As we come to the end of these Questions may I raise a point of order which, Mr. Speaker, I think is of some importance to the whole House and to back benchers in particular?
The Foreign Secretary, even not counting Recesses, answers Questions which are at the top of the Order Paper only once every six weeks. I think that the whole House agrees that it is a very valuable opportunity for questioning the Foreign Secretary personally on day-to-day issues of foreign affairs.
The first possible occasion on which one could have put down Questions for today was Friday, 13th March. The publication of the Order Paper on Monday, 16th March, showed that 47 Questions had been put down—in fact, filling the Order Paper—and that 43 of them were put down by back benchers opposite. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] The whole House will appreciate that although they were of some importance most of them were of secondary importance—
The only Question on Vietnam was deferred from a previous occasion.
It seems quite clear that there was not a sudden, spontaneous upsurge of interest in the ratification of various conventions, but that this was a policy designed to avoid embarrassment to the Government.
—that over a month ago, at 8 o'clock in the morning, we could have put down a whole number of Questions, but it seems to me an absolutely idiotic performance—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—and I should like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether—and this is my point of order—the good sense of the House of Commons as a whole demands that we do not repeat a performance of this kind, or, alternatively, whether you will refer the matter to the Select Committee on Procedure to see whether it can find a way of avoiding what, frankly, I think was an abuse of the proceedings of the House.
Further to that point of order. The hon. Gentleman ruined a perfectly good point by some allegations which I am quite sure he will regret. In particular, none of the Questions he referred to was in fact either instigated or sought at all. On the other hand, there is here a serious problem I am myself concerned about and which I myself raised long before the hon. Member thought of making that rather—if I may say so—unfortunate speech.
I would very much welcome more frequent opportunities to answer Questions here. The difficulty is that some other Department has to be put aside in order for me to do so. There are other candidates—the Ministry of Defence, for example—who ought to come first more often, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence is in the same position as I am; he, too, would like to answer Questions. This is eminently a matter for discussion through the usual channels, and we are more than willing to discuss it.
What the right hon. Gentleman says would be agreeable to the House if it could be achieved, so that he would be able to answer Questions more often, but is not the point raised by my hon. Friend this: that it is a very undignified proceeding that there should be a sort of race at 8 o'clock in the morning, at the first possible opportunity, of hon. Members to put down blocks of Questions in order to exclude others? Can you not help us, Mr. Speaker?
Order. Perhaps I may be allowed to deal with the point of order.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) for giving me notice that he intended to raise this question of order at the end of Question Time. May I assure the House that I am deeply interested in Question Time, and devote not only question hour but quite a lot of time in the mornings to endeavouring to secure that everybody in the House has a fair chance at Question Time.
On the specific issue the hon. Member has raised, it is in no way a matter for the Chair. I am in charge of the House only on matters of order. The present position is that each hon. Member is entitled to ask two Oral Questions a day, and provided that the Questions are submitted by the Member or with his authority the origin or the genesis of the Questions has nothing to do with the Chair. Even assuming that the hon. Member's suspicions were justified—which, of course, I do not know—I would still have no power to intervene.
Nothing has been done today or at Question Time during the time I have been in charge—as far as I am aware—that has been out of order. The questions which the hon. Member has raised are questions of argument between the two sides of the House, and I have no power to intervene.