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Question Time (Speaker's Statement)

3.30 pm

Madam Speaker : I have a statement to make to the House. I am becoming increasingly concerned at the way in which Question Time is developing. Both questions and answers are getting longer and there is a growing tendency to regard Question Time as an opportunity for debate rather than question and answer. As a result, the number of questions to departmental Ministers that are reached on the Order Paper has declined still further from the position reached in 1989-90, when the Procedure Committee looked at the subject and made certain recommendations in a report which the House approved in October 1990.

I commend to the attention of all hon. Members part II of the report entitled "The Quality and Effectiveness of Question Time". In particular, the Committee stated :

"Accepting that there will always be some subjects of topical interest or controversy on which an extended line of questioning would be appropriate, the Speaker should nevertheless have the full support of the House in seeking to increase the number of tabled questions reached, by curbing the length of both ministerial replies and supplementaries and, in particular, by trying to ensure that supplementaries consist of a single question rather than a dialogue of queries."

I propose, from now on, to enforce that recommendation. In particular, I shall aim to call fewer supplementaries and I shall expect Members to confine them to a single issue. Equally, I shall look for brief answers from Ministers and also the answers should be restricted to the point that has been raised-- [Interruption.] Order. Is the House interested ? [Hon. Members :-- "Oh, yes, Madam Speaker."] This matter is very important.

I shall need, and I expect to receive, full co-operation from all Members on both sides of the House : from Ministers ; from shadow spokespersons ; and from Back-Bench Members in all parties. Those hon. Members who have been successful in attaining a relatively high place on the Order Paper have a right to expect their questions to be reached and to have an opportunity to put a supplementary ahead of other Members who may not have tabled a question at all. At present, not enough hon. Members are getting that chance through lack of discipline by their colleagues, including those on the Front Benches. I am determined to change that situation.

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Business of the House

3.34 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) : With permission, I should like to make astatement about the business for next week. The business will be as follows :

Monday 28 February----Motions on the European Communities (Definition of Treaties) (Europe agreement establishing an association between the European Communities and their member states and the republics of Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Slovak Republic and Romania) orders.

Motion on the Representation of the People (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) order.

Motion on the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) regulations.

Motion on the European Parliamentary Elections (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) regulations.

Motion on the Local Elections (Variation of Limits of Candidates' Election Expenses) (Northern Ireland) order.

Motions on the Scottish Revenue Support Grant reports. Details will be given in the Official Report .

Tuesday 1 March----Opposition Day (5th allotted day) : until about seven o'clock, there will be a debate described as "Misuse of Overseas Aid Funds," followed by a debate described as "The Need for Investment in Education" on motions in the name of the Liberal Democrats.

Motion on the Community Care Special Transitional Grant report. Wednesday 2 March----Opposition Day (6th allotted day) : there will be a debate entitled "The State of Manufacturing Industry" on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 3 March----There will be a debate on Welsh affairs on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Friday 4 March----Private Members' Bills.

Monday 7 March----Motion on the Building Societies (EFTA States) order.

Motion on the Appropriation (Northern Ireland) order.

It may also be for the convenience of the House to know that the House will be invited to approve motions relating to the House of Commons Members' Fund on Friday 4 March.

It will certainly be for the convenience of the House to know that, subject to the progress of business, it is proposed that the House should rise for the spring Adjournment on Friday 27 May until Monday 13 June.

Mrs. Margaret Beckett (Derby, South) : I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. In particular, I thank him, on behalf of all Members, for his early notice of the dates of the Whitsun recess, which confirms that we are to have a break around the date of the European election. Many hon. Members will have anticipated that, but it is very helpful to know it. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker : Order. I should appreciate it if hon. Members' conversations were a little less noisy.

Mrs. Beckett : I should like to ask the Leader of the House to arrange for an early statement from a Treasury Minister on the progress of a proposal made last autumn by Asea Brown Boveri to start the supply of new trains for the Northern line at the end of 1994. I stress that what is needed is specifically a statement from a Treasury Minister. London commuters need the trains, but the train

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makers need the order. The proposal has no up-front cost and comes, we believe, within Treasury guidelines. It seems that the roadblock is in the Treasury.

I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we are seeking Government time for a debate on Bosnia.

I ask him to arrange for ministerial statements, first, on what seem to be a series of U-turns on the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill in another place and, secondly, on the fact that the Education Bill was given its Second Reading there 14 weeks ago but has not been heard of since. If the Government intend to abandon these Bills, it would be very helpful for the House to be told.

Finally, I have to say that there is concern among Welsh Members on all sides of the House at the fact that the Welsh affairs debate this year will not be on St. David's day.

Mr. Newton : l shall take the right hon. Lady's questions in reverse order, as I sometimes do.

On the question of the debate on Welsh affairs, I must, however gently, make the point that there would have been more scope for discussion of this matter had the usual channels been operating. Also, such debates have not always taken place on 1 March. Indeed, in roughly three years out of seven that is, in effect, impossible. It is probably for the general convenience of the House that the debate this year should take place next Thursday.

With regard to the Education Bill and the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill, which are being dealt with in another place, I replied to an hon. Member on the corresponding occasion last week that it is entirely appropriate that comments related to the progress of those Bills should be made in the House in which they are currently being considered. The right hon. Lady may find that she will hear more of the Education Bill before too long.

I repeat the comment that I made last week : that of course we always keep under review the possible need for a statement or a debate on Bosnia. I think, however, that everyone would wish to express pleasure at the way in which matters went in Bosnia in the early part of this week.

The hon. Lady said that she wanted a Treasury statement on a report. I understand that she is expected to see the Financial Secretary about the matter, and I should like to leave it to that meeting.

I am grateful for the right hon. Lady's generous recognition of the advantages of an early statement about the Whitsun recess, which I have sought to make in line with the spirit of the Jopling report.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West) : Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 649 in the name of the hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright), which deplores the lack of progress made in the adoption of the recommendations in the Jopling report ?

[ That this House notes that it is now two years since the Select Committee on Sittings of the House published its report (Jopling Report) ; deplores the fact that there has still been no action ; believes that the procedures and sittings of this House are in urgent need of reform ; and calls on the Leader of the House to provide an early opportunity for this House to vote on the reforms proposed by the Select Committee. ]

Even more significantly, does my right hon. Friend recall early-day motion 9, which was tabled in the previous Session of this Parliament, signed by more than 100

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Opposition Members, including the Opposition deputy Chief Whip, which urged that there should be an early debate on the subject ? Would my right hon. Friend therefore consult the Leader of the Opposition and urge him to overcome his pathological objection to any reform so that we can have a genuine debate on the subject in the House ?

Madam Speaker : Order. That is an example of what I have just asked not to have.

Mr. Newton : I have seen early-day motion 649, and I recall early- day motion 9 in the previous Session. I am much encouraged by the number of Labour Members who are making it clear that they want progress on the matter. I hope that they will be prepared to impose that view on their Front-Bench team.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery) : Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, notwithstanding the fact that next week's Welsh day debate is on St. Winwaloe's rather than St. David's day, the Government remain committed to holding a Welsh day debate in Government time as near to St. David's day as such time permits ?

Mr. Newton : I think that my good faith in the matter has been shown by my announcement about the debate.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West) : Will my right hon. Friend find time as soon as possible to debate early-day motion 520, which was signed by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-East (Mr. Turner) and no fewer than 56 Opposition Members ? [ That this House condemns the massive and unacceptable pay increases and perks awarded to the Chief Executive and directors of Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries Ltd., bearing in mind the Government's strictures on excessive pay awards, exorbitant beer price increases for Banks' products in recent years, and the company's failure to enhance their employees' pay and conditions by any recognisable comparison with that awarded to its directors, together with the company's offensive decision to make a political donation of £10,000 to Conservative Party funds ; believes that the present Chief Executive and directors are unfit for office ; and calls for their immediate resignation. ]

That shows that the Labour party's industrial policy is still based upon unlawful interference in the wages and the prices charged by private companies such as the Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries. Will he please allow the Labour party the opportunity to show that its policies are based on arbitrary interference in private property ?

Mr. Newton : I confirm that everything I have seen of the Labour party's so-called "Business Plan for Britain" makes it a recipe for damaging interference in the success of business in Britain.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : Should we not debate next week Madam Speaker's extremely important statement? Is the Leader of the House aware that I had to be away from the House for 12 weeks before Christmas and that, during that time, I watched "Westminster Live" ? I was frankly appalled at the way in which the House of Commons came over on that programme. For Prime Minister's questions, should not we consider having closed questions rather than the ridiculous open question system, which has caused so much of the trouble ?

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Mr. Newton : I shall confine myself to saying that we are all pleased to see the hon. Gentleman back and in such brief form.

Sir Peter Fry (Wellingborough) : Does my right hon. Friend recall that on several occasions I have asked for a debate on the future of British civil aviation ? Given the recent report of the seven wise men to the Commission in Brussels, and the fact that there is great concern about the state of negotiations between Britain and the United States, which are of vital importance to British airlines, is it not time that we found time for a debate on that subject, since apparently we can spend many hours discussing sexual perversions ?

Mr. Newton : I will of course bear my hon. Friend's representations in mind, but I cannot promise that in the near future.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East) : May I endorse the call by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) for a debate on public companies and their greed and avarice in recent times ? Many chairmen and directors of companies are claiming for themselves far more than they are prepared to pay the workers in their industries, and far more than they are prepared to consider the needs of the people who buy their products. I make no apology for my early-day motion, or for any word in it. I support it, and I am asking for a debate on it.

Mr. Newton : It appears that the hon. Gentleman is simply confirming the interpretation of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South- West.

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford) : May we have an urgent debate early next week on socialist plans for Europe, as signed up to by the Leader of the Opposition, given that those plans would double the EC budget and massively increase taxation and borrowing in the United Kingdom ?

Mr. Newton : The very first debate I announced today is on a number of orders connected with Europe. I cannot be quite sure whether those points would be in order, but my hon. Friend might have a try.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Why is there no Government statement or debate on the latest estimated job losses at British Gas of 25,000 ? When a major company announces the biggest single redundancy package in history, do the Government accept no responsibility, given their activities in the gas market ? Does the Leader of the House understand why many British Gas workers believe that, if it were possible to go to gaol for economic crimes, Ministers and senior management would be behind bars?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Gentleman puts his point in

characteristically overheated terms. He is talking about a successful British company, which has been successful because it has been prepared to ensure that it operates efficiently.

Mr. James Paice (Cambridgeshire, South-East) : During the long list of orders that my right hon. Friend read out for Monday concerning Europe and eastern Europe, will he ensure that there is a statement about the know -how fund for Russia ? Most taxpayers will be anxious to ensure that no taxpayers' money is to be used to send the mayor of Lambeth to Moscow to advise Russia on democracy.

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Mr. Newton : It is highly unlikely that any money from the know-how fund is going in that direction.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : May we have a debate on procedure, so that we can discuss your important and significant ruling, Madam Speaker--which, if I might humbly say so, I think would penalise regular attending Back Benchers and favour those who simply turn up to put questions into the Table Office and attend the Chamber only when they know that they will be called ?

Mr. Newton : That is perhaps the point of order that the hon. Gentleman wished to raise with you earlier, Madam Speaker. It might be more appropriate if it were raised in that form. I certainly do not intend to raise questions about your statement, which I thought was clear and sensible, and welcomed by most of the House.

Mr. Peter Luff (Worcester) : May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Mr. Dunn) in calling for a debate on rather wider European matters than those scheduled for Monday to enable us to draw a real distinction between the preparedness of the Opposition to sign up to every jot and tittle of a European socialist manifesto while my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is determined to defend Britain's interests ?

Mr. Newton : There is a much wider debate, albeit not under a European heading, on Wednesday--the Opposition Supply day on the state of manufacturing industry. It is clear that, if the Opposition were in a position to sign up to the socialist policies that they espouse in Europe, the state of manufacturing industry would be grim indeed.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West) : In view of the tragic fatal accidents involving schoolchildren, may we have a statement on how the Government plan to improve safety standards in buses and minibuses, especially when carrying schoolchildren ? Does the Leader of the House agree that the compulsory installation of seat belts would be a far more effective measure than the ill-thought-out suggestion being considered by the EC working party of a complete ban on double-decker buses, when there is no conclusive evidence that the safety record of double-deckers is any worse than that of conventional single deckers ?

Mr. Newton : I note the hon. Gentleman's point about double-decker buses, with which I suspect many of my hon. Friends, and, indeed, Opposition Members, will have much sympathy. On his first point, I do not want to add to what I recall my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister saying in response to a question that he was asked by a Back-Bench Opposition Member last week.

Mr. Roy Thomason (Bromsgrove) : Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on Hong Kong so that the House may demonstrate its support for the actions of the Governor ?

Mr. Newton : I cannot promise an early debate on that matter, but my hon. Friend might like to make that point to the Foreign Secretary, when he is answering questions next Wednesday. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be grateful.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich) : Will the Leader of the House find time next week to debate, as a matter of urgency, what is happening to the Lome

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convention in relation to the banana producers of the Caribbean, who are not only going bankrupt but are being destroyed by the lack of action of the EC ?

Mr. Newton : I will bring that question to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and others with an interest in the matter, but I cannot promise an early debate.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset) : With roughly 12,000 mobile telephones being stolen every month, may we have an urgent debate on what the Government can do to stop them being recycled as rechipped telephones ?

Mr. Newton : I cannot promise an early debate-- [Laughter.] . One of my hon. Friends suggests that my reply should be, "I will ring you back."

Ms Tessa Jowell (Dulwich) : Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate on the disturbing recommendations of the inquiry into the murder of Jonathan Zito, particularly the need to make good the shortfall in medium-secure places in south-east London, and acute psychiatric beds in inner London ?

Mr. Newton : The hon. Lady will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said on the same issue at Question Time. She will also know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health announced a number of proposals in August last year to improve the care of the more vulnerable mentally ill people in the community. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will look carefully at any further lessons that can be drawn from that important report.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) : Without wishing to be repetitive, will my right hon. Friend give urgent consideration to a serious statement on the implementation of the Jopling report on the business of the House ? Like me, he must be aware of the views of the public, business men and people in considerable positions in this country about recent events in the House and the way that things are being dragged out totally unnecessarily, which is giving a most appalling image of the House to the rest of the country and to the world.

Mr. Newton : Of course, as I have said before, I will give serious consideration to that, but I would make the point to my hon. Friend that, in many ways, we have made significant progress towards some of the aims of the Jopling report by the way in which we have nevertheless managed to conduct business.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : Will the Leader of the House find time next week to tell us what representations the Government are making to the BBC regarding its decision to withdraw "Today in Parliament" from Radio 4 FM ? It is already--if one is a Back Bencher in this place-- like trying to smuggle messages out of prison. We cannot afford it to get any more difficult.

Mr. Newton : I note the point ; it was raised from the Opposition Front Bench last week. I will follow it up in the way I outlined then.

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley) : Will my right hon. Friend find time next week to have a general debate on 15 years of Tory rule, to bring to people's attention what a marvellous thing it is that standards in Britain have improved so much over the past 15 years that--to take a

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random example recently highlighted by the press--an elderly ex-miner nearing pensioner age can behave with such vigour and sprightliness that now, in Tory Britain, he can maintain a foreign mistress in yuppieland ?

Mr. Newton : I do not think that I can promise a debate next week.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax) : May I return to more serious matters ? Will the Leader of the House reconsider his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), and agree to a debate on the lack of resources for the mentally ill--not just in London, but in the rest of the country ? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that today's report said that a hundred Christopher Clunises could be at large in the country because of that lack of resources ? Is he aware that in Calderdale, where we have only 77 acute beds for the mentally ill, it is proposed to close nearly half those beds ?

Mr. Newton : I cannot add to what I said to the hon. Member for Dulwich (Ms Jowell), except that the hon. Member for Halifax really ought to look at some of the figures before making such comments. She should note, for instance, the increase in the number of community psychiatric nurses, and many other measures of the increase in resources.

Mr. Rod Richards (Clwyd, North-West) : Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on corruption in local government so that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) can have an opportunity to condemn Jim Brookes, the Labour leader of Monklands district council ?

Mr. Newton : Although such an opportunity was kindly arranged by the Opposition, I think that the debate that will follow these questions provides another. Unhappily, I see no sign of the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith).

Ms Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate) : The London Boroughs Association called today for urgent action to reduce the dangerously high and rising levels of air pollution in the capital, caused by vehicular traffic. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate next week-- perhaps a combined debate, involving both the Department of Transport and the Treasury--on why public transport in the capital is significantly underfunded, not least the Northern line ?

Mr. Newton : The right hon. Member for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett) raised effectively the same point, in a slightly different form. Perhaps I could leave my earlier answer as it stands.

Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : As it is unlikely that the Labour party will mention it in next week's debate on manufacturing industry, will my right hon. Friend find time for us to discuss Labour's proposal to end tax- cutting competition among European Community member states ? It would seriously damage competition in this country--which has low levels of corporation tax--and, indeed, increase unemployment.

Mr. Newton : That would clearly be spot on for next Wednesday's debate on manufacturing industry.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Will the Leader of the House answer a question about injunctions issued to the

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press ? Will he investigate the number of injunctions that have been issued to the press, and the media generally, by and on behalf of Tory Members--including Ministers--during the past 15 years, and in the last few years in particular ? Now that the Government have decided to raise the issue, I think that we ought to open the books completely.

Mr. Newton : I genuinely have some difficulty in fathoming precisely what point the hon. Gentleman thinks he is trying to make.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye) : When my right hon. Friend arranges a debate on Europe, will he ensure that it is drawn widely enough to encompass early-day motion 618 ?

[ That this House notes the hypocrisy of the Liberal Democratic Party over its policy on Europe ; recalls the statement of Liberal Democrats' spokesman on Europe, the honourable Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber, that the Nation state in terms of the old concept of sovereignty has seen its day' (Official Report, 26th June 1991, column 1365) ; contrasts these remarks with his party's new policy of decentralised federalism' ; believes that this new policy is contradicted by a long list of centralising proposals supported by the Liberal Democrats which include signing up to the Social Chapter, signing up now for a timetable for a single currency, a common defence and security policy, a common immigration policy, a common rural policy and, most significantly, accepting majority voting in the Council of Ministers, meaning the end of the national veto ; believes that they have sought to disguise centralising policies, designed to create a United States of Europe, in decentralising rhetoric ; and believes this to be a blatant attempt to mislead the electorate in the hope of gaining political advantage in the forthcoming European elections. ]

That would enable us to highlight the Janus-like tendencies of the Liberal Democrats, who advocate "decentralising federalism" while signing up for the centralising social chapter.

Mr. Newton : That is a debate that I really would have liked to arrange--and, frankly, I think that the Liberal Democrats should have scheduled it for their Supply day next week. It would have been interesting to hear what they said.

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