Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report



1. The purpose of reform is to make Parliament more effective. This means allowing Members to make the best use of their time, and to balance their various commitments in the House and its Committees with the increasing workload and demands in their constituencies.

2. With this objective in mind, the House has already modified its hours in a modest way through the Jopling reforms, introduced following the Report from the Select Committee on Sittings of the House in 1992.

3. Subsequently a more radical re-design of the Parliamentary calendar has been sought. Added momentum for reform was given by the early response by Members when asked for their ideas or priorities for making Parliamentary work more effective and efficient. As the Government's new constitutional changes take effect, proposals for change will need to be evaluated.

4. The proposal in this Report for an experiment is part of a wider agenda of Parliamentary and constitutional reform. We propose to continue our work on the parallel chamber or "Main Committee" (see Part II of this Report) because it would allow more opportunities for Members to raise issues of concern, and to do so at a time when they are more likely to attract the media attention which is now a crucial factor in presenting our work to those we represent.


5. The task for the Committee is to look at the traditional functions of the House and its Members on the one hand; to look at the time reasonably available to Members on the other; and to see whether we can get a better fit.

6. In this Report we have taken as constant the traditional functions of the House, as it is no part of our duties to redefine them. They include the formation of a Government and holding it to account; the scrutiny and passage of legislation; the authorisation of taxation and public expenditure; and debating issues of concern to the nation.

7. So far as the duties of Members outside the House are concerned, every Member is aware that the demands of constituency work have grown by leaps and bounds. Members are no longer expected to visit their constituencies only occasionally in the recess, and are expected to provide - as the majority do - regular advice bureaux for constituents, as well as taking a keen interest in local issues and building up good working relationships with statutory and voluntary organisations in their constituencies.

8. Each Member approaches his or her task in the House and in the constituency in a different way, but many find it difficult to balance or juggle all the pressures on their time. Our remit is to see whether the Parliamentary calendar can be re-configured to make it easier for Members to discharge those tasks effectively.

9. The electorate does not easily understand the hours we work, especially when we legislate late at night. The nature of the job does impose heavy and conflicting demands on Members and it would be advantageous if we could change this, not least because it could help the House become more representative of society by allowing parents of young children to combine a representative role with family duty. However we emphasise that, important as these matters are, our primary purpose is to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the House and its individual members.

10. In this Report we describe briefly the existing pattern and how it has developed. We then list a number of criticisms of the current calendar that have been made to us, but we also feel it important that there should be a widespread understanding of the constraints (real or imagined) which inhibit proposals for change.

11. We recognise that by and large change within Parliament comes about in an evolutionary way. That is why in other reports we have recommended trying out new ideas on an experimental basis. We believe that the proposals we put forward in this Report should be put into practice for an experimental period.

12. In Part II of this Report we discuss the possibility of adopting a new approach and, drawing on experience elsewhere, of devising a parallel debating chamber which could involve all those Members who wished to attend and which could debate matters which do not readily find time on the floor of the House. We want to look at the scope for reorganising the business of the House to allow for more flexibility in debates and to ensure there is proper scope for both the confrontational and non-confrontational types of debates, each of which has a role in our democratic system. The idea for a parallel chamber or "Main Committee" is a possible way of reconciling the various conflicting pressures. Any progress in this direction could have consequences for the Parliamentary calendar and we would welcome wider discussion of these ideas (which have some cross-party support).

13. However, the specific recommendations in Part I of this Report are free-standing and not in any way dependent on a parallel chamber or "Main Committee".

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Prepared 7 December 1998