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


Letter from Tony Baldry MP to the Chairman of the Committee

  I should like to make some comments on your proposals for reforming the House of Commons.

  A balance has to be struck between the government of the day which has been elected with a majority in the House of Commons and an electoral mandate to get its business through Parliament, whilst at the same time there being an adequate proper opportunity for scrutiny of Ministerial actions and adequate opportunities for the Opposition to be heard and for individual backbenchers to raise concerns.

  It seems to me, firstly, there is a myth that needs to be dispelled, which is that the working hours of the House of Commons have been dictated by the needs of Members of Parliament with outside interests.

  This is "tosh".

  It may well be that in some dim and distant past, before Members of Parliament generally had offices at Westminster, that there was a tendency for more Members of Parliament to be employed outside the House, and to work at their offices during the morning, and to come to Westminster at lunchtime. But that was all a very long time ago.

  I was elected to the House of Commons in 1983 and when the House is in session, with the possible exception of Monday morning, when I suspect a number of Members of Parliament are travelling from their constituencies back to Westminster, the whole of the Parliamentary week has been put to good use with meetings of standing committees and increasing activity of Commons Select Committees.

  One of the consequences of trying increasingly to concertina the Parliamentary day is not necessarily better scrutiny.

  Amongst other consequences are the fact that:

    —  Debates in Westminster Hall, meetings of Standing Committees and meetings of Select Committees are all taking place simultaneously. So if a Member is appointed to serve on a Standing Committee, it means that for the duration of that Committee's work, they are unable to participate as a Member of a Select Committee. So, for example, the Health Select Committee at the present moment has no fewer than five of its members working on Standing Committees and if one is on a Standing Committee or a Select Committee it is difficult to take part in debates in Westminster Hall, which leads to increasingly fractured activity.

    —  One of the great advantages of the House of Commons over other legislative assemblies is that Members of Parliament have traditionally had a wide range of opportunities to contribute to debates on the floor of the House: limiting the amount of Parliamentary time available simply limits those opportunities. Well evidenced in recent programme motions, for example, if one looks at the consideration of Lords amendments of the Anti Terrorism Bill, a disproportionately large amount of the time available was taken up by speeches of Government Ministers and Opposition Front Bench Spokesmen, and the opportunities for contributions by backbenchers were extremely limited indeed.

    —  Concertina-ing the Parliamentary week and the Parliamentary day also will have a considerable impact on Ministers. Ministers in the House of Commons are in the difficult position of having a full time job as Government Ministers, running Departments, work up policy and frequently make Ministerial visits to different parts of the country, at the same time being Members of the House of Commons, and expected to be present and voting in the House of Commons. It may well be that for a government, such as at present, with a very large majority over the Opposition, it is easy for Ministers to be "slipped" from votes and from attendance at the House, but the government of the day is not always going to enjoy such a large majority and having been a Minister in the John Major government which had no real effective majority for much of its latter period, I can testify that it can be extremely difficult trying to juggle the legitimate requirements of being a Departmental Minister with the Whips' need for one to be around to support the government in the Division Lobbies.

  So it may well be a mistake to believe that one can change the hours that Parliament sits without there being other consequences.

  May I comment on some specific proposals:

Private Member's Bills:

  With an increasing trend for Fridays to become "constituency days" it is increasingly difficult to persuade Members of Parliament to remain in London for Private Member's Bills debates on Fridays.

  However, even if a Private Member's Bill secures a Second Reading and gets into Committee, they are increasingly being killed off by "filibuster" at the stage of Report and Third Reading, so that only the most anodyne of Bills have any chance of making progress.

Carry Over Bills:

  Over the years, the checks and balances on the Executive have been increasingly eroded. For a government with a substantial majority in the House of Commons, there are in reality practically no checks and balances to the Government getting through pretty much whatever legislation it wishes. One of the very few checks is the need for legislation to complete all of its States through a single Parliamentary session. This a good discipline; it obliges the appropriate Cabinet Sub-Committee to make choices and work out priorities. It means that Parliamentary draughtsmen and Ministers only bring Bills forward once they have been properly worked up as policy and hopefully properly drafted as Draft Bills, and it very often means that the government of the day is obliged to make some serious and sensible compromises, particularly with the House of Lords if it wishes to ensure that Bills succeed in a Parliamentary year. If it would simply be possible to carry over any Bill, all of those disciplines would disappear and effectively this proposal will simply give the Executive the ability to pass even more legislation yet more rapidly. All the more disconcerting at a time when the Government has obtained substantial concessions from Parliament enabling the Government to impose tight time-tabling requirements on the consideration of all Bills.

  You suggest that Select Committees be given a specific role to review the operation of legislation after its passage as well as to consider Draft Bills before they are debated. It is, of course, already possible for Select Committees if they so choose, to review any specific piece of legislation and likewise it is perfectly possible for the House to establish a Special Select Committee to consider any Draft Bill, as has happened on a few occasions over the years, such as the Special Select Committee set up to consider the provisions of the Matrimonial Causes Bill on which both the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer served as then back-bench Opposition MPs.

  But there is a danger which is that the impression is being given of greater opportunities for scrutiny but the reality is that the only thing that will cause Government Ministers to reconsider legislation is the risk of being voted down in Committee. If all that Select Committees are going to be able to do is to make recommendations, where there is going to be absolutely no obligation on the Government to do anything other than at best simply acknowledge those recommendations, this is going to be a pretty "toothless" exercise so far as Select Committees are concerned.

  Moreover, most Select Committees can only operate by taking up one half day a week of Members' time for formal hearings, in addition to which most conscientious Select Committee members probably spend a large part of another half day reading background papers and attending various meetings relating to their Select Committee work. Members of Select Committees have other Parliamentary responsibilities and the amount of time that Members of Parliament can spend on Select Committee business is finite. Thus, if Select Committees are spending time specifically considering the impact of past legislation, they will not be spending that time scrutinising other areas of government activity.

  What would be welcome is if the Government made more opportunities for Select Committee Reports to be debated on the floor of the House (Westminster Hall, whilst welcome, is a poor substitute) which would oblige Ministers to respond in detail to Select Committee Reports more frequently on the floor of the House.

  The conventions concerning Ministers appearing before Select Committees need also to be much more robust.

  There is much made of the ability of Select Committees to "send for people and papers", to summon witnesses from outside the House, but very often those whom Select Committees wish to question most closely are Government Ministers. The conventions are fairly thin; for example, the Prime Minister never appears before any Select Committee. The Transport Select Committee recently wished to question the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the debacle concerning Railtrack; the Chancellor refused, apparently, on the grounds that the Treasury was "not the lead Department" for this particular area of responsibility. If Select Committees are truly going to be strengthened, then there need to be much clearer conventions as to the circumstances in which Ministers can reasonably be expected to be invited and obliged to attend Select Committee hearings.

  Many of your proposals are put forward on the basis that they will make the hours of the House more "family friendly". Being a Member of Parliament never has been a 9 to 5 task; never will be a 9 to 5 job, and nothing can make it so. For example, Members of Parliament will frequently want to talk to Regional, Local and indeed National media early in the morning, or late at night. MPs hold constituency surgeries at weekends for the convenience of their constituents and conscientiously attend a whole range of activities over weekend periods, and I think one has to be careful that the phrase "family friendly" is not simply a smokescreen for the introduction of changes which will yet further enhance the power of the Executive over Parliament, being presented as measures intended to make the working life of a Member of Parliament easier.

  However, it is certainly difficult to defend the long Summer Recess which probably owes much to history when many Members of Parliament were still farmers and wished to return to their farms in August and early September to help get in the harvest—not an occupation now engaged in by many Members of Parliament. It leads to the ludicrous situation where between the end of July and the middle of October—a period of nearly three consecutive months, a quarter of the year—no Parliamentary Questions can be tabled or answered, no Ministerial statements made or requested, and no national or other issues debated unless there is the emergency recall of Parliament (which of itself can over-dramatise issues). Perhaps better to break the Parliamentary year into quarters, with time when the House is not sitting spread more evenly across the calendar year.

  Finally, there will always be a tendency for the government of the day, and for Ministers, to want to get their business through the House with the least possible difficulty. In this trend the Government have been assisted by the fact that there have been two Parliaments where the government of the day has enjoyed significant majorities. That situation, however, will not last for ever in the history of Parliament, and any Party in government should carefully reflect that one day they may well be on the Opposition benches and that if they remove too many "checks and balances" or do not ensure the creation of sufficient new "checks and balances" of the legislature over the Executive, they may in due course find themselves in the frustrating situation of finding that they have given very considerable powers to a new government.

14 December 2001

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