HC Deb 04 December 1995 vol 268 cc19-22 3.30 pm
Madam Speaker

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has, on several occasions, raised the issue of the transfer of questions tabled to the Deputy Prime Minister. I say to him and to the whole House that, however frustrating for hon. Members it is when questions are transferred, it is the long established principle, as "Erskine May" states on page 286 and as my predecessors and I have said many times, that

decisions on the transfer of questions rest with Ministers and it is not a matter in which the Chair seeks to intervene. I make it clear now that I have no authority to change that principle, nor do I intend to do so, although I fully recognise how disappointing it can be to secure a high place for oral questions, only to find that the question is then transferred.

The hon. Member for Workington also invited me on 27 November to consider intervening during Question Time to stop a Minister replying in a way that took him beyond his ministerial responsibility. The House would not, I believe, expect its Speaker to interfere with Ministers' freedom to interpret their ministerial responsibilities in their own way. I make it clear now that I have no intention of intervening at Question Time in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggested I should.

Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As you will be aware, I have been fortunate enough to secure the first place in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I have said that my intention is to introduce a Bill dealing with British summer time. That proposal has generated a huge amount of correspondence; it is arriving at my Commons office by the sackload. I am pleased to say that the correspondents are about 5:1 in favour, but that is not the point that I wish to raise with you.

My difficulty is that I am so inundated by this correspondence that it is beyond the normal resources of my office to deal with it. That would not normally be a problem, because, as you may be aware, Madam Speaker, 130 organisations are backing the campaign for daylight extra—organisations as diverse as Age Concern and the Police Federation—and they would be happy to provide me with secretarial assistance. Under normal circumstances, I would be happy to accept that assistance, and to declare it in the Register of Members' Interests.

The difficulty on which I seek your guidance is that, if I accepted that assistance, having accepted money's worth, I could then be seen as advocating a cause, in which case I would be caught by the Nolan rules. I have been to see Sir Gordon Downey on the issue. Until he gets further guidance from the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life, he is unable to advise me what I can do. If I stood up to promote my Bill, would you, Madam Speaker, feel able to call me, or would I be caught under the new advocacy rules?

Madam Speaker

I have listened with some interest to what the hon. Gentleman has said, and I have a great deal of sympathy with what appears to be his dilemma. However, there is little, as Speaker, that I can do to help him in the matter.

Any change in the amount available to an hon. Member for obtaining assistance in drafting a private Member's Bill would be a matter, in the first instance, for the Leader of the House. Secondly, the potential conflict of interest is one of the many matters that seem certain to be considered by the new Select Committee on Standards and Privileges when it eventually gets down to its work. Therefore, it would be wrong of me in any way to appear to pre-empt that Committee's consideration of the problem.

Mr. Butterfill

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Of course I appreciate that the House voted funds for the drafting of a Bill some years ago—in 1971. The sum, I think, was £200, which has not been changed since that date. In any event, that would not assist me in my predicament, because it is purely for the narrow purpose of drafting a Bill, and that does not present a problem. I gather that, if I receive external assistance with that sum, so long as I declare it, it does not affect the rule of advocacy because it cannot be deemed to be of personal benefit to me in any way. It is the question of secretarial assistance on which I need some guidance.

Madam Speaker

I have just answered the hon. Gentleman's point. Regretfully, it is a matter for the new Committee when it is established. The matter must be referred to it. Meanwhile, he must attempt in every way possible to proceed with his private Member's Bill, as he has every right to do, and I shall ensure as best as I can that he is safeguarded.

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

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Your ruling was perfectly clear, and obviously I would accept it. You have made the position absolutely clear: you are not in a position to intervene where the Deputy Prime Minister answers questions that go wider than the remit set in the Table Office.

In so far as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure has made it absolutely clear, in a letter that I understand you have seen, that he believes that the Deputy Prime Minister is going beyond that remit, how can we proceed if you and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee cannot deal with the matter? It is clear that we are dealing with a precedent—Deputy Prime Minister is, I understand, a position that we have never had before. How are we to proceed to deal with this especially important difficulty?

Madam Speaker

As the hon. Gentleman said at the beginning of his comments, I have made the position absolutely clear. I have no authority, and there is no way in which I would seek to reinterpret or interfere with ministerial responses to questions. It is Ministers' responsibility to interpret those questions as they think fit, and to reply to the House accordingly.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. There is a simple way for the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) to resolve his problems. If he cannot find time to answer all those letters he is getting, he should pack up those moonlighting jobs he has got.

Madam Speaker

I hardly think that that is a solution to a serious problem.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I completely accept what you said in your earlier ruling, but, at the same time, I have been here 11 years and, in the past few months, I have noticed a growing practice by Ministers, once questions have appeared on the Order Paper, to transfer them somewhere else.

Originally, I was No. 2 on the Order Paper for questions to the Attorney-General today. It was a question that in my view—I have argued with the Clerks and with the Table Office over it—was a perfectly legitimate question for him to answer. However, he transferred it to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

A few weeks ago, I tabled a question to the Deputy Prime Minister asking how he intended to promote equal treatment for men and women in the Departments for which he is responsible—again, a perfectly legitimate question to him. That was transferred to the Department for Education and Employment. It is therefore a growing practice and someone, somewhere, should be able to do something about it.

Madam Speaker

I fully recognise the real annoyance of the hon. Lady, who I know secured a high place on the Order Paper for questions to the Attorney-General today. I believe that she also recognises that, had her question perhaps been framed a little differently, it would not have been open to the Attorney-General to transfer it. Despite that, I understand her real annoyance and that of other hon. Members when questions that are high on the Order Paper are transferred.

I hope that those on the Government Front Bench will pay serious attention to the exchanges that have taken place today. When Members secure a high place on the Order Paper, it is disappointing that their questions are transferred to other Departments, so that they often do not have an opportunity for a supplementary question, which is the all-important question on many occasions.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I hope that it is a genuine point of order.

Mr. Marshall

Yes, Madam Speaker—it is a genuine one. At Question Time, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) used his question to the Attorney-General to mount an attack upon my hon. Friend the Member for Milton, Keynes South-West (Mr. Legg). Did the hon. Gentleman inform my hon. Friend in advance?

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)


Madam Speaker

I am not at all clear. Would the hon. Member like to say yes or no, and then I shall respond?

Mr. Flynn

I wrote to the hon. Member, and there was a phone call from my office to his before the start of Question Time.

Madam Speaker

There we have the answer. But let me be quite clear about these matters. Of course it is important that, when Members are to be mentioned, notice should be given. However, I daily attend many public functions and many functions at weekends at which there are hundreds of people. Many people tell me how disappointed they are with our legislators who find little better to do than mention individual names, often abusively, and attack personalities on all sides across the Floor of the House.

The people of this country are looking for exchanges on policy and on the governance of this country and not for attacks on the 650 Members of the House. I hope that my thoughts will go home with all hon. Members, and not just with those who are in the Chamber. People are sick and tired of personal attacks in the House, and I hope that in future we shall concentrate on policies, not personalities.