Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 203-219)




  203. Can I warmly welcome our witnesses. Apologies for keeping you for just a minute or two but we had some private business which we had to complete. Can I thank you for coming to help us with our inquiry. We have some very distinguished members of the House to give evidence to us today. Tam Dalyell, the Member for Linlithgow, is the Father of the House and has submitted a paper. Sir Patrick Cormack is a very senior Conservative Member of the House, having been in for some 32 years. Dr Richard Taylor, interestingly, is the only Independent in the House. We welcome him and thank him for the contribution that he has made, and of course Peter Bradley is the Member for The Wrekin. All these witnesses have submitted papers to us. Can I from the Chair ask the first question, and I am presuming that those who are giving evidence have actually read some of the evidence that has already been published as part of our inquiry. Peter Riddell of the Hansard Society said on 29 January that, " . . . 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 . . . in different formats . . . a lot of debates were not an effective way of expressing opinion". I put it to our witnesses: should some debates in the House be shorter than is currently the case?

  (Mr Dalyell) I think it depends on whether speeches are truncated or not. If it is just a series of nine or ten minute speeches that is deeply unsatisfactory. If people who know about the subject in the opinion of the Speaker are asked to speak and are allowed to make 25-minute speeches, that I think is rather effective.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I find myself much in sympathy with what Mr Dalyell has said. Of course, there are occasions when a two or three hour debate is entirely adequate, and of course there are occasions when it is perfectly appropriate to limit the time of speeches, but, as Mr Dalyell made the point in his submission to you, where would some of the great speeches of the past have been and some of the great orators who moulded this place if they had been limited to eight or 12 or even 15 minutes? It is a question of balance and getting the balance right. What I am concerned about is having people in the chamber and that is why I have suggested that the Speaker should be particularly tough on those who do not honour the parliamentary convention of being there at the appropriate times. My own view also is that there should be a slot in every debate when the Speaker genuinely lets people catch his eye. That would encourage attendance, I think, if you felt you really did have a chance and it was not just a question of the list. I would not be against publishing some names but I would have one slot in a major debate of at least an hour and in a short debate of at least half an hour where Members could rise in their seats and have a real chance of participating in the debate. The worst thing about our debates is that so many Members have written their speeches, they read their speeches, they pay no regard to what has been said by the speakers that have preceded them and, having read their speeches, they disappear shortly afterwards and if you are very lucky come back for the wind-up. That is no way to run a parliament. I do think that we should take some lessons from the way they do it at the other end of the corridor where the attendances are better throughout and there is a degree of spontaneity that we do not always have.

  204. Very quickly in response to that and, if colleagues want to come in at any stage I urge them to do so, are you suggesting that Members need not write to Mr Speaker for this half hour or hour slot in a major debate requesting to catch his eye? Are you suggesting that they just rise in their places?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Absolutely. I am suggesting that there should be an allocation of time in every debate, and it depends on the length of the debate how long that should be, and Members should be told that they will not get any preferential treatment by writing. That does not preclude Members from writing for the greater portion of the debate, but I am a tremendous believer in spontaneity. I have been in the chamber on many occasions and have suddenly been moved to make a speech and if it has been the report stage of a Bill or something like that then one is called but otherwise you do not stand a chance and it seems to me that sometimes we probably miss out on quite a lot.

  205. Could you spell out, because you are a stickler for tradition, what you believe the courtesies and the traditions of the House are that should be honoured by all Members if they wish to speak in a debate?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) The courtesies are that the Member must be there from the word go. No excuse should be accepted for missing even five minutes of the opening speeches. The Member must stay for at least the two speeches following and must be there for a wind-up but the Member should be expected to be there pretty well throughout.

  206. Peter Bradley?
  (Peter Bradley) The first thing is that everyone, I imagine, can make a case for speaking 25 or 35 minutes on the basis of their knowledge of an issue or their passionate commitment to it. We have to have some way of limiting the length of speeches when there is pressure on time, when there are Members who want to speak in a debate. Frankly, although I can see the point that some of the greatest speeches in the House of Commons and elsewhere have taken more than ten minutes, for the most part I suspect that longer speeches can be distilled into ten minutes and if they cannot then probably there is something wrong with the speech. The key question is, what is the chamber actually for? You quoted the occasions on which people are making speeches to an empty chamber. Why are they there? They are not really these days going to persuade people from positions they have already adopted because if they were to do that they would have to persuade those Members not only to change their minds but also to defy their Whips.

  207. Could I just come in there? Do you not think that Ann Clwyd in the debate on Iraq might well have swayed a number of her colleagues? Whether or not that was to defy the Whip a hundred and whatever members of the Labour Party were prepared to do that. Do you not think that her speech was very telling?
  (Peter Bradley) I think there will be occasions where it is possible that good speeches can dissuade people from positions they have already adopted but I think they are few and far between. They will be typically in cases where the issue is a matter of a free vote or where there are pressing matters of conscience that are being debated. There are some MPs, although regrettably perhaps not all, who, loyal as they may be to their party, also are prepared to exercise their conscience. On those rare occasions yes, I think it is possible, but they are few and far between. For the most part people know which way they are going to vote whether they attend the chamber or not. We all are aware, and it would be silly to deny it, that we ourselves and many of our colleagues troop through the lobbies at the end of the debate asking each other what Bill it is that we are voting on, never mind what the issues are and what has been said in the chamber. I think we have to consider the importance of the chamber and what it really represents. Are we there to express the views of our constituents or our own views on behalf of our constituents rather than making speeches in the vain hope that we will persuade people to change their minds? That is the key question in my own mind.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) You ask what the chamber is for and what it should be. In a word, it should be the cockpit of the nation. What I want to see is the chamber reinstated in that position. I thought last week the debate on Iraq was a very good example of the chamber at its best. Examples of that are few and far between. I am one of those who frankly deplores the Westminster Hall experiment because I believe that the chamber should be the place, but that is my prejudice and I readily admit to it. We all have prejudices. Yes, it should be the cockpit of the nation. People should be encouraged to participate and to stay and I think some of the things I have suggested might have a real effect on increased attendances.

  208. I want to come back to Peter Bradley but I feel I am obliged to ask Dr Richard Taylor to come in.
  (Dr Taylor) Thank you very much, Mr Chairman. I am very hesitant because, as you know, I am one of the newest Members and therefore one of the least experienced and I bow to what my eminent companions on this table say. Not that long ago a backbench Tory said he had never ever seen anybody change their mind. I forget which debate that was in, but it was in one in which I changed my mind so there was one person who changed their mind. The six-hour debates to 20 people absolutely amazed me when I arrived here. I always remember for my maiden speech it was meant to be on a Thursday and I did not get in and I was very tempted to quote William Cobbett before his maiden speech because he said, "Mr Speaker, it appears to me that since I have been sitting here I have heard a great deal of vain and unprofitable conversation". I did not dare to say that and I am sure that was not right, but I am with people who certainly have said that most contributions could be condensed and this is why, exactly the opposite to Sir Patrick, I really like the 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall because the people there are all going to speak, or hopefully they are all going to speak. They have all got a view and it usually makes a much more interesting debate. As a single person who finds it utterly impossible to be in two places at once, to commit a whole six hours is sometimes extraordinarily difficult. Like Sir Patrick, if I am going to speak I want to be there for the opening speeches and really for the speeches before I speak because somebody might say what you were going to say, so it is a total commitment of really a whole day which can be difficult.

  209. Can I just come back to Peter Bradley because he talked about people not changing their mind, or very seldom changing their mind. Is that not, Mr Bradley, an indictment of the thoughtless whipping systems that we have in the House which deny people apparently the right to do what they believe to be right and adequately to represent the views of their constituents which may not necessarily be in accordance with a particular policy that their party is implementing?
  (Peter Bradley) I think I would need about 300 years' notice of that question. I think you are ranging way beyond the issue of the procedures of the House.

  210. My prerogative.
  (Peter Bradley) It is, of course, your prerogative but of course you are a Conservative Member of Parliament. If we were not going to have Whips then it would be very difficult to be a Conservative Member. It is already very difficult to be a Conservative Member, but it would be almost impossible to be a member of any organised political party; I think we all accept that. As I said earlier, it does take courage now to vote against your Whip but there are Members of Parliament who are prepared to do so when they are sufficiently moved to do so and that is a very noble tradition and I would hate to see that disappear. I am not sure, however, that our electors would want us to dispense with the whipping arrangements. I know we all like to think that we are here because of our own personal qualities, our charisma and our appeal to our electors, but most of us are here because of the party we represent and they expect us to speak for that party as well as to exercise our own judgement. Just to pick you up on a point, you say that perhaps we should be here to represent the views of our constituents. I would suggest that that is an extremely difficult thing to do on issues as divisive, for example, as Iraq. Richard Taylor says he cannot divide himself into two. I do not think I could divide myself into seven, eight or nine. Ultimately we are here because we represent a party and also, hopefully, because our constituents believe we have the right qualities. We have to balance the loyalty we owe to our party and to our duty to be politically consistent to our constituents on the one hand and the exercise of our independent judgement and our own consciences on the other. That is something we will have to wrestle with just as our predecessors have and no doubt our successors will.

  211. A specific question to Mr Dalyell who was very brief in his first response. Mr Dalyell, what attributes in your view make a debate a really effective use of parliamentary time?
  (Mr Dalyell) When those who are speaking know something about the subject that they are speaking on. On the changing of mind, all right, circumstances in 2003 are rather different from circumstances in the 1960s, but there was a changing of mind and it was a changing of the Prime Minister's mind in relation to Vietnam. After he ceased to be a Prime Minister the first time and before he became Prime Minister for the second time, Harold Wilson was a great gossip to us. When asked by me, had Michael Foot and Jack Mendelson actually changed his mind on whether to commit the battalion of bagpipers that Lyndon Johnson asked for symbolically into Vietnam, he admitted yes, the speeches of Michael Foot and Jack Mendelson were a major factor. Another major factor actually was Sir Maurice Oldfield but that is a different story. The fact is that the debates mattered. I do not know whether you are having Jim Callaghan before you; perhaps it is a bit difficult, now he is 90 years old, but he might have some interesting things to say about how the House of Commons changed attitudes to that White Paper produced by Barbara Castle, In Place of Strife, on the industrial front. What the House of Commons is for did matter very much.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I think there are more recent examples than that, if you look, for instance, at the last Conservative Government and the very distinct change of attitude towards Bosnia. I know I have an axe to grind and I was one of those who was constantly arguing against my Government at the time, but it started with a very tiny group of us, a few Labour Members, to be fair, most of the Liberal Members and one or two on our side, but there was a changing of mind. I think debate can have that effect. It does not always have it, of course. Although I think party is important and nobody can deny that, the classic definition of country, constituency, party in that order is the way most of us have to behave. Of course, Peter Bradley is right. We cannot give our constituents' views unless we have a referendum on every subject. We do not know what they are. What we have to do is that we owe them, in the classic Burkeian phrase, our judgement and our industry and our initiative, and we then have to be answerable for that.

  Chairman: We now move to lists of speakers and choice of speakers and I am going to ask Iain Luke to come in.

Mr McWalter

  212. Chairman, before you do that, I did not want to be left unchallenged the remark of Sir Patrick Cormack to the effect that we might emulate the House of Lords, where you do not get paid unless you are seen and that does have the effect of scattering bodies around the chamber at all sorts of different times of the day. Unless we are going to emulate that system, to be honest, we are left with the situation in which we cannot assume that because people are in the chamber they are necessarily there because they are riveted by the details of the system for calculating rate support grant, which is what we are missing this afternoon.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Mr McWalter makes a perfectly reasonably point in a jocular manner and yes, I was speaking in shorthand to a degree, but I do believe that it is true that the debates tend to be better attended there, not just for the reasons that you adduce but for other reasons too. There do tend to be more experts taking part in debates on specific subjects and I do think that a well attended chamber is something we would all like to see more of.

Sir Robert Smith

  213. Sir Patrick has raised the example of Bosnia. There are not many examples that have been raised but even then how much was that change of heart because of what was happening in debates in the chamber in the House of Commons and how much was it the movement of external events that had been reflected by debates in the House of Commons?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) It is impossible to give a proper answer to that question. All I was trying to say was that I know that people were influenced. I also know, to give a more recent example because I was much involved in it and circulated a lot of papers in between the debates on the House of Lords, that there were Members who changed their minds on that. Indeed, at least one of your own colleagues personally told me he had done. I think this can happen. I do not want to push it too far but it can happen.

  Mr Burnett: I think minds change during debates but this becomes apparent when the Government majorities are small.

  Chairman: Observation noted.

David Wright

  214. Sir Patrick, I was interested in your comments about Westminster Hall. I know Mr Bradley has done some statistics on how Members are called in main debates and I challenge your comment about the debate on Iraq. If you look at a profile of Members that were called in those debates it is very much skewed against recently elected Members. In fact, it is virtually impossible for a Member from the 2001 intake to get into one of those debates. One of the advantages of Westminster Hall is that ministers tend to be less trenchant in their views in Westminster Hall because they feel there is less of a spotlight upon them. I have found in speaking in Westminster Hall that it is often easier to win a concession out of a minister or win some movement from a minister in that environment than it is in the main chamber. Whether that is a good or bad thing I do not know but I think that is the value of Westminster Hall.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) You make, of course, a perfectly valid and proper point. I would like to make two points in response. First of all, of course we have all been newly elected Members and we have all sat through debates. Sir Nicholas will remember this. He came in during the 1970 Parliament. I came in at the beginning. All the debates I really wanted to speak in I never had the chance apart from when we had one on our entry into what was then the Common Market. The debate took six days and every single person who wanted to be called was called. I think on great issues we should have more two-day debates. I think last week's should have been a two-day debate; that is my opinion.
  (Mr Dalyell) I agree.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) As far as Westminster Hall is concerned, I readily admit to prejudice. We all have prejudices. My main criticism is not that it exists and I certainly do not challenge what you say about it offering certain opportunities to people but I think it is a pity that it sits at the same time now as the chamber more because there is then this conflict of loyalties as to where you should be and where you should not be. I wish it were called the Westminster Grand Committee rather than almost a rival too the chamber as it were, but that is just a personal opinion.


  215. We really have opened up the debate now in a major way.
  (Mr Dalyell) It may be some delicious solace to Mr Wright to know that among the uncalled was the Father of the House last week.

  216. I think we can say, Mr Dalyell, that is not for the first time!
  (Mr Dalyell) No!
  (Dr Taylor) May I pick up a point of Mr Wright's. You were in the chair at a very poorly attended adjournment debate in Westminster Hall when I had the most amazing co-operation from the Minister of State for Health who agreed with everything I said, which was absolutely unknown because every time in the main chamber I am sat on. That is a very good point, that you get a much more kind and open hearing in Westminster Hall.

  217. If I may say so, our witnesses have raised very important issues. Patrick Cormack, supported by Mr Dalyell, has indicated that there should be longer debates and the debate on Iraq should have been two days, not one day. Clearly, debate in the chamber is currently inhibited very frequently by programme motions that are actually tabled even before the House has indicated the areas of Bill that they would like to take in either Standing Committee or Report. Is there any recommendation that our witnesses would like to make in respect of length of debates and the somewhat restrictive influence of programme motions, and perhaps the comment could be fairly brief so that I can finally bring Iain Luke in? Perhaps, Tam, as the Father of the House, you would like to comment on that: length of debates and the somewhat restrictive influence of programme motions on full and very often valid debate.
  (Mr Dalyell) I am uneasy about guillotines.
  (Peter Bradley) I think guillotines have their place when there is a congestion of business or indeed to stop small minorities from exercising undue influence, but on issues as big as Iraq where there are as many Members who wish to speak but will not get the opportunity I do not see any reason, for example, last Wednesday why we could not have gone through till ten o'clock. Perhaps that is an issue we will come on to in a minute but I cannot imagine that there were very many Members there who would not have agreed to go on till ten o'clock.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I agree entirely with that. I think a two-day debate would have been fine. I think it should have been two days, perhaps each going on to ten o'clock, and every Member who wanted to speak should have had the chance to speak and clearly it was not possible last week. I do not like guillotines in any form. They were a rather unpleasant aspect of the French Revolution and I do not think they have improved much since. I was one of those who, when my party was in government, did not support guillotines very often and I do not like restrictive programmes which are in effect a guillotine by another name. I think the most shameful thing about the House of Commons at the moment—I do think it is shameful and I use the word deliberately—is on something a Member of the House of Lords said to me at the CPA lunch just now, that he thought it was such a pity that more and more Bills were going to them with up to 50 per cent not considered at all in our House because of the nature of the programme motion. That I think is wrong and I think if our constituents fully realised that was happening they would be very upset.
  (Dr Taylor) A very practical matter puts me off longer debates, particularly when Mr Speaker at the beginning says that approaches to the Chair would not be welcome, because when you are getting a little bit older your bladder perhaps is not quite so easily controlled and you need to be able to get out and when the Speaker says you cannot go and ask him if you can creep out it makes the longer debates more difficult.

Rosemary McKenna

  218. Sir Patrick made a point about the guillotine and the effect on Bills. Those Bills have been in committee for several months and it is entirely up to the Committee members, particularly the Opposition, to ensure what clauses are debated in committee, so very often what takes place in committee is just rehearsed. Having sat on various committees I know that it is rehearsed in the chamber and it is in those terms that I think it is quite appropriate for the guillotine to be applied.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I do not say there is never a case for a guillotine but it should only be in extremis. I well remember in the early 1970s the long debates we had over local government reorganisation. The Committee sat 58 times, through the night on a number of occasions. I was on that Committee. The Industrial Relations Bill was going on and on. As with all things in life, it is a question of balance. I am not a great advocate of all-night sittings, never have been, although I have done many in my time, but I do believe that what is of paramount importance is that the Bill should be thoroughly discussed. I welcome the Government's move towards pre-legislative scrutiny. That is a very good move and it is a positive one. I do try and look at these things not as a party politician but as a parliamentarian and I have always tried to do that. I think it is important for us and for our constituents to be able to say that the Bills affecting their daily lives have been adequately and thoroughly considered on committee. The rigid timetable should be the weapon of last resort. I think that you do have a point. You infer in your comments that the Opposition does not always co-operate sufficiently on programme motions. That was a point made by Sir Alan Haselhurst in his submission last year to the committee looking at this and I think that is a valid point. There is far too much simplistic thought on both sides but I really do stick by what I said on guillotines.

Mr Atkinson

  219. The panel seem largely in favour of longer debates, certainly on major issues. Would the reverse of that be that they would welcome more pedestrian legislation perhaps going to second reading committees which we have not used for years in this House, and the remaining stages of Bills possibly being dealt with off the floor of the House? One of the reasons why the chamber is so empty is that the material it is talking about is deeply pedestrian and of little interest to very many Members of the House.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) The answer is yes.
  (Mr Dalyell) I agree with Patrick.
  (Peter Bradley) Yes, I see no reason why not.

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