§ Mr. Speaker
I myself have a statement to make.
I have given some thought to the points which were raised yesterday after the Prime Minister's Questions by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson).
Supplementary questions to the Prime Minister have long posed a difficult problem for the Chair, and the matter was considered with great care in 1972 by the Select Committee on Parliamentary Questions to which, the House will recall, I referred in my statement on 16th February.
That Committee pointed out in its Report that supplementary questions frequently go wider than the Answers theoretically permit and said that it did not believe that the Chair should be asked to apply different standards to supplementary questions to the Prime Minister from those that are applied to other supplementary questions. On the other hand, the same Committee decisively rejected a suggestion that Questions to the Prime Minister might be purely extempore. Clearly the Committee 409 believed—and so do I—that the line must be drawn somewhere.
I have already endeavoured to intervene when supplementary questions to departmental Ministers have manifestly gone wide of the mark, and this, with the support of the House, I shall continue to do.
With regard to Prime Minister's Questions, when their content is clear and specific, I see no reason why the same practice should not be applied. When, however, their terms are general and vague, as most often is the case, for reason which hon. Members will know, I propose to follow the guidance of the Committee and to allow as much latitude as is consonant with the general rules of order.
I must make one final point with regard to the observations of the hon. Member for Tottenham, who I am sorry is not in his place, but I feel that I must make this statement today, having now had an opportunity to study his words in Hansard. The hon. Gentleman said:Hon. Members have gone to the Table Office seeking to place a particular Question and have found that one set of rules applies to some Members and another set of rules to another set of Members."—[Official Report, 23rd March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 204.]This statement does less than justice to people who serve all parties in this House quite impartially. I am entirely satisfied that the Table Office makes no differentiation of any kind between right hon. and hon. Members when advising them on the rules of Questions. I remind the House that, in deciding whether a Question is in order, I am the final authority and that, if a Member wishes a disputed Question to be referred to me, it is the duty of the Table Office so to refer it. This it has never failed to do.
I wish to place on record, therefore, my appreciation of the courtesy and impartial service rendered to the whole House by those who serve in the Table Office.