HC Deb 04 June 1997 vol 295 cc349-59 12.22 pm
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service on his appointment. I believe that it is some time since Liverpool has had a Minister in Her Majesty's Government. I am only sorry that he should have to answer and support a case of such weakness, but I have no doubt that he will plough through it.

Almost the first act of the new Government, which was announced by press release when the House had not fully convened, was to allow the Prime Minister to get away from having to answer to Parliament twice a week. That act, which was carried without consultation, is entirely contrary to the unanimous recommendation of the Procedure Committee. The recommendation was most carefully made, following the taking of much evidence—including, somewhat unusually, from three previous Prime Ministers.

The recommendation in paragraph 41 of the Procedure Committee's report reads: We are not persuaded that a change, under the existing format for Prime Minister's Questions, to one 30 minute session a week is desirable. The report was unanimously agreed by the Committee, which included four Labour Members, one of whom is now a Minister. They were the hon. Members for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Burnley (Mr. Pike), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who is now a Minister. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) also voted in favour. The view taken by the Procedure Committee was given definite and specific backing.

Such evidence may be enough—but, stop, is there something more? I remind the House that there is. On page 43 of the report, a letter reads: I can see a good case for a radical overhaul of Prime Minister's Questions to replace the existing pattern with a once weekly session of half an hour in which there is more of an opportunity to probe the Prime Minister in depth … I very much doubt that any Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition has ever actually looked forward to 3.15 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These sessions"— mark the word "sessions" are however a fundamental part of our parliamentary democracy, and a part that is now familiar to the public. That evidence was given not by a Conservative Minister but by the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister repeated the phrase "Trust me" many times, but it is proving a fairly hollow entreaty as the Blair Government set about riding roughshod over the rights and duties of Parliament to hold the Executive to account.

Let us consider the issue in a logical sequence and consider the arguments put by the Leader of the House, who I am sorry is not in her place to defend her action. I believe that the decision was forced on her and was not of her own choosing. The Prime Minister rejected absolutely the concept of the right of the Leader of the Opposition to have a go at the Prime Minister twice a week—which had been his right. He had made it nearly mandatory to ask three supplementary questions each session, totalling six questions a week—at least two being carefully prepared soundbites ensuring that some damaging comment was made about the Government.

The President of the Council said that it was necessary to implement the decision immediately or it would never be implemented. She must understand that that is nonsense, given that there is a motion on today's Order Paper to set up a Committee to look into the matter. One presumes that that Committee's recommendations will be carried. Why, therefore, was there a need to rush the matter through without proper consultation, which previous Governments and Lord Presidents of the Council had always allowed whenever alterations to procedure were considered?

The moment that he came to power, the Prime Minister ran away from the concept of having Prime Minister's questions twice a week. He claimed that Parliament was not served by them and that a session once a week would be more serious and would allow more questions to be asked. With the open-ended question still in operation, Prime Minister's questions will not become more constructive or more serious. Yes, we may get through one or two more questions in a single 30-minute session than with the Tuesday and Thursday routine, but why? Because the Prime Minister, when he was the Leader of the Opposition, used to take up between 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the 15-minute session with his questions and the answers to them. Anyone will realise that the major sufferer under the new regime will be the Leader of the Opposition. He will not be called six times by Madam Speaker in the 30-minute session. Of course we will get through one or two more Back-Bench questions, but at whose expense? It will be at the Leader of the Opposition's expense. I am certain that that will not displease the Prime Minister. He has now made six equal three. That is imaginative mathematics even for the new Labour Government.

Of real concern, as hon. Members who have been here for some time will know, is the topical aspect to Prime Minister's Question Time. Subjects for questions to the Prime Minister on Thursday afternoons often arose from the Cabinet meeting on Thursday mornings. Now, the chance to ask those questions will not arise for six days. The Sunday papers will often have already presented the Government's view and the topicality will have gone six days later.

A side issue is that the most popular time for the public to request orders for the Gallery was for the twice-weekly sessions of Prime Minister's Question Time. The orders for those sessions were like gold dust, but the public will now have only half the opportunities to see the Prime Minister at work. The public outside will see the Prime Minister under fire only once a week on television. The twice-weekly sessions used to be very popular.

We will make Prime Minister's Question Time more constructive only when we limit the open-ended question, as I have said. That was resisted by Labour Members in opposition because, they argued, Prime Minister's questions would lose their topicality. That argument becomes even stronger if what is topical on Wednesday evening or Thursday cannot be dealt with until six days later. The change will reduce the chance of removing the limitation of the open-ended questions, which is the one way in which the Procedure Committee argued we could make Prime Minister's Question Time more serious and more constructive.

The move by the Prime Minister amounts to limits on the Opposition that he absolutely refused to accept when he was in opposition. Nobody can tell me differently, because I argued personally with the Prime Minister's staff in his office on that point. When in opposition, he wanted no alteration to the existing pattern.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I participated in the Procedure Committee's inquiry into the subject. Does he acknowledge that it would have been much better to have the debate as soon as possible after publication of the Procedure Committee's report? The debate could have been accommodated within the business of the House by the previous Government, but they never gave us the opportunity to debate it. We could have heard the arguments, including those from the then Leader of the Opposition, before the general election. We could have had a good debate using that experience and the report before us, instead of leaving the report hanging in the air without any conclusion, as unfortunately happened under the previous Government.

Sir Peter Emery

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the previous Leader of the House, Mr. Tony Newton, proceeded with procedural changes only if there was general agreement between the usual channels. It was the specific refusal of the Opposition to agree to the Government's proposal to provide Government time that meant that the debate did not take place. I should know, because I negotiated with the Leader of the House to try to arrange the debate. It was specifically because the then Leader of the Opposition did not wish to change the existing practice—he did not want to incorporate the suggestions that we were making—that the report was not considered by the House.

Proper parliamentary reform must always be conducted with the mutual agreement of the majority of hon. Members. When reform has been thrust through by one party, it has usually failed. I know that better than most, having been the Chairman of the Procedure Committee for 14 years.

The Prime Minister is refusing to allow himself to be questioned as every Prime Minister has been questioned for the past 35 years. Why? It must either be because he is willing to treat the House of Commons with disdain, or because he is afraid of being cross-questioned by his peers twice a week. He admitted in his letter to the Procedure Committee that he does not look forward to that.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

The right hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister is frightened to answer questions. If so, why has my right hon. Friend introduced changes that will lead to more questions, not fewer?

Sir Peter Emery

The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to me. What the Prime Minister has done is to turn six into three.

Mr. Hall

indicated dissent.

Sir Peter Emery

The hon. Member should not shake his head. When the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, he asked six questions in the two sessions. If the Leader of the Opposition has the chance to ask only three questions once a week, Back Benchers will obviously have more time for questions.

As I was saying, either the Prime Minister is afraid of being cross-questioned by his peers or he wishes to limit the House's ability to hold the Executive to account. Whichever is true, it is ignoble and it shows an arrogance and disdain for Parliament. It shows a contempt more normally associated with some of the so-called democratic leaders of banana republics.

What have we seen in the Session so far? No statement was made to the House on the alteration of the role of the Bank of England; no statement was made to the House on the defence review; and no statement was made to the House about the changes that will protect the Prime Minister from having to come to the House twice a week. The phrase "Trust me" has a hollow ring indeed, when it comes to protecting the rights of Parliament.

12.37 pm
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) for allowing me a moment or two£

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the Minister to speak? In Adjournment debates such as this, it is not enough to have the permission of the initiator of the debate. He must have the permission of the Minister who is to reply. Does he have that permission?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

I was not informed, but I do not object to the hon. Member speaking in the debate.

Mr. Yeo

I am grateful to the Minister and I congratulate him on his new office. I am sure that this will be the first of many occasions on which he is here to answer Adjournment debates.

I fully endorse everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon said. He gave us a careful and accurate analysis of the factual and historical background to the discussions about the format for Prime Minister's questions. As he said, one of the consequences of the change has been to reduce by half the opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition to question the Prime Minister. I regret that, because that questioning has been an important part of exchanges in the House twice a week for many years. The change is not one for the better.

Mr. Tyler

Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that in any case, the arithmetic of the House has changed the status of the Leader of the Opposition, as there are now three major parties in the House? Do not the new arrangements rightly reflect that change, by recognising the fact that the leader of the third party should have more opportunities than he had in the past?

Mr. Yeo

As the hon. Gentleman has raised the point, I can tell him that the third party now has about a quarter of the number of seats that the second party has, yet is being allowed two thirds of the opportunities to ask the Prime Minister questions. Had the previous arrangements remained in force, it would have had one third of the opportunities, so even that was disproportionately weighted in favour of the third party. The arrangements are now enormously weighted in its favour. Clearly that change is welcome to the third party, but it is in no way justified by the change in the parliamentary arithmetic.

My quarrel is not so much with the nature of the changes, which could have been the subject of a debate, as with the manner in which they were announced.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

The hon. Gentleman said that the change was in no way justified, but does he acknowledge that as the Leader of the Opposition now represents only half as many Members as he did before, it might be appropriate for him to have half the number of opportunities at Question Time?

Mr. Yeo

The tradition in the House has been to allow the Leader of the Opposition, whoever he is, whichever party he represents, and almost regardless of the number of seats, to ask questions. I am thinking of the House in 1983, when the Labour party had only slightly more seats than the Conservative party has now. No one in any party in the House then suggested that because the Labour party had suffered a severe setback at the general election, its opportunities to ask the Prime Minister questions should be reduced.

However, all that is to some extent beside the point. The issue here is the way in which the decision was taken and announced, without consultation with any Back Bencher. I regret that, as, I think, do many Members on both sides of the House.

When the Minister replies, he could be very brief, although I shall ensure that he gets his 15 minutes—I think that that is usually the length of speech prepared for a Minister replying to an Adjournment debate. The most useful thing that he could do would be to acknowledge that on this occasion an inexperienced Government and Prime Minister made a mistake.

The matter could be largely put right by a forthright apology. It is nothing to be ashamed of if mistakes are made when there is a new boy in the job. Questions in the House, whether to the Prime Minister or to any other Minister, are important, especially for Back Benchers.

In the present era, the Minister without Portfolio and his Government thought-police are hellbent on controlling every utterance of Labour Back Benchers. I do not know how long that control will be effective—I doubt whether it will last until 2002—but for the time being it remains, so it is Back Benchers from the various Opposition parties who are most affected by the change.

It has already been agreed between the two sides of the House that the total number of questions asked by Back Benchers has not been reduced; I do not suggest that it has, although the immediacy of those questions is certainly reduced by the change from two sessions to one. However, given that, with their huge majority, it is clear that the Government ultimately have the power to force through any change in parliamentary procedure that they wish, it is an act of extraordinary arrogance for the Government and the Leader of the House to make such a change without consulting even one Back Bencher on either side of the House.

Coupled with the way in which the Leader of the House has acted ruthlessly to prevent debate on large chunks of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, those actions do not bode well for the health of parliamentary debate or of democracy. They certainly do not sit easily with the Government's repeatedly proclaiming their commitment to openness and accountability, and their wish to be the servants, not the masters, of the people.

I believe that the Minister's reply could be brief. He could simply say, "Yes, we were wrong. Yes, we are sorry—and now we shall engage in a belated process of consultation."

12.43 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)

As I have not yet had the privilege of speaking from the Dispatch Box as a member of the Government, nor with you in the Chair, Mr. Martin, I first extend my congratulations to you. It gives me great pleasure to congratulate you formally.

I shall set out the Government's position unequivocally. Put simply, it is that the procedure report did not win general acceptance, that changing the rota for oral questions is an administrative matter, as I shall go on to substantiate, that the change needed to be introduced without delay—carrying out a widespread consultation, as the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) suggested, would have been virtually impossible—that the structure of Prime Minister's questions can be reviewed by the Select Committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons, and finally, that the new system is far better than the old.

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) for giving us the opportunity to debate one of our most important procedures. In previous Parliaments, the right hon. Gentleman played a distinguished part as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, as we all know. As he said, his total service in that role amounts to 14 years. His speech introducing the debate showed evidence of a wide knowledge and of long experience of all aspects of the procedure of the House.

In recent years there has been considerable dissatisfaction with the way in which Prime Minister's questions were conducted. That was felt not only outside the House, where many people watch the event live on television, but inside the House. The former Prime Minister made it clear several years ago that he thought that the time could be used more productively.

Responding to that desire for change, the Procedure Committee carried out its inquiry. Its report, and the evidence on which it was based, made a valuable contribution to the debate, and I am sure that the House is grateful to the right hon. Member for East Devon and his colleagues on the Committee for the work that they put into that report.

The Committee's main recommendation was that instead of tabling open questions that gave no idea of the subject that the questioner wished to raise, the 10 Members successful in the ballot should have to table a substantive question the day before. The Committee made a respectable case for that proposal but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out at the time, doing away with open questions altogether would cause controversy.

As the right hon. Member for East Devon will agree, there will always be controversy about suggested procedural changes in the House. The Conservative Government at the time did not accept the recommendation, which does not seem to have won the support of the House as a whole, either.

As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) reminded us, it was the Conservative Government who prevented proper and open debate on such matters. If he reads column 631 of Hansard for 11 July 1996, he will see that the Procedure Committee's report was tagged on to a debate at that stage in the parliamentary process. It was the Conservative Government who prevented debate, not a lack of willingness on the part of the then Labour Opposition.

The previous Government were in no hurry to act on the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. The Committee's report was not debated for a year, and then only as part of an Adjournment debate on the subject of parliamentary procedure. In that debate the former Leader of the House, Tony Newton, made clear his reservations about the suggested change, pointing out that it would make it more difficult to put topical questions to the Prime Minister.

The new Government took office on 1 May with a manifesto commitment to modernise the House of Commons, and in particular to make Prime Minister's questions more effective. As a first step in that direction, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced on 9 May that there would be one half-hour session of Prime Minister's questions every week, to provide further scope for covering more issues in depth.

That did not require a change in Standing Orders, only a change in the rota for oral questions. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate the fact that the rota needs to be settled before the State Opening of Parliament, so that when the Table Office opens that morning, Members will know which Ministers will answer questions on which days. The sensible course was, therefore, to move to the new arrangements right from the start, rather than cause confusion by changing the rota half way through the Session. Members who say that they are not necessarily against the changes we have made but complain that they should have been consulted first—such as the hon. Member for South Suffolk—ought to recognise that, in the circumstances, that was impracticable.

Governments of all political persuasions have changed the questions rota from time to time in response to changes in ministerial responsibility and other factors. This Session's rota would in any case have been different from last Session's to reflect the Prime Minister's decision to bring together the Departments of the Environment and of Transport under the Deputy Prime Minister, and to create the new Department of International Development.

The Prime Minister's place on the rota has been changed several times before. Way back in Mr. Gladstone's time, questions to the Prime Minister were taken last; then at question No. 51; then at question No. 45; then at question No. 40 on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and then at 3.15 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The changes we are discussing mean that the Prime Minister still answers questions for 30 minutes each week—just as the Prime Minister did before.

Mr. Mike Hall

One of the criticisms from Opposition Members concerns the lack of consultation. Yet two years ago, the Prime Minister announced his intention to improve Prime Minister's Question Time. He consulted the electorate on this proposal, and my hon. Friend will agree that he is right to make the change.

Mr. Kilfoyle

The Prime Minister has made clear repeatedly his intention to make the House more in tune with the needs of the 21st, rather than the 19th, century. As a result, he received a ringing endorsement from the electorate on 1 May. That should be borne in mind by Opposition Members.

Sir Peter Emery

The Minister listed the historical changes made to Prime Minister's Question Time. The records show that those changes were all made following consultation with all parties. The present change was made without such consultation. Labour's manifesto—which, for greater accuracy, I looked up this morning—says: Prime Minister's Question Time will be made more effective". Most people believe that that comes about by the open-ended question, and not necessarily by any alteration in timing.

Mr. Kilfoyle

If the right hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will show how increased effectiveness is offered by the new arrangements for Prime Minister's Question Time. I would argue that, far from being a diminution of the rights of Back Benchers, our changes will give Back Benchers greater opportunity to put questions to the Prime Minister and will therefore make them a far more effective mechanism within the House.

The other change, which was made with the agreement of Madam Speaker, is that the Prime Minister no longer refers back to the earlier question about his engagements. Instead, the hon. Member tabling the question goes straight to his or her supplementary question without any preliminaries, which were pointless, repetitive and difficult for members of the public to understand. This sensible reform was suggested by the Committee in its report, and I see that the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for East Devon, is nodding. The change will open up what happens in this House to a less esoteric audience than Members of Parliament.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has moved quickly to propose the creation of a new Select Committee to consider the modernisation of the House of Commons. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Devon for indicating his support for this idea when he spoke in the debate on the eve of the spring recess. I hope that the new Committee will review the changes introduced by the Government to Prime Minister's Question Time, and it may wish also to look at some of the other reforms that have been suggested, such as doing away with open questions altogether and reducing the period of notice required for specific questions. The House will then be able to look again at Prime Minister's Question Time, if it wishes, with the benefit of advice from the Select Committee and with greater experience of the new format.

It is a little early to draw any conclusions, since Prime Minister's Question Time this afternoon will be only the second to be held under the new arrangements. None the less, I believe that it is instructive to compare Prime Minister's Question Time on 21 May with what happened on the last two such occasions in the last Parliament. On 18 and 20 March, a total of nine Back Benchers were able to put supplementary questions to the Prime Minister. On 21 May, 18 Back Benchers were called. On 18 March, the House reached only Question 3 on the Order Paper, while on 20 March we did not get past the first question. On 21 May, the House finished at Question 10.

On 20 March—as has been pointed out—the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, was called once. On 21 May, he was called twice, enabling him to go into his chosen topic in greater depth. That was one of the reasons for making the change to a half-hour session. Even more importantly—although this is not something which can be proved with numbers—I think that every hon. Member who was present would agree that the tone of Prime Minister's Question Time on 21 May was infinitely more positive and constructive than in the last Parliament. I am sure that it will do much to raise the standing of this House in the country at large if we can continue in this spirit throughout the Parliament.

Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for East Devon could not resist some jibes at the expense of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. First, he said that when my right hon. Friend was the Leader of the Opposition, he took up a disproportionate time during Prime Minister's Question Time. I may be alone in my recollections, but I seem to remember that the orchestrated interruptions by the then Conservative majority prevented the proper conduct of Prime Minister's Question Time and, on occasion after occasion, prevented my right hon. Friend from presenting his case and asking questions in an orderly fashion. Thankfully, because of a new approach from the new Government, that will no longer obtain.

Secondly, I find farcical the suggestion by the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister is afraid to come here to answer questions, given the mandate that he and the Government have been given. I reject that out of hand. We have to get away from such jibes, and members of this Government will try to do so in a responsible fashion.

I was sad to hear the right hon. Member for East Devon state that we were conducting the government of this country like a banana republic. That was a gratuitously offensive remark about a new Government who have come in at a rate of knots to effect changes that we set out clearly in our manifesto, which, I repeat, gained a ringing endorsement on 1 May.

Mr. Yeo

Is the Minister suggesting that merely because a commitment has been contained in a manifesto, the need for subsequent parliamentary scrutiny and consultation about the details of implementing the proposal is removed? If that is the case, it is a very serious threat to this country.

Mr. Kilfoyle

I am not saying that at all. First, we are a responsible Government who want to bring the procedures of this House up to speed with the demands of the 21st century rather than the 19th. Secondly, it is self-evident that the Prime Minister and the Government were given solid support by the electorate on 1 May for making those necessary changes.

I assure the right hon. Member for East Devon that the Prime Minister is just as accountable to the House as he was before; that he answers questions for as long now as he did before; that a question which could have been put to the Prime Minister before can be put to the Prime Minister now; and that all the new arrangements can be reviewed by a Select Committee of this House. I am sure that the new format for Prime Minister's Question Time is a considerable improvement on the old. I believe that this view will be shared by right hon. and hon. Members of all parties in increasing numbers.

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