Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report

The arguments for a parallel Chamber

3. We set out in paragraphs 84 to 89 of our First Report the time constraints which have hindered the House in effectively carrying out its fundamental duties of legislating, debating the major issues and holding the Executive to account. It was pressure on the legislative programme which led both the House of Representatives in Canberra and the House of Lords to establish some sort of alternative forum, but for the House of Commons there is perhaps even more pressure for general debating time, whether on major policy issues or on specific aspects of the Government's performance. There is almost universal agreement that there are many matters which the House should discuss, which a large number of Members would wish to discuss, but for which there is simply not enough time. There is a limit on the hours in which the House itself can sensibly sit, and a limit on the number of Members who can take part in debates within these hours. Some form of parallel Chamber would enable more effective use to be made of the limited hours available to the House itself and to individual Members. As the Clerk of the House pointed out in his memorandum[1], the House throughout its history has devised means, such as the creation of standing committees, for easing the pressure on itself. Our proposals should be seen as another step in what is a constantly evolving process.

4. In paragraph 115 of our First Report we drew attention to the anxiety expressed that any parallel Chamber might devalue the Chamber itself as the focus of the House's activities. This concern has continued to be voiced. The Chairman of Ways and Means for example in his memorandum said "We must also take care to ensure that the House itself is not the loser".[2]

5. We understand these anxieties, but believe they can be addressed. The role and responsibilities of any parallel Chamber should be established against a recognition that the Chamber of the House of Commons will remain the principal forum for debate. Indeed, the establishment of a parallel Chamber that provides a more appropriate forum to debate the matters we outline in guidelines in the following paragraphs, and an alternative focus of attention, not least for the specialist and regional press, can free the Chamber to debate matters which are better debated there, but which are currently denied time. Further, the establishment of a parallel Chamber in which the Government can be held to account could enable the House to discharge its traditional role with greater effectiveness. If an experiment proceeds, its impact on the Chamber is perhaps the most important consequence we will wish to monitor.

6. Unless and until some parallel Chamber is actually in operation, no one can say with absolute certainty what the exact consequences for the House itself will be, but we see no reason why they should not be positively beneficial. For those who are still doubtful we can only draw attention to the practical experience of those who have tried a similar scheme. Although of course Grand Committees in the Lords (in which there are no divisions) have a very limited role similar to that of standing committees in the Commons, and are different in kind from what we envisage, nonetheless it is worth noting that the Chairman of Committees told us that when the system of Grand Committees was first introduced there was "scepticism or caution"[3], but the Grand Committee was now accepted not as a competitor but as complementary to the Chamber.[4] Opinion was equally divided in Canberra when the Main Committee was first proposed and there was a vote on the sessional order introducing it; when the scheme became permanent, it was approved without dissent. In the view of the Clerk of the House of Representatives, the status of the Chamber had been enhanced, rather than diminished, by the existence of the Main Committee, and the Main Committee was seen to be of benefit to all interests, Government, Opposition and backbenchers.

7. There is another anxiety which has been voiced to us. The Chamber itself is frequently ill-attended, and one of the reasons given is that there are many competing demands on Members' time, not least from other official bodies of the House, such as select or standing committees. Some of these committees themselves have on occasions found it difficult to get a quorum. The creation of yet another body, it is argued, would exacerbate an already difficult situation.

8. Again we believe that these anxieties can be addressed, both in the short and long term. One of the reasons for sparse attendance in the Chamber is that Members know full well that they have little chance of being called to speak and cannot spare the time simply to listen. Should there be less pressure on the time available for major debates, more Members will have a chance to speak, and the attendance will consequently be improved. Equally, under the guidelines we propose, we do not envisage most debates in any parallel Chamber attracting a vast number of Members at any one time, nor do the times we suggest for its initial meetings clash by and large with the sittings of the House.

9. The history and layout of the Chamber of the House lead many to believe that it is an essentially combative place where arguments are advanced and countered and ultimately may be determined by vote. The vivacity of the House in contention is the stuff of news and it is this image that often sticks in the public imagination. It has been suggested by observers that this impression is to the disadvantage of a modern Parliament. Although much of the work of the Chamber is conducted by consent and without confrontation the institution of a parallel Chamber could perhaps better exemplify this aspect of the work of the House as a whole. It would be achieved by only referring business to it which would not be subject to a vote, which would be by its nature either debates on the adjournment or other business by consent. Some have argued that this could be reinforced by adopting a different layout for the Committee such as a hemicycle.

10. In the longer term, if the experiment we propose succeeds, there may be opportunities, as the Clerk of the House suggested[5], for simplifying and reducing the current rather complicated structure of legislative committees. Although, as we stress throughout this Report, any parallel Chamber will not be a forum designed for consideration of large amounts of Government legislation, eventually, should the experiment succeed and become permanent, it might be possible to reduce the number of existing second reading committees or ad hoc committees on delegated legislation which currently occupy the time of a great many Members, or even to abolish them altogether.

11. All those who gave evidence to us supported the idea of an experiment with a parallel Chamber. The Chairman of Ways and Means considered that there was "a prima facie case for a carefully prepared experiment, balanced as between Government, select committee and private Members' business which might not otherwise have the opportunity for debate within the sitting hours which the majority of Members now regard as reasonable".[6] The Clerk of the House stated that "a Main Committee such as is proposed is technically practicable".[7] The Chairman of Committees felt that "it would be helpful to you yourselves if you were to adopt" such a procedure.[8]

12. We agree with the Chairman of Ways and Means that any proposed scheme should be on an experimental basis; this is entirely in line with our approach to previous changes which we have advocated. We are, however, convinced that it would be right to proceed with such an experiment at the earliest moment, which in practical terms is the beginning of next Session. We therefore recommend that the House should agree to a sessional order for Session 1999-2000 only which provides for the establishment of a parallel Chamber.

13. The remainder of this Report is concerned with the practical details which the House will need to consider before agreeing to the establishment of a parallel Chamber and with the consequences for the House itself.

1   Ev. p. 18. Back

2   Ev. p. 4. Back

3   Q104. Back

4   Q91. Back

5   Ev. p. 19. Back

6   Ev. p.4. Back

7   Ev. p.23. Back

8   Q128. Back

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Prepared 13 April 1999