HC Deb 22 July 1987 vol 120 cc382-8 4.21 pm
Mr. Speaker

I shall now take points of order.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall take points of order arising out of the statement first, for neatness.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

You will recall, Mr. Speaker, that you granted a request which resulted in a Division which delayed the statement and the questions that we have just heard. That request was made to you by the hon. Member for Falkirk. West (Mr. Canavan) presumably on the basis that those who represented parts of the United Kingdom were not entitled to be present at or take part in Scottish Questions. As the hon. Member for Falkirk, West sat throughout a statement which does not have and could not have anything whatever to do with Scotland, will you consider taking powers to forbid or punish such perverse humbuggery?

Mr. Speaker

That is not within my power. I shall take points of order relating to Scotland.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

May I first apologise, Mr. Speaker, for some remarks that I made from a sedentary position which might have reflected on your tenacity in terms of ruling, when the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn) was on his feet.

May I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to use the recess, if you cannot do this immediately, to reflect on what is happening in the House with regard to some of your rulings—in particular the ruling that you insist upon now, that you do not take points of order until after questions? You will acknowledge that if there are questions, a business statement and then another statement, many of us who want to hear your words of wisdom and the information and guidance that you want to give us in terms of order might be denied those words of wisdom for some hours. That would be very unfair if there were business statements and other statements—as there are on some days—when on other days there are no statements and points of order are reached at 3.30 pm or so.

When you came to assume the Chair. Mr. Speaker, in this Session of Parliament, you reflected on transmitting the behaviour of the House through the medium of radio and perhaps later television. You should be aware, Mr. Speaker, that Scottish Question Time is broadcast in Scotland.

Mr. Speaker

indicated assent.

Mr. Douglas

If you are aware of that, I am grateful. [HON. MEMBERS: "Live."] Yes, it is broadcast live; I am indebted to my hon. Friends for reminding me of that.

Therefore, many of us who genuinely want to ask questions table them and they appear on the Order Paper. Because of the imbalance that the electorate in Scotland has inflicted on the Government — I make no apology for that and indeed welcome it—you find yourself in the position, Mr. Speaker, of frequently having to call Conservative Members who may or may not have tabled questions.

While we recognise that you have a duty to adhere to the conventions of the House with regard to minority parties and a duty to ensure that individual rights are protected, I ask you to reflect, Mr. Speaker, in the recess and make a statement when the House resumes, about the position that occurs when many of us, especially during Scottish Question Time—although it might happen on other occasions — are prohibited from putting our questions and protecting the interests of our constituents because you must call Conservative Members. Indeed, we only reached question 10 or 11 today. I hope that you will reflect on that, Mr. Speaker, and I ask you respectfully to consider it over a period.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

Further to that point of order. Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I want to deal with one or two points. First, I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) for his remarks at the beginning of his point of order. I also apologise to the hon. Gentleman for some unscripted remarks of the Chair.

May I just say, a propos Scottish questions, that I am aware that they are broadcast. I took that into account throughout the previous Parliament, and I therefore try to discover what matters are of major interest to Scotland and give a rather long run to those questions. If Scottish Members do not like that method, I shall certainly reflect to see whether we should take questions more rapidly. It would, of course, have the effect of my calling more hon. Members who may have early questions on the Order Paper. However, I point out to the hon. Member for Dunfermline, West and to the House that no fewer than 20 Back Benchers from Scottish constituencies were called on supplementary questions today who had later questions on the Order Paper. I link them in my mind, although they may not be linked by the Minister replying. I will certainly reflect on this matter.

With regard to the points of order arising immediately after questions, we have had a number of exchanges on that matter. The trouble about taking points of order immediately after questions is that they invite an extension of Question Time. As I said to the House the other day, I have undertaken a very careful analysis of the matter and I have found that invariably those who rose on points of order were seeking to extend Question Time, usually to complain that, sadly, they had not been called during that Question Time. I believe that the whole House will agree with me that if points of order are genuine, hon. Members will wait for a little later in the afternoon.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Is not the real trouble that the much heralded and vaunted attack by the Labour party on the Government on Monday night and today has completely failed, and that Opposition Members are trying to take it out on you, Mr. Speaker, rather than on themselves?

Mr. Canavan

Further to the point of order. It was with considerable reluctance that I caused inconvenience to the House earlier by spying Strangers. Perhaps if you took the point, Mr. Speaker, made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas), that genuine points of order arising from questions should be taken immediately after Question Time, there would be less inconvenience caused to the House.

The point of order that I would have raised immediately after Question Time is that I made the point earlier, just before your re-election as Speaker, that the Labour party is the majority party in Scotland and as such is entitled to a fair share of Scottish Question Time. I submit that we did not receive our fair proportional allocation of time this afternoon, for the simple reason that Scottish Question Time was infiltrated by Tory Members representing English constituencies, who normally show little if any interest in Scottish affairs. They deliberately came in to the Chamber this afternoon to disrupt Question Time and to try to minimise the democratic expression of the elected representatives of the people of Scotland.

When several of my hon. Friends objected to that, Mr. Speaker, you said in reply words to the effect that you are entitled to call English Members at Scottish Question Time because Scottish Members are called at English Question Time. There is no such thing as English Question Time and to my knowledge there never has been. Every Department of State in the Government has some influence on Scottish affairs. Therefore, Scottish Members are perfectly entitled to come in on questions to the Department of the Environment, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Education and Science and so on. I submit, Mr. Speaker, that for you to say that there is such a thing as English Question Time was perhaps a slip of the tongue. Perhaps the House is entitled to an explanation and at Scottish Question Time Scottish Members should have a fairer share in future.

Several hon. Members

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

One at a time, please.

Of course, that was a slip of the tongue. I meant to say that this is a United Kingdom Parliament and that all hon. Members have equal rights. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is perfectly legitimate for Scottish or Welsh Members to take part in Question Time to other Departments. The hon. Gentleman has only to look at Hansard tomorrow to see the weight that I gave to Scottish Members at Question Time today compared to the weight that I gave to hon. Members who sit for English constituencies, to know that what he said is not correct.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It will be within your recollection that during questions to many Departments there are in the House many Members whom I would describe as fairly regular attenders. You will know just who they are. You will also realise that, if they are on the Conservative Benches and asking questions about matters affecting United Kingdom Departments or Departments whose remit is often exclusively English, then, because there are so many of them, they have less chance of getting in. Labour Members during Scottish Question Time find themselves in exactly the same situation. That only occurs in their case on Scottish questions. Those of us who regularly attend find ourselves disadvantaged in that way at almost every Question Time. I have no complaint whatever, Mr. Speaker, about whose eye you catch and whom you call. In very difficult circumstances, you do an extremely fine job.

Several hon. Members

On a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

I shall take all the points of order and then reply.

Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)

It is my understanding that Scottish Question Time is an opportunity for Scottish Back Benchers to highlight matters that affect Scotland. Of course, English and Welsh Back Benchers are welcome to put down questions. I have noticed before and during Question Time today that several Scottish Conservative Back Benchers were called on several occasions.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

So what?

Mr. Martin

The hon. Gentleman says, "So what?" There are 50 Labour Members in the House representing Scottish seats and there are Members from other parties. We are expected to put up a case for our communities, but we cannot do that if we get only one opportunity at Scottish Question Time, while Tory Back Benchers from Scotland are able to come in two or three times. That is unfair. It causes resentment, and I wonder whether there is some way of ensuring a proper balance in calling Members.

Mr. Forth

Further to the point of order. Can you confirm, Mr. Speaker, that you do indeed preside over a United Kingdom Parliament and that Question Time for different Departments for different parts of the United Kingdom is equally open to all hon. Members? Can you also confirm that a large amount of money from the national Exchequer goes north of the border to Scotland, and that those of us who represent English taxpayers are fully entitled to question the expenditure of that money? Would you further confirm that you would welcome participation in Scottish questions as in all other departmental questions by Members from all parts of the United Kingdom? It would be totally invidious if you were to take part in any distinction or discrimination between Members from Scotland, Wales or England on any aspect of Government policies. As you well know, Mr. Speaker, we all wish to question the Government on their policies and expenditure in every part of the United Kingdom.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. Knowing of your own determination to see that a balance is achieved and that Back Benchers are protected, could we remind the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth) that Scottish Question Time is broadcast live in Scotland? It is not broadcast to the whole of the United Kingom.

Mr. Forth

It should be.

Mrs. Ewing

Therefore, it is important that the people in Scotland who are listening to our deliberations in the House should feel that the views of the people of Scotland are adequately reflected. Because of the nature of the procedures of the House, it appears that 50 per cent. of today's broadcasting time was given to a party that held on to only 10 seats in Scotland. Many Back Benchers in the Opposition parties commanded the respect of a large number of Scottish people and were not able to participate.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I said that I would hear all the points of order before replying, but I must deal with this immediately. The hon. Lady is being unfair. She should look at tomorrow's Hansard and then perhaps write me a letter about this, because she will find that 31 Members with Scottish constituencies were called. There were two questions on the Order Paper from Members with English constituencies and three other Members from English constituencies were called. I do not think that that is an unfair balance in Scottish terms.

Mrs. Ewing

Mr. Speaker——

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Key.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I urge you not to reflect too strongly on this matter in the summer, but to retain your traditional impartiality? I had question 34 on today's Order Paper. My constituency has forestry interests that are very important. By tradition of the House, I have to address those questions about matters in my constituency to the Secretary of State for Scotland. Would not the answer be not to blame the Chair, but to encourage the Boundary Commission to do its work properly and to reduce the number of very small Scottish Labour constituencies?

Mr. Harry Ewing (Falkirk, East)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. One of the problems with not taking points of order at the end of Question Time is that, whereas my point of order arises directly from an answer given to a question, the wrong Minister has stayed on; we are left with the most inoffensive, innocuous Scottish Office Minister that we have ever had. He would not harm a fly. The Secretary of State knows that, so he leaves him behind and the real culprits escape from the House. I have to apologise to the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth), about whom I complain in this point of order. No doubt his parliamentary colleague will carry the message to him.

In answer to a supplementary on question 7 about appointments to health boards in Scotland, the Under-Secretary of State said—I paraphrase—that, although it was right that the Secretary of State made these appointments, he was not aware of the politics of the people that he appointed to these boards. I have in my possession four nomination papers from last year's round of appointments to the Forth valley health board. [HON. MEMBERS: "What has this to do with it?"] It is a very good point of order. All these nominations were signed by the Leader of the House, then the Government Chief Whip; all these nominees are members of the constituency Conservative party of the hon. Member for Stirling and they all live in his constituency. He has misled the House.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman has put his finger on exactly what happens if we take points of order immediately after Question Time. They become an extension of Question Time. The fact that the hon. Gentleman did not like the answer that he received is no reason for him to raise a point of order through the Chair. If he does not like an answer, he should rise immediately on a point of order and say that he will seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment. That is the correct method of dealing with unsatisfactory answers.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Darlington)

Further to the original point of order, Mr. Speaker. Are you aware that I had question 16 on today's Order Paper? Although I rose during earlier questions and regularly attend during Scottish Question Time, being born and bred in Scotland, unlike Opposition Members, I make no complaint about not being called, because Question Time has to be seen as a whole and, in the fulness of time, these things probably even out.

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Do you agree that Scottish Office Ministers wield considerable powers over the people of Scotland, and that one of the prime functions of Scottish Question Time is to allow the elected representatives of the people of Scotland to hold those Ministers to account? On several occasions during Question Time, when I sought to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, I was unable to do so because hon. Members representing English seats, whose constituents have no interest in Scottish Office business, continued to catch your eye to exclude Members like me from putting questions.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. During questions on Scottish affairs, the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), who I understand is a new Member of the House, referred to those of us who represent seats in England as "pressed men" attending Scottish Question Time. I am sure that that is an unparliamentary expression. I am proud to be a Member of this Parliament, which represents the United Kingdom. I am also proud as a Douglas, having close family links with Scotland, to speak alongside my excellent hon. Friends from Scotland for the 713,000 people in Scotland who voted Conservative.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I recognise that an important and significant part of your duty is to protect the rights of minorities in the House. However, I put it to you that perhaps you erred on the side of generosity in going to the lengths that you did today to protect the saddest minority in the House, the Scottish Conservative party, which was utterly gutted in Scotland at the last election and which has only 10 hon. Members in the House. Is it really appropriate to try to protect that tiny minority from Scotland by calling a procession of obscure expatriates from Worcestershire, or goodness knows where else, to make up their numbers? May I invite you, Mr. Speaker, to reflect on that practice?

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I urge you to resist the temptation and the pressure that is clearly being put on you by Opposition Members to extend Question Time beyond 3.30. Conservative Members fully support the stance that you have taken not to extend Question Time in that way and I urge you to pursue that. On the protection of minorities—we all appreciate that that is important — if you were to apply criteria on numbers, for every three Conservative Members that you call, you would call only two Labour Members. Clearly you do not do that for any other business and I urge you to continue with the rule that you follow at the moment.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have just been reading question 34, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). Do you agree that that question is a blatant attempt to waste time in Scottish Question Time because such a question could easily be put in for a written answer——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must stop the hon. Lady. If the Table Office accepts the question, it is perfectly in order.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know you have given a great deal of thought to the serious point that was raised in a dignified and helpful way by my hon. Friend he Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) about I he order of business in the House. I recognise that this is riot specifically a Scottish problem. It arises right across I he range of business in the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) said, we now have with us the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who is certainly not the right hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind). If there had been continuity from Question Time, we might not have had that disadvantage. I should have preferred the Secretary of State to be here for these exchanges.

On the substantial point, it is clear that there is always a good deal of political fencing around such matters. I accept that that will always be the case and that we shall make our contribution to it. However, at the moment we face a substantial and genuine problem. I must record through you, Mr. Speaker—perhaps it will be noted by the usual channels—that there was not a pleasant atmosphere this afternoon——

Mr. Forth


Mr. Dewar

Well, that was my view. I put this point seriously and, I hope, in a reasonably constructive fashion. There was a fair degree of smirking and something of a self-satisfied atmosphere on the Conservative Benches. Indeed, it was the atmosphere of a Sunday school outing —or the parliamentary equivalent of it. Outside in the Lobby, I happened to hear the comment, "This has been a splendid operation." [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] It is quite clear that the Whips have been hard at work.

That atmosphere raises serious probems which will exacerbate the genuine difficulty that we face in getting the right balance in the difficult political situation that exists in Scotland. I hope that you will not resent this, Mr. Speaker, but I believe that that makes your job much more difficult. I hope that Conservative Members, who axe especially loud in their cries about the importance of and their devotion to the principle of making this a United Kingdom Parliament which works, will consider whether the tactics that we have been watching are not likely to be totally counter-productive in terms of the alleged principles of those Conservative Members. I hope that they will think about that.

Finally, I recognise that this situation throws up sharp and difficult problems for you, Mr. Speaker. We must think carefully about the right balance of contributions in Scottish questions, given the present situation. I hope that you will consider seriously the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West and reflect on them. Perhaps we could return to this matter in a calmer atmosphere in October.

Mr. Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I shall, of course, reflect on points of order, as I always do. Perhaps the whole House will reflect too on the wise words of the Leader of the Opposition when he said at the beginning of this Parliament that, sadly, no hon. Member can expect to be called always on the day he wants, on the subject lie wants and at the time he wants.