Examination of Witnesses (Questions 51-59)|
WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY 2003
51. Can I welcome representatives of the Hansard
Society to the second evidence session of the Procedure Committee
as part of our new inquiry? I was interested to read that the
Society was formed in 1944 to promote the ideals of parliamentary
government when it was seen to be threatened by Fascists on the
right and Communist dictatorships on the left. It was founded
by Stephen King-Hall, an MP and popular broadcaster. I think you
might fall into that category, Peter, if I may say so, but some
of the first supporters were Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee,
then Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, and since that
time the Prime Minister of the day and leaders of the main Opposition
parties have very openly and publicly supported your work. Can
I welcome you and say thank you very much for coming? Thank you
very much for the paper which you have submitted to us. I know
Alex Brazier from another incarnation that he has had and I know
just how committed he is to the House of Commons and the role
it plays. How effective are debates in the House of Commons and
how could they be made much more effective?
(Mr Riddell) The Commission was chaired
by your former colleague, Tony Newton, and had representatives
of all parties on it. It had members of the House of Lords, academics,
a couple of journalists and people from outside interest groups
which were particularly valuable and people from business. It
was also advised by certain clerks which was extremely valuable,
not only to keep us on the straight and narrow but to raise an
eyebrow when we were getting too adventurous. In the report which
you have seen a summary of, a lot of the focus was on select committees
and scrutiny in that way but within the report there were three
points. I have read the evidence from last week and so has Alex,
which touches on what was there. One theme of the report was strengthening
the House as an institution. One was Parliament as the apex of
a whole system of scrutiny and examination. Third was that the
role of the chamber needed to be redefined. In our chapter there,
we feel that many of the current debates are wasted opportunities.
They are, in terms of outsiders, a rather antiquated form of expressing
opinion. You can say anything about newspaper reporting and there
can be a whole separate debate on that. It has been going on 30
years, but it is not going to change. A six hour debate where
people get up and talk to 20 people or whatever in the chamber
is a pretty bizarre way for opinions to be expressed. It can be
done more succinctly, more effectively and make it more interesting
in different formats. That was one of the central thoughts that
came out of our discussion: the feeling that a lot of debates
were not an effective way of expressing opinion. That is not to
say that there should not be opportunities for two groups, which
came out of your discussion last week, the balance of the Opposition
parties as parties and back benchers. Often those lines are blurred
when we talk about possible changes. Our own feelingand
we came up with various ideas, some of which your own Committee
in parallel and one additionally has looked atis of shorter,
sharper opportunities for back benchers and Opposition parties
to raise ideas. That was our suggestion, particularly in relation
to what are now known as Opposition days. There are 20 Opposition
days, by and large a waste of time. I have practically never heard
an Opposition party, which after all has the power of initiation,
put forward a proposal in a debate. They do it in a press conference,
for your party in Smith Square, for Labour in Queen Anne's Gate
and for the Liberals in Cowley Street. It is regarded as a bit
of a knock about. I would suggest a trade off of opportunity both
for parties and for back benchers for shorter, sharper opportunities
to put the executive under scrutiny.
(Mr Brazier) If I can add a couple of themes that
the Commission picked up which are relevant to this, firstly,
that the House of Commons should move towards being more of a
committee based Parliament so that less was done on the floor
of the chamber and more was done in committee and more of the
work of the committees would come into the chamber.
52. Could you perhaps be a bit more specific?
How could more work of committees come into the chamber, unless
you are saying there should be more or lengthier report stages
or that there should be more stages of a Bill, for example some
part of the committee stage should be on the floor of the House.
Are you saying that?
(Mr Brazier) No, but more select committee and scrutiny
work. It was a scrutiny commission and we did not look particularly
at standing committees but the feeling was that more work from
select committees should be picked up on the floor of the chamber.
53. I have not understood that.
(Mr Brazier) Rather than having a handful of opportunities
for select committees to be debated on the floor of the chamber,
there would be more opportunities for the findings, the recommendations,
debates on particular evidence coming out of select committees.
54. You are adding in the whole problem of Parliament
itself as a chamber, which your colleague was criticising.
(Mr Brazier) Part of one of the recommendations was
that there should be one day a week when the chamber should not
sit, solely for committees. There would be a shift towards a more
committee based Parliament.
(Mr Riddell) One of the ideas is parallel to the idea
which you proposed and which was unfortunately voted down last
October, which is that at present select committee reports, when
they are debatedexactly the same as is happening today
in the Public Accounts CommitteeI will wager that 90% of
the speakers apart from the Financial Secretary will be members
of the Public Accounts Committee. The same is true on the whole
with the Westminster Hall debates. Our suggestion is to have much
shorter, sharper things. Within, say, a month of the select committee
report coming out, you would have half hour or 40 minute exchanges
on the floor of the House, very sharply time limited, focusing
on some very tight points, producing a reply of substance. For
example, there is a report today from the Defence Select Committee
about Fylingdales. There was a statement in the House on that
a week or two ago. That would be a perfect example, something
which arouses very strong emotions in the House, for short, sharp
exchanges. The issue would be highlighted. I can think of a number
of reports, a number of committees you have been involved in,
Sir Nicholas, and other committees which, because of the time
the government takes to reply to them, get forgotten. You would
have a short debate taking up 40 minutes or so on some of the
main points of the inquiry to highlight it to your colleagues.
55. Would you say that it was a debate or would
you say that it was a statement and then the minister would deal
with questions from across the House? If it is a 30 to 40 or 45
minute debate, would it be a debate or would it be members picking
up important issues from the select committee report in question
and putting questions to the minister who was responsible, whose
department would be replying to that report in due course?
(Mr Riddell) There is an interesting blurred line
there. I agree with the premise of your question. I think it would
be more like a question but when does a long question become a
speech and when does a short speech become a question? You get
into a fine line there and you would be slightly changing the
rules on that. I am not too fussed about which way you approach
it from. I think we would know what the product looked like.
56. You ask when does a question become a speech.
When Mr Speaker intervenes and says, "The Honourable Member
has been going on too long; would he bring his question to a conclusion?"
(Mr Riddell) You would accept that the conventions
would be different.
57. Most of us have great sympathy for this
because no organisation known to me that is effective in the commercial
or any other world, except possibly some councils but I do not
know how they run themselves, organises their activities in the
way we do. It is simply not suitable to challenge the executive
and bring the executive somehow to heel. We had an example today
of some DTI questions. You bob up and down; you get one question
of the minister, no chance of a supplementary and I got a nonsense
reply. She had not even begun to understand what I was asking
her. Do you think the construction of the chamber is adrift? Can
you tell me how you foresee the format in which we debate or question
ministers and hold them to account? Is it something along the
lines that we are doing now with you?
(Mr Brazier) We had a whole range of different proposals
so that back benchers in Opposition would be able to call ministers
to account in addition to the ones we have at the moment. Some
of those we put in the memorandum for emergency debate or public
interest debates, either in Westminster Hall or in the chamber.
We wanted a whole range of different ways and one thing we did
suggest was that Parliament should experiment with different ways
of working to see if they work. Some things will work; some things
will not. After a certain period an evaluation should be made
of why they have not worked if they have not.
(Mr Riddell) Something that did work quite well is
that in Westminster Hall you now get some longer adjournment debates.
They are more like some of the ones you were used to in the old
days when it was private members' motion days. You can have an
hour and a half debate on a local issue. There was one last week
to do with a hospital in Sussex where a lot of local members spoke.
That struck me as exactly something which expanded out of the
half hour where the member starting the debate is terribly reluctant
to let anyone else in. If you have an hour and a half, there is
time when it is often a local issue like a hospital, where you
would probably get half a dozen members affected. That struck
me as exactly what should happen. That was an example of a successful
experiment. In some other cases they do not necessarily work out.
Sometimes on Thursday afternoons there has been shifting and in
select committee debates and having a full one becomes terribly
repetitious. That is why I would try something different but the
idea of having pilots and experiments which are then properly
evaluated by your committee or another committee is desirable.
58. Can I ask whether, in respect of this proposal,
you are seeking to isolate it to the 20 Opposition supply day
debates, because if you are not it is very difficult to know how
the House is going to bring it about. Currently, the government
controls the order paper and, to all intents and purposes, the
business of the House so unless you are going to say, "This
change will come in those slots which are the 20 days that the
Opposition has for subjects of their choice, mainly the Conservative
and Unionist Party but also the Liberal Democrat Party and other
(Mr Riddell) I understand the premise. It also depends
on what you do with legislation. In practice it has to start with
the 20 days. Then you get into issues like a business committee
and the allocation of time.
59. I would be a bit worried by your idea that
a six hour debate or whatever is passe«. It seems
to me that, just as you can have issues where it is clear that
a short debate is appropriate, I was on the Science and Technology
Select Committee and I suspect a six hour debate on nanotechnology
might be extremely welcome. A lot of people might find out what
is involved in that and it gives them an opportunity to explore
all the implications of the issues. We do not use the six hour
debate at all well because members come with prepared speeches.
They read the speech out and even if somebody else has said exactly
the same thing it does not deter them from reading it out. The
government wants that speech read out because that is often from
a friend and that is stopping somebody who might not be quite
such a friend from being able to make a rather more telling contribution.
Clearly, it is not just on technical matters. The debate on Iraq
was suppressed and much shorter than members would have wished
and I suspect the public would have wished. Also, if you do get
a chance to speak, you do not just speak to 20 people. To start
with, there are monitors all over the place. Secondly, whatever
you say is reflected back when you next ask a minister a question.
They go back and find out what you thought about it. I would be
a bit worried to start from the position where you seem to be
starting from, that that classical way of doing things is wrong.
I would want to say instead let us make that right and, in addition,
we could bring in some of these other ideas, not least into the
evenings, where we have some very interesting submissions about
how the evenings could be used more effectively.
(Mr Riddell) Journalists, every May or June, write
stories about Cabinet reshuffles and they are always brilliant
at writing about who is going to get promoted. They are not always
very good at who is going to get sacked. If I might draw a parallel,
it is always very easy to advocate new ideas without saying where
you are going to cut. Tony Newton, as the chairman of the Commission,
brought a dose of world weary reality to our discussion. If you
are going to propose something, where is the balance? I have been
a journalist here for over 20 years now. On the big subjects,
Iraq is a classic example, the Lords debate next week and the
Lords debate previously, that is a format for long debates and
arguably longer debates. On some subjects, in reality, the format
of using the full chamber, you are primarily talking to a small
group. That can be done in other ways. Where matters of intense
public interest are concerned, often a shorter, sharper thing
will get the wider impact. It is time to think more radically
about the format of debates. You are politicians; I am a journalist;
we are used to a certain type of discourse. I suggest that a very
high percentage of your constituents, particularly the younger
generation, regard it as weird.
(Mr Brazier) In the same way that private notice questions,
urgent questions, can come onto the agenda as statements, some
of these suggestions could come in at a similar sort of time for
an hour, so they would not eat into a massive amount of time but
would come in when the case was made for them to be taken.
Huw Irranca-Davies: Whilst I think it is right
to try some experimentation because unless we try things we will
die on our feet, I fail to see quite how going back to short,
sharp debates will avoid the situation my colleague was referring
to which is the debates still being stuffed full of either loyalists
or the usual contenders and so on. Linked to that, how would that
enable more access for back benchers such as myself with the 2002
regime and so on. You mentioned adjournment debates and I would
again invite your comment. The benefit of adjournment debates
is that the agenda is wrested from the government. It is set by
the back benchers. I would be interested in your thoughts on how
much more of short, sharp debates or longer debates should be
set outside of the government by a business committee or by back
benchers through adjournment debates and whether the evenings
or other times could be used for more of that to hold the government
to account. I see more potential in drawing the government to
account that way rather than perhaps the length of debates.