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The primary purpose of Question Time is to hold the Executive to account. "Erskine May" says that a question must either seek information or press for action, and that it must relate to matters for which Ministers are officially responsible. Questions are out of order if they relate to Opposition party policies rather than Government responsibilities. Moreover, a question should not be, in effect, a short speech. [Interruption.] Order. There is more.
Answers should be confined to points contained in the question--[Interruption.] Order. I must deal with criticisms from both sides of the House. As I was saying, answers should be confined to points contained in questions, giving only such explanation as renders an answer intelligible. A certain latitude is permitted to Ministers, but it does not extend to Ministers discussing Opposition policies at length, or to their putting a series of questions to Opposition spokesmen. It is those long-established rules that maintain the difference between Question Time and ordinary debates in the House.
Of course I recognise that, over many years, Question Time has developed as a lively occasion on which political points are scored. That applies particularly to Prime Minister's Question Time. As I said last week, although the same constraints apply, I think it right to allow the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition a greater degree of latitude.
I emphasise that I do not wish to interrupt the flow of questions and answers, but I believe that the House would work better, and would enhance its reputation, if Members followed the basic principles that apply to Question Time. In particular, it is crucial for questions and answers to be short and to the point; that will allow more Members to make a contribution.
Members on both sides of the House have got into bad habits at Question Time, and we must all co-operate to put matters right. I look to Ministers, and to other Members, to respect the rules and practice of the House. I also expect Members to allow me to preside over the House without sedentary comments or noises designed to influence the conduct of the Chair.
Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Some hon. Members have been very concerned that the Opposition's policies have been mentioned at Question Time. We are therefore grateful to you for saying today that they should not be dealt with at Question Time. It is, after all, merely cruelty to examine those policies, which are so transparently poor that, on that basis, the country will never elect the Opposition to government.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a very basic point of order which affects the welfare of many hon. Members. May I advise you that every lavatory in Portcullis House is out of order? As that problem is in addition to problems with the escalators and with the lifts, could you please investigate the matter? I believe that, after forking out £250 million of taxpayers' money for that place, we deserve better value for money.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. We shall study your ruling with great care. I was not quite clear which were your own words as Speaker, which we must follow, and which were words quoted directly from "Erskine May". I think that my constituents sent me to this place not only to test and question the Executive, but, in part, to test and question the ability of the alternative Executive, who are sitting on the other side of the Chamber. [Hon. Members: "No."] That is a serious part of my job as a Member of Parliament. I should be grateful if, in due course, you could give some reflection to that duty that I have as an hon. Member, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.]
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I enthusiastically welcome your statement, as far as it goes? However, if your wishes are not carried out, could you reflect on whether it is sensible to have open questions to a Prime Minister? Considering the amount of prime ministerial time that is taken up in preparing for questions that may be asked on any subject, is there not an argument for having specific questions to the Prime Minister?
To cater for the needs of the Leader of the Opposition, is there not an argument for reflecting also on whether, if the Leader of the Opposition wants to pursue a subject at length, which he is entitled to do, greater use should be made of the private notice question? A long time ago, when I was first elected to the House, Hugh Gaitskell would use the private notice question if he wished to pursue a particular point with Harold Macmillan, which made possible a sequence of questioning that really did hold the Executive to account. One could ask whether it is possible for those ridiculous open questions to be effective in holding any Executive to account.
Mr. Speaker: Order. May I first answer the point raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)? It is open to the hon. Gentleman to make approaches to the Procedure Committee and the Modernisation Committee. Perhaps I could suggest that he does that.
Mr. Winnick: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you bear it in mind that if we were restricted to the sort of questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) has suggested, it would make Question Time far less topical? If an issue arose that an hon. Member on either side wished to raise--particularly at Prime Minister's Question Time--it would be virtually impossible to raise it, as you would rule it out of order. Open questions came about to give Members of this House, both Opposition and Government, much more flexibility. I hope that there will not be a decision to change that; it would be a retrograde step and against the interests of Back Benchers.
Mr. Speaker: Once again, I would say that these are matters for the Modernisation Committee and the Procedure Committee. The hon. Gentleman has a view contrary to that of his hon. Friend. He could make that view known.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 18 April 2000, the previous Speaker announced to the House that she had had long discussions with the head of the civil service and the Cabinet Secretary about letters from Ministers taking a long time to get to Members. I wrote to the Department of Health on 29 September for some information that it would have been fairly easy to provide quickly. The Department acknowledged, in the first paragraph of the reply, the name of my constituent, and went on to say:
British Medical Association
Mr. Speaker: Order. If I answer the first point, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will not have to raise a point of order. I cannot comment on the particular case that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) raises, but I would expect Ministers to act promptly on correspondence from all Back Benchers on both sides of the House. I am a Member of Parliament myself and I expect prompt and full replies. I hope that that is taken on board.