Participation in the Chamber
19. The introduction of our current departmental
select committee system in 1979, by the then Norman St John Stevas,
was one of the most significant post-war reforms in Parliament
and changed significantly the balance of the different roles Members
undertake. The introduction of television cameras in 1989 led
to a systematic change in the way Parliament was and is reported
and the development of a 24/7 news culture in the mid 1990s has
hastened this. The ability to follow proceedings using the full
television coverage available on the annunciator system has had
an impact on attendance in the Chamber; it is no longer necessary
to be present to follow proceedings. Large majorities have meant
that not only are there more marginal seats but there have been
more government back bench Members with no defined role within
the government structure. Legislative work and the scrutiny function
are challenged now by a much wider range of activities competing
for Members' time including, for example, party meetings, all-party
groups, back bench committees, pressure groups, campaigns of various
kinds and the ever-increasing demands of the 24 hour media.
Taken together all of these different factors have changed the
way in which Members balance the different roles they undertake.
In his memorandum the Clerk of the House noted that the pressure
of constituency work might prevent Members from fully engaging
in the work of the Chamber, leading to a lack of familiarity with
the Chamber that might itself be inhibiting.
20. Views critical of policy are often expressed
privately through party forums or directly with ministers, especially
by government back bench Members.
This process has probably been extended as a consequence of the
large majorities of recent years. The availability of a different
route for influencing policy has also had an effect on participation
in the Chamber.
21. The conventions and courtesies of the House have
evolved for good reason. They are largely based on rulings from
the Chair, frequently given at the behest of Members, and are
designed to assist (or not interrupt) the flow of debate and to
facilitate a proper and orderly exchange of views.
It was clear from the evidence we received that newer Members
have some difficulty with the courtesies and conventions of debate.
They described problems with uncertainty over being called, a
seniority-based approach, repetition in debate, over-elaborate
courtesies, short notice of statements, the time lag between submitting
questions and obtaining answers and the lack of opportunity to
trigger debates on urgent issues. The Hansard Society found similar
issues when it surveyed the opinions of the 2005 in-take.
In his memorandum, Dai Davies said some of the procedures in the
Chamber were daunting for new Members and that a relaxation of
the formality would speed up debate.
The length of time it takes to get called and the amount of time
required for business in the Chamber is clearly an issues for
many Members. Jo Swinson said, 'I think that most new Members
of Parliament, at some stage, will go through the experience of
wanting to speak in a debate, getting there to hear the opening
of the debate, sitting there for six or seven hours and eventually
not being called at all. That is quite a demoralising experience,
when you have prepared a speech'.
Mr Peter Bone, Member for Wellingborough, and Emily Thornberry
described similar frustrations.
However, Sir Alan Haselhurst told us he did not recognise this
experience saying that the occasions when there are too many people
to get into the time available are increasingly sparse.
He pointed out that the opposite was often the case as whips tried
to find people to speak in debates to fill up the time available.
Sir Alan said that there are in fact now very few occasions when
debates are so over-subscribed that some Members have no chance
of being called. Unfortunately these few occasions are probably
the ones that really matter to Members and are likely to colour
22. Although in theory there is no precedence in
debate a number of the witnesses raised the issue of seniority.
Jo Swinson said, 'I think that it is ridiculous that, in a democracy
where MPs have an equal right to be representing their constituents,
constituents in a seat that happens to have a Member who has been
an MP for 20 years are more likely to have their views represented
in a debate'. Martin
Salter suggested that privy counsellors still seemed to get priority.
Kitty Ussher, Member for Burnley, and John Bercow, Member for
Buckingham, made similar points.
While waiting to be called can be frustrating, the Chair does
make an effort to be fair over the longer-term; something that
could not happen if, for example, speaking order was decided by
ballot. Sir Alan Haselhurst made the point that the Speaker's
Office keeps records of who gets called to speak and noted that
new Members actually did fairly well. He said it was impossible
to exclude the major players, many of whom were senior Members,
but the Speaker tried hard to balance their wisdom and experience
with fresh input.
Sir Alan's strong advice to the Committee was that the House should
trust the Speaker.
23. These barriers to participation may mean some
Members feel some form of exclusion and feel frustrated by the
Westminster political process. Members cannot be forced to participate;
they must want to do so.