HC Deb 08 November 1977 vol 938 cc483-6
Mr. Rifkind

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I tabled a Question to the Prime Minister for answer today asking whether he would visit the headquarters of the International Monetary Fund. The Question was accepted by the Table Office, but I was informed recently that it had been transferred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It appears on the Order Paper today as Question No. 48.

I had understood—indeed, I think the House had understood—that the Prime Minister was anxious to receive Questions of a detailed nature, rather than routine Questions relating to his engagements. This was a Question of important national interest, yet we find that. at the request of the Prime Minister, it has been transferred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. May we be given some clear guidance on the Questions that the Prime Minister is prepared to answer?

Mr. Tebbit

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You were kind enough yesterday to make a statement on the practice that you intend to follow in allowing supplementary questions on substantive, and what you called indirect, Questions to the Prime Minister. Since then there has been this interesting new development that today's Order Paper shows that yesterday substantive Questions from the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas), Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), Peterborough (Mr. Ward), Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. MacKay), and Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind) were transferred by the Prime Minister.

The Question from the hon. Member for Peterborough was No. Q.3 on the Order Paper, so had he put down an indirect Question of the type that is rightly deplored by the Select Committee on Procedure, by yourself, and by the Prime Minister, he would have been able to question the Prime Minister. The fact that he put down a substantive Question has been used as a device for preventing the hon. Member for Peterborough from asking his Question.

Almost all the Questions on the Order Paper which the Prime Minister could reach today are of an indirect nature. Perhaps, Mr. Speaker, not only could you take this into account in deciding your policy towards supplementary questions, but, at some stage, the Prime Minister will let us know what sort of Questions he does dare to answer.

Mr. MacKay

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Many of us have taken note of the Prime Minister's wish to be asked substantive Questions, and I have tabled a Question asking him when he next intends to meet officers of the National Union of Mineworkers. That is something which, in view of the ballot of the mineworkers last week I should have thought was of national importance, and I was dismayed to find that the Question has been transferred to the Secretary of State for Energy. I am sure that Members on both sides of the House would appreciate guidance on how we can table substantive Questions without having them transferred.

The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Up to the end of July, 532 Questions were addressed to me, and I transferred 14. [HON. MEMBERS : "Which 14? "] I have attempted to help the House in this matter, but I have a feeling—and I shall offend certain of them by saying it—that some hon. Members are trying to make things as difficult as they can. [Interruption.] I do not resent that, but hon. Members must not mind, either, if I defend myself when that happens.

Questions will be transferred, because I cannot undertake to answer over the whole range—[Interruption.] There is nothing awkward about visiting the International Monetary Fund. One is given an agreeable lunch, and I should have a much more intelligent conversation than I would ever have with the hon. Member for Gillingham (Mr. Burden).

I cannot undertake to answer Questions covering the whole range of Government policy. I shall go on considering the matter. It might be that the easiest thing to do would be to go back to having a charade for 15 minutes—hon. Members merely putting down indirect Questions, and my giving the answers. That is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker. I do not mind, but when I try to go halfway to meet the Opposition and find this sort of reaction, it does not make me feel that some Members of the Opposition want to try to make this system work.

Mrs. Thatcher

The Questions that were transferred were direct, specific Questions to the Prime Minister, of the kind that we thought he wanted. Which criteria did he use to transfer Questions about unemployment and a personal meeting with the National Union of Mineworkers?

The Prime Minister

I am unable to give a clear answer to the right hon. Lady on these matters, but if I am to be questioned in this way every week I should prefer to go back to the old system and to transfer every Question so that my Question Time will consist wholly of "Whom shall I meet? ", "What are my engagements? "and other questions of that sort.

I cannot answer for the whole range of Government responsibility on these matters, and it is not reasonable to expect me to do so. I shall have to see what is the best thing to do. But from now on—and I shall say so now, Mr. Speaker, if it will help—I shall transfer every substantive Question that does not bear directly upon the responsibilities of the Prime Minister or the First Lord of the Treasury. Perhaps that will help.

Several hon. Membersrose

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no point in pursuing this argument across the Floor, because that will not settle it. Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. To what extent is the Prime Minister's Office or the Table Office—I do not know which office is involved—entitled not just to transfer a Question but to alter its whole substance? Asking the Prime Minister whether he will go to the IMF is not the same as asking somebody else—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—not when the Prime Minister will go to the IMF. but when the Chancellor of the Exchequer will go to the IMF. That is an entirely different Question.

Mr. Speaker

At last there is a question I can answer. The hon. Gentleman knows that it is a very old custom—as old as I am—that when a Question is transferred it is put down to the Minister to whom it is transferred. That has always happened in my time.

Mr. English

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. There must be some strength in the Prime Minister's case, and it is very simple. If he were always asked Questions within the responsibility of individual Ministers, no Questions would be directed to those Ministers. The criterion must be something different from that. That, surely, is the strength of the Prime Minister's case.

May I therefore ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether you will have a meeting with both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition to try to introduce some sense into the system? It is not sensible to have the charade to which my right hon. Friend refers. Nor is it sensible, on the other hand, to have a system whereby he is forced to answer Questions that should be answered by his colleagues. Could we not have a system whereby, for example, he answers Questions that deal with the responsibilities of several Departments, not just one?

Mr. Speaker

I am very much obliged for the hon. Member's help.

Mr. Cormackrose

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman also seeking to help me?

Mr. Cormack

Yes, Mr. Speaker. Following what the Prime Minister said, I presume that all geographical questions, such as whether he will visit Hemel Hempstead, will now be transferred to the Department of the Environment.

The Prime Minister

In accordance with what we used to do in this House, that is exactly what would have happened.

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