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


Letter from Mr Andrew Tyrie MP to the Chairman of the Committee

  I support the lion's share of your proposals. As you know, I set out a number of detailed proposals on many of the points you raise, as well as on the review of Select Committees to which I gather you will shortly be turning, in a paper I sent to all MPs a couple of years ago, Mr Blair's Poodle. Rather than rehearse all that ground again I would like to reiterate just one general point from the Poodle and add a couple of others.

  The heart of the matter, it seems to me, lies in paragraphs 10 to 12 and 26 to 28. I suggested the creation of a committee day on which parliamentary committees but not the floor of the House met. I would be very grateful if your committee could consider this.

  Not only does the Commons sit for longer hours, its "plenary" debating chamber is in sessions for much longer. Only a small proportion of these debates improve legislation or strengthen democracy. Many of them are padded out by reluctant Members at the behest of their respective whips and are little better than a waste of time. Few listen to these ritual exchanges outside the Chamber; we scarcely bother to listen to one another.

  You imply (para 26) that the complexity of modern political life requires long sittings. The truth is that, as the vast majority of parliaments around the world have gathered, complexity requires specialisation in committees by parliaments and less time spent attempting to debate such issues in plenary chambers. At the heart of the debate to make MPs' time more effective must be an increase in focused select committee work. We must recognise that this has to be at the expense of the floor of the House.

  Without some such rebalancing between committee and chamber work, on which at various stages in the last century almost all parliaments around the world have engaged (the Americans started to abandon regular plenary sessions in favour of committee work as early as the 1820s, having begun by replicating Westminster), any attempt to boost committees is likely to founder.

  A number of lesser points:

    —  Para 11. Consistent with the above, I would limit all backbench speeches to 10 minutes, perhaps even eight. Almost all the really good debates I have attended have been so limited. Related to that, I would consider telling backbenchers how much flying time they can expect in the chamber in each session and have the amount they have burnt up drawn together and published as a running total. MPs who husband their speaking time could then have much higher expectations of being called when they really wanted to chip in, and vice versa.

  On an informal basis the Speaker and his clerk already quietly do this. I suggest inviting him to open up the system. With the flying time approach well established there would also be far less pressure on the Speaker to try and avoid deviation from the subject of the debate or filibustering. Few MPs would want to burn up their flying time in such, generally whips-led, practices. There would also be another less appreciated benefit—debates could flow more with the spirit than the letter of "order". On several occasions in financial debates I have seen MPs called to order for deviation when the few who really understood the issue in the chamber knew the points to be very pertinent or, even if technically on the edge of being in order, nonetheless interesting;

    —  Para 12. A proposed batting order published just before the start of debates would be a huge help. This should also be available to the press. It should, of course, be indicative: the Speaker should retain the power not to call somebody if he scarcely appears in the chamber during the debate or if the debate took a turn that would merit an alteration to the batting order;

    —  Paras 29 to 35. I don't strongly object to these proposals but I am not convinced that further adjustments to Wednesdays and Fridays would achieve much;

    —  Para 46. A few thoughts on the tabling for all PQs. The closure date for these should be much closer to the date for answer. Nor should they have to be tabled on one particular day but on any reasonable day (say a fortnight) before the deadline;

    —  Para 50. Written PQs. My only thought here is to wonder whether the current system would survive an efficiently functioning Freedom of Information Act. Why go through the hassle of checking whether a PQ is in order, is worded appropriately and has not been tabled before when one will be able just to drop a line to the Minister to which, under FOI rules, the executive would be required to respond?

24 January 2002

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