HC Deb 20 June 1974 vol 875 cc679-82
Mr. Heath

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If a number of hon. Members table Questions on a particular speech, which is now accepted as customary, the Prime Minister of the day can be pressed on that matter. It is obvious that this afternoon, when a large number of Questions were answered about visits to different places on which back bench and Front Bench hon. Members may have wished to press the right hon. Gentleman, there was no possible opportunity of pressing him. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will abandon this procedure until the Procedure Committee has ruled upon it.

Mr. Speaker

In my experience one of the problems is that most Prime Ministers, if they are asked a substantive Question, usually transfer it to the Minister responsible. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition was no more guilty than any other Prime Minister. It has happened all the time. That is one of the problems.

The Prime Minister

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I welcome the suggestion that the matter should be further considered by the Select Com mittee. However, the House will be aware that the Select Committee on Procedure recently considered this matter and reached the conclusion—I speak from memory, and hon. Members can correct me—that the present situation regarding visit Questions was unsatisfactory. The Committee did not have anything to recommend to the House on the matter. If, on the second bite at this cherry, it can find a satisfactory answer—I recognise that this afternoon's experiment has not been 100 per cent. successful, partly because we wasted seven minutes at the beginning on the point of order raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition—that will be a matter for the House to consider.

I was very much concerned that before the Whitsun Recess a large number of Questions placed high up on the Order Paper were not reached because on a Question relating to Derbyshire we discussed Chile for nearly 10 minutes. It was not satisfactory that important Questions only a little lower down on the Order Paper were not reached. We have a problem that all hon. Members must face.

Mr. George Cunningham

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It seems to be suggested that the Procedure Committee be given the task of improving things. Would it not be a good idea if in this Parliament we established a Procedure Committee? We have not yet done so.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Earlier I paid tribute to you, and I think that the House was pleased with the way in which you previously tried to safeguard hon. Members' time on Questions to the Prime Minister. Would it not be possible to have such a safeguard by having an agreed procedure whereby, for example, the first four or five Questions, which may be of a similar character, are lumped together, at the discretion of the Prime Minister in consultation with the Chair? The other Questions could take their normal course. The reasonable figure for such a grouping could be discussed through the usual channels, and the Prime Minister of the day would be able to say, "With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall answer the first three Questions together". Of course, it might be the first three, four or five Questions. That would solve the problem.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. If I am going to get further advice on this matter, I think it would be more convenient for the House if it were conveyed to me in some other way. We have two very important debates today, and also business questions.

Mr. Nigel Lawson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. While one admires the Prime Minister's ingenuity in avoiding Questions that he is frightened to answer, will he tell us how he proposes to group Questions in future—otherwise hon. Members will have no idea how to put down Questions to him?

The Prime Minister

That question seems to have been addressed to me, rather than to you, Mr. Speaker. I shall consider what has been said today, and also your own proposal. I find some merit in what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis). Since there is at present no Select Committee on Procedure, I think that one will have to be appointed specially. There may be a case for discussions through the usual channels to see whether we can agree, not only with the official Opposition but with other parties and hon. Members, on a means acceptable to the House which will help us to move rapidly to other Questions. It may be that the answer lies in grouping only three or four Questions together, whichever happened to be first on the Order Paper. I suggest that there should first be talks through the usual channels, in order to make progress on this matter.

Mr. William Hamilton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The back bencher in this House has a right to suspect every Prime Minister all the time, because all Prime Ministers have abused Question Time at one time or another. Is it not the case that in the absence of a Select Committee on Procedure the responsibility for protecting the back bencher from this abuse rests with you? In this case, would it not have been within your power to ignore the grouping and to call the other Questions? You are not bound to call supplementary questions from hon. Members who have put down Questions about visits to various parts of the world. It is entirely up to you to protect the back bencher from the abuses of every Prime Minister who has sat on the Front Bench.

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice.

Mr. Kilfedder

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Question No. Q2 was obviously vitally important, and the device used by the Prime Minister deprived me of the opportunity of putting to him the position in Northern Ireland, which has been blasted by bombs during the past few days, and of finding out what pressures he intends to bring on the Prime Minister of the Republic to end the smuggling of bombs and explosives from the Republic to Northern Ireland. What protection do you give to a back bencher who represents part of the Province which is suffering in this way?

Mr. Speaker

I shall certainly consider all these points.