§ 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 particularly ask that generosity should be shown in allowing Questions of a similar nature. The rule against repetition is that a Question 397 must not be put down if it has already been asked, but sometimes that is extended, or there is a risk, if the Minister refuses to answer the Question, of it being said, "Last week the Minister would not answer a similar Question." I think that real repetition in this case should be very narrowly drawn; the repetition should be repetition of the same Question, the same case or the same grievance, but a similar case or a similar grievance should be allowed to appear in the Question on the Paper. The Minister may still say, "I am not going to answer," but that will give our constituents, consumers and owners, the feeling that at any rate the point has been put forward, and that somebody, somewhere, will have to direct his mind to the problem. That is what we are here for. I would therefore ask, Sir, that great generosity and leniency should be shown in the matter of admissibility of Questions.
All I have said up to now deals with the aspect of grievances, and I now want to say a few words about the aspect of information. In some cases Ministers have been given great powers to secure information. The Minister of Transport, under his Transport Act, is, I think, permitted to get almost anything he wants in relation to property and the activities of the Transport Commission. If he can do that, I do not see why he should not act as a sort of clearing-house so far as we are concerned. If we want information and he can get it, if it is right that we should ask him and he can get it, I believe he should bring it back.
I am fortified in that by my experience as Secretary for Mines for four years, when the mines were under private ownership. At that time there was a constant stream of Questions asking for statistical information, particularly from South Wales, as the hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Grenfell) will know particularly well. There were Questions about the machinery being used, hours of labour, and any number of things. All of it was statistical and purely factual information. The Questions were usually unstarred Questions, and my Department and I were able to give the House the information which was required. It would be the height of irony if, today, Members of this House, who could get that information in the days of private enterprise, could not get it now that the mines have been taken over by 398 the State. That would be too stupid for words.
So, I ask that that convention, at least, should be established, that factual, statistical, non-controversial, non-political information which can be obtained by the Minister should be given to Members if they want it. I think it is a reasonable proposal to make.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
It would be strictly relevant to this argument if the right hon. and gallant Gentleman could now tell us what information was given in the days when he was Secretary for Mines, when the mines were under private enterprise, that is not now given by the Ministry of Fuel and Power. Will the right hon. and gallant Gentleman be specific?
§ Captain Crookshank
Surely, the right hon. Gentleman knows me better than that. Surely, he is not now going to say that the Ministry of Fuel and Power will continue for all time in its present mammoth size. I think most people imagined that once the nationalised industries had been established Minis, tries would become very small again. Of course, if the Ministry of Fuel and Power is to collect all the statistics as well, then Heaven protect us from the size of the bureaucracy we shall be building.
§ Captain Crookshank
If the Ministry of Fuel and Power has the information all well and good. Cadit quœstio. But we are in an entirely new field; we still do not know what will be made available to us. If information is asked for which is not available in the Ministry of Fuel and Power that information could be secured by the Minister by asking the Coal Board. If it is reasonable for hon. Members to ask Ministers for that information, no hindrance should be put in the way. That is all I am asking for.
§ Captain Crookshank
I shall be very interested to hear how it is different. It does not affect what I am asking for, which is that the full information which hon. Members want to have, should be made available to them. If Departments have not got it and the boards and commissions have, then the Minister should be the channel through whom it comes. That is all. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not think that I am sunk; and I hope that he is not sunk. I was just about to conclude and I am sorry that I have been carried off.
All I ask of the right hon. Gentleman, as the Leader of the House, is that he should go very slow in this matter. Do not let him go shutting doors with a bang today. This is only the first Debate on this topic. I have no doubt that we shall have many more until we have got it settled and cleared up; so let him be open-minded and remember that this is a new system. Because we do not approve of it, does not affect the question we are raising today. We have deliberately not made these industries State services so that the employees are not State servants, and, therefore, they are not, from the point of view of questions, in exactly the same position as the ordinary staff of a Department. They have legal remedies not open to Crown employees. On the other hand, these are great State monopolies which belong to the State and are paid for by the State, and Parliament is supreme. We have to have a halfway house by which Questions can be put and answers given or not given, as the case may be, and with the general national genius for compromise, I have no doubt that we shall get an answer sooner or later. I doubt whether we shall get it today as a result of this Debate; but there is no harm in that, as we are discussing this today for the first time.
I conclude by reiterating my own personal views, which are these: The first proposition is that the Minister, whoever he is, must answer with regard to his statutory duties. The second proposition is that Members have the undoubted right to put down Questions on grievances and when seeking for information. The third proposition is that Ministers have the right to decline to give answers provided they continue to have the support of the House in the position which they take up. If they do decline, they must be ready to 400 justify themselves and to satisfy Parliament that their action in refusing to reply is fully justified. To lay down the practice in matters of this kind is not for the Government or the Opposition, but for the whole House. That is why today this Debate is taking place not on a specific Motion, but on an Adjournment Motion, so that no one is hampered and no decision will be taken.
If anyone asks what will be the outcome of this Debate, I should imagine it depends on whether you, in the Chair, Mr. Speaker, find that there is a general sense of agreement on one or two or more of the propositions that I have put forward. I am sure that I can speak for the whole House in saying that we would leave ourselves in your hands to see that the general sense of the House is rightly interpreted. If, later on, you find it necessary to be fortified by something of a more formal nature, then it would be for someone, whether the Government or a senior private Member, as often happened in the past in these matters, to come forward with some kind of formal Resolution to clarify the issue. I hope that as the result of what is said today, you may be able to come to some general conclusion, if I may respectfully use the word, for your guidance.
§ 4.5 P.m.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
At the risk of being told that I have fallen for the Tories, I say that I agree almost completely with the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank). He said that under these Acts certain powers have been given to the Minister to give general instructions. I can quote from the Acts, which I have here. He was quite right, I think, when he said that the Minister was accountable in this House for carrying out or for failing to carry out the instructions which he had the power to give. I suggest to the House that even though in these nationalisation Acts we have the position in which a Minister is authorised to give directions of a general character in the national interest, that does not mean that Parliament has legislated against the Minister being responsible even for the day-to-day running of these boards. I do not know whether I am right. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in answer to a question of mine yesterday, said that no one knew the law, except the House of Lords in a judicial capacity. 401 Therefore, my view, I expect, is as good as that of anyone else, and I do not think Parliament has legislated against the liability of Ministers to answer for the actions, even the day-to-day actions, of their own boards.
I would like to approach this matter from the point of view not only of the House of Commons as a whole, vis-a-vis the Government, but also from the point of view of what we believe in, namely, Socialism. One of the reasons why we believe in the nationalisation of industry is that we believe that with public responsibility and public accountability to this House, as representative of the nation, we shall get more efficient enterprises. That is not, of course, the only reason why we believe in Socialism. We believe in it for other reasons, namely, that it means the transference of industrial and economic power from private hands to public hands. The hon. Member for Ipswich (Mr. Stokes) said that there was really no control by this House over the I.C.I. or any of the big monopolies, or over any industry at all. It may be that Ministerial pressure may be brought to bear on suppliers of raw materials in connection with my hon. Friend's industry, but otherwise there is no responsibility on any Minister to say that a firm that is manufacturing, let us say in Ipswich, is to have more steel, except under emergency regulations in force at the present time.
Therefore, we believe, in the first place, that it is by keeping the persistent, vigilant eye of hon. Members of this House on the industries for which the right hon. Members on the Front Bench are responsible that we can see that the efficiency we want is accomplished. I hope that the House will agree with me about that. My right hon. Friend the Lord President will, I hope, keep an open mind. I think that he is generally an open-minded person, particularly on a new matter of this kind. I hope that he will not feel bound to adhere to his statement in the House on 4th December last and that he can go further than that. As a Socialist, I object to the belief that by setting up these boards, we can get a position in which there is no Ministerial accountability to this House. We have heard about day-to-day management. Obviously, that is a very difficult question, and, therefore, not being willing to 402 depart from my principles—I do not hedge on this matter at all—I say that in day-to-day management, hon. Members, on the responsibility given to them, should be able to put down Questions.
The Minister of Transport was asked recently whether he agreed with a special train being run to the Cheltenham races tomorrow. His answer was, "This is a matter for the Transport Commission," which, to my mind, is completely unsatisfactory. The day-to-day running of a train may be a matter for the Transport Commission, but, frankly, on a matter of this kind, and particularly at a time of crisis, it seems completely wrong that the Minister of Transport should say that this is a matter for the Transport Commission, and leave it at that. When it comes to a question of not running something, for instance, not running the Tudors by British South American Airways after the unfortunate crash the other day, the Minister of Civil Aviation rightly, in my opinion, ordered the grounding of the machines until certain inquiries had been carried out. Therefore, when it comes to the question of running special trains to the racecourse at Cheltenham, that is a matter for the Transport Commission, but when it is a question of the running of aircraft, the Minister, because of some other reason—and in my opinion rightly so—informs the House that he is going to have this type of aircraft grounded until an inquiry has taken place.
I beg the Lord President of the Council not to take away the power of this House, and, if I may use words which I seem to have heard, not to thrust on to these boards the ultimate responsibility for what they are doing. If that happens, then quite obviously the boards are not responsible to the Minister, the Minister is not responsible for them to this House, and we have completely irresponsible organisations running our nationalised industries, the very thing against which we have been fighting ever since we have been the Movement.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend has made up his mind, but I hope he will think about this matter in the sense in which I have put it forward. It is recognised that Members of Parliament, particularly when they are new Members, put down little constituency Ques- 403 tions like, "Why did Nuneaton not get a sufficient supply of tomatoes last week? "When they have been here a few years they do not bother putting down Questions from that narrow, constituency point of view. Perhaps it is good practice to start one's Parliamentary life doing it, but as time goes on one knows that one can write to the Minister of Food and get the answer without wasting Parliamentary time. The right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough referred to the late running of trains. There is nothing wrong with putting Questions down about a train being late, particularly if it is always late. An hon. Member is entitled to put it down, but, on the other hand, I have seen such Questions scorned out of the House, if they are put down day after day and deal only with some little thing. The House of Commons has ways of avoiding waste of Parliamentary time, when time is being used up on a silly thing about which an hon. Member could get a reply if he bothered to write to the Minister concerned or to the local consultative council set up in connection with the nationalisation schemes.
§ Mr. Bowles
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Yes, it could be put down for a written answer, because we want to make as much use as possible of the Parliamentary time allowed for oral Questions. I do not think that the House will find the Order Paper for very long cluttered up with small Questions about trains being late. We have got to the position that we wish to sustain our position here in the House of Commons in regard to the nationalised railways being run by the British Transport Commission. It is true that the old railway directors have gone and we have some new directors. I do not know whether they are any better or any worse, but if the Minister of Transport is making that Commission responsible only to itself and not to the Minister, we are really getting to the position of the old railway companies with the old railway directors. Frankly, under those conditions it seems to me we have achieved nothing, except to set up an organisation not responsible to this House, to which we are prepared to hand out public money for recapitali- 404 sation, but over which we have not got what we want, namely, Parliamentary control, watchfulness, power, and authority. I hope my hon. Friends on this side of the House will agree with me about that.
I want to say a word now about there being too many Questions. There is the Ministry of National Insurance set up by this House. How many Questions on National Insurance have been put down in the past week? Six or eight? The Ministry I believe has a staff of 40,000—I may be wrong in that figure, but I think it is somewhere about it—and we have got to deal with insurance benefits and so on. How many Questions appear on the Order Paper each week. I should say an average of 5, 7 or perhaps 10. [An HON. MEMBER: "The new scheme has not started yet."] It has started, but supposing it does start on 5th July in a bigger way, are we then going to have a Question on the Order Paper because a nurse in some hospital left a pail outside the door and someone fell over it? Of course not. I do not fear for one moment that we are going to be worried too much by little Questions.
There is a view held by certain hon. Gentlemen that the Tory Party is going to continue picking at the nationalised industries. I may be a little simple about this, but I ask why should they not? Why should we not? That efficiency, in which I believe, will be promoted only by Parliamentary vigilance and interest. The right hon. and gallant Member for Gains-borough referred to the numerous Questions about the coal industry which were put to him when it was privately run. I believe in the nationalisation of coal, and when the Coal Board and the mines are working efficiently and when the latter are properly equipped, these small and petty Questions will pass from the political arena into the limbo of forgotten things. As I said, I may be simple about this, but that is my view. As the industries have just been nationalised they are still like a red rag to the bulls on the other side of the House. When they are two or three years' old, hon. Members opposite will soon get tired of putting down their heads and rushing at the red rag of the nationalised industries.
There are three things I want to say. First, the Ministers have the right under these Acts to appoint their own boards. If 405 a Minister does that independently and carefully, with proper selection and delegation of his duty to the right people, who, in their turn, will select the right sub-boards, a great deal of anxiety, which perhaps is in the minds of those in charge of the nationalised industries, will disappear; but it is up to the Minister responsible to choose the right people to do the right job. My second point is that I want to make one exception. I think I am justified in doing so. If it comes to a Question about the conditions of the staff, the Minister will be perfectly entitled to say that the question of staff conditions, say, in the coalmines is one to be settled by the usual machinery between employer and trade union, which is working satisfactorily. This aspect of the nationalised industries is a matter from which we should keep aloof. Therefore, the Minister would always be entitled to say that staff conditions ought to be settled in the usual way, and through the machinery which has existed in these industries for the last 50 years. I am perfectly happy to leave such Questions there.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman was quite right in saying that we have not adopted the Civil Service method like, the Post Office in taking over these industries. It has been the definite policy of His Majesty's Government—and I agree—that that should not be the case, and, therefore, there is no similarity between these industries and the Post Office. However, because of that, this House of Commons is not any less interested or less entitled to have all the information that it requires in order to probe the management of the industry concerned in the interests of efficient working.
I should like to take as an example the War Office, though it may be said that it is a silly kind of example. However, the soldiers are under the War Office whether they be in companies, battalions or corps under various officers. In the last resort the Secretary of State for War is responsible for instance for any ill-treatment of any soldier. If anything happens to a soldier, he is responsible for him to this House of Commons. It may be said that the fighting machine is not an industry, but each week we put a lot of Questions on the Order Paper to the War Office. It is salutary for an organisation like the Army that these Questions should be put on the Order Paper. Therefore, I say that 406 we should not allow any gap between even the day-to-day affairs of these industries and the House of Commons.
That is my proposition and I should think that any Socialist would agree that it is right. Hon. Members do not always agree about this, but I am not at all worried about the question of the Older Paper being filled up and people being disgruntled and disheartened and chucking up their jobs and going out. I remember the speech of the Minister of Supply last week in which he said that it was the questioning in the House of Commons about, say, B.O.A.C., the Debates about B.O.A.C., and Press interest in B.O.A.C. which made these civil aviation Corporations—this was his argument—even more enterprising than could reasonably have been expected. That was the argument the Government used in their own defence one week, and I do not see why it should not be used on this occasion. I am most happy to have been able to address the House on this matter because it is important and vital. I hope that the Debate will be considered very carefully by the Government. I agree with the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough that it is not a party matter. We want to get this properly working and to have Parliamentary control over the industries which the country is taking over, through our efforts, week by week.
§ 4.22 p.m.
§ Colonel Ropner (Barkston Ash)
Although the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) spoke from a frankly Socialistic point of view, I am sure that I may assure him that we on this side of the House agreed with a great deal of what he had to say. I am sure that the House is almost unanimous in endorsing the remarks of my right hon. and gallant Friend of the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank), that the problem which faces the House should be treated as an entirely new one. I do not think that we have much to learn by looking for precedents from our pre-war experience of the B.B.C. or by looking into our war-time practice as, for instance, with regard to the Questions which the Minister of Transport answered then. In deciding this issue of how we are to conduct our Business, I am sure we shall act wisely if we regard the problem as a new one which has arisen because of the recent 407 legislation implementing the policy of nationalisation. Because I hope to carry hon. Gentlemen with me in the remarks I have to make, let me say that I do not intend to make this an occasion for attacking in any way the policy of nationalisation.
It is a fact that, under recent legislation, difficulties, misunderstandings and complications have arisen in connection with the asking and answering of Question, and it is to those two problems that I will entirely confine my remarks. It has already been pointed out that these difficulties have arisen because the nationalised industries have been brought under the control of commissions or boards and are not controlled directly by Government Departments. Nationalised industries have been awarded a degree of autonomy, and for that reason the Ministers most closely concerned have been relieved of a degree of responsibility.
This problem, which the whole House will agree is a new one, is also one which assumes day by day greater and greater importance because for the first time millions of men and women are now directly employed in these nationalised industries, for the first time hundreds, if not thousands, of millions of pounds of the taxpayers' money is involved, and for the first time every soul in this country—man, woman or child—is concerned because we are all consumers of the goods or services which are the products of the nationalised industries. Moreover, if the Labour Party continues in power and if that party in the end carries out its programme of the nationalisation of all the means of production, distribution and exchange, and if all this extension of Socialism is effected or operated by the creation of new boards or commissions, there must be a correspondingly growing range of matters of public importance in front of which the iron curtain of official secrecy will fall.
This Debate should cover two entirely different questions, but questions which are closely related. The first is: What Questions are in Order? What Questions may be asked? The second question is: What Questions are Ministers prepared to answer? I hope to submit for the consideration of the House a proposal which I think might solve the difficulties which 408 have arisen in connection with both of those propositions. Subject to the express will of the House, the answer to the first question must be determined by you, Mr. Speaker, and the answer to the second question must be decided by the appropriate Minister, but both Mr. Speaker and the Minister are at present guided by the case law which has arisen as a result of the many rulings which have been given in dealing with the admissibility of Questions. The Clerk of this House in his most valuable book, which can fairly be described as a readable edition of Erskine May, sets out on page 150 an essential qualification to render a Question technically in Order. He says this:A Question should be directed to a Minister officially responsible for the subject-matter with which it deals. (This rule is held to cover not only Questions requiring action, but also those seeking for information).That is the Ruling which presumably determines both the decision of Mr. Speaker with regard to admissibility and the decision of the Minister as to whether or not he replies to a Question.
As, therefore, both the admissibility and the obligation placed on the Minister to reply are dependent on the same considerations or the same rules, it should be true to say both that a Question allowed to appear on the Order Paper is one which the Minister should answer and, conversely, that a Question disallowed by Mr. Speaker must be one which in any case the Minister would not answer. In present circumstances, such is not the case. As hon. Gentlemen who are here at Question Time will appreciate, Questions which have passed the Table are refused an answer by Ministers or, if they are answered, responsibility for the contents of the answer is disclaimed. On the other hand, on frequent occasions, Questions which hon. Members, after a careful study of the relevant Act, consider should be answered, and would be answered if they were allowed, are not allowed by the Table. They are not allowed past the Table because Mr. Speaker, or his advisers, interpret differently from hon. Members the complicated, abstruse and intricate Sections of some Act which attempts to define Ministerial responsibility.
To my mind none of all this is surprising. I agree with the hon. Member for Nuneaton that matters of policy merge 409 imperceptibly into matters of day to day administration. It is bound to be to some extent an arbitrary line if one attempts rigidly to define what, on the one hand, is a matter of policy and, on the other hand, is a matter of day to day administration. Moreover, I suggest that if that line is drawn accurately one day, it will be in the wrong place the next day; that matters of policy, in time, become questions of administration, and matters of administration may boil up over a period of years, months, weeks or even minutes into questions of high policy. But someone has to take the difficult decision, either you, Mr. Speaker, with the help of your advisers, or the Minister concerned. If a matter is referred to, for instance, the Minister of Fuel and Power, it may be that the decision he gives is governed by whether his monthly bath was hot or cold on the morning on which he was asked to give the decision. It is impossible to draw permanently an accurate line between administration and policy.
If the House, as I hope, is in general agreement with the remarks I have made, I think there is no hon. Member present who would not admit that there is something wrong somewhere, and I venture to repeat the second question which I postulated at the beginning of my speech: what questions are Ministers prepared to answer? I would like to change the language a little and ask: what questions should Ministers be prepared to answer? Or even more strongly, what questions will Parliament insist that Ministers shall answer? In my view, sooner or later, Parliament will insist that Ministers shall answer the same range of questions in the case of nationalised industries as they would if those industries were directly and entirely controlled by Government Departments.
I cannot go so far as my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough in suggesting that there should be no limitation to the number of Questions which one can put on the Order Paper with regard to nationalised industries. I think the limit should be the same as in the case of, say the Post Office, the Army, Navy or Air Force. I know that there will be Ministerial reluctance to see the door opened as wide as that; I know that in that reluctance they will be supported by civil servants; I know it may be said that if you allow 410 Questions over a wide range, these nationalised industries will be swamped with Questions and that enterprise will be stifled; but I cannot agree, any more than the right hon. Gentleman opposite agrees, with allegations of that sort. If they have any weight at all, those seem to me to be arguments against nationalisation and not arguments against the right which Members of Parliament should have to acquire information about those industries which have been nationalised.
As the hon. Member for Nuneaton rightly said, if it is possible in wartime to ask the Secretary of State for War why a bugler has lost a button in Burma and if, even with that possibility, we can still win a war, as we did, then there is no fear that a nationalised industry will be swamped out by needless, thoughtless, and unnecessary Questions.
§ Mr. Bowles
I think the hon. and gallant Gentleman was referring to something I did not say. As long as he understands I did not say it, that is all right. I did not refer to wartime questioning.
§ Colonel Ropner
Then I apologise. I thought he did. I thought he gave an example which was drawn from the War Office.
§ Colonel Ropner
I want now to repeat the first question: What Questions are in Order? What Questions may be asked? Here again I would like slightly to change my question and ask, what Questions should be allowed? Or, again rather more strongly, what Questions will the House insist should be allowed. Again I answer that, in my view, sooner or later, this House will insist that Mr. Speaker shall allow the same range of Questions as is customary in the case of those Departments which are run by Departments of State, and Questions will have to be allowed in the case of nationalised industries as if those industries were run directly and entirely by a Government Department.
The rules bearing on the admissibility of Questions form no part of the ancient usage of this House. They cannot even claim the dignity of being part of our Parliamentary practice. They are not even included in our more modern Standing Orders, and the position is merely that they are derived from numerous Rulings which have built up case law 411 governing the framing of Questions. I would ask the House to note very carefully this further extract from Sir Gilbert Campion's book and, if I may add, with respect, Sir, I hope you will note it too. It is this:A Ruling once given, continues to be applied until it is revoked by a subsequent Ruling.I want to make a small digression here, but it has some bearing on the conclusion I will reach. Sir, the House, as I think you will know, was a little startled the other day when you said that you went to, or telephoned, Ministers to ask advice with regard to whether Questions were in Order or not. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I do not think any other course is open to Mr. Speaker in the circumstances as they exist today, unless indeed there is an enormous accretion to his staff. Even then I believe, differences would still arise as to the admissability of Questions as between Mr. Speaker and Ministers, between Mr. Speaker and hon. Members, and between hon. Members and Ministers. In my view, with all humility, I say the fault is certainly not yours Mr. Speaker. It arises from recent legislation, combined with current Rulings, by which you now consider yourself bound.
The combination of current Rulings and recent legislation has given rise to a new problem. It is a problem which must be solved, a problem which will grow in importance, and which will arise on more and more frequent occasions. If you will exercise your right to modify to the extent I have indicated with all humility and respect, the rules governing Questions, you will not only free yourself from an embarrassing position, but will also extricate the House from its difficulties, and at the same time act in accordance with the view of the majority of Members.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
On a point of Order. I do not know whether you, Sir, could assist the House in this. We have a time limit on this Debate, and this is something quite new. I do not know whether it is the intention of the Government to wait until the Debate is concluded and then to reply, or whether it is intended that the Government view, if there is a Government view, shall be indicated earlier, so that we can be in possession of it, and ask questions on it. It would be a great help to have the Government's view on this matter fairly early.
§ Mr. Speaker
I am afraid I have no control over the Government in that respect. We must wait to see what the Government want to do.
§ 4.42 p.m.
§ Mr. Wilfrid Roberts (Cumberland, Northern)
The hon. and gallant Member for Barkston Ash (Colonel Ropner) and the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) said that this was a new problem and a new field. I was a little surprised to hear that, and I think it is instructive to look back a little. Not only was there the outstanding example of the B.B.C. before the war, but also trading organisations, the Agricultural Marketing Board in particular, and another precedent, to which I will refer in a moment. The Government before the war took a very definite view that Questions should not be asked about such bodies as the marketing boards, or about the affairs of the B.B.C. The Ruling was very strict indeed in those days—more strict, I think, than it is today. That does not put the official Opposition in a very strong position to object to what was suggested by the Lord President of the Council the other day. I regret that, because I think none of us must allow the rights of Members of Parliament and the rights of the House to be curtailed if we can possibly help it.
The most interesting example is a long way back. It was in 1933 and 1934, when the Government of the day attempted to set up an Unemployment Assistance Board which was to be right outside political control. I must remind hon. Members of the actions of His Majesty's Opposition about that time. I was not in the House, but I well remember reading the Debates, and I have refreshed my memory. Both the Labour Party and the Liberals of that day opposed the proposal violently and energetically. An attempt was made to set up a board which would administer a great social service, and the only right which Members of Parliament were to have was the right to approve or disapprove, of the rates in the scales of assistance. They could not amend the rates, or interfere with the day-to-day administration. The policy of the Government was that Questions were not to be asked about the administration of the scales which this House had been asked to accept en bloc.
413 That was one of the worst examples of an attempt to take a great issue outside Parliamentary control, and it was absolutely wrong. What is interesting is that it failed. We cannot take away from this House the responsibility for matters which are of public interest and public importance. Without going into the whole of the details, I will say that the Government had to give way, and hon. Members and Parliament as a whole have enjoyed very much greater rights, although not complete rights, in dealing with that problem since.
I do not believe that if today the Government tried to take the question of coal right away from the House of Commons they could do it. A situation would arise in which the public and hon. Members would demand that the main issues should be discussed and should be the subject of Questions and consideration by this House. I am confident that, on the big issues, neither this Government nor any other Government can take away the rights of Members of Parliament to ask general Questions. The difficulty is to draw the line as to where a Question is dealing with policy and where it is dealing with administration. That line may be in a different place at different times. The hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) said that he thought it quite right for a Minister to say that Questions on wages and conditions of service, for instance, in one of the Air Corporations, was one that should be dealt with by the boards, and not by the Minister.
§ Mr. Roberts
The board negotiating with the trade unions, or through whatever organisation is set up. That may be all right when everything goes right, but it would not be all right if there were a big transport strike, or some other really big issue arising. It may not be all right where the question of the "closed shop" comes up. We cannot lay down that Parliament should not have the right to ask a Minister to make a statement on an issue of that sort, on some occasion in the future.
§ Mr. Bowles
What I meant was that I think the Minister should be entitled to say, "I cannot discuss this matter of wage claims, which is under negotiation in the ordinary way; I am leaving it to 414 the ordinary wage machinery." I do not mean that we must not inquire about a transport strike, or anything like that.
§ Mr. Roberts
I believe I come to the same conclusion as does the hon. Member, but for rather different reasons. I wish to safeguard the position of hon. Members in asking Questions and I do, not want to give the Minister a right to say that there is a Ruling, an agreement, or something in an Act, saying that we should not ask Questions on this, and that he must not answer. I do not have, the same idea about public corporations as does the hon. Member for Nuneaton. Frankly, I do not think the hon. Member has got his ideas quite clear about them. At one moment in his speech he was saying, "What is the good of these new boards which have been set up; how do they differ from the old railway boards of directors?" I think he wants the old sort of nationalisation, the Post Office sort of nationalisation, in which the Minister is responsible for the complete administration. If I have misinterpreted the hon. Member, I am willing to give way.
§ Mr. Bowles
I am obliged to the hon. Member. I was saying that, as far as I could see, there would be no difference between the old railway companies and the British Transport Commission if the British Transport Commission was not responsible to this House. The directors of the railway companies were at least responsible to their shareholders. These people are completely irresponsible.
§ Mr. Roberts
I want these corporations to be responsible ultimately to the Minister, and the Minister to be responsible to this House, but I want the corporations to have a considerable amount of independence in managing their affairs. I do not want them to be run from Whitehall. Therefore, I see the difficulty that if we can ask Questions, and if we can suggest to the Minister that he ought to give directions on every matter of administration, the Minister will, in fact, be running these new corporations, and the boards will lose an important part of their independence and sense of responsibility.
The old tradition of the Civil Service is that the Minister is responsible for every action that a civil servant takes. I do not want the Minister to be responsible for every action that every employee of 415 all the public corporations takes. I want to safeguard our right to ask Questions, but I also want to safeguard the Minister's lack of responsibility for every action which every employee takes, and I want the Minister to be able to say freely, "This is a matter which I have left to the board; I can give you information, but I am not taking responsibility."
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Is there not a complete safeguard, in that under the normal practice of the House, as was indicated by the right hon. and gallant Gentleman who opened the Debate, the Minister is always perfectly free not to answer, and is equally free to say, "I would like to give you a reason, but I can only give you an answer with information in it because, under the Act which set up this board, I have no power and no responsibility "? Thus the hon. Member would get the right he wants, the right to ask Questions and the right to have information, without compelling the Minister to answer.
§ Mr. Roberts
I am obliged to the hon. Member for that intervention. I come now to the next point. The Lord President of the Council challenged the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough when he said that we were not getting as much statistical information about coal as we had previously. I have an example of this to give to the House. I offered to the Table yesterday a Question which was not accepted. It was:To ask the Minister of Fuel and Power how many coal washing plants have been ordered since the National Coal Board began operations?Is that a Question asking for statistical information or is it not?
§ Mr. H. Morrison
I did not say that every Question asking about statistics would be in Order. The hon. Member is completely off the rails. What I was challenging the right hon. and gallant Gentleman about was whether the public statistical information about the mining industry today is, as he implied, less than it was in the days when he was Secretary for the Mines Department.
§ Mr. Roberts
As I understand the Lord President, there is more information published now, but that is not necessarily to say that the means of obtaining the 416 information is through a Question to the Minister of Fuel and Power. I take it that the Lord President is not claiming that we are now getting more information, or as much as we did before, through Questions. I think that hon. Members who attempt to ask Questions will agree with me that we are not getting more information as a result of Questions, because our Questions are not now accepted. It may be that there are the means of getting information, but it is not by means of Question time that we do so. That is the point of our objection.
I do not think that the right of asking Questions can be divorced from other means of eliciting information and of stating views in this House. It is true that Questions are sometimes used for expressing views as well as for asking questions, but we have to be careful that what is now happening is not the thin end of the wedge which will prevent us from having free Debates on Supply Days or on the Adjournment about the affairs of public corporations. We have to be very careful that the right of this House to examine expenditure is safeguarded. There are at least two Committees of this House, the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Estimates, both of which may wish to deal with questions about the financial affairs of Government corporations. I imagine that there is no doubt that when the Government are giving a subsidy or making a direct Treasury contribution, these two Committees would be completely free to examine the financial affairs of those corporations. It is not so clear whether they could do so when the Government were not giving direct assistance in some form or other.
I think that both these Committees ought to have the right of examining the operations of these public bodies. It may be that at the present time some bodies which have been in existence for many years—marketing boards, for example—should be re-examined to see whether they are still fulfilling their functions efficiently. These bodies may or may not be receiving direct assistance from the Exchequer, but it is surely drawing a completely arbitrary line to say that where, in fact, they are making sufficient profit or, in cases where profit is not involved, where their income and expenditure balances, this House cannot examine their operations, whereas 417 if income and expenditure do not balance, it can? Surely that is altogether a wrong distinction? That right may be completely safeguarded, but I would like to have an assurance from the Lord President that there will be no interference in the right of these two Committees to call for witnesses and papers and to examine the accounts of these public corporations if they wish to do so.
There is a further point which would assist Members of Parliament. Ministers are now in the habit, sometimes, in answer to a Question, of referring the Member direct to the board concerned. That is rather an anomalous position because the old tradition of the Civil Service is that a Member must not go direct to a civil servant. Members often do, but they always run the risk of being told that they must go direct to the Minister. As I say, Ministers are now beginning to refer Members direct to boards. That position ought to be clarified. Have Members the right to go direct to boards, or can they do so only with the permission of the Minister? I would like to see them have the right of approaching the boards and having a reasonable expectation of a full and complete answer.
Question Time fulfils two functions in particular, as well as many others. One of those functions is to obtain information. That may be a valuable function, but it does not, necessarily, assist the main object of these boards, which is that the public should be better served. It is not a very constructive purpose, but it is a valuable one. I consider that constructive criticism must come very much more in Debate or through the Committees of this House. The other great function of Question Time has always been to ensure that individuals get justice from Government Departments. I think that we, as Members of Parliament, should stand out very firmly still to be allowed to use Question Time to ventilate individual grievances. If a board has take an action which may, or may not, be justified, it should be possible for an hon. Member to put down a Question about that individual case, and to have the Minister give a reply on behalf of the board. That is one of the fundamental rights of the House of Commons, and I hope we can still maintain it.
§ 5.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Driberg (Maldon)
The hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) raised one extremely important new point which had not been touched upon so far in the Debate. He referred to the growing practice, which, he said, Ministers are apparently encouraging, by which Members of Parliament communicate direct with boards or commissions. If that is so—and I hope my right hon. Friend will answer this point—and if that practice is growing, does not that become an undesirable day-to-day interference by Members of Parliament in the running of these nationalised industries? Would it not be just as irritating and disheartening to the people in control of these boards and commissions as would be Questions in this House? If it be said in reply—as it may well be—that hon. Members will exercise discretion, and not write letters every day about every detail, I would point out that, of course, lion. Members exercise discretion about the Questions which they put on the Order Paper. They do not put down a Question every day about the 9.15 train from Lincoln, and so on.
A secondary point which arises is that, at present, when an hon. Member takes up a case with a Minister simply by letter, and not necessarily by putting down a Question, I have always understood that that communication is privileged, both the letter of the hon. Member and the reply of the Minister. I take it that communications between hon. Members and these boards or commissions may not be so protected. It would be worth finding out about that, because, although it is difficult to think of an example offhand, obviously a case may arise in which an hon. Member's complaint to a board might have to contain matter which would be libellous, if it were not protected by Privilege.
The course of this Debate has shown that this is not a matter for the Opposition alone. With all respect to the right hon. Gentleman who opened the Debate, I do not think that it is a matter on which the Opposition particularly can claim to press His Majesty's Government too hard, because it was they who, in some Standing Committees on these nationalisation Bills, did press very hard indeed against allowing day-to-day interference by Ministers. It is, however, 419 obviously a House of Commons matter. All of us, and I suggest especially those of us who are Socialists, must examine with anxious care and doubt anything which even seems to diminish the sovereignty of Parliament.
The argument against those who take the view that I am endeavouring to express, and which was expressed so ably and eloquently by the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles), is the argument of efficiency. We would all agree that it is essential that the efficiency of nationalised industries should not be impaired in any way, but I think it is legitimate to instance the case of the General Post Office, which has already been mentioned. I agree that there is no exact parallel between the directly State-run General Post Office and the board or corporation of a nationalised industry. I would like my right hon. Friend to say whether there is any evidence at all that the General Post Office is less efficiently run because Questions about it appear on the Order Paper, than it would otherwise be. I do not believe for a moment that it is less efficient. Opinions may vary about the efficiency of the General Post Office, but I, personally, consider it an efficient Department. I am quite sure that, if anything, it is rather more efficient, because it is constantly stimulated by Questions in this House.
The other example which I consider it is fair to quote is that of the Ministry of Transport during the war. In those days we often saw on the Order Paper Questions about the 9.15 from Lincoln, and so on.
§ Mr. Driberg
My hon. Friend will appreciate that I am merely using the 9.15 from Lincoln as an example. That may have been simply because the 9.15 from Lincoln was so repeatedly unpunctual that it became a matter of wide public concern, or it may have been because in some way it illustrated a general principle, as did the case of the race train referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton—obviously a matter about which a Question could rightly be put down on the Order Paper. In any case, my point is that the Order Paper, 420 although it contained a good many Questions to the Minister of War Transport, was never unduly or intolerably burdened by Questions regarding the 9.15 from Lincoln. That never became a matter which wasted the time of the House as a whole, or the time of the Minister. Moreover, one did find, at least within my own experience, that the mere fact of putting down a Question about the 9.15 from Lincoln, if it was too often late, did mean that it became a good deal more punctual—for the next few months at any rate; and I suppose punctuality in a train is a form of efficiency.
There is another most important point which has not been referred to before, and I should be grateful if the Lord President of the Council could answer this point in particular. I gather that when the new National Health service comes into effect the Minister of Health is going to make himself directly responsible to this House for every detail of day-to-day administration, as well as for the general policy. He is not going to push it off by saying, "That is a matter for the Regional Hospital Boards," or that it would cause distress and inefficiency if——
§ Mr. H. Morrison
I am sorry to be so elementary, but it is really an utterly elementary point of Parliamentary procedure. The Health Act lays it down that the Minister takes over the hospitals. Other Acts lay it down that properties are vested in the boards. That is the point. Therefore, I am surprised that my hon. Friend should put his question. It is perfectly clear that if the hospitals are vested in the Minister, then the Minister will be prepared to answer anything about hospitals.
§ Mr. Driberg
My right hon. Friend really has not grasped my point. I am sorry to have to put it to him in such an elementary way; but I will try to repeat it in words of one syllable, so that he will be able to grasp it. Of course, I know that it is in the Act. If the other Acts were perhaps wrongly drafted in some way, then they ought to be amended, but that is a matter which we cannot discuss on the Adjournment. The point I am endeavouring to argue is this. It is said that if there are Questions in this House about the day-to-day administration of some nationalised industry or service that 421 will cause inefficiency, and delays, and nervous breakdowns in that industry or service. If that is so in the case of coal, electricity, or transport, why should it not be so in the case of the National Health Service also? It is a very complex administration.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Cooper (Middlesbrough, West)
Does not my hon. Friend appreciate that there is a great difference between running an industry and running something which is simply an administrative task?
§ Mr. Driberg
I realise that the two cases are not exactly analogous, but I should have thought that my hon. Friend might have felt more disposed to interrupt me on the G.P.O. My hon. Friend speaks of the National Health Service as "simply" an administrative job. I do not think it will be a simple one. There is an acute shortage of doctors and a continuing shortage of buildings. Many other difficulties will confront the people who will be running that service.
Of course, this procedure of Questions about nationalised industries is capable of abuse. If a section of hon. Members wanted to try to do the "dirty" on an industry and to wreck it by putting three Questions each on the Order Paper every day, that could be temporarily inconvenient. History has shown, however, that when any section of hon. Members of this House try to use the machinery of Parliament in anything like a wrecking way, Parliament quickly adapts its procedure to meet that situation.
From the point of view of Socialists—I say this, with the greatest respect, to my hon. Friends on this side of the House—it seems to me that one of the main human arguments for nationalisation is that it helps to protect the consumer and the worker from the irresponsible caprice of private enterprise, and particularly of monopolistic private enterprise—irresponsible in the strict, etymological sense of the word. Both consumer and worker have other protection, too, of course. The consumer has consumers' councils or committees. The workers' grievances are always properly dealt with by their unions, through the regular channels of negotiation. I suggest that in both respects Parliament should remain the final court of appeal. After all, if a Parliamentary Question is put down now to the Minister 422 of Labour about a trade dispute, he quite properly answers that the matter is, in effect, sub judice and that he is not in a position to interfere in it; but the Question can be put upon the Order Paper. Apart from particular trade disputes, hon. Members, and particularly trade union Members, have never been slow, rightly, to air general questions of the welfare and conditions of their constituents who are members of trade unions in the various industries.
I want to ask my right hon. Friend for an assurance on one other point. Some of us would like to know how this procedure applies to the Overseas Food, and Colonial Development Corporations which have been set up. I ask this question with particular reference to the welfare of the African people who will be concerned in great developments such as the groundnuts scheme. This is very important indeed. Many of the African people are already suspicious of that scheme, partly because it is being administered in the preliminary stages, for reasons which have been explained to this House, by the United Africa Company, and not by public enterprise at all. We must, therefore, be in a position to protect the welfare and the interests of our Colonial fellow-subjects of the Crown in Africa, as we have always been on other matters in the past. I hope that my right hon. Friend can give a definite assurance on that point.
It comes down to this, then: we hope that the Chair will exercise the utmost latitude in admitting Questions to the Order Paper, and that Ministers concerned will be generous in meeting us halfway, so to speak, and saying that they will make representations or, in occasional cases, when necessary will issue general directions to the boards or the commissions concerned. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity of meeting a foreign visitor to this House. He had just been listening, for the first time in his life, to Question Time and he was, as foreign visitors always are, greatly impressed by it. I asked him, however, what his further impressions were. He said that the only thing he had against Question Time was that it was ridiculous that the time of the House should be wasted with trivial, particular Questions about Mrs. Jones's pension and other special matters, which obviously should not have bee a put down upon the Paper. That foreign 423 visitor was a representative of the official Soviet News Agency. So I am just a little concerned to find my right hon. Friend tending in what seems to be a somewhat dangerously Muscovite direction.
§ Mr. H. Morrison
That remark is too provocative to be allowed to pass. Can my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about the Soviet Union, and its satellites, tell me where I can put my hand on a copy of the HANSARD of the Soviet Union that will give me a' complete record of all the Parliamentary Questions, hostile and friendly, supplementary questions, notices to raise matters on the Adjournment, and the moving of the Adjournment under Standing Order No. Io? If he can, I should be glad to see it.
§ Mr. Driberg
I do not think that my right hon. Friend can have heard the beginning of my anecdote, which was meant only as a passing jest, by way of peroration. I was specifically dissociating myself from the idea that anything for which a Minister is responsible is too trivial to be put down on the Order Paper of any Parliament. I wish that all the Parliaments in the world had as free and as useful a Question Time as we have. That is why I am sorry to find my right hon. Friend agreeing with an official representative of the Soviet News Agency in thinking that Question Time should be whittled down. My right hon. Friend must not go too Eastern-European, or he will have the National Executive after him.
Seriously—I am sorry to have gone on for so long, but I have had one or two interruptions—I agree that nationalised industries must be efficient. Of course they must. They must also—and I do not see why there need be any conflict between the two—be responsible, in the only sense in which that word has any meaning, which is to say that they must be answerable to the public for their conduct, through a Minister, in this House.
§ 5.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Molson (The High Peak)
If the Government have been under the impression that this Debate would take a party line, they will have had that impression removed by the speeches made by the hon. Members for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles) and Maldon (Mr. Driberg). I am bound 424 to say that both those hon. Members go much further than I should wish to go in advocating interference by this House in the day-to-day administration of nationalised industries. I would contrast the moderate proposals put forward by my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) with the far more extreme requests of the two hon. Gentlemen.
§ Mr. Molson
There was a most distinct difference between what my right hon. and gallant Friend said and what those two hon. Gentlemen opposite said. This is not a matter upon which it was reasonable to interrupt me. I hope that the Lord President of the Council will do as my right hon. and gallant Friend suggested and not shut any doors. Obviously, we are embarking upon a new departure. It will be necessary for the House to move slowly and to gain experience as it goes in the degree to which Parliamentary interrogation can be useful without being harmful.
As the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts), who spoke on behalf of the Liberal Party, said, there is a considerable past history in this matter. The first point I would like to emphasise is that there is a clear logical difference between the refusal of the Table to allow a question to be put on the Order Paper on the ground that no Minister is responsible, and the refusal of a Minister to answer a question. There has been some criticism on various occasions of the attitude of the Table in this matter. However, as a matter of fact, this duty of the Table to refuse to admit to the Order Paper a question on a matter for which a Minister is not directly responsible goes back a long way. On 10th December, 1929, an hon. Member raised as a point of Order the refusal of the Chair to allow a question with regard to the B.B.C. to be put upon the Order Paper. There followed after that a long series of Debates and discussions ending with a Motion moved on 22nd February, 1933, by Mr. Charles Emmott, a Conservative Member at that time, in which the House decided that it was satisfied with the existing Charter of the British Broadcasting Company. It was decided that it would be contrary to the public interest for the Government or 425 Parliament to exercise any closer control than was already the practice.
Having said that, I feel that one must recognise also that the attitude taken by the Table cannot but be very much influenced by the attitude of the sponsoring Ministers. Actually, anyone who compares the wording of the Charter of the B.B.C. with the wording of the provisions of the Agricultural Marketing Act, could not avoid coming to the conclusion that the Postmaster-General, if he wished to do so, could exercise a much stricter control over the B.B.C. than the Minister of Agriculture could exercise over the marketing boards. Both Mr. Lees-Smith, who belonged to the Socialist Party, and Sir Kingsley Wood, who belonged to the Conservative Party, were completely in agreement and they were supported by successive Parliaments in the view that it would be unwise and undesirable for matters of programmes or day-to-day administration of the B.B.C. to be raised in the House and for the Postmaster-General to accept responsibility. On the other hand, although the Minister of Agriculture had no control over the marketing boards, and although he had not the powers which are granted by the Transport Act and the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act to obtain all the figures and facts from the boards, successive Ministers of Agriculture answered questions about the marketing boards usually with the preliminary, comment:By courtesy of the Marketing Board, I am able to give the hon. Member the information which he desires.That goes to show that the position of the Table is a very difficult one in trying accurately to construe the controlling words of the Charter or the Act if, in point of fact, Ministers like the Ministers of Agriculture were willing and, indeed, anxious to answer questions even on matters for which they were not directly responsible while Major Tryon, when he succeeded Sir Kingsley Wood, began to answer questions in the House for which Sir Kingsley Wood would never have accepted responsibility.
The influence of the policy of the Minister on the admissibility of Questions has been carried one stage further by a Ruling of the late Mr. Speaker Fitzroy, that when once a Minister had refused to answer a question, the Table was not to accept the same kind of question again in the future. 426 I understand that it is the doctrine that a Speaker is bound by decisions of previous Speakers. If that be so, it may be necessary for some method to be devised for ascertaining the views of the House upon the question whether it is really desirable that this decision of the late Mr. Speaker Fitzroy should continue to apply. I have no hesitation in saying that on the wording of at least two of the nationalisation statutes, the proper construction to be put upon them is that many of these questions should be admissible if it were not for that decision of the late Mr. Speaker Fitzroy which rules out of Order Questions of a kind Ministers have refused to answer. Under the Transport Act the Minister is able to "give to the Commission directions of a general character," and it is provided that:In framing programmes … involving substantial outlay on capital account, the Board shall act on lines settled from time to time with the approval of the Minister.It is also laid down:The Commission shall furnish the Minister with such returns, accounts and other information with respect to their property and activities as he may from time to time require.I do not express any opinion where my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) stands in this matter, but I differ from the Members of the Socialist Party who have spoken in that I believe that it would be a very great mistake if the Minister of Transport or the Minister of Fuel and Power accepted the position that he should be held accountable for every small day to day decision taken in the nationalised industries. Two evil results would necessarily follow from that. We on this side of the House have always said that one of the great dangers—we would say evils—of nationalisation is that no administrator ever dares to take a risk.
If every administrator, before making up his mind about what to do in day-to-day administration, had to consider how his particular actions might look if a Question were put down in the Howe of Commons about them, then I believe it would have a most deadening effect on all initiative and enterprise in these nationalised industries. The second result that would follow would be equally logical. If the Ministers were liable to be questioned about these matters in the House of Commons and held responsible for them, they would obviously require to 427 exercise control, and the effect of that would be a great centralisation of these various nationalised industries, which again would inevitably result in a vast, cumbrous and awkward bureaucracy.
Therefore, I support the suggestion which has been made by my right hon. Friend that the responsibility for refusing to answer Questions shall be regarded as a Parliamentary and administrative responsibility which should rest fairly and squarely upon the Ministers themselves. Their shoulders are broad enough, and, as long as they possess the confidence of the House, I am sure they will be sustained by the majority of the House when they refuse to answer vexatious and unreasonable Questions. I do say that for there to be an arbitrary rule, and that the Table should be required to disallow Questions merely upon the actual wording of the statute, is not likely to work satisfactorily in the long run. It is not possible, by the construction of the words, to draw a distinction between what is a matter of detail of day-to-day administration and what is a matter involving a principle. It is the Minister, who knows how the administration is working, who will in fact be in a far better position to perceive whether this is an important matter, which may perhaps be the beginning of some great industrial dispute which is likely to arise and which does involve some great matter of principle.
It was the intention that this Debate should be chiefly confined to this one matter of Parliamentary Questions, and I will therefore say only a few words on the much bigger and broader question of the general system of Parliamentary control over these new socialised industries. It will not be possible for Parliament fully and accurately to inform itself about the activities of these industries by means of Parliamentary Question and answer. One of the great dangers of socialised industries will be an unwillingness to move with the times and to recognise that mistakes have been made. I believe that, When reports are presented to Parliament annually by the boards, it will be necessary for a Select Committee of the House, analagous to the Public Accounts Committee to go into the matter, and I think it will require to be assisted by a permanent staff, rather in the same way that your Counsel, Mr. Speaker, assists the Committee of this House which examines 428 Statutory Instruments, and the way in which the auditor and Accountant-General assists the Public Accounts Committee.
I would express the hope that, during the next few months, the Government will keep an open mind on the steps required to deal with this entirely new departure. I believe that the discussion which we have had today is only dealing with one important, but still small, part of this subject, which is the effective control and supervision by the nation of those great industries and services which have now become public property.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Diamond (Manchester, Blackley)
I was very glad to hear the hon. Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) refer to two points. The first was the undesirability of asking Questions on day-to-day matters, and the second was the need for some further machinery beyond that which we have already for satisfying Parliament as to these most important Questions. I take the view that the excess of Questions which have been put to the Table and to Ministers on the nationalised industries arises from the fact that the Government have not been very helpful in providing adequate alternative opportunities and machinery for doing the very thing which I am sure all hon. Members on both sides of the House are anxious to do; that is, to satisfy themselves as to the efficiency of the nationalised industries. It is a matter upon which I am sure that hon. Members opposite are most anxious, and hon. Member on this side are even more anxious, because we take the view that nationalisation, apart from its many other and obvious merits, shall stand or fall, if necessary, on this question of efficiency, and I entirely support the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council in that respect.
It is, therefore, necessary that we should have the fullest opportunity of satisfying ourselves that these corporations are being efficiently run. Clearly, it is quite impossible that that can be done adequately in the form of Parliamentary Question and answer. It is unfair to the hon. Member, and it is even much more grossly unfair to the corporations and the officials whose activities are being questioned. Somewhat after the style of the Romans, who made it clear what answers to their Questions they required 429 by one of three little words placed at the beginning, hon. Members have a habit of making it quite clear what they require to be done about something or other by the way in which they word their Questions; and Questions are not always directed purely for obtaining statistical information. They are directed more frequently with a view to something being done or some grievance being put right, and it is obviously quite wrong and demoralising for those who have these great responsibilities that there should be attempts made to justify administrative actions or day-to-day actions in the short scope of a 30-second or one-minute answer to a Question.
Therefore, I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he will continue to be in this embarrassing position, and that the Chair, if I may say so, will continue to have this unbearable burden put upon it, until hon. Members—and far be it from me to deprive any hon. Members of their full rights in this democratic institution—until hon. Members have some alternative and can know for certain that they need not ask a Question on a particular day because they would get a fuller answer later on, if the matter is not so immediate and urgent.
I would suggest two things to the Government in order that this matter may be put right. The first is that many of the Questions addressed to the Government at the moment are Questions which would be put more appropriately to the consultative councils, if they have been established. My right hon. Friend might say that they are in process of establishment, and, so far as further nationalised industries are concerned, I hope he will endeavour to set up, at the same time as the industry is taken over, a consultative council which could start to function contemporaneously. The second thing which I suggest is that, in order to deal with this problem of questions, there should be machinery provided along the lines put forward by the hon. Member for The High Peak, whose suggestion I would like to endorse. We ask our Questions to satisfy ourselves that these organisations are being efficiently run. I suggest that we are not able to answer that question satisfactorily from the information available to us or from the machinery open to us. Members of Parliament have far too much to 430 do to be able to go into all these detailed questions satisfactorily.
Therefore, the answer is that some organisation should be set up, directed to satisfying the House—because, surely, we are responsible for the nation's assets which are transferred to these national industries—that these organisations are being efficiently run. Such an organisation would have to work under an official who should certainly not be an, official of any Department, but should, like the Comptroller and Auditor-General, be a servant of this House, responsible to this House, and dismissable only by this House, or, if necessary, by both Houses of Parliament. This gentleman who, for the sake of a title, we might call the "Efficiency Auditor-General," would have, with the assistance of a staff, the power to examine from time to time, in the same way as an auditor functions, the question of whether or not an industry was being efficiently carried on. This is quite a different question from that of whether the finance of an industry is being properly spent. The professional auditor appointed under the Act would no doubt do that. What we have to do is to satisfy ourselves that the money is being wisely spent, and that is quite beyond the scope of an ordinary professional auditor, or, indeed, of either of the two committees which exist at the moment.
§ Mr. Bowles
Does my hon. Friend think that a civil servant, such as the "Efficiency Auditor-General," could decide the wisdom of what was going on?
§ Mr. Diamond
If my hon. Friend will allow me to continue, he will find that I shall give him a satisfactory answer. The only body which can answer that question satisfactorily is this House. I am suggesting the provision of machinery in order that that necessary information shall be made available, and fully, on appropriate occasions. I was going on to suggest that the Efficiency Auditor-General should be responsible to a committee of this House, because there are too many hon. Members in it for the matter to be dealt with in debate, and we are too fully occupied. The committee could not, on constitutional grounds alone, be the Select Committee or the Accounts Committee, because they deal with money voted by Parliament, and, on the whole, nationalised industries will not, we hope, 431 have money voted to them by Parliament.
Because of the constitutional position, and also because of the fact that, if I may say so, hon. Members who form those committees may not be the most appropriate to consider whether or not an industry is being efficiently run, it is clear that a new Select Committee will be necessary. I have no doubt that there are hon. Members who are very well qualified to carry out that task, Members who are skilled in labour relations, in financial management, and who will have had experience of the industry before its nationalisation, and who, in the future, it is to be hoped, will graduate from the nationalised industries into this House and who will have experience of it directly in that way. They will be members of varied ability, experience and capacity, who will be able satisfactorily to receive the reports from the Efficiency Auditor-General and to comment on those reports. What is the most valuable thing of all, they will have brought before them as witnesses members of the boards of the industries concerned, who will, in this way, have an opportunity of satisfying this Select Committee that they have carried out their duties wisely and efficiently, so far as they are permitted so to do under the policy laid down by the Government.
There we have the exact problem as in the Select Committee on Estimates, which can only consider estimates within the limitations of government policy. Those reports would then be laid before the House, and the House would have the fullest opportunity in long debates of discussing and satisfying themselves as to two important things: first, that the Minister's policy, for which he is responsible to the House, was wisely conceived; and, secondly, that those charged with the carrying out of the administration of the nationalised industries within that policy have carried it out wisely and efficiently.
§ Mr. S. O. Davies (Merthyr)
Will my hon. Friend explain in a little more detail how this efficiency expert, as he calls him, will be able to present to any section of the Members of this House a full report as to whether an industry is being efficiently run on the practical side, the technical side, the technological side, and so on? Would he not have to be a super 432 Coal Board, having more knowledge than the Coal Board has?
§ Mr. Diamond
I would like to answer that question in detail, but, for reasons which are known to you, Mr. Speaker, I do not think I had better attempt to do so. I will say shortly that it is now a well-established profession, and that there is no difficulty in finding the necessary number of people professionally qualified to carry out the work of the efficiency auditor. It is a profession which could be developed, and there would be no difficulty in providing the necessary manpower which would supply the E.A.G., as I call him, with adequate information which he can place before the Select Committee of this House. In that way, I hope, we should gain satisfactory information.
It seems to me that if I—I am not suggesting for one moment this is the case, because it is a non-party affair—were desirous of demoralising the management of a nationalised industry with a view to proving that it could not possibly be efficiently run, I should make it my duty to put down as many Questions as the Clerks at the Table would allow, finicky, irritating questions on day-to-day management, until I was sure that no self-respecting, worthwhile director, or member of a board, would dream of taking on the job of being a member of a board of a nationalised industry.
§ 5.48 P.m.
§ Sir John Anderson (Scottish Universities)
I do not propose to follow either the hon. Member for Blackley (Mr. Diamond) or my hon. Friend the Member for The High Peak (Mr. Molson) on the broader issue of the best method of making effective the ultimate responsibility of Parliament for these socialised services. I think I can most usefully occupy such time as is available to me by confining myself, for the moment, to the narrower question of the admissibility of questions, and the responsibility of Ministers in regard to answering or not answering Questions relating to those socialised services.
I am very glad to have the opportunity of taking part in this Debate, because I recognise, as do other hon. Members, that the issue raised is an important constitutional one. As it happens, it is also a matter to which I have had to give a good deal of thought at different times in the past. As my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain 433 Crookshank) said in his opening speech, we are face to face with a situation which is, in some respects—I think only in some respects—novel. I entirely agree with him, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman who replies to this Debate will make it clear that he also agrees, that we ought to beware of laying down a too rigid set of rules for our guidance at the outset. Let us see how we get along.
I say that with greater assurance because last Thursday Mr. Speaker himself, at the close of Questions, made it perfectly clear that, so far as admissibility is concerned, that is a matter, not of Standing Orders or of formalised Rules, but of the custom of this House. One naturally looks to Erskine May for guidance in a matter of this kind and, in regard to the admissibility of Questions, the relevant passage in Erskine May runs as follows:Questions addressed to Ministers should relate to the public affairs with which they are officially connected, to proceedings pending in Parliament, or to matters of administration for which they are responsible.I suggest that when we talk of the responsibility of Ministers as being our guide in this matter, we ought to have regard to both limbs of that quotation. It is clear, and it has been clearly recognised by previous speakers, that there are two quite distinct issues: what Questions are admissible, and how far can the Minister legitimately go in declining to answer Questions which appear on the Paper. Those two questions, I suggest, may be connected—although they are in essence distinct—by the application of what is called the, rule against repetition which, as quoted in Erskine May, runs:Repeating in substance questions already answered or to which an answer has been refused.I will return in a moment to that point, but I want first to deal with the interpretation of responsibility in this connection. My submission is that one must deduce from the scope of the Minister's functions, rather than from any strict interpretation of specific statutory provisions governing the Minister's powers, what is really the extent of his responsibility. I venture to submit, with great respect, that if an attempt were made to limit the responsibility of the Minister by reference to the precise words in which his responsibility may be defined in the particular statute in question, we should 434 not be adhering to the past practice of this House.
The Department of State with which I am most familiar is the Home Office, and it is a matter of undoubted fact that from time to time the Home Secretary has been asked, and has answered, Questions on matters in regard to which he has no specific responsibility and, indeed, no power. I can readily recall examples. When, for instance, on the first day of the opening of the football field at Twickenham an unfortunate incident occurred, the barriers were rushed and broken down, and many people were hurt, Questions were put immediately and, I submit, very properly to the Home Secretary. He answered those Questions, and he took certain action by way of appointing a committee of inquiry. Similarly, when there were certain disastrous and unexpected floods in London in the twenties, the Home Secretary was called upon to satisfy the House that all proper measures were being taken to safeguard the interests of the public. The other day, the Colonial Secretary was questioned on the tribal murders in the Gold Coast. It appeared, after certain initial confusion had been cleared away, that in that matter he had no responsibility and no power, but I think the House would have taken it very ill if Questions on that matter had been prevented from appearing on the Paper.
Now it may be said that those are exceptional cases, that the Home Secretary and the Colonial Secretary are the custodians of the residual prerogative powers of the Crown, and that what applies to them might not apply to Ministers whose functions are defined by statute. I would like to address myself to that and to give, first, an illustration from the Home Office in a matter in which the Home Secretary's position is defined by statute. In that connection I would point out a rather interesting difference between the position of die Home Secretary in relation to the Prison Commissioners, whose powers are set out in detail in a series of statutes, and the position of the Home Secretary in relation to the Commissioner of Metropolitan Police. The governing statutes dealing with the powers of the Prison Commissioners not only set out those powers in detail, but provide at almost every point that, in the exercise of those powers, the 435 approval of the Home Secretary must be assured. On the other hand, in the case of the Commissioner of Police, the statute gives certain specific powers to the Home Secretary to recommend the appointment of gentlemen as Commissioner and Assistant Commissioners, to extend the scope of the responsibilities of the police from time to time but, in regard to the control of the administration of the Police Force, the statute is entirely silent.
Nevertheless, as hon. Members will recollect, cases have arisen from time to time upon which the Home Secretary has been questioned regarding the conduct of the Metropolitan Police. Hon. Members may remember the notorious Savage case, which excited a great deal of interest in this House. I can assure the House that the Home Secretary had no power and no specific responsibility. The Commissioner of Police acted at the instance of the Director of Public Prosecutions and carried out what must be regarded as being a duty of the head officer of the Metropolitan Police, but the Home Secretary was questioned and had to answer, and I am perfectly certain that the House would have taken it amiss if the Home Secretary had endeavoured to make out that, because he had no specific responsibility, the Questions were such as he ought not to be called upon to answer.
If I am not wearying the House, and because I think these illustrations are of use, I will refer to another interesting case. In 1911 a statute of a novel character became law, setting up what might be regarded fairly as a socialised service, the National Insurance service. From beginning to end of that long statute there is no reference to the control of a Minister. There are references to the power of the Treasury to appoint Insurance Commissioners, and the Treasury are given the ordinary power to approve establishments. Beyond that, however, and beyond the provision towards the end providing that a body be set up to be called the National Health Insurance Joint Committee, to have as its chairman someone who would not on that account be precluded from sitting in the House, there is no provision in that statute defining the power or responsibility of Ministers in relation to the important public functions entrusted to the Insurance Commissioners. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that from the moment 436 that Act became operative, Ministers of the Crown were bombarded with Questions unprecedented in volume and scope.
How did that arise? According to my belief it arose from the fact that the Treasury were given the power to appoint the Insurance Commissioners and it was held that, having the power to appoint the Insurance Commissioners and, presumably, the power to remove them, they thereby became responsible for the whole range of functions of those four bodies. I am not concerned to argue whether that was the correct view or not, but the fact stands out, and it is significant in this connection because, in relation to the socialised services, Ministers are given the same power to appoint the members of the board, in the case of the Transport Commission. This is the exact wording:Every member of the Commission shall hold and vacate his office in accordance with the terms of his appointment and shall, on ceasing to be a member, be eligible for reappointment.Quite apart from the general power to give directions, and quite apart from the power of the Minister to call for information, the Minister in relation to the British Transport Commission, has exactly the same power to appoint the responsible operating authorities as the Treasury had under the Act to appoint the Insurance Commissioners.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
It is not necessary for the right hon. Gentleman's argument to show that the Minister thereby becomes responsible. It is enough if he shows that the Minister is officially connected with it.
§ Sir J. Anderson
I merely wanted to drive the point home by developing the argument by specific reference to cases which I think are analogous, and which ought to be taken into account when we try to make up our minds as to what the position exactly is on this point, especially under these recent Acts. I am bound to say that I have observed in the last two years that, in regard to the port and harbour authorities of the country, Questions have from time to time been put to the Minister of Transport, and have been answered by him—I am making no criticism of that at all—on matters which are at any rate outside his statutory responsibility. If hon. Members are interested, they might look at HANSARD for 1st April, 1946, where they will see that the Minister of Transport 437 answered certain Questions concerning the internal arrangements of the Port of London Authority and, in giving an answer, he used the formula which was referred to by one Member earlier in the Debate, that he was giving the information by courtesy of the Port of London Authority.
That seems to me to negative any view that Questions which are not strictly within the defined statutory responsibilities of the Minister must, of necessity, be ruled out of Order and refused at the Table. If, in regard to the port and harbour authorities, where the Minister even now has nothing like the responsibilities that he has in relation to the fully socialised services, Questions could be put on the Paper and answered, it would be very odd if that were not also the position in regard to the services which have been fully socialised. Obviously, all the activities of these boards of socialised industries come within the purview of the Minister, although his specific administrative responsibilities may be limited. I suggest that detailed management in the case of these socialised services is just as much, or as little, the responsibility of the Minister, and not of the board, as in the case of the Home Secretary and the Commissioner of Police.
Moreover, I think that the case for holding that the Minister's responsibilities go very far indeed is, as hon. Members have pointed out, greatly strengthened by the fact that he is specifically empowered to call for information on a wide range of matters. I would submit, therefore, that all Questions relating to the activities of these boards of socialised industries are prima facie admissible, subject to the ordinary Rules and the ordinary established customs of the House, and subject, in particular, to the Rule, to which I have already referred, against repetition, however that Rule may be interpreted. I would, therefore, argue that a Question about the 9.15 train from Lincoln, or some train from Nuneaton, is, in the first instance, admissible. Where I confess I have doubts is whether, when the Minister has said he will not answer that Question, or that sort of Question, any other Question of the same kind, relating to a different station and a different train, for example, should not be properly refused at the Table.
§ Sir J. Anderson
I am inclined to think that it should be refused at the Table, so long as the Minister has the confidence of the House in refusing, as a matter of practice, to answer that Question. It would be silly, if not mischievous, to go on trying again and again. I would say—and here I take the point of my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank)—that if the night mail from Edinburgh is an hour late day after day, weekend after weekend, I think the Question could very properly be put, not with the vain hope that the Minister would lift his finger and intervene to bring about immediately a much better state of affairs, but in order to get information and in order to be able to form a true judgment as to the efficiency of the service. I think that there we get a matter of administration, which I agree has to be distinct from management. Administration and policy go very closely together; I submit that management is a different matter.
Before I pass from this particular question of admissibility, I would like to add this consideration. It is conceded on all sides that there must be Debates from time to time when the reports and accounts of those socialised industries come up for consideration in the House. If such Debates are to be effective, it seems to me that it would be reasonable to allow very special latitude prior to the Debate for Questions, even Questions of detail, concerning the day-to-day administration, designed to supply Members with the information which they require for the purpose of the forthcoming Debate. That, in itself, would be an argument against having too rigid a Rule.
Having dealt with the question of admissibility, I now come to what I think, from the point of view of Ministers, is the much more important consideration—the extent to which they should be required to answer Questions. I think that, in regard to this, we ought to concede to Ministers a very wide discretion, especially in the early days, having regard to the nature of the functions which the boards of socialised industries have been set up to discharge. I think, as my right hon. and gallant Friend indicated, that if a Minister can satisfy the House that he is justified in declining to answer 439 a Question of any particular type, he should be allowed to go on refusing to answer such Questions. I do not altogether agree with the view that has been expressed as to the demoralising effect of Questions on people engaged in administration. I have sometimes felt sorry for my Minister; but I have never felt any embarrassment myself.
§ Sir J. Anderson
I think the average civil servant or officer of one of these public corporations will be perfectly content to go along as long as he has the confidence of the Minister who, if challenged in this House, will have to deal with the matters raised. I speak with some diffidence in the presence of the Home Secretary and of an ex-Home Secretary, but I remember frequent occasions on which the Home Secretary, when I was at the Home Office as an official, has replied that the matter raised was one in regard to which he was not prepared to interfere with the discretion of the Prison Commissioners, or whoever is might be.
I want to say one word in that connection on the position of the Civil Service. Someone has suggested that, in regard to the Civil Service in general, the Minister had to take responsibility for every detail and that the position was entirely different from that of the boards of socialised services. There are civil servants, and civil servants. Some civil servants are engaged in carrying out, anonymously, in the name of the Minister, duties and responsibilities laid upon the Minister. There are also civil servants who have responsibilities put upon them by statute, which they have to discharge personally. For example, factory inspectors were originally magistrates, and they have certain powers and responsibilities which they discharge on their own personal responsibility. They may be amenable to the courts, but on matters of that kind the Home Secretary has not the right to interfere.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)
They have passed to the control of the House, and are under the Ministry of Labour.
§ Sir J. Anderson
I beg pardon, that is quite right, and I was Home Secretary when that happened. I ought to have 440 said that the Minister has not the right to interfere. Our view in regard to the admissibility of Questions should be that the Clerks at the Table should interpret the customs of the House liberally, giving the benefit of the doubt, where there is a doubt, to the questioner. I am sure we would all agree that nothing should be done to give colour to any suggestion—which in any case I am sure would be quite unfounded—of a compact or understanding between the Table and Ministers that matters of interest to the House should be kept from the House. I believe that if the principles I have endeavoured to indicate in regard to the admissibility of Questions and the right of Ministers to refuse as responsible Ministers to answer Questions of a particular kind, or kinds, the good sense of the House will in the end be effective in preventing abuse. Parliamentary Questions I have always been taught, are one of the great pillars of the whole system of Parliamentary control. I think we can be confident that hon. Members seeking to abuse their opportunities will be brought to Order by the clearly expressed view of the House.
If I may summarise the points I have tried to make, I think, first, that the responsibility of Ministers in these matters must be interpreted broadly, and not narrowly by reference to specific provisions of a Statute. I say, let us avoid any cause for suspicion of the existence of some compact or arrangement between the Table and Ministers for keeping something away from the House. In case of doubt, let the questioner have the benefit of the doubt, let the responsibility for answering or not answering be clearly laid on Ministers, and in that connection let the application of the Rule against repetition, if necessary, be reviewed. Finally, let us all recognise that we are in the presence of a novel situation, and avoid trying at this stage to lay down a set of too rigid Rules. In this way, the good sense of the House will speedily bring about a position in which Members will have all reasonable latitude, without involving a degree of interference prejudicial to the efficiency and successful working of the new corporations.
§ 6.14 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Morrison)
The House has had an interesting and, I think, good, 441 useful, and good-tempered Debate which has been well begun and well concluded, with a lot of interesting speeches in the middle. It is always a pleasure in these matters to cross swords with the right hon. and gallant Member for Gainsborough (Captain Crookshank) and of advantage to listen to, if not to cross swords with—because he does not like crossing swords, not being a strong party man—and to attempt to gain wisdom from the right hon. Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson).
Having listened to him, I now proceed to give the House the first lesson. This is the first lesson, and I begin with quotes:The extent of Ministerial control should be defined as clearly as possible in the instrument constituting the authority. In regard to matters falling within the Minister's powers of control, he would be liable to be questioned in Parliament in the usual way. On the other hand, in regard to all matters declared to be within the discretion of the authority, the Minister would be entitled and, indeed, bound, to disclaim responsibility.That is the end of the first lesson.
§ Sir J. Anderson rose——
§ Sir J. Anderson
Yes, and with that in mind I referred to the fact that there are officials and authorities subordinate to Ministers whose powers are defined in terms that exclude Ministerial interference. That was what I had in mind in the quotation which the right hon. Gentleman has just made. I do not want this interruption to be another speech—but if I may refer, by way of illustration, to what was said by the hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) about the Public Assistance Act—there the Ministers concerned made it perfectly clear that the responsibility was going to rest on the Board, to the exclusion of the responsibility of Ministers. That was accepted, and, moreover, the functions in question were in the nature of judicial functions, which have to be exercised in a judicial spirit in regard to which it would not only be wrong, but an outrage, for the Minister to interfere.
§ Mr. Morrison
With great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, this passage I have quoted from the Romanes Lecture which 442 he gave on 14th May, 1946, was dealing with public corporations.
§ Mr. Morrison
But the right hon. Gentleman was dealing with public corporations and very rightly and intelligently facing the problem which was about to emerge, and that was the doctrine. It could be no better or more acceptable from the point of view of the Lord President of the Council. Therefore, I am bound to say that, the more I listened to the right hon. Gentleman, the more I thought he went off his accustomed rails because that was what he said in relation to public corporations, and not in relation to factory inspectors. They are on the Minister of Labour's Vote, but this is the pure milk of the doctrine according to the right hon. Gentleman in his better days at the Home Office, before he got mixed up with this set of politicians on the Opposition Front Bench. Here I am much more nervous about crossing swords with him, because he had a distinguished career at the Home Office, as Permanent Secretary and lower down, and as Home Secretary. But I am surprised that he advances the argument that the Home Office are not bound to answer for the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis.
§ Mr. Morrison
I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon; then, we are all right about that. I thought he was arguing that the Home Secretary was not bound so to answer. It was in connection with these categories of officials that the Minister is not bound to answer, because the official has to act on his own responsibility. That is what I thought.
§ Sir J. Anderson
I am sure it is ray fault. The point I was concerned to make was that in endeavouring to deduce the responsibilities of Ministers from the terms of Statutes, we might be inclined to argue that, because in the Statute 443 defining the functions of the Prison Commissioners we see they are subject to the approval of the Home Secretary, whereas in the Statute setting up the office of Commissioner of Police we find nothing of the kind, therefore the Home Secretary was not responsible for the Commissioner of Police. I said we might be inclined to argue that. I went on to say, by reference to the Savage case, that that was not so, and that the Home Secretary could be required to answer, and did answer. That was the point.
§ Mr. Morrison
I am obliged. We shall be able to compare what we have both said in the OFFICAL REPORT tomorrow. In the meantime I, of course, accept the observation of the right hon. Gentleman. It is the case that the Home Secretary is the police authority for the metropolis, and, poor man, even if he does not know in the least what the police are doing, he must answer for them, and either defend them—which he would wish to do if he could—or condemn them if he thought they were wrong. But he is responsible for them in Parliament; there is no doubt about that.
§ Mr. Morrison
But outside London, where there are standing joint committees, and watch committees in boroughs, the position is different. I do not know how the present House of Commons would have accepted the Ruling of Mr. Speaker—not you, Sir, but one of your predecessors—given on 16th May, 1917. It is rather interesting to note that there was a point of Order—anyway, it was called a point of Order, as many others are now—which reads as follows:MR. BILLING: On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. On Monday last I handed the following question to the Table: 'To ask the Prime Minister whether his attention has been called to the recent riot at Gillingham, when the premises of the International Stores, with which the name of the Food Controller is so intimately bound up, were raided and destroyed; whether any action has been taken against the rioters, and whether the Government has any information as to the reasons for this riot?' The question has been refused at the Table. Perhaps you will tell me why?444MR. SPEAKER: The hon. Member should ask the Watch Committee of the district. The great boast of England is its system of local self-government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th May, 1917; Vol. XCIII, C. 1613.]Nevertheless, the Home Secretary, presumably—indeed, almost certainly—gave a 50 per cent. grant of money to the watch committee; but the issue was ruled out of Order by Mr. Speaker at that time on the ground that the competent authority was the watch committee locally.
§ Mr. Morrison
Oh, come! The standing joint committee is 50 per cent. representation of the county council and 50 per cent. justices; but the watch committee is merely a committee of the county borough or non-county borough, as the case may be. The elected council have no responsibility and no power over the watch committee. Now, this is good Home Office doctrine; and, believe me, I am as sound an exponent of good Home Office doctrine as the right hon. Gentleman any day of the week; my right hon. Friend is still more up to date; we are all very good. If it be the case that an hon. Member could not succeed on a point of Order against the Gillingham watch committee, when there was a watch committee with a 50 per cent. grant from national funds, one really ought not to be too much shocked that there is a limit on Questions about public corporations. Nor need we be shocked if Ministers are a little bit—well, "sticky" is not the right word, because there is a very polite body of Ministers on this Front Bench: perhaps I could say a little bit restrained, as to what Questions they answer. At any rate, they are very courteous, very restrained in the way they put it, and very polite about it.
§ Mr. Morrison
Yes, the right hon. Gentleman knows what is coming. In the war there was a Minister of Informa- 445 tion, and, as I said once before, how he got away with it I do not know. I thought in wartime—I am still inclined to think so, subject to somebody proving me wrong—that the Minister of Information was accountable for the B.B.C., in the sense that his wartime power enable him to effect over the B.B.C. any control that he wished; he was not bound to act if he did not wish to do so. I think that is a very fair statement of the wartime position—and rightly so, because the B.B.C. was so intimately related to security in many ways. Therefore, if the Minister of Information, on the doctrine that we have promulgated, had power to require the B.B.C. to do this, that and the other—or not, as the case may be—then I should have thought he was fair game for Parliamentary Questions in the war. The right hon. Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken) had very short shrift with Parliamentary Questions about this matter. Here is one of his answers in the House, on 4th February, 1942, when in the course of answering a supplementary question he said:I think that my hon. Friend must not have heard me when I said that no change was involved in the relationship of the B.B.C. to the Ministry of Information. It is not my business to delve into the domestic affairs of the Governors of the B.B.C."—
§ Mr. Morrison
Right!They are supposed to be an independent body. Why should I try to elicit from them what arrangements they are making about their staff.Who said "Sir Ben Smith"!
§ Mr. Morrison
The right hon. Gentleman laid down the doctrine that the staff was the B.B.C. staff, and he was not even going to argue about it, let alone tell the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Morrison
Later he said that the House could not have it every way. That is what I am saying to the House today, if the House will forgive me—you see, I am much more apologetic than the right hon. Gentleman——The House cannot have it every way. Either they want the Governors to have a certain amount of independence, or they want 446 to make the B.B.C. an appendage of the Ministry of Information, which would be a very bad thing."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 5942; Vol. 377, c. 1165–6.]It is precisely the same issue today.
§ Mr. Bracken
The right hon. Gentleman is too modest. Apparently, he does not remember that when the former right hon. Member for Epping became Prime Minister and invited the Lord President to be an ornament of his Government——
§ Mr. Bracken
—it was decided by the Prime Minister—perhaps partly on my advice—with the full concurrence of the right hon. Gentleman opposite that the B.B.C. was too important an instrument of publicity to be subjected to any Minister under the Crown. Therefore, the B.B.C. Governors were restored to their full authority by the Prime Minister of the day, acting with the concurrence of the then Home Secretary. It is quite wrong to say, as the Lord President does, that after the B.B.C. Governors were restored to their full authority, I could interfere with them. They were given absolute power, and I left them alone, as I had to—and rightly so—for the rest of the war.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
Before my right hon. Friend continues, I would point out that I find it difficult to follow the inference he is asking the House to draw. I gather that all these answers which my right hon. Friend is reading out were answers given to Questions printed upon the Order Paper and accepted at the Table?
§ Mr. Morrison
I do not quite understand my hon. Friend. At the moment I have a row, or at least an argument, with the Conservative Front Bench. Why my Left Wing Friend, the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) should come to the rescue of the Conservative Front Bench I do not know. But it is a free country, and he is perfectly entitled to do so.
§ Sir J. Anderson
If the right hon. Gentleman wants to have an argument with me, perhaps we might be clear on what we are arguing about. The first part of my speech was concerned entirely with the question of admissibility. The right hon. Gentleman is arguing what I never disputed, namely, the right of the Minister to refuse to answer Questions. All of his arguments are relevant to the second matter, and not to the first.
§ Mr. Morrison
Admissibility is very relevant to the Debate. Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that any Question a Member wants to put down, should be accepted by the Table?
§ Sir J. Anderson indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Morrison
The right hon. Gentleman is not arguing that. Then the Table and Mr. Speaker must have rules about the admissibility of Questions, and these Rules are perfectly clear in Erskine May. In a former discussion, I said that there were about 17 Rules covering admissibility, but I now find that I was wrong; there are nearly 40. One of the most important is the Rule stated in the lecture I have quoted as the first lesson, namely, has the Minister responsibility; has he done anything, and can he do anything about it? If the answer to these questions is "No," then a Question is not admissible. I have always understood that to be the position from the beginning. The answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne, who came to the rescue of the rather forlorn right hon. Gentleman opposite, which is a very noble and generous gesture on his part, is that these Questions were quite properly on the Order Paper because the right hon. Gentleman had responsibility. Believe me, the mere edict of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), that hereafter the B.B.C. were to be thoroughly independent, does not settle the Rules of Procedure governing Questions.
§ Mr. Bracken
It was not a mere edict of the Prime Minister at that time. The existence of the B.B.C. Governors, exercising all the rights under their Charter, made it difficult for anyone to put down a Question in this House. While the B.B.C. Governors were in existence, it was difficult to put down Questions, but at the beginning of the war Mr. Chamberlain asked the B.B.C. Governors to retire, which they did, and the Charter was in suspense. When the Charter was restored, not just on the edict of the then Prime Minister—the House was notified most formally that it had been restored—the Minister of Information no longer had power to direct the B.B.C. according to any desires he might have.
§ Mr. Morrison
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right and perfectly fair. I was associated with the change. I am not to disagree with the right hon. Gentleman at all. Why should I? He is right up my street, and I am using him as a witness on my behalf. It is the case that the Governors did not exist at the beginning of the war. They were put out of office for some time, but later on, under the Premiership of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford, they were put back. That did not alter the position that there was Ministerial power to order them about as the Minister of information wished.
§ Mr. Morrison
I thought that that was so, and it ought to be so. Suppose that the B.B.C. in the war——
§ Mr. Bracken
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again, but he keeps making this statement. During the war, when I should have liked the B.B.C. to have taken a different line, I had to defer to the better judgment of the Governors, recognising that they had been restored.
§ Mr. Morrison
It is utterly intolerable, it a great war when the nation was fighting for its life, that the B.B.C. should have been able to do what it liked, and should have been able to do bad things.
§ Mr. Morrison
It is intolerable that that should be so, when the nation was in a state of war and was fighting for its life. 449 It had to be the case that the B.B.C. were subject to the orders of the Minister of Information, if he cared to exercise those orders, in the same way as we had Regulation 18B.
§ Mr. Morrison
Whether the right hon. Gentleman cared to interfere or not was a matter for him. He was urged time after time to answer this, that and the other Question about the B.B.C., but he flatly refused, in regard to a whole series of matters, on the grounds that he was not going to interfere with the B.B.C., even if he had the desire to do so.
§ Mr. Morrison
The Conservative Party must make up their mind. Either they want the public corporations to be the instruments of Ministers and State Departments, or they wish them to have a proper degree of independence. I will give another case, because this switch-round on the part of the Conservative Party is really remarkable. When the London Passenger Transport Bill was brought in at the time when I was Minister of Transport in 1931, I found that Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister said this:Throughout this Bill you find the Minister mentioned in every page, and the control of the Minister goes all through this Measure."—OFFICIAL REPORT, 23rd March, 1931; Vol. 250, c. 80.]What happened? When the Government went out in 1931 and the Coalition Government came in, it was decided to take out even the powers of the Minister to appoint the board, and the appointing of trustees was substituted. The argument was that Socialism should be taken out of the Measure. I am not sure that that did so, but it was as good a reason as any for amending the Bill, and I was not unhappy about it. They took it out on the basis of the specific and deliberate doctrine that this body should not be accountable to Parliament, and that the Minister should have the minimum power over it. I cannot make out what has happened meantime. During the passage of these Measures through Parliament, it was argued that the Ministers had too much power. In case after case it was argued by the Opposition that the Ministers had too much power, and that it was the Minister here, there and every- 450 where. The Ministers said two things. They said that they must have more powers than the Ministers had over the public corporations before the war, and, secondly, that they had no intention of subjecting the boards to day-to-day interference, or to meticulous intervention by political authority. That being so, I cannot understand why at this late hour the Opposition should switch round completely and want Ministers to exercise powers they have not got, and are demanding that Parliament should have the authority to intervene to a much greater extent than before. I cannot follow it. It seems to be illogical and unreasonable in the circumstances of the case.
I agree with the right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough that we are on new territory, and that none of us had better be final, conclusive, or dogmatic about the matter. This is a question about which we have to learn as we go along. Having cleared the ground on the general principle, I agree that we have to learn a lot in this matter. There are many other things besides Parliamentary Questions which are even more important in the conduct and management of those socialised industries. There are questions of even wider accountability and responsibility. There are questions, for instance, of the pace which workers, staff and technicians occupy in the undertaking, questions of what are called, in the classic T.U.C. phrase, "consultation," but which we are now beginning to call "industrial democracy." This question of economic and industrial democracy is, in my judgment, no less important than the issue of answering Parliamentary Questions. Indeed, I would say that it is even more important than the question of putting Parliamentary Questions on the Order Paper. We are at the beginning of all this, and we have much to learn.
My hon. Friend the Member for Blacklev (Mr. Diamond) referred to the question of an efficiency audit. I am a little doubtful about a Parliamentary committee conducting such an audit. As Members of Parliament, we have every right to boast about our virtues, and to assert our abilities, but we had better remember our limitations as well, and, that being so, I am not quite sure that a committee of the House of Commons would be the right body to conduct an efficiency audit. 451 The matter, however, is well worth study in some form or another, because I am quite sure that the corporations themselves will feel increasingly the need for a check-up, for encouragement, and for an examination of their activities with a view to getting the greatest possible efficiency on their part.
§ Sir Arthur Salter (Oxford University)
Would the right hon. Gentleman add to that the most important of all problems—that of collective bargaining in a public monopoly?
§ Mr. Morrison
I did not want to go over the whole field of conduct of public corporations, but I did want to get to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles). In a speech which, I thought, went rather far, my hon. Friend made an exception about wages, and he was quite right; I am sure that trade unions would not welcome questions of wages being debated across the Floor of the House, or Questions placed on the Order Paper about them, as it would weaken their collective bargaining and authority. That is true of some other people, as well.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Gainsborough also argued that this was not necessarily a party question, that we were entering a new field, that this was a new issue. I agree with him on the question of procedure, but, of course, questions of public ownership inevitably raise political and sharply controversial issues. The right hon. and gallant Gentleman said that Parliament deliberately decided to run these corporations on somewhat different lines, and not on the lines of the Post Office. He is right. But if Parliament did that, their situation must be different from that of the Post Office. I should have thought that it was not unnatural to expect that the eligibility of Parliamentary Questions was bound to be in doubt when we had fashioned an entirely new instrument. As for providing information, I have seen some examples of the very detailed information which the Ministry of Fuel and Power have put out, and which, I should have thought, almost certainly contained greater detail than the information which was put out by the old Mines Department of the Board of Trade. Some of the information now put out is very extensive. If Members wish to ask for infor- 452 mation which they have reason to believe the Ministry of Fuel and Power has, and which comes within this field, I should have thought that it would be competent for Questions to be put to try to elicit that information.
The hon. Member for North Cumberland (Mr. W. Roberts) wanted to know whether Members of Parliament could write to a nationalised board? They can. I understand from all the boards that they will inquire into, and reply to, letters which may be sent to them by Members of Parliament. I am sure that those letters will be received with every courtesy, as we should wish them to be. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Driberg) asked whether Members' letters to boards would be privileged. I am not a legal authority, but I should have thought not. Matters arising here are privileged, but I should not have thought that anything outside was privileged, except it was in a court of justice.
§ Mr. S. Silverman
The letters would be privileged, but they would have a qualified privilege, whereas in this House the privilege is absolute.
§ Mr. Morrison
It could be argued in court that the letters were written in good faith, and that it was a public duty. I think I am right in saying, at least, that the absolute privilege obtaining in this House would not apply to such letters. I have a recollection that the line of argument that we have advanced on this point is well in line with the Liberal "Yellow Book" of 1928 or 1929. If the hon. Member for North Cumberland will look it up, he will find some good stuff in that book. My hon. Friend the Member for Maldon wanted to know whether letters to a board would not be a cause of interference? I do not think so. I do not think that letters from Members of Parliament and from the public need cause meticulous interference. The boards will inquire into them, and give their answers. Hospitals, which are shortly coming under the administration of the Ministry of Health, are in an entirely different category from large and complex industrial undertakings. Hospitals have been administrative institutions for a long time, so there is nothing strange about that.
453 I have already dealt with the point about workers. I think it is better for their conditions to be argued and negotiated by trade union organisations. As for consumers, we have made most careful provisions in our Statutes for their protection in the best possible way. I was asked how soon these consumers' councils would be set up. Some are working very well, and others which are not yet set up will be set up at an early date. If, over and above trade union negotiations, collective bargaining, consumers' councils and consultative committees, this House is to be a court of appeal, I think we are in danger of weakening the authority of those bodies, which would be wrong. I should have thought—although this is a matter for Mr. Speaker, and not for me—that questions relating to the operation of the Colonial Development Corporation and the Overseas Food Corporation could be put on the same lines as those to other Ministers in relation to the British commercial corporations with which we are dealing. If it was thought that the local native population was not being properly treated, I should have thought that Questions could be put to the Secretary of State for the Colonies to ask him to exercise his authority to protect that population.
May I put this to the House as briefly and as shortly as I can? Questions can be put to Ministers over a considerable field in this matter of the public corporations. They can clearly be put to them where the Minister has done something. That is quite clear. They can clearly be put to the Minister where he had the power to do something and has not used it. If, for example, it is held that the Minister should give a general direction to a public corporation, that they should or should not do something as a general principle, I should have thought that it would, in all probability, be in Order to put down a Question to ask the Minister either to issue such a general direction, or to refrain from doing so, as the case may be. That is a pretty wide field. The Minister, of course, appoints Members of the Boards. Questions about that are clearly admissible.
There are also various matters on which the Minister has specific powers. He has to approve capital expenditure programmes; he has to set up the consumers' councils, and he can refer matters to the 454 consumers' councils. He gets reports from the consumers' councils. He approves the programme for research, and, if hon. Members will look at the various Statutes, they will find that the Minister has a wide sphere of powers which he can exercise, or which he is required to exercise, or which he can direct the Board, when doing certain matters, to apply for authority to the Minister. They will all of them fall within the limit of Parliamentary accountability, and Questions to the Minister would be admissible. There are also the Parliamentary Debates. We had one last week on Civil Aviation which went pretty wide and covered a fair amount of detail. I do not think that a single point of Order was raised during the whole proceedings. I think it is right that there should be rules about Parliamentary Questions somewhat more strict than those about the limitation of Debates on the work of the public corporations. These can take place from time to time, and therefore Parliament has not got a bad run.
I have been asked, "What about the rest?" I will speak about the rest very frankly and flatly. My view is this: If we are to have a socialised industry, which one side of the House says is right and the other side says is wrong, then we have to decide how the industry is to be managed. It is possible to argue that all these industries should be managed by State Departments—that is to say, Civil Service management, with the authority of the Ministers running all the way through. I could make out a case for that for electricity or gas; just as there is also a case to be made out against running those two industries in this way. But the House has taken the view, and I think most people have taken the view, and the country has taken the view, that, when we come to a highly commercial enterprise, which is very tricky—one in which you have to think out a lot of day-to-day problems, to think quickly and chance your arm, like transport and mining and other industries with which we have been dealing, or with which we may deal—then we have to get a more subtle instrument, more adaptable, more capable of quick movement and 'less liable to be bound down by tradition and rules. Every experienced Member of this House knows that one of the greatest criticisms of State Departments, often very unfairly made, is that they are afraid 455 to take risks and are slower in moving than they ought to be. There is some truth in that, but it is not always a fair point of attack or of criticism. There is some truth in it for the reason that a State Department is accountable directly for everything it does to the House of Commons and may be apprehensive of making a mistake, and of Questions being asked in Parliament.
While it is right that a Minister directly administering a State Department should be accountable for everything that happens in that Department, hon. Members might, now and then, I suggest, be a little merciful about the details of the Questions they put down; but the Minister must be held accountable. I am certain that if we run these public corporations—highly commercial, highly industrial, highly economic—on the basis of meticulous accountability to political channels, we are going to ruin the commercial enterprise and the adventurous spirit of these public corporations in their work.
§ Mr. Bowles rose——
§ Mr. Morrison
No, I cannot give way. I have to finish at seven o'clock. That is the inevitable result, when we interfere in everything a public corporation is doing—hon. Members may say they would not do it, but we cannot be sure. The essence of the argument is that they should have the right to put Questions on any aspect of the work of the public corporations and that the Minister should have the right of refusing to reply, which would be a very unpleasant situation if it happened very often. This raises the question of the right to put Questions out-side the Rules of Order. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Yes, with great respect it is so. What is being asked for is that the Minister shall answer on matters over which he has no control. That is a new rule of Parliament, and a new point of Parliamentary procedure. Then it is further argued that he need not answer the Questions. I wonder how long a Minister would last, meeting the House day after day, and saying, "I have nothing to 456 say"? There would be a row, and hon. Members know it.
The other point is this: We have to get to serve on these bodies and as members of the Boards the best men we possibly can—[Laughter.] The Opposition laugh. This is where politics begin to creep in, and it is a pity. These industries are socialised, and, surely, all of us want them to succeed, whether they are socialised or not. It is important that we should get the best men in the service of these Boards. If these men are to live a life which is really a Civil Service life, and are liable to be abused across the Floor of the House and subjected to Questions attacking them and their commercial ability we shall not get the men to serve on these commercial undertakings, and we shall not get the best out of those who are there.
Therefore, I say that we have to feel our way and get on as best we can, but I also say on behalf of the Government that this idea that any Question should be admissible, will degenerate into a process of pin-pricking these great commercial and economic undertakings, will weaken their nerve and ability, and will reproduce in these public corporations the very evils that are alleged to exist in the Civil Service. I am surprised that the Conservative Opposition should urge a policy which is bound to weaken the efficiency of these bodies, and to stimulate the very interference which they have been condemning. Why do they want to be able to put Questions about these things? I know. They want to be able to blacken, to damage—[Interruption.] Oh, yes. If they can they want to demoralise these public corporations. I quite understand this method on behalf of the Conservative Party. Whilst we are prepared to think about it, we must all watch as we go, and I think that this method is wrong and misjudged. I ask my hon. Friends to agree that the general course of the Government is right.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Whiteley)
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.
§ Motion, by leave, withdrawn.