Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report


97. We are impressed by the popularity among Members of debates in Westminster Hall. They have enabled backbenchers to initiate debate on topics of their choice and to explore that topic in a more rational atmosphere than is often possible in the more partisan environment of the Chamber. Applications for such debates have been running at roughly double the level of applications for adjournment debates in the Chamber. We recommend that in the rearrangement of sitting hours, the total hours for which Westminster Hall sits should not be reduced.

98. We applaud the success of Westminster Hall. However the extra demand on Government Departments has not been evenly spread. A very high proportion of topics requested for debate fall to only two Departments—Transport and Health. The consequence is that Ministers at short notice have been obliged to disappoint MPs to whom they had promised a constituency engagement. It is important that we preserve the opportunity for backbenchers to secure a ministerial reply to their concerns, but we believe this can be secured in a way that enables Ministers to plan sensibly to fulfil commitments outside the House to other MPs. We recommend that there should be a rota for Westminster Hall in which each Department is available to answer any topic within its brief on every alternate week. This would not reduce the number of debates in Westminster Hall, but would organise them in a way which would enable Ministers to undertake engagements with greater confidence in one week, in exchange for more intensive attendance in Westminster Hall on the following week.

99. Westminster Hall has proved itself as a valuable asset in broadening the opportunities for parliamentary proceedings. The decision to put Westminster Hall on a permanent basis[21] provides an opportunity to consider how the potential of this asset may be more fully realised. In proposing Westminster Hall as a venue for debate, the Modernisation Committee in the last Parliament suggested that it could be a forum for "novel kinds of business which at present finds no place whatever in the time of the House".[22] In principle we believe that the greater informality of Westminster Hall would make it an attractive forum for a question session on a cross-cutting issue involving a number of Ministers from different Departments. We recommend that for an experimental period there should be an occasional question session in Westminster Hall on cross-cutting issues to junior Ministers from different Departments. We have received representations from the Home Office, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills for a question session in Westminster Hall on Youth. We believe that this would be a good example with which to commence such an experiment in the wider use of Westminster Hall. We note that this proposal is consistent with the parallel recommendation of the Procedure Committee that Westminster Hall should be used for question sessions with Ministers of State.[23]

21   See paragraph 101 below. Back

22   Second Report, Session 1998-99, Sittings of the House in Westminster Hall, HC 194 (1998-99), paragraph 30. Back

23   HC 622, paragraph 45(2). Back

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