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


Memorandum from the NCVO


  NCVO is the largest general membership body for charities and voluntary organisations in England. Established in 1919, NCVO gives voice to over 2,000 organisations; from large "household name" charities to small self help groups involved in all areas of voluntary and social action at the local level. NCVO champions the cause of the voluntary sector. It believes that the voluntary sector enriches society and needs to be promoted and supported. It works to increase its effectiveness, identify unmet needs and encourages initiatives to meet them.

  1.2  NCVO welcomes the proposals for modernising the House of Commons and the opportunity to comment on them. We have worked with Stephen Twigg MP to help ensure that the voluntary sector is aware of the proposals and how they might affect the relationship of voluntary organisations with Parliament. Stephen Twigg has spoken to NCVO's networks of voluntary sector parliamentary and public affairs officers and contributed an article to Voluntary Sector magazine. Mr Twigg will also be speaking at two regional events in Taunton and County Durham.

  1.3  Whilst Parliament should be the central focus of political life in Britain, it is also part of the wider political and policy community and does not have a unique position in terms of political debate and interest. Parliament should try and engage with those outside Parliament and recognise that particular efforts are needed to reach out to smaller local and community organisations without lobbying resources.

  1.4  Voluntary organisations are an important voice in considering these proposals because they:

    —  engage with many communities (both local communities and communities of interest) and make them aware of what is happening in Parliament and Government; and

    —  work closely with parliamentarians to represent their interests, and they want and need an efficient, effective House of Commons.

  1.5  Much political and policy debate takes place outside Parliament. MPs are in danger of no longer being part of the debate between voluntary organisations and their supporters, business and the media. The proposals below can help ensure that Parliament engages with these voices and that events in Parliament matter to those outside Westminster.

  1.6  The suggestions below follow the proposals in Robin Cook's proposals to the Modernisation Committee. We recognise that some of the suggestions are more appropriately put to the House of Commons Commission but we feel that an overall approach is needed. Additional comments and suggestions outside Robin Cook's proposals are at the end of the paper.


2.1  Making more effective use of time

  NCVO supports the proposed measures to introduce more and shorter debates in the House of Commons. Many voluntary organisations and wider civil society would welcome greater opportunities for debate on subjects away from the progress of Bills. We would particularly welcome more debates on Select Committee reports, particularly if they are within a reasonable time following publication. There is concern amongst many organisations, especially given that organisations devote considerable resources to supplying information to Select Committees, that few concrete results come out of Select Committee reports once published.

  2.2  More "non-legislative" debate could also allow for debates that engage with civil society and are more engaging and attractive to the public—especially if these were scheduled well in advance throughout the year. Organisations could provide information to their members about these upcoming debates and provoke interest in them. These debates would also allow organisations to engage with MPs on these topics well in advance. For instance, there could be an annual debate on the voluntary sector's relationship with Government to coincide with the Compact Annual Report.

  2.3  The Modernisation Committee might also consider inviting the public to submit ideas for some Commons debates as a way of encouraging interest in the work of House of Commons. Voluntary organisations could work with the Commons to invite such suggestions.

  2.4  NCVO also welcomes the proposal to publish a list of speakers in advance of debates. If a provisional list of speakers was published a few days in advance, this could allow organisations to provide information to those speakers rather than bombard all MPs with information. We believe that this would benefit both MPs and organisations.

3.1  Making question time more topical

  NCVO supports the proposal to shorten the notice period for oral questions. More pertinent oral questions would provide better scrutiny and make the House more relevant to the wider political community.

  3.2  NCVO supports the proposal to put planted Government notice questions in a separate place on the Order Paper. The Modernisation Committee should also consider how information is made available to outside organisations and individuals. This is especially important if information is placed in the House of Commons Library. This information is supposed to be on the public record but is very difficult to access. The House should consider how this could be made more easily available. One way would be through the Parliamentary website.

4.1  Pre-legislative scrutiny

  NCVO welcomes the proposal to consider more Bills in draft form. Published Bills usually become "party politicised" at an early stage. This makes it difficult for non-Government amendments to be accepted and reduces the ability of Parliament to effectively scrutinise legislation. It also makes it very difficult for organisations who wish to raise their concerns. Organisations often have specialist knowledge as to the implications of Bills and it would be to the advantage of legislators if those organisations could raise their concerns in a less politicised forum.

  4.2.1  We also hope that this pre-consultation could form part of a wider process of effective consultation. This would be from initial consultation by departments (in line with the guidelines laid down in the Compact between Government and the Voluntary Sector for a 12-week consultation period), to pre-legislative scrutiny, the passage of the Bill through Parliament and post-legislative scrutiny. Select committees could also make better use of Government departments' past consultations around White and Green Papers. For instance evidence submitted to departmental consultations could be passed on by Government departments and used as written evidence in Select Committee inquiries.

  4.3  Wider discussion and earlier publication of regulatory impact statements would also be welcome. Select Committees could play a role in this.

5.1  Longer scrutiny of legislation

  NCVO welcomes the carry-over of legislation past the cut-off point of the session, although there are concerns that this might weaken the power of Opposition parties. A more even spread of legislation through the year would be of benefit to organisations wishing to raise their concerns over legislation to MPs.

  5.2  The wider use of Special Standing Committees would be welcome. Expert witness contributions to scrutiny of Bills would help, especially on more contentious issues. We would also welcome this as a way of "opening up" the House of Commons and promoting intercourse with those outside Parliament.

6.1  Post legislative scrutiny

  We welcome the idea of more post legislative scrutiny. As we said above, we believe that consultation and scrutiny should be an ongoing process from initial departmental consultation to Parliamentary scrutiny to post legislative scrutiny.

  6.2  Select Committees will be well placed to look at the impact of legislation and should consult widely in these inquiries. Voluntary organisations should be well placed to help select committees in these inquiries. The support and resources available to select committees should be increased to enable them to undertake this extra work. Further suggestions on Select Committees are in paragraphs 11.3, 12.2 and 14.1.

7.1  Scrutiny of secondary legislation

  As Robin Cook's Memorandum to the Modernisation Committee says, there is little detailed scrutiny of secondary legislation. Most voluntary organisations lack the resources to examine secondary legislation and we welcome the proposals for a secondary legislation scrutiny committee. We trust that the Committee would provide readily accessible and comprehensible information on the secondary legislation they consider.

8.1  Making time for constituency work

  NCVO welcomes proposals for more Friday morning style debates on Wednesday mornings where we would help that attendance would be higher. Friday debates (for example adjournment debates and private member bills) are important for voluntary organisations. They allow for non-party debate and MPs are more inclined to pay heed to outside views.

  8.2  We would also welcome announcements of Friday morning style adjournment debates well in advance so that organisations can inform their members about the debates and encourage their members' interest. This would also help organisations to prepare information for MPs in advance so that MPs are fully informed about the issues of the debate.

9.1  Making oral statements earlier

  NCVO welcomes the intention to list the planned statements for the week on Monday. This would help more organisations to plan a response and inform MPs of their views. It would enable a better debate on these issues and would enable those organisations without large public affairs resources to be able to take part in public debate.

10.1  Making the Parliamentary calendar more predictable

  We welcome proposals to make the parliamentary timetable more predictable. As stated earlier, this would enable a wider interest in Parliament and help organisations to plan their work with MPs and peers.

11.1  Making more use of modern technology

  NCVO supports proposals to use the Internet for developing Parliament's relationship with the wider electorate and civil society. However, the current website requires a high level of knowledge in order to access useful information quickly. There needs to be more signposting within pages to related information. More explanations of terms used could be included—for instance by having links to a glossary or explanation for certain phrases. There should be links to other information and "pop-up" help boxes on most pages. NCVO believes that the Internet and Parliament's website offers a way to give many more organisations, particularly smaller and community organisations, the chance to find out what is happening in Parliament. The present website, which is very much based on existing written publications which have barely changed for many years, does not encourage those outside Parliament to pay attention to what is happening in Parliament.

  11.2  NCVO also considers that the House of Commons could do more to use Internet technology to proactively reach out to the public and interested organisations. For instance there is little use of e-mail lists to inform those interested in what is happening in Parliament. There is no reason why there could not be one central area where individuals could register their interests, say, in the work of a particular select committee or the passage of legislation, and then receive regular e-mail updates on that topic.

  11.3  Select Committees might also use Internet technology to engage with more people in their inquiries. Whilst there would obviously still be a place for formal submissions, select committees could use Internet technology to run online consultations which could reach many more. NCVO has developed its own online consultation system which has enabled us to reach many more organisations and to run consultations in response to events much more quickly. Select committees might find this particularly useful if they want to run an inquiry rapidly in response to a particular event. NCVO would be very willing to share our experience with either individual select committees or the Modernisation Committee.

  11.4  We also feel that there may be other opportunities to use the Internet to engage more people in Parliament's work. One idea might be to use Early Day Motions as a way of encouraging the public to contribute to political debate. Individuals could sign a separate petition backing particular EDMs, giving their name and postcode to avoid multiple signatories.

12.1  Making the Commons more open to the public and press

  Government Written answers should be made available from a single source and should be published and made available to outside organisations as well as press on the day answered. If a WPQ is answered that day, it should be made available that day. There should not be privileged access to information.

  12.2  Select Committees need to be more pro-active about encouraging debate on their reports. More Commons debates on Committee reports are welcome. However Select Committees should also consider working with outside organisations to promote discussion of reports and should, where appropriate, think about working with them to press for their recommendations. The use of case studies supplied by outside organisations in Select Committees' press work around report publication could be one such way.

  12.3  The House of Commons should consider how it can be made more welcoming and how more information can be provided to those visiting, whether for work reasons or out of general interest. Maps of the public areas and better information signs should be considered.

  12.4  Although we recognise that there are particular problems because of the age of the building, the House of Commons is very inaccessible to those with disabilities. Whilst everyone theoretically has a right to go to Central Lobby, it is not practically possible for those with wheelchairs. Wheelchair users also have greater difficulties attending events as they have to be met by a pass-holder at the Carriage Entrance. This unequal treatment should be tackled.

  12.5  The House should also acknowledge the reality of booking rooms. Although events are booked in the name of an MP, the actual administration and dealings with the House authorities are often made by outside organisations. Outsiders are given little knowledge of how the bookings system works and what rooms are available. The House should consider providing information on this.

  12.6  NCVO welcomes proposals to improve the Commons' education services. It is important that education services should link in with citizenship education. NCVO is keen that citizenship education includes an active citizenship aspect.


13.1  Disability audit

  The House of Commons should conduct a disability audit. As well as addressing issues of access to the building, the way that the House communicates should also be looked at. For instance, supplying information in Braille or large type.

14.1  Further suggestions for Select Committees

  Whilst voluntary organisations wish to work with Select Committees, Committees should understand that oral and written submissions require much work—especially given that the evidence then becomes the copyright of the Committee and cannot be used by the organisation without the Committee's permission. Copyright ownership by Select Committees means that organisations are often unwilling to submit formal evidence as they are then unable to use that in their own campaigning or policy work.

  14.2  The Modernisation Committee should look at whether other ways of submitting evidence can be more appropriate—including more informal ways of supplying information, use of the Internet can Committee meetings away from the Palace of Westminster. Select Committees could also look at greater use of secondments from voluntary organisations and business in inquiries.

15.1  MP voluntary sector secondment scheme

  MPs gain a great deal of knowledge from the secondment and fellowships schemes that are offered, including NCVO's scheme with the voluntary sector. We are keen that the learning that MPs gain from the secondments can be of benefit to the whole House of Commons and NCVO is developing ideas on how this can be done. There could also be ways to recognise secondments as part of the career development of backbench MPs.

16.1  Advisory committee/people's panel

  The proposals above aim to aid the ability of the House of Commons to communicate and engage with the wider community. This would also be helped if an advisory committee or people's panel were created. This could be formed of those who work closely with the House and representatives from the wider community. It could comment on proposals for modernisation and the way that the House of Commons engages with those outside Westminster. Its role would only be advisory and would not diminish the sovereignty of Parliament.

Campaigns Team

February 2002

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