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


Letter from the Rt Hon Gerald Kaufman MP to the Chairman of the Committee

  I have read with care the memorandum in your name submitted to the Modernisation Committee. While there are parts of the memorandum I support, others are likely to continue the process of turning the House of Commons into a characterless sausage machine.

  In particular I oppose vehemently paragraphs 10 to 12. House of Commons debates ought not to take place in order to allow as many MPs as possible to make brief speeches to which no-one listens except those in the queue to make the next speeches. Parliamentary debate ought to have a role in affecting and changing policy. Under the kind of regime you propose, Winston Churchill would never have had the scope to rouse the Commons and the nation against the Nazis, Fascists and appeasement; his speeches would have been interrupted by the Speaker with a reminder that his time had been reached. Without those great speeches he would not have become Prime Minister and saved the nation.

  The same applies to Aneurin Bevan's speeches criticising Churchill's wartime strategy (which led Churchill to describe Bevan as a "squalid nuisance") and to the biting attack on Bevan by Iain Macleod which led to Macleod's appointment as Minister of Health straight from the backbenches. There are occasions when a case needs time to be developed. You would not have been able to achieve your own deserved reputation as a fine debater in the circumstances you propose.

  Publishing lists of speakers in advance would end any semblance of real debate and would mean that only those on the list would be certain to turn up. Attendances in the House for major debates have shrivelled in the past quarter of a century, due in large part to the practice of application to be put on the Speaker's list. Quality of speeches has deteriorated further ever since time limiting was imposed. Your proposal of Readers Digest style debates would kill off any remaining interest in parliamentary debate, as well as killing off debate itself.

  My views will be written off as those of any antediluvian, who wishes to remove from MPs the right to read out those boring little essays which already comprise far too many Commons speeches.

  No doubt, too, my opposition to the spread of constituency Fridays will be written off by the new-style Labour (and Liberal Democrat) MPs. I can assure you that there will be an adverse reaction in the country, most of whose working population have no power to decide their own working schedules, at what would be regarded as lazy MPs giving themselves a four-day week. It would be no good pointing out that the hours would be the same. The four-day week MP, with massive financial perks to be calculated by hostile newspapers, would encourage more disenchantment with the Commons and provoke an even lower voter turnout at the next general election.

  Sorry to be so negative, but you did ask for responses from Members.

18 December 2002

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