Skip to main content

Questions To Ministers

Volume 884: debated on Thursday 23 January 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have raised with you on several occasions the strange devices to which the House has to resort to get the Prime Minister of the day to answer Questions. I have suggested to you, Sir, that we should consider a method of doing this other than by suggesting that the Prime Minister should pay an official visit to a constituency.

It so happens that I have just been advised by the Prime Minister that he is to visit my constituency tomorrow, without my having invited him. I am delighted that he is to be accompanied by yourself, the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party. I assure the Prime Minister that I shall not be discussing politics with him on this occasion.

On the more serious matter, I think that we should give time to considering how we should be able to speak to the Prime Minister at Question Time.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch) if, contrary to usual practice followed by nearly all right hon. and hon. Members, he was not informed earlier. He will know that I am not going to his constituency for any nefarious purpose, and I shall not make any speeches which are likely to lead to his early unseating. The visit is not concerned with the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is for the enthronement of the Primate of All England that the Leader of the Opposition, myself and others are going.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I try to clear up the matter of the Questions to the Prime Minister this afternoon about his official engagements? If those Questions were in order—as, clearly, in your view, Mr. Speaker, they were or they would not have appeared on the Order Paper—is it not the duty of the Prime Minister to answer them? Is it right for the Prime Minister or any other Minister to arrogate to himself the judgment whether or not they are an abuse of the House? Surely these are matters for you and not for the Prime Minister.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we have your assurance that the Table will continue to accept Questions of this type whether or not they are welcome to the Prime Minister?

With regard to those three points of order, with which I think many hon. and right hon. Members have some sympathy, this matter was referred to a special Select Committee on Parliamentary Questions. From memory, that Select Committee came to the conclusion that there was not much that it could do about it.

Certainly, I think that the situation is not very satisfactory, whichever party is in power. It is a matter which could perhaps be looked at again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. There may be some confusion between the Questions and the supplementary questions. No one has ever objected to Questions of that type being put on the Order Paper, and I answered them. But it takes the time of the House if on those Questions hon. Members hang any subject relating to any part of the world without regard to ministerial responsibility.

As the whole House knows, I have been much freer in answering Questions from the Government side of the House over the last 10 years than has the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. But when syndicated Questions are asked for the purpose of raising subjects which have nothing to do with official engagements the result is to crowd out many hon. Members on both sides of the House who have serious Questions and supplementary questions to put.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Prime Minister said that he had been much freer in answering Questions than had my right hon. Friend. If by "freer" he means longer, I think there will be total unanimity.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) by that remark has shown the quality of his bid for the leadership. I have been freer, Mr. Speaker, in the sense that I have gone wider. I have answered supplementary questions that have not normally been answered by Prime Ministers of either party.

If I may continue to preserve complete impartiality, I think that the House is in a genuine difficulty. We are concerned with the peg on which to hang a Question to the Prime Minister. The trouble is that if one asks a direct Question it is frequently transferred to another Minister—as I have found in the past. That has happened under both Governments and it has been going on for a long time. This has nothing to do with party issues; it has been the practice of the House, and I do not think that it is a very satisfactory one. The Select Committee examined the subject and came to the conclusion that there was not much it could do. Perhaps the Procedure Committee or a special Select Committee might look at this matter again.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Surely, the distinction which the Prime Minister, in replying to you a moment ago, sought to make between official engagements and the supplementary questions that were asked is not a meaningful distinction. If it is in order to put down a Question about the Prime Minister's official engagements, it must also be in order and quite legitimate to ask a supplementary question about the subject which we know from those engagements the Prime Minister discussed.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a simple matter of the Prime Minister alleging that the supplementary questions were out of order? Is this not a matter for you, Sir, rather than for the Prime Minister, and if you allow the supplementary questions is it not incumbent on the Prime Minister to answer them?

It would be much better to consider this as a general question on the better management of the affairs of the House of Commons. The problem has existed for a long time, and arguments of this sort should be put to a committee that might be appointed to look into the matter.