Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)|
WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY 2003
60. Two colleagues now, Tony McWalter and Huw
Irranca-Davies, have raised the feeling that is bubbling up since
the new timetable came in a short while ago that there is a waste
of parliamentary time on a Tuesday and Wednesday between seven
and ten. Would some of the ideas that you put forward and some
of the ideas that Huw has mooted fall into these particular slots?
(Mr Riddell) We are in early days. I do not quite
take the view of Zhou En-lai when asked about the French Revolution
who said, "It is too early to tell." There is an interesting
potential in the evenings, especially as a lot of the staff are
here. There are some areas where there are not votes and a lot
of debates that we are talking about could happen then. We are
not saying that all 20 days go. Some of the days might be traded
for a variety of things. There have been massive changes in this
House in the last decade. If you went back a decade, you would
see a very different place. Therefore, some of it would be to
give the right to get a minister to the floor of the House. Ministers
make statements but a lot of things they do not want to make statements
on. That would give the right to the Opposition. It would also
be for back benchers too. This was implicit in the idea voted
down of a topical question, enabling back benchers to do that.
The adjournment debate is a very good thing. It is a classic part
of your representational role, to raise a grievance on behalf
of your constituents. One of the best bits of Westminster Hall
are the quasi-local issues like the hospital I mentioned. I would
not want to do away with that at all. Some of the set piece occasions
are inward looking things where the time is not properly used.
61. Do you feel that would make the government
more accountable and it would have a more incisive analysis of
the government's position with a shorter debate?
(Mr Riddell) On some issues, yes. It depends, but
mainly by having ministers talking. One of the biggest changes
and gains of select committees is not necessarily reports but
that, at the table, you get a minister and civil servants answering.
That did not happen before. Sir Nicholas's experience goes back
30 years. He remembers pre-1979there were few select committeesthe
degree of opening up of government produced by committees. A classic
illustration of where it went wrong was going back to the poll
tax. The environment committee at the time decided not to have
a report. The subject was too contentious, to its terrible shame.
It should have had a report because some of the problems would
have come out. It is forcing people to account. The more you increase
that, the more you do your job.
62. I agree that many set piece debates are
artificial, ineffective and choreographed. I am a great believer
in having far more informal, direct questioning, a member direct
to the minister, not through the Chair. Is there any overseas
legislature that you could recommend that has a procedure that
is effective so that a member is not stuck with just one question;
he can go on and on and, if necessary, on and on again at the
minister until the minister gives him or her some answer or is
forced to say, "I do not know"?
(Mr Brazier) I am not sure we have direct evidence
that they can go on and on until they get the answers. On select
committees they can.
63. I am talking about taking this to the floor
of the House.
(Mr Brazier) Most of the European legislatures have
the provision for emergency debates or emergency statements where
the opposition or a party balance of MPs can call ministers on
a particular question. I am not quite sure of the length of time
but they have a mechanism to get that on.
64. In 24 hours?
(Mr Brazier) Yes, very quickly.
65. They can instigate it immediately?
(Mr Brazier) Not immediately but very quickly. In
Australia, they have a whole day for private members' affairs
66. A day a week?
(Mr Brazier) Yes, Mondays. They have debates. They
have 90 second statements where you can put anything on the record.
Most of the Mondays are for private members. Most European legislatures
have something to bring members debates forward if the House calls
for them. We have urgent questions and Standing Order 24 type
debates but they are very rarely used. It is very much part of
our proposal that there should be some mechanism to get them onto
(Mr Riddell) There have been occasions where front
benchers have not wanted to discuss an issue. I remember during
the miners' strike neither the government nor the official opposition
wanted a debate on the miners' strike. There was no serious discussion
about the miners' strike for a period of a couple of months. Clearly,
there was a lot of back bench opinion and day after day they were
saying, "Why cannot we have a debate?" I remember Speaker
Weatherill's frustration. He had no real mechanism and opportunity
to give private members, on a national issue, a limited right
of raising an urgent matter that perhaps front benchers did not
67. Are you suggesting that the House should
be enablednot the governmentfor instance since the
report by Hans Blix on Monday to have a debate on Iraq? Are you
suggesting there should be a mechanism to enable the House to
demand, to insist, to organise, irrespective of what the government
or, for that matter, the main Opposition or other opposition parties'
leadership might say?
(Mr Riddell) Subject to certain safeguards, yes. You
batted around last week about whether you have a trigger mechanism
of numbers of members. It is a very difficult balance but yes,
basically. I believe that when something is an urgent matter it
should be debated. You would have to have some safeguard to ensure
this was not just one section of one party across the floor and
some kind of trigger mechanism for it, preferably something like
a business committee to intermediate.
68. I am intrigued by what my colleague, Mr
Burnett, just said. Do you see any possibility of this experimentation
for the opportunity to follow through not just for government
ministers? We see that at the despatch box where the Opposition
leader and the Prime Minister will come back and forth at each
other. For example, a trade off. Instead of ten minutes speaking,
a back benchers could come full force for five minutes, sit down
and come back for another few minutes if the questions have not
been answered because that would give an opportunity for follow
through and be more effective than one hit.
(Mr Brazier) We did not recommend that but that would
be part of what we say for experiments, that any good idea should
be looked at. The key is to have a proper evaluation.
69. That is the one opportunity for people on
select committees of coming back and driving a question until
they are either satisfied or the minister succumbs and admits
that he or she has not the answer. Not many are prepared to admit
that. You recommend short debates on substantive issues. I refer
to paragraph five of your paper. How important is it for such
a debate to take place on a substantive motion so as to allow
a vote at the end of it? I say that as distinct from a debate
on the adjournment, such as the one and a half hour debates on
the adjournment in Westminster Hall. What would be the advantage
(Mr Riddell) I think it is the subject, not the vote.
The House has to be given the opportunity to vote on issues but
a lot of the time you spend voting is a waste of time. It is formulaic.
Thank heavens we do not have the position in Congress where your
opponents are going to say how you voted on X and Y. It is more
important to have the issue raised and to force the minister to
give an answer. I would not have votes for those things, no.
(Mr Brazier) There are very few opportunities other
than opposition day debates which end with votes. I think the
idea was to have occasionally the potential for some debates that
would have a substantive motion but they would not by any means
be the majority.
70. Despite the rather surprising suggestion
that we might do something between seven and ten, it is unfortunate
but I suspect that outside this room that would be regarded as
a rather controversial suggestion, that the House should sit for
longer hours. We are really dealing with the additional time that
might be made available as being what is currently the Opposition's
time. During our last inquiry, I did suggest to the Leader of
the House when he came to give evidence that the Opposition would
be prepared to trade some of its days for a guaranteed number
of private notice questions. He said that he was very interested
in that suggestion and would want to reflect on it, so I suspect
that door is still ajar but for the moment therefore we are still
stuck with the additional emergency opportunities, if you like,
as being the private notice question. Are you happy with the criteria
currently used for determining whether we get an urgent question?
What would you suggest should be the criteria for determining
whether the Speaker holds an urgent question or not?
(Mr Riddell) It depends how much weight you put on
the Speaker. This is a very serious issue. Lots of suggestions
can be made on a whole range of things like the recall of Parliament
and so on where the Speaker will decide. An awful lot of weight
has been put on any Speaker and past Speakers I have discussed
this with say, "Hold on, there is a limit." The first
part of your question about the suggested trade-off is a much
better solution because of the pressures on the Speaker. I would
want to tilt the balance more so that it is of right that the
opposition says, "We want this when the government is resisting
it." They have a certain number of times they can claim.
I have always been in favour of the Speaker annoying the government
occasionally. The Speaker will sometimes say to the government,
"I am going to give a private notice question unless you
come up with a statement" and, surprise, surprise, there
is a statement. I think this is putting a little too much weight
on the Speaker. I would tilt the balance more.
71. How about considering the opposite circumstance
where the House might decide that it does not want to hear the
statement, as they have the power to do in the House of Lords?
They can decide not to take a statement. There are times when
governments might find it expedient to put a statement on to delay
proceedings past critical media opportunities etc; or if the House
has been abused by a statement having effectively been given on
the early morning news programmes. Do you think that is a power
that should be available in the Commons as well as in the Lords?
(Mr Riddell) It might be an idea to fix a minimum
time for second reading debates or the big debates to prevent
three statements, half hour points of order and your debate goes
down to four and a half hours. It is a bit hard to say, "No,
we do not want to hear." My memory goes back to Enoch Powell
objecting to a statement because he regarded it as trivial. He
is the only member I have ever heard say that. On the media point,
the change in hours changes all that and the world is different
(Mr Brazier) Our general view was that there should
be more rather than fewer statements, so we did not consider that
72. Do you agree with Peter Riddell that if
there are going to be more statements, when you have a second
reading on that particular day, there should be a minimum time
for the second reading?
(Mr Brazier) Yes, I think that is probably very important.
Sometimes if we have two or three statements together, which I
have seen in the past, it can eat into the time.
73. How would that be achieved?
(Mr Brazier) The Commission did say that there should
be a business committee or a steering committee. That underpins
quite a lot of the things we have talked about.
74. We heard a little about the business committee
last week from Mark Fisher and his colleagues and I felt their
evidence was excellent. Are you prepared to add briefly, in dealing
with Desmond Swayne's question and the supplementary that I have
put, any more explanation about this business committee and how
it would operate?
(Mr Riddell) In the very early days of the devolved
parliaments, we had a very interesting visit to Scotland. They
have an effective business committee which is chaired by David
Steel. It has whips on and it also has representatives in the
Scottish Parliament and not only executive parties but one or
two individuals. There is weighted voting there but it ensures
transparency. It is an antidote to the usual channels. The executive
parties on the whole get their way but they have to argue it.
What was suggested by Mark Fisher and his colleagues last week
was something with just back benchers on. In practice, you would
have to have a kind of hybrid committee because I cannot see the
whips not being involved in some time allocation. You have a mixture,
rather like the House of Commons Commission, of back benchers
and so on and it becomes a transparent committee. The minutes
are published and so on. We know what is happening. Transparency
is a great virtue because some things people are prepared to do
behind the scenes they find it a damned sight more difficult to
do if they have to justify them publicly. They can still do things
which we do not like but they have to justify them. In terms of
deciding on length of debates and things like that, you have to
be more open. It does not mean the government would not get its
way a lot of the time, but you have to argue the case. On minimum
debates, it would not be from, say, 12.30 to seven but you would
say that second reading debate has to last at least five hours
or something like that to give you a bit of flexibility. On the
business committee point, the main virtue we saw in that was transparency
plus representation of back benchers.
Mr Swayne: One of the more bizarre suggestions
for protecting the legislative business or the main debate was
the Opposition proposal that the House should meet at 9.30, have
the morning given over to statements, questions and short, sharp
exchanges, break for lunch and come back with the afternoon's
business being the legislative programme or the main debate.
75. Early day motions are unfortunately an impotent
procedure and they are sometimes called the graffiti of politics.
We have talked a little about trigger mechanisms but how would
you trigger or find a threshold for something like the early day
motion to precipitate a debate and how would you draw proportionately
from the parties so as to ensure that the procedure is not abused?
(Mr Brazier) In the Commission, we suggested somewhere
between 150 and 200 members drawn proportionally from the House
as a whole, across the parties, should be enough to trigger a
public interest debate. The examples we used were the Child Support
Agency and the Passport Agency, both of which had massive impacts
on MPs' caseloads but took quite a while before they ended up
going through the parliamentary agenda. We felt they were good
examples of something that MPs across the parties would have said
were issues that needed to be debated now. They probably would
have got a debate through that mechanism. It would be the early
day motion becoming a trigger for a debate. That would give it
some sort of meaning and purpose. We did not come to a definitive
number. We thought roughly between 150 and 200.
76. Roughly 25% of Members of Parliament?
(Mr Brazier) Assuming the payroll vote were taken
77. 25% across the three main parties?
(Mr Brazier) Yes.
78. What about the Nationalists?
(Mr Brazier) It was as a whole.
(Mr Riddell) This is where you want a business committee
as an intermediating body. I am sceptical of mechanistic solutions
on this. There has to be a bit more discretion. Perhaps there
should be guidelines for a business committee rather than an absolute
insistence. I am slightly sceptical on just totting up the numbers
on an EDM. It ought to be an indicative thing to be taken into
79. What other indicative factors should be
taken into account?
(Mr Riddell) Topicality, seriousness and so on.