Select Committee on Procedure Fourth Report

Conclusions and recommendations

Debates: Speech limits

1.  We do not believe that it is practicable to lay down, by Standing Order, a fixed limit such as 20 or 30 minutes for front bench speeches; but we do recommend that ministers and other front benchers should aim for no more than twenty minutes of speech material, to allow for extra time for interventions. These lengths should be even shorter for half-day debates. We encourage the Speaker to remind Members of this from time to time. (Paragraph 11)

2.  We believe that lengthy back-bench speeches are a luxury which the House cannot afford in the face of the current overall demand for speaking time. (Paragraph 12)

3.  We recommend, for an experimental period, that there should be an opportunity for short speeches towards the end of a full or half-day debate, as follows:

  • The procedure would apply to the hour of a full-day debate immediately before the wind-up speeches (or half an hour for a half-day debate). (This would entail a definite starting time for the wind-up speeches.)
  • Members who had been present for (substantially) the whole debate, and either had not previously applied to speak or had applied but not been called, should notify the Chair, during the debate, that they wished to be called to make a short speech. At the beginning of the hour (or half-hour), the Chair should announce, on the basis of the number of applications received, how many minutes each speaker would have. No extra time would be allowed for interventions during this period. The shortest speech limit allowed during this period should be three minutes, so if more than twenty Members applied (ten, in a half-day debate), some would not be called.
  • The precise details of how this should work would need to be discussed with the Speaker; however, we recommend that speeches made during this time should not normally count against a Member's total for the session. (Paragraphs 13 to 15)

Debates: Calling Members to speak; Conventions

4.  We welcome Mr Speaker's decision to issue to all Members a revised and expanded version of his circular on "Conventions and Courtesies of the House". (Paragraph 16)

5.  We recommend that Members should help themselves by giving concise details of relevant experience, etc., in their application letters. (Paragraph 16)

6.  We believe that the considerations which the Speaker takes into account in the choice of Members in debates should remain just that, and should not, as a result of their wider dissemination, be elevated to the status of de facto rules. The Speaker needs, in the end, to retain absolute discretion. (Paragraph 17)

7.  We recommend that there should be experiments with issuing of lists of speakers for selected debates, perhaps those where there is greatest demand to speak, with the following arrangements:

  • the Speaker would choose the debates concerned;
  • a list of those who had applied in writing to speak by a certain time would be posted in the No division lobby;
  • the Members would not be listed in the order in which the Speaker proposed to call them, and it would need to be made clear that the list was provisional, being subject to later additions and removals of names and to the discretion of the Chair in deciding whom to call;
  • as now, Members would be called only if they had attended the opening speeches and on the understanding that they remained in the Chamber for at least the two speeches following their own and returned for the wind-up speeches;
  • to protect spontaneity in debate, if our recommendation in paragraph 13 is in operation, those on the list should not have priority to speak during the period allotted for short speeches. (Paragraph 23)

8.  We will wish to evaluate the two experiments which we have described (above and in paragraph 13) after an appropriate period. (Paragraph 24)

9.  We would hope that the occupants of the Chair would continue their current good practice and use their experience to give Members, on request, an estimate of whether there is likely to be enough time available for them to be called. When no list is issued, we suggest that, when announcing speech limits, the Chair should also announce how many Members have applied to speak. (Paragraph 25)

10.  We believe that the Chair should continue, in general, to maintain the convention of calling Members from alternate sides of the House; but priority should be given to the convention that Members who are called should have attended a substantial part of the debate. The Chair should be under no obligation to call Members who have been absent for most of the debate merely because there is nobody else on their side of the House. (Paragraph 28)

11.  We do not recommend the printing of undelivered speeches in the Official Report. (Paragraph 29)

12.  We recommend no change in the way of referring to other Members. (Paragraph 30)

13.  We urge Members to depart from their notes freely and react to what has previously been said in a debate. (Paragraph 31)

Private Members' debates

14.  We believe that some of the 1½-hour debates in Westminster Hall should be chosen by reference to Early Day Motions with a certain number of signatures (say 200) including some (say at least three) from each of three parties. A reference to the motion (or its full text) would then appear on the Order Paper, but the actual debate would still be on an adjournment motion. Alternatively, the Leader of the House could be asked to arrange for some debates on topics raised by EDMs in Government time. (Paragraph 36)

15.  If the new sitting hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays were to become permanent, it would be possible to consider debating business of a non-contentious business on a Tuesday or a Wednesday evening, but if this is to receive further consideration, it should be introduced only after appropriate staffing arrangements can be made, not before. One possibility would be to hold such evening sittings in Westminster Hall, an operation involving far fewer staff than the Chamber. (Paragraph 39)

Debates: other matters

16.  We do not believe that oral statements in the Chamber should be replaced by questioning on a written statement distributed in advance, but recommend that the Government should respond favourably to requests for extra time on Opposition days when a lengthy statement is expected. (Paragraph 40)

17.  We will return to the subject of a business committee in the future. (Paragraph 41)

Private Members' bills

18.  The Government should be ready to provide drafting help for a private Member's bill as soon as it receives a second reading. In addition, to assist Members who wish to employ outside drafting assistance, the £200 grant introduced in 1971 for the top ten Members in the ballot should be updated and become index-linked. (Paragraph 50)

19.  Members who wish the Government to support their bills should bear in mind the need to get them printed in good time before second reading. (Paragraph 51)

20.  We do not recommend the use of carry-over motions for private Members' bills. (Paragraph 52)

Recall of the House

21.  We believe that the decision to recall the House should rest with the Speaker. We would expect the Speaker to bear in mind the number and source of representations made to him requesting a recall, but we do not think details should be specified in a standing order. As at present, the Deputy Speakers should have the same powers as the Speaker when the latter is unable to act. (Paragraphs 58 and 59)

22.  We do not believe that the Speaker should be empowered to specify the business of the House during an emergency recall, as it could draw him into matters of party controversy. However, we do believe that the Government's sittings motion specifying the number of days on which the House sits after the recall has taken place should be debatable unless it is tabled with the approval of the Speaker. (Paragraph 62)

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2003
Prepared 27 November 2003