Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I participated in the Procedure Committee's inquiry into the subject. Does he acknowledge that it would have been much better to have the debate as soon as possible after publication of the Procedure Committee's report? The debate could have been accommodated within the business of the House by the previous Government, but they never gave us the opportunity to debate it. We could have heard the arguments, including those from the then Leader of the Opposition, before the general election. We could have had a good debate using that experience and the report before us, instead of leaving the report hanging in the air without any conclusion, as unfortunately happened under the previous Government.

Sir Peter Emery: As the hon. Gentleman will know, the previous Leader of the House, Mr. Tony Newton, proceeded with procedural changes only if there was general agreement between the usual channels. It was the specific refusal of the Opposition to agree to the Government's proposal to provide Government time that meant that the debate did not take place. I should know, because I negotiated with the Leader of the House to try to arrange the debate. It was specifically because the then Leader of the Opposition did not wish to change the existing practice--he did not want to incorporate the suggestions that we were making--that the report was not considered by the House.

Proper parliamentary reform must always be conducted with the mutual agreement of the majority of hon. Members. When reform has been thrust through by one party, it has usually failed. I know that better than most, having been the Chairman of the Procedure Committee for 14 years.

The Prime Minister is refusing to allow himself to be questioned as every Prime Minister has been questioned for the past 35 years. Why? It must either be because he is willing to treat the House of Commons with disdain, or because he is afraid of being cross-questioned by his peers twice a week. He admitted in his letter to the Procedure Committee that he does not look forward to that.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): The right hon. Gentleman says that the Prime Minister is frightened to answer questions. If so, why has my right hon. Friend introduced changes that will lead to more questions, not fewer?

Sir Peter Emery: The hon. Gentleman cannot have been listening to me. What the Prime Minister has done is to turn six into three.

Mr. Hall indicated dissent.

Sir Peter Emery: The hon. Member should not shake his head. When the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, he asked six questions in the two sessions. If the Leader of the Opposition has the chance to ask only three questions once a week, Back Benchers will obviously have more time for questions.

4 Jun 1997 : Column 352

As I was saying, either the Prime Minister is afraid of being cross-questioned by his peers or he wishes to limit the House's ability to hold the Executive to account. Whichever is true, it is ignoble and it shows an arrogance and disdain for Parliament. It shows a contempt more normally associated with some of the so-called democratic leaders of banana republics.

What have we seen in the Session so far? No statement was made to the House on the alteration of the role of the Bank of England; no statement was made to the House on the defence review; and no statement was made to the House about the changes that will protect the Prime Minister from having to come to the House twice a week. The phrase "Trust me" has a hollow ring indeed, when it comes to protecting the rights of Parliament.

12.37 pm

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) for allowing me a moment or two--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin): Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the permission of the Minister to speak? In Adjournment debates such as this, it is not enough to have the permission of the initiator of the debate. He must have the permission of the Minister who is to reply. Does he have that permission?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): I was not informed, but I do not object to the hon. Member speaking in the debate.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful to the Minister and I congratulate him on his new office. I am sure that this will be the first of many occasions on which he is here to answer Adjournment debates.

I fully endorse everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon said. He gave us a careful and accurate analysis of the factual and historical background to the discussions about the format for Prime Minister's questions. As he said, one of the consequences of the change has been to reduce by half the opportunity for the Leader of the Opposition to question the Prime Minister. I regret that, because that questioning has been an important part of exchanges in the House twice a week for many years. The change is not one for the better.

Mr. Tyler: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that in any case, the arithmetic of the House has changed the status of the Leader of the Opposition, as there are now three major parties in the House? Do not the new arrangements rightly reflect that change, by recognising the fact that the leader of the third party should have more opportunities than he had in the past?

Mr. Yeo: As the hon. Gentleman has raised the point, I can tell him that the third party now has about a quarter of the number of seats that the second party has, yet is being allowed two thirds of the opportunities to ask the Prime Minister questions. Had the previous arrangements remained in force, it would have had one third of the opportunities, so even that was disproportionately weighted in favour of the third party. The arrangements are now enormously weighted in its favour. Clearly that change is welcome to the third party, but it is in no way justified by the change in the parliamentary arithmetic.

4 Jun 1997 : Column 353

My quarrel is not so much with the nature of the changes, which could have been the subject of a debate, as with the manner in which they were announced.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): The hon. Gentleman said that the change was in no way justified, but does he acknowledge that as the Leader of the Opposition now represents only half as many Members as he did before, it might be appropriate for him to have half the number of opportunities at Question Time?

Mr. Yeo: The tradition in the House has been to allow the Leader of the Opposition, whoever he is, whichever party he represents, and almost regardless of the number of seats, to ask questions. I am thinking of the House in 1983, when the Labour party had only slightly more seats than the Conservative party has now. No one in any party in the House then suggested that because the Labour party had suffered a severe setback at the general election, its opportunities to ask the Prime Minister questions should be reduced.

However, all that is to some extent beside the point. The issue here is the way in which the decision was taken and announced, without consultation with any Back Bencher. I regret that, as, I think, do many Members on both sides of the House.

When the Minister replies, he could be very brief, although I shall ensure that he gets his 15 minutes--I think that that is usually the length of speech prepared for a Minister replying to an Adjournment debate. The most useful thing that he could do would be to acknowledge that on this occasion an inexperienced Government and Prime Minister made a mistake.

The matter could be largely put right by a forthright apology. It is nothing to be ashamed of if mistakes are made when there is a new boy in the job. Questions in the House, whether to the Prime Minister or to any other Minister, are important, especially for Back Benchers.

In the present era, the Minister without Portfolio and his Government thought-police are hellbent on controlling every utterance of Labour Back Benchers. I do not know how long that control will be effective--I doubt whether it will last until 2002--but for the time being it remains, so it is Back Benchers from the various Opposition parties who are most affected by the change.

It has already been agreed between the two sides of the House that the total number of questions asked by Back Benchers has not been reduced; I do not suggest that it has, although the immediacy of those questions is certainly reduced by the change from two sessions to one. However, given that, with their huge majority, it is clear that the Government ultimately have the power to force through any change in parliamentary procedure that they wish, it is an act of extraordinary arrogance for the Government and the Leader of the House to make such a change without consulting even one Back Bencher on either side of the House.

Coupled with the way in which the Leader of the House has acted ruthlessly to prevent debate on large chunks of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, those actions do not bode well for the health of parliamentary debate or of democracy. They certainly do not sit easily with the

4 Jun 1997 : Column 354

Government's repeatedly proclaiming their commitment to openness and accountability, and their wish to be the servants, not the masters, of the people.

I believe that the Minister's reply could be brief. He could simply say, "Yes, we were wrong. Yes, we are sorry--and now we shall engage in a belated process of consultation."


Next Section

IndexHome Page