HC Deb 03 February 1983 vol 36 cc423-5 3.50 pm
Mr. Speaker

I undertook yesterday to inform the House of the outcome of the informal all-party talks that took place last evening in my house on the subject of Prime Minister's Question Time. I should like to say at once how grateful I am to the Leader of the House, to the shadow Leader of the House and to the representatives of the parties in the House who came together at such short notice. I also want to thank those hon. Members who sent in written representations to me. Every suggestion received was carefully examined. I am also deeply grateful for the fact that our discussions remained confidential.

Our conversation concentrated on two principal matters—that of unreasonable noise, and the open question. No experienced parliamentarian expects or wishes our proceedings to be conducted in total silence, nor do we expect it. Our adversarial tradition, due to the clash of party opinion in the House, encourages the expression of support and dissent. We are all well accustomed to this. What is insufferable, and what was universally condemned in our all-party discussions last night, is the attempt to deny any hon. Member a fair hearing. That is the type of noise that I hope we can eliminate. I look for the support of the House as a whole in the elimination of this threat to our traditional way of proceeding.

On the issue of the open question, I have made no secret of my preference for the substantive question that enables the House to know the issues that are to be raised and allows considered answers to be given. However, it is clear that there are arguments in favour of open questions in that they enable topical matters to be raised and a greater range of issues to be covered, however briefly, in the time available for Prime Minister's questions. Last night we considered a variety of methods of at least improving the chances of hon. Members who wish to put substantive questions to the Prime Minister having their questions reached. We concluded that every remedy we considered would require a change in the rules of the House and that this was not an appropriate time in the life of this Parliament to embark upon such changes.

I am certain from the response I received from the House as a whole, from both sides, when I proposed the all-party meeting that there is great unease about the dominance of the open question at Prime Minister's Question Time. Despite our combined efforts and long consideration, our only conclusion is that the solution really lies in the hands of hon. Members themselves. If hon. Members put down more substantive questions, the better will be the chance of some of them being reached, as one was today.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you have been kind enough to raise this question and to give a report to the House, for which hon. Members are grateful, I wonder whether you can say whether any conclusions were reached on a specific point which was raised with you and which received, I thought, widespread support. I refer to the proposal that privileges given to Privy Councillors should be ended and that all hon. Members should be placed on the same basis, both at Question Time and in debate.

The question was also raised of giving preference at Prime Minister's Question Time to those who have taken the trouble to put down questions, thus enabling perhaps 12 or 20 hon. Members to ask questions, rather than hon. Members being picked at random from among those present.

Mr. Speaker

There are certain difficulties in what appears to be a reasonable suggestion by the hon. Gentleman. It would mean leaving out the leader of his own party from those asking questions if I simply go down a list, calling on everyone whose name is on the Order Paper to ask a supplementary question. That would fill up the whole quarter of an hour.

We examined these questions with care. I did not consider that the issue of Privy Councillors was a matter for discussion last night. It is a matter for a Select Committee of the House. I guard the conventions of the House as best I can. Two Privy Councillors tried several times this afternoon to catch my eye, but they were unlucky. They did not succeed.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you agree that the House is more likely to be orderly and the noise level reasonable if there are more substantive questions? Instead of the encouragement given to abusive exchanges that arise from the open question, when hon. Members feel aroused to raise any subject under the sun, a substantive question would at least mean that they had to address their minds to staying in order. This is a discipline that has in the past enhanced the quality of Prime Minister's Question Time.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

As several Prime Ministers have had to face a barrage of open-ended questions for many years, why should the issue of the open-ended question have arisen at this time?

Mr. John Maxton (Glasgow, Cathcart)

Scottish Question Time is perhaps unique in that five of the eight minority party Members who wish to raise questions happen to be Privy Councillors. That gives an unfair advantage to Privy Councillors at Scottish Question Time.

Mr. James Lamond (Oldham, East)

Before the idea gets too widespread that there is a unanimous feeling in the House against open questions, may I point out that hon. Members have the opportunity to put down specific questions, yet 57 of the 63 questions on the Order Paper today for answer by the Prime Minister are open questions. This method must therefore meet the desires of the hon. Members who have tabled those questions.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

Did not the dominance of the open question arise from the habit of some Prime Ministers of transferring substantive questions to departmental Ministers? Is it not true that, since the Select Committee report of 1977, that situation has been remedied? Therefore, would it not be reasonable to have a trial period in which substantive questions were given priority over open questions?

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Huddersfield, West)

I know, Mr. Speaker, from my conversations that many Back-Bench Conservative Members are delighted with your ruling, because all of us are confident about our Prime Minister answering questions without putting a foot wrong whatever method is used. It is common knowledge within the House and within the country that, however difficult the questions, we have a Prime Minister who will always beat the Opposition into the ground.

Mr. Speaker

Order. So long as I sit here, some hon. Members will wish to put a point of view under the guise of a point of order. I have given my ruling to the House. The truth is that we are better at diagnosis than we are at cure.