Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Fourth Report


CONDUCT IN THE CHAMBER

INTRODUCTION

1. Our aim is to promote changes in procedure and practice which will help the House and its Members to work more effectively and more efficiently.

2. One of the early requests we received from Members was to look at the way business is conducted on the floor of the House. This Report is our initial response. It does not purport to give fully comprehensive coverage of every aspect of the House's proceedings, but is an attempt to deal with a diverse series of topics on which there is some reason for concern, and where immediate action can be taken if necessary.

3. The Chamber of the House of Commons remains the ultimate source of authority for everything done by the House and its committees. However it forms only one part of the workplace of Members of Parliament. Members may spend only a relatively small part of their working week there, with many more hours spent in standing, select and other committees and in representing their constituents in other ways.

4. We are aware of the widespread concern about the behaviour of Members and the public image of the House. We do not, and should not, recommend changes just to protect the image of the House, but events in the Chamber do have an impact on the public perception of the workings of our democratic institutions.

5. There is no doubt that different people think the House should work in different ways, with individual Members emphasising the aspects they believe most important. As with all other areas of potential change, views about the role of Parliament range widely, from the romantic to the utilitarian. As a working legislature the House of Commons has to balance its different responsibilities and the competing rights of all Members.

6. In our First Report, on the legislative process, we set out what we consider to be the essential requirement of any proposed changes, and these clearly demonstrate the need to balance different interests-on the one hand, the Government of the day must be assured of getting its legislation through in reasonable time (provided that it obtains the approval of the House), and on the other hand the Opposition in particular and Members in general must have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance.[1] When discussing changes to the conduct of debate we have kept in mind the need to balance the different interests of, for example, the Government, the Opposition and other parties, frontbenchers and backbenchers, and one individual backbencher and another.

THE ROLE OF THE SPEAKER

7. Any Report on proceedings in the Chamber must recognise the crucial role of the Speaker. As Erskine May says, "The chief characteristics attaching to the office of Speaker in the House of Commons are authority and impartiality". It is the combination of these two characteristics which over the centuries has given the holder of the office of Speaker a unique distinction. It is because he or she disavows party politics from the moment of taking the Chair that the House entrusts a level of authority to the Speaker far greater than that possessed by presiding officers of most other Parliaments. Equally it is because so much depends on the rulings given by the Chair, rather than on Standing Orders, that the House expects its Speaker to act without fear or favour as the servant of the whole House, beholden to no one. Whatever changes we may suggest and the House may adopt, in the final analysis it will be for the Speaker to interpret these changes and to guide the House wisely. Ultimately it will be the authority of the Chair, and the confidence which every Member should have in any Speaker, rather than the changes of procedure and practice which we are proposing, which will determine the regard in which the House is held and the effectiveness of its proceedings.

ATTENDANCE IN THE CHAMBER

8. One of the guiding principles of debate is that it should be more than a series of set speeches prepared beforehand without reference to each other[2]. A debate which is lacking in the spontaneous exchange of views among Members who have listened to one another's contributions and seek to respond to them is a sorry affair. It is for more than common courtesy that the Speaker has urged Members to remain in their places after they have spoken and to return to the House for the concluding speeches of a debate.

9. Members who wish to take part in a debate should be in the Chamber to hear the opening speeches; otherwise they should not expect to be called. If they are called, they should make some reference to the previous speech or speeches before developing their own ideas; and having sat down they should remain in the Chamber at least for the next two speeches (one from either side), so that they can hear other Members' reactions to their own contribution. If they do have to leave later, they should then return to the Chamber in good time to hear the wind up speeches.

10. It may sometimes be impossible for a Member to fulfil these requirements owing to exigencies of Parliamentary life, which are well understood and appreciated, provided that they are explained; both to the Chair and to other Members concerned. There can be no excuse for any Member simply to walk out (or not appear for the wind ups) without good reason and explanation. This applies particularly to a Member who has been fortunate enough to be called early in the debate. It takes only a few words in a speech to apologise for being unable to attend part of the remainder of a debate. Despite other calls on time, any Member who speaks or wishes to speak should be expected as a norm to attend as much as possible of the debate. We believe that a Minister or Opposition spokesman replying to a debate should feel under no obligation to refer to the speech of Members who have not returned to their place for the wind up unless they have written to both frontbench spokesmen to explain the reason for their unavoidable absence.

SHORT SPEECHES

11. Almost every debate in the House has a overall time limit. In debates of major interest and concern far more Members will seek to take part than can be accommodated within the time available. The shorter the speeches that are made, the more Members will be able to take part. Many Members stay away from the Chamber, not because they are uninterested, but because they feel that they have little, if any, chance of being called. If it is known in advance that short speeches will have to be made, Members may be correspondingly encouraged to attend.

12. Standing Order No 47 gives the Speaker discretion to limit speakers to a maximum of ten minutes, either for an entire debate or between certain times during the debate. The limit does not apply to the two front benches or to the spokesman of the second largest opposition party. We would stress that it is not mandatory to speak for the full ten minutes.

13. The ten minute rule on speeches is operated in practice by the Clerk at the Table by means of a digital clock. When the rule is in operation, as soon as a Member is called to speak, the Clerk presses a button which causes the clock to count down (in seconds) the ten minutes. When half a minute remains a flashing light comes on which also appears on the digital clocks on either side of the Chamber, and which should enable the Member speaking to be aware of the time. After ten minutes precisely the clock and the flashing light stop and the Clerk turns to the occupant of the Chair to remind him, if he has not already noted, that time is up. If the Member speaking sits down before ten minutes have elapsed, the Clerk stops the clock and resets it for the next Member.

14. There is no extra time for interventions; that is to say for Members voluntarily giving way. The only time that extra time has been allowed (and this is very much at the discretion of the Chair) is if there is some external disturbance over which the Member speaking has no control, for example disorder in the galleries or the raising of a point of order by another Member, perhaps on an extraneous matter.

15. In deciding what changes to recommend, we have sought to build on the advantages of the present rule and to minimise disadvantages. The obvious benefit of the rule is quite simply that more Members are enabled to speak in debate. In such a large House where Members often feel frustrated in their wish to express their particular views, this is a major consideration. There is one equally important disadvantage at present. Because there is no extra time for interventions, Members are understandably extremely reluctant to give way. There is a very real danger that, particularly if the ten minute limit were to be applied more frequently, the whole character of debates would change. Instead of the informality and spontaneity which characterise the best debates in the House and which make them stimulating and productive, there would tend to be a series of set speeches.

16. We are convinced that the time has come to allow extra time for interventions, and we so recommend. Such a change could be effected without any procedural or practical difficulty. So far as procedure is concerned, all that would be needed would be a proviso at the end of the Standing Order that no account shall be taken of time taken by interventions. In practical terms there is already a button at the Table which can be used to stop and restart the digital clock's countdown, and it would simply be necessary for the Clerk to operate this whenever the Member speaking gives way.

17. This would give the Member speaking extra time equivalent to that taken up by other Members in the course of his speech, but it is important to note that the Member speaking would not have any extra time for responses to interventions-these would have to come out of the allotted time. It would be unreasonable to expect the occupant of the Chair to be able to decide on every occasion at what point a Member completed a response to an intervention and picked up the threads of the original argument.

18. The only possible difficulty might be if a Member, for whatever reason, decided to waste time, in collusion with other colleagues, by deliberately encouraging lengthy and frequent interventions. In such rare cases the Chair would simply use its inherent authority and announce that any further interventions would not be taken into account in calculating the Member's time.

19. The changes that have taken place over the last few years in the rules governing short speeches have increased the discretion given to the Speaker both as to the time within which the limit can be imposed and the type of debate to which it can apply. We recommend that this discretion should be further extended to permit variations in the length of time allocated for speeches made under the Standing Order. There is nothing sacrosanct about ten minutes. There may well be occasions when, on a rather technical or emotive subject, a slightly longer period of, say, fifteen minutes might be more appropriate. On the other side of the coin, some debates are very severely time-limited. An Opposition half-day debate, in which there are likely to be four front bench speeches, is limited to three hours, even if it starts on time. A debate on a piece of delegated legislation is normally limited to one and a half hours. Such legislation can be of great interest, such as the recent beef on the bone regulations. In such exceptional debates there may be a case for a speech limit of less than ten minutes. The formal limit would be for the Speaker to determine, although in our view it should never be less than eight minutes. Again there would be no difficulty in making the necessary Standing Order change, and no insuperable practical difficulty in operating the Table clock.

20. Before the Speaker can decide whether a time limit should be applied to a particular debate, and if so what the limit should be, she will need to make an assessment of the demand from Members to speak in that debate. It is in the interests of the whole House that the Speaker should have the best possible information when she makes that assessment. For that reason all Members should normally follow what has become the general practice and write to her in advance to let her know of their wish to take part in a particular debate, and their qualifications for doing so. We also recognise that there will be occasions when Members listening to a debate wish to make a contribution, and this should not be excluded. Having done so, it is essential that they should be present in the Chamber to hear the opening speeches and rise in their place when the first speaker sits down-and persevere in rising as the debate proceeds. Just as it is right for the Speaker to have the best information possible to enable her to make a proper assessment of the need for a speech limit, so the House as a whole needs to be told as soon as possible that a speech limit is to be imposed, and what the limit is to be. Members proposing to speak have the right to know and to plan their speech accordingly. We therefore recommend that details of any proposed speech limit should be put out on the PDVN at the same time as notice of Private Notice Questions and Ministerial statements.

21. It has been suggested to us that, in order to enable as many Members as possible to be called in a debate, a speech limit, whether fixed or variable, should become the norm rather than the exception, in other words that a specific motion would be needed to exempt any debate from the rule. We do not believe that such a change is necessary or desirable, and we believe it preferable to leave the decision to the discretion of the Speaker. There may be a case, particularly with the added flexibility of a variable limit, for an increase in the number of occasions when some limit is imposed. Even if no formal limit is imposed by the Speaker, Members might consider the advantages of imposing a time limit on themselves.

22. There is widespread concern about the length of speeches from the front benches, and many Members would welcome some limits on them. Many opening speeches in debates are thought to be too long. Particularly in debates which are limited to one and a half or three hours, too great a proportion of the available speaking time is taken up by the opening and closing speeches. We do not at this stage propose any lifting of the exemption from the rule given to Government and official Opposition spokesmen and the nominated representative of the second largest opposition party, since we believe that on reflection the House would not wish to diminish ministerial accountability to Parliament by preventing Ministers from giving a full explanation of their policies and their legislative proposals. However, we strongly urge those Ministers and other Members who are exempt to exercise a considerable degree of self-restraint on those occasions where a limit, particularly a stringent limit, is applied to backbench Members. We shall monitor any changes that the House approves with care, and will return to this again if necessary in the light of experience of the changes.

23. In summary therefore our proposals are as follows:

24. To achieve these proposals we recommend that the current Standing Order should now read-

    "The Speaker may announce not later than the commencement of proceedings on any motion or order of the day relating to public business that she intends to call Members to speak in the debate thereon, or between certain hours during that debate, for no longer than any period she may specify (which shall not be less than eight minutes), and whenever the Speaker has made such an announcement she may direct any Member (other than a Minister of the Crown, a Member speaking on behalf of the Leader of the Opposition, or not more than one Member nominated by the leader of the second largest opposition party) who has spoken for that period to resume his seat forthwith:

    Provided that, in calculating the period, no account shall be taken of time taken by appropriate interventions".


1  
HC 190, para. 14. Back

2  May p.372 Back


 
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