HC Deb 16 May 1968 vol 764 cc1527-50

9.52 p.m.

Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter (Kingston-upon-Thames)

I beg to move, That the matter of questions to Ministers with particular reference to the adequacy of the time allotted for answers to oral questions, the maximum and minimum periods of notice for the tabling of questions for oral and for written reply and the rules and practice of the House restricting the submission of such questions, be referred to the Select Committee on Procedure. I should like to begin by expressing my gratitude to the right hon. Gentleman the Patronage Secretary for providing a certain amount of time for discussion of the Motion standing in the names of myself and a number of my hon. Friends. I know that for a Patronage Secretary to provide Government time is almost as much of a wrench as it is for a Treasury Minister to allow a tax concession. Having had some experience of the latter, I appreciate the former all the more.

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the question whether further consideration of the matter of Parliamentary Questions should be undertaken on our behalf by the Procedure Committee. The House will recall that a Procedure Committee was set up recently this Session and instructed, first, to give consideration to the interesting question whether we divide the Parliamentary year in relation to our sittings in the best possible manner. Nothing in the Motion is intended to interfere with the Procedure Committee giving first consideration to this matter, but it seeks to ask it, when it has done that, to give consideration to the matter of Parliamentary Questions.

I shall confine my observations to the matter of Questions for Oral Answer. This is not to suggest that Written Questions are not important. They are. However, in my view, the most acute difficulties have recently arisen in respect of Oral Questions.

The number of Oral Questions has risen very much in recent years. That is not a matter for surprise. After all, the number of Ministers has increased. This increase has not merely represented a more detailed division of Ministerial responsibility; it has reflected the fact that the scope of Government has widened during recent years and that Governments now, for better or worse, intervene and act over a wider sphere of the activities of the nation than they ever did.

It is natural, therefore, that hon. Members should desire to question Ministers more, and in greater numbers, now in view of the fact that Ministers are themselves greater in number and exercise wider responsibilities. The fact is, however, that although the number of Ministers has risen substantially since 1945, when I first came into the House, the amount of time allotted to Oral Questions is precisely the same today as it was in 1945. There is, therefore, this situation: more Ministers, a wider scope of Ministerial activity, a consequential increase in the number of Parliamentary Questions, but no more time allotted for the answering of Questions than was the case in quite different circumstances in 1945.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the problem of dealing adequately with Oral Questions has become more and more intractable. There has been one particularly noticeable consequence. Mr. Speaker has been faced with a very real problem in conducting our affairs in respect of Parliamentary Questions. He has been faced with this dilemma: either an increasing number of Questions put down for Oral Answer will not get an Oral Answer, even on the day when the Minister concerned is at the top of the list, or he must restrict the opportunities for supplementary questions. So long as the time allotted remains constant and the number of Questions rises, there is no way out of that dilemma. I am not making any criticism of Mr. Speaker. Not only should I be out of order if I did so, but I do not want to because I do not think that any criticism would be justified.

Mr. Speaker in his wisdom has found it necessary, so that even a substantial proportion of Oral Questions shall get an Oral Answer when the Minister concerned is first on the list, to restrict to a far greater extent than was the case when I first came into the House the number of supplementary questions. I believe that that has had the result of greatly weakening the effect and value of the Parliamentary Question. It is now the practice—and under the present provisions I make no complaint of it—that a second supplementary question is hardly ever granted to a back bencher. It is, of course, in accordance with longstanding practice allowed to my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, but not to back benchers. That single fact has greatly diminished the effectiveness of the Parliamentary Question.

I have a little experience of this. I answered Parliamentary Questions for 13 years in all, and I have asked a certain number since then, and indeed before then. I have formed the view that no Minister has the slightest difficulty in answering one supplementary question. He can brush it aside with a pleasantry, or with a personality about the Member who has put it, or with an irrelevance. It is the second supplementary question which, properly directed, can nail him, and it is precisely that second supplementary question which has been the victim of the change to which I have been referring of the increased number of Oral Questions and, therefore, of the steps which Mr. Speaker has found it necessary to take to deal with a sufficient number of them.

There is no doubt that as a result largely, but perhaps not wholly, of that the Parliamentary Question is not the weapon in the hands of hon. Members that it was. I do not believe that it causes quite so much alarm and disquiet in the minds of those who advise Ministers as it used to. This is the reason. It may be that those who sit on the other side of the House—for the time being—feel that that does not matter very much, but no one who has been long in the House on either side would like to see the Parliamentary Question become less effective.

It being Ten o'clock, Mr. Deputy Speaker interrupted the Business.

Ordered, That the Proceedings on the Motion relating to Procedure Committee may be entered upon and proceeded with at this day's Sitting at any hour during a period of one hour after Ten o'clock though opposed.—[Mr. Ioan L. Evans.]

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

If the House is with me on this point, it is clear that we have suffered some loss in the effectiveness of the House in the weakening of the effectiveness of the Parlia- mentary Question. There is only one way of answer to this. It is for the Select Committee to decide on the evidence and then for the House subsequently to review its decision, rather than for me now to suggest with precision what particular remedy should be applied.

However, in case the House is prepared to let this go to the Select Committee, I have one or two tentative suggestions to make, subject, of course, to such views as the Select Committee may form after hearing the evidence. The smallest proposal that one can make is simply that Question hour should become Question hour, in other words, that time for Oral Questions should run for 60 minutes from the start of Question No. 1 and that the hour should not in future be minus the time taken for Prayers, presentation of Petitions and Private Business.

But I doubt whether that be enough. There is a case for saying that there should be an hour and a quarter each day for Questions. Because I have had some experience in office, I know that for the Government to give up a little Parliamentary time is a serious decision. On the other hand, the Patronage Secretary will be more aware than most of us that the general effect of what I will not call the "Crossman reforms", but the changes which one associates with the Lord President, has been to the benefit of the Government of the day from the point of view of Parliamentary time.

It has involved a considerable saving of Parliamentary time for Government business, whether by providing that there shall not be debate on Third Readings unless expressly demanded by six hon. Members, or by limiting guillotine Motions, when one risks getting near controversy, to two hours, or by doing away with the formal stage of consideration of Lords Amendments, or half a dozen other changes. That being so, the changes have, on the whole, been of advantage to the Government, so it would not be unreasonable to ask for some compensating advantage for the House in respect of Questions.

There is no answer to the deterioration in the effectiveness of the Parliamentary Question other than the provision of additional time, but what precise form that addition should take and how much it should amount to is just the kind of matter which the Select Committee could conveniently consider.

It would also be appropriate for the Committee to deal with one or two other matters. It is not so long since, on the recommendation of a previous Select Committee, we introduced what is conveniently called the "three weeks' rule" for giving notice of Questions. This was intended to deal with the risk that all Questions likely to be answered orally by a certain Minister might be preempted by hon. Members putting down Questions, perhaps months in advance. I am not sure that it has worked satisfactorily. There is always a curious tendency for maxima to become minima, and that has certainly occurred in considerable measure in respect of this rule.

In practice, in the case of at any rate a popular—perhaps I should say "unpopular"—Minister, unless one gets one's Question down 21 days before he is due to answer one has no hope of getting an Oral Answer. It has become essential to get Questions in on the first possible day for an Oral Answer to be obtained.

This has had curious side effects on the working of the Table Office. It has meant that if an hon. Member gets a Question in on the first day—or twenty-first day, whichever way one likes to look at it—but a query is raised by the Table Office about the Question and that query cannot be dealt with before Four o'clock, when the first batch of Questions goes to the printer, the practical effect is that the hon. Member loses his chance of getting an Oral Answer to that Question. As it is inevitable with the volume of Questions that a great many Ouestions will be received on that day, the Table Office may not get round to dealing with one's Question until the afternoon, with the result that there is only a short period during which the query can be dealt with by the hon. Member in time for the Question to go forward to the printer in time for it to be in the first batch.

This is a direct and unexpected result of the acceptance by the House of the recommendation of the previous Procedure Committee of the 21-day rule, and it raises another question which the 1966–67 Procedure Committee con- sidered. It is the order in which Questions, having been received at the Table Office, should be printed on the Order Paper. As I understand the practice, Questions which are dealt with in time on the first day to catch the Four o'clock pouch to the printer all go to the printer together; and it then lies in the hands of either Providence or the printer as to the order in which they appear. This point was raised with considerable effect by the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) the other day.

For most Ministers perhaps that does not matter very much, because most of the first batch will get an Oral Answer. But in respect of Questions to the Prime Minister it matters a great deal, because there are always a number of Questions to him and it is probable that only the first six or seven will get answered. If there are 10 or 12 put in on the first day, as there sometimes are, the position as to which hon. Member gets an Oral Answer from the Prime Minister depends on the printer. I am not suggesting that anything but pure chance operates, but I am suggesting that perhaps this is not the best possible system.

The Procedure Committee considered in general, but not in the particular context of the Prime Minister's Questions, the putting of a time or date stamp on Questions as they are received. It rejected that at the time, but it is significant that that Committee stated in paragraph 5, having referred to the situation of the overcrowding, as it called it, of the Order Paper: If, as your Committee anticipate, the situation does persist, it will be necessary for them to return to the subject in a further Report. There is no doubt that the question has persisted and I think that both the question of the 21-day rule itself and of its unexpected side effects—the lottery of the printer and the fact of the difficulty of clearing a Question on which the Table Office has queries by the Four o'clock date-line for the first batch—could profitably now be considered by the present Procedure Committee. I particularly call in aid the fact that its predecessor both foresaw that the situation would persist and indicated its view at the time that if that situation eventuated, the matter should be looked at.

I think, too, the Procedure Committee could profitably look at some of the rules which restrict the submission of Questions by hon. Members. It is no doubt inevitable in a complicated set-up such as ours that the rules governing the admissibility of Parliamentary Questions should become sophisticated and elaborate. Sometimes one wonders whether they have become over-sophisticated for Members and too elaborate for many of us, but I am sure that it is right that they should be looked at impartially from time to time.

I do not pretend in the time available to refer to all of them. I will refer to only three which seem particularly suitable to be looked at. First, there is the rule that we cannot submit a Question for the Order Paper to a Minister suggesting a change in the law if that change in the law could be effected by an Amendment to a Bill at present before the House. That rule takes no account at all of the practical possibilities. It might be quite easy for the alternative method to be adopted by an hon. Member on a Standing Committee dealing with that particular Bill, but not by an hon. Member who has not that advantage. That hon. Member has the chance only on Report stage, and his chance depends solely, Sir, on your decision on the selection of Amendments.

This also requires looking at because of the peculiarly paradoxical modification of the rule adopted some years ago. Under this the rule placed the bar on Questions which could be the subject-matter of an Amendment to a Bill which was in order, but so long as the Question related to a suggestion to amend the Bill which would not be in order the Question would be in order. That is the curious paradox we have got ourselves into. It is one of the matters which could be profitably examined and on which evidence could be further given to the Select Committee.

Then there is the curious rule that a Question which asks for legislation on the basis of one particular case is out of order in general but is in order if that one particular case reflects a particular decision of the courts. I find that distinction a little difficult to sustain.

There is, finally, the question as to whether we should sustain the rule that the Minister's refusal to answer Questions on matters within his responsibility or to answer a class of Questions within his responsibility should bar the appearance of such Questions on the Order Paper. I can understand the argument that it would be a waste of the time of the House and rather boring for Questions to appear week after week which a Minister says he will not answer.

On the other hand, I wonder if the balance has not gone a little too far when a Minister by one Answer in a Session saying "I will not answer Questions relating to this" is able to bar a Question on the Order Paper. This seems peculiarly advantageous to the Minister. It is at least possible that issues may arise in which hon. Members on both sides of the House think the Minister should answer.

It may well be the case that if Questions of that sort can be tabled sooner or later the Minister can be induced to see the light of day. As it is, under the present rule—if I understand aright, and I think I do—one Answer saying, "I will not answer Questions on this particular subject-matter" bars any Question within that definition for the rest of that Session. I think that is a rule worth inquiring into.

I am sure that other hon. Members believe that other aspects of this matter should be inquired into. I hope and believe that most of them will agree with me that these are singularly difficult matters for the House to decide without the assistance of the advice of a Select Committee. Equally, hon. Members will take the view that the procedure of a Select Committee—the hearing of evidence; the submission of papers by the Clerks at the Table—enables a considered judgment to be obtained.

Therefore, my sole plea tonight is not for the House to accept any of my tentatively offered remedies. They may well be wrong. They may well be shot to pieces when they are examined before the Select Committee. All I am seeking to suggest is that there is here a matter for inquiry. I am drawing on my own experience—I think that it is that of many hon. Members—that today the Parliamentary Question is less effective than it was and less effective than for the good health of the House it should be. I believe that the Select Committee, either on the lines I have suggested, or perhaps on totally different lines, could find ways of improving it. Therefore, my plea tonight is that we should ask the Select Committee to do just that.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House will know that Mr. Speaker is particularly interested in this debate.

10.17 p.m.

Dame Irene Ward (Tynemouth)

I followed with great interest, as a member of the last Select Committee on Procedure and as a member of the reconstituted Select Committee on Procedure, the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter). I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his summing up of some of the problems which have faced the Select Committee, for many of his observations, and for many of his suggestions. I shall not say too much tonight, because I presume that as a result of this debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the matter will come before the Select Committee, which no doubt in its wisdom will decide to discuss the issues which have been raised and make recommendations.

The Select Committee on Procedure is an all-party Committee presided over by a distinguished member of the Government. The Committee goes to a good deal of trouble and takes a good deal of time in discharging its functions. It is composed of a considerable number of hon. Members who have heavy engagements to fulfil and who are well acquainted with the responsibility that the House places on the Committee. I am very proud to have been asked to serve on the Committee. The Committee pays a great deal of attention to the needs of the House and to the fact that it is important, for the proper preservation of Parliamentary democracy, that our procedure should be good, up to date, in tune with modern thought, and give a fair run to all hon. Members.

When the new Select Committee gets down to its business, I hope that the new Leader of the House will pay reasonable attention to the Committee's recommendations and will not behave as his predecessor behaved in regard to the Report of the last Select Committee. My recollection is that the last Leader of the House, the present Lord President of the Council, took from the Select Committee's Report exactly what suited him.

Mr. Speaker

Order. He may or may not have done, but we are discussing whether a Select Committee should deal with the question of Questions.

Dame Irene Ward

That may be so, Mr. Speaker, but there must be an opportunity for a member of the Select Committee to say that in my opinion—I do not say that it is anybody else's—it is a complete waste of time to have these very important issues sent to the Select Committee for consideration if the Leader of the House is to make his own choice and to throw aside—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I agree with the hon. Lady that there must be an opportunity, but the opportunity is not on the debate whether the Select Committee on Procedure should examine the question of Questions.

Dame Irene Ward

I am all in favour of the Select Committee discussing the point of view expressed by my right hon. Friend, but I happen to be a Member of this House and I think I am right to say—and I say it, if I may, with your permission, Mr. Speaker—that I do not see why I should spend my time discussing matters raised by my right hon. Friend which are of great importance to the House and which are designed to give the maximum support to the right of Members of Parliament with regard to Parliamentary Questions, if, when the Select Committee has examined the point of view expressed by my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the House has no—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady and I would fight to the death for her right to debate whatever she wishes to debate at the appropriate moment.

Dame Irene Ward

Yes, but—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We are now deciding whether the Select Committee on Procedure should examine the question of Questions. The hon. Lady knows that.

Dame Irene Ward

That may be all very well, but I am getting a bit tired of always being told that there will be opportunities, opportunities which are denied to the House. Someone must say that. If I cannot at some time or other find an opportunity of saying what I want to say—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I would help the hon. Lady if possible to find an opportunity. This, however, is not the one.

Dame Irene Ward

I am a great believer in promises.

I have said what I have to say. I know well enough about the world to know that the House will know exactly what I intend to say, particularly as my right hon. Friend is also a very distinguished member of the Select Committee on Procedure. But when the occasion does arise, I shall remind you of your promise to me, Mr. Speaker, because we get on very well together, and I hope that I shall then be able to say exactly what I think about the mad, revolutionary, ex-Leader of the House whom I am jolly glad we have got rid of.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Without commitment, I shall also remind the hon. Lady of what I said tonight.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)

Perhaps I might be allowed to support very strongly what my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) said, without entering into the somewhat more controversial matter introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward). That is not to say that I disagree with her—I would not dream of doing that or dare to do so.

I want to return strictly to the question of Question Time. The House is deeply obliged to my right hon. Friend for raising it, not only because it is a matter of great importance, but also because it gives us the rare opportunity of hearing from the Patronage Secretary. That is a treat that I would not wish to deny the House, and so I shall be very brief.

There are a number of points which have arisen, even for someone like myself, who does not often table Oral Questions and who, for that reason, treasures those he does table. Fewer and fewer of the Questions I have tabled for Oral Answer get answered because I usually tend to table them after 4 p.m. on the first day on which they can be tabled. That is a pity. One of the great virtues of Oral Questions is that one can get a quick answer from a Minister on a matter and cross-question him.

One of our reasons for reducing the period of notice from an unlimited time to three weeks was to try to get actuality into Oral Questions, but the effect has been the reverse and the Select Committee should look into the matter, which is of great importance. It is almost impossible to get an answer to an Oral Question on a matter of instantaneous importance unless you, Mr. Speaker, are prepared to allow a Private Notice Question, and rightly, in your wisdom, you allow these rarely because, if you allowed them as often as perhaps they should be allowed, we should get no other business done.

Another factor which curiously enough has had an inhibiting effect on Question Time is the reverse of the one raised by my right hon. Friend. He pointed to the increase in the number of Ministries, but the amalgamations of Ministries have also caused problems. For constituency reasons, I have had to raise a number of Questions in the last two or three years about a specific subject. I shall not mention it now because I have done so so often, but it concerns aviation. But aviation matters are among all the Board of Trade's functions, which cover a very wide scope, and it is almost impossible to tell whether it is going to be possible to get a quick answer on an aviation matter from the Board of Trade at Question Time.

It would be better if the Select Committee could look at the possibility, in the case of what one might call, without offence, the "portmanteau Ministries", of grouping their functions, so that one could be certain that, for example, aviation matters in Board of Trade Questions or Army matters in the Ministry of Defence Questions—these latter, before 1964, would have been answered separately—could all come together on the same day. This would give coherence to Question Time and give a reasonable certainty that one would get an answer if one put down one's Question on a specific day.

Another point is the very vexed issue, raised time and again, of the transfer of Questions. This causes endless trouble to hon. Members. A Question may be a borderline case as between one Ministry and another. One puts it down to a certain Minister for the day on which he is to be top of the list for Questions. Then it is transferred to another Minister who is down on the list for the same day and it ends up at the bottom on the list. Could there not be a system whereby, if a Question was wrongly placed in good faith, it would be transferred to another Minister on a day when he would have a chance to answer it?

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

The Select Committee investigated this matter and recommended that Ministers should transfer Questions not later than two days after the notice has been put down.

Mr. Kirk

That would help. My right hon. Friend is quite right. I have a feeling that it would be even better to make it automatic that the Question should go to the other Minister on the next day he was due to answer Questions at the top of the list. It would then be fairly certain of getting an answer. Nothing causes more bad feeling than when a Question is suddenly transferred to another Minister and therefore comes at the bottom of the list.

There is also the question of Ministers who answer on Tuesdays and Thursdays because, on those days, the Prime Minister's Questions are really sui generis. On those days, one does not have a Question hour minus, as my right hon. Friend put it, but three quarters of an hour minus. Some very important Ministers answer on those days. I hope that, even if the suggestion for a 15-minute extension every day cannot be accepted, at least on Tuesdays and Thursdays a full hour can be devoted to Questions to other Ministers before we get to the Prime Minister's Questions.

This is a reasonable proposal which I hope the Select Committee will examine. Another thing at which it might look, although I do not imagine that it will command universal support, is the possibility of putting a half-hour of Questions on Fridays, when, quite often, the House rises at 2 o'clock or 2.30 p.m., particularly when there is Government business, and we waste a couple of hours, which could be spent on exploring these activities. This is a very important question, not just for back benchers, but for Ministers too.

During the short time that I was a Minister I can remember the frustration of wanting to answer a Question, curiously enough, and not being able to do so orally, and make the answers I would have wanted to have made. I hope that the Deputy Leader of the House will agree to this question going to the Select Committee, so that these problems can be investigated.

10.32 p.m.

Dr. David Kerr (Wandsworth, Central)

I must apologise to the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) for not being in my place when he raised this matter, and to the House for knocking home some of the nails with which he may have pierced the skin of my hon. Friend. I hope that I shall avoid the charge of being a bore. It would be nice to plead as an excuse that I was outside thinking up new Questions to put down, but that would not be true. I sense that the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) is about to address the House on the subject of the Select Committee's review on this matter. As one who sat in his excellent and stimulating company on that Committee, I am bound to say that, were I to have the good fortune, which alas, I do not, to have been placed on the Committee, I should view the prospect of going over this yet again with considerable gloom. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman does too, and perhaps he will tell us why.

I should like to offer a few observations as to why, if I were to be faced with this new request, I would feel that perhaps, more was being asked of me and the Committee than could reasonably be expected. The Committee carried out a review of many of the aspects of Question Time, and it came up with some not very satisfactory answers. The Committee would agree that they were not very satisfactory. The House debated them, and we have instituted some of them. The whole business of Question Time is surrounded by a folk lore of its own, by a superstructure of conventions which, even today, after nearly four years in the House and I hope, not too dim a reputation as a "Question asker"—perhaps not as bright as some luminaries on both sides of the House—I still find puzzling.

I have asked my share of Questions, but the conventions about which Questions one may ask are so complicated that, to take the fullest advantage of them, requires years of really hard attention and careful study. There is nothing simple about putting down a Question. The Select Committee's recommendations added to the complications of asking Questions. When the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Kirk) was talking about transferability, I thought that he did not take his case quite far enough. It is true that the Select Committee recommended, and I believe that the House agreed, that Ministers should transfer Questions not later than 48 hours after their being tabled.

Taking that in conjunction with the need always to put down a Question no more, and no less than, three weeks ahead—if it is presented too early, the Table Office will not accept it, and if it is too late it is so low on the Order Paper that it has not a hope of an Oral Answer—a transfer of even two hours, let alone 48 hours, means that one is transferred to the bottom of the list for Oral Answer. It means very often that a topical Question might have to wait as much as six weeks before a reasonable chance of an Oral Answer from the responsible Minister.

I suppose that this is something that we all have to accept. The Table Office is of immense and invariable help to us all, but sometimes we both go astray. Sometimes I suspect that the Minister is ducking rather cleverly, but this is a charge that I could not hope to make stick. I am not concerned with the minutiae of Question Time, important as these are. I am concerned with the general picture of Question Time as it is now presented. I need not remind the House that a special interest in this problem is a new thing. There is nothing deeply traditional about Question Time, nor did it come into existence as a gradually formulated procedure of the House. It grew up entirely spontaneously during the latter years of the last century, and established itself as a most valuable instrument of pressure against the Ministers of the Crown. It has not remained a valuable pressure. It is no longer that same instrument of pressure and of inquiry. It still serves a useful purpose, but it is nowhere near as useful as it was.

I should like to indicate what in my view are some of the important changes which are taking place in Question Time and which, in my prediction, will gradually reduce the effectiveness of Question Time. I hate to destroy the future hopes of the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Winnick). We are all aware of the valuable and, if I may say so, incessant use to which he puts it. None the less, it is quite clear that as Question Time replaced its predecessors in the form of petitions and other forms of Parliamentary activity, so we will see Question Time replaced by other changes, not the least of which is the Parliamentary Commissioner. The increase in the number of Questions and the liveliness of questioners are reducing Question Time and of course, Mr. Speaker, making your own rôle, which is always decisive, much more difficult to fulfil.

Mr. David Winnick (Croydon, South)

Would my hon. Friend agree that one purpose of Question Time is not just to probe but also, on occasions like today with Nigeria, to initiate a mini-debate which we would not otherwise have? Surely Question Time serves this very useful purpose.

Dr. Kerr

Yes, it does, and all the 30 or 40 Questions put down for Oral Answer every day could form the basis of precisely the kind of debate which my hon. Friend would like to see take place and which you, Mr. Speaker, quite rightly make sure does not take place, except very occasionally and under certain pressures.

There are many questions and many demands on time. Parliament has so much on its plate that one hour at Question Time can never satisfy the demands of the House. I do not see the answer in extending the length of Question Time, as though the business of the House had elastic sides. It cannot be done. In the course of time the effect of radio and television inside the Chamber, and the use of an extended Parliamentary Committee system will bring more effective pressures to bear on Ministers from the back benches than Question Time can ever hope to do again.

10.38 p.m.

Mr. R. Gresham Cooke (Twickenham)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, because it was my original Amendment down to the Procedure Motion which led the Leader of the House to promise that we should have an hour or so to debate this subject.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) on putting the points so powerfully. As he said, the power of the Parliamentary Question has decreased. When I was a boy I read a novel by Stephen Leacock which contained the phrase, "the whole of England fell over on its face before a Parliamentary Question." That is not so today.

The difficulty is caused by the number of Questions and the comparatively limited amount of time. In 1962–63 there were 77 Oral Questions a day, and we reached about 35, or possibly 40, for answer. We then reached a watershed of high political contentious feeling in about 1965. The 21-day rule was introduced in October, 1965, and there was the General Election of 1966. This led to a great increase in the number of Questions, and no less than 110 per day were being put down. Quite properly, Mr. Speaker, you stepped up the rate of questioning and cut out the double supplementary. As a result, at one time we were getting through about 45 Questions a day. The pressure is rather less now, with about 88 Questions a day being tabled. Of those, we get through about 40, which means that 50 or so hon. Members are dissatisfied nearly every day.

The 21-day rule has meant that all Questions are taken, and each Minister is reached about once every six weeks. However, the worst feature of the rule is that a great many Questions are stale by the time that the Minister answers them.

There are a number of alternative courses open to the House, and I will mention only three of them. The first would be the rather restrictive one of allowing only one Question per day to an hon. Member. That is restrictive, and it would be unfortunate. I should prefer to see an extra 15 minutes allowed for Questions. Even then, we should have only an hour and ten minutes, since we do not start on the so-called Question Hour until about 2.35 p.m.

Another and rather more radical solution would be to adopt the system practised in India, where a 10-day rule is operated. A Member is not allowed to put down a Question until 10 days before it is due to be answered, which means that Questions are fairly fresh. In addition, five Ministers answer Questions each day, and they answer them in the order in which they are put down. That may annoy the Government, but it brings a lot of variety into Question Time. Questions are not stale, and a larger number of Ministers answer Questions each day. If such a system were adopted in this House, it would avoid the very boring Wednesdays with the Minister of Transport, the Mondays with the Minister of Public Building and Works, and so on.

The transfer of Questions causes a great deal of annoyance, and that needs fresh consideration. If two Questions are written on one piece of paper, the chances are that they are selected together by the printers and, if they happen to appear near the top of the list, both are answered early. That is a detail to which attention should be given.

I am glad that we have had this debate. It is a matter which causes annoyance, and the time has come for some reform.

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

I support my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) in this Motion. It has always struck me that, if every back-bench hon. Member exercised his right, there would be complete chaos. As it is, the Question hour lies in the hands of about one-third of the hon. Members on both sides who are active and persistent questioners. A large number of hon. Members never table a a Question or ask a supplementary.

Again, we labour under this misnomer of the Question hour. Only on two days a week do we get 55 minutes, because Prayers take five minutes every day, and Questions to the Prime Minister are in a rather different category from Questions to Ministers.

Then, the Order Paper is a little clogged with purely parochial Questions which are of constituency interest and are asked by individual hon. Members for the purpose of putting forward their own local cases. However, they are not of general interest to the House and the country.

We need to give this matter close attention. Question Time is the most popular of all Parliamentary institutions, and it is a unique one. Since returning to this House, I have been a little appalled by the way in which some of the new procedures are being pursued. As we are trying to reform certain aspects, I think that the time has come to consider extending, the alleged Question hour to 1½ hours, and I am sure that the system in India to which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) referred would be well worth considering. Perhaps there might be a little experimentation. It may not work the first time, but let us try to get out of the situation we are in now.

I first came into the House in 1959. Coming back again in 1968 I find Question Time far less effective than it used to be. We had a stage when we were too slow and too few Questions were answered. We then went to the other extreme. Perhaps there is a happy medium.

I always felt that Question Time was the system whereby Ministers were made or destroyed. As a new Member one could spot instantly whether people of either party answering Questions at the Dispatch Box were of the calibre for the job. This is a very testing time for Ministers. It sorts out the men from the boys. This does not apply so much nowadays. As one of my hon. Friends said, with just one answer a Minister can turn off a difficult supplementary question either with great courtesy or with a certain amount of disarming talk. Therefore, I think that we should reconsider the whole subject. We should experiment to try to become more efficient in our procedures, possibly by cutting down on the number of Questions which hon. Members are allowed to table for a particular day and possibly by cutting down on the number of supplementary questions that individual Members are allowed to ask on one day.

I hesitate to talk in the presence of at least one Privy Councillor, but it is a tradition in this House that they seem to get precedence on various occasions. They do in debate, and I believe that they get precedence at Question Time. Without mentioning names, in the time that I have been back I have seen certain individuals constantly called, whilst many other hon. Members, jumping up in complete frustration, never seem to be called. I know that it is impossible for Mr. Speaker to be fair and impartial to everybody and I am sure that the Chair always does its best on these occasions, but if we could move around more on both sides we would get a better Question Time and a better atmosphere. This would not necessarily put the Government of the day under greater pressure, but it would create a better atmosphere for Parliament and be more enjoyable both for hon. Members and the public.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) it is slightly embarrassing talking on this subject when one is a member of the Select Committee. The hon. Member for Wandsworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) was rather in the same position last Session.

I wish to make three points. The first concerns the extension of Question Time. That was an earlier recommendation of the Select Committee, to which the Government have paid no attention. It is not much good asking the Committee to reconsider the matter when its recommendation—and I hope that I am not defying your previous Ruling, Mr. Speaker—was completely disregarded.

Secondly, satisfactory Question Time. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) pointed out, when we made our recommendation on the 21-day rule and its working, we said that we anticipated that it would not solve the problem and that we would have to return to it: Therefore, today's debate will not have surprised any Member of the Select Committee.

There is this final problem. We have been re-constituted so very late in the Session that our first meeting took place yesterday. The House has given us the remit of trying to decide the financial year which hardly, at first sight, seems an appropriate matter for a Select Committee on Procedure. It means that we shall have to take a great deal of evidence from many illustrious bodies to decide what should be the financial year.

We have also been asked to look into the times when the House goes into Recess and Adjournment. As the Patronage Secretary knows, that can be, and has been today, a matter for long and anxious debate. I do not see how we can get a quick report on the further matter of Question time when we have those two remits. I very much regret that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Chapman), who is Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, is not in his place, because I feel sure that that would be the advice that he would give to Mr. Speaker and to the House.

10.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Silkin)

I am sure that the House is grateful to the right hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Boyd-Carpenter) for raising this matter. If he will take the remark as a compliment, for it is so intended, he is a watchdog who is usually barking in the night.

The right hon. Gentleman has raised a matter of considerable interest to a large number of hon. Members. I am impressed by the large attendance at this hour of the night after a very heavy week. I think that that in itself is indicative of the interest that hon. Members have, and their determination that the Executive shall not exert overweening power against the ordinary back bencher.

It is because of that that the practice of Questions has grown up in the House. It is because of that that we have evolved the system of Select Committees, the right hon. Gentleman being a distinguished Chairman of one of them. It is because of that that the half-hour Adjournment debate has come into existence. It is because of that that Standing Order No. 9 has come into existence. All those are checks on the Executive. There is a higher check, you yourself, Mr. Speaker, and you and I are, I think, somewhat passive, but none the less very interested spectators in this debate because we are both concerned.

I feel that sometimes the House does not really appreciate its own power. For example, when we are talking about Questions, I wonder whether it is generally realised that we spend more than 10 per cent. of the time that we spend in this House on asking and answering Questions. It is a very large percentage. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith) who wants an hour and a half is really asking for more than 15 per cent. of our time to be allotted to Questions. That seems to be rather a large amount.

A check on the Executive also occurs in another way, and that is in the review which various Select Committees on Procedure have made on Questions. I was interested to find that there were two examinations by Select Committees on Procedure before the Second World War, two in this century, one in 1902, and one in 1936. But since the Second World War there have been no fewer than six examinations by Select Committees on Procedure concerning Questions.

I have to admit as true what was said by the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton), and what I understood to be the point made by the hon. Lady the Member for Tynemouth (Dame Irene Ward) that Governments do not always take the advice of Select Committees, and they should perhaps. Governments do not adopt every recommendation that every Select Committee makes. I think that it would be a little unreasonable to expect them to do so. They take what they think are the best recommendations, and Governments being human, as in the time when the right hon. Lady's party was the Government, they take those recommendations which they believe are best for the Government of the day. That is natural.

I agree that this matter of Questions needs to be kept under constant review. It is for that reason that I am not endeavouring to answer the right hon. Gentleman's points one by one. It would be very difficult to do so. He threw them in the air. He asked a powerful series of questions on Questions, and he then said, quite rightly, "These are matters that we should look at. I do not know whether I am right. It may be that I am wrong. Some solution other than the one I have indicated may be right but we should at least look at it". This was a fair point, but another is that the remit of the present Select Committee—a shortened Select Committee, by the way, with that narrow task of considering the financial year, Recesses and Adjournments—requires a speedy answer, and it will be a full-time job for the rest of the Session.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not think that the Government have behaved shabbily in setting up the Committee so late in the Session. It had done an enormous amount of useful work in the last Session and it was felt that it might be allowed some short interval to "gather its breath". In the next Session—because I do not see that the matter of Questions can be considered in what is left of this Session—a new and perhaps increased Select Committee would be free to consider, I hope, any matter that it chooses—

Dame Irene Ward

Is that a promise?

Mr. Silkin

I said that I hope that it would be, and that is as near a promise as I can make. I hope so, because it would be in the interests of the House.

Mr. Kirk

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider a larger Committee, with sub-committees to consider particular points?

Mr. Silkin

I was asked this question in a previous debate, which the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Gresham Cooke) attended. I thought then that this was a matter for the Select Committee to decide. There is a great deal to be said for it, although also, perhaps, for not too much proliferation. There are many subjects concerned with procedure which the Select Committee could continually review, and this might be one. I would not dictate to the Committee, but it should certainly be free to consider it, because it is important.

The matter of Questions is something which Select Committees on Procedure have been keeping under fairly continuous watchdog review over the years, at any rate since the Second World War. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand why I cannot accede to his request this Session or be 100 per cent. definite about the next, but I hope that, on my assurance that the next Select Committee will be free to consider what it likes, he will not press his Motion.

10.58 p.m.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

The right hon. Gentleman has made a valid point about the stage of the Session which we have reached and I shall be surprised if the Select Committee is able to make any substantive recommendation on the matter already referred to it. In that light, it would be foolish of me to try to press the Motion in these terms. However, I regard this matter as urgent, but the right hon. Gentleman has said that he intends to set up a Select Committee on Procedure, and perhaps a larger one, in the next Session, which I hope implied that it will be early in the Session—

Mr. Silkin indicated assent.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

He indicates assent to that

—and that the Committee will be free, if it wishes, to consider this matter. In the confidence that, in view of the general feeling in the House and the realities of the situation, such a Select Committee could not fail to go into this matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.