Inside Parliament: Shouting and bashing upset Heath

Ex-premier attacks the decline of Prime Minister's Questions qFresh allegations of council corruption stir up hornet's nest
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Indy Politics
S ir Edward Heath last night deplored the descent of Prime Minister's Question Time into a "hideous shouting match" and criticised the tactic of Government whips using backbench MPs to "bash the Opposition".

Giving evidence to the all-party Select Committee on Procedure, the former Conservative prime minister said every day in the Commons was now like a general election day.

"We have got into a such a controversial situation that it is thought that the only purpose of Question Time is to try and break the other side."

The committee is exploring possible reforms to the format of the twice- weekly, 15-minute, PM's questions, conscious, in the words of chairman Sir Peter Emery, that it is seen by television viewers as "theatrical political knockabout".

On Tuesday, Lord Callaghan, the former Labour prime minister, gave evidence, charming the committee as he poured gentlemanly scorn on deteriorating standards. Baroness Thatcher only deigned to send a letter, stating her own inclination was to leave the present system well alone.

Sir Edward, Father of the House in which he has sat for 45 years, agreed the sessions had become more theatrical but, unlike crustier members of the committee, remained in favour of them being televised.

"I don't think MPs, once they are on their feet and screaming at each other can possibly have in mind the effect it is having on television," he said when asked if members played to the camera. He had "absolutely no doubt" that standards were lower than in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and was sure the public thought so too. "They regard it really as a hideous shouting match in which each side is trying to abuse the other."

But Sir Edward brought a flush to the face of one committee member, Andrew Mackay, a Government whip, when he criticised the widespread use of planted questions. "You are handed something by some whip or other and then you try to memorise it," he said.

Planted questions on the Tory side are either an opportunity to indulge in self-congratulation over, say, favourable economic statistics, or to ridicule Labour or the Liberal Democrats.

"I think planted questions today are an absolute curse," Sir Edward said. Government backbenchers should be using the occasion to get information or hold the executive to account. "At the moment, a great number of them spend all their time bashing the Opposition. I don't think that is a healthy situation.

"Government backbenchers, whichever party is in power, have got the task of checking their own government. And this is where they can do it, at Question Time." Lord Callaghan admitted to the committee that he was "extremely apprehensive" about facing the House. Recalling this, Tony Banks, Labour MP for Newham NW, said it was also "a sort of underpants-filling time" for the backbencher getting up to ask the question.

"How was it for you, as they say?" he asked Sir Edward.

"You always feel a slight tension," came the reply. "Before a speech one has that. Unless you have tension you don't make a success of it. But it doesn't make you shudder as you pass the Speaker's chair and start to go backwards."

Sir Edward's proposed reform of PM's questions was similar to Lord Callaghan's. Instead of the present system of "open questions" which enable MPs to raise any subject under the sun in the supplementary follow-up, they would prefer subject- specific questions put down well in advance so the Prime Minister could give a considered answer. Sir Edward recommended at least 78 hours' notice.

"Prime Minister's Question Time ought to be a serious examination, a question and answer discussion of the major problems with which the Prime Minister is concerned, and it's nothing like that."

Both Sir Edward and Lord Callaghan thought that to cope with sudden developments, the Prime Minister should be more ready to answer private notice questions, like emergency statements. After an hour of gentle interrogation, asked if he had anything further to contribute, Sir Edward put the committee in its place.

"To me," he said, "all of this is absolutely logical and very effective. The only problem you have is to get the House of Commons to accept it, and obviously that won't happen."

It was certainly, as Sir Edward would have it, like an election day as the Commons rowed over allegations that ratepayers' money has been misused in Birmingham to gain political advantage.

This was the debate which Jeremy Hanley, the ill-starred Tory party chairman, suggested would stand up his charge of corruption in Labour councils. But though there was plenty of acrimony as Conservative Dame Jill Knight railed against a "blatant attempt to buy votes" for Labour councillors, no fresh evidence emerged, just recycled allegations.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, spoke of the incompetence of the "politically, historically neanderthal Birmingham council", but did not back up Mr Hanley's implication of widespread corruption on Labour authorities.

"I am going to treat these allegations in precisely the way I have treated allegations against Lambeth, against Westminster," he said. "Until the district auditor's case has been proved, then any Englishman is innocent until he is proven guilty." Unlike some, Mr Gummer has the nous of those who live in glass houses.