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
One of the consequences of trying increasingly
to concertina the Parliamentary day is not necessarily better
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
So it may well be a mistake to believe that
one can change the hours that Parliament sits without there being
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
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
harvestnot 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 Octobera period of nearly
three consecutive months, a quarter of the yearno 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