HC Deb 12 July 1979 vol 970 cc663-7
The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a short statement about the arrangements for Prime Minister's questions.

Honourable Members on both sides of the House have expressed dissatisfaction with the number of open questions that have been tabled recently, although I have not attempted to change the practice in any way.

The present practice is that I accept those oral questions, whether open or substantive, which can reasonably and appropriately be directed to me, rather than to a departmental Minister.

Over the years, that criterion has proved impossible to define more precisely. Clearly, detailed constituency matters ought to be dealt with by the appropriate Minister. But I expect to answer substantive questions that raise issues of general significance and national interest, if hon. Members wish to ask them. I feel, however, that I must retain the right exercised by all my predecessors to transfer a question where it seems to me appropriate to do so.

So far in this Session, 624 oral questions have been put down to me and I have not transferred a single one.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that her statement that she will be willing to answer more definite questions, even about departmental matters, will be very welcome to the House? In case this precludes hon. Members from asking questions about matters of immediate moment that have arisen since questions could be tabled, however, will she also give consideration to widening the scope of private notice questions put down even on the day upon which they are to be answered?

The Prime Minister

With respect, I do not think that I am the arbiter of private notice questions.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell

Does the right hon. Lady recall that two years ago, with the assistance and co-operation of her predecessor, what she has suggested today was put forward by the Select Committee on procedure but was not utilised at that time by hon. Members? Will she make every endeavour, through the usual channels and otherwise, to encourage hon. Members to exploit the opportunities opened up by her statement today?

The Prime Minister

I seem to remember that there was a time when that opportunity was used, and we went through a period when particular questions were the order of the day. Being then on the Opposition Benches, a number of us complained bitterly that we had absolutely no opportunity to raise the sort of topical question that can be asked by means of an open question. The nature of the questions to be asked is, of course, a matter for hon. Members. I am here to try to answer them and will try to take any question that comes to me. Having been on both sides of the House, I suggest that it would please more hon. Members if we had a mixture of both kinds of question, so that on each day we had an open question, giving some opportunity to challenge me about the topical point that comes up suddenly.

Mr. James Callaghan

The Prime Minister will probably remember that she pressed me very closely to define what questions would be retained and what would be transferred. I said that I thought that it was impossible to give such a definition and that it must be left to the discretion of the Prime Minister. Has she now come round to that point of view?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that he transferred more questions than I have.

Mr. Callaghan

Is the Prime Minister aware that over the period that I have been able to check, there were 532 questions that I answered and that I transferred 14? It is not so much of a difference, is it?

The Prime Minister

But I have had 624 questions put down to me and I have transferred none.

Mr. Adley

Is not my right hon. Friend's point about the advantages of the open question perfectly made by the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) this afternoon, on a matter that is widely felt by many people in this House, which could not possibly have been raised if there had been only specific questions on the Order Paper?

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree. I am here to try to answer whatever questions are put down to me within the rulings that I have tried to give.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will the right hon. Lady think again about the desirability of having so many open-ended questions? This does not encourage Members to exercise a little ingenuity in tabling their questions—an exercise that I am sure the right hon. Lady would agree to be highly desirable. Will she not issue, somehow, a blocking question to stop the indefinite number of questions asking what are her engagements for the day? It is an intolerable position, which brings the House into disrepute. Will she not reconsider it?

The Prime Minister

I am not responsible for tabling the questions. If I start to issue questions there really will be trouble.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been rising in their places. Then I have a short statement of my own to make.

Mr. Ashton

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. Is the Prime Minister not misleading the House? As the total amount of Prime Minister's Question Time since the election is only just over two hours and she claims that she has answered about 600 questions—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister will speak for herself, but I think she said that the questions had been addressed to her.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Prime Minister aware that before we are prepared to accept this new policy we should like to see a little more of the small print? Is she aware that unless she gives a list of specific subjects that are acceptable to her, Members of Parliament on either side could go to the Table Office, table the question, and have it accepted by the staff in the Table Office as appropriate to the general statement that she has made today, whereupon, if she is not happy about the Member who has tabled the question, she has the privilege of deciding that the subject of the question is one that she will not tackle?

The right hon. Lady's statement, rather than giving a great deal more freedom to Members of Parliament, provides a wonderful opportunity for the Prime Minister to block questions from those people whose questions she is not prepared to answer. We shall need to have a list of specific subjects before the situations is satisfactory.

The Prime Minister

But it is not a new policy. I made that perfectly clear. I have not attempted to change the existing practice in any way. The use to which hon. Members wish to put that practice is a matter for hon. Members and not for me.

Mr. Latham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the question from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is totally unfair? Is she further aware that the open question was introduced into this House by the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding), that the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) did everything possible to block it and kill it, and that it was her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan) who allowed it, and that she is continuing it?

The Prime Minister

I think that the open question has its uses, but if it means that one has to answer any questions from any quarter on any subject, it seems to me that one might expect wider questions on substantive subjects.

Mr. Maclennan

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Lady for her willingness, at least in theory, to answer more questions from us, but will she say what considerations she will have in mind in the future when transferring general questions to other Ministers who have departmental responsibility?

The Prime Minister

I gave the only example that I thought could fittingly be given—that I do not think it right that the Prime Minister should answer detailed constituency matters. Those obviously fall within the sphere of a departmental Minister and it would be best, therefore, if they were addressed to that Minister.

Mr. Winnick

In view of the large number of questions put down to the Prime Minister, would she consider giving more time to answering questions than the present 15 minutes on Tuesday and Thursday, especially in view of the difficulty that some hon. Members have of being called in the first place?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I have followed the tradition that has built up over a long time and I have devoted the same amount of time to answering questions as did my predecessors. If more time were to be devoted to my answering questions it would only take time from departmental Ministers, and that would not be desirable.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Would the Prime Minister undertake to place a list of her engagements for a particular day in the No Lobby? That would mean that hon. Members would not have to ask her question on that subject. As my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said, that would enable hon. Members to use their ingenuity, as opposed to the farce that we have had over the past few months.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. That might deny the opportunity to hon. Members who wish to ask such a question.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I also have my own difficulty with regard to Prime Minister's Questions.