Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe MP to the Clerk of the Committee

  I have some comments to make on the consultation document on modernisation of the House of Commons.

  Modernisation should not reduce the opportunity of the Opposition and indeed other MPs to scrutinise the work of the Executive. The vast proliferation of timetable motions covering even the detailed committee stages of Bills, has meant an increasing amount of law on which Parliament has never voted and indeed which it has not even debated. No change in hours or anything else should effect a further reduction.

  In this context I do not think limiting a Second Reading debate to three hours is remotely desirable. Already pressure on the Chamber has been relieved by debates in Westminster Hall. That was not a development of which I approved as I believed such business should be conducted in the Chamber but given that it has taken place it seems to me to be quite disingenuous to suggest that debates in the Chamber should be shorter in order to enable more of them to occur.

  The suggestion in paragraph 12 of the report is that it is frustrating for new members to sit through a whole days debate without ever being called to speak. Why? Are debates not for listening as well as participating? What the Report is promoting is an extension of the already undesirable situation whereby the Chamber is of less and less importance to Members and they spend less time in it. It does no harm to have to sit through lengthy debates sometimes in order to contribute. One of the greatest diminutions of the importance of the Chamber has been the advent of live televisions into offices. It is increasingly less necessary for Members to attend the Chamber to hear a debate and to simply add to that by reducing incentive to sit through debates seems to me to be perverse rather than helpful.

  Indeed it is a nonsense that a fortnight elapses between tabling questions and their being answered but simply reducing the time is not the solution. There will always be highly topical issues which may come up a few days before the oral questions are taken or indeed on the day itself. It seems to me that the Official Opposition frontbench at least, should have a "wild card" and that there should be one question available to them the content of which does not have to be specified in advance. There is nothing particularly revolutionary about this as it will simply follow the pattern established for Prime Ministers Questions. I personally would like to see this extended to supplementaries so that backbenchers could also ask topical questions.

  I find convincing the argument for a separate entry on the Order Paper for notice of written statements.

  I am broadly in favour of the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny providing that does not act as an excuse for reducing time for debate in the Chamber.

  I fail to see how sitting hours which relate more closely to working practices in the outside world would benefit the constituents and families of MPs who represent areas outside London. As MPs have a vast amount of work to do over and above the business of the Chamber I have always felt that there should be a predictable time when they are not going to be required in the Chamber and are able to take on meetings and other appointments. As most sensible people do not schedule their business meetings for late evening that period has always been the mornings. I personally have found Thursdays difficult for that very reason; it is impossible to predict whether one might be required for morning business or not. I would therefore be against any further incursion of sitting hours into mornings.

  It is disingenuous to offer three hours of time between 7 pm and 10 pm on Wednesday to compensate for the loss of Fridays. Private Members Second Reading debates on Fridays have up to five hours so effectively by shortening such debates to three hours fewer Members would have the opportunity to take part.

  I strongly disagree with the proposal to break up the long summer recess. Summer recess is used for two purposes—firstly to have a holiday and secondly to have an uninterrupted substantial period in the constituency. In my view it is crucial to keep September clear for the second purpose. For example schools are back in September. Members whose constituencies are at a distance from London and who are therefore restricted to Fridays for all visits to schools and businesses value the greater opportunity afforded by September. I would strenuously oppose the House sitting during this month which I have always found to be quite invaluable in terms of constituency visits and work and I speak as a Member with a constituency close to London who does find it possible sometimes to go down during the week for these purposes.

  It seems to me incredible that the Report gives a reason for the new proposal acceptability to the press. Since when did Parliament arrange its affairs according to the likes and dislikes of the press? As Members have to attend their own Party Conference, if September were to disappear all the work now done in a four week period would have to be crammed into two and I consider this to be unacceptable. Constituencies expect to see their Members of Parliament and there is no opportunity like September. Furthermore September is a time when Members with children will be settling them into new schools etc and seems to me to be a bad month in which to insist that Members should be in London.

  I am opposed to any form of electronic voting and I do not think that it would be remotely sustainable that Members have to actually attend in person to vote electronically. What would happen would be enormous pressure to be able to do this at a greater distance. The whole point about divisions is that they supply real amounts of time for Ministers and colleagues to mingle and for backbenchers to get access to Members of the Executive. If Members were simply to come to press buttons and go again then it would be a very different proposition. The whole point about Members voting in sequence through a series of divisions is that they are then physically in and about the Chamber for a prolonged period of time and I think that if this is lost something very valuable will be lost with it.

20 December 2001

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