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


Memorandum from the Scottish National Party


  The SNP's aim is to achieve Independence for Scotland. Once achieved there would be no locus for the party, or indeed a Scottish Parliament, to take a view on the internal domestic constitutional arrangements of what then would be another independent state.

  However, as long as the union exists and Westminster houses hold power over Scotland's legislature the SNP may take the opportunity as in this case to comment and respond to reform for the House of Commons.

  With these two points in mind, the Scottish National Party welcomes the opportunity to comment on the memorandum prepared by the Leader of the House.

  The SNP believes that reform of the House of Commons is long overdue. We believe that the structure and working practices of the House of Commons are antiquated, and much work needs to be done.

  The turnout in the General Election held in June 2001 was 59.4 per cent, the lowest since 1918. We do not accept arguments put forward by the Government at that time that this was due to the "politics of contentment"[3], but that the electorate feel increasingly alienated by the political process[4]. At a time when public confidence in Parliament as a whole, and the House of Commons in particular, is at a low ebb, it is vital that reform is embraced so that public confidence can be restored.

  In particular, we agree with the Memorandum that

    "a number of these proposals will affect the working of the second chamber".

  With this point in mind, we believe that the reform of both houses of parliament should be considered together. This would allow for a greater degree of joined-up thinking when examining what the most effective parliamentary system would be.

  The Scottish National Party's position is that an independent Scotland will build on the success of the system of the Scottish Parliament, where a strong committee structure renders a second chamber unnecessary. Such a structure would also improve the parliamentary system at Westminster.

  Within the current system the Government cannot be held sufficiently to account and the role of MPs in influencing the passage of legislation is far too restrictive.

  The SNP believe that the committee system in the House of Commons should be strengthened and modelled on the Scottish Parliament's, whereby members can call the Executive to account and scrutinise government proposals. This can take place both at the pre-legislative stage and as Bills proceed through parliament, while members also have the right to initiate legislation autonomously or though parliamentary committees. Such committees must, however, also reflect the position in the Scottish Parliament where there is balanced representation among all political parties.

  In this respect, the Scottish Parliament's structure sets a good example of an effective unicameral system. The cross-party Consultative Steering Group agreed the Scottish Parliament's committee structure over a period of 18 months prior to the first election in May 1999. Their proposals led to the establishment of two types of powerful committees: Mandatory and Subject.

  Subject Committees may consider and report on the policy and administration of the Scottish Executive, and conduct inquiries into matters that Parliament may require. They may scrutinise primary and secondary legislation and proposed European Union legislation. One major difference between committees in the Scottish Parliament and the House of Commons is the ability of committees to initiate their own legislation. We would consider that this cross-party co-operation is preferable to the more adversarial Westminster tradition, and would produce a programme of more considered and accessible Legislation.

  In addition to improving the legislative progress, the Scottish Parliamentary committees have taken the opportunity to convene outside of Edinburgh in different parts of Scotland, thereby engaging more effectively with the electorate. Committees are also able to appoint one or more expert panels of special advisors from outwith Parliament. Such experts can lend their expertise in areas such as investigations and in the pre-legislative process, while parliament retains the ultimate authority in the law making process. This expands on the expert advice currently available to Select Committees in the House of Commons.

  Mandatory Committees include a European Committee, which examines European legislation to be applied and implemented in Scotland, and an Equal Opportunities Committee. The cross-party Business Bureau allows for the business of the Parliament to be decided in a more consensual manner than in Westminster.

  With respect to the proposals contained in the Memorandum, we have several points to make.


Making More Effective use of time

  The SNP welcomes the initiatives designed to make more effective use of parliamentary time introduced in the last parliament. We believe that the Westminster Hall debates in particular should be established as a permanent feature of parliamentary opportunities. Deferred divisions on matters debated after 10 pm and Programming Bills should be continued as permanent measures.

  We agree with the Leader of the House that it would be beneficial to introduce a larger number of shorter debates, as opposed to the current practice of day long debates. Such developments would, we believe, make better use of MP's time.

  There must, however, be an assurance that shorter debates should not squeeze out contributions from minority parties.

Making Question Time more Topical

  In practice, Question Time is already reasonably topical, given the use of interventions by members to introduce topical points to the debate.

  As Ministers are already fully briefed on topical issues, we see little reason for not reducing the period of notice considerably from the current two weeks.

  While we accept the current practice of making less significant ministerial announcements by Written Answer, we would be concerned by an expansion in the use of such a device, which may curtail parliamentary debate and reduce the level of scrutiny to which the government is subject. Allowing for this reservation, we would welcome a separate entry on the Order Paper for notice of written statements and a separate entry for their publication in Hansard.

  In doing so, however, the Leader of the House must ensure that all parties are given the opportunity to contribute to debates and that shorter debates do not mean that smaller parties are squeezed out in favour of the government and main opposition parties.


Pre-Legislative Scrutiny

  The SNP would welcome an expansion in the number of Bills published in draft form to allow for greater pre-legislative scrutiny.

  We do not believe, however, that this proposal goes far enough. It should be the case that the normal procedure for legislation is that Bills should be subject to full pre-legislative scrutiny, and that Bills should only be brought forward without full consultation in exceptional circumstances. We believe that it would be preferable to have good quality legislation as opposed to quick legislation. The House of Commons' history provides many examples of passing legislation in haste and repenting at leisure.

  It is the case that when Bills are drafted in haste mistakes are made. The Government's Anti-terrorism, Crime & Security Act (2001) was badly drafted—as evidenced by the fact that Ministers had to submit 48 amendments to their own Bill, 19 of these involving the Scotland Office. While we accept the need to bring forward such legislation quickly, this should not be done by sacrificing due scrutiny.

  The current system of "Sewell motions" is unacceptable as it does not allow the Scottish Parliament any effective means of commenting upon, amending or opposing any changes made to a Bill in Westminster that may fundamentally affect Scots Law. Until such time as all legislation affecting Scotland is dealt with in the Scottish Parliament we believe that the government must ensure that all Bills subject to a "Sewell motion" should be presented to the Scottish Parliament prior to being introduced at Westminster and should a Bill be amended at Westminster after a "Sewell motion" it should be returned to the Scottish Parliament for any amendments then to be properly debated.

Longer Scrutiny of Legislation

  We agree with the proposal to allow Bills to be carried over from one parliamentary session to the next, given that a set time-scale is introduced that would apply to all Bills.


Making Time for Constituency Work

  We agree with the memorandum that

    "The structure of Commons working week needs to reflect the importance and the pressure of Parliamentary business."[5]

  Current procedure disadvantages members from Scottish constituencies participating in business on Fridays, due to the need to give over full days to constituency business. We would, therefore, welcome proposals to allow MPs to devote Fridays to such work without disengaging from business in Westminster.

  This has already been done by the introduction of non-sitting days in the house, and should be continued.

Making oral statements earlier

  We welcome the proposals to initiate a regular slot for ministerial statements at the beginning of each day, given that a timetable of such statements was to be released in advance.

  We accept the need for a procedure to be developed to allow "Immediate Statements" under exceptional circumstances.

Making the Parliamentary calendar more predictable

  Given the proposals to set time limits for the passage of legislation and to allow Bills to be carried over into the next session, the SNP would welcome moves to publish a timetable of work for the House well in advance.

  Given such changes, it would be easier to plan the summer recess in so far as the government would not be under pressure to complete the legislative programme prior to the house adjourning.

  Any timetabling of the summer recess should take into consideration the timing of Scottish school holidays, which traditionally run from the end of June to the second week of August.


  Many procedures in the House of Commons are out of date. The use of modern technology to improve the accessibility and efficiency of the workings of the house is still limited.

  With regard to electronic voting, the SNP believe that a good example has been set by the work of the Scottish Parliament. Members vote in person, and in a way that speeds up the work of the house. It is also possible to officially register an abstention to a vote, which is not currently possible in Westminster. Such developments would be beneficial to the workings of the House of Commons.

  It is perfectly possible for a member to wish for political reasons to abstain in person, and this should be allowed under any new voting procedures.

  The option to table questions and amendments by e-mail rather than in person would allow all members the opportunity to participate in parliamentary business while in their constituency, and as such is welcomed.


  It is the case that the public view of Parliament and its proceedings reflects its antiquated nature. We would welcome any changes to the communication strategy of the House of Commons to allow it to become more accessible, and to promote a more modern image of the House, its members and its work.

Press Lobby

  We would welcome the earlier release of written answers earlier in the day, and believe that such measures, combined with earlier sittings of the House, would add to the breadth and depth of the coverage of Parliamentary proceedings.


  The SNP's aim is to achieve Independence for Scotland. Once achieved there would be no locus for the party, or indeed a Scottish Parliament, to take a view on the internal domestic constitutional arrangements of what then would be another independent state.

  Within the current system the Government cannot be held sufficiently to account and the role of MPs in influencing the passage of legislation is far too restrictive.

  The Scottish Parliament's structure sets a good example of a more effective unicameral system, and the House of Commons should adopt similar procedures and practices.

  In making any changes to the workings of the House, the Leader of the House must ensure that all parties are given the opportunity to contribute to debates and that shorter debates do not mean that smaller parties are squeezed out in favour of the government and main opposition parties.

31 January 2002

3   BBC News Website, ( 2001/hi/english/newsid-1376000/1376575.stm) 8 June 2001. Back

4   Ibid: "The BBC polled people who decided not to vote. Some 77 per cent said there was no point in voting because it would not change a thing, while 65 per cent said they did not trust politicians. Just over half said it was obvious that Labour would win anyway". Back

5   "Modernisation of the House of Commons: A Reform Programme for Consultation", page vii, paragraph 33. Back

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