§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I beg to move,That this House approves the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure on Parliamentary Questions (House of Commons Paper No. 687).
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)
With the permission of the House, that motion will be taken with the next on the Order Paper:That Standing Order No. 18 (Notices of questions, motions and amendments) be amended—in line 11, by leaving out "written or priority" and inserting "or";in line 12, at the end, by inserting "and a Member may indicate a date for answer of a question for written answer in accordance with paragraph (4) of this order"; andin line 14, by leaving out "priority written answer" and inserting "written answer on a named day".
§ Mr. Newton
The bonhomie that seems to pervade the Chamber this evening is in marked contrast to the situation 24 hours ago, when I announced that we were to debate the messages from another place on the Railways Bill. I prefer tonight's atmosphere, and I hope that I carry the House with me in that. Apart from that event, the past couple of days have had something of an incestuous air, as we come to discuss yet another aspect of our own affairs.
I will refer also to the second motion in my name on the Order Paper, which gives effect to various technical amendments to Standing Order No. 18 that are consequential on the House's approval of the Committee's report.
This is the first occasion on which the House has had an opportunity to debate a report from the Procedure Committee, which was re-established in December 1992. As in previous Parliaments, the Committee sits under the distinguished chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), to whom I pay tribute for the immense interest and diligence with which he and his colleagues have over a long period pursued matters relating to the procedures of the House.
The topic that we are debating this evening originates in a report from the Committee towards the end of the last Parliament, which contained 24 recommendations covering aspects of the arrangements for questions and the rules of order governing them.
The Government's response said that we had a number of reservations about some of the recommendations—in particular, the proposal to reduce the maximum period of notice for oral questions from 10 to five sitting days. The Committee re-examined those points again and has presented in its new report a statesmanlike compromise —as I would expect of my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton—on most of the points of disagreement that the Government, who in this context mean me, in my equally statesmanlike manner, are prepared to accept. On that basis, the Government ask the House to approve the new report as a whole.
If my right hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may want to say something about the details of the Committee's report. I will say a few words about the practical effect of the motion. Most of the Committee's 578 recommendations can be implemented administratively under Madam Speaker's authority, but a number need the approval of the House.
The first of those is the ration for oral questions. Under the rules adopted in 1972, each right hon. or hon. Member is allowed up to eight oral questions on the Order Paper. Under the new system of printing many fewer oral questions, that limit has become redundant, and should now be dropped.
The rules also provide that not more than two oral questions per Member may appear on the Order Paper for answer on any one day. That limit only has any practical application on Mondays, when a number of different Ministers—I will not call them minor Departments, since mine is one of them—answer questions after 10 minutes past 3 o'clock. The Committee recommended that that limit should be retained and that in future, no more than two oral questions per Member per day should be tabled.
The second matter is priority written questions. The Committee expressed concern—which the Government fully share, and which I personally have felt for some time —about the possible misuse of priority written questions. The Committee reminded the House thatthe priority marking should be used sparingly and selectivelyand thatthe earliest permitted date should be reserved for those questions to which an urgent answer is genuinely required".The change in the symbol for a priority written question from W to P had some effect on reducing the number of questions that are tabled for priority answer through inadvertence, but the Committee feels that further measures ought to be adopted. It proposes that questions marked P should be treated as priority written questions only if they carry a specific valid date for answer, as opposed to some vague wording such as "earliest date" or "as soon as possible".
The Government accept that recommendation and have accordingly brought forward a Standing Order amendment —the next motion on the Order Paper—to change the name of priority written questions toquestions for written answer on a named day".The third point requiring the endorsement of the House is the Committee's recommendation relating to campaigns. There have been occasions when individuals or organisations outside the House have sought to secure the tabling of large numbers of disorderly or badly drafted questions, many of which repeat attempts previously disallowed. The Committee's report describes one such episode in a particularly effective paragraph.
In 1971, Mr. Speaker Lloyd dealt with that problem by authorising the Table Office to refuse to accept any further questions that were recognisable as emanating from a particular individual. The Committee believes that, where the facts of the case justify it, the Speaker should be able to take similar action in the future. By approving the motion, the House will be offering Madam Speaker its support in taking any such steps if she thinks it appropriate to do so. In my judgment, to curb abuse in that way is to uphold the rights of right hon. and hon. Members rather than to diminish them.
I will refer briefly to three other matters. A number of the Committee's recommendations, such as those relating to blocks, are designed to allow questions to be tabled that at present must be refused by the Table Office. I must make it clear to the House that accepting that recommendation does not mean that Ministers will feel obliged to answer 579 them. The Government have, for example, no intention of relaxing the rules relating to the confidentiality of collective decision-making.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
As to the blocking system, does the Leader of the House agree that it is for Ministers to decide whether or not to answer particular questions? We should attempt to lessen the policing role performed by the Table Office. It exists to help right hon. and hon. Members and does so, but it should avoid being seen—albeit wrongly—as the custodian or guardian of Ministers. If a Minister does not want to answer a question repeatedly asked by a right hon. or hon. Member, that should be left entirely up to the Minister concerned.
§ Mr. Newton
I acknowledge that, at the end of i.he day, it must be for individual Ministers to decide the answers they give, and whether they give a substantive answer at all. The Government's position on the report and the remarks that have just made are much in line with the spirit of the hon. Gentleman's point.
The quaintly termed "Mayor of Sligo" rule has until now prevented one hon. Member from tabling questions about a Minister's communications with another hon. Member. Following the Committee's recommendations, the Government agree that, when a Minister answers a question to the effect that he or she will write to the hon. Member concerned, the reply will also state that a copy of the reply will be placed in the Library and so made available to other Members of Parliament, unless overriding reasons of confidentiality—such as might arise in a personal social security case—make that action inappropriate.
The Committee concluded with observations about answers "pursuant" to previous answers—which, BS I well know, have occasionally caused some disturbance in the House and to the Chair. The Government welcome the Committee's recognition that there can be a place for "pursuant" answers where that is the best way to give information to the House quickly, and we accept the Committee's view that a pursuant answer that does not relate to the original answer must be out of order.
The Committee has brought forward a useful and practical series of recommendations. I thank again my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton arid his Committee—a number of whose members are present in the Chamber--for their work. I am sorry that it has taken a fair time to get around to presenting this motion, but I hope that its arrival gives satisfaction to my right hon. Friend, and that the House will be content to approve this and the ensuing motion.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
I join the Leader of the House in thanking the Committee for its work and its report, and the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) for his chairmanship and for publishing the Committee's thorough and detailed review in the form of the document before the House.
The Leader of the House is exhibiting uncharacteristic signs of self-pity today. Yesterday's events must have had a deeper and more scarring effect on him than I tthought possible in someone whom I had always deemed robust.
§ Mr. Newton
The last thing I want to do is stop the hon. Gentleman saying something nice about me. I cavil slightly at his use of the word "self-pity". I merely thought that the House did not do itself much good last night.
§ Mr. Brown
The Leader of the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Apologise."[It is a little early in my speech to apologise. All I have done so far is thank the Committee for its work, make special mention of its Chairman and try to say something nice about the Leader of the House. Despite that, I hear cries of "apologise" from the Government Benches. I know that the Conservative party is going through difficult times at the moment, but apologies would be excessive.
I thank the Leader of the House for finding time for a debate on an important report and on the Government's response to it. As its members will know, the Procedure Committee published further reports—on the unified Budget, on private Members' Bills and on the timing of Divisions. The House will want to debate those reports in due course.
I make a plea to the Leader of the House for an opportunity to debate the reports and the Government's response to them. It would be helpful if we had an opportunity to debate in particular the second report on the unified Budget at an early stage after the Queen's Speech —and before 30 November.
The Procedure Committee's second report covered two key matters. The Opposition believe that the Government behaved irresponsibly by including legislation on those matters in the Finance (No. 2) Act 1993 before the report had been published, much less considered by the House. If the reports are to have any value, they should form the basis of an informed debate and then of decision-making. The House should not be presented with decision-making first and an examination of the matter afterwards.
Happily, the Procedure Committee's first report is not blighted in such a way. The Committee was right to re-examine matters which may not have seemed controversial—indeed, to which it decided to recommend no change—as well as one or two more contentious issues. Parliamentary questions are an important part of our system of parliamentary democracy. The continued effective functioning of those matters requires periodic review and constant vigilance.
Without re-examining every issue considered by the Committee, I should like to raise a number of issues that arise from its work and from the motions.
First, I hope that the timing of the shuffle for oral questions will be kept under review, and that the argument for deferment, until at least 6 pm, will remain under consideration as an alternative. It is far harder for hon. Members whose constituencies lie outside the home counties to deal with local pressures on their time and remain in the House on Fridays and Mondays.
Although the Committee has not recommended any change, I gleaned from its report that it understands the issue and that it is willing to keep it under review. It referred to the difficulty experienced by Welsh Members, with Welsh questions being tabled on Mondays.
On open questions to Departments, the report's suggestion that the request for the date of a Minister's next 581 meeting with a person or organisation should be accompanied by an indication of the potential subject of discussion seems fair. That recommendation strikes an appropriate balance and, to a great extent, deals with the argument for reducing the maximum number of tabling days for oral questions from 10 to five sitting days.
The best way to proceed would be to give that suggestion a chance to work. I support the Committee's recommendation. It has got the balance right in a well-considered way. I share the Government's reservations about immediately taking the more radical step of reducing the number of tabling days from 10 to five, because of the attendant difficulties with that proposal.
The Committee rightly rejects the introduction of rationing or quotas for written questions, and it sensibly points out that the indiscriminate use of priority written questions often leads to many holding replies.
The House should ensure that adequate copies of a booklet setting out the "dos" and "don'ts" of hon. Members' responsibilities for research assistants are available, giving formal guidelines rather than only a general call for good conduct. I took particular note of the Government's endorsement of the Committee's comments on research assistants, especially in the context of campaigning, although I notice that the Government made no mention of civil servants in the same context.
We must be careful about this matter. I understand and fully share the Committee's desire to prevent abuses, but such matters should be judged against objective criteria. In any event, if the Government answered parliamentary questions fully, frankly and truthfully in the first place, aggrieved Members would not feel the same need to campaign.
The section of the report on the questioning of ministerial statements made outside Parliament is clearly right. I strongly support the Committee's findings, because hon. Members should object to significant ministerial statements, especially those giving new information, being made outside the House. If Ministers have something new to say, this is the place to say it. As they do not always do that, it is right that we should be able to question them.
The Committee singled out chief executives of the next steps agencies for special mention. I strongly support its recommendation that Members of Parliament be given the benefit of the doubt, no matter how small it may be, when tabling questions to Ministers about the work of the agencies.
Substantial structural changes have been made in the last decade as a result of Government policy. Parliament should still be able to explore the functioning of those agencies, for which, perhaps, it has indirect responsibility. In addition, the Table Office should give Members the benefit of the doubt in such matters, and the Procedure Committee should stand up for the rights of Members.
My final point is on the use of written statements pursuant to earlier answers—a ministerial scam for making announcements as discreetly as it is possible to do in Parliament. Madam Speaker haso rightly deprecated this practice. I deprecate the practice, as does the Committee.
§ Mr. Winnick
Does my hon. Friend recall that Madam Speaker made her remarks because of the way in which the Secretary of State for Health announced a prescription increase in response to a question that had nothing 582 whatever to do with prescription charges? Was not that an unfortunate, and some would say disgraceful, abuse that should not happen again?
§ Mr. Brown
My hon. Friend has picked the worst and most slippery example, but similar examples have emanated from the Ministry of Defence. Procurement announcements inconvenient to the Ministry—I can certainly think of one that was close to my heart—slip out in such a way. It is not right that they should do so. If Ministers have anything to say, no matter how difficult it is, they should say it to the House and not try to evade questioning by other Members of Parliament.
The report is a thorough study of the issues. It is welcome, and in welcoming it I do not lose sight of the fact that the Leader of the House has allowed us to debate it. He has clearly taken note of the Committee's deliberations, to which the Government have responded fairly. I hope that we shall have an opportunity to debate the Committee's next two reports, especially the more controversial one on the unified Budget process.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) for the kind things that they said about me, although any thanks should be directed to the whole Committee which did most of the work and did it extremely well. I am most grateful to all the members of the Committee for their attendance to discuss what were not always scintillating, newsworthy or publicity-gathering issues. However, all members did their work thoroughly and I wish to ensure that they are also thanked.
After such a nice start to the debate, it may seem slightly unfair to be rather scathing about the Government. My right hon. Friend referred to the Government's reply to our report. Cmnd. 687 appeared in June this year, but the reply refers to Cmnd. 178 which dates back not to June this year, last year or even the year before, but to May 1991. Perhaps I might echo the advice given by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and suggest that we debate the reports rather more quickly than has been the case.
The 1991 report was the first wide-ranging investigation of rules governing parliamentary questions since 1972. It was clearly right, after 20 years, to deal with the issue. It would be fair to say that the Committee considered not only the mechanics of parliamentary questions but the rules restricting what can be asked.
The recommendations are not revolutionary, but they are designed to make the machinery work slightly more smoothly, to modernise some of the rules and make them more beneficial to Members in pursuing their own work. They remove a number of minor irritants and make a worthwhile contribution to the continuation of the effective scrutiny of Government policy and actions, a role which I hope the Procedure Committee will always play, although it is not always popular with Governments.
§ Sir Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I rise with diffidence as I am a new member of the Procedure Committee. However, I assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and the House that I find the report wholly worthy of support even though I was not one of its authors. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report also encourages one to consider further matters that, 583 inevitably, it cannot fully cover itself? I refer especially to questions on statements. I think that my right hon. Friend will agree that some hon. Members are worried about the lack of documentation available when questions are asked on oral statements. That is but one example of what the Committee should investigate in the future—I put in my bid.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I thank my hon. Friend. I agree entirely and welcome him to the Committee. He has considerable experience of the House and, as the president of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, he has seen the workings of many other Parliaments. He is therefore an excellent addition to the Committee. The Procedure Committee is turning its attention to the distribution of documents. The issue is not covered directly in the report, but I do not think that I shall be out of order if I say that it is something to which we shall be putting our minds in the immediate future.
The report deals with the machinery of parliamentary questions and the timing of the shuffle—we shall certainly bear in mind the suggestion about Mondays. It also covers the period of notice for oral questions. I am sorry that the Government could not go along with our suggestion immediately. I believe that it is the civil servants rather than Ministers who are the greatest objectors to moving in that direction. We were trying to make parliamentary questions more topical. If they were tabled only one week in advance rather than two, they would have greater topicality. The Leader of the House has dealt with the rationing of oral questions and the matter of open questions, but there is one matter that has not been mentioned.
The report refers in passing to bogus points of order. I hope that the House welcomes the strength with which Madam Speaker has dealt with them recently. Hon. Members who pursue bogus points of order take up the time and take away the rights of those hon. Members who wish to proceed with proper business.
We recommended that it should be permitted for discussions between Departments to be commented on, but it was not our intention to do away with absolute confidentiality. No Government—not even a Liberal Government—would want to discard Cabinet and ministerial confidentiality; it would be impossible to do so.
The report also tried to cover statements made outside Parliament, the internal affairs of other countries, suggested amendments to Bills, campaigns, Government achievements, the nationalised industries and executive agencies. Where necessary, we tried to bring the rules covering such issues up to date.
I am glad that the Government have seen fit to accept our second report. In my cynicism, I must point out that the Committee produced it within eight weeks of receiving the Government's comments, which had taken 25 months. We hope that we can offer the same service to the Government in the future.
Implementation of one of the Committee's recommendations would require certain changes to Standing Order No. 18. The Government were not only willing to accept that, but, in the hope that the House would approve it, they have specifically recommended those changes.
Finally, it was interesting to me and, I think, to the Committee that, when we invited hon. Members to submit evidence to us, there was a very poor response. Clearly, there was no widespread dissatisfaction in the House.
584 Our recommendations should not lead to an increase in the volume of parliamentary questions. The House gets through very many questions—I do not query whether they are justified—and we should not want to increase that number. We stress that answers must remain entirely the responsibility of Ministers.
May I detain the House one moment more and respond to a point raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East? The Government have now received our report on the unified Budget. We make some simple but positive recommendations. We recommend that the motion dealing with finances and borrowing should be clearly understood. That is essential in a modern Parliament. Our aim was to improve some of the rather archaic procedures involved in Budget resolutions, which I do not believe that one in 10 hon. Members or one in 1,000 people outside the House understand. The motion should be understood not only in the House but outside.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to deal with this issue before the Budget. I do not want us to drift into a discussion of the unified Budget in the same way as we dealt with the old Budget in April. If that is the case, we are likely to be back under the old structure without any new or modern thinking.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing the Chairman of the Procedure Committee to be so out of order by referring to a subject which is not part of this debate. I have made my point. I thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for this debate and for his co-operation with the Committee when we deal with matters in general.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I am delighted to follow the right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) because that enables me, first, to pay my tribute to the way in which he leads our Committee and, secondly, to add to what he has just said.
It is rather extraordinary that the Select Committee on Procedure, which has a special role in reporting back to the whole House and a special responsibility to look after the interests of Back Benchers and minority parties, has no say in the priority given to the consideration of its reports. Therefore, I wholly endorse the comments of the right hon. Member for Honiton about the urgent need for the whole House to consider our report on the unified Budget.
There are only eight sitting days left before the Budget is presented to us. It would surely be absurd if we were not to take advantage of the careful advice of the Select Committee on Procedure on the unified Budget.
Although I realise that I must not stray too far, with regard to the priority attached to the report that we are debating tonight, I endorse the point made by the right hon. Member for Honiton about the Government's long digestive process before allowing us the opportunity to debate Committee recommendations in the House.
Although the matter does not lie entirely in the hands of the Leader of the House, I hope that his digestion is working rather more speedily with regard to the report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House chaired by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling). That report is also extremely important.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I hesitate to intervene, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman realises that he is well out of order. He should return to the motion before the 585 House. I have been tolerant because my voice is not as good as it was yesterday. It would be helpful to the Chair if the hon. Gentleman would return to the motion before us.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am trying to relate the priority that we attach to this report to previous reports.
Although I cannot speak for all members of the Procedure Committee, I think that it would be fair to say that we all recognise that we will return to the matter of parliamentary questions time and again. As the right hon. Member for Honiton said, questions have been discussed in the Procedure Committee and in the House on previous occasions. There must be constant vigilance and the situation is evolutionary. Within the time frame of the discussion of this report, there have been changes.
As an example of a topical point, I asked the Leader of the House a question about parliamentary questions:who is responsible for deciding the maximum permissible cost of answering a written parliamentary question; if that cost is different for different Departments; and how often that amount is reviewed.Very courteously, as always, the Leader of the House replied:If an answer to any written question is likely to cost more than £450—the current cost threshold, calculated by the Treasury—the answering Minister will decide whether to refuse to answer on the ground of disproportionate cost, or whether to answer it whole or in part regardless of cost. This threshold, which applies to all Departments, is reviewed annually."—[Official Report, 25 October 1993; Vol. 230, c. 425.]Although the Procedure Committee's report does not refer to that specific issue, it is an example of the kind of subject that we must return to regularly in this House. It is curious that the Government are judge, jury and plaintiff when deciding how to apply those criteria. We do not know how they are applied, although the Leader of the House was kind enough to give me some idea in his reply. Perhaps the House should have a say in that and it may be a subject to which the Procedure Committee will have to return.
The purpose of questions can be very wide. They may genuinely seek information, just as an answer might involve carefully avoiding the provision of information. As we are all aware from the bear pit section of the daily order of business, questions can involve sparring and striking sparks. However, questions are clearly an important function in the relationship between the Back Bencher and the Executive.
Therefore, the right hon. Member for Honiton rightly emphasised the importance that we attach to continually monitoring what is happening to questions, be they oral or written, to ensure that they at least try to serve that function, however much some parties, individuals or parts of this House may try to hijack that process.
The report makes some modest tidying-up improvements. However, one or two changes are significant in that they try to prevent the Government from sliding out from providing full information to hon. Members. In its own small way, the Mayor of Sligo rule is important. In the past, that was used as a way of not providing full information to hon. Members. In responding to that point, the Leader of the House has done us all a service. The response to replies pursuant to previous answers is also a step forward.
However, I share the disappointment of the right hon. Member for Honiton about notice. I believe that the House operates at its best when it is topical and relevant. The Select Committee considered that point very closely and, 586 in his evidence to us, the Leader of the House indicated that answers are very often available within the period in question. He did not want to be tied to a specific time as he felt that that would be too constraining on Ministers. We have all suffered from holding answers at some time. I should be prepared to accept more tentative, holding answers if we could have more topical replies to more topical questions.
To return to my first point, the Procedure Committee has a special relationship with the House. It seeks to serve the whole House and particularly Back Benchers. In future, I hope that the priority given to the consideration of our reports will be related more to the urgency that we on the Back Benches attach to a subject and not to the slow digestive process of the Treasury Bench.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I apologise to the House for not being present for the speeches by the two Front-Bench spokesmen. I had intended to be present, because I have examined this report and the 1991 report carefully. To make amends for my sins of omission and for my absence, I will be very brief.
My first point relates to open questions to the Prime Minister. Two letters were submitted to the Procedure Committee and are contained in the 1991 report. The first was from my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). He suggested that the Prime Minister should face closed questions and not open questions. He thought that open questions allowed the Prime Minister off the hook as they did not concentrate on a particular item. I concede that there may be a problem of relevance, particularly with questions being set two weeks in advance of Question Time.
The second letter was from my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan). He suggested that the procedures with open questions to the Prime Minister should be dispensed with. Instead of asking about the Prime Minister's activities on a specific day and being provided with the details, questions should be such that they should be responded to immediately. As soon as an hon. Member's question was called, he should ask his question and he would not have to jump up and down twice as is usually the case.
Perhaps an experiment could be undertaken to combine those two notions. There are Prime Minister's questions on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On one of those occasions, Question Time could be given over specifically to closed questions. We could then discover whether the ideas of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow were relevant.
Constituents have asked me why, when the Prime Minister is answering questions, another topic is suddenly raised. It seems that the Opposition have the Prime Minister cornered on an item and then the next Opposition Member raises a question an entirely different topic. People want to know why we do not pursue a particular issue.
§ Mr. Winnick
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is one of the most active people in the House at Question Time and on other occasions. Does he recognise that those of us who remember the closed question now accept without reservation that the open question is a wonderful opportunity, not only for the Opposition, but Government 587 supporters as well, whereas, because of the changing political scene, a closed question might have little relevance in 10 or even five days' time?
The open question provides Back Benchers in particular with the opportunity to ask questions about a situation that may have arisen on the day itself. To take away what we have gained would be a grave disservice to Back Benchers, but of some use to the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that. Although that suggestion was made with the best of motives, I hope that my hon. Friend will recognise that the result would be against the inl:erests of all hon. Members.
§ Mr. Barnes
I take my hon. Friend's point, which is why I was suggesting an experiment. Some of us who are more recent Members might then be able to observe the difference between an open question session and a closed question session. However, the suggestion that we should dispense with some of the ritual could be readily pursued.
My second point relates to hon. Members being unable to table written questions unless the House is in session. It would not be a great problem if we had a sensible parliamentary year with the weeks spread out carefully, but we have a considerable summer recess. Given that Parliament will be prorogued tomorrow, over a 17-week period we shall have been absent for 14 weeks. During those 14 weeks, there is no chance to table written questions and get answers. The alternative is to write letters to the Departments, but that process is not open to public scrutiny and is not likely to be pursued as rigorously by the Departments as questions would be.
Ideally, I would like to change the parliamentary year to overcome the problem, but if the problem is to remain, thought needs to be given at some stage to whether it is possible to put down early-day motions, written questions and various other matters of a written nature in front of the House to get appropriate answers and have them published in Hansard.
Thirdly, one of the best question times that takes place in the House—it is the most rigorous and fruitful—does not happen in the great glare of publicity, but in Standing Committees A and B, which deal with European legislation. It is possible to have an hour of questions to the Minister on a limited item that is in front of the Committee and later to have up to an hour and a half of debate in connection with it. We need to take on board the lessons that come out of those Committees' activities. I realise that there is a distinction. The question session is similar to a statement being introduced on the Floor of the House, which we can all question; but we cannot follow on from a statement, and a statement is likely to cover a much wider area than the matters that are involved in Standing Committees A and B. There is a difficulty with having something as narrow as that in the House.
I am impressed by question time in Committee, but it means that the Minister has to be well briefed and know carefully the item with which he is dealing. I have always found those question sessions educational and useful during subsequent debates. I might sometimes turn up having not fully digested all the relevant papers that are put in front of us and discover during question time that there are useful ideas that can be picked up from those papers, dealt with or pursued.
588 That seems to be parliamentary procedure at its most useful, although it is not the most significant issue with which the House deals, because problems such as scrutiny should be pursued.
§ 8.4 pm
§ Mr. Newton
Rather than detain the House, I need say only three things briefly. First, several of the points made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) are further bright ideas for my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) to consider in his Committee. I would not wish that to be taken as an endorsement of them, but nor would it be right for me to seek to inhibit the Committee in considering them.
Secondly, I thought that the interesting exchange between the hon. Members for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) about open and closed questions answered what the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Tyler) was saying about the timing rules for the tabling of oral questions. I did not understand his reference to being happy to have a holding answer, because that does not arise with oral questions —certainly not oral questions that are reached. The real point is that the topical questions in which people are interested do not relate to something that happened five days ago as opposed to 10 days ago, which was the point that the hon. Member for Walsall, North was making. They relate to what was on the "Today" programme that morning or in that morning's newspapers or on the lunchtime news.
As I well know from my occasional duties in deputising for the Prime Minister on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it is essential to keep up with news that comes in throughout the day and not news that was established five or 10 days ago. I will not go further into that except to say that the argument about whether it is five days or 10 does not meet the point about topicality. I do not think that it would make much difference one way or the other.
You may not understand my next comment, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because you were not in the Chair at the time—at least not when the hon. Member for Cornwall, North was pulled up for being out of order. It is clear from the way in which they have strayed into discussing a report that is not on the Table that some members of the Procedure Committee feel some degree of exemption from the rules of order. I admire their skill, but do not think that it would be right for the Leader of the House to follow their example.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House approves the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure on Parliamentary Questions (House of Commons Paper No. 687).