Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Hansard Society

  1.  The Hansard Society is very pleased to be able to submit evidence to the Procedure Committee inquiry on procedures for debate, Private Members' Bills and the powers of the Speaker in the recall of Parliament. The Hansard Society, as an independent, non-partisan organisation, works to promote effective parliamentary democracy and provides a forum for views and discussion on parliamentary reform. From time to time, the Hansard Society establishes Commissions to look at issues in greater detail and, where appropriate, to make proposals for change. The report of the Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny, The Challenge for Parliament, Making Government Accountable, published in June 2001, considered some of the subjects covered by the Procedure Committee's inquiry, including the Speaker's role in recalling Parliament and the role of opposition and backbenchers in initiating debates. This evidence provides details on the Commission's proposals on these subjects.


  2.  The Hansard Society will shortly be undertaking a review of some elements of its 1993 Commission on the Legislative Process, Making The Law. Although the original Commission did not consider Private Members' Bills (PMBs) in any detail, we intend to look more closely at this subject in the forthcoming review. The paper will look at whether the current system works effectively and consider, among other issues, whether PMBs are too dependent on government support and subject to hijacking by minority opponents and will put forward a range of options for reform. A copy of the paper will be forwarded to the Procedure Committee as soon as it is published which we envisage will be in Spring 2003.


  3.  The Commission on Parliament Scrutiny believed that Parliament is hamstrung at times of crisis by the fact that only the Government can recall Parliament and believed that Parliament as an institution should be able to respond to issues as they arise. If Parliament is to be an effective forum at times of crisis, and retain its significance to political debate, the Commission believed that there should be an alternative mechanism for the recall of Parliament and proposed that the Speaker of the Commons should have the ability to recall Parliament at times of emergency. The Commission believed that the recall would have to be instigated by a Member of Parliament and the Speaker would adjudicate claims for recall, along similar lines to that for the choice of Urgent Questions. The Speaker would therefore consult with the leaders of the political parties in making the decision and it was envisaged that a recall would occur only when an urgent development affecting the national interest had to be discussed by Parliament.[1]

  4.  The Commission reported before the decision taken by the Commons in October 2002 that the House should return for a short period each September, prior to the party conferences. This change may mean that the issue of Parliament's recall may not be as acute as it has been in the recent past. However, regardless of the practicalities, the Commission believed that there should be provision for Parliament to recall itself without needing government permission or authorisation. An alternative mechanism that has been put forward is that if a majority of MPs (reflecting party balance) sought a recall, this should be granted.


  5.  The Commission believed that there should be improvements to the quality and topicality of debates in the chamber and recommended that MPs should have more opportunities for short debates on substantive issues.[2] It pointed out that a common feature of many European legislatures (for example, Germany, Sweden) is the "interpellation" or "short debate" where an opposition party (or an equivalent number of MPs) can call a debate on a topical issue or a matter of public concern. The system obliges a government minister to attend and provide an official statement. The debates are more substantial than adjournment debates in that they cover important topical issues and generate a high level of attendance. The closest equivalent in the Commons is probably Standing Order No. 24, which allows for emergency debates, but in practice this procedure is rarely used. In Australia the majority of each sitting Monday is reserved for non-governmental Private Members' Business. This includes Private Members' Motions which are vehicles for debating issues of concern which do not result in a vote and Members Statements where backbenchers can make a short statement of up to 90 seconds (or three minutes on certain other days). Arrangement of Private Members' Business is the responsibility of a Selection Committee of 11 Backbench Members.

  6.  The Commission also acknowledged the recommendation in the Conservative Party report, Strengthening Parliament, chaired by Professor the Lord Norton of Louth, that the Commons should experiment with "unstarred questions", a practice used in the Lords allowing for 90-minute debates, and also 60 minute "emergency debates".

  7.  The Commission however considered that debates sometimes have a limited value in holding government to account and that it might be more effective to extend arrangements for questioning ministers and calling for ministerial statements. The Commission therefore recommended that opposition parties should be able to trade some of their Opposition Days for the chance to call for statement on a topical issue.[3] Opposition parties have 20 days (around 120 hours) of debating time on issues of their choosing. It was considered that a straight trade of hours for ministerial statements would probably be unacceptable to government as it would dramatically increase the length of time ministers would have to spend in the House, and the ability to question a minister for an hour is arguably more valuable than three hours of debate. The Commission proposed that there should be a ratio of, say, four statements for one full day's debate and that the opposition parties should be able to trade a total of a quarter of their time (five days) for 20 extra statements.

  8.  A further recommendation in this area was that the Speaker should grant more Private Notice Questions (now Urgent Questions)[4] Given that scrutiny is a task for all MPs and not just the Opposition, Urgent Questions have an advantage over Opposition Days. The current rules governing the use of Urgent Questions mean that few requests are permitted. The decision would still be at the discretion of the Speaker, and the practice relatively infrequent, but may represent a more effective strategy for the backbench MP.


  9.  The Commission recommended that there should be specific provision for "public interest debates" motivated by policy failure or maladministration on a broad scale.[5] Many MPs regard representing their constituency as their most important role and the constituency experience is an important valve for alerting MPs to policy failure. For example, MPs knew about the problems of the Child Support Agency and the Passport Agency long before they were debated in Parliament, but there were limited opportunities to raise issues on substantive motions. MPs should have the opportunity to call a short debate and require a ministerial response on such issues where there is a clear case of policy failure. These would be similar to the emergency debates under Standing Order No. 24, but they would be specifically linked to the concerns of constituents. The trigger for such debates would be a specific number of MPs (it was suggested between 150 and 200) drawn proportionately from all the parties. The cross party requirement would prevent potential abuse by pressure groups or manipulation by the whips. The system would effectively allow Early Day Motions to force a debate, but given the number of signatures and the cross-party balance this would only happen in rare cases. Public interest debates of this type would come within the procedures for interpellations in European legislatures.


  10.   On a related issue, the Commission considered the role of public petitions in placing issues on the parliamentary agenda and believed that petitions were one method of engaging more systematically with the public interest. At present, petitions are governed by strict rules about wording and there is little sense that petitions to Parliament result in any concrete action on the part of MPs. Many petitions are submitted to Parliament each year but they rarely, if ever, translate into parliamentary action. This is in contrast to the Scottish Parliament where the Public Petitions Committee plays a pivotal role in connecting the public and the Executive. All petitions go to the Committee which then assesses the merits of each submission by consulting with the Executive, MSPs and, if necessary, taking evidence from individuals and organisations. The Committee filters out petitions where action is already being taken or where the case is weak but where there is a case to be answered, it refers petitions on for further consideration by the relevant committee or department. The Commission recommended that a Petitions Committee should be established in the House of Commons to assess issues of public concern and if appropriate to make referrals for debate or committee inquiry.[6]

  11.  We do not submit any evidence on the subjects of lists of speakers in debates or printing undelivered speeches in the Official Report. If the Society can be of further assistance please do not hesitate to contact us.

Alex Brazier, (Senior Researcher),

Clare Ettinghausen, (Director),

Parliament and Government Programme

Hansard Society

15 January 2003

1   The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government accountable, Report of the Hansard Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny (June 2001), (paragraph 7.43-7.44). Back

2   Ibid (paragraph 4.30). Back

3   Ibid (paragraph 4.32). Back

4   Ibid (paragraph 4.33). Back

5   Ibid (paragraph 4.34). Back

6   Ibid (paragraph 7.45). Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 3 April 2003