HC Deb 02 July 1996 vol 280 cc723-5 3.30 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I was one of the lucky ones, in that my question was reached in Environment questions, but would you pass some comment on the Secretary of State for the Environment's constant habit of flouting the conventions, if not the rules, of the House in turning round to his supporters and ranting at enormous length? Question Time has become rant time, and it simply means that legitimate questions are not reached. What are the rules of the House about Ministers addressing you and the House?

Madam Speaker

I made a statement about those matters in the last couple of weeks, in answer to a point of order raised by the hon. Gentleman himself, so I would refer the House to the response that I made at that time: that I expect all Ministers to answer questions directly, and I expect all Ministers, from the most junior to the most senior Secretary of State, to speak into that microphone and to address me as Speaker of this House. It is through the Speaker of this House that all Members—Ministers and Back Benchers—speak to the House itself. and I expect Ministers to use that microphone to speak to this House through the elected Speaker of this House.

The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

Madam Speaker, if inadvertently I have turned my head from you, I am the first to apologise.

Madam Speaker

Thank you. I was referring of course, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, to all Ministers. I notice every day when I am in this Chair how Ministers address this House, and they do not always do so in the courteous way that I expect of them.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Notwithstanding the customary virtuoso performance by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) last Thursday and our own natural sense of bi-weekly fun, did you see the excellent feature in The Independent on Friday, and those in other newspapers, referring to the excessive screaming and shouting at Question Time in the House?

Without us losing that sense of bi-weekly fun, is it possible, both through the usual channels and through your own good offices, to ensure that we have a calmer, more rational Question Time, especially at Prime Minister's Question Time? Without being sanctimonious, this is very important for the public, who I believe are getting increasingly fed up with this and want more accurate questions—and, indeed, accurate ministerial answers.

Madam Speaker

Yes, I certainly would like to see a much calmer Question Time. For a start, when the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition enter the Chamber, hon. Members on both sides should remain respectful and quiet—they should not jeer and shout. Hon. Members could begin by doing that on Thursday.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have given you notice of my point of order. On 12 June, I tabled questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State for Wales, the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food relating to the latest information on BSE cases. I received holding answers on 18 June from all four Departments, and I received substantive answers from the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Offices on 20 June.

I still have not received an answer from the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the Minister issued a press release giving those figures at the royal agricultural show yesterday. Madam Speaker, is it not a grave discourtesy to you and to the House for the Government to govern by press release?

Madam Speaker

I have made a pronouncement on this matter before. I expect Ministers to give the House information first. I cannot verify the figures or what the hon. Gentleman has said, but no doubt Members on the Treasury Bench will have noted his point of order. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he continues to pursue this matter with the Ministers concerned.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My understanding has been that you take points of order at this time of the day. However, you took a point of order from the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) during Question Time. Under what circumstances are points of order taken during Question Time? Is it in relation to the conduct of hon. Members during the particular Question Time?

Madam Speaker

No, it is not the conduct of Members; it is the use of foul language. I will always take a point of order immediately if it is drawn to my attention that unacceptable language has been used.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I understand that the Secretary of State for the Environment has announced today that he is taking legal action against South West Water because of the poisoning of some 400 people with cryptosporidium. Have you had any indication that he intends to explain to the House what is happening in this regard?

Madam Speaker

No, I have not been informed that the Secretary of State is seeking to make any such statement.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Could you give me some guidance about the amount of time taken by Ministers to answer ordinary written parliamentary questions? I tabled a question to the Minister of Agriculture on 22 April and I received a reply only yesterday, following a further parliamentary question. I have looked into this matter, and I have found that over half the questions tabled for ordinary written answers to the Minister of Agriculture since 20 March have taken more than one week to answer. Is there any guidance on this matter? I think that a nine-week wait for a written parliamentary answer is an extraordinarily long time.

Madam Speaker

I have a good deal of sympathy with the matter the hon. Gentleman has raised. I will look at the matter and come back to him. If what the hon. Gentleman has told me is correct, it is an inordinate length of time. Ministers appear sometimes to be taking a great deal of time to answer questions.