Points of Order

– in the House of Commons at 4:48 pm on 11th June 1992.

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Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow 4:48 pm, 11th June 1992

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. When Members are disappointed at not being called, I suppose they can be unreasonable, and I appreciate that the Speaker's lot is not an easy one when it comes to timing. However, I wish to raise a serious point of order which relates to the fundamental issue of Back Benchers' rights. We all value the system of business questions, because it may provide the only opportunity for hon. Members to raise important issues.

May I draw two facts to your attention? Last Thursday, at eight minutes past 4, you curtailed business questions at a time when a number of hon. Members wanted to ask questions. Despite having to endure a long speech from me on Mauritius, the House went on to the Adjournment at 8.45. It is unsatisfactory for a number of hon. Members to be denied prime time to put urgent points even though the House moves to the Adjournment at 8.45. The same thing happened on 14 May, when questions were curtailed at 3.59 and the House adjourned at 8.45. I am told by my indomitable friend the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), who is the deputy Chief Whip, that that has happened on several occasions and that he has made representations.

I understand, Madam Speaker, that of course you would say that, because the Government have asked for permission to make a statement, the ending of business questions is not up to the Speaker. That may be the case, but you have the authority to extend business questions as you please and the Government could wait. Secondly, I think that your advice from the learned Clerks would be that Mr. Speaker Selwyn Lloyd took the view that he would tell Ministers whether they could make statements. We have elected you to one of the most senior positions in this country; surely you can tell an Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, not the highest factotum in the land, when he can or cannot make a statement.

There may be urgent matters leading to a request from the Prime Minister, the Head of Government. That is a different matter, but when a junior Minister asks to be allowed to make a statement, surely the Speaker of the House of Commons can say yea or nay. It should be a rule, as it used to be a convention, that there should be no statements on Thursdays. I do not doubt that the questions of my hon. Friends were important, but Monday is the transport day. Why could the statement not have been made between Monday and Wednesday rather than curtail business questions? This is all about Back Benchers' rights.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

On a related point—

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Let me first answer the hon. Gentleman. I assure him and the House that the Speaker does not have the authority to determine when statements are made. Although the hon. Gentleman was not delighted at a statement on a transport matter, hon. Members who represented the areas in question were pleased to be here to respond to the statement. In the last two Sessions, on over 30 occasions, statements were made on a Thursday, which, of course, is the day on which we have business questions. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the Speaker's lot is not always a happy one. I have to judge and, on balance, decide when business questions should end. I take into account the number of people who are standing and the number of hon. Members who asked questions on previous business statements. I carry out a great deal of research on timing and Members' areas of interest before I draw business questions to a close. Finally, in ending business questions, I am not unduly influenced by the Government determining that they want to make a statement on Thursday. It has to be my judgment, and I make it in fairness and justice to the House and to all hon. Members.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Bradford South

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is on a completely different subject and relates to the Register of Members' Interests. Page 386 of "Erskine May" contains a relevant comment. Although the House has been in session for several weeks, there is no Select Committee on Members' Interests. The register is being compiled by the Clerk, but until the Committee is selected and meets, it cannot authorise the publication of a register for this Parliament. Until that register is published, it should be clear that, if a Member has an interest to declare before voting in the House or in the Committee, he must declare it. Page 386 of "Erskine May" states that the register can be sufficient indication of an interest and that a declaration does not have to be made. Plainly, in the absence of a register, a declaration will have to be made on every occasion on which it is necessary.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

Much of what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, but the rule about declaration is rather separate from the subject of registration. This occasion gives me an opportunity to urge all hon. Members, especially those who are new, that when speaking in Committee or in the Chamber it is always wise at the beginning of what they have to say to declare any financial interest relating to the subject under discussion.

Photo of Sir Peter Emery Sir Peter Emery , Honiton

Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), with whom I normally agree. There has been a major move on business questions away from what was the "legitimate" question purely on the business as announced for the following week to Members raising almost any constituency matter with a request that it should be considered the following week. That difference has arisen over the years. Understandably, Leaders of the House used to dismiss such questions with the plain phrase, "Not next week," thereby discouraging the matter. Perhaps you would consider discontinuing or curtailing the change.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman may recall that I recently made a firm statement asking Back Benchers to put only one question to the Leader of the House, so that I could call as many hon. Members as possible. I said that, if their questions were precise and to the point, and if the Leader of the House answered briskly, I would be able to call all those hon. Members who were standing.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

On this point, Madam Speaker, I know that in no way will you interpret my remarks or those of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) as a criticism of the Chair. When many Members are rising, you have to decide who to call. The business statement on Thursday provides a vital opportunity for Back Benchers to raise many matters, however inappropriate the hon. Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) might consider them. If we did not consider them appropriate, we would not raise constituency, national or international issues within the framework of the business for the following week.

There was one statement today. Will you be on your guard against two or three statements on a Thursday leading to a cut-off time for the business statement of 4 o'clock? That was the cut-off time today, but that is not a criticism, Madam Speaker. As far as possible, will you decide that 4 o'clock should not be the cut-off time, so that sufficient time will be allowed to call those who want to ask questions?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman will have to leave that to me, but I assure him that 4 o'clock is not the bewitching hour.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson, Shadow Spokesperson

Mr. Speaker Weatherill was accustomed to call every hon. Member who was standing to attract his attention during business questions. That did not happen every time, but it did on most occasions. That is what made business questions such a valuable item of business—I am not complaining, as I was called in business questions last week—because it meant that it was almost guaranteed that we would be called if we wished to ask a question. Is it your intention, Madam Speaker, to go back to Speaker Weatherill's normal custom and practice or do you intend to do what I believe that you have done in every business question time so far, which is to curtail questions while hon. Members were still rising to catch your eye? It would help if we knew that.

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

It is untrue that Speaker Weatherill at all times called all hon. Members who were standing. I am a long-standing Member of the House and I have watched proceedings carefully. As I said earlier, all hon. Members must leave it to my judgment. I am here to protect the interests and rights of Back Benchers, and I intend to do that. Let me make one point clear. Brisker questions from all hon. Members would help me enormously.

Photo of Mr Dale Campbell-Savours Mr Dale Campbell-Savours , Workington

On a point of order, Madam Speaker—you will know that my questions are invariably very brief.

May I draw your attention to a report produced by the Select Committee on Members' Interests and to its implications? It has already been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), and is the one that deals with the chairmanship of the Select Committees.

You will have noted today exchanges at the Dispatch Box. The Leader of the House is under pressure to table a motion to form the Committees, but when the Select Committee produced that report, it did so on the understanding that the House would have the chance to debate the report before Select Committees were created in the new Parliament because we wanted to avoid the difficulties that arose in the last Parliament, which led to the Chairman of one Select Committee being criticised.

As you protect the rights of hon. Members, Madam Speaker, will you put it to the Government that, if Parliament sets up a Select Committee and it makes such critical recommendations, they should be taken into account by way of a substantive resolution before, as in this case, the Select Committee is formed?

Photo of Miss Betty Boothroyd Miss Betty Boothroyd Speaker of the House of Commons

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that this is a matter not for the Chair but for the Government. I see that members of the Treasury Bench are here and have no doubt noted what he said. We must now move on to debate the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

A number of hon. Members wish to speak in the next debate and unless speeches are limited on a voluntary basis, not all hon. Members will able to speak.