HC Deb 02 May 2001 vol 367 cc862-5 4.11 pm
Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given notice both to you and to the Minister concerned.

On 27 March I tabled two questions to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to which I have received no substantive answer. Let me briefly explain. I asked the Minister from which countries whose standards of animal welfare, health or hygiene were lower than those of this country we were importing meat or poultry or their products. Neither question was difficult to answer—I should have thought that the Minister already had the information—and answering would have been neither time-consuming nor expensive; yet, 36 days later, there is still no answer.

The only reason I can think of for the fact that there has been no answer is that providing such an answer would be politically embarrassing. The Government are too embarrassed to admit that British farming has been put at a competitive disadvantage by the Government's failure to take action to ban products from countries whose standards are poorer than ours. The Government understand that products in those countries—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman's point of order is already clear to me; he is now setting out his reason for tabling his questions. Would he leave it at that?

Mr. Sayeed

May I finish, Mr. Speaker, very briefly? Can you confirm that my two questions were in order, and that it is unacceptable for a Government to delay answers deliberately just because those answers are politically embarrassing to them?

Mr. Speaker

If the Table Office accepted the two questions, they must have been in order.

All hon. Members are entitled to timeous replies, but it must also be appreciated that the Department to which the hon. Gentleman referred is under a great deal of strain. Members should realise that, and exercise some patience. I put it on record, however, that the hon. Gentleman is entitled to a timeous answer.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you will deem me to have given you notice of it—if not entirely formally—during Prime Minister's Question Time.

During that Question Time, Mr. Speaker, you will have heard a great many cries of "Disgraceful" from Conservative Members. I am sure you will accept that they were aimed not at the Chair but at the conduct of the Prime Minister.

It is indeed disgraceful that the Prime Minister has changed the rules of the House: instead of coming here twice a week, he now deigns to come only once a week. His constitutional duty is to answer questions from Members in all parts of the House, but particularly from the Leader of the Opposition. I am sure that you will agree, Mr. Speaker, that, in response to very serious points that were made by my right hon. Friend about Wembley stadium, the dome and so on, the Prime Minister was gratuitously abusive to my right hon. Friend, referring to some remarks by some Conservative candidate—a matter for which the Prime Minister has no responsibility whatever. I am sure that you will agree that that behaviour tends to bring the House into disrepute with the public.

You referred to this matter in an earlier statement: Questions are out of order if they relate to Opposition party policies rather than Government responsibilities. You went on to say: Of course I recognise that over many years, Question Time has developed as a lively occasion on which political points are scored. That applies particularly to Prime Minister's Question Time. As I said last week, although the same constraints apply, I think it right to allow the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition a greater degree of latitude."—[Official Report, 14 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 315.] Given the widespread concern expressed by Opposition Members during Prime Minister's questions, to what extent do any constraints apply to the Prime Minister, who comes here only once a week? He should be answering questions instead of trying to score cheap points off my right hon. Friend on matters that do not relate to Prime Ministerial responsibilities.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must first answer the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth). Certainly, Prime Minister's Question Time this afternoon was very lively; I think that we can both agree with that. At all times, I must be able to use my judgment. The Prime Minister does not change the rules of the House. The House changes the rules. I am the custodian of those rules. I heard many hon. Members shouting, "Disgraceful." I did feel that some of those remarks were directed at me. I accept the hon. Gentleman's explanation that they were not directed at me—that is fine—but some were telling me to intervene and to stop the Prime Minister.

I will use my judgment at all times in the House. It is for me to use my judgment. Let me put it on the record that the worst thing that can happen is for hon. Members to tell me to intervene, because in doing so they are telling me how to do my job. Believe me: I will stay put and I will not intervene in those circumstances. I will use my judgment.

The hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to add that, when the House gets very noisy, it is unfair to those who are asking and, indeed, answering questions. The noise level has been very bad. I expect co-operation from hon. Members on both sides of the House during Prime Minister's questions and other parliamentary questions. The noise level can be far too high.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter. I am glad that he was not directing his cries at me, but he and others were out of order when they were shouting far too loudly in the Chamber. That goes for hon. Members on both sides of the House. It would be best to leave it at that. It was a noisy day. There was more than one excited hon. Member.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have given notice in correspondence with you of the point that I want to raise, which connects directly with the point on which you have just ruled.

I had understood that the Prime Minister could only answer questions for which he was responsible and for which the Executive were responsible. We had a contentious case today. Six weeks ago, you ruled that a question on Short money to the Prime Minister was in order. But the House vote that pays for the Short money is not a matter for the Executive or in any way a matter for the Prime Minister. As you know, it is a matter for the House of Commons Commission, which you chair. I hesitated to raise this in the House on a point of order, so I wrote to you. If I may, I will read out part of your reply: I am sure you will, on reflection, understand that it would not be appropriate for me to account to individual Members for my rulings or to enter into discussions about them. Yours is a quasi-judicial rule, Mr. Speaker. Like judges, you are not required to provide any explanation, but explanations are generally given by judges of their decisions and rulings. I am rising now to ask whether, on reflection, you think it would be helpful to say whether the Prime Minister may now be asked questions on subjects for which he is palpably not responsible.

Mr. Speaker

I must say to the hon. Gentleman that that would not be helpful. If he wished to have a private discussion with me, that might be helpful.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case, as Hansard will show, that previous Prime Ministers—Labour and Conservative—have used Question Time and every aspect of the agenda before them to try to defend the Government's record, and that the present Prime Minister has not departed from that? I refer you to 10 January, when the Prime Minister, quoting a Conservative candidate in Birmingham, said: It might be thought a strange form of madness for someone to nail their colours to the Conservative mast at such a time of crisis for the party."—[Official Report, 10 January 2001; Vol. 360, c. 1073.] No Conservative objected to that. There were points of order—from what may be described as the usual suspects—but no Conservative objected to what the Prime Minister said. What has been said today has been said previously by previous Prime Ministers. Conservative Members—certainly those who are new to the House—should consult Hansard over the years to see what those Prime Ministers have done.

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman is not raising a point of order.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In common with other hon. Members, I am extremely grateful for the ruling that you have just given and the guidance that you have thereby provided.

On a different point, on several dozen occasions in recent months, at a time when right hon. and hon. Members have been asking questions, at best tangentially related, if related at all, to Ministers' responsibilities, right hon. and hon. Members have busily been chatting to you while you have been occupying the Chair. I wonder if I might put it to you that it would be extremely helpful to the efficient dispatch of business and the retention of good order if they did not do that, because we wish, of course, to have the full benefit at all times both of your personal attention and of your intellectual resources.

Mr. Speaker

That is a bit like the kettle calling the pot black, as the hon. Gentleman is one of the chatterers.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could it ever be in order for a Leader of the Opposition to be afforded special protection in this House during Question Time or any other occasion, no matter how exposed, vulnerable or pathetic that Leader might be?

Mr. Speaker

We now move on.