§ Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Whiteley.]
§ Captain Crookshank (Gainsborough)
After the interchange which took place in this House at Question Time on 4th December last, it was inevitable that there would have to be a Debate upon the subject contained in the statement which the Lord President made on that day. Obviously, the whole question of the relationship between Parliament and the various organizations—be they boards, commissions, or whatever the name may be—in control of nationalised industries, must be discussed in this House from time to time. It is an entirely new subject. I say that a Debate was inevitable, because on looking at the OFFICIAL REPORT it will be seen that the supplementary questions put to the Lord President on the occasion to which I have referred occupied no less than six columns. Possibly the right hon. Gentleman will have noted also that I then took the opportunity of saying, on behalf of my hon. Friends, that we thought we would probably have to have further discussions.
This is a new field for us to explore, and we want to do so, not on the basis of party, of Government and Opposition, but on the basis how best the House of Commons can deal with the problem. On this issue it makes no difference on which side of the House we sit. We want to try to discover how best we can set up the proper relationship between Parliament and nationalised industries. The immediate problem raised by our previous discussion is the principle upon which Questions are to be asked of and replies given by Ministers. Of course, it goes very much further than that, because the House has not yet decided the main issue, which is how we, as representatives of the owners of the nationalised industries and of the users and consumers, should review the general activities of the organisations running those nationalised industries, and upon what occasions. There are to be reports, and there are to be accounts. Are we to have statements on them? Will the Government put down substantive Motions? Ought there to be a permanent 392 standing committee, such as the Public Accounts Committee, to look through either the accounts and the business or the general administration of business?
Parliament has not yet settled any of those things, and I make the suggestion to the right hon. Gentleman, for what it is worth, that he should consider whether the time has not come to have either informal talks on the subject between representative Members of the House, or something more formal in the way of a Select Committee to investigate and report to us what would be the best way of dealing with the problem. All those sorts of vistas are opened up by a discussion of this subject, but I do not want to pursue them.
I shall not be long in what I have to say. I am sure the Lord President is sorry that, for reasons which may be known to him, the Leader of the Opposition is unable to be here today; but I think I know something of what my right hon. Friend would like to say. Even so, I say that this is not an Opposition matter as such, but a House of Commons matter. If I speak in a more personal capacity, I am sure hon. Members will realise the position; indeed, some of my hon. Friends may put a slightly different emphasis from mine. In saying that this is not an Opposition matter, I would point out to the Leader of the House that the Question which he answered on the famous 4th December was put down by one of his supporters, the hon. Member for Spen Valley (Mr. Sharp); on that occasion it was not even started from this side of the House.
Today, the important thing for the House is to realise that this is an entirely new field. We have no precedents to guide us, and at this first airing of a very difficult subject it would be wise for the Leader of the House—if I might presume to advise him—not to start banging and closing doors. Let them be left open, and let everything be fluid; and, to use a phrase which I have often heard him use, "We must see how we get along" This is definitely one of those cases where Parliament will have to see how it can get along, and in that way we shall gradually, as we have so often done in the past, build up a kind of code of behaviour, procedure, practice, or whatever you like to call it. We shall get the right answer in due course, but we should not be this House of Commons if we thought for one 393 moment that we could get the right answer right away.
There are two kinds of information hon. Members will wish to have, which are quite different. First, there is factual information. Hon. Members want a great deal of factual information for one purpose or another—that is information which is completely non-controversial or is statistical in nature. The other kind of information sought was posed in a Question by another supporter of the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) asked on 4th December how we are to get information which not only the workers in the nationalised industries may require, but which the consumers may require—how will these two bodies of people be able to put questions and complaints? That is what I call the grievance side of the problem, as opposed to the purely factual side.
The different Acts which have passed through this House have given different powers to Ministers with regard to the right to demand information. I think we must accept that whatever a statute says, there is, in a very wide sense, an ultimate responsibility upon Ministers for the nationalised industries. There must be a general responsibility, otherwise it will not be possible for the reports and accounts to come before this House; they will obviously have to come through the channels of the Ministers, and that being so, the Ministers must be held to have some general responsibility. It seems to me that that must be the case, because here are these great State monopolies, and somebody must be in a position, somehow or other, to say something about them. It is not like private industry.
There can be no precedent in regard to the putting down of Questions. I have looked very carefully through Erskine May to discover what is considered to be an admissible Question and what is considered to be an inadmissible Question. On page 338, it is laid down that it is not possible to ask Questions:Raising matters under the control of bodies or persons not responsible to the Government, such as banks, the money market, the Stock Exchange, joint stock companies, railways, employers' organisations, trade unions, etc."Etc." covers a lot, but I do not think it can be held to cover nationalised industries. We have to try to find out what we can ask and how much responsibility the different Ministers will accept.
394 My first proposition is this: that it is perfectly clear that where statutory duties are laid upon Ministers by the Art setting up a nationalised industry, and where the statutory duties are defined, there can be no doubt at all that Ministers can be questioned about the exercise or non-exercise of these duties. Ministers have been given power to issue directions, and Members must obviously be permitted to ask whether they have given the directions and what are the directions. Alternatively, if Members think that there is a case where direction should have been given and has not been given, then Members must also have the right to question the Minister on why he has not done so. Then there is the other case where the boards, commissions, or whatever they may be called, have the right to put up proposals to the Minister which he may or may not accept, or can modify. If that is a statutory function, there is no doubt that Ministers can be asked: "Were proposals put up? What have you done about the proposals? Have you carried them out or not?" Where statutory duties are laid down for a board to make proposals, there is no doubt that the Minister may be asked a question and will have to reply.
The next thing we must consider is this. Rightly or wrongly, in setting up these State monopolies Parliament has decided against their being on the Civil Service or Post Office basis. The boards have been given the maximum freedom to run their affairs on business lines. We have heard it said: "Oh, yes, there is a certain responsibility in the higher ranges, but the day-to-day business is entirely a matter for the boards." I think we are in some danger of confusing language, because sometimes it is called day-to-day "administration" and sometimes it is called day-to-day "management." Management and administration are not synonymous. What Parliament tried to do, I think, was to remove as far as possible from its purview the day-to-day management, that is the actual details of management; but administration is on a rather higher level. If day-to-day management is bad, it may mean that administration is bad and therefore it may be necessary for Ministers to be questioned.
For example, the 9.15 train yesterday, in which I had the misfortune to come down to London from Lincoln, was one hour and twenty minutes late. I would not dream 395 of putting down a Question to the right hon. Gentleman about that, because there may be some very good reasons for it. I call that day-to-day management. But suppose that I found that the train was an hour and twenty minutes late every day for a month, then I should begin to think that there was something wrong with the administration of this branch of the railway. In other words, it is a question of degree. If a thing is repeated and repeated, it means that there is some defect which should be checked. I agree that day-to-day management and the minute details, which in the normal way are dealt with by those who run businesses, should in the same way be left to the boards.
§ Captain Crookshank
I would much rather make my own speech, unless it is a really interesting question.
§ Mr. Stokes
Would the right hon. and gallant Gentleman say then that if a private manufacturer of machinery is consistently late with his deliveries, the Board of Trade ought to have an equal power to intervene?
§ Captain Crookshank
That has nothing in the world to do with it. I should like to throw the ball back to the hon. Member by saying that I hope his firm will not get into any difficulties of that kind as a result of the very fine stand they are taking on behalf of the Poles. While we want to get away from investigating day-to-day management, there may come a moment when day-to-day management merges into the larger question of administration.
Having said that, I should like to lay down a second proposition, which the House may also feel inclined to accept. That is, that all of us must claim the undoubted right to put down any Question on the Order Paper. The third proposition would be the converse of that, that it is for the Minister, and no one else, not even Mr. Speaker—and I say this with all respect—or the House authorities, to decide whether he will answer a Question or not; the responsibility must rest there. We must have the right to put down Questions. It does not matter if the Order Paper is doubled in size, and 396 it does not matter if the Minister says, "I am not going to answer Question Nos. 1 to 50" The Question must be allowed to be put on the Paper, and the Minister can say, as he does now, in the case of his own Department, "It is contrary to public policy to answer it," or, "This is not the sort of thing with which I ought to deal." Let the Minister decide.
It is all right so long as the Minister—and these are the governing words—has the support of the House in his attitude. That is the test. If he can carry the House with him he must be considered to be right. The Minister should be entitled to say "No," provided he has the support of the House. [An HON. MEMBER: "How much support?"] I do not think a Minister will have very much doubt as to the way in which he has the support of the House in handling Questions at Question time. I am supported in expressing that view by something which you, Mr. Speaker, said on 4th December, when nearly everybody of importance had a preliminary go at this problem. You said, Sir, on that occasion—and I hope I may be allowed to quote it:The hon. Member's remedy, and the House's remedy, is to put down a Motion of Censure on the Minister, or something of that sort, for refusing to reply."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th December, 1947; Vol. 445, c. 571.]Another alternative, which would not be within your power to say Mr. Speaker, is that those who disagree with the Minister should spend their time in trying, first of all, to get rid of him and, secondly, in trying to get rid of the Government. It seems to me to be a fairly reasonable proposition to say that the Minister should have the deciding voice provided he has the support of the House. If he has not the support of the House then the House can take action.
I hope that these three propositions may be considered to be, roughly, the view of the House. Anyhow, we shall see as the Debate proceeds. I do not want to tread on dangerous ground, but may I express the hope, Mr. Speaker, that under your guidance a very generous view might be taken as to the admissibility of Questions? Let as many Questions appear as may be; let there be no great rigidity; let Questions be put down. I