Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report


APPENDIX 1

  

Memorandum by the Rt Hon Ann Taylor MP, then President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons, on the Parliamentary Calendar

INTRODUCTION

1.    To assist the Committee's inquiry into the parliamentary calendar, this memorandum sets out the Government's views on a number of options the Committee may consider. It indicates which changes seem possible in the near future and what issues arise in relation to other options.

2.    The Committee will be aware that the parliamentary calendar was last reviewed in 1991-92 by the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, chaired by Michael (now Lord) Jopling MP. Most of its proposals were introduced as an experiment in January 1995, partly through temporary standing orders and partly though agreement between the parties. The main changes were:

·  Wednesday morning sittings (taking most private Members' adjournment debates out of the normal pattern of sitting times)

·  ten non-sitting Fridays during normal sitting periods (with the House rising early the Thursday before)

·  reduction in sittings after 10 pm (by taking most statutory instruments in standing committee and limiting time spent on financial resolutions taken on the same day as second readings)

·  weekly business statement announcing business for two weeks ahead (instead of one).

·    A full list of the Jopling report recommendations is attached (annex A), together with details of how they were implemented in 1995 (annex B).

4.    The number of late sittings reduced significantly in the 1990s. Until 1988-89 the average hour of rising was usually after midnight. In the 1990s the House began to rise earlier and this process was helped by the Jopling reforms. By the end of the last Parliament it was common for the House to rise by 10.30 pm. Average daily sitting hours, however, were shortened less dramatically by about only 30 minutes a day. The extra four and a half hours on Wednesday mornings has kept the average daily sitting hours to about eight and a half. The tables in annex C set out the sitting hours and time of rising of the House over recent years.

5.    It will be recalled that the Jopling changes were introduced in 1995 at a time when the Government's legislative programme did not put great pressure on the parliamentary timetable. They have therefore not been tested, until this session, with a heavy legislative programme. Such business cannot always be fitted into parliamentary days which end at 10.30 pm.

6.    In considering the parliamentary calendar, the Committee should work from the basis that the total amount of sitting time - in terms of days and hours - is likely to remain the same in the medium term. This is not just because the Government needs the time for the House to consider its legislative programme and obtain the House's approval for tax and spending decisions. Up to 60 days a year are also committed, either by standing order or by practice, to other debates. This includes 20 Opposition days, 13 private Members' bill days, five or six days on the Queen's Speech and the same on the Budget, five days on defence debates, four days on select committee reports (three estimates days and one Public Account Committee reports), and usually two on EU business and single days on foreign affairs, Welsh and Northern Ireland business. Over the last four Parliaments the average number of sitting days and the total sitting hours per session have declined only slightly.

7.    These slight reductions in sitting times on the floor of the House do not reflect any reduction in parliamentary activity. Select committee work has increased substantially: in 1987-88 there were on average 3½ committee meetings each sitting day and just under one select committee report published each day - in 1995-96 there were nearly six meetings each day and an average of 1½ reports published each day. This involves not just the back-bench members of select committees but also the ministers who give evidence to them - in the current session Cabinet Ministers have appeared before select committees 20% more frequently than in the average for the last seven sessions.

8.    The Committee's First Report on the legislative process set out a number of ways in which legislation could, by agreement, be programmed and/or taken in committee rather than on the floor of the House. To date programme motions have been agreed on eight bills and the Government is seeking agreement on such motions for other bills. To date, we have published one bill in draft - namely pension sharing on divorce. This was received very warmly by the Social Security Select Committee, who are scrutinising it. We plan to publish four other bills in draft later this session for similar pre-legislative scrutiny.

PARLIAMENTARY WEEK

9.    The Committee will be well aware of the hours of work of Members of Parliament. A survey for the Senior Salaries Review Body in 1996 showed that MPs work an average of more than 70 hours a week during sitting weeks and more than 50 hours a week during recesses. Ministers worked an average of 81 hours in sitting weeks and 58 hours in recesses. These working hours are unlikely to be any shorter in the near future.

10.    Underlying the Jopling reforms was a recognition that the House needed to allow Members to strike a better balance between their parliamentary and constituency duties. One way of doing this would be for the House to sit longer in some weeks and to adjourn more frequently for constituency weeks. Some Parliaments have a sitting cycle involving plenary, committee and constituency weeks. The Government recognises both the multiple roles of MPs and the different sites at which they work. It seems more sensible to balance the parliamentary and constituency responsibilities within each week by concentrating whipped business on Mondays to Thursdays. Fridays would remain the day for private Members' bills, with some adjournment debates and some non-sitting or constituency Fridays.

11.    To enable most Members to devote Fridays to constituency business if they choose, there is a case for ensuring that whipped business ends early on all Thursday evenings. Hitherto the Government has sought to achieve this prior to non-sitting Fridays. It might be possible to bring forward the Thursday sitting by three hours so that seven o'clock -- rather than ten o'clock -- became the moment of interruption. This would involve the House sitting for questions at 11.30 am, with the business and any other statements at 12.30 pm before main business started about 1.00 pm. The main business would be any item which could be taken on a Monday to Thursday at present. It is possible that there would be votes from 1.30 pm, but the main votes would be at 4 pm and 7 pm (instead of 7 pm and 10 pm). To avoid an overlap between the questions in the chamber and the sittings of standing committees, it might be possible to bring forward standing committees to meet between 9 am and 11.30 am. An experiment in advancing Thursday sittings in this way could be carried out.

SITTING DAY

12.    The Committee may also consider whether all sitting days should start in the morning and conclude by 5 pm or 6 pm. While this might suit those Members whose constituencies and homes are within easy distance of London, there are many Members who would not be able to get home each evening however early the House rose. In this respect the House is not like most other organisations. MPs have to work both in London and in their constituencies. It will be up to the Committee to balance these competing interests, but the Government is not persuaded that a change of sitting hours to normal office hours is in the best interests of the House, individual Members or the Government.

13.    With standing committees meeting on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and select committees and some standing committees meeting on Wednesday mornings, any proceedings on the floor of the House which involve a significant number of Members would be bound to detract from those committee meetings. Wednesday morning adjournment debates in the chamber involve relatively few Members at any one time; the same cannot be said for questions, Opposition days, second readings or remaining stages of bills. The effects of a morning sitting of the House considering substantive business should not be under-estimated, although it might be possible for committee sittings to start earlier.

14.    The Committee will also want to take into account the impact on Members not engaged in committee meetings of the House taking questions and opposed business in the mornings. It may be that some of this work could be transferred to the evenings after an earlier rise of the House. But constituency work involving contacts with other organisations during normal working hours could not be easily transferred in this way.

15.    Equally it would not be easy for all Ministers to be fully available in the House to vote each morning without a detrimental effect on their departmental work. Already Ministers spend some mornings on parliamentary business: taking part in standing committees, giving evidence to select committees and answering adjournment debates on Wednesdays. Otherwise they attend to departmental business, including internal meetings and external consultation and conferences. If whipped business was to be taken each morning on the floor of the House, this would have a substantial impact on Ministers' pattern of departmental work.

16.    The Committee may wish to consider a less dramatic shift in the parliamentary day by bringing it forward by, say, one hour with the main business ending at 9.00 pm instead of 10.00 pm. This could be achieved either by starting questions each day at 1.30 pm or taking questions between noon and 1.00 pm, suspending for lunch and resuming at 2.30 pm for any statements and then main business. This might present particular problems on Mondays, but it might be considered possible to have a different pattern of sittings on different days of the week. The ten o'clock moment of interruption is no guarantee that business ends then and the same would apply to any earlier cut-off point.

PARLIAMENTARY YEAR

17.    The parliamentary year has not developed by chance. It is influenced by a number of factors which have different effects:

·  religious and bank holidays at Christmas and Easter (variable) and in the Spring

·  the Government's need to secure parliamentary authority for expenditure and taxation for financial years which do not coincide with either the calendar year or the parliamentary year

·  traditional work and school holiday periods in the summer but which differ across the country

·  the timing of party conferences

·  the knock-on effect of general elections held at times other than the normal autumn end of the session (only three of the 11 elections held in the last 40 years have been held in the autumn - the first session of the last five Parliaments has started in the late spring or early summer).

18.    The scope for change in the parliamentary year is thus limited. A major factor is the timing of the budget and the subsequent enactment of the Finance bill. Until 1993, budgets were announced in mid-session in March and the Finance bill passed by the summer recess. The unified budgets, combining tax and spending decisions, were announced in November from 1993 to 1996. This delayed the introduction of other government legislation and brought the Finance bill to the House at the same time as other major bills. There is some sense in adjusting the session so that the budget comes mid-session. For a November budget this would mean starting the session with a Queen's Speech in about May. For a March budget, as in 1998, a session running from November to October seems more appropriate. For the remainder of this Parliament the budget will take place in the spring. It is envisaged that moving the budget back to the spring will reduce some of the pressure on the parliamentary timetable before Christmas. The possibility of changing to a May-April session remains an option in the long term. The Government has no current plans to move the start of the parliamentary session from the late autumn.

19.    The Government would like, in principle, to be able to arrange the business of the House to enable a non-sitting constituency week to coincide with school half-terms. One difficulty is that not all school-half terms occur in the same week. Another is that they fall at normally busy times of the year for standing committees and the legislative time lost would have to be recovered elsewhere. In those years when the House returns in January after a two week Christmas recess, it might be possible to identify the most obvious half-term week in February for the House not to sit. The Government could contemplate such a change in 1999, but it is too early to be sure whether this can be achieved. There would normally continue to be non-sitting weeks at Easter and in the Spring, though designated committee weeks could be considered at these times.

20.    The House often returns just before the October school half-term and then does not sit for a few days a week or two later during prorogation just before the start of the new session. With co-operation on all sides of the House, it might be possible in future years to arrange the spill-over period so one week falls before half-term, the House does not sit during half-term, and then the session's business is finished the following week. This might mean a very short prorogation before the Queen's Speech.

21.    It is common knowledge that most Members would like the House to rise for the summer recess earlier in July and nearer the start of the (different) school holidays. This is the time when the Government's legislative programme is normally towards completion in the Commons. The Lords need until late July to finish the bills sent up from the Commons which are to be given Royal Assent before the recess. Royal Assent requires both Houses to be sitting. Other bills are completed by the Lords in the spill-over period in October, with the Commons then considering any Lords Amendments. The timing of party conferences, during which the Commons does not normally sit, prevents the House resuming earlier in October. When the House does resume in mid to late October it normally requires one or two weeks' work to complete consideration of bills which have been returned from the Lords. In the medium term it seems unlikely that the House will be able to rise for the summer adjournment before late July. Any change might be dependent on changes in the party conference season.

Committee weeks

22.    The Modernisation Committee has already recommended that standing committees should be able to meet during recesses (First Report paragraph 97 (iii)). One option would be to have a committee sitting period in September when select and standing committees could meet (without the House sitting). For example, a fortnight specified well in advance might be the occasion for select committees to choose to meet. It could also be the time when committees conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of bills which have been drafted in advance could meet. It is also possible that a small amount of standing committee business could be taken at this time: perhaps the committee stage of uncontroversial bills which had started in the Lords or (under the Modernisation Committee's earlier proposals) the report stage on bills re-committed for the consideration of government amendments. If such bills were to be completed in the spill-over period before prorogation, they would probably have to be ones on which a programme motion had been agreed in advance. With the session ending in October, not many bills would normally fall into this category. Depending on the state of the legislative programme and the willingness of other parties to co-operate, the Government might be able to arrange business in this way this summer.

CONCLUSION

23.    The changes on which the Government sees the best opportunity for modernisation are therefore:

·  advancing Thursday sittings by three hours to finish main business at 7 pm

·  attempting to arrange business to allow constituency weeks to coincide with school half-terms in February and October

·  providing the option for committees to sit in weeks when the Chamber is not sitting.

29 June 1998





 
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Prepared 7 December 1998