Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY 2003

MR PETER RIDDELL AND MR ALEX BRAZIER

Chairman

  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.

Huw Irranca-Davies

  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-1979—there were few select committees—the 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.

Mr Burnett

  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 or business.

  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 the agenda.
  (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 want raised.

Chairman

  67. Are you suggesting that the House should be enabled—not the government—for 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.

Huw Irranca-Davies

  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.

Chairman

  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 of this?
  (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.

Mr Swayne

  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 now.
  (Mr Brazier) Our general view was that there should be more rather than fewer statements, so we did not consider that possibility.

Chairman

  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.

Mr Burnett

  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 out.

  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 account.

  79. What other indicative factors should be taken into account?
  (Mr Riddell) Topicality, seriousness and so on.



 
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