§ 4.8 pm
§ Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will recall that, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister, not for the first time, read at some length from what was obviously a carefully prepared statement. The issue concerns British hostages in Iran and is an important one. There has been some discussion through the usual channels about whether it should be raised in the House, and about the most helpful way to proceed.
First of all, it is an abuse of the House for the Prime Minister to use Question Time to read lengthy prepared statements on important subjects on which hon. Members are precluded from asking questions. It is an abuse to read out long prepared statements of that kind.
Secondly, it is a totally unsatisfactory way for the House to deal with business, particularly sensitive and controversial issues that are not party political—certainly this is not a party-political issue. We are told by Conservative Members that such matters should not be raised at all. One of the Prime Minister's supporters repeated that argument this afternoon, but, at the same time, that hon. Gentleman and others seemed to endorse the behaviour of the Prime Minister. In those circumstances, the House gets the worst of all worlds.
Statements are made that cannot be questioned, and subsequently we are told that statements cannot be made to the House on which Opposition Members or Conservative Back-Bench Members could question Government policy. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to consider this matter, to which we should give some thought. Perhaps you will let us have your thoughts in due course.
§ The Lord President of the Council and the Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe)
Further to the point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I take up one thing mentioned by the shadow Leader of the House? He said that twice a week, regularly, week after week, the Prime Minister faces questions from this House, sometimes dealing with sensitive and non-party political matters. In those circumstances, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear in mind the importance of her answers to a whole range of questions of that sensitivity being carefully thought out and considered in advance.
§ Mr. Greenway
Yes, it is.
Is not it churlish of the shadow Leader of the House to criticise the Prime Minister's performance at the Dispatch Box bearing in mind that she, unlike most other leaders of European Community member states, stood at that Dispatch Box and answered questions for more than an hour only on Tuesday?
§ Dr. Cunningham
Since this is important, we might as well get the record straight. I was not criticising what the Prime Minister said, or her conduct in the matter. I was criticising what I regard as an abuse of the procedures of the House—an entirely different point. I was saying that it 1222 was an abuse of Prime Minister's Question Time. I made no comment on the content of what the Prime Minister said.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Perhaps the House will allow me to deal with this matter. I am not responsible for questions that are asked. I have no idea what an hon. Member with an open question on the Order Paper is likely to ask, so I cannot be held responsible for what the Prime Minister says in reply.
Earlier in the week, we had a point of order deprecating such questions but perhaps one of the bonuses of open questions is that they enable questions on important matters that have occurred recently to be asked and answered. Whether there should be a fuller statement so that the Prime Minister, or the Minister concerned, can be properly questioned is a different matter and not one for me.
§ Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This relates to open questions and the answers to them. I appreciate that you are not responsible for the answers that the Prime Minister gives, but I know that you are anxious that as many hon. Members as possible should be able to participate in Prime Minister's Question Time and, therefore, the length of her answers may sometimes be relevant to how many hon. Members can get in.
You will have noted, Mr. Speaker, today that, in response to a question from the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) on the Health Service in Scotland, the Prime Minister, as well as answering that question, gave a further answer relating to the poll tax—in answer to a question that had not been asked. I know that you do not have responsibility for the content of answers, Mr. Speaker, but I am sure that you would deprecate the lengthening of the Prime Minister's answers when she gives wholly irrelevant answers to questions that have not been asked.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I reckon that we did fairly well this afternoon. We normally get down to Question 6, but today we got down to Question 7.
§ Mr. Lawrence
Could you kindly confirm, Mr. Speaker, that what the Prime Minister did this afternoon was certainly not an abuse of the procedures of the House?
§ Mr. Speaker
That is absolutely correct. When we have open questions and the Prime Minister answers a question that she may not have been aware she would be asked, it is equally open to other hon. Members who are called subsequently to put further questions to her on that same matter. That that seldom happens, of course, is not a matter for me.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance as a new Member and on behalf of many people who watch our proceedings on television or in other places who may be confused. Am I right to believe that, just as it is in order for Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to read from a script when asking questions, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has to answer questions on so many different subjects, can have information in front of her so she can read from it to ensure greater accuracy?
§ Mr. Speaker
Some tolerance has always been given—the hon. Member is not all that new—to those on the Front Benches, particularly to Ministers answering from the Dispatch Box, in the interests of accuracy. But quotations from Back Benchers and others are not allowed. "Paraphrasing" is the word.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
But, Mr. Speaker, would you deprecate the art of using planted questions? It seems clear from some answers given recently, especially last Tuesday and again today, that Conservative Members were asking questions on two topics to which the Prime Minister had long answers. It is clear that there was collaboration at some level.
Perhaps the Prime Minister, through your good offices, Mr. Speaker, might follow the example of the Leader of the House, who today answered 20-odd questions in a little over 25 minutes—giving clean, courteous, short, if muddled, answers—thereby enabling us to ask more questions of her.
§ Mr. Speaker
Before I took the Chair in 1983 I recollect hearing, in my previous incarnation, about planted questions, but I do not know what the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is talking about in that context these days.
§ Mr. Banks
Has your attention been drawn to the reported remarks yesterday by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he referred to vegetarianism as 1224 an unnatural thing and somehow against the teachings in the Bible? I and others know that you, Mr. Speaker, are the most eminent vegetarian in the House. Was it not folly for even a Minister to suggest that somehow Mr. Speaker would indulge in any unnatural practices whatever? How do you intend to deal with the Minister? Do you think that there might be a case for examining whether he has finally caught mad cow disease?
§ Mr. Speaker
I am not certain that I want to get involved in that. I have dealt with the matter to the extent that I have sent a private letter—the contents of which, of course, I could not disclose—to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food giving him a quotation from Romans, which I think should put the matter in its proper perspective.
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
On a fresh point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I crave the indulgence of the House to refer to the fact that it has been pointed out that yesterday I asked the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland to do something that makes no sense, perhaps not for the first time? I am reported as asking:Will he give an undertaking that there will be a single dual carriageway built … between Hawick and Carlisle?"—[Official Report, 2 May 1990; Vol. 171, c. 1022.]I wish to make it clear that I uttered those words and that Hansard has not made a mistake. The mistake was in my head and I wish, for the avoidance of any future doubt, to delete the word "dual." I sought to ask him to make a single carriageway the length of the road between Carlisle and Hawick, and I am grateful for the opportunity to put that right.
Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Perhaps we should not worry about made cow disease but about mad heifer disease.