HC Deb 06 April 1989 vol 150 cc363-6

5.7 pm

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I raise with you the procedures that were observed today during Prime Minister's Question Time? Some of us were rather puzzled about why question No. 4 was linked to question No. 8. It is unprecedented for questions to be linked at Prime Minister's Question Time, and the linking today prevented hon. Members from asking questions Nos. 5, 6 and 7. Today as always well over 100 hon. Members put down a standard question. Why should what is traditionally called the "closed question" be given priority? If this is the name of the new game, you are likely to be faced, Mr. Speaker, with hon. Members putting down questions in that way in the hope that they will be linked and will therefore obtain priority. Will you look urgently at this matter and advise the House, because if an unfortunate precedent has been set today it should be removed as quickly as possible.

Mr. Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I share his concern about this matter and have made my views known.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you make a statement saying quite clearly, not that you have views about the matter but that you will not accept linking of questions to the Prime Minister? You will see that later in the Order Paper there is another question identical in type and form to questions Nos. 4 and 8. Quite clearly conspiracies could develop to flood the Order Paper so that one party could dominate the Order Paper to the exclusion of other parties. It would simplify matters if it was understood that there would be no linking at all.

Mr. Speaker

The linking of questions is a matter for Ministers and not for the Chair. As I have said, I share the concern expressed about this matter for the very reasons that hon. Members have mentioned.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I cannot say any more about the matter. I hope that it will not happen again.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I clearly recollect one of your predecessors intervening when questions near the top of the Order Paper were linked with later ones. That was about 10 years ago. The Speaker of the day intervened and stopped that practice. I note and I am grateful for the fact that you have made your views known, Mr. Speaker. May we have some assurance that your representations will be as effective as those of your predecessor?

Mr. Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the precedents of this matter is rather greater than that of those who advise me. I will certainly take into account what he has said.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. John Wakeham)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have no strong views about these matters and I will seek to do whatever is in the best interests of the House. In his enthusiasm to show his great knowledge of this matter, the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) did not perhaps consider the Order Paper or the problem very carefully. If he does, he will see that whether what I did was generally acceptable or not, is one matter. However, there were three questions between questions 4 and 8. Two of them were reached and those hon. Members who asked them have no particular grounds for grievance. The other question was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) who, in spite of his question not being reached, seemed to manage quite well.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a very busy day ahead of us. I have already made my views on this matter clear and the Leader of the House has accepted what I have said.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Dobson

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. It is my understanding that under the conventions of this House it is accepted that, roughly speaking, Ministers can decide whether to link questions. However, there is a convention over and above that which states that the linking should apply only to questions which are likely to be reached. Many hon. Members, probably from both sides of the House, are very dubious about a development in which a question which was on the borderline of not being reached can be linked. Having been linked, other questions tabled by Members who came higher in the ballot were not reached. The House would want a general view and a ruling from you, Mr. Speaker, if Ministers are to believe that they can link one question with one which may be so far down the list that it receives a leg up and is answered when it would not otherwise be answered.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to correct the Leader of the House. Question 6 to the Prime Minister stood in my name and that certainly was not reached. Question S was reached, but questions 6 and 7 were not. Question 8 had precedence. That is what the argument is about.

Mr. Speaker

I agree.

Mr. Spearing

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will know that when tabling questions, particularly about matters which are regarded as historic, a point is reached when it is questionable whether matters are new in relation to the events in question. My point of order is relevant to the courteous exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing) and the Leader of the House.

The Leader of the House said that nothing new had arisen from the statement made by Sir Leon Brittan. I wonder whether you will allow the Leader of the House, through you, Mr. Speaker, on this point of order, to tell us where in previous exchanges in the House or in any Select Committee report the two civil servants named by Sir Leon Brittan are named as being responsible for the leak. Unless and until such a demonstration is made in this House now or in future, the assertion of the Leader of the House must be found wanting and questions can be tabled which otherwise would not be raised.

Mr. Speaker

It is a great pity that the hon. Gentleman was not here—at least I did not see him here—during business questions, because he could have put that question to the Leader of the House then.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A lot of hon. Members would take a different point of view and would be very grateful if you could protect the House from the turgid and continuous regurgitation of this boring and bogus historical issue which may be of rotting political interest to a small out of touch portion of the chattering classes, but the vast majority of the country could not give a tuppeny whatever about it.

Mr. Spearing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a very long day ahead of us. If the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has a legitimate point of order, I will have to deal with it.

Mr. Spearing

I invite you, Mr. Speaker, on this very important matter, to ask whether the Leader of the House would be willing to demonstrate where these matters were made explicit—namely, that the two civil servants concerned were named in official documents and therefore there is nothing new. Unless that is done, the House may doubt the words used by the Leader of the House in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Ewing).

Mr. Robert Parry (Liverpool, Riverside)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you explain why, in the statement on the abolition of the dock labour scheme, as the only Liverpool Member in the House who has Liverpool docklands in his area, I was not called?

Mr. Speaker

I can easily explain that. With the greatest good will in the world to all hon. Members, it would have been completely impossible for me to call every hon. Member who had an interest in the matter during the statement. It is a question of judgment on the part of the Chair to try to have every part of the country represented. I am extremely sorry for the hon. Gentleman. I called him during business questions and I thought that he might have raised his point then.

Mr. Harry Ewing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you know, I am a great student of procedure in this House. I have sat here for endless hours without being the slightest bit interested in the debate—just watching you very carefully to see how you run the business. My interest in procedure has been heightened with my appointment as chairman of the Scottish convention on the constitution issue. I thought about asking to try your wig on, Mr. Speaker, but I had better not.

I have noticed in recent weeks that there is a new practice of the Chair calling Conservative Back Benchers after the Opposition Front Bench spokesman has questioned the relevant Minister—today it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer. For my benefit, can you explain what procedural advantage is gained from that?

Mr. Speaker

That is a matter of judgment for the occupant of the Chair. One day perhaps the hon. Gentleman may have this very difficult job.