Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



Mr Burnett

  220. I am not in a position to challenge what Tam Dalyell has asserted about what happened here in 1967 in connection with Vietnam but I can say that not many people seriously believed that we could deploy troops to Vietnam when we had our hands so full in Borneo and in Aden.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) It is hardly a procedural matter.
  (Mr Dalyell) The quick answer to that is that what Harold Wilson was asked for was symbolic. I used Lyndon Johnson's phrase, "only a battalion of bagpipers". That was all that was asked for.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) But they made a lot of noise.

  Chairman: I do not feel we need to pursue that particular matter.

Mr Luke

  221. It would perhaps be useful at this stage to summarise because I think we have been skirting around the issue I was going to ask questions on anyway, Chair. The issues that we have all been skirting around and one of the issues we have raised with the Speaker is about bringing much more transparency into the order of speakers to make sure that people are certain that they are being called or being considered to be called. Would you agree that speakers' lists printed prior to debate without any indication as to when they are being called, on the assumption that you will be in the House for the whole of the debate, could be a positive addition to the workings of this House?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Yes, but subject to my free hour or whatever.


  222. Tam, this is surely something you feel very strongly about.
  (Mr Dalyell) It depends on the length of speeches. Again, forgive me being historical, but there was a Deputy Speaker who was a small, peppery, bad-tempered but immensely sharp man. He was a former Lord Provost of Glasgow. He had learned his trade with Glasgow City Council. Sir Myer Galpern I will treasure. On one occasion he just said to me, "Stop blethering", and that was the end of it.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) And he succeeded?
  (Mr Dalyell) Yes. He was jolly right. I do think that a Deputy Speaker or Speaker should have the power and the confidence to stop people when they have wandered off the point. Rude, sharp they may be but immensely effective. One did not blether twice with Myer Galpern.
  (Peter Bradley) The first observation I would make is that I think it is appropriate that Iain should have had to wait so long to put the question since he was first elected in 2001. I feel quite strongly about this. I know that this is a sensitive issue for the Speaker, as it has been for previous Speakers, and I believe it is his view, shared by others, that if you publish speakers' lists you discourage people from attending the chamber because the only people who will attend are those who will be on the list. I take absolutely the opposite view.

Mr Burnett

  223. Hear, hear.
  (Peter Bradley) We have now got to the point where Members of the 1997 intake and certainly of the 2001 intake have in many cases given up any expectation of being called to speak on the major issues of the day because they have to wait while the hierarchy of Members have their turn, to the extent that they are not now putting notes into the Speaker's office because they do not want to sit on the green benches for six hours in the futile expectation of having their say. We also should bear in mind, and I was thinking about this when we were answering the original question—Tam is upset by my use of the word "hierarchy" and perhaps I can explain what I mean at a subsequent time. I was thinking when Sir Patrick was answering the previous question about speaking and the great speeches. There are many Members of this House who actually are not great speakers and have no pretence about being great speakers. They have other talents and other strengths and, frankly, if they are not going to be able to make a contribution to the debate in the chamber they may just as well be elsewhere answering the other demands of the job that we do, whether it is in committee or at a desk or following some issue or cause or campaign of their own. I think it is very important that we have speakers' lists, that the way that the Speaker selects people for that list should be transparent. That does not mean that he or she should not have discretion to alter the order as the opportunity or the need demands, but at the moment some Deputy Speakers will not even tell you halfway or three-quarters of the way through a debate whether you are even likely to be called. I know that we all should respect the chair and respect the chamber and respect the House, but my argument is that if the chamber does not respect Members and the demands on their time and their ability as adults to make choices as to how to spend their time then it is hardly surprising that increasing numbers of Members do not respect the chamber as much as others would like them to.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Perhaps if the Speaker is reluctant on lists your Committee might consider suggesting an experiment in certain major debates and just see how it does work. I do not think it would lead to the depopulation of the chamber. I think it would encourage people, especially if we had this spare hour.

Mr Luke

  224. I think you have made a very good point with regard to questions in regard to an emergency debate and Peter's information is revealing but we knew that generally that was the case. On things like emergency debates on Iraq would it not be fairer and more honest and more democratic, rather than do it, as it has clearly been done, on a hierarchical basis, whatever Tam feels, being the Father of the House, to have a ballot of the Members who put in their letters to the debate to be pulled out and allowed to speak? At least there you would get a cross-section of Members across all the years and the parties making a point, because, although it probably would not have changed my mind in the way I voted (and I voted the same way twice on both the debates because I was opposed to the issue, I regret), it does raise questions in my mind that this has been rigged by the Government to reduce debate and I think at the end of the day if we want to see it fairer and across the board it would be better for a ballot to be held of all Members interested to talk.
  (Mr Dalyell) No, no, no.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Certainly not. I actually think that the Speaker does choose without fear or favour. I have been here nearly as long as the Father of the House and I have missed out on a number of major debates, so I know what it is like, but I think that if you had a ballot you actually could run the risk of having all people with one point of view. I think it is terribly important that the Speaker is able to take account of many things, including length of service, including the line that the Member is likely to take, so that the debate is indeed balanced. The reason that I am anxious to have this free hour is that then there is that extra element of spontaneity which really does give people a chance to be buttoned down and be noticed.


  225. This is a very critical part of our debate and our inquiry.
  (Dr Taylor) I would certainly welcome the transparency of having a list. It would help one to plan one's life much better. I did go with the new Members in the smallest parties to a meeting with Mr Speaker just ten days or so ago and he outlined in detail how they keep track of Members when they have spoken, when they have stood and have not spoken, and how they fall over backwards to try and maintain a fair way of calling people. Obviously, from what people have said, some people do not think that that works. I would certainly welcome a list, as I welcome time limits for backbenchers when there is a vast number who want to speak.
  (Mr Dalyell) I am not unsympathetic to Iain Luke's line of argument, but there is one point I would wish to put to the Committee. If you have ten-minute or eight-minute speech allocations, psychologically everybody who is called thinks that they have to speak for eight minutes or ten minutes. I have never been part of a hierarchy, I assure you. I spoke on Iraq for four minutes, said everything that I needed to say at that time, and it was considered rather odd that I had spoken for only four minutes. If people can say what they wish in four minutes or two minutes they might be given credit, incidentally, the next time round.

Mr McWalter

  226. A couple of our witnesses today talked about how you select people and Peter Bradley said that the method of selection for a list should be transparent. I find, by the way, Peter's evidence characteristically well argued, partly because I agree with every word of it. Sir Patrick Cormack also talked about getting points. Might it not actually be the case that attendance in debates, of actually standing and not getting called and so on, in a way gives you a kind of points rating? I do share with Peter the thought that there is really a real effort by the Speaker to try and recognise that you have been there for a very long time and have not been called, but I have to say, Chairman, that I have no feeling that that applies at all in the case of many Deputy Speakers and they seem to have very little knowledge of what the Speaker's database is. I do not know how that information percolates through. If it was possible to have some sort of building up of points, and that might be partly through just attending the chamber, it might be trying to get called to speak and failing to do so, expressing an interest in a point and being constantly rebuffed, and if we managed to codify that a bit it would not alter the Speaker's capacity to regulate the debate and it might not end up completely fair, but it might give people a greater sense that, just because you are not known and the Deputy Speaker does not know what side of the debate you are going to be on, you are not actually ever going to get called, and therefore he is never going to know what side of the debate you are on because he is never going to find out because he has got this list of people who are always miles above you in terms of the pecking order.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) A points system, yes, I think you could do that. I do believe that for those who attend regularly in the chamber some recognition should be made of that fact. We all know that there are some people who, come what may, unless there is something really personal or pressing, are there for Question Time day after day. They are in the chamber, they seek to take part, and I do believe that those people should frankly, whatever their seniority, be given a degree of preference over the few—and we all know who they are—who come in perhaps once a week for Prime Minister's Questions and grab a particular seat and then are not seen at all for the next week. There are some on both sides of the House that fit that category and I think that assiduous attendance should bring its own reward.

  Chairman: Before I ask John Burnett to come in and then Rosemary McKenna, in the answers you give to the next question you would include a response to whether or not you would like to see a list of those who have applied to speak in alphabetical order, or a list which is published in the order that the Speaker is likely to call them to speak. I do believe that both are relevant and it would be interesting to know what our witnesses think.

Mr Burnett

  227. I think the Speaker is very much more open-minded on this matter of lists than has been suggested, and I would cast the Committee's attention back to our meeting at Speaker's House. I agree with Peter Bradley on this matter and I also agree with Sir Patrick who has set out his view about the etiquette of the House. The point I would put is, if there was a list and you were on it and you did not obey the etiquette, well then, you are struck off it and you do not get to speak. There is a similar arrangement in the House of Lords. I strongly support it and I am also strongly supportive of a chronological list so that people know when they are going to come up. Peter is quite right to say that there are many other compelling duties that we have in this place other than performing in the palace of varieties, which is very important but it is not the only thing we are here to do.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I am slightly in favour of a list that is not chronological because I believe it would encourage attendance. I am in favour of the list but I am rather in favour of it not being chronological. Then you know that you are going to be called but you do not precisely know in what order. I want to clarify something I said earlier. I do think it is crucially important if you are speaking in a debate that you are there until you are called and then for at least the two speeches after and then you come back as soon as you can. That is why I would favour it being non-chronological.
  (Mr Dalyell) I am a dinosaur who just thinks, in answer to John Burnett, that if anybody has more important things to do then they should not put in to speak at all.
  (Peter Bradley) They do not. That is the whole point. The fact that Tam did not get called in the Iraq debate I think is the exception rather than the rule. I am glad he has shared our experience of that though. Let me take issue with what Sir Patrick was saying when he was talking about seniority of Members. I think there is a very important principle at stake here. There should be no senior or junior Members of Parliament and when I talked about hierarchy, Tam, I have tabled some evidence which you may not have seen but is my analysis of the Iraq debate in September and the Iraq debate last week, both of which show a very heavy preponderance of what would be considered by some to be the senior Members, the Privy Councillors, former ministers, those with long service, in preference to those who were elected in 1997 and 2001, and the vast majority of MPs in this House have been elected in 1997 and 2001. They get very little look-in. Only three Labour MPs elected in 1997 participated in either debate and none from the 2001 intake. I think that is pretty telling. This principle of seniority is utterly alien to me because it means that we have at least two categories of Members of Parliament, one of which is a second-class category which renders our constituents second-class constituents. When we are elected to this House we should have equal rights each with another and equal opportunity, all things being equal, to speak for our constituents in the chamber. I have to say to Iain Luke that I would not support the idea of a ballot, frankly, because I think it is important that there should be a proper matching of backgrounds and parties and points of view and experience to have a really vital debate, and I also agree that once people understand what the rules of combat are they should comply with them and, if they do not, they should suffer the penalty. In other words, if you are selected to speak you must pay respect to others in the debate both before and after your speech and so on, and if you do not it will be quite clear that you will suffer next time. However, other than those rules of engagement, there should be no discrimination against a Member on the basis of his or her seniority, juniority (if that is a word), party or background.
  (Dr Taylor) I would just like to support Peter Bradley about the ballot. I would not like to see that, and I very much agree with Sir Patrick that I would like to see a list but I do not think it should be a chronological list.

David Wright

  228. On the list issue, I am broadly supportive of a list, but let me bowl you a googly, which is the point the Speaker will come back with, interestingly enough, which is that if we have a list every Member will have to apply for every debate because you and I will get a letter in our postbag the week after a debate saying, "Why did you not apply to speak in the Iraq debate?", "Why did you not apply to speak in the hunting debate?", "Why did you not apply to speak in whatever debate?" Would we get into a situation where the list actually becomes self-defeating because we all have to bid all the time; otherwise our constituents think we are not interested in the business of the House?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I do not take that point because I think that the Speaker should regard the letters that he receives as entirely confidential and nobody has to say whether they have written to the Speaker. All the Speaker does is that he says, "These are the Members I have selected", on whatever grounds. I do not want to get into a long debate with Peter Bradley. I probably should have used the word "experience" rather than "seniority". Mr Bradley used it himself. He said it was one of the things you had to take into account and when he looks at the evidence he will find that that was what he did say. I think that that should be confidential and the list should be published and then you do not have to tell your constituents or anybody else. It is entirely between you and Mr Speaker.

  229. I am probing you on that.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Indeed. I would like to re-plug my idea of having this period in the debate when there is this genuine opportunity to catch the Speaker's eye. I would only support the list if that were there as well.


  230. Would you have a limit to all the speeches that are asked of members during that hour?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Yes. During that hour I would have a time limit and that would be for the Speaker to say whether it was six or ten minutes or whatever.

  231. I know the problems the Speaker faces from the experience I have had this afternoon.
  (Peter Bradley) We are talking about two different kinds of experience. The experience I felt Sir Patrick was referring to was experience in the House which relates to longevity of service. The experience I was talking about in selecting speakers for debate is their knowledge of or commitment to the issue under debate, which I think is somewhat different.
  (Mr Dalyell) David Wright's point about constituents asking, "Why didn't you even reply?" is very valid and here again we are faced with the laws of unintended consequences.

Rosemary McKenna

  232. I find your analysis very powerful. 71% of the Members of Parliament in the Labour Party came in after 1992 so that is from 1997 onwards and yet only 7% of them were called in the debate and I hope that Tam will have a really good read through that because it is quite a powerful argument about being called in debates other than through seniority. Sir Patrick, I agree with you completely on the list, provided there is no publication of people who apply and there is a time when the Speaker can use judgment. I do think that would increase people's time in the chamber. Peter, have you done any analysis on how many senior members spoke in both debates, because I think that is important as well—not just how many people were not called but how many people were called to speak in both debates?
  (Peter Bradley) That was the question I was hoping you would not ask me. It is an absolutely sensible question but I have not done that analysis. I can reveal to a startled nation that Tam spoke in the first debate and that Sir Patrick spoke in the second, but whether they spoke in both I do not know. The reason why in the analysis I have referred to the proportion of Labour MPs as opposed to members of the House in general is because the Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs do not suffer the same congestion that Labour MPs do. Because of the ping-pong, it is rather unlikely that if a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat is standing that they will not get called. Sir Patrick's experience in recent years at least will be rather unrepresentative of other members of the House. Sir Patrick will always get called not because he is such an eloquent orator, although I am sure that is an important factor, but partly because of his seniority, because that is the current system, and largely because of the numbers game in the House of Commons. That is why the newer intake of Labour MPs is effectively being disenfranchised by the current convention.


  233. We did in the Conservative Party have a not dissimilar problem in 1983.
  (Mr Dalyell) I am getting a bit restless about this because much has been made of my seniority and speaking on Iraq. The fact of the matter is that I have spoken on nothing else. I did not speak on the Queen's Speech; I did not speak on the Budget and I saved myself for Iraq. How much is it about seniority or the fact that I have been to Iraq, one of the very few who has, on two occasions?

David Hamilton

  234. The question has been asked about three times and answered four times. That was about the seniority issue. Tam's contribution and the statement about seniority appearing to be a relevant factor in choosing the members who speak has already answered that question. There is another important issue about the ballot. I agree with Sir Patrick that there has to be a balance about the printed list, but there has to be a flexibility within that. I have sat through part of a debate where I have never stood up but as the contributions were being made I felt there was a contribution I could make. That flexibility is not there because they have a list already set up and that is something I would like to see expanded upon. When we talk about balances, there is one very big issue and that is the imbalance of the Labour Party versus everybody else. There is a 104 government majority and if you are looking seriously to have a balance within Parliament one of the things that must be changed is the ping-pong because the ping-pong works out on the basis that it is one from one side and one from the other. Many times I have been in the chamber when there have been 20 or 30 Labour MPs standing and other parties scurrying to get people in so they can speak. That is an extremely unfair position and it is also a very unfair position when the minority parties, both Plaid Cymru and the SNP, have pro rata speeches in the chamber that are far greater than that of any back bencher. When I go back to my constituency, constituents quite rightly say where was I; why was I not in that debate; why could I not do that? They see in the Scottish papers that other Scottish MPs can get in, namely from the SNP. That is a very unfair system and if we do look at changing certain things one of the things we must look at, surely, has to be the ratio of speakers.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) It is extremely difficult. It is very fair to raise the subject and your Chairman, Sir Nicholas, was right when he referred to 1983. I was along with him one of that large majority, frequently, I might say in a minority in that large majority on things like the poll tax and so on, and finding it difficult to get my point of view across. I have been there; I have done that, or failed to do it, as the case may be. This is something where your Committee has to weigh up the very powerful arguments on both sides. There is the argument Mr Hamilton has put and I concede it is a powerful one, that the Labour Party has, as a result of the will of the electorate, far more members than the other parties put together and therefore, yes, Mr Bradley is right. I have a better chance of being called than if I was sitting on the Labour side of the House. Against that you have to weigh the longstanding convention which pertained throughout the Thatcher years when we had that big majority that the Speaker always alternated one side to the other and, in his alternation, brought in the minority parties. What you cannot do is have a system which so discriminates against the minorities that they are excluded at the expense of a huge majority. One of the answers to your question might be that you concede that you have to pay the price for electoral success by this slight imbalance. It is not for me to say what your Committee should decide but merely to indicate some of the issues that I believe you should address.


  235. From the chair, Sir Patrick, do you believe that the Speaker should have the discretion to call two members from the same side if there is a huge demand from both sides of the House because of the current imbalance in the House in order to ensure that as wide a section of opinion can be expressed?
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Yes. I think probably he should. I think the Speaker must have as much discretion as possible. I am a great believer in giving the Speaker a lot of discretion but I think that if he is going to do that that is where he should also be able to exercise the discretion by saying, "Yes, I will do that, but they will be shorter speeches." I do not think you have to say that every speech must be a maximum of ten or eight minutes. You can well say, "Yes, I am going to do this", just as he has the discretion at the moment to treat the Liberal spokesman in the same way that he treats the Tory front bench speaker. He might say, "If I am going to call two from the government side, those two people will have to pay the price of a slightly shorter speech." These are the sorts of things that the Speaker would be able to do. I was for three years the Deputy Shadow Leader of the House so I have been through this, through the usual channels. I would be happy to endorse that sort of approach because I think Mr Hamilton has a perfectly valid point.

Mr Burnett

  236. Bearing in mind there should be equality, government against opposition, because opposition is so difficult and the huge power of the government and its machine, we must be able to speak against them and have equality of time.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) Yes.


  237. Mr Dalyell, would you like to comment on that?
  (Mr Dalyell) I think the discussion is distorted by the issue of Iraq. Can I turn back to another issue, namely the miners' strike? It was quite right that the Speaker should repeatedly call members representing the National Union of Mineworkers. I at the time represented three pits. Did I ever speak on it? No. Did I attend the debates? Yes, every one because I thought I had an obligation to do so, but without uttering a word.

Sir Robert Smith

  238. Some of these problems might solve themselves because if Sir Patrick's point is taken on board that the courtesies of the House are respected what Peter Bradley has seen happening would not be able to happen because the whips would not be able to go scurrying and find someone in the tea room to make up the numbers.
  (Peter Bradley) It already does happen because very frequently one convention of the House will conflict with another. One convention says that you should be there throughout the debate if you expect to be taken seriously and called but, at the moment, what tends to happen is that you will have some members on the Labour benches standing up fruitlessly, hour after hour. That is the tip of the iceberg because many people who feel strongly about the issue have spent a day or so researching and writing a speech before they even get into the chamber. While they are standing up fruitlessly, a Conservative Member of Parliament may wander into the chamber and within five minutes be called.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) That should not be allowed.
  (Peter Bradley) We are pong-pong, ping, ping-pong.

  239. If there is no time limit, you will find that the third parties get squeezed out because the extremely long length of speeches by the Conservative benches tends to mean that the one to four ratio between third party and Conservative Party means that hardly anyone else gets called.
  (Sir Patrick Cormack) I hope that as a result of your deliberations there will be a guide to the proper etiquette to be observed so that members will be penalised if they flagrantly disregard that. I also think that the Speaker, again with his discretion, should have the power to do what Sir Myer did do on a number of occasions and say, "That is enough." The Speaker does it now sometimes in question time. He did it three times today. I think that is a power that the Speaker can reasonably exercise after a period. It places great burdens upon him but, if your Committee came up with a guide and he was then enforcing it, it would have the endorsement of the House's own committee on procedure.

  Chairman: We intend to make reference to the courtesies and traditions of the House but I believe I am correct in saying that the Speaker himself has recently sent out a letter to all members of the House outlining the courtesies of the House which he wishes to see implemented and respected by all members.

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