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Mr. Grant: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new position. Is it the Government's position that they should reconvene a meeting of the guarantor powers? My hon. Friend mentioned Sir David Hannay, who would go as an ambassador to the various guarantor powers. Has my hon. Friend considered the British Government themselves calling a meeting of the guarantor powers to discuss the matter?

Mr. Henderson: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point. I assure him that the British Government want to see the parties brought together. Our view is that it would be better for us to use our best endeavours to bring those parties together under the United Nations rather than to reconvene a meeting, as we believe that that would have more impact and would probably be easier to achieve.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new position. I did not seek to intervene earlier because many hon. Members wished to contribute to the debate. I assure the hon. Gentleman that he will have the support of the whole House and certainly that of Liberal Democrat Members in pursuit of the policies he has outlined. If the British Government can play an active role in concert, of course, with the United Nations in seeking a lasting settlement in Cyprus, the Minister will certainly have the support of Liberal Democrat Members.

Mr. Henderson: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that commitment and his reassurance. I can give him a reciprocal assurance that when new issues and initiatives arise, we shall endeavour to keep every group of interests well briefed on developments. That would include hon. Members--and, indeed, the parties that they represent--who have shown an interest in seeking a settlement in Cyprus.

We know that negotiation will not resolve itself quickly, as has been said. We are not talking about one make-or-break negotiating session. Indeed, we do not

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necessarily expect to find a solution this year. Hon. Members will recognise that the process will need to take account of the impending presidential elections in the Republic of Cyprus in February 1998. That is not however an excuse for standing still, and we hope that progress will be made on a number of key issues. The negotiating process needs a basis to ensure that progress continues in early 1998. We are ready to help the United Nations manage any break in the negotiating process.

As hon. Members know only too well, a settlement cannot be achieved easily, but the consequences of another failure would be grave. On the other hand, a settlement would mean an end to the tragedies that have been described in the debate, an end to the continuing spiral of arms purchases that has made Cyprus the tinder box it is today and an improvement in the climate of relations between Greece and Turkey.

I turn to the European Union dimension. The prospect of Cyprus's accession to the EU brings a new opportunity to make progress towards a settlement. Accession negotiations are due to open six months after the end of the intergovernmental conference under our EU presidency. We expect that that important initiative will begin on time.

We welcome the prospect of Cyprus's accession to the EU and hope that it will stimulate both sides to make progress towards a settlement through direct talks hosted by the UN. I should make it clear again that no third party can have any veto over that process. We believe that membership of the EU will benefit all Cypriots in terms of political and economic co-operation and the social benefits that EU citizens enjoy. As has been said, Cyprus itself can make a substantial contribution to EU activities.

Above all, a settlement of the Cyprus problem will mean that that troubled island will start the new millennium with confidence, vigour and hope. I am pleased that hon. Members have been so committed to helping to find a settlement that can allow that to happen. The Government make the same commitment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. We move to the next debate, on arrangements for Prime Minister's Question Time.

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Prime Minister's Question Time

12.22 pm

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): I congratulate the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service on his appointment. I believe that it is some time since Liverpool has had a Minister in Her Majesty's Government. I am only sorry that he should have to answer and support a case of such weakness, but I have no doubt that he will plough through it.

Almost the first act of the new Government, which was announced by press release when the House had not fully convened, was to allow the Prime Minister to get away from having to answer to Parliament twice a week. That act, which was carried without consultation, is entirely contrary to the unanimous recommendation of the Procedure Committee. The recommendation was most carefully made, following the taking of much evidence--including, somewhat unusually, from three previous Prime Ministers.

The recommendation in paragraph 41 of the Procedure Committee's report reads:

The report was unanimously agreed by the Committee, which included four Labour Members, one of whom is now a Minister. They were the hon. Members for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley), for Burnley (Mr. Pike), for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), and for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who is now a Minister. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) also voted in favour. The view taken by the Procedure Committee was given definite and specific backing.

Such evidence may be enough--but, stop, is there something more? I remind the House that there is. On page 43 of the report, a letter reads:

mark the word "sessions"--

    "are however a fundamental part of our parliamentary democracy, and a part that is now familiar to the public."

That evidence was given not by a Conservative Minister but by the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister repeated the phrase "Trust me" many times, but it is proving a fairly hollow entreaty as the Blair Government set about riding roughshod over the rights and duties of Parliament to hold the Executive to account.

Let us consider the issue in a logical sequence and consider the arguments put by the Leader of the House, who I am sorry is not in her place to defend her action. I believe that the decision was forced on her and was not of her own choosing. The Prime Minister rejected absolutely the concept of the right of the Leader of the Opposition to have a go at the Prime Minister twice a week--which had been his right. He had made it nearly mandatory to ask three supplementary questions each session, totalling six questions a week--at least two being carefully prepared soundbites ensuring that some damaging comment was made about the Government.

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The President of the Council said that it was necessary to implement the decision immediately or it would never be implemented. She must understand that that is nonsense, given that there is a motion on today's Order Paper to set up a Committee to look into the matter. One presumes that that Committee's recommendations will be carried. Why, therefore, was there a need to rush the matter through without proper consultation, which previous Governments and Lord Presidents of the Council had always allowed whenever alterations to procedure were considered?

The moment that he came to power, the Prime Minister ran away from the concept of having Prime Minister's questions twice a week. He claimed that Parliament was not served by them and that a session once a week would be more serious and would allow more questions to be asked. With the open-ended question still in operation, Prime Minister's questions will not become more constructive or more serious. Yes, we may get through one or two more questions in a single 30-minute session than with the Tuesday and Thursday routine, but why? Because the Prime Minister, when he was the Leader of the Opposition, used to take up between 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the 15-minute session with his questions and the answers to them. Anyone will realise that the major sufferer under the new regime will be the Leader of the Opposition. He will not be called six times by Madam Speaker in the 30-minute session. Of course we will get through one or two more Back-Bench questions, but at whose expense? It will be at the Leader of the Opposition's expense. I am certain that that will not displease the Prime Minister. He has now made six equal three. That is imaginative mathematics even for the new Labour Government.

Of real concern, as hon. Members who have been here for some time will know, is the topical aspect to Prime Minister's Question Time. Subjects for questions to the Prime Minister on Thursday afternoons often arose from the Cabinet meeting on Thursday mornings. Now, the chance to ask those questions will not arise for six days. The Sunday papers will often have already presented the Government's view and the topicality will have gone six days later.

A side issue is that the most popular time for the public to request orders for the Gallery was for the twice-weekly sessions of Prime Minister's Question Time. The orders for those sessions were like gold dust, but the public will now have only half the opportunities to see the Prime Minister at work. The public outside will see the Prime Minister under fire only once a week on television. The twice-weekly sessions used to be very popular.

We will make Prime Minister's Question Time more constructive only when we limit the open-ended question, as I have said. That was resisted by Labour Members in opposition because, they argued, Prime Minister's questions would lose their topicality. That argument becomes even stronger if what is topical on Wednesday evening or Thursday cannot be dealt with until six days later. The change will reduce the chance of removing the limitation of the open-ended questions, which is the one way in which the Procedure Committee argued we could make Prime Minister's Question Time more serious and more constructive.

The move by the Prime Minister amounts to limits on the Opposition that he absolutely refused to accept when he was in opposition. Nobody can tell me differently,

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because I argued personally with the Prime Minister's staff in his office on that point. When in opposition, he wanted no alteration to the existing pattern.

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