Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 51-59)




  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 feeling—and we came up with various ideas, some of which your own Committee in parallel and one additionally has looked at—is 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.

Mr Burnett

  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 debated—exactly the same as is happening today in the Public Accounts Committee—I 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.

Mr Burnett

  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 minor parties".
  (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.

Mr McWalter

  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.

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