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


Letter from The Speaker to the Chairman of the Committee

  I have read with great interest the consultation paper (HC 440) which you have submitted to the Modernisation Committee. Some of the suggestions you have put forward have implications for me as Speaker as well as for Members more generally. I thought therefore that your Committee would find it helpful to have my initial reactions to these.

  I recognise and welcome the fact that your objective is to create a more modern and effective House of Commons. Reforms that genuinely enhance the ability of the House to scrutinise legislation and hold the Executive account will have my strong support. That, I believe, should be the primary test of the acceptability of proposals for change. If, at the same time, it is possible to make changes that allow Members and staff of the House to work more social hours and to have greater certainty about the parliamentary calendar, that would be a useful additional benefit.

  I believe you are right to focus on the House's ability to scrutinise legislation. Rushed legislation is often bad legislation and your proposals for publication of Bills in draft and for longer scrutiny (including the carry-over of Bills between sessions) deserve serious and sympathetic consideration.

  In paragraph 12 you suggest that an indicative list of speakers should be published for debates. While I understand the attractions of this suggestion to Members who suffer the frustration of sitting through debates without being called, it carries with it the following serious disadvantages which in my view greatly outweigh the perceived benefits:

    —  It would limit my flexibility and freedom of choice as well as my ability to protect minority views.

    —  It would enable Members to limit their attendance at debates, promote the idea of set piece speeches and pre-determined text rather than genuine contributions to discussion of the subject matter. While some individual Members may see this as acceptable, it is doubtful whether the House as a whole would.

    —  It would be difficult for the Chair to change the published order or add any additional speakers.

    —  It would cause embarrassment to Members who for whatever reasons choose to withdraw their names.

    —  It would enable Members on the other side of the House, including Ministers, to prepare "knocking material" against the Members on the published list.

    —  It would make it easier for Members to squeeze out or seek to cause difficulty to Members expressing minority views within their own Party.

  The system and culture of the Lords where speakers' lists are published are quite different from ours and I hope the Committee will not pursue this suggestion. I and my Deputies are, however, always ready to give informal guidance in the course of a debate to Members seeking information about the likelihood of being called.

  In paragraphs 29-32 you put forward the suggestion of Wednesday morning sittings, based on the perceived success of Thursday morning sittings. I agree that on balance the Thursday experiment has been a success. The significant advantage has been that business finishes early on a Thursday and enables most Members to get to their constituencies in good time to undertake duties the following day (providing Friday's business does not require their presence, as has generally been the case). But I should not like your Committee to think that morning sittings are without problems for the Chair. On Thursdays it is more difficult for me to be properly briefed for Question Time and statements and thus to prepare myself for my duties on Members' behalf. Decisions on PNQs are more difficult because they often have to be determined without any-or adequate-factual briefing from Departments and there may be insufficient time for me to be briefed on difficult Points of Order notified in advance to my Office. On Thursdays the difficulties and inconvenience are outweighed by the clear advantages to Members of finishing early. On a Wednesday there would be no commensurate advantage, as Members' presence would be required the following day—and, at least so far as the Chair and staff of the House are concerned, there would be no early finish and the same number of staff need to be on duty whether the House is heavily or thinly attended. I do acknowledge, however, and welcome the fact that Wednesday morning sittings could lead to more constituency Fridays. I hope that these considerations will be given due weight by the Committee.

  In paragraphs 36-39 you suggest that a period of an hour might be set aside for statements before the normal meeting time of the House. I would regard such an innovation as hugely disruptive and inconvenient. Until a few days before (perhaps even the day before) neither I nor Members would know when the House was to meet, with all the implications that would have for the crowded schedule which all of us have. All Members have a right to be present at every sitting and unpredictability of the kind envisaged would be most unwelcome. The difficulties I already face on Thursdays (and on Wednesdays if morning sittings were introduced) would be immeasurably increased if the House met at 10.30: rational consideration of PNQs would become almost impossible for example. In addition such an arrangement would remove from me the flexibility to run statements for as long as I think necessary (and that is often for more than an hour on difficult or sensitive issues). The perceived (and in many cases actual) beneficiary of this proposal would be the Government who would be determining not only when the House should meet but also how long statements should run. Time limited exchanges on a controversial statement would be likely to deprive some of the critics of the Government of the day of an opportunity to put sharp questions to Ministers. I believe the House as a whole would share my concern about any such development. I hope the Committee will see the disadvantages of this proposal. I recognise that the purpose of the proposal is in part to obviate the problem of statements eating into debating time on Bills, but I believe that this could better be tackled by the use of programme motions providing a specified length of debate rather than timetabling by reference to a fixed time.

  I am on balance in favour of your proposal to sit in September. While this would limit my flexibility in undertaking overseas engagements on behalf of the House, the long summer recess does reduce the House's ability to react to current events and to hold Ministers to account. It is also—as my own post-bag demonstrates—the cause of much adverse public comment.

  There is one additional point that I should like the Committee to consider. Under existing arrangements the final few minutes before the start of Prime Minister's Questions are inevitably very noisy. This is in my view unfair both to Ministers at the Despatch Box and to those seeking to question them. This problem could be obviated if on Wednesdays Prime Minister's Questions came first, followed at 3.05 by the relevant Departmental Question Time.

5 March 2002

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