HC Deb 23 October 2002 vol 391 cc273-6 3.31 pm
Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I want to register the intense frustration felt by my Northern Ireland colleagues at the perceived filibustering during Northern Ireland Question Time. The Secretary of State and some of the other Northern Ireland Office Ministers gave long-winded responses and answers to questions. I think that the House noted your own frustration today, Mr. Speaker. Discussion of Question 1 went on until after 2.50 pm, and we only got as far as Question 4. In Prime Minister's questions, we got to Question 8.

I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to register again your disapproval of long-winded answers, and to encourage those responding to questions to enable us to challenge the Northern Ireland team properly.

Mr. Speaker

I would not use the term "long-winded", but some of the questions were rather long, as were some of the answers. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman that, at Northern Ireland Question Time, not only do I have to worry about the Opposition and the Liberal Democrats, but I also have to accommodate two parties from Ulster on one side of the House and one party on the other. That requires me to give a longer run to some questions, which can have an impact on how far down the Order Paper we get.

However, the point of order gives me the opportunity to say that the shorter the questions are, the shorter the replies will be.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Office have grown considerably, and the growth in the size of the ministerial teams shows that Ministers are responsible for a hugely increased range of matters. I appreciate the point that you made, Mr. Speaker, about the number of parties in Northern Ireland and about how some questions will run for a certain amount of time. However, given the necessity that we deal with as many questions as possible, is not there now an overwhelming case for a significant increase in the amount of time available for Northern Ireland questions? Would not it be desirable, as we move into a new Session, to make a very significant change in that respect?

Mr. Speaker

I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman, but he will realise that these matters are not within my powers. I suggest that he approach the Leader of the House.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not the case that we now have five Northern Ireland Ministers on the Treasury Bench, all of them doing important jobs and with important responsibilities? However, given that under present arrangements it is almost impractical to expect that they will get a chance to answer even one question on their various areas of responsibility, may I reinforce the point been made by the First Minister?

Mr. Speaker

I can only make the same suggestion. The hon. Gentleman may wish to take the matter up with the Leader of the House.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Dr. John Reid)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have said that I am more than happy that discussions on these matters take place through the usual channels. I would, however, like to make two points that were mistaken in the premise put forward by the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble). First, Northern Ireland Question Time was reduced to half an hour before devolution when there were the same number of Ministers on the Front Bench. Secondly, although of course I am open to discussion, as we always are, on bringing scrutiny to bear on these matters, we must get a balance between the need for scrutiny and the need not to create a backlog in the legislation that has previously been put through the Assembly. Much of it has already been discussed; it is very important for the good governance of Northern Ireland and the benefit of the people there.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is on a different matter. Tomorrow's Order Paper, as you are well aware, contains the continuation of the debate on local government finance formula grant. Bearing in mind that it is a continuation, Mr. Speaker, can you confirm that there will be no opening speeches from the Front Benches but that the maximum time will be given to the very large demand for Back-Bench speeches in that important debate, and that the Minister will only wind up the debate?

Mr. Speaker

As the right hon. Gentleman has said, tomorrow's debate is billed as a continuation debate. Effectively, therefore, the opening speeches have been made. I intend to call the Minister to launch the debate, but I expect him to confine his remarks to no more than two sentences.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Could you clarify something? When the debate came to a premature end last week, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster) was speaking. Do you intend to call him to continue his speech?

Mr. Speaker

The Speaker decides these matters. The Minister will say a few words and then I will decide who will be called next.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you had notification of a statement from the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), on the proposals of the advisory committee to the European Commission for a complete closure next year of the White fishery in the North sea and off the west of Scotland? As you will understand, thousands of jobs in catching and processing are at stake, and it will affect the economic infrastructure of entire areas. At this time of crisis, it would be of some use to find out whether the Government have a policy on the matter or whether we are merely drifting to disaster. There are plenty of Ministers on the Front Bench—perhaps one of them would at least tell us when we can expect a statement on this vital matter.

Mr. Speaker

So far I have had no approach from a Minister. However, the hon. Gentleman can pursue the matter and I am sure that the Ministers concerned will have heard his remarks or will be able to read them in Hansard.