HC Deb 14 May 1997 vol 294 cc37-40 2.38 pm
Mr. Man Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. To what extent have you assented to, or been consulted about, the edict, issuing apparently from the Prime Minister's office, that curtails the length, content, duration and timing of Prime Minister's Question Time? Already, the Table Office is refusing to take questions except for once a week on Wednesdays. Surely this matter should be debated in the Chamber. It jeopardises the rights of Back Benchers on both sides of the Chamber and affects the accountability of the Executive to the electorate as a whole. Furthermore, it is exactly the kind of encroachment on the rights of Members by Governments to which we look to you for protection.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I gave you notice that I would ask you to defend and protect Back-Bench Members because it was announced not to the House but by way of a press statement from Downing street that hon. Members were to be deprived of putting questions to the Prime Minister twice a week, a right which has existed for 35 years, and that a once-a-week system was to be introduced. You will know that the Procedure Committee made a number of recommendations to the House which were not debated. One of them concerned the possibility of having Prime Minister's Question Time only once a week. It was unanimously decided by members of the Labour party and members of the Conservative party that that was not tenable if we were to defend Back-Bench Members.

I must appeal to you, Madam Speaker, to use your massive influence beyond the Chair to ensure that the alteration is not made until the matter has been reconsidered by the Procedure Committee or there has been a full debate on the Floor of the House, with a motion that is amendable, to protect the rights of Back Benchers.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. May I draw your attention to what appear to be the consequential effects of this sudden decision? The time available for Northern Ireland questions will be reduced by a quarter, that for Welsh questions will be reduced accordingly, and that for Scottish questions will be reduced by one third. As a consequence, the opportunity for Members representing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to raise issues in the House will be substantially curtailed. That has been done without any consultation with the persons representing those regions. Would it not be better to ensure that there is consultation and debate and that the rights of Back Benchers in the House are not curtailed in such an arbitrary manner?

Mrs. Sylvia Heal (Halesowen and Rowley Regis)

Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker. As a former Member of Parliament and now a new Member, delighted to be returned as Member for the constituency of Halesowen and Rowley Regis, may I say that the part of the business of the House that is perhaps most widely known in this country and overseas is the twice-weekly spectacle of Prime Minister's Question Time. I have both observed and participated in it, and I do not think that it has always brought Members of the House any great credibility. One of its main functions is to make the Prime Minister accountable to Members. I therefore welcome the proposed changes as innovative and something which can only increase the esteem in which this honourable House is held and, more important, make the Prime Minister accountable to its Members.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (Mrs. Heal) has spoken about democratic processes. You will appreciate that many of us are angered at the lack of consultation about the changes that have been made in the tabling of questions. The idea that one phone call from a civil servant should advise people of changes made, without debate on the Floor of the House, which will perhaps improve or lessen the impact of Back Benchers seems wrong. It certainly demeans the rights of people from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. I ask you, as the protector of Back Benchers, to ensure that the matter is debated on the Floor of the House.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. With regard to your statement about Members taking their seats, may I draw your attention to "Erskine May", page 124—

Madam Speaker

Order. Could I deal with one subject at a time? Allow me to come back, if I may. I think that some Members want to make further points about Prime Minister's Question Time.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Further to the point of order, Madam Speaker. I spoke to the Leader of the House yesterday and she confirmed that the only consultation in Wales had been with the Secretary of State for Wales. I do not think that that is good enough, because other parties from Wales are represented in the House.

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

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that, under the revised procedure for Prime Minister's questions, more questions to the Prime Minister will now be called in one week than in any other week in the past 30-odd years?

Madam Speaker

That is quite true.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I cannot go on taking points of order, but I shall take a few more.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Do you accept that what is at issue here is not what has been decided but the manner in which it has been decided? If the House and its procedures are to be ridden over roughshod in that manner, it bodes badly for this Parliament.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Am I not right in thinking that 30 minutes of questions to the Prime Minister is still 30 minutes, whether it consists of 30 solid minutes or twice 15 minutes, and that the points of order are therefore entirely bogus?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Is not the ability to ask an open question to the Prime Minister one of the most important rights that Back Benchers have, irrespective of the length of time available for such questions? Bearing in mind the fact that such matters may have to be referred to a Select Committee, on which we can be certain that the Labour party will have a majority, will you take the opportunity to say something about your historic role in protecting the rights of Back Benchers, and also something about how important an open question is?

Madam Speaker

Let me give a response to the concerns that, understandably and genuinely, have been raised. With respect to changes in the days and times available for questioning Ministers, the responsibility for the rota of questions lies with Ministers. The rota is not governed by any Standing Order. It is not therefore a matter with which I as Speaker can interfere. My consent was therefore neither sought nor given. [Interruption.] Order. That is all that I can usefully say at this moment.

If right hon. and hon. Members wish to pursue the matter further, they can address their concerns to the Leader of the House or to whatever Committee is appointed to review such matters. I have taken due note of the concerns raised on the Floor of the House this afternoon.

I believe that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) has a separate point of order. Is that right?

Mr. Ashton

Yes, Madam Speaker. Would it not be helpful if you were to write to Members who have not taken their seats, pointing out the Standing Orders of the House as they relate to indignities offered to either House"? Those are explained on pages 124 and 125 of "Erskine May", as follows: Other acts besides words spoken or writings published reflecting upon either House or its proceedings which, though they do not tend directly to obstruct or impede either House in the performance of its functions, yet have a tendency to produce this result indirectly by bringing such House into odium, contempt or ridicule or by lowering its authority may constitute contempts. Perhaps you could warn those people that it is possible for the House to refer such matters to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and for them to be expelled. All sorts of sanctions can be used. Would it not be helpful if that passage were sent to those people?

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, I wrote to you yesterday about the issues covered by your statement. As you also know, I have personal reasons to be especially concerned about bombers and assassins. If people have unsupervised access to the Palace they can bring in guns and explosives, so will you confirm that your ruling means that Sinn Fein-IRA Members of Parliament will not have access to parliamentary passes that would enable their terrorist friends to bring guns into the building?

Madam Speaker

I think that when the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House have had time to examine my statement, they will see that it is very clear indeed. I shall consider the point made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw as soon as possible.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You properly drew our attention to misdemeanours to which Members of Parliament are subject. If it turns out that some members of the public have offered inducements to Members of Parliament, will it be a matter for you as Speaker of this honourable House, or for the police, to ensure that those people are brought to justice?

Madam Speaker

I invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me in full. Obviously he has something in mind that is not now clear to me. Perhaps he will write to me about it.