HC Deb 23 February 1994 vol 238 cc277-80 3.30 pm
Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

on a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek advice in relation to the way in which Scottish Question Time was conducted this afternoon. At the beginning, the Secretary of State announced that he was to link Questions 1 and 7. I had been notified that that was his intention and phoned his private office before lunch to say that the Opposition would find that objectionable.

Question 1 asks when the Secretary of State last met the chief executive of Scottish Enterprise". Question 7 asks when the Secretary of State next plans to meet representatives of the Scottish Trades Union Congress". Both questions relate to discussions on the Scottish economy, but involve two radically different organisations that are likely, despite their common concern about the way the Government run the Scottish economy, to have two different views on the remedy.

The Secretary of State answered only three questions out of the 15 reached in today's Question Time. If he then chooses to link two of the substantial questions, he reduces even further our opportunities to cross-examine him. Surely there should be some safeguard for the House against a Cabinet Minister unilaterally choosing to link questions because there may be an apparent connection between them. If that policy were taken to its logical conclusion, all the questions could be linked because they related to Scotland.

Madam Speaker

I have done a little calculation myself, and the House may be interested to know that I called seven supplementary questions in connection with the two linked questions to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not criticising my conduct. The decision whether or not to link questions is entirely at the discretion of the relevant Minister.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

on a point of order, Madam Speaker. in reply to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), the Under-Secretary said that the consultation document would involve genuine consultation. Can the House have guidelines on which consultation exercises will be genuine and which will not?

Madam Speaker

That was a very good move on the part of the hon. Gentleman, but it was certainly not a point of order for me.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

It is more a matter of guidance than a point of order that I wish to raise. It relates to an organisation that you chair, Madam Speaker, so I thought that it should be brought to your attention.

In a foreign legislature yesterday, and earlier in the Anglo-Irish conference, decisions taken by the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Boundary Commission were called into question. It was alleged that the decisions taken by that organisation were discriminatory.

That raises a matter of constitutional importance of interest not only to the House but to the whole country. A foreign Government are now trying to overturn decisions made by a commission of which you, Madam Speaker, are the chairperson. I should be grateful if you would tell the House what steps the House and Her Majesty's Government may take to refute that interference by Dublin, which goes beyond all reasonable bounds.

Madam Speaker

I shall look at the matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, which is currently unknown to me. I shall make urgent inquiries about it and come back to him.

Mr. Brian Donohoe (Cunninghame, South)

on a point of order, Madam Speaker. Why, during the past four Scottish questions, have I failed to catch your eye? My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) says that it has something to do with my tie. Will you advise me whether that is the case?

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I promise that I am not cringing, but I have no complaints to make.

Madam Speaker

The latter point of order is most welcome. I recognise that the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South (Mr. Donohoe) has stood up on practically every question. It is not possible for me to call all Scottish Members during question time—

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

All the Conservatives get called.

Madam Speaker

Order. If the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has a criticism to make, he should stand up so that we can have a proper exchange about it. I am replying to a point of order, and do not expect seated interventions when I am on my feet.

As I was saying, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, South has stood up on every question. I regret that I have been unable to call him. I look on that Back Bench because it contains many handsome Members. Without any commitment, the hon. Gentleman can be sure that I shall look his way in future.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

on a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am in a little difficulty, because the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) made an interesting contribution to the debate on the intelligence services, in column 205 of yesterday's Official Report. The only problem is that the speech is attributed to me. Although I agree with much that he said, the record should be corrected.

Madam Speaker

Absolutely, and I am sure that the Editor of the Official Report will have heard what the hon. Gentleman had said.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

The point of order that I wish to raise with you, Madam Speaker, is on the transferring of questions. I wish to establish where responsibility lies and what powers the Chair has to protect the interests of hon. Members.

My specific example is that I tabled an oral question for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the subject of the fish farming industry. Unilaterally, the Ministry has transferred the question to the Scottish Office. If I wanted to ask the Scottish Office, I would ask the Scottish Office. on such a matter, there are shades of opinion and different roles. The crucial point is that the lead Ministry in dealings with Europe is the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

There are salmon farms in England as well.

Mr. Wilson

As the hon. Member says, salmon farms exist in England, too.

Mr. William Ross

And in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Wilson

And in Northern Ireland. Clearly, the question has been transferred to avoid political difficulty. That is not a good enough reason.

Madam Speaker

The Minister himself determines where his responsibilities lie and whether he is responsible for the question. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that a question has been transferred unjustly and unnecessarily, he should raise the matter with the Minister.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it in order for a member of the Opposition Front Bench to visit the Press Gallery? I spent some 19 years up there and have never known that to happen before.

Madam Speaker

I should have thought that a Member elected to this House had access to all parts of it. I have never been in the Press Gallery, but I understand that all the press can see of me are my buckled shoes.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Further to a previous point of order, Madam Speaker, on Members' rights regarding the linking of questions. It is a more general point than the one raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson). When questions are linked, it is for the convenience not of Members but of the Executive.

The House does not exist for the convenience of Ministers, but for the convenience of hon. Members. There have been many occasions when the linking of questions has not been notified in time to hon. Members whose questions have been linked. When questions are linked, even if that is admissible, it is a matter of interest not only to the Ministers and hon. Members whose questions are linked, but to any hon. Member who might wish to participate in Question Time and who might come in for Question 8, but find that it has already been dealt with after being linked with Question 1.

Is it beyond the wit of the organisation of the House for notification of which questions are being linked to be available in the morning to all hon. Members?

Madam Speaker

If hon. Members are seeking to change our procedures on the matter, it may be something that the Procedure Committee could usefully consider. The hon. Gentleman advanced two interesting points. He was right to say that sometimes hon. Members are not notified. That has happened when I have been in the Chair. When it occurs, of course I allow the hon. Member concerned to ask his question separately and I have done so recently.

When questions are linked, I understand the extent of interest, and I tend to allow more supplementary questions and I call hon. Members who are interested in the issue. The first point may be a matter that the Procedure Committee will wish to consider.

Mr. John Home Robertson

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I should like to apologise if I irritated you earlier. I assure you that I was not complaining, but simply observing that Scottish Conservative Members can always be called at Scottish questions. That is clearly a problem of Scottish political arithmetic. It has nothing to do with you, Madam Speaker, and I assure you that I was not complaining.

The substantive point of order that I want to raise concerns another matter. There has been another instance of a very important announcement, which should have been made through an oral statement by a Minister in the House, appearing as a planted question on the Order Paper.

I am referring to Question 180, which deals with further redundancies in the Army. That is a serious matter, which affects many people in the armed forces, including some personnel on active service in Bosnia. I appeal to you, Madam Speaker, to put it to Ministers that, where possible, statements of that nature should be made as oral statements in the House, and should not be sneaked in via planted written questions.

Madam Speaker

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the preamble to his point of order. He knows that it is entirely up to the Minister whether he makes a statement at the Dispatch Box or in answer to a written question. I understand that the answer to today's question is the third such announcement under the Government's "Options for Change" policy—there has been no change of policy. It is not for me to make the Government's case; I am simply trying to explain to the hon. Gentleman that a written answer is not unusual in these circumstances.