Select Committee on Procedure Fourth Report


With the current rules for debates, including the possibility of a limit on the length of speeches of eight minutes or more, back-benchers cannot be expected to be called, on average, more than four times a year for ordinary full or half-day debates (including second readings and Opposition days, but not committee or report stages and Lords Amendments). To enable more back-benchers to be called, we recommend that front-benchers should aim for no more than twenty minutes of speech material (less for a half-day debate), and recommend the experimental introduction of a period of an hour (half an hour in a half-day debate) which would be shared between those Members who had attended (substantially) the whole debate and wished to speak, subject to a lower limit of three minutes per Member (for details see paragraph 13). This is a development of the current informal (and therefore unenforceable) system of dividing up the time remaining before the wind-up speeches between the remaining Members.

The Speaker has re-issued his letter to all Members on "Conventions and Courtesies of the House" (see page 25), which includes guidance on the factors the Speaker takes into account when choosing whom to call. We welcome this, and suggest that Members should include concise details of relevant experience, etc., when applying to speak, but that the Speaker should continue to retain absolute discretion, including departing from the convention of calling Members from alternate sides of the House where a shortage of Members attending on one side or the other makes this desirable. We recommend that, for selected debates, a list of those who have applied to speak should be posted in the No division lobby (for details see paragraph 23). We are not in favour of printing undelivered speeches in the Official Report; we support the existing conventions on the method of referring in debate to other Members and to speaking from notes rather than reading out a full text.

Since 1995 all private Members' debates have taken place on motions for the adjournment of the House, and the same practice has prevailed in Westminster Hall. We recommend that some Westminster Hall debates should be chosen by reference to Early Day Motions which have attracted a certain number of signatures, with support from Members from a certain number of parties, but that the actual debate should still be on an adjournment motion. It would be possible to use Tuesday or Wednesday evenings for more debates, but this would be dependent on the current experimental earlier sittings being made permanent and sufficient notice being given for appropriate staffing arrangements to be made.

We recommend that the Government should respond favourably to requests for extra time on Opposition days when a lengthy statement is expected (as happened on 9 September), and we propose to return to the subject of a business committee in future.

On private Members' bills, we point out that changing the rules would not necessarily result in a higher success rate—it might simply result in opposition manifesting itself at different stages—but recommend that the Government should be ready to provide drafting help as soon as private Members' bills receive a second reading; also, the drafting allowance of £200 for each of the top ten Members in the ballot (introduced in 1971) should be updated and become index-linked. Members who wish the Government to support their bills should bear in mind the need to get them printed in enough time before second reading for the Government to take a view on them. We do not recommend carrying-over private Members' bills from one session to the next.

The Speaker should be able to recall the House on his own authority (rather than, as at present, only on request from the Government); we would expect him to take into account the number and source of representations requesting a recall, but do not recommend specifying details in a standing order. The Government should remain responsible for deciding the business to be taken during a recall, but any motion specifying the number of days on which the House should sit after the recall has taken place should be debatable unless it is tabled with the approval of the Speaker.

A list of our conclusions and recommendations appears on p 22.

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