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Questions To The Prime Minister

Volume 931: debated on Thursday 12 May 1977

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a brief statement about the Fifth Report of the Sessional Committee on Procedure, on Questions to the Prime Minister. I should like to thank the Committee for its speedy and constructive report.

The report makes four recommendations. I have proposed to the Committee that, for an experimental period, I should retain for answer by myself more Oral Questions on important matters, even if they fall within the responsibilities of another Minister. That proposal—the full details of which are spelled out in the first annex to the report—is made as the first recommendation by the Committee. I accept it and will apply it immediately and until the end of the Session, when I will review the matter in the light of experience.

The second recommendation of the Committee is directed at the House itself: it recommends that Members should table fewer Questions of an "indirect" kind—think of what I might have been spared this afternoon—such as official visit and engagement Questions, and more Questions of the kind that I have indicated that I am prepared to retain.

The third recommendation of the Committee is directed to the practice on grouping Questions: it suggests that indirect Questions should not be grouped for answer with identical Questions on the Paper for that day. The purpose of this recommendation is to break up blocks of syndicated Questions. I accept that recommendation and will apply it henceforth; I will review it, along with the first recommendation, at the end of the Session.

The fourth recommendation, Mr. Speaker, relates to your practice.

I hope that adoption of these recommendations will assist the House and improve Question Time.

As the Prime Minister has observed, the fourth recommendation of the Select Committee relates to my own practice. I am prepared to act in accordance with that recommendation and I hope that I shall have the support of the whole House in doing so. This relates to relevance.

I should like to say how grateful I am to the Prime Minister for making a statement so quickly, but must press him further about guidelines on the Questions that he will retain and those that he will transfer. The Prime Minister has said that the matter is fully dealt with in the first annex of the report. With the greatest respect, it is scarcely dealt with at all. The guidance given is that the Prime Minister will be prepared to retain Questions dealing with meetings of Heads of Government—on which statements are made by him in any event—and those dealing with foreign affairs and defence. If that is so, the new practice will be a great protection to the Prime Minister rather than a chance for the House to cross-examine him on social, economic and home affairs. Will the Prime Minister please see that better guidelines are given and that they are put in the possession of the Table Office or the Library so that hon. Members can be properly informed about the Questions that are likely to be retained by the Prime Minister?

I have thought about this a lot and I cannot adopt the last part of the right hon. Lady's proposal for the good reason that the House holds individual Ministers responsible for matters here. That is the constitution and, therefore, I must proceed with some delicacy in this matter. When I am willing to accept Questions, I shall certainly want to discuss them with the individual Ministers responsible, because one cannot remove their responsibility. It was for that reason that I selected the category that I selected—namely, conversations with Heads of Government and so on. After all, I proposed this to the Select Committee, and it is my intention to use its recommendations in the spirit intended. It is not in my interest to avoid answering Questions, but a certain discretion must be left to me about what I transfer or retain. I do not intend to concentrate wholly on overseas matters.

Will the changes make it possible for Back Benchers to ask the Prime Minister such Questions as "Will the Prime Minister try to be at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting this evening?" or direct Questions asking for a personal opinion, such as "What is the Prime Minister's fair estimate of the value of the pound?" without those Questions being diverted to other Ministers?

My hon. Friend has illustrated the difficulty that I shall be in, and I ask for the forbearance of the House in trying to select certain Questions. It would be the simplest thing in the world to transfer all Questions, and that is what I am seeking not to do. If I were answering my hon. Friend's first Question I should have begun by saying that there was no ministerial responsibility for that matter. However, the answer is—"Yes, I shall be there"

Is it not clear from what the Prime Minister has said that the new arrangements will actually make it easier for him to avoid difficult Questions? Did he not reveal that himself in one of his earlier remarks, when he said that the new arrangements would spare him the sort of embarrassment that he suffered this afternoon? Can we have an assurance that Questions to the Prime Minister will not be determined by what the Prime Minister is prepared to answer and that we shall still be free to put down wide-ranging Questions?

Hon. Members are always free to put wide-ranging Questions down and Ministers are always free not to answer them. That has long been the practice of the House, and it will continue. This is an experiment, and if the House does not like it, at the end of the summer—and this experiment will be going on for three months—we can have another talk. However, we must see how it goes. There was a widespread feeling that Questions were becoming totally unrelated to what was on the Order Paper. If hon. Members believe that I am not trying to carry out the recommendations of the Select Committee, they might consider why I put those recommendations to the Committee in the first place.

I agree that the nonsense exists, but the whole business is about supplementary questions rather than the Questions on the Order Paper. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he will continue the age-old practice of answering whatever questions are put to him, irrespective of what is on the Order Paper? Would it not be much better to have an equitable system in deciding who should be called? For that purpose all that is necessary is for us to have a series of Questions on the Order Paper and for you, Mr. Speaker, to hold a kind of bingo session.

Some of those Questions go beyond my responsibilities and entrench on those of you, Mr. Speaker. Therefore, I should not care to answer them.

I have always said that the best exchanges in the House take place when there is a definite subject on the Order Paper to which I can refer and speak about matters arising out of it. For example, I thought that we had a useful exchange on Monday when I reported on the meeting with Heads of Government. All the questions were designed to obtain information or to challenge my view, and they were all relevant to the subject. However, let us experiment. I am in the hands of the House to some extent because I made this proposal to help the House, and if the House does not like it, we can go back to the old system in due course.

I congratulate the Prime Minister on what he assures us is an offer to increase his range of responsibilities to encompass the kind of Question that one does not now put down because one fears that it might not get to the Prime Minister. That is why we ask him to visit Lossiemouth, knowing that he has no intention of doing so. May I press for further examples to be included within the guidelines, such as another type of Question that he might consider—one affecting the survival of a vital industry?

I should prefer to see the Questions on the Order Paper. We are trying to improve the system, but I do not want—and it would not be right—to take responsibility completely out of the hands of, for example, the Secretary of State for Industry. This will be a difficult experiment, but I hope that we shall find a modus vivendi for it. I hope that on an issue such as Drax B—which I certainly regard as my responsibility—I should answer such a Question, after consulting the Secretary of State for Industry. However, we had better see how we get on. I shall try—and no doubt I shall make mistakes—to meet the convenience of the House in answering more substantive Questions.

Order. I shall call one more hon. Member from each side, because we have business questions next.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most important aspects of Prime Minister's Question Time is that Back Benchers can ask questions of immediate importance that may have arisen that day or the day before? Under his new and welcome system, would it not be possible to allow Questions to be put down seven days before they are to be answered rather than 14 days, which is an impossible time lag for topicality?

I do not have a view on that, but I had not understood that it was the purpose of Question Time to deal with matters that had arisen on the previous day, unless they were of sufficient importance to warrant a Private Notice Question. The purpose of Question Time is to enable a regular series and order of Questions to be put down so that hon. Members can have the opportunity to consider them and have fair play in getting answers. The topicality notion destroys that system.

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise the difficulty in which he will place hon. Members in putting Questions on the Order Paper if he does not give us better guidelines? Are we to put down every Question on policy to the right hon. Gentleman and hope that he accepts them? If so, the Order Paper will be an awful mess.

If every Question is put down to me, the experiment will clearly break down and we shall go back to the old system. There must be some give-and-take on both sides. Unless I get a bit of help, we shall not be able to carry on with the experiment and I shall have to say, with regret, that we shall have to go back to the old system. Some hon. Members may like that, but others will not.