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Questions To Ministers

Volume 979: debated on Wednesday 27 February 1980

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I wish to raise a point of order, Mr. Speaker, about the refusal by the Table Office to accept a parliamentary question that I endeavoured to table last week. May I hasten to add that I am in no way criticising the Clerks in the Table Office. I have found them unfailingly helpful, and they have continually given me advice since I became a Member. I am sure that that is the view of all other hon. Members.

However, last week I endeavoured to table a parliamentary question concerning a publication called the Sherlock report. That is the nickname for it. It is entitled "Report of the Committee on Education in Inner London". It is a report about which there were references in the newspapers. When I tried to table the parliamentary question it was, as I said, refused. What happened, apparently, was that the Clerks in the Table Office, as they sometimes quite properly do, checked on the details with civil servants at the Department of Education and Science. My understanding is that the civil servants said that the subject was not a proper one for a parliamentary question, and that accordingly the Clerks refused to allow me to table it.

At that point, I had seen only press comments on the report, but they seemed to indicate that the report had been prepared for, and at the request of, the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Today I received from the House of Commons Library a copy of the report. As was made clear in the press last week, the terms of reference of the report show that the Secretary of State set up this committee of London Conservatives, and so on.

I have been told today that it would be in order for me to table the parliamentary question, as the report is in the Library. It is fairly obvious that had I been allowed to table my parliamentary question the answer given by the Secretary of State would have been politically significant—even if the Secretary of State had said that it was an unofficial document that had no particular standing. That fact itself would have been useful in relation to the political controversy that the issue is arousing in London, and particularly in Wandsworth.

My point of order, Mr. Speaker, relates to my feeling that the influence of civil servants in this process is unduly large, in that they appear to be able to veto the right of a Member of Parliament to table a parliamentary question. Civil servants have an interest in protecting the Ministers in the Department for which they work. I am not suggesting that civil servants were doing that in this case. I am certain that it was a genuine error. But I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to give some guidance to the House as to how hon. Members can get out of this dilemma, because it seems to me to be an improper state of affairs.

The hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs) has raised a very important question. I listened with care to the points that he made. Before dealing with his point of order, I say in passing that it is always open to hon. Members to appeal to me when a question is rejected, although I in no way seek to encourage that. The hon. Member perhaps was not aware of that fact.

It has been customary over many years for there to be a relationship between the Table Office and the Departments. This is in the interests of the House itself. It has happened under every Administration for many years, and under every Speaker for many years. Government Departments have a major obligation to make sure that the advice that they tender is accurate. I am happy to say that that major obligation is carried out, but there is bound to be human error from time to time.

As I understand the position, the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred was placed in the Library not by the Minister but by an hon. Member who wanted to put it in the Library. It appears to me, at first glance, to be an internal party political exercise, but I have taken note of what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I assure him that the Table Office and myself are very jealous of the rights of hon. Members to be able to question the Administration, because this House is the only check there is on the Administration of the day.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that the whole House will be most grateful to you for your ruling. But in such a case, is it not for the Minister concerned to look into it, and, if wrong advice has been tendered from his Department, should he not come to the House and make a statement about it? If the document were one of a party nature, that would not, as I understand the position, absolve the Minister in any sense. I repeat that we are all grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for your ruling, especially as you underlined the importance of the subject, but I express the hope, through you, that the Minister concerned will come to the House and tell us the position.

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. In your view, does the original reluctance of the Minister to answer a question on the subject mean that he regards the report as not worth the paper that it is written on?

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. In endorsing the view of the Table Office expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs), may I seek your concurrence with the principle that anything that is the responsibility of a Minister of the Crown is, unless otherwise blocked by a previous question, open to question in this House? Surely the point at issue is whether the Secretary of State for Education and Science requested and received a particular report, or whether a right hon. Gentleman, a Member of this House, did so in another capacity.

I shall answer that point of order at once so that it will not get mixed up with others. Under every Administration since I have been in this House, various Ministers have within their own parties set up committees to advise them, and it has not been thought that a Minister was answerable to this House for dealings within his own party.

The observations made by the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot) will have been heard by others as well as by me.