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


Letter from Fiona Mactaggart MP to the Chairman of the Committee

  At a meeting today of the Parliamentary Labour Party Women's Group we had a discussion about your proposals for modernising the House of Commons. I thought it might be helpful if I attempted to summarise the discussion as a response to your proposals. The meeting was attended by 20 Members of Parliament.

  Firstly, there was strong support for the broad thrust of your Memorandum. Members present felt that better planning and time management will enable them to be better and more effective scrutinisers of legislation and of government.

  There was a sense, expressed by many members, that many of the current arrangements infantilise Members of Parliament: not knowing whether you are likely to be called during a debate, bobbing up to catch the Speaker's eye, the difficulties of planning ahead both during recess and during the evenings, are all aspects of this. We believe that members should have more predictability and control over their time, and that measures to improve this such a list of speakers who may be called, an annual programme, the opportunity to introduce bills throughout the year would be welcome.

  There was therefore enthusiastic support for an earlier start on Wednesday. Some members strongly urged the same approach for Tuesdays too and we hope that the Modernisation Committee will consider this. Members also saw merit in allowing statements to happen before Question Time so that we all ensure that the House of Commons is really the first place where ministers announce policies.

  Another method of raising the status of the Chamber would be to make questions more topical by making the submission date much closer to the answering period. If this was generally done it could also extend to Prime Minister's questions so that members would be able to prepare sensibly for issues to be discussed. That also led to some discussion of whether the present lottery arrangement by which questions appear on the order paper is fair or sensible. Some members felt also that lazy use of written questions to obtain information which is published elsewhere should be curbed in the interests of efficiency.

  There was a strong feeling that scrutiny will be improved if pre-legislative scrutiny can become the norm. Involving MPs through select committees or special standing committees in the discussion of draft bills could help us to be more thoughtful and analytical and less tribal, thus improving the quality of bills at an early stage. More opportunities to connect select committee reports with policy implementation were also requested.

  Carry over of bills and an annual parliamentary programme would also improve our effectiveness. It would end the unacceptably long summer recess, when there is no mechanism to hold the Executive to account. It is fair to say that some members were anxious that a consequence of the proposals would be that they would have to take holidays in August, and that some felt that the substantial block of constituency time in September, when Schools are back, is very worthwhile.

  There was discussion about the contact that members have with their children and clearly without national dates for school holidays and half terms this cannot be ensured by timing of parliamentary sessions. Members present felt that improved childcare in the Palace of Westminster could play an important role.

  Some members with far-flung constituencies urged an even earlier start on Thursday so that they could finish by 6 pm and be more confident of reaching their constituencies before Friday. All commented on how crucial Fridays are to fulfilling our role and how without reform of the Private Members Bill process they feel reluctant to attend debates on Fridays which so rarely lead to legislation.

  In addition there was a robust debate about the allocation of time after 7 pm on Wednesday. MPs present felt that private members bills should be able to be debated then. There was feeling that the private members bills procedure is an important means to engage people in the political process, they deal with issues our constituents are very concerned about and provide champions for issues. PMBs have traditionally been an important means to make progress on social issues, such as abortion and hanging, which are of great concern to women MPs. People's hopes are unfairly raised that many private members bills have a chance of becoming law. Perhaps it is time to debate fewer bills but to give them a fairer chance of success, and to improve the transparency of the Private Members Bill process.

  I hope that this note can help you and the Modernisation Committee in your important task of improving the impact and effectiveness of Parliament and ensuring that its members can manage our time to best effect.

30 January 2002

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