Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

2  The role of the Member

'Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion … Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests, which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.' Edmund Burke's Speech to the Electors of Bristol, 3 Nov. 1774.

'The first duty of a member of Parliament is to do what he thinks in his faithful and disinterested judgement is right and necessary for the honour and safety of Great Britain. His second duty is to his constituents, of whom he is the representative but not the delegate. Burke's famous declaration on this subject is well known. It is only in the third place that his duty to party organization or programme takes rank. All these three loyalties should be observed, but there in no doubt of the order in which they stand under any healthy manifestation of democracy.' Sir Winston Churchill on the Duties of a Member of Parliament.[4]

Balancing competing roles

9. A great deal of academic time and effort goes into defining the role and purpose of Parliament, the Commons and individual Members.[5] The two quotations above are well-known and are included not because we subscribe to their every word but because they are often seen as a point of reference for discussion about the role of a Member of Parliament. Members have a number of different and competing roles and considerable scope to interpret them as they choose.[6] Dr Tony Wright, Member for Cannock Chase, described the job as a 'multiplicity of roles done differently'.[7] The Chairman of Ways and Means, Sir Alan Haselhurst, said there was no stereotype, 'we are all extremely different animals, and we pursue different interests in different ways. We will always have a different formula for the way in which we spend our week or our year, according to our interests and what we believe are the right things we should be doing'.[8] How Members balance the different elements of the job no doubt varies over time and with the political context. Being a back bench Member on the government side is a very different job from being one on the opposition side.[9] In general, government back bench Members will want to support their government in achieving its aims and opposition back bench Members will be keen to help their front bench team expose flaws in government policy. According to Dr Wright and Stuart Weir 'The great dilemma of the House of Commons is that the primary duty of MPs in the majority party is loyalty to sustain its government in office while the primary purpose of the House as a whole is to hold that government to account'.[10] As the Clerk of the House said, 'How backbenchers perform their role as Members of the House is largely a matter for each Member to decide'.[11]

10. Nonetheless, for all the different approaches to being a Member it is possible to discern a number of commonly recognised tasks, including:

  • supporting their party in votes in Parliament (furnishing and maintaining the Government and Opposition);
  • representing and furthering the interests of their constituency;
  • representing individual constituents and taking up their problems and grievances;
  • scrutinising and holding the Government to account and monitoring, stimulating and challenging the Executive;
  • initiating, reviewing and amending legislation; and
  • contributing to the development of policy whether in the Chamber, Committees or party structures and promoting public understanding of party policies.

Distinct roles or a patchwork of interconnected activities?

11. In her memorandum, Dawn Oliver, Professor of Constitutional Law, University College London, pointed out that the work done by Members in consenting to legislation or consenting to government more generally is done on behalf of constituents.[12] It is clear from the evidence given to us by Members entering the House in 2005 that they do not draw a clear line between constituency duty and involvement at Westminster. The different roles Members have are often mutually reinforcing, with constituency work feeding into and informing legislative and scrutiny work in the Chamber. Jo Swinson said, 'I think that we can create a slightly false distinction between constituency work and parliamentary work. If someone comes to see me in my surgery about an issue and I raise it in Parliament, is that constituency work or is that parliamentary work? I do think that holding the Government to account is part of what you are doing for your constituents. You can raise the issues that they have raised with you'.[13] Emily Thornberry, Member for Islington South and Finsbury, described how she linked the work that she did in the Chamber with the work she did in the constituency and described her job as being the bridge between what her constituents experienced and what the government was trying to do.[14] Work on local and national issues are linked parts of a Member's job. Some Members see national and international issues through the prism of what their constituents say to them. The views of constituents directly influence what Members do in the House on the day-to-day issues that directly affect constituents' lives. But they also colour Members' responses to wider issues like Iraq and Afghanistan or moral issues like abortion or animal experimentation. It is a timeless characteristic of our system that Members arrive at the general from the particular. While there is nothing new in this, what has increased over the last decade is the pressure of constituency work. The different roles that make up the job of being a Member of Parliament are not separate and competing; they are interconnected and interdependent. The work of the House has a direct impact on the public and, through Members, the views and experience of constituents help to inform the process of making law or holding the government to account.

A tidal wave of constituency work?

12. The constituency role has been considered essential since medieval times and relates to Parliament's historic role in the redress of grievance.[15] But in recent years it has changed considerably; changes in working practices, allowances and the availability of information technology have all helped to increase the attention paid to constituency casework rather than the representation of constituency issues.[16] The greater part of the increase in Members' allowances is used to deal with the rise in constituency workload. Constituents have in the last ten years become more demanding. Dr Tony Wright said, 'There is no question that the role of the Member of Parliament in the constituency has changed out of recognition over the last generation for all kinds of reasons'.[17] Today Members face a pressure to raise issues in the House on behalf of their constituents that thirty years ago they did not face.[18]

13. Members have always had to strike a balance between constituency focused work and time in Westminster. Surveying the opinion of Members elected in 2005, the Hansard Society found that they regarded 'Protecting/promoting the interests of the constituency' and 'dealing with constituents' problems' as more important than 'holding the government to account' and 'scrutinising legislation' both at the start of the Parliament and one year later.[19] On average, the 2005 in-take reported spending their time as follows:[20]

Constituency 49%[21]

Table 1: Division of time between the various aspects of the job for the 2005 in-take.

Source: Hansard Society (see Ev 35)

14. By 2007 the balance had shifted with 59% of the Members responding to the Members' Survey of Services saying they were more interested in what went on in the House than in constituency related work.[22] The Members' survey also found that Members who have been in the House for a longer period showed a greater interest in what goes on in the House compared to constituency-related work.

15. Prioritising constituency work over other parliamentary work is nothing new. Professor Rush and Dr Giddings found similar patterns in 1994, 1997 and 1999. Members regard themselves primarily as constituency representatives and spend more time on constituency work than any other part of their job. [23] The problem is constituency demands are ever increasing. To give one illustration, in the 1950s and 1960s Members received on average twelve to fifteen letters per week. Today the average is over 300 per week; and then there are the e-mails, faxes and telephone calls.[24]

16. Martin Salter, Member for Reading West, said that today Members were faced with a 'tidal wave' of constituency work.[25] Sir Patrick Cormack, Member for South Staffordshire, felt the balance of the back bench Member's life has been tilted too far towards the constituency role, and away from Westminster duties.[26] Professor Philip Cowley, University of Nottingham, said, 'There must now be a real concern that MPs are so focussed on the parochial they have no time for the national, let alone the international, picture'.[27] He thought the problem with constituency work was out of control and getting worse.[28] Public expectations have changed and the level of work from constituents is unlikely to diminish. But we are concerned that the greater pressure that Members face from constituency work has the potential to divert attention away from other important aspects of their work. The House is likely to suffer unless we can find ways of bringing the attention of Members and the public back to the work of the Chamber. However, the fact that constituency work and involvement have dramatically increased cannot be denied.

A lack of engagement?

17. In 1950 there was only one television channel (and few television sets), limited radio, no internet, and no weblogs. The only political debates that came to general public notice and gained widespread coverage—bar major demonstrations or party conferences—were those that took place in Parliament. In 2001, the Senior Salaries Review Body found Members spent less time in the Chamber and noted the Chamber was generally perceived to be less significant in influencing affairs than it had been 20 or 30 years before.[29] Over the same period there has been a steady decline in the mainstream media coverage of Parliament (as opposed to politics in general). Nick Robinson, Political Editor for the BBC, told us the media no longer felt a duty to cover Parliament but stressed there was no inherent bias against covering it provided that what Parliament was doing was topical, dramatic, significant, surprising and had a defined outcome that mattered.[30] These tests apply to any news story and, in the absence of any duty to report what had happened in Parliament, the House has to compete for its share of air-time or column inches. Select committee work often meets these criteria and committees are generally well covered in mainstream news. Michael White, Assistant Editor of the Guardian, was less convinced that there was no prejudice for or against parliamentary coverage.[31] He noted that the nature of reporting has changed from stories about what has been to speculative stories about what might be.[32] The Committee notes the recent move by the Leader of the House of Commons to provide advance notification of Oral Statements in Business Questions, or on the Order Paper where ever possible. There is greater competition in the media sector not only nationally but locally. A battle for ratings and market share means local papers are under a great deal of pressure to keep their readers interested in the face of growing local competition and competition from the internet.[33] A more populist market driven approach can see politics losing out to other stories.[34] The fragmentation in the market means that a Member might be faced with many more local papers, free sheets, radio stations and regional television networks than was the case five or six years ago. This can put an extra pressure on Members. Sometimes the local media will only focus on work relevant to the constituency and not necessarily on a Member's participation in debate or other work at Westminster on national issues. We recommend that the House authorities identify ways of publicising the work of the Chamber.

18. Much attention is given to attendance or the lack of it in the Chamber. The Father of the House, the Rt Hon Mr Alan Williams, Member for Swansea West, and Chairman of the Liaison Committee, said, 'I do not think we are ever going to go back to the illusory days, when the House was jam-packed. Even having come in in 1964, I can remember that as being not the normal occasion'.[35] Michael White thought that Churchill had probably made his great speeches in defence of proper defence in the 1930s from the back benches to an empty chamber.[36] However, we should not just seek to improve attendance as on its own that achieves little. Instead our proposals aim to improve attendance by improving the attention that is paid to the Chamber and the work of the House and by engaging more Members in the process of holding the government to account, scrutinising legislation and debating the issues of the day. We believe this is best done by making what happens in the Chamber more topical and relevant to the interests of Members and their constituents and by addressing barriers to participation. The recommendations we make in this Report to help bring greater attention to the Chamber, should make it more relevant to the interests of back bench Members, their constituents and the media. We also deal with some of the barriers to participation in the Chamber and recommend greater incentives for Members to engage in the work of the House.

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.[37] 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.[38]

20. Views critical of policy are often expressed privately through party forums or directly with ministers, especially by government back bench Members.[39] 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.[40]

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.[41] 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.[42] 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.[43] 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'.[44] Mr Peter Bone, Member for Wellingborough, and Emily Thornberry described similar frustrations.[45] 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.[46] 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 their perception.

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'.[47] Martin Salter suggested that privy counsellors still seemed to get priority.[48] Kitty Ussher, Member for Burnley, and John Bercow, Member for Buckingham, made similar points.[49] 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.[50] Sir Alan's strong advice to the Committee was that the House should trust the Speaker.[51]

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.

4   Duties of a Member of Parliament, Parliamentary Affairs, Volume 8, (1954-55), p302 Back

5   Q 44 Back

6   Ev 35 Back

7   Q 201 Back

8   Q 185 Back

9   Q 201 Back

10   Stuart Weir and Tony Wright MP, Power to the back benches? Restoring the balance between Government and Parliament, Democratic Audit Paper No. 9 (December 1996) Back

11   Ev 97 Back

12   Ev 125 Back

13   Q 99 Back

14   Qq 124, 126 Back

15   Oonagh Gay, MPs go back to their constituencies, Political Quarterly, 2005 Back

16   Oonagh Gay, MPs go back to their constituencies, Political Quarterly, 2005 Back

17   Q 215 Back

18   Q 234 Back

19   G. Rosenblatt , A Year in the Life: From member of public to Member of Parliament, (Hansard Society: London, 2006), pp.30-31, 38-39, 44-45 Back

20   Ev 35 Back

21   One Member reported spending up to 97%. of their time on constituency business. Back

22   Members' Survey of Services 2007 - see 45% of Members responded to the survey. Back

23   Ev 32 Back

24   Communication from the Chairman Back

25   Q 160 Back

26   Ev 122 Back

27   Ev 14 Back

28   Q 57 Back

29   Review of Parliamentary Pay and Allowances, Review Body on Senior Salaries report no 48, 2001, Cm 4997-II , para 3.3 and Appendix A Back

30   Q 3 Back

31   Q 4 Back

32   Q 6 Back

33   Q 4 Back

34   Q 6 Back

35   Q 200 Back

36   Q 27 Back

37   Ev 78 Back

38   Ev 98 Back

39   Oonagh Gay, MPs go back to their constituencies, Political Quarterly, 2005 Back

40   Q 124 Back

41   Ev 98 Back

42   Ev 36-37 Back

43   Ev 115 Back

44   Q 91 Back

45   Qq 92, 124 Back

46   Q 187 Back

47   Q 109 Back

48   Q 166 Back

49   Qq 132, 181 Back

50   Q 190 Back

51   Q 187 Back

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Prepared 20 June 2007