HC Deb 16 February 1976 vol 905 cc949-51
Mr. Speaker

I have been giving further thought to the exchanges which took place last Thursday on the subject of Prime Minister's Questions. In particular, I have refreshed my memory of the recommendations made in 1972 by the Select Committee on Parliamentary Questions—and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) for drawing my attention to that matter.

The Select Committee was concerned about the extent to which what it called "vague Questions" and what I ventured to describe last Thursday as "coat hooks" were displacing on the Order Paper Questions genuinely concerned with the Prime Miinster's responsibilities. It considered whether there should be a stricter application of the rules of relevance. It stated: For the reason that supplementary questions frequently do go wider than answers theoretically permit—that is to say, that a supplementary question cannot be ruled out of order until it has been asked and that to refuse a Minister a reply would not normally be reasonable—your Committee do not believe that the Chair should be asked to apply different standards to supplementary questions to the Prime Minister than are applied to other supplementary questions". The House will know that I have already had occasion to intervene when supplementary questions to other Ministers have appeared to become over-lengthy or divorced from the substance of the original Question, and I think that the House has supported me in this. I would certainly consider excessively long supplementary questions to the Prime Minister to be just as undesirable as they would be to any other Minister. As regards their content, although I fully recognise the desire of hon. Members to ask the most searching questions of the Prime Minister, I shall continue to bear in mind the wise words of the Select Committee.

Mr. Peyton

I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for that very helpful statement, which no doubt will be invaluable as guidance to my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, may I ask you to make it clear that your reasonable comments on the length of questions should apply with equal force to answers, which sometimes drag on for an intolerable time?

Mr. Speaker

I have on two occasions made appeals to Ministers to be brief in their replies, as I have appealed to hon. Members to be brief in their questions. I hope that all Ministers, present or absent, will read what I have said.

Mr. Heffer

May I also thank you, Mr. Speaker, as I raised the matter. May I ask that the flexibility in accordance with the Select Committee's proposals which you have described will be a genuine flexibility, otherwise we could be in a position where the Prime Minister is asked whether he is going to Huyton and the hon. Member asking the Question might follow it up by asking whether the Prime Minister will look at the unemployment problem there? Unemployment affects not only Huyton but the whole country, so the Question to the Prime Minister could go much wider. I hope that there will be that sort of flexibility, otherwise it will be quite ridiculous for hon. Members even to ask the Prime Minister what he was doing in Huyton.

Mr. Speaker

It might be in any case. This is a matter for common sense and judgment at the time. I will do my best.

Mr. Bidwell

Ministers do not often dislike Questions that ask them to go somewhere. It will be quite wrong to deny the Prime Minister the pleasure of having such a Question put to him. It has been known for people very close to Ministers to see that the kind of Questions they like appear on the Order Paper.

Mr. Speaker

There is a great deal in what the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Bidwell) says. It depends where a Minister is asked to go.

Mr. Hordern

Surely it is not just a question of the length of supplementary questions or the replies given by the Prime Minister. If supplementary questions are to have some pertinence to the original Question, does it not follow that the Prime Minister's answers must relate to either the original or the supplementary question?

Mr. Speaker

That is a fair point. Let me leave the House in no doubt on this matter. Supplementary questions must, in some way, be related to the Question on the Order Paper. Hon. Members must use their ingenuity. They are not short of that.

Mr. Lawson

Will you agree, Mr. Speaker, that supplementary questions from other hon. Members can be related to the Prime Minister's reply to the first supplementary question and need not therefore have any connection whatsoever with the Question on the Order Paper?

Mr. Speaker

We are getting into the realms of higher mathematics at which I was never any good.