HC Deb 03 March 1965 vol 707 cc1321-5

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:


To ask the Lord President of the Council whether he is aware that, with the new arrangement of Questions, an oral reply can only be received from a Minister once every seven weeks; and whether, since this is not in the public interest, he will move to amend Standing Order No. 8(3) to extend Question Time or take other action to improve matters.


To ask the Lord President of the Council if he is aware that it is now almost impossible to receive an oral answer to any Question put down at No. 45; and if he will seek to re-arrange the positions of those Members answering on Mondays for the Church Commission and Kitchen Committee and the position of the Lord President of the Council on Wednesdays, to No. 25 on the Order Paper.


To ask the Lord President of the Council whether he will propose to the Select Committee on Procedure that the Prime Minister's Questions should start at three o'clock on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The Lord President of the Council (Mr. Herbert Bowden)

With permission, I will now answer Questions Nos. 45, 46 and 47 together.

I am concerned about the apparent failure to reach more Questions for Oral Answers, and I hope that the Select Committee on Procedure will decide to look at this problem.

Sir W. Bromley-Davenport

Is not the reason for this delay the fact that his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has created so many new Ministers that there simply is not enough time to go round? Is he further aware that when Ministers do come to the Chamber to answer Questions—[HON. MEMBERS: "Not all."] A point. I repeat: is he further aware that when Ministers do come to the Chamber to answer Questions they bring so many of their personal staff to help them to answer them that they hardly have to answer any Questions themselves?

As a final point, is it not a fact that the First Secretary of State did not even bother to turn up at all to answer Questions and, as a result, may have to go for three months without being attacked by back-benchers on this side? Is that right, or is he scared?

Mr. Bowden

I think that the hon. and gallant Gentleman has to some extent answered his own question. The length of his supplementary would indicate very clearly one of the main problems which is facing the House. After a very long wait of many months, in which he has transferred his Question from Wednesday to Wednesday, I took pity on him and answered it today, because this is a real problem.

The hon. and gallant Gentleman is not quite right in suggesting that there are more Ministers to answer Questions. In fact, as a result of the procedure introduced by the last Government, instead of two days a week for some Departments there is now one. In fact, in this one respect 25 of the 28 have been reached this Session. I am not saying that that is enough. I would like to see many more.

The House ought to bear in mind a number of matters. First, today we have reached 24 Oral Questions, which is a 50 per cent. increase on yesterday, when we reached 16. Whatever the Select Committee on Procedure may do about this, if the matter is referred to the Committee, the remedy and the answer is finally in the hands of Members themselves. Fifteen to twenty years ago we used to get through 60 to 80 Oral Questions, instead of the present 16 to 20. Also, supplementary questions used to take seven lines of HANSARD. They now take 17.

This is really a matter for the House. If hon. Members consider Question Time to be of importance, they themselves can do something about it.

Sir Knox Cunningham

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that very few Questions are put down to hon. Members answering for the Church Commissioners and the Kitchen Committee? Could not their place be altered on the Order Paper as a matter of convenience to Members, without having to refer to the Select Committee? Does not the right hon. Gentleman welcome this chance to improve the Government's not-so-dynamic image of action?

Mr. Bowden

I think that the Select Committee on Procedure should look at this matter first. I would remind the House that we used always to reach the Prime Minister's Questions at No. 45. They would never be reached at No. 45 today.

Mr. Kershaw

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that whilst it is often legitimate for a Minister to wish to avoid some Questions, the Prime Minister seems to have made a practice recently of spinning out his answers to an inordinate length so that we seldom get beyond the Prime Minister's Question Q.4? I do not think that this is due to supplementary questions.

Mr. Bowden

Yesterday three of the Prime Minister's Questions were reached, but he answered a number of other Questions within those three. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would be delighted to answer more Questions, but within the one hour which is now allocated to Oral Questions I do not think that we can at this stage extend the period from 15 to 30 minutes. As I mentioned earlier, he used to start with Question No. 45. Now he starts regularly at 3.15 p.m.

May I mention another matter, in passing? At present, the Order Book contains 113 pages, which means that no one putting down a Question for Oral Answer can now hope to get a reply at least until April.

Mr. Woodburn

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Mr. Ernest Brown, when Minister of Labour, himself answered 100 Questions in one day, which shows that even under the old rules more Questions can be dealt with if Members so desire?

Mr. Victor Yates

How long does my right hon. Friend think that we shall have to wait before we can get a report on this matter? As he has already said, some of us who put Questions down only when we feel there is a need to express dissatisfaction with a Department now find that there is no prospect whatever of getting our Questions in before three or four weeks after Easter? Let us hope that we can get some Questions in before the General Election.

Mr. Bowden

I should have thought there would be plenty of opportunity for all Members to get many Questions in before the General Election, but that is by the way.

The Select Committee on Procedure, if it so wishes, could introduce an interim Report almost at any point, but it is not only a matter for the Select Committee. That Committee can suggest a number of things. It can suggest reducing Questions from two to one per Member a day. We used to have three; we reduced it to two, and that did not seem to do anything at all. Whatever the Select Committee on Procedure decides and recommends, provided it is accepted by the House, there is no certainty that it will work unless Members wish it to work.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we welcome the decision that he has taken? I think that there is very general dissatisfaction in the House at present about the handling of Question Time, which has always been regarded as a rather unique feature of this legislative Chamber, and one of particular value.

Things are not going quite right. It may be due to the length of supplementary questions, or perhaps the length of answers, or perhaps certain abuses which, I think, are creeping in. Therefore, it is quite right that we should have as quick an examination of this matter by the Select Committee on Procedure as can possibly be done. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman will use his influence to expedite that consideration.