Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Memoranda



Memorandum submitted by the Leader of the House of Commons


1.    The health of democracy in Britain is of significance to every person on these isles. Effective democracy in our country is enhanced by the respect of the electorate for the Commons as a Chamber which is effective in holding Government to account, vigilant in its scrutiny of legislation, and competent in adapting itself to contemporary working practices. The objective of modernisation must be to better serve the democracy of Britain and the test of its success must be whether it increases the esteem of the public for their Parliament.

2.    This should not be a partisan issue. The standing of all political parties depends on public respect for Parliament. Nor should this be a matter of conflict between Parliament and Government. Good scrutiny makes for good Government. Ministers and backbenchers alike have a common interest in an effective House of Commons.

3.    Modernisation is not about making the life of an MP easy. The great majority of MPs willingly shoulder long hours and hard work. Demands on MPs have increased significantly in recent decades. The number of Parliamentary Questions tabled, Early Day Motions put down and the volume of correspondence from MPs to Government ministers have all increased and more MPs are spending more time engaged in committee activity. Constituency work has also expanded and the amount of correspondence to MPs has mushroomed. Almost every MP now holds regular constituency surgeries at weekends in the service of their constituents. Surveys confirm that MPs are working longer hours than ever before.

4.    Modernisation is about enabling MPs to do a more effective job for their constituency and for the country. This paper sets out reforms to create a modern and effective Commons. I have presented it to the Modernisation Committee to provide a perspective to its programme for this session. The Committee has agreed to its being made available for consultation so that the views of Members can inform the work of the Modernisation Committee. In taking forward these proposals the Modernisation Committee will co-ordinate with other House bodies, such as the Procedure Committee, the Information Committee and the Liaison Committee, all of which are doing valuable work in related areas. We also welcome comment from colleagues in the House of Lords as a number of theses proposals will affect the working of the second chamber.


5.    The Departmental Select Committees are the most developed vehicle through which MPs can carry out detailed scrutiny of Government policy and Ministerial conduct. It is therefore right that the Modernisation Committee should have chosen the powers of the Select Committees as its priority for consideration. The Committee is examining the process of nominations to Select Committees, the resources and powers available to the committees, and the ability of the Commons to consider Select Committee Reports.

6.    The Modernisation Committee has made good progress in its deliberations on this matter and hopes to report in the New Year. This paper therefore does not offer proposals on the Select Committees which will be covered in that forthcoming report. The package in this paper addresses the remaining issues which will form the programme of work thereafter for the Modernisation Committee.


7.    The objectives of any programme must be to enhance its authority to lead national debate on important political issues and to improve the capacity of the Chamber and Committees to scrutinise Government, both in its executive actions and in its legislation.

8.    In the past Parliament a number of valuable innovations were introduced, first by Ann Taylor, and then by Margaret Beckett. The introduction of debates in Westminster Hall greatly widened the opportunities for Members to raise matters of concern to them and increased the available time to debate Select Committee Reports. The provision for deferred divisions on matters debated after 10pm has substantially increased the number of Members taking part. Programming Bills has made the hours of scrutiny more predictable, and has enabled the House, including Government backbenchers to focus on the main issues for debate.

9.    Many of these changes were introduced as experiments and the provisions for them remain temporary. They have proven their value and should now be put on a permanent basis. The Modernisation Committee may well wish to recommend introduction on the same experimental basis of those proposals in this paper with which it resolves to proceed.

Making more Effective Use of Time

10.  So long as the general pattern of business is for debates to run for a full day, there will be limited room to accommodate other topics meriting scrutiny in the Chamber. The length of debate in the Chamber looks antiquated to a modern audience which is accustomed in real life to forms of exchange that prize informality and brevity. By contrast, parliamentary debate can appear to the public as ritualised and prolix.

11.  Some issues are of such public and parliamentary interest that they will require a full day for debate. For instance, it will often take a full day to provide a reasonable opportunity for Members to debate the Second Reading of a major Bill. However, Parliament could do more business if debates were generally shorter in length but greater in number. If the main debate of the day was occasionally limited to three hours, where appropriate, there would be time for one or two other shorter debates. This pattern would permit more debates on topics of interest to Members without reducing the ability of Government to secure the business necessary to deliver its mandate. It is notable that when in Opposition both major parties have tended to adopt the pattern of two short debates rather than one long debate on their Opposition Days.

12.  Shorter debates would also be more efficient in the use of Members' time. One of the most frustrating experiences for newer Members is to sit through a whole day's debate without ever being called to speak. It would be more open if a list of speakers was routinely published, as is the practice in many other chambers, including the House of Lords. It could of course be only indicative, with the Speaker retaining the discretion not to call Members who had not been present for enough of the time during the debate.

Making Question Time more Topical

13.  Question Time is the prime opportunity for Members to hold Ministers to account. However, its relevance to the world outside Westminster is limited by the requirement for a two-week period of notice, which often prevents the Commons from commenting on a topical issue that has arisen in the fortnight before. The Procedure Committee is currently carrying out a thorough examination of the arrangements for Question Time. A prime issue for consideration must be whether the period of notice of two full weeks can be reduced and, if so, by how much? It is plainly in the interests of the House that ministers can be properly briefed, but this should still be possible with a much shorter period of notice which increased the topicality of the questioning.

14.  Major statements of policy should be made by oral statement in the Chamber. However, it is not practicable for every announcement to be made by way of oral statement without unreasonably reducing the time for debate in the Chamber. For that reason it is accepted practice for less significant ministerial announcements to be made by written answer.

15.  The present device of a planted question enables such ministerial statements to appear among the written answers of the day. It would be more transparent if there was a separate entry on the Order Paper for notice of written statements and a separate entry for their publication in Hansard. This would have the effect of advising Members in advance of a forthcoming written statement and make it more convenient for Members and the press to locate the text.


16.  Recent decades have seen an increase in the volume of legislation, in recent years most markedly in the length of Bills. Yet Parliament approaches the scrutiny of legislation with processes that have not changed in their basic structure over the centuries.

Pre-Legislative Scrutiny

17.  Government and Parliament together need over time to ensure that publication in draft becomes more common. It will never be possible to publish every Bill in draft. For instance, in the first Session after a General Election it is unlikely that there will be many draft Bills available, particularly if there has been a change of Government.

18.  Nevertheless the more that Bills are published in draft the more effective will be parliamentary scrutiny. Governments may find it easier to adapt the Bill in response to comments at this stage than after Ministers have published the official terms of the final draft. Draft scrutiny of a Bill enables it to be considered by the Departmental Select Committee and this enables Members who are specialised in the subject to have early influence on a Bill. It would also enable earlier co-ordination with the devolved bodies. For instance, Bills which applied only in Wales could undergo pre-legislative scrutiny in parallel both at Westminster and in the Assembly for Wales.

19.  The Government will continue to seek to produce more legislation in draft for scrutiny, this process will need time to develop. In the meantime select committees could consider proposals for legislation on the basis of the policy put forward by the departments.

Longer Scrutiny of Legislation

20.  The major pressure to rush legislation through Parliament is the rule that any Bill which has not completed every procedural stage falls in the autumn with the end of the Session. As a result few Bills are introduced after May as there is little prospect of them completing all stages by November. The consequence is a spate of Bills earlier in the Session and congestion in the legislative process.

21.  The Commons would have much more opportunity to carry out scrutiny of legislation if Bills were carried over from one Session to the next. Plainly there must be a time limit on the period within which any Bill must complete all stages, and the quid pro quo for greater flexibility on the carry-over between Sessions should be a requirement that all Bills must complete all stages within a fixed period of months.

22.  This reform would enable a more even flow in the introduction of new bills and would remove the need to rush them through scrutiny. For example, at present use of the procedure of a Special Standing Committee is rare because not enough Bills are introduced with sufficient time to spare to permit the initial period of taking evidence. Indeed it is for this reason that Lord Norton in his report to the Conservative Party concluded that the cut-off of uncompleted bills at the end of each Session should cease.

Post Legislative Scrutiny

23.  A key weakness in Parliament's scrutiny of legislation is that there is no consistent arrangement to monitor the implementation of laws once they have been passed. This will be more appropriate for some Bills rather than others. Yet Members of Parliament, with their extensive constituency experience, are well-placed to monitor how new legislation is working out in practice. The more that Select Committees are involved in the scrutiny of draft legislation, the better placed they will be to monitor the implementation of new laws and to propose, where appropriate, remedies to any problems they identify. Such investigation will further enhance the authority Select Committees can bring to commenting on the early drafts of forthcoming legislation.

Scrutiny of Secondary Legislation

24.  The bulk of legislation passed each year in Parliament is not by means of primary Bills but through secondary legislation. In a full year over a thousand Statutory Instruments are passed through Parliament. Those orders which are subject to affirmative procedure are routinely debated in Committee. However, most orders are subject to negative procedure and there is no systematic provision for their scrutiny in Parliament.

25.  Nearly all orders subject to negative procedure are, by definition, non-contentious. It is nevertheless important that Parliament should monitor the use of the powers for secondary legislation. There could be merit in experimenting with a Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for a period of one year which would sift Statutory Instruments in the same way the present European Scrutiny Committee sifts European legislation. The role of such a committee would be to identify those few Statutory Instruments subject to negative procedure which were of sufficient substance to justify debate in Standing Committee or perhaps Westminster Hall.


26.  The Commons sits for longer hours than most democratic Parliaments. The complexity of modern legislation and the range of domestic and international issues which Parliament must address will always require a substantial number of sitting hours. But it is feasible to reorganise these hours to enable the Commons to provide better scrutiny and for its work to be better reported.

27.  Over the centuries the Commons has shown itself quite flexible in adjusting its sitting hours to the society of the time. In the eighteenth century it was normal for the House to meet in the morning. The late hours which we now think of as traditional, only became possible with the advent of gas lighting. There is no reason why the hours of Parliament should not adjust again to reflect modern society.

28.  Sitting hours that related more closely to working practices in the outside world would enable Members of Parliament to better fulfil their duties to constituents and their families. However, the core objective of reform of sitting hours is not to make life easier for MPs, but to make the time they spend in Parliament more effective.

Making more use of the mornings

29.  In an age in which the great majority of MPs are full-time Parliamentarians, and only a minority have outside business interests, the Commons should make better use of the earlier hours of the day. The trend in financial and business circles has been to start the day earlier, and the media agenda for the day has often been set before the House even meets.

30.  The obverse of the late start of proceedings in the Chamber is their late conclusion. It is reasonable for the public to expect their representative body to contain a fair balance of both women and men, and for its Members to share the same family responsibilities as the rest of the public. No MP expects their role to be confined to 9 to 5. What is important to MPs is that their time is used effectively and that they can adequately balance their responsibilities to constituents, public and family.

31.  The experiment with the new working hours on Thursdays has proved a success. It has enabled questions and statements to take place in the morning, when Parliamentary scrutiny is more likely to influence the media agenda. It has maintained the same number of hours for debate, but has enabled business to conclude in the early evening.

32.  If the same morning start to the parliamentary day was extended to Wednesdays there would be real gains for both public and MPs. It would bring forward Prime Minister's Questions to noon rather than afternoon. It would enable Members with families and constituents accessible from London to return to them in the evening. This would require adjustments elsewhere—for instance it would plainly be desirable for Westminster Hall debates to adjourn during Prime Minister's Questions.

Making Time for Constituency Work

33.  The structure of the Commons working week needs to reflect the importance and the pressure of constituency business. If we value constituency work we must give MPs the time to conduct it effectively. The experiment of introducing ten constituency Fridays during the year has been popular. More constituency Fridays would enable MPs to balance their constituency work with their work at Westminster.

34.  Members whose constituency is some distance from London often find it impractical to attend a Friday sitting, and attendance on Fridays is drawn disproportionately from Members for London and the South East. If contentious Government business was to stop at 7pm on Wednesday, but the House was to continue to sit until 10pm, it would be possible to use the additional hours for the present business of some Fridays and the House would no longer need to meet on those Fridays. It would also provide a more regular opportunity for the House to debate the reports of Select Committees.

35.  This arrangement would not reduce the total sitting hours as Parliament meets on Wednesday in every sitting week but does not meet on every Friday.

Making Oral Statements Earlier

36.  A related issue is the timing of statements in the House. The present timing of statements at 3.30pm has the consequence that Government statements eat into parliamentary debating time. This becomes a more serious difficulty in circumstances in which debates on most Bills are now given a fixed timetable. The essence of this problem lies in the demand of Parliament to hear statements and the wish of Ministers to make more statements combined with the absence on the Order Paper of any time set aside for such statements. The result is that the time taken for statements is unavoidably at the expense of time already announced for other business.

37.  Would it be possible to reserve a regular slot for Statement Time in the business of the day. This could start an hour before the present time for Oral Questions. This would require the House to sit earlier, except on the minority of days when there would be no statement, but would bring a number of advantages. It would remove the requirement for statements to be at the expense of debating time in the House; it would enable a key proceeding in the House to be reported earlier in the day; and it would provide greater opportunities for statements, such as on Opposition Days when it is not acceptable to diminish the time for debate after Question Time.

38.  If such an innovation was to be made it would be necessary to give earlier warning of statements. There would, in any event, be positive benefits for Members in earlier notice of Ministerial Statements. It would normally be practical to give notice of planned statements for the week every Monday.

39.  There are bound to be developments which are urgent and cannot be predicted. Often the Government will need to respond to events and there should be provision for Ministers to interrupt briefly scheduled business to make an 'Immediate Statement' in such exceptional circumstances.

Making the Parliamentary Calendar More Predictable

40.  Most Parliaments publish their sitting weeks well in advance, usually a year in advance. This is to the advantage of their Members, who can plan their constituency work and their family activities with greater reliability. It is also to the advantage of the public and lobby groups who can plan with greater confidence on when Parliament will be in session.

41.  In practice, there is little room for doubt over the recess dates at Christmas, Easter and Whit, as these religious events are well known in advance.

42.  The more difficult recess to predict in advance is the summer recess. Government is traditionally reluctant to commit itself to the start and end of this long recess until it is clear whether there has been adequate progress on legislation in the session. The pressure on Government at this point in the Parliamentary calendar stems from its need to finish all proceedings on every Bill by the end of the session. Introducing a carry-over between Sessions for any Bill would be essential if Government is to commit itself in advance to the dates for the last recess in each session.

43.  There is considerable dissatisfaction with the present long recess. Every year the press is critical of the prolonged period without a parliamentary sitting. In a number of years, it has been necessary in any event to recall Parliament to debate crises that have arisen since the House adjourned. Nor do the present dates match the school holidays of Members' children, particularly in the case of Members from Scotland, where schools return in the second week off of August.

44.  It is possible to meet public concern over the protracted period in which Parliament does not sit and the wish of Members for a recess that better matches the school holidays. The House could rise in early to mid-July and then break for a summer recess. The House could return in early September and rise in late September for a three-week Conference Recess. This would neither increase nor reduce the total period in which the House was in recess, but could prove a more acceptable pattern to the Press and to Members.


45.  Over the past decade the support mechanisms of the House have made great progress in harnessing the new communications technologies. The Parliamentary Online Information Service (POLIS) and the Parliamentary Data and Video Network (PDVN) have provided Members and officials with access to a breadth of information far wider than has ever been available in the history of Parliament.

46.  However, the procedures of the House remain rooted in its history. Members still vote by shouting their name to a clerk with a pen, and table their questions in person to the Table Office. Are there acceptable means by which our procedures can draw on the greater efficiency of the new technologies?

47.  The most difficult aspect of such a question is whether the House would find it acceptable to adopt electronic voting. Members greatly value the informal contacts that arise when the House gathers for a division. The requirement for all Members to gather for a vote is important for the cohesion of Parliament and provides a valuable opportunity for MPs and Ministers to mingle. Any acceptable form of electronic voting must still require Members to attend the division. However, the introduction of an electronic method of recording their vote would enable Members to vote on multiple divisions at the same time, and to reduce time lost through divisions when a number of votes are taken in succession, for instance when the knife falls under a programme motion. This would free more time for debate and scrutiny in the Chamber.

48.  When the House was last asked this question early in the past Parliament, the largest body of opinion was for continuance of the present system. Have views in the House changed since then? Would there be merit in the Modernisation Committee working up one single alternative to be put to the House, which secured the advantage of the reduced time required for electronic voting, but reserved the requirement for Members to attend the division in person.

49.  The electronic recording of divisions is contentious, precisely because it would require all Members to adopt the new method. Other introductions of new technology are less difficult because they would be permissive and would permit those Members who wanted to use new technology to do so without removing the traditional procedure.

50.  For instance, the Procedure Committee is examining the options for tabling questions and amendments by e-mail. An electronic system would prevent Members being deprived of the opportunity to table an oral question, because on the relevant day of notice they were working in their constituency. But it need not interfere with the right of other Members to table their question in the present way.

51.  There are also opportunities in which the Commons can harness the new technologies to connect with the wider electorate and with civil society. The internet, for example, gives opportunities for two-way communication and could be used more systematically for consultation with the public by Select Committees.


52.  The measures proposed in this paper will create a Commons more effective at scrutiny and more representative to modern society. However, these steps in themselves will not restore public respect for Parliament unless Parliament does more to make its proceedings more readily accessible to the public. Too often there is an assumption that because the work of Parliament is important, its reporting can be taken for granted. The reality is that Parliament is engaged in a highly competitive market for media coverage and public attention. We need a communications strategy that will convey the significance, the success and excitement of what goes on in the chamber and in committee.

53.  The potential for projection of the work of Parliament is immense, but is largely unrealised. A communication strategy to realise that potential would need to address a number of different audiences.

Press lobby

54.  The Commons is covered by its own dedicated press corps. There will always be a healthy competition between parties for the angle from which political debate is reported, but the Commons as a whole has a common interest in assisting the press lobby in getting their editors to carry more coverage of parliamentary proceedings. The Commons should examine how it can widen the coverage of Parliament. Why should written answers not be released until 3.30pm and often not until much later? Would they not have a better chance of being covered if they were released by noon?

The reading public

55.  Select committee reports often contain interesting, sometimes dramatic, substance. They are presented in a uniform, old-fashioned format.. They appear obsolete in the age of computer graphics, and colour printing. If we seriously want to interest the public in the conclusions of our select committees we have an obligation to make their publications more attractive and inviting.

The wired-up public

56.  Britain has one of the highest rates of access to the internet including every lobby group and most NGOs. This is a large and influential audience to whom the Commons could do more to make itself accessible. The Commons has a wide range of websites, but webstreaming of committee hearings is still in its experimental phase. It should be routine for live coverage of public committee sittings to be available through the internet.

The visiting public

57.  There is a large number of British citizens who visit Parliament every year. But for the overwhelming majority of them the experience focuses on architecture and history. There is an immense opportunity here for interpretation of the work and role of Parliament today. In February 2002 a visitors' café, including some interpretative material, will be opening. A dedicated Visitor Centre could put the building and its history in the context of Parliament's place in the constitution and its importance as the expression of our democracy.

The future voters

58.  The strength of our democracy will based on the roots we establish for it in the minds of our young people. The Commons has developed an educational service in response to the demand by schools. The logical extension of this role would be a pro-active education service promoting Parliament to each new generation of schoolchildren. For instance, when the House does not sit on a Friday, these could become school visit days when the Commons could invite schoolchildren to Parliament on a rolling programme by constituencies or educational authorities.


59.  This paper is provided as a basis for consultation in order that the Modernisation Committee can assess the will of the House on reform. The task for the Modernisation Committee, in co-ordination with the Procedure Committee, the Liaison Committee and the Information Committee, will be to turn the response of Members into proposals on which the House can reach formal decisions.

60.  This is an ambitious programme, but it does not pretend to be comprehensive. There are other issues which may be addressed over the lifetime of the Parliament. For instance, scrutiny by the Commons of European Legislation is currently under review by the European Scrutiny Committee, and the Modernisation Committee may wish to examine this area after the Scrutiny Committee has completed its report.

61.  This modernisation package would bring several wide-ranging benefits, to Members, to their constituents and to their families.

  • There will be less pressure to rush legislation and more time to test Bills more thoroughly.

  • The Commons will make more use of the first half of the working day and will have more opportunity to set the daily agenda of public debate.

  • Providing more predictability of the parliamentary calendar will make it less difficult for Members to fulfil their family and constituency commitments.

  • Increasing the number of constituency Fridays will free Members to undertake more activities in their constituencies.

  • Breaking up the long recess will remove the protracted period in which Parliament is unable to debate political developments.

62.  A democratic chamber can only achieve reform through the consent of a broad majority of its Members. Not every Member will support all of these proposals. The test of their acceptability will be whether most Members of the House, whether backbenchers or frontbenchers, find they can welcome the overall proposals as a balanced package.

63.  The greatest gain will be to democracy. There are many factors which have contributed to the decline in turnout at the General Elections, but one of them has been the long term decline in esteem for Parliament. We will only restore esteem for Parliament when we convince the public that the Commons is effective in its scrutiny of Government and legislation, and is efficient in its use of Members time. It is that verdict of the public that must be the spur to reform of the Commons and the ultimate test of its success.

December 2001  ROBIN COOK

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