HC Deb 18 February 1993 vol 219 cc489-91

4.9 pm

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. A moment ago, you were good enough to say, as you have said before, that you can call all hon. Members only if short questions are followed by short answers. You were obviously in some difficulty during Prime Minister's Question Time, which we all understood, because the Prime Minister gave an enormously long answer—

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

A considered one.

Mr. Hughes

Yes, a considered, prepared answer, which was read out. Perhaps you will be kind enough, Madam Speaker, to call for the tape of Question Time to see how long it took to give that answer; it certainly took well over one minute, if not two.

"Erskine May" obviously allows Ministers to read answers. I should like to preface my remarks by reading a short quote from page 295: An answer should be confined to the points contained in the question, with such explanation only as renders the answer intelligible"— that would give you, Madam Speaker, an opportunity to intervene quite often— though a certain latitude is permitted to Ministers of the Crown". Then a footnote says: For example, the rules governing the reading out of material and quotations from speeches at question time do not apply to Ministerial replies. May I ask you to consider the general issue whether the reading of answers by those on the Front Bench has gone beyond a quote from a speech or a press release and become a new form of question and answer?

In due time, will you say something to the House, Madam Speaker, that will mean that we can do what you want us to do, so that we can get through many more questions and answers? Above all, we should have the opportunity to question the Prime Minister and other Ministers and hear their answers and not those of civil servants, scriptwriters or Tory central office. I hope that such a change would improve proceedings. At an appropriate moment, I ask you to make an announcement, in the presence and hearing of the Prime Minister and other Ministers on the Front Bench.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

If it is a further point of order, I shall hear the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Bowis), and then I shall take the point of order from the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett).

Mr. Bowis

I too have heard your requests, Madam Speaker, for shorter speeches and questions. I suffered for the third time today of having a question on the list for Prime Minister's questions, but it was not reached because we did not get past No. 4. Excellent as my right hon. Friend's answer was—I enjoyed hearing it, as we all did —and following the suggestion of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), would you consider looking at the number of times on which the Leader of the Opposition can rephrase his question having got it wrong the first time? When it is necessary for him to have three bites at the cherry, it may be an occasion for you to have a stopwatch and to add a bit of injury time so that we can get further down the list of questions.

Mr. Bennett

Would you consider, Madam Speaker, not just the points that have just been made, but your comment to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey that you would take his original point of order at the end of business questions?

When you and I first entered the House, it was fairly common for points of order to be raised when the incident in question actually happened. I believe that "Erskine May" suggests that one should raise the matter at the earliest opportunity. I am well aware that there was some abuse of the procedure, when people tried to use points of order to rephrase their questions or to put new questions. Therefore, it became the tendency for the Speaker to say, "Can it not wait until the end?" It became the convention for people to wait until the end of business questions, wherever possible, to raise their point of order.

I thought that you were now almost suggesting, Madam Speaker, that it was impossible for hon. Members to raise points of order during Question Time. I suggest—

Madam Speaker

What is the point of order?

Mr. Bennett

There is a danger in that tendency. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey had a valid, immediate point of order that could be answered only by taking it during Prime Minister's Question Time, because the Prime Minister was abusing his rights to answer those questions.

I suggest, Madam Speaker, that, if you are not prepared on occasion to accept points of order at the instant they occur, hon. Members will have to look for other means of redress. One such means is shouting, which you and I deplore. There are other procedures, such as "I spy strangers." I suggest that, sparingly, it might be better—as I say, very occasionally, as on this occasion—to take a point of order at the moment when the incident occurs during Question Time, rather than insist on it being left till the end.

Madam Speaker

I have a point of order from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond).

Mr. Salmond

You, Madam Speaker, are not responsible for speakers being long-winded. The most succinct way for me to put my point might be to say that, if the length of the Prime Minister's answers are becoming such as to preclude the asking of Prime Minister's questions, that must constitute an abuse.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. As it was decided some time ago that only 10 questions to the Prime Minister should appear on the Order Paper, do you think it would be a good idea to change the system to oblige the Prime Minister to answer the 10 questions? If he took extra time to answer them, that would be his problem, but he would have to get through the 10. That would ensure hon. Members whose names had been drawn out of the ballot would have a chance to ask their questions. By that means, a Prime Minister could not filibuster. To help in that process, Ministers might be instructed not to use civil service briefs. They should have to answer questions and deal with matters in the way we on the Back Benches have to operate, in an extemporaneous fashion.

Madam Speaker

For a start, the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) might like to raise the subject of his point of order with the Leader of the Opposition.

The House is well aware of my concern to get through the Order Paper. I appreciate the disappointment felt by hon. Members whose questions appear on the Order Paper, particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time, but are not reached.

As the hon.Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) is aware, I have no control over the length of answers. From time to time I appeal to hon. Members for short questions and answers so that we might make progress.

At the time when the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey first raised his point of order, nothing irregular had happened: there had been no breach of our Standing Orders or usual procedures. I had an idea of the subject about which he wished to raise a point of order, but there was no breach at that time.

I draw to his attention and that of the House a ruling given by the then Speaker in 1987, when he said that he proposed to revert to the well-tried practice of earlier times and to take points of order, except on any matters needing my immediate intervention, such as breaches of the sub judice rule, or for short notifications by a dissatisfied Member that he intends to raise a certain matter on the Adjournment, in their proper place, which is after all proceedings on private notice questions, statements and Standing Order No. 20 applications".—[Official Report, 12 February 1987; Vol. 110, c. 459–460.] That is why points of order are taken at the end of Question Time, otherwise there would not be much time for hon. Members to ask questions.

I appreciate, and share, the concern of the House. We are all anxious to make our views known and to receive good and speedy responses. I shall reflect on the points that have been put to me today.

Mr. Simon Hughes

I am grateful for that ruling, Madam Speaker. Will you consider whether the phrase about a certain latitude being allowed to Ministers will eventually require some direction and guidance from you? Otherwise, in theory, it would be in order for a Minister to spend 10 minutes reading from a press release when giving an answer.

Madam Speaker

I hope that the House will allow me to reflect on the matter and to look into all the points that have been put to me.