Skip to main content

European Community Questions

Volume 77: debated on Wednesday 24 April 1985

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

3.30 pm

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I wish to draw your attention, in case it has escaped your notice, to the fact that this is the first occasion of the use of the new experimental system under which the 20-minute slot traditionally allocated to European Community questions has been absorbed into the overall hour for Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions

I make no complaint about the fact that on this occasion only three European Community questions were reached, instead of the normal seven, eight, or nine which would have been reached under the previous system, but I wish to inform you that this change, which was announced by the Leader of the House just before Easter, on a Friday, in a written parliamentary answer — it having been agreed between the usual channels—does not reflect the feelings of a large number of Opposition Members. I cannot speak for Conservative Members

The Leader of the House should take note of the fact that at the end of the experimental period we shall expect to be consulted not merely by our own usual channels but by him, perhaps in a debate on the subject, so that we can make our views absolutely clear. It is wrong that the new questions system should apply to an organisation such as the European Community, which, unlike South Africa, the countries of central America or the countries of eastern Europe, has the power to tax and legislate for the British people. We should have a separate slot to enable us to question Ministers on those matters.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you advise the House of the length of the experimental period for EEC questions? As we are about to enter a crucial period of major decisions being taken on the EEC, it would be regrettable if hon. Members were denied the opportunity to ask questions on Common Market matters because such questions are now subject to the usual ballot rather than to the certainty of the previous system. Can you say for how long the experiment is likely to run?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I ask you to advise me and other hon. Members who feel outraged at this decision, announced in a written answer, what rights we have as Back Benchers to seek to bring about a change in the situation? For example, are we able to put a motion before the House? What can we do to stop what has been unilaterally imposed, against the wishes of Back Benchers?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that the responsibility for this change in the system cannot be put on your shoulders, but do you agree that it would be a good idea for you to examine the matter in view of the fact, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Deakins) said, that few questions relating to the Common Market were asked today under the new system? It is fair to assume that had we been allowed the 20 minutes which used to be available for EEC questions there would have been a call for a Division on the £240 million which the Government have agreed to pay, as part of the £1.2 billion settlement, to bale out the Common Market. There were few questions on the EEC, and therefore, incredibly, on the day after we heard the news about the increase, we did not have an opportunity to raise the matter

I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will take this matter back to Mr. Speaker, so that we can return to the old system and have a real good crash-in against the Common Market in order to reflect the views of the majority of the members of the Parliamentary Labour party, and eventually get out from underneath the gigantic mess into which the Tories, the SDP and the Liberals dragged us a few years ago

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The House has surrendered its sovereignty over trade policy. The House has surrendered its sovereignty over agriculture policy. The House is increasingly surrendering its sovereignty over the taxation of our people. Are we also to surrender the right to debate and discuss this issue? How was this decision arrived at, and what can we do about it?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Has not the House been unfair to the Government about this? I am sure that the Government wish to explain their attitude, and it would be unthinkable for them—

Order. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was raising a point of order

My point of order is that the Government, and particularly the Foreign Secretary, should be allowed an opportunity to explain—

Order. That is not a point of order. I am prepared to accept points of order, but not speeches. We cannot debate this matter now

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not a fact that the change in the way that questions are asked on Foreign Office days was made after wide consultation—

—and after widespread demand? How is it that so many hon. Members are complaining about the new situation when they could perfectly well have put in questions to be answered today if "they had wanted to?

May I, Mr. Deputy Speaker, perform my usual role as a pourer of oil on troubled waters? I wish first, to mitigate any embarrassment which you personally, may feel, by saying that I understand that this was agreed between the usual channels. Secondly, we would have had twice as many questions on the European Community if all those who had put down questions had bothered to turn up for Question time today. Thirdly, I ask for an assurance from the Government that they will, as I have requested, make a statement tomorrow on the budgetary decisions of the European Council. I understand that the Minister concerned was rather too tired to make that statement today

Order. It may be helpful if I say something now. First, the House will recognise that these matters are not for me but for the usual channels and for the House to decide. I deliberately allowed points of order to be freely expressed, because the House will notice that the Leader of the House is with us. I thought it right that he should have the opportunity to hear the House's response to what I understand is the first time that this experiment has been tried. I was aware that this was an experiment, so when we came to EEC questions I allowed a little more latitude than I might otherwise have done.

However, these matters are for the usual channels. I understand that the experiment was introduced after consultation and in the light of representations that had been made. I hope that the House will now leave the matter, in the knowledge that the Leader of the House has heard a fairly wide cross-section of views. Therefore, I hope that we can proceed to other business

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While it is advantageous that the Leader of the House is present, it is you who protects the minorities' interests. We in the Liberal party, who are in favour of the Community, are also in favour of retaining the Community section for questions

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You represent our interests. To say that the usual channels represent Back Benchers is the most ludicrous thing of all. The usual channels represent only the interests of the Front Benches on either side of the House. We Back Benchers, who are the great downtrodden majority, are asking you to accept that if there are Question Times for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which, in God's name, cost us all enough, we should have a chance to ask specific questions on the Common Market, given what that costs us. We appeal to you, and not to the usual channels

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House will be aware that there was an adverse proportion of voices opposed to these new arrangements. It is essential that it should be made clear that a large number of us eagerly support the new arrangements. They mean that there is more time for real foreign affairs questions. If the complaint is that there is not an opportunity, with these new arrangements, to make representations about the taxing capacity of the Community, should not those questions be transferred and taken out of Treasury time rather than Foreign Office time?

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Several of us have been following this issue for some time. In the past few years there have been occasions when up to 80 questions have been tabled to the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, all relating to the rest of the world. Of them, about 10 or 12 have been reached. However, in a period of 20 minutes, eight or 10 questions addressed to the Foreign Secretary may all be answered, all relating to the EEC. On several occasions I have called the attention of the House to that anomaly. It puts one part of the world—the EEC—in a privileged position, to which it is not entitled

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present and is listening carefully to this short exchange, I hope he will realise that many of us think that the experiment should be regarded as a permanent change for the better

Order. We cannot debate this matter now. It is turning into a debate on an issue for which I have no responsibility. It is not for Mr. Speaker to determine what time should be allocated to which Departments when answering questions. That is a matter for the Leader of the House and the usual channels. The Leader of the House has been present throughout the exchanges, has heard what has been said, and will doubtless take it into account. We must now move on to the next business