HC Deb 11 February 1998 vol 306 cc371-3

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker

I have a statement to make about departmental Question Time which should be of interest to all hon. Members and Ministers alike.

In the last Parliament, I found it necessary on a number of occasions to seek the co-operation of the House in making better progress at Question Time. I was concerned that both questions and answers were becoming too long and that there was a growing tendency to regard Question Time as an opportunity for comment and for debate, rather than for question and answer. As a result, too few hon. Members with questions on the Order Paper could be called, and too few other hon. Members could be called to put supplementary questions.

Following my statement, there was some improvement at that time, but I now have to inform the House with regret that progress in this Parliament is significantly worse. The number of substantive and supplementary questions that I have been able to call has been further constrained. I must now renew my appeal to Ministers and hon. Members to co-operate in securing a faster-moving and more profound Question Time.

Members should bear it in mind that the primary purpose of questioning Ministers is to hold the Executive to account. Questions should relate to matters of public policy or administration for which Ministers are responsible. I have to tell Back Benchers that the purpose of a question is to obtain information or to press for action. It should not be a short speech.

As for Ministers, answers should be confined to points contained in the question, with a short explanation only when necessary to make the answer intelligible. I tell the House that there are good reasons for these and other long-established rules on questions. Members would do very well to educate themselves. They would find, if they looked at pages 295 to 305 of the 22nd edition of "Erskine May", the reasons for these rules. In essence, there is a marked distinction between Question Time and debate. What is required above all are short questions and brisk answers. In the interests of the House, I shall not hesitate to intervene if I think a question or an answer is too long, but it would be much better if the House were to discipline and regulate itself. I hope it will do so, and I look forward to the Whips from all parties seeing that all hon. Members and Ministers are informed of this statement.