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12.43 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): As I have not yet had the privilege of speaking from the Dispatch Box as a member of the Government, nor with you in the Chair, Mr. Martin, I first extend my congratulations to you. It gives me great pleasure to congratulate you formally.

I shall set out the Government's position unequivocally. Put simply, it is that the procedure report did not win general acceptance, that changing the rota for oral questions is an administrative matter, as I shall go on to substantiate, that the change needed to be introduced without delay--carrying out a widespread consultation, as the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) suggested, would have been virtually impossible--that the structure of Prime Minister's questions can be reviewed by the Select Committee on the modernisation of the House of Commons, and finally, that the new system is far better than the old.

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) for giving us the opportunity to debate one of our most important procedures. In previous Parliaments, the right hon. Gentleman played a distinguished part as Chairman of the Select Committee on Procedure, as we all know. As he said, his total service in that role amounts to 14 years. His speech introducing the debate showed evidence of a wide knowledge and of long experience of all aspects of the procedure of the House.

In recent years there has been considerable dissatisfaction with the way in which Prime Minister's questions were conducted. That was felt not only outside the House, where many people watch the event live on television, but inside the House. The former Prime Minister made it clear several years ago that he thought that the time could be used more productively.

Responding to that desire for change, the Procedure Committee carried out its inquiry. Its report, and the evidence on which it was based, made a valuable contribution to the debate, and I am sure that the House is grateful to the right hon. Member for East Devon and his colleagues on the Committee for the work that they put into that report.

The Committee's main recommendation was that instead of tabling open questions that gave no idea of the subject that the questioner wished to raise, the 10 Members successful in the ballot should have to table a substantive question the day before. The Committee made a respectable case for that proposal but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out at the time, doing away with open questions altogether would cause controversy.

As the right hon. Member for East Devon will agree, there will always be controversy about suggested procedural changes in the House. The Conservative Government at the time did not accept the recommendation, which does not seem to have won the support of the House as a whole, either.

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As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) reminded us, it was the Conservative Government who prevented proper and open debate on such matters. If he reads column 631 of Hansard for 11 July 1996, he will see that the Procedure Committee's report was tagged on to a debate at that stage in the parliamentary process. It was the Conservative Government who prevented debate, not a lack of willingness on the part of the then Labour Opposition.

The previous Government were in no hurry to act on the recommendations of the Procedure Committee. The Committee's report was not debated for a year, and then only as part of an Adjournment debate on the subject of parliamentary procedure. In that debate the former Leader of the House, Tony Newton, made clear his reservations about the suggested change, pointing out that it would make it more difficult to put topical questions to the Prime Minister.

The new Government took office on 1 May with a manifesto commitment to modernise the House of Commons, and in particular to make Prime Minister's questions more effective. As a first step in that direction, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House announced on 9 May that there would be one half-hour session of Prime Minister's questions every week, to provide further scope for covering more issues in depth.

That did not require a change in Standing Orders, only a change in the rota for oral questions. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate the fact that the rota needs to be settled before the State Opening of Parliament, so that when the Table Office opens that morning, Members will know which Ministers will answer questions on which days. The sensible course was, therefore, to move to the new arrangements right from the start, rather than cause confusion by changing the rota half way through the Session. Members who say that they are not necessarily against the changes we have made but complain that they should have been consulted first--such as the hon. Member for South Suffolk--ought to recognise that, in the circumstances, that was impracticable.

Governments of all political persuasions have changed the questions rota from time to time in response to changes in ministerial responsibility and other factors. This Session's rota would in any case have been different from last Session's to reflect the Prime Minister's decision to bring together the Departments of the Environment and of Transport under the Deputy Prime Minister, and to create the new Department of International Development.

The Prime Minister's place on the rota has been changed several times before. Way back in Mr. Gladstone's time, questions to the Prime Minister were taken last; then at question No. 51; then at question No. 45; then at question No. 40 on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and then at 3.15 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The changes we are discussing mean that the Prime Minister still answers questions for 30 minutes each week--just as the Prime Minister did before.

Mr. Mike Hall: One of the criticisms from Opposition Members concerns the lack of consultation. Yet two years ago, the Prime Minister announced his intention to

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improve Prime Minister's Question Time. He consulted the electorate on this proposal, and my hon. Friend will agree that he is right to make the change.

Mr. Kilfoyle: The Prime Minister has made clear repeatedly his intention to make the House more in tune with the needs of the 21st, rather than the 19th, century. As a result, he received a ringing endorsement from the electorate on 1 May. That should be borne in mind by Opposition Members.

Sir Peter Emery: The Minister listed the historical changes made to Prime Minister's Question Time. The records show that those changes were all made following consultation with all parties. The present change was made without such consultation. Labour's manifesto--which, for greater accuracy, I looked up this morning--says:

Most people believe that that comes about by the open-ended question, and not necessarily by any alteration in timing.

Mr. Kilfoyle: If the right hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will show how increased effectiveness is offered by the new arrangements for Prime Minister's Question Time. I would argue that, far from being a diminution of the rights of Back Benchers, our changes will give Back Benchers greater opportunity to put questions to the Prime Minister and will therefore make them a far more effective mechanism within the House.

The other change, which was made with the agreement of Madam Speaker, is that the Prime Minister no longer refers back to the earlier question about his engagements. Instead, the hon. Member tabling the question goes straight to his or her supplementary question without any preliminaries, which were pointless, repetitive and difficult for members of the public to understand. This sensible reform was suggested by the Committee in its report, and I see that the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for East Devon, is nodding. The change will open up what happens in this House to a less esoteric audience than Members of Parliament.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has moved quickly to propose the creation of a new Select Committee to consider the modernisation of the House of Commons. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Devon for indicating his support for this idea when he spoke in the debate on the eve of the spring recess. I hope that the new Committee will review the changes introduced by the Government to Prime Minister's Question Time, and it may wish also to look at some of the other reforms that have been suggested, such as doing away with open questions altogether and reducing the period of notice required for specific questions. The House will then be able to look again at Prime Minister's Question Time, if it wishes, with the benefit of advice from the Select Committee and with greater experience of the new format.

It is a little early to draw any conclusions, since Prime Minister's Question Time this afternoon will be only the second to be held under the new arrangements. None the less, I believe that it is instructive to compare Prime Minister's Question Time on 21 May with what happened on the last two such occasions in the last Parliament.

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On 18 and 20 March, a total of nine Back Benchers were able to put supplementary questions to the Prime Minister. On 21 May, 18 Back Benchers were called. On 18 March, the House reached only Question 3 on the Order Paper, while on 20 March we did not get past the first question. On 21 May, the House finished at Question 10.

On 20 March--as has been pointed out--the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrats, was called once. On 21 May, he was called twice, enabling him to go into his chosen topic in greater depth. That was one of the reasons for making the change to a half-hour session. Even more importantly--although this is not something which can be proved with numbers--I think that every hon. Member who was present would agree that the tone of Prime Minister's Question Time on 21 May was infinitely more positive and constructive than in the last Parliament. I am sure that it will do much to raise the standing of this House in the country at large if we can continue in this spirit throughout the Parliament.

Unfortunately, the right hon. Member for East Devon could not resist some jibes at the expense of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. First, he said that when my right hon. Friend was the Leader of the Opposition, he took up a disproportionate time during Prime Minister's Question Time. I may be alone in my recollections, but I seem to remember that the orchestrated interruptions by the then Conservative majority prevented the proper conduct of Prime Minister's Question Time and, on occasion after occasion, prevented my right hon. Friend from presenting his case and asking questions in an orderly fashion. Thankfully, because of a new approach from the new Government, that will no longer obtain.

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Secondly, I find farcical the suggestion by the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister is afraid to come here to answer questions, given the mandate that he and the Government have been given. I reject that out of hand. We have to get away from such jibes, and members of this Government will try to do so in a responsible fashion.

I was sad to hear the right hon. Member for East Devon state that we were conducting the government of this country like a banana republic. That was a gratuitously offensive remark about a new Government who have come in at a rate of knots to effect changes that we set out clearly in our manifesto, which, I repeat, gained a ringing endorsement on 1 May.

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