HC Deb 09 July 1987 vol 119 cc539-42 4.51 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, arising from what was said earlier. With respect, will you now give further thought to the question of points of order? As you know, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition wanted to raise a point of order and you explained that Front Benchers would be treated the same as Back Benchers. However, a situation arose that we believe merited valid points of order, but because of what happened they could not be taken. All those mainly involved have now left the Chamber—I do not criticise them, as I am sure they have many other commitments—including the Prime Minister. You will remember that in the last Parliament you made a distinction between points of order that arose from questions and other points of order. Will you bear that in mind and consider whether points arising from Question Time, particularly Prime Minister's Question Time, should be taken at the time they arise?

It might be argued that the situation has now been defused, but hon. Members may have strong points of view which for various reasons they cannot press because they are not here at the appropriate time. For example, as is normal on Thursdays, business questions follow Prime Minister's Question Time and there could well have been another statement in addition to the one that has just been made. For all these reasons, it is in the interests of the House and of hon. Members to ensure that if they wish to raise a point of order — especially if it arises from questions — it should be taken immediately after questions. That would have the advantage that those involved—be it an hon. Member wishing to criticise or wishing to obtain a ruling from you—would be present, especially as the Prime Minister is unlikely to be present for no more than five or 10 minutes after Prime Minister's Question Time has come to an end.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Further to that point of order Mr. Speaker. What the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) has just said might be an argument in favour of taking the point of order at the moment when the occasion for it arises, but in my considered opinion it cannot be an argument for having three different times for points of order—one when the event occurs, another after Question Time, and another at the normal time for points of order of which notice has been given.

That was the evil which your ruling dealt with very effectively, Sir. But if there is a balance of opinion that points of order should be taken during Question Time, the abuse might be self-correcting, because there is no doubt that there was abuse. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman rather let the cat out of the bag when he referred to "points of view". Points of order are not to do with points of view and should be tightly constrained, but they have become open to abuse.

The only alternative to the ruling that you gave, which I think met with general acceptance, would be to experiement with taking points of order at the moment when the occasion for them arose—the discipline being that the House would get very cross if they were unnecessarily used or expanded upon at the cost of questions that would not be reached in those circumstances.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recollect that earlier this week I took the opportunity to advise you that I felt that we might run into the very difficulty that has arisen today as a result of the ruling give on 12 February. In fact, this is the second Thursday in succession, as you will appreciate, on which we have had just such a difficulty. Last week, in response to the only question from the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister dodged answering it by a complete mis-statement of the rules of this House when she said that she was not allowed to comment on sentences—a matter that you remedied later. But even you had to wait for an hour before you were able to put it right in your guidance on further points of order because of the business statement.

Today we had a triple abuse. We had a planted question on a matter that was not the responsibility of the Prime Minister—the very sort of question that you in the past have said that you are not willing to allow. That was then followed by what was clearly a carefully prepared and detailed statement from the Prime Minister on which she could not be questioned because she made it in the form of a supplementary answer. Rather poetically, she did so on the conduct of the security forces, a subject on which she had been singularly coy about making any statement at all in recent months on which she could be questioned. The third abuse was that the Prime Minister then chose to pontificate in her usual style on matters of privilege and procedure which have nothing to do with her but which are matters for you and the Committee that we have appointed to deal with these things.

As you will see from the clock, Mr. Speaker, it is now more than an hour and a half since that incident arose. Understandably, the Prime Minister has had to leave the Chamber, as has the Leader of the Opposition. We are now discussing the matter in a vacuum. We must therefore ask you to look at the way in which this ruling is operating. I well understand why you made it, and I understand that you wanted to avoid one set of abuses, but I put it to you that you have opened up the possibility of a further set of abuses, because we have a Prime Minister who consistently, repeatedly, and calculatingly abuses the procedures of this House when it suits her purposes. I therefore ask you to protect the House and to reconsider your ruling.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a busy day ahead of us and I should like to deal with this matter. I shall therefore call one more hon. Member from either side.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

I would not want you to consider ruling on that point of order, Mr. Speaker, without our correcting a matter of fact. The Prime Minister's answer this afternoon actually invited the Leader of the Opposition to make his position on these matters clear and did not rule out further questions.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

As I observed when you made your ruling, Mr. Speaker, it was a valiant try, but it was not likely to last permanently, for the very good reason that the House of Commons is subject to points of order at any time during the day. Indeed, this whole episode began when an hon. Member raised a point of order in the middle of a maiden speech, and he was able to do so because it is acceptable that a point of order can be raised at any time, even in the middle of a maiden speech. Therefore, if a maiden speech can be subjected to a point of order, why on earth cannot we have points of order at times when the Prime Minister is still in the House, when the Leader of the Opposition is available to raise points of order and so on?

No one should crow about this, Mr. Speaker, because your ruling was an attempt to bunch points of order together rather than to have one set after questions and some later on. To some extent, the experiment has worked for a time, but there was bound to come an occasion when all these conflicting interests needed to be present so that the point of order could be properly examined and dealt with. On those occasions when the participants, including Back Benchers—not just the Front Benchers, incidentally—want to raise such a point of order, the ruling should be revised to enable them to do so.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take one more point of order and then I shall rule on the matter.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), Mr. Speaker, I hope that in weighing the matter you will take into consideration the fact that your ruling was tried with great success in the last Parliament. There are two reasons why I hope you will resist the suggestions made by Opposition Members. This is a blatant attempt to extend Question Time, the very thing that you have said you always wanted to avoid. Secondly, as we have seen in this case, your ruling provides a cooling-off period during which those hotheads who might have wanted to cause trouble earlier drift off to the Tea Room, so that only responsible and mature Members are left to raise relevant points of order.

Mr. Speaker

I think that the question of the hon. Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo) was an abuse. I did not appreciate what the hon. Gentleman was seeking to do until too late, but it was an abuse and I shall have to reflect upon the matter.

However, I am reluctant—and I think the House will be reluctant—to return to the time when we had points of order arising out of questions because, as I said in my statement on 12 February, that is an open invitation for hon. Members to raise points of order. The House will recollect that in the early days of my Speakership—I inherited this practice—we started every day with point; of order. Since my ruling, that has not occurred. However, the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) is probably right — I shall reflect upon his suggestion carefully — that points of order should be raised immediately; we should apply the doctrine of the first occasion.

The House should know that I made my statement on 12 February after wide consultation and discussions with those likely to be involved, and I would wish to do so again before making any further changes.

Mr. Alan Williams

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am most grateful for your clear rebuke of the activities of a Conservative Back Bencher. You were correct that, as with points of order, you cannot always tell until near the end of a question whether it is in order. However, by the time that the hon. Member for Suffolk. South (Mr. Yeo) had finished, you, Sir, were clearly aware that what he said was in breach of your ruling. Why then did you allow the Prime Minister to read from a written statement for a full minute on a question that was not permissible?

Mr. Speaker

I have just said — the right hon. Gentleman must not put words into my mouth—that I did not appreciate what was happening until the Prime Minister was on her feet. I have said that I will reflect on the matter, but I hope that the House will agree that one clear abuse should not lead to a change in our procedures which would lead to many other abuses on a daily basis.