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Questions To Ministers

Volume 983: debated on Wednesday 23 April 1980

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I have a short statement to make.

I reminded the House recently of my concern at the way in which Question Time is being changed by open questions. By such questions I mean questions which give no indication to the House of the real question which the hon. Gentleman seeks to ask. Examples of such questions—and we have had them today—involve asking when the Minister expects to meet the chairman of a particular nationalised industry, of a particular trade organisation, the Director of Public Prosecutions, or his colleagues in the EEC.

Questions are listed on the Order Paper so that the House itself is given notice of questions that are to be raised and so that considered answers to them can be prepared. The whole House knows that the open question is allowed for Prime Minister's questions because of the desire of Members to table questions that will not be transferred to other Ministers. I confess to the House that I feel embarrassed when I see as many as 20 or more questions on the Order Paper all asking about the Prime Minister's engagements for the day. It would be far better for us all if the hon. Members concerned tabled the actual questions which they wished to ask the Prime Minister.

Since the special problems of Prime Minister's Question Time have been considered by the House relatively recently, I do not propose any change in practice in relation to it. When it comes to other Ministers, however, I see no reason why hon. Members should not put on the Order Paper the question that they intend to ask, or at least disclose its subject matter so that the whole House may know the topic that is being raised. In all honesty I have to say to the House that very often a supplementary question to an open question turns out to be one which could not have been accepted by the Table Office and is, therefore, an abuse of our rules.

In an effort to protect the House, I propose, for an experimental period, to extend the practice that I introduced in March 1978 for questions to departmental Ministers asking them about their engagements for the day. When a question about a Minister's meetings with various persons or organisations appears on the Order Paper without its purpose being stated reasonably precisely, I shall allow it to be called and for the Minister to reply but I shall not call any supplementary questions. If the subject matter is indicated in the question, supplementary questions will be confined to that subject.

If in consequence of this action I find that other open questions are being devised, I shall consider applying the same restrictions to them. The new practice will be applied to questions tabled after today.

As I see it, if such action is not taken at this stage the character of our Question Time will be changed without the House itself having consciously decided that the old system of giving notice of questions should be pushed aside. I hope that I have the support of the House in the course that I have outlined.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you please examine a matter which arises as a result of your statement? The general problem arises because of the difficulty of pinning down Government Departments. I know that you, Mr. Speaker, want to protect the rights of Members to ensure that the Government are accountable.

Since you have, in effect, narrowed the opportunity of asking questions, will you also examine the way in which Government Departments narrow their opportunities to provide replies and the blocking mechanism which Government Departments put on answers by replying " No "? Such a reply means that it is impossible to table a similar question in the Table Office for three months, which eradicates the possibility of making the Government accountable for that period. All Governments use that system consciously. If we are to be inhibited to some degree, you, Mr. Speaker, should examine the matter which I have put to you.

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood my statement if he thought that I was talking about pinning the Government down. There was no such reference in my statement. I remind the House that I am expected to be the guardian of our rules and Standing Orders. I can see a danger that the whole character of Question Time will change unless this course is followed. I propose to follow it until the House instructs me otherwise.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that there will be a wide welcome for your proposal. There is a special characteristic and possible problem in respect of EEC questions after the Foreign Affairs questions slot. Specific subjects are bound to be transferred to the relevant Departments because of the way in which the constitutional relationship between the Government and the EEC operates. There is bound to be a wider aspect in EEC questions because of the Foreign Office spokesman's role in dealing with constitutional matters relating to the EEC.

I shall call the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in a moment. I welcome him back, on St. George's Day.

Whilst I am preparing myself to call the hon. Gentleman, I must tell the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) that the subject of open questions about the EEC was one matter which I considered carefully. Such questions were asked last week. Neither the Minister nor the House knew what topic was coming up. The topics ranged between Afghanistan, the Olympic Games and Iraq. The House is entitled to have notice of the questions which are to be asked.

I have left the dragon outside!

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I think that you have not looked at the matter as closely as you should, especially in relation to the Common Market and the chairmen of nationalised industries. One of the problems is that we cannot ask relatively narrow questions about nationalised industries because of arguments about day-to-day administration. One of the reasons for questions about meetings with the chairmen of British Rail, the National Coal Board and other nationalised industries is to overcome the possibility of such questions being stopped at the Table Office. There will be difficulties if we are not allowed to table that type of question about nationalised industries. The matter needs another look.

May 1 say, before responding to the hon. Gentleman's question, that I am glad that he is in his old forum? I mean that. I am very glad to see him. I do not say anything about hearing him, but seeing him—certainly yes.

Question No. 2 today, an open question, drew supplementary questions dealing with salaries on the railways, electrification on the railways, freight in Cornwall, " Transport 2000 ", rural transport, cash limits and the question of transport in Wales. Those questions, or some of them, could have been put on the Order Paper, and if they could not, they were out of order.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

May I, Mr. Speaker, express the gratitude of, I think, most hon. Members for your statement today, because I believe that the open question at Prime Minister's Question Time has led to abuse. Both the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and the present Prime Minister have attempted to return to the tradition of the more specific question. The more specific a question is, the more Ministers are in fact pinned down by it. I think that there would be a great danger to the tradition of our Question Time if the open question became the norm for all questions to Ministers, and I believe that the vast majority of hon. Members will be most grateful for the early action which you have taken.

While thanking you for the ruling or suggestion which you have given to the House, Mr. Speaker, may I say that some of us have some sympathy with what has been said by my hon. Friends, and one of the dangers of jumping out of the frying pan is that one may land in the fire. One of the problems is that these developments have occurred precisely because of real difficulties, and I therefore urge you, Mr. Speaker, since you have yourself said that there shall be an experimental period, that if you find that the alternative abuse of Ministers being able to transfer questions or to escape their responsibilities arises, we should have the matter looked at by the Procedure Committee. Indeed, perhaps the Committee ought to look at it in any case. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that while we conduct the experiment which you have asked for, we shall look at the other possibilities, and I urge that that should go to the Procedure Committee.

I thank you for your statement, Mr. Speaker, but may I draw your attention to the other side of the coin in relation to Departments and Ministers? I have recently put down questions to Ministers and been told in reply that, because of the disproportionate costs of finding out the information which I required, they were not able to give me the answer. When I have asked the Ministers concerned to tell me what the costs were to which they referred, they still did not give me the answer. Would you have a look at that side of the coin, Mr. Speaker?

I am much obliged to the House for the way in which it has responded. I suggest that we have this experimental period at least until the spring bank holiday, which, I think, is about five weeks away. We shall then look at it again, but I hope that it will work in the interests of the House.