Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-124)

WEDNESDAY 29 JANUARY 2003

MR PETER RIDDELL AND MR ALEX BRAZIER

  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 overdone—that 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 constitutional issue.
  (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.

Huw Irranca-Davies

  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.

Chairman

  104. Would you, perhaps, and Alex like to make a brief comment on the use of the Royal Prerogative—in 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 ministers—which 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 ministers—to 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 treaties—I 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 speak—which is very much what happens in the House of Lords—or 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 Parliament.

Mr McWalter

  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—

Chairman

  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.

Mr Burnett

  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 record—no. 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 called—and reading Hansard or listening to the debate at, nowadays, six o'clock, you can see the frustrations and tension mounting—it 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 towards—which is inherent and I think is unavoidable—a 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.

Huw Irranca-Davies

  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 week—one of the few relatively new backbenchers—and I have an adjournment debate next week. However, it is a frustration. What I would say it is failing to recognise at the moment—and I would be interested in your response—is 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.

Chairman

  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 debate—I 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 format.

  113. I think you have given a very realistic answer.
  (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 Speaker's list?
  (Mr Brazier) My instinct is probably against a Speaker's list. I would change, probably, some of the structures you have around it—change the length of the debates, have shorter debates—and 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 speeches—people 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 scripts—or, 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 things—speaking, particularly, to Mr Riddell as a journalist—give 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.

Mr McWalter

  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 flavour—a 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.

Huw Irranca-Davies

  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 headmaster—a 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 where—not through the usual channels—behind 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 parliament—from the public I am talking about—and 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 sure—and I hope the broadcasters will do it—that when (rather than if) there is the big debate on Iraq and it is broadcast live, the viewing figures will be very high.

Chairman

  118. If the House established a rule—guidance, perhaps, is not strong enough—that 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 notes—you are not supposed to read a speech—but 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 subjects—not all, big subjects—remain, and there is a limited amount—you 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.

  119. Wonderful.
  (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.

Mr Swayne

  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 constituencies—by and large. Therefore, even in an interesting debate there would be limitations on the number of Members who can attend.
  (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 it—it 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 record—not 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 oval.

Huw Irranca-Davies

  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.

Chairman

  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 business.

Sir Robert Smith

  123. Just on the issue of good debates, Monday happened—although 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.

Chairman

  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.





 
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