the gist of it. I have not got it with me. That had been answered already, in the sense that the Foreign Secretary, answering for the Government, had said they would not make a statement on that subject before the conference.

The Question which I allowed to be answered on the following day was to ask the Prime Minister
"whether he will now give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will not, at the forthcoming N.A.T.O. Conference, enter into any commitment involving a fundamental change in the structure of N.A.T.O. and the surrender of any degree of national sovereignty without the prior approval of Parliament."—[OFFICAL REPORT, 11th December, 1957; Vol. 579, c. 1270.]
That was quite a different Question. It had not been answered by the Government beforehand, so I instantly allowed it. That is the effect of the rule.

I would like to say this. A less strict view is, by custom, taken of Private Notice Questions from the Leader of the Opposition just because it is not customary for him to put any other kind of Question. It is less strict in that urgency is not insisted on. The factor of importance is left to the right hon. Member himself to decide. In other words, these two factors, which result in many Private Notice Questions being disallowed for ordinary Members, are not applied in the case of the Leader of the Opposition. He is himself supposed to be the judge of the importance of the matter, and the Speaker accepts his view on the subject. Neither is it necessary for him to show urgency, as it is in the case of an ordinary Member, who has an opportunity to put a Question on the Order Paper, because the right hon. Member does not put Questions on the Order Paper. So these two factors are waived but, beyond that, all the other ordinary rules apply. I am bound by the rules and I am bound to apply them.

The hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) mentioned that he had not been able to find any precedent on this matter. That is natural because what happens in my office, and between myself and the hon. Member who seeks to put a Private Notice Question, is not recorded in HANSARD or in the Journals of the House, and does not appear anywhere else, so precedents on it are not easy to find.

If I may say what sometimes happens, it is that if I do not think that the Question is sufficiently urgent to warrant it being dealt with by Private Notice, and there is a convenient opportunity for it to be answered in the ordinary way—as in the case of ordinary Members putting Questions on the Order Paper—I ask the hon. Member concerned to put it on the Order Paper. It can be phrased in another way which will not transgress the rules. I sometimes suggest to the hon. Member how he can get over the difficulty of the rules of order if I think that the Question, on its merits, deserves to be given the priority of a Private Notice Question.

But when a Question is flatly against one of the rules of the House, as this one was, I am bound by the rules. There is nothing can do. I hope that I have succeeded in clearing up the matter and that the House will acquit me of any desire to affront either the right hon. Member or any other section of opinion in the House.

I am grateful to you, Sir, because this Ruling will be on the record and it will clear up a great deal of the ambiguity that might arise from your previous Ruling in HANSARD. It had not entered my mind to feel that you were guilty of affronting us, but it is not sometimes the man we are that matters it is the man other people sometimes think we are that is important. May interpolate here that I sought for previous Rulings on the subject, but the only Ruling that I could find appears in column 1018, on 11th May, 1954. On that date the Leader of the Opposition appeared to be out of order in a comparable circumstance, and you said that on that day you would have called for a statement from the Chancellor which would have given him his answer, and so, consequently, I had only that to guide me.

I hope you will appreciate, too, Sir, that it is necessary not only that we should agree with your Ruling but that we should reconcile it with Rulings that have gone before, if it is only to put Mr. Speaker Clifton Brown in order. Thank you very much, Sir.

May I say at once, Sir, that I accept your assurance, and that I never suggested that there was any personal affront in this matter. There is one further point I want to put to you. I accepted your Ruling that I was asking for a statement and that there had already been a refusal to make a statement. I urged, however, that in a situation which changes as rapidly as does the international situation in the context of the N.A.T.O. conference, to ask for a statement was legitimate because the situation changed from day to day, there were many rumours, and Governments of various kinds were bringing forward proposals. That was why I sought to put a Private Notice Question on that day.

I appreciate that. The way in which the right hon. Gentleman put the Question on the following day was correct, and his Question was answered. I have to try to see that Questions conform to the rules.

Now may I deal with one small matter which the hon. Member for Leeds, West also raised? He referred to an incident that took place on 11th May, 1954, and he was good enough to mention this to me last night when he spoke to me in the Chair. I looked it up, because I did not remember it at the time. According to the OFFICIAL REPORT, the Leader of the Opposition:
"Mr. GAITSKELL (by Private Notice) asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he has any statement to make in regard to his recent conversations with the West German Government."
I allowed that, and then the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) rose in his place and said:
"On a point of order. Would you kindly advise the House, Mr. Speaker, what is the procedure when a similar Question appears on the Order Paper? I thought you ruled the other day that Private Notice Questions are not to be accepted."
It is a rule that I do not accept a Private Notice Question if it anticipates a Question which someone else has put on the Order Paper. That is one of the rules. The right hon. Gentleman continued:
"I thought you ruled the other day that Private Notice Questions are not to be accepted. I do not want to prejudice the information being given, but I think we should have some consistency."
I replied, I think correctly:
"I was not aware that another Question was on the Paper; I must have overlooked it. Otherwise, I should not have allowed this in the form of a Private Notice Question. I should, instead, have asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he so desired, to make a statement."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 11th May, 1954; Vol. 527, c. 1017 and 1018.]
Of course, on that occasion I was accepting absolutely from the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Bellenger) that there was another Question of a similar character which would have barred it. I knew nothing to the contrary, and I accepted his assurance. Although I have not the details here, I remember that at the time there was some distinction in the Question on the Order Paper which allowed the Question to be put. One of the first things I always do when a Private Notice Question is submitted is to have a search made to ensure that it does not anticipate another Question on the Order Paper.

I should like to put a different point relating to the same problem, Sir. The Standing Order that governs the admission of Questions after half-past three o'clock is Standing Order No. 8, which states that they may not be answered unless the Minister has been absent earlier or unless they are, in Mr. Speaker's opinion, of an urgent nature and relate either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business.

If I may speak for myself, Sir, I took the Private Notice Question of the acting Leader of the Opposition last Tuesday week to be, in effect, a statement about business. It asked whether the Prime Minister would be making a statement about the view of the Government. Clearly, the rules of anticipation which apply to ordinary Parliamentary Questions also apply to Private Notice Questions. They could not, by any stretch of the imagination, apply to business Questions, because the Leader of the Opposition asks the same Question, like clockwork, every Thursday afternoon at half-past three, and it is then traditional for hon. Members to press their own particular claims upon the Leader of the House.

Therefore, I would like to ask you, Sir, whether my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) was not exercising a rather different function when he brought forward this Question, and was actually ascertaining whether there was to be a rearrangement of business to permit the House to be informed of the Government's intentions. It is rather confusing. I certainly did not realise, until I read this Standing Order, that there is not a distinction between a business Question and a Private Notice Question, and I should be most grateful, Mr. Speaker, if you could add any words of clarification which would help the House.

Whether it was a question on business or a question on policy it was barred by the previous Answer. As a matter of fact, it was not really a question on business. It was a request for a statement on what proposals were to be put. The question was to ask the Prime Minister

"…whether he would state what proposals Her Majesty's Government will put forward at the forthcoming Conference of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation."
That is not business. It may be the business of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation conference, but it is not the business of this House.

The fact that the right hon. Gentleman asks, week after week, the Leader of the House to state the business for the following week is not repetition of the question. It is the business for next week, and what has already been answered is the business for the week that is over.