Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-124)|
WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY 2003
100. You talked about the executive but you
have not talked about the authority and power of the political
party controlling their Members of Parliament. Increasingly, initially
certainly, in the Labour Party the problem of re-selection of
a Member of Parliament has been raised and the party centrally
has weighed in (that is the local parliamentary party of an individual
Member) to try and bring him or her to heel. I perhaps could mention
a particular lady who comes from Yorkshire who has taken a very
prominent position over Iraq, and if one reads what is in the
newspapers pressure is being brought to bear on her. Do you think
that is a good thing, or do you think that when Members come here
(Mr Riddell) If you are thinking of Alice Mahon, which
I think you are
101. I am indeed.
(Mr Riddell)I think she has announced her retirement
anyway. It comes and goes. After all, Winston Churchill and Harold
Macmillan were nearly forced out in the late thirties by your
own party. If the war had been delayed by a couple of years it
is possible that Winston Churchill would not have been selected
as the Conservative candidate for his seat. Harold Macmillan had
the whip taken away from him. I think these things vary. I am
not a determinist, historically, on that. I think the pressures
of parties can be overdonethat factor can be quite overdone.
102. Do you think the taking away of the whip
from the Conservative Members over Europe was something that should
have been done? That was actually denying an individual Member
the right to say what he or she thought about a very important
(Mr Riddell) In practice, it was to give them much
more publicity than they had ever had before. Nothing did their
PR better than the removal of the whip, in fact.
103. Simply as an observation in terms of the
party political aspect, I am sure many constituents regard it
as a badge of honour if there is some mark of dissent from their
MP, and if they do have the government, in any way, leaning on
them they say "You must be doing something right". But
only to a certain extent.
(Mr Riddell) Can I raise one point on the prerogative
powers issue, which I saw raised? I think that is overdue for
being considered by the House.
104. Would you, perhaps, and Alex like to make
a brief comment on the use of the Royal Prerogativein what
areas it should be used, whether in fact it should be ended or
how Parliament should take more control over these matters or
have a greater say?
(Mr Riddell) We danced round the issue a bit in the
report because there was not entire agreement on it and people
were cautious otherwise. One, I think they need to be specified
as to what they are, because they vary enormously from actual
ones where the Royal means something to those which mostly means
it is the Prime Minister doing it. I think they need to be listed
and defined. They vary enormously, of course, from the appointment
of ministerswhich is an advice and consent power in the
US Senate, which I do not think anyone would want it to be here
because our parliamentary system and the process of election and
creation of the executive means the Prime Minister is entitled
to have his ministersto public appointments where, indeed,
the House has already moved quite a bit informally. I know it
is post hoc rather than prior, although when the Bank of
England Monetary Policy Committee was set up in the legislation
an amendment was moved with cross-party support to try and get
a confirmation process and it was voted down. However, that area
of appointments and treatiesI know there is the war issue
and the War Powers Act, but I think whilst that is obviously terribly
important, in practice it is less important because the House
will always vote on a subject as important as that. I think the
big issues are the big public appointments and things like treaties,
where the House ought to look. There is a big issue where the
present scrutiny and approval by the House are inadequate.
(Mr Brazier) I agree, obviously, with what Peter has
just said but I think to widen it slightly and go back to your
party point, the Commission very strongly felt that it could make
a distinction between the party role and the parliamentary role
in scrutiny terms, and the select committees provided the institutional
forum for that. So although many people believe that the parties
have become more and more dominant, in some ways the parliamentary
role of MPs, through select committees, shows the non-partisan,
collegiate way. Although people feel it is moving in one direction
there are positive forces moving in the other direction, as the
select committee system shows. One of the main themes of the Commission
was that when the institutional structures are correct then you
can actually challenge that party dominance and bring out the
parliamentary and scrutiny side.
Chairman: Again, there are two other
issues that do not feature in your paper but which are of concern
to this Committee in our inquiry. One is whether or not, as in
the United States, undelivered speeches might be written into
the record. That is question one. The other question, which I
am sure other colleagues will want to come in on, please, is whether
or not the Speaker of the day should publish a list of those who
are either to be called to speak in the order in which they will
be called to speakwhich is very much what happens in the
House of Lordsor whether the Speaker might publish a list
of those Members who have indicated their wish to participate
in the debate but it would be in alphabetical order and would
not be in the order in which people would be called to speak.
There is increasing concern in the House, particularly amongst
new Members, that those who are long serving and long in the tooth
appear to get preferential treatment from the Speaker. As one
of those who would, perhaps, fall into that category, I can assure
you I get no preference from Mr Speaker at all. What do you think
of these issues? They do not feature in the report of your Commission
or, for that matter, in the paper that you have sent to us, but
they are of very great interest to a large number of Members of
105. Chair, as a supplementary before the question
is answered, it has to be said that many of us would think that
if there was an alphabetical list published we could work out
what the order would be because we know exactly how the minds
of the Speaker and, particularly, the Deputy Speaker work. That
is as maybe, but that is just a supplementary. We always know
who is going to get called early, but still.
(Mr Riddell) I am a traditionalist
106. I cannot go along with that because as
far as I am concerned I do accept the discretion and integrity
of the Speaker and his colleagues, but there is concern, and Tony
McWalter has reflected it perhaps not precisely in the way that
I would have done.
(Mr Riddell) I worked in the States for three years
and I saw how Congress performed. Reading speeches onto the record,
I think, is awful.
107. You saw the point we made.
(Mr Riddell) I think it is absolutely awful. Most
of you have got websites now and it is the perfect opportunity
to let go of your frustrations when you are not called to speak.
That is slightly frivolous, but not entirely. Reading into the
recordno. I do not think it works. On the list point, I
very seldom hear the Lords debates but I often read them and they
are completely disconnected. There may be other reasons for that,
given the nature of the Lords as a quasi political body, the background
of its members and so on. Even ex-members of this place like to
pretend they are not politicians when they get there. I think
I would be against a formal list. Frustrating though it is to
those Members who are not calledand reading Hansard or
listening to the debate at, nowadays, six o'clock, you can see
the frustrations and tension mountingit is always going
to be trying to get a quart or even a gallon into a pint pot.
That is inherent in the process.
108. With respect, you have not justified your
antagonism towards this. If the Speaker has a list and Members
know, either formally or informally, if they are going to be called
and roughly when they are going to be called, they will abide
by the rules of the House, which mean that if you want to be called
you have got to be there. If you are on the list and you do not
attend you are going to be struck off the list.
(Mr Riddell) The problem with that is: "Right,
it is going to be four o'clock I am called, perhaps I am going
to be polite and get there at a quarter to four."
109. The rules are not like that; you have got
to be there for the bulk of it.
(Mr Riddell) The rules are not like that now because
there is not a formal list. You might have a rough idea when you
are likely to be called: you are a Lib Dem, your front bench spokesman
has been on, so you are going to have to wait a bit afterwards.
That is, in practice, how it works, if I am not misreading that.
I think there is an inherent problem; it is a gallon into a pint
pot, and there are no easy ways round that without changing the
nature of debates, and so on. Having a formal list accentuates
the process towardswhich is inherent and I think is unavoidablea
lack of actual debate, unless you have time-list debates. Either
that or the more focused ones we were talking about at the beginning.
Perhaps I am too much of a traditionalist; Alex may have a more
lively view on this.
110. Too traditionalist, you said?
(Mr Riddell) Yes.
111. I have listened with great interest to
what you have said, as a very new backbencher, and I have to say,
from that viewpoint, I have not been unfairly treated; I was called
on the defence debate last weekone of the few relatively
new backbenchersand I have an adjournment debate next week.
However, it is a frustration. What I would say it is failing to
recognise at the momentand I would be interested in your
responseis the changing role of an MP. Increasingly nowadays
we deal with campaign issues, more and more committees and we
deal with constituency work and so on. The frustration of sitting
through two or three debates on a similar subject for, perhaps,
14 hours to get, perhaps, called for 10 minutes is like the January
sales, where you wait all night to find a bargain. That is, again,
not only frustrating it is a very inefficient use of a modern
MP's time. If there were a way to get round that it would be a
benefit to the House and, also, to the constituents we are sent
here to represent.
(Mr Riddell) Perhaps that says something about the
nature of debate as a way of getting it across.
112. I am sure, Peter, you will admit, although
I have grown to accept it, it is a very wasteful use of an MP's
time. To take the example of Iain Luke on Iraq, he came all the
way down from Scotland for that day and he sat throughout the
debateI think going out once to answer the call of nature.
Then Huw has talked about sitting through two debates which could
be for as many as 12 or 13 hours and not being called.
(Mr Riddell) On Iraq, where the debate is a matter
of real passion and real concern, the debate ought to be longer.
Some debates ought to be longer. This comes back to discretion
and so on. They ought to be longer and, perhaps, extended. In
other cases, shorter, sharper. It is also the nature of debate.
I understand fully, and wearing my journalist's hat I have got
a lot of sympathy for you on that, but it is inherent in the debate
format. I think the only answer in practice when it is a really
big issue, like Iraq or the fire dispute or whatever, is to accept
that you should have longer debates, but otherwise it is, perhaps,
a reflection of the inherent unsatisfactoriness of the debate
113. I think you have given a very realistic
(Mr Brazier) We did not actually discuss that at all
in the Commission. The fact that we discussed so many different
things but we did not discuss either of those two issues probably
indicates there was not a great deal of demand from the Commission
itself. So it was not something we looked at at all.
114. What is your view? You worked in the House,
you are now in the Hansard Society. What is your view about a
(Mr Brazier) My instinct is probably against a Speaker's
list. I would change, probably, some of the structures you have
around itchange the length of the debates, have shorter
debatesand I would have, on some of these issues, where
you can talk for 90 seconds or three minutes, so that you have
a lot of people making very short points and at least getting
on to the record one way or another. I think there are dangers
and benefits both ways round, but it is not something I am particularly
attracted to myself.
Mr McWalter: I was just wondering if
there was any way in which you had any views about how the quality
of debates might be improved. I was interested in your observation
about the House of Lords debates and, as it were, people not interacting
enough. I am sure that is one key to effective debate. The second
issue, for those of us who are left till last or do not get called
at all, is the sheer tedium of much that is said, because the
speeches are read out and, as we have indicated already, people
will read out what they have written even if it has all been said
before. I suppose one issue is whether one should prioritise people
who are not reading out speechespeople who are genuinely
listening to other people, picking up the points that others have
made and responding to those and not reading out speeches from
prepared scriptsor, if they wish to read out from prepared
scripts, they let the Speaker know and they are limited to five
minutes. Are there issues like that which, potentially, could
among other thingsspeaking, particularly, to Mr Riddell
as a journalistgive journalists some incentive to not vacate
the gallery the moment the main debate starts and then only pick
up the speeches in the next day's paper from their mates so that
the result is that the backbenchers' contributions do not get
heard and do not get reported?
Chairman: Before Mr Riddell answers that,
he has been here and I have been here when the press gallery has
been very substantially full for a major part of the debate, not
just for the opening but, again, at the closing of debates. Today
that is very seldom the case.
115. My question was on the quality of debate.
(Mr Riddell) If I go backwards into that, I think
that is also very cyclical, too. I was sitting up in the gallery
and Sir Nicholas was sitting on the floor of the House during
many of the happy hours spent debating the Maastricht Treaty enactment
legislation when the votes really mattered because they were life
or death to the Major Government. Those were absolutely packed.
That political situation may recur at some stage in the future.
Two points on that: one is that it underlines the Speaker's discretion.
That is why the Speaker needs both a deaf ear and a blind eye.
You all know who the bores are rather better than I do, and that
is where a bit of discretion or a bit of a Nelsonian touch is
needed. I think it is very difficult to be hard and fast. The
other thing is that it perhaps comes back to the point that the
format is wrong on traditional debate. As a journalist, picking
up backbench points, there have been three recent big issues.
On higher education there was an hour plus of questioning a week
ago, and I listened to all of it to inform what I was writing
the following day. I am sure when there is a full debate in the
House I may or may not listen to all the opening speeches, but
I got a pretty good flavour of the diverse currents in both major
parties on higher education. Secondly, yesterday on the fire service
dispute, Mr Luke, for example, made a fairly pointed question
that registered with me that there was not all happiness on the
Labour benches in relation to what John Prescott was announcing
on the fire service dispute, more than if there was a full day's
debate on it today. Similarly on Iraq. That is where, I think,
from my point of view as a journalist, I am going to get a flavoura
backbench flavour on that. The full-scale debate is something
I catch up on later on. You can play around with it to some extent,
but inherently you are going to be frustrated because you cannot
all speak, except on big things where I think you ought to extend
the hours. There are a limited amount of gimmicks you can do.
116. Any observations, Alex?
(Mr Brazier) Just to reiterate that it is not necessarily
the structures and the list, or whatever, it is the different
types of opportunities that backbenchers have to make their points,
as Peter has just said, on the record. I think what we are suggesting
is a whole different range that could encompass the long debates,
the short debates and the very, very short debates, and that would
provide more opportunities in the first place for backbenchers
to get on the record.
117. Returning to the concept of a Speaker's
list, one of the arguments often put against it is that it would
empty the chamber; if you know you are on the list you will be
there, if you are not on the list then you will go off and do
something else. I put it to you that very often, despite some
very good debates in the chamber, there are occasions now where
the chamber is very empty because people have withdrawn from the
chamber either because they know they have no hope of being heard
or for other reasons. That is one point I would be interested
in your comments on. The other aspect is going back to what Mr
McWalter said: would it be, in your opinion, a good thing if the
Speaker gave clearer guidance in order to improve the quality
of the debate on the use of notes, reminders, set speeches, etc
and the taking of interventions in order to increase the amount
of jousting and genuine interchange as opposed to prepared things
that I can put in the local press?
(Mr Riddell) Yes, but it is discretionary. That is
the Speaker as headmastera few raised eyebrows and so on.
Also, as I say, it goes back to the bores' point. I can think
of two or three Members who it is, perhaps, not desirable that
they are called very often and then perhaps they will get the
message. Otherwise, that is wherenot through the usual
channelsbehind the Speaker's chair does come in, in a way,
of saying "Hold on, would it not be better if you did?"
I think you can only do it that way.
(Mr Brazier) I agree. Genuine debate is far, far more
interesting to listen to than a collection of disconnected, arranged
speeches. I think it is important that if we are going to get
people interested in parliamentfrom the public I am talking
aboutand have something that they want to listen to, a
popular debate where there is jousting, it is far more likely
to grab their attention than endless prepared speeches.
(Mr Riddell) It depends on the subject matter too;
some subjects will, some will not. I am sureand I hope
the broadcasters will do itthat when (rather than if) there
is the big debate on Iraq and it is broadcast live, the viewing
figures will be very high.
118. If the House established a ruleguidance,
perhaps, is not strong enoughthat written speeches would
not be tolerated and if Members were known to be going to deliver
hold on. I say to my colleague, Desmond Swayne, you can refer
to prolific notes and you can refer frequently to prolific notesyou
are not supposed to read a speechbut if it was made clearer
by the House and by the Speaker that written speeches would not
encourage the Speaker to call somebody again, do you think that
that would increase the spontaneity of debate and enable more
people to get in?
(Mr Riddell) It is a balance between formal rules
and inherent behaviour. I still have my inherent doubts that the
current format of long debates on many issues still apply; that
that method of stating an argument on a lot of subjectsnot
all, big subjectsremain, and there is a limited amountyou
take the horse to water, and so on. I also think that the background
and tradition of public speaking has changed significantly, and
you cannot change that. That is there and you have got to accept
the limitations. There are still good debates. I think someone
was reporting in your evidence last week the William Hague speech
on the House of Lords debate.
(Mr Riddell) A very eloquent speech. I am thinking
of another example post-September 11 when there was a debate on
the Terrorism Bill, for example, with Douglas Hogg from your and
Mr Swayne's party making very effective speeches on the terrorism
legislation. It can occur but it is very much dependent on the
subject matter. I think I would be slightly wary of hoping you
can change things where there is a long-term decline.
120. On the question of speeches, I think it
is a question of the will of the chair to enforce the existing
standing orders, really, but I would like you to comment on this
notion that was introduced, that somehow the interest in the debate
will determine the attendance in the chamber. The reality is that
now there are six standing committees sitting on bills with 30
Members, there are any number of select committees, and Westminster
Hall is sitting even now, at the same time as the main chamber.
When the Leader of the House pointed out that the hours of the
House had only changed as a result of gas lighting he may have
been right, but when we had gas lighting we did not have standing
committees, we did not have select committees and we did not have
constituenciesby and large. Therefore, even in an interesting
debate there would be limitations on the number of Members who
(Mr Riddell) I will not reply on your views of the
1832 Reform Bill, and I do not know how the New Forest was represented
in those Halcyon days. Point taken. I am very critical of my press
colleagues that when the hours changed people said "Oh well,
nobody is in the chamber". There was a very stupid piece,
I think, in the Independent on Sunday on that, which I
think was completely wrong because plenty of people were along
these corridors and in Portcullis House. There is a danger in
saying that the measure of activity is what is happening in the
chamber, but it is to recognise the variability of itit
depends on the subject. Fair enough. You have got plenty of things
to do; you are doing more useful things if you are here or in
another committee or doing a party thing or on the `phone to your
constituents. I think one of the problems is recognising that
factor, actually. Tony Wright made the point last week to you
about the Labour re-selections, when the letter goes on the voting
recordnot saying "What else have you been doing?"
I have yet to meet an MP who has said they have had much recognition
from their constituents for what they do when they sit in this
121. Would you recognise that that is actually
quite a strong argument for a Speaker's list, in that we know
that we are on various parliamentary groups, and we can prioritise
that? What we cannot prioritise is when we think we will be called.
(Mr Riddell) That is a guarantee of fairly turgid
debate. It is a guarantee of what they have in the Lords. Lords
debates are incredibly boring. I only read them because they are
better to read than to listen to.
122. But sometimes they are well-informed.
(Mr Riddell) Sometimes.
Chairman: I think we had better come to the
last questioner. Although he has turned up very late, I can say
from the Chair that he has been attending to other parliamentary
Sir Robert Smith
123. Just on the issue of good debates, Monday
happenedalthough it was entitled "Electricity (Miscellaneous
Provisions) Bill"to produce a very good debate with
people interchanging and taking points of information, because
it was on the rescue of British Energy, and a lot of public money
had been spent. Following on some earlier questions about current
standing orders being, maybe, imposed more rigorously, in the
days when Desmond Swayne and his colleagues were able to keep
the House up quite late in the previous Parliament, occasionally
you heard the standing order on tedious repetition being invoked,
and I just wondered if, on some of these speeches, there is not
something for the Chair saying "That point has clearly been
made and is on the record".
(Mr Riddell) All I would say on that is far be it
for a journalist to rule on tedious repetition! Otherwise I would
be out of a job. Also, what you may think is your distinguished
colleague to your left's tedious repetition (although I am sure
you never do) is his brilliant, original point. I have got a lot
of sympathy for the people in the chair dealing with 658 colleagues
who all think they have got a right to be heard and who all think
they are saying something original. I just really do think there
is a limit to what you can do with the material you have got in
front of you, if you are in the chair, but I think there may be
a case for more informally saying "Look, you are not going
to be called again quickly" or being done by the whips, or
whatever. Apart from reiterating from the chair "This is
supposed to be Mr Swayne's point", "You should not read
speeches", and so on, perhaps a few more ex cathedra statements
sometimes do work. For example, the current Speaker has been quite
active in the last six months on lengths of questions, and so
on. I would not say it has had a wonderful effect but it does
have an effect when it is applied occasionally. "I have got
three questions to ask" and he says "No, do the one".
That is quite effective.
124. Can I, on behalf of all of my colleagues
on the Procedure Committee thank Alex Brazier and Peter Riddell
very much for, I think, the stimulating and forthright evidence
which they have given to us. It will be very vital to the report
which we produce. You have both been involved with the Commission
on Parliamentary Scrutiny; one as the Deputy Chairman and the
other as Clerk, and also members of the Hansard Society and its
council. Can I thank you very much for the excellent evidence
that you have given; it has been an exciting and interesting session.
Thank you both very much.
(Mr Brazier) Thank you.
(Mr Riddell) Thank you.