Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

 
 

 
4  In the Chamber

47. The Chamber is at the heart of what Members do in the House. Constitutionally, it is the votes and decisions of the House in plenary which make or break governments, raise taxation, grant supply, and (because of the Parliament Acts) are the ultimate determinant of the law itself.

48. Legislation accounts for just under two-fifths of the available time on the floor of the House; the remaining three-fifths is taken up with non-legislative business. Debates on motions for the adjournment, opposition business or business where there is no question before the House (such as questions to ministers or statements) accounts for most of this time. Table 6 shows how the House uses the time available while figure 1 shows a broad distribution of non-legislative business in Session 2003-04.[105]
 Session

2001-02  

Session

2002-03  

Session

2003-04  

Session

2004-05  

Session

2005-06  

Daily Prayers 1%  1% 1%  1% 1%  
Addresses 3%  3% 3%  7% 3%  
No Question before the House  22% 22%  22% 20%  21% 
Legislation  37%  38% 38%  45% 45%  
Government Motions   4% 6%  3% 2%  3% 
Motions moved by back bench Members  1% 1%  2% 1%  1% 
Opposition business  9% 11%  12% 6%  8% 
Adjournment 20%  15% 16%  12% 15%  
Estimates Day debates   1% 1%  1% 1%  1% 
Money Resolutions   <1 % <1 %  <1 % <1 %  <1 % 
Ways and Means 2%  2% 2%  4% 1%  
Private Business debates  1% 0%  0% 0%  0% 

Table 6: Summary of distribution of time in the House

Source: Journal Office

Figure 1: Session 2003-04: Distribution of non-legislative business

Source: Journal Office

Making the Commons more topical and relevant

49. Making Parliament more topical and relevant is vital to increasing its currency with the public. Whether or not topical issues are debated in the House, they will undoubtedly be debated in TV and radio studios and other fora. Ensuring the House is more topical will help to engage the interest of Members. John Bercow said:

'…what takes place in the Chamber has to be to a greater extent topical, relevant and the subject of an outcome. Insofar as it lacks one or more of those qualities, then the opportunity cost of going into the Chamber is too great and colleagues will do something else.'[106]

50. The House has already agreed a number of changes that have had a positive impact on topicality: reducing the notice period for oral questions from two weeks to three days and creating additional opportunities for adjournment debates in Westminster Hall.[107] The Clerk said 'The scale of the opportunities for backbenchers has enabled many topical debates to be held, in recent times on Farepak, on rail services, on air passenger duty and on the future of cottage hospitals, which otherwise would have been confined to Question Time'.[108] But more can be done to make the Chamber more topical.

TOPICAL QUESTIONS

51. The reduction in notice period for Oral Questions, introduced in 2002, has improved the topicality of oral questions. Members no longer have to decide what issues they want to raise ten sitting days in advance of a given oral question time. But there are still occasions when issues of topical interest are not on the list of oral questions, where a relevant Question was either not tabled or was unsuccessful in the ballot. For example, at DEFRA Oral Questions on Thursday 22 June last year the performance of the Rural Payments Agency was a major topical issue but no Questions on it came high enough in the Questions shuffle to appear on the Order Paper.

52. Mr Peter Bone suggested part of each oral questions session could be used for open questions to improve topicality.[109] An open-question element during regular tabled oral question time would enable Members to put topical and spontaneous questions to the Ministers answering. When asked if this would work, Martin Salter, Mr Andrew Dismore, Member for Hendon, and John Bercow all supported the idea.[110] John Bercow said,

'I would say is that in a sixty minute question session it is perfectly reasonable to have a reserved portion lasting, say, ten minutes in which such a topical matter can be raised. The worst example of the weakness of the old system, partially reformed now when you have to submit questions for oral answer only three days before as opposed to a fortnight before, was the time when in Foreign Office questions nobody could raise the subject of Pinochet because it was not on the Order Paper but it was in everybody's minds. The Speaker of course can assert himself and insist on very short supplementaries and make it clear that in that ten minutes he hopes to get in at least half a dozen colleagues'.[111]

53. We recommend that oral Question Time should be divided into two periods: an initial period for oral questions under the current arrangements followed by a period of 'open' questions. Both periods would be balloted for, with the ballot operating in the same way as currently. Members could enter and be successful in both ballots. The entries to the open period would be in a standard form (for example 'If the Secretary of State will make a statement on his/her departmental responsibilities?'). The Secretary of State would give a brief answer giving observations on the principal issue(s) of the day in response to the first Question. The Member asking the question would then have the opportunity to put a supplementary in the normal way. The Speaker would then call Members both from the balloted list and at his discretion (similarly to Prime Minister's Questions at present). We anticipate most or all of the open Questions would be answered by the Secretary of State.

54. It would of course be a matter for each Member putting an open Question—whether balloted or supplementary—to decide whether to follow the topics raised by the Minister in the initial answer. This could mean that the issues the Minister regarded as important or topical would not in fact be developed any further than in the brief response to the initial balloted open Question. But this would be unlikely, and it is important that the principle be maintained that issues raised during Question time are set by Members and not by Government.

55. Initially we believe that this new procedure should only be applied in respect of Departments whose time for answering is either 40 or 55 minutes long. In the shorter period the open questions would last for 10 minutes and in the longer slot for 15 minutes. The overall length of Question time, the number of Members successful in the ballot, and the number of Members called in total, would all be unaffected. We do not recommend any change to the number of times front bench spokesmen for the opposition parties are called in the period as a whole.

TOPICAL DEBATES

56. One of the legitimate criticisms of the House is that sharp, topical debates are rarely held in the Chamber itself. Sir George Young was convinced of the need for greater topicality even if that made the business less predictable.[112] Michael White was clear that there was no substitute for topicality.[113] A three hour debate on US-UK Extradition Treaty was held on 12 July 2006 after a successful application to the Speaker on 11 July 2006 under Standing Order No. 24. Nick Robinson told us, 'It was striking that when the NatWest Three debate came, the urgent debate that Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat, managed to secure, this was regarded as some sort of freak rarity. That was something that was part of the national debate, of huge significance to relations between Britain and America and yet it was regarded as a surprise that Parliament could find a way to debate it. I would just suggest to Members that that might be a bit odd'.[114]

57. There are already a number of opportunities available to back bench Members for raising topical issues. Later in this Report we discuss Standing Order No. 24 debates (see paragraphs 67 to 71) and Urgent Questions under Standing Order No. 21(2) (see paragraph 66). Debates in Westminster Hall and the end of day adjournment debates in the Chamber offer other opportunities for back bench Members to raise topical issues although they are probably more often used to raise constituency matters. Opposition days are an important means of debating topical issues, but a balance has to be struck between announcing subjects early so that Members can prepare contributions and announcing subjects late to maintain topicality. The debates held before recesses are also regarded by back bench Members as important occasions for raising topical matters and constituency issues. We discuss further opportunities available to back bench Members later in the Report (see paragraph 101). Despite these opportunities for raising topical issues there was a sense from those we spoke to that more could be done to increase the topicality of the House. The Clerk said, 'there is a strong desire for Members to take part in debates that are topical, that are relevant, that are on matters of the day'.[115] The topicality of debates in the Chamber should be improved. We believe that the House will attract greater attention from Members, the public and the media if it finds a means of debating topical issues.

58. In his memorandum, Sir Patrick Cormack proposed a weekly ninety minute debate on topical issues to be held on either a Wednesday or a Thursday.[116] Dai Davies made a similar suggestion but argued it did not have to be in the Chamber.[117] The Hansard Society recommended allowing debates on topical issues and other matters of public concern.[118] Sir Alan Haselhurst suggested a weekly half-hour slot for topical debate, similar to some legislatures in other countries.[119] He thought this could be taken in Westminster Hall on a trial basis.

59. The Clerk highlighted the importance of finding a regular slot for topical debates so that they can be taken into account by the business mangers.[120] We recommend that provision should be made in Standing Orders for topical debates on issues of regional, national or international importance to be held on one day each week. Topical debates would last for an hour and a half and be taken immediately after questions and statements but before the main business of the day. The debate should be a general debate (see paragraph 85). Subjects for topical debates would be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with the Business Managers and the Leader of the House should issue, in a fortnightly written ministerial statement, a list of proposals for topical debate which had been made to him by private Members and of the debates which had taken place. To allow these new topical debates to provide opportunities for back bench Members, both sides of the House must accept some restriction on the length of front bench speeches and speeches by spokesmen of smaller parties and we discuss time limits later in this Report (see paragraph 95). As we have already said, we do not envisage any of our proposals increasing the overall time that the House sits. We intend to review the operation of topical debates after their first year of operation.

60. We see no reason why the introduction of topical debates should alter the nature of the other business taken on those days and we would expect them to continue to be used for main business. However, party business managers should use best endeavours to avoid scheduling topical debates on Opposition Days. There is no imperative for all second reading debates to be given five or six hours' debate. Some will take significantly less time and could be taken alongside the new procedure we have recommended for topical debate. We make further recommendations on the flexible use of time later in this Report (see paragraph 119).

OPEN DEBATES AND "INTERPELLATIONS"

61. The debate on matters to be considered before a recess, held on a motion for the adjournment of the House, is a popular opportunity for raising constituency and topical issues[121] and is often used by Members who have been unsuccessful in the ballot for adjournment debates. These debates, where Members are able to raise a variety of topics with the prospect of a brief ministerial reply, could be held more often.[122] This does not relate to the government adjournment debates which we discuss in paragraph 78.

62. Several Parliaments have an opportunity to break into the business and to either pose questions or make short statements on topical issues. In Sweden members of the Riksdag can scrutinise the executive by addressing questions—called interpellations—to ministers relating to the performance of their official duties. The purpose of these opportunities may be to gain a better overview of the Government's work, to draw attention to a specific issue or to obtain further information. Ministers have two weeks in which to answer the interpellation and this is done at a meeting of the Chamber. Normally a debate follows between the minister and the member who submitted the interpellation, but other members of the Riksdag can also participate. In Australia, time is set aside each Monday for Members' Statements, short 90-second statements to which there is no government response. They can also make ten minute speeches in the Grievance Debate, a debate virtually unlimited in scope. We describe practices in other Parliaments later in the report (see paragraph 109).

63. Given the other proposals that we make in this Report we are not persuaded of the need to introduce more 'open' debates or a slot for some kind of 'interpellation'. However, these ideas might be considered again when the impact of the new procedures we propose has been evaluated.

BUSINESS QUESTIONS

64. Each Thursday at 11:30am after oral questions, the Leader of the House answers 'Business Questions'. In this, the Leader sets out the future business, usually for the next two weeks. The Leader's answer is then followed by 45-60 minutes of supplementary questions on a huge range of issues, local, national and international. Members are expected to ask a question related to the business of the House. This is typically calling for a debate or statement and in any event the Chair allows individuals latitude. Mr Peter Bone saw business questions as an important opportunity to raise issues and was concerned that if there were other statements it might be shortened. He called for business questions to run for at least an hour regardless of what other statements might be on that day.[123] Lord Norton, on the other hand, argued that business questions was close to its sell by date.[124] We disagree. Business Questions remains a valuable opportunity for Members to raise topical issues and to engage in a discussion on the business of the House. We believe there is a case for formalising business questions in Standing Orders.

URGENT QUESTIONS AND URGENT DEBATES

65. There have been several proposals for changing how urgent debates and questions are handled. Peter Riddell thought that these procedures could be used more often than they are currently.[125]

66. Under Standing Order No. 21(2) the Speaker may grant an Urgent Question which is 'of an urgent character' and relates 'either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business'. Kitty Ussher saw urgent questions as a tool for raising issues of major national importance, while Westminster Hall provided an opportunity for back bench Members to raise issues of concern to constituents.[126] Sir Alan Haselhurst wondered whether the criteria for granting urgent questions could be changed so that more were granted. He suggested it would be useful, in consultation with the Speaker, to draw up some informal guidelines about the sorts of issues or events which would meet the test set out in the Standing Order.[127] The Speaker can exercise some influence over topicality but has to take into account not only the issue but the impact that granting an urgent question or urgent debate would have on the business of the House.[128] We recommend that guidelines be drawn up to help Members understand what sorts of issues and events might meet the criteria set out in Standing Order No. 21(2). We see a case for extending this advice to cover urgent debates under Standing Order No. 24 and the other opportunities for back bench Members to raise urgent or topical issues. The guidance could usefully include some examples of the types of issues that could be brought up under the different opportunities available to Members.

67. Standing Order No. 24 provides that any Member wishing to discuss a 'specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration' may, at the end of Question Time, seek leave to move the adjournment of the House. Members approach the Speaker who considers their application. The application can be refused at that stage or the Speaker can allow the application to be made in the Chamber. When an application is made in the Chamber the Speaker can either refuse the application (without giving his reasons for doing so) or, if the Speaker is satisfied that the matter is one that can be raised under the Standing Order, he will permit the Member to seek the leave of the House. If leave is refused, forty Members rising in their places will secure the debate. If fewer than forty but more than ten Members rise in their place the question on whether to allow the urgent debate is put forthwith and decided on a vote. When a motion made under Standing Order No. 24 is agreed to, a three hour adjournment debate is held to debate the topic either the next day or later the same day at a time prescribed by the Standing Order where the matter is sufficiently urgent. The Clerk told us that Standing Order No. 24 refers to urgency and matters of importance and did not address topicality.[129] He noted that finding a definition of topicality that satisfies all Members would be difficult.[130] Leave is granted on very few occasions and Standing Order No. 24 debates are rare. The most recent debate was on the UK-US Extradition Treaty on 12th July 2006. Prior to that there was a debate on Afghanistan in March 2002. Both debates lasted three hours. Such debates account for a negligible amount of non-legislative time.
Date  Member  Subject 
11 July 2006 Mr Nick Clegg  US-UK Extradition Treaty  
19 March 2002 Mr Bernard Jenkin  Afghanistan 
24 June 1993 Mr George Foulkes  Trident Refit (Scottish Economy)  
9 November 1989 Mr Dave Nellist  Ambulance Dispute 
13 April 1988 Mr Robin Cook  Impact of Changes in the Social Security System  
3 February 1987 Mr Gerald Kaufman  Special Branch Activities  
18 December 1986 Mr Denzil Davies  Airborne Early Warning System  
27 January 1986 Mr Neil Kinnock  Westland 
19 December 1984 Dr Cunningham  Local Authorities Capital Expenditure (England and Wales)  
24 May 1984 Mr Shore  British Leyland (Closures)  
10 April 1984 Mr A McKay  Mining Dispute (Police Operations)  
26 October 1983 Mr Healey  Grenada (Invasions) 

Table 7: Last ten successful applications for debates under Standing Order No. 24 (previously SO No. 20, 10, 9)

Source: Journal Office

68. The number of applications for Standing Order No. 24 debates made on the floor of the House declined markedly after a 1991 ruling by the Speaker[131] which sought to avoid wasting time of the House by filtering out those applications that were not specific, important, and urgent matters that involved a ministerial responsibility. It followed a period, when in the words of the then Speaker, there had been 'a spate of irrelevant applications'. Before 1991 there had been 40 or 50 applications per Session. In Session 1988-89 it reached a high of 88 applications. Since the 1991 ruling the number of applications has fallen to on average to fewer than five per session; in the last three complete sessions there have only been four applications in total. Many Members may not be aware of this procedure. One of the problems with procedures that are used infrequently or in a way that is not visible is that most Members get to know little about them, further reducing their use. Allowing more Standing Order No. 24 applications on to the floor of the House might help to stimulate more applications from Members that might meet the criteria.

Figure 2: Number of applications for debates under Standing Order No. 24 by Session

Source: Journal office

69. Lord Norton proposed changes to the current procedure for urgent debates with the option of a shorter 60 minute debate and a lower threshold for granting them on matters of immediate importance.[132] Alan Williams also questioned why an urgent debate always needed three hours.[133] The Hansard Society recommended introducing something akin to unstarred questions in the Lords or 60 minute emergency debates.[134] Sir Alan Haselhurst thought there was some scope for relaxing the criteria applied to Standing Order No. 24 applications so that more could be heard on the floor of the House and possibly more could be granted.[135] One of the constraints on the Speaker in granting Standing Order No. 24 applications is that they disrupt the business already planned. The impact of this disruption might be less, and more Standing Order No. 24 applications might be granted, if the Speaker had greater discretion to vary the length of debate that was granted; not every issue will demand a three hour debate.

70. Changing the criteria applied to application for debates made under Standing Order No. 24 risks changing the understanding of what issues can be raised as urgent debates and risks losing the focus on urgency at the expense of some other criteria, such as topicality.[136] We do not see any need to change the criteria set out in Standing Order No. 24 to increase topicality as we have recommended a separate procedure for regular topical debates. Standing Order No. 24 should continue to be used for urgent and important matters.

71. Currently the debate following a successful application under Standing Order No. 24 must be held at the commencement of business the following day or, if the Speaker directs, at a time prescribed by the Standing Order on the same day. We believe the Speaker should have greater discretion to vary when a debate, initiated through a successful Standing Order No. 24 application, is held and to decide its length. The Speaker would need to exercise this discretion in consultation with the business managers to mitigate the impact on planned business. We discuss replacing adjournment debates with general debates later in this report (see paragraph 85) and believe that debates following a successful Standing Order No. 24 application would be general debates.

Improving engagement

72. Debate fulfils many functions. The exchange of views in an orderly manner, and the ability to intervene and follow up a point are vital in holding the Government to account and representing the interests of the constituency. We do not seek to change or undermine these conventions and practices; it is essential instead that we build on the characteristics of Commons debates which still mean that they have much more spontaneity and vitality than in most other legislative chambers across the world. The House could do more to encourage greater input from back bench Members, particularly where they feel unable to take part in debates due to oversubscription or because the front bench contributions were prolonged Therefore we make proposals below on:

73. We believe that a variety of opportunities for raising issues should be available to back bench Members. We have already described several changes intended to improve topicality. In this section of the Report we focus on procedural innovations and changes that remove barriers to participation in debates. As the Clerk explained, back bench Members would benefit from a wider range of opportunities to raise both topical and constituency issues.[137] Having a range of different opportunities allows Members to make their point in different ways. Douglas Millar, the Clerk Assistant, said, 'there are issues on which Members are happy to have their three minute ex parte statement and there are others where it is more important for them to have a response from a minister'.[138]

DEMAND TO SPEAK

74. The system of writing to the Speaker to indicate an interest in speaking in a debate for the most part works very well. But there will always be occasions when the demand to speak in debates exceeds the time available. Some debates are over-subscribed and these are currently managed using time limits on back bench speeches. The advent of websites which collect statistics on participation have had an impact on Members behaviour.[139]

75. When he was Speaker, Lord Weatherill said, 'if the Speaker is entirely fair, the average member will be called four times per year … most of his constituents think he should be called four times a week, and he thinks he should be called eight times a week. But it doesn't work like that'.[140] The table below shows that back bench Members[141] may on average only expect to be called in debates in the Chamber between 3 and 5 times a Session,[142] with opposition back bench Members being called slightly more often than government back bench Members. Records from the Speaker's Office show that the averages hide the fact that some people get called more and some less than others. In 2005-06, forty government back bench Members and eleven opposition back bench Members did not seek to be called (on the types of business for which records are maintained - see footnote 142) while one government back bench Member was called thirteen times and one opposition back bench Member (a Liberal Democrat spokesperson) was called twenty-seven times. At paragraph 97 we make a recommendation about time limits on speeches to help manage the demand to speak.

2005-06 Session  Average number of times Members were called  Average length of contribution  
Government back bench Members  3.15 12.2 minutes  
Opposition (all parties) back bench Members  5.26 times 12.6 minutes  
Table 8: Records from the Speaker's Office for the 2005-06 Session for speaking in debates.[143]

76. A more detailed analysis in table 9 shows that in 2005-06 there were about 980 slots for back bench members[144] in government adjournment debates, debates on Addresses, Estimates Days, Government Motions, the Budget debate and Opposition Days. This accounted for about two speeches each session per back bench Member. What emerges quite strongly is that the average length of a back bench speech is about 13 minutes while the time taken up by front benchers is quite variable.
Session 2005-06  Total time taken  No. of Debates/Days  Average length front bench contrib-ution (inc opening speeches and wind ups)  Total time taken up by front bench (%)  Total Time available for back bench Members  Average length of a back bench speech  No. of slots available to back bench Members  
Govt adjournment debates  103 hrs 25 debates  2 hrs 50 hrs (48.5%)  53hrs 13 mins  245 
Debates on Addresses  40 hrs 48 mins 6 debates  2 hrs 03 mins 12 hrs 18 mins (30.1%)  28 hrs 30 mins 12 mins  142 
Estimates Days 15hrs 42 mins  3 days 1hr 20 mins  4 hrs (25.5%) 11 hrs 42 mins  13 mins 58  
Government Motions 32 hrs 57 mins  7 debates (excludes some debates that were very short)  1 hour 38 mins 11 hrs 26 (34.7%)  21 hrs 31 mins 13 mins  99 
Budget 21hrs 08 mins  4 days 1hr 33 mins  6hrs 12 mins (29.3%)  14hrs 56 mins 16 mins  56 
Opposition Days 129 hrs 58 mins  37 debates 1hr 48 mins  66hrs 36 mins (51.2%)  63hrs 22 mins 10 mins  380 

Table 9: Breakdown of time between front bench and back bench speeches for certain kinds of business

Source: Journal Office

GENERAL DEBATES

77. Each session a number of debates are held on substantive motions in government time. Some of these relate to standards and privilege work, sessional orders and other House issues (such as debates on recommendations from the Modernisation and Procedure Committees). They include debates on standing order changes and on Members' allowances. They also include a small number of debates on topical subjects. For example in Session 2002-03 debates on substantive motions were held on Iraq and the Convention on the Future of Europe. These debates in total account for 3-4 per cent. of non-legislative time.

78. Most non-legislative debates, however, take place on a motion for the adjournment of the House. Government adjournment debates accounted for about 12 per cent. of non-legislative time in Session 03-04. They are a procedural device that allows debate to take place without the House having to come to an opinion. It must seem, to the public and many Members, a little nonsensical to debate the adjournment of the House rather than the subject at hand and to then withdraw the motion or allow it to lapse in order to allow the half-hour end-of-day adjournment debate, which takes place on a different subject but on an identical motion, 'that this House do now adjourn'.

79. While it is the custom to find time on the floor of the House for a number of 'regular' slots, there is no obligation or specific convention governing the provision of a debate. Subjects debated regularly in Government time include:

80. There are also one or two debates each year on take note motions on the Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts. Other subjects are debated on a motion for the adjournment on an ad hoc basis. Subjects include matters of national importance and general debates on less immediately pressing matters. The table below gives the subjects debated in Session 2005-06.
Date  Subject  Duration (hrs)  
30 Jun 05 Africa (Poverty)  4.55 
7 Jul 05 Defence in the World  4.50 
18 Jul 05 Sir Edward Heath KG MBE  1.03 
13 Oct 05 Combating Benefit Fraud  1.51 
14 Oct 05 Police Cautions (Data Protection)  0.26 
20 Oct 05 Thames Gateway  4.18 
17 Nov 05 Defence in the United Kingdom  4.43 
7 Dec 05 Fisheries  5.24 
14 Dec 05 European Affairs  6.17 
19 Dec 05 Police Restructuring  5.30 
12 Jan 06 Security of Energy Supply  3.01 
31 Jan 06 Pensions  2.48 
2 Feb 06 Defence Procurement  5.01 
16 Feb 06 Tackling Health Inequalities  3.18 
21 Mar 06 Managed Migration  2.55 
2 May 06 Energy Review (Human Rights)  0.23 
4 May 06 Disabled People  5.36 
11 May 06 Confident Consumers  2.14 
14 Jun 06 European Affairs  5.54 
22 Jun 06 Defence Policy  4.59 
6 Jul 06 Armed Forces Personnel  5.29 
11 Jul 06 Intelligence and Security Committee (Annual Report)  4.01 
20 Jul 06 International Affairs  3.23 
12 Oct 06 Climate Change  4.13 
26 Oct 06 International Development  1.48 
30 Oct 06 Energy Supply  3.49 

Table 10: Subjects debated on a motion for the adjournment of the House in Session 2005-06

Source: Journal Office

81. In its 4th Report, Session 2002-03, on Procedure for debates, private Members' bills and the powers of the Speaker, the Procedure Committee published a list of annual set piece debates which took place in the Chamber, which together amount to 45 sitting days.[145]

Queen's Speech Debate  6 days 
Opposition Days 20 days  
Estimates Days 3 days  
Budget Debate 5 days  
Summer economic Debate  1 day 
Armed Services 3 days  
Defence White Paper  2 days 
EU matters 1or 2 days  
Reports of the Public Accounts Committee  1 day 
Welsh Affairs 1 day  
Foreign Affairs (usually)  1 day 

Table 11: Typical distribution of annual set-piece debates

Source: Procedure Committee, 4th Report of Session 2002-03

82. The topics debated on motions for the adjournment in government time are a pretty eclectic mix. Some are regular fixtures in the parliamentary timetable; others are based on suggestions made at business questions but many simply emerge when business is announced each week by the Leader of the House. There should be greater transparency in the choice of topics. Back bench Members should have a greater input into the selection of topics that the House debates in its non-legislative time. For the majority of regular debates we recommend rebalancing the current allocation of days and mix of subjects. One or two fewer days could be spent on the Queen's speech and at least one day could be saved on the Budget debate. We believe that there should be one day given over to a debate on the Pre-Budget Report. Six days are currently allocated to debates on armed forces, defence and foreign affairs. These days should be used more flexibly for debating foreign policy, security and defence issues. The Government would retain the discretion to allocate more days for major debates.

83. Some of those we spoke to wanted more of these debates to take place on substantive motions rather than on motions for the adjournment. Mr Peter Bone said, 'I am sure that there was a very good debate […] on the celebration of the abolition of the slave trade, but there would not have been a substantive motion at the end of that. I think that more debates where there is a result at the end would be most useful. I can think of debates, for instance, on police mergers. We had one in Westminster Hall which was exceptionally well attended, but of course there was no substantive motion at the end.'[146] Jo Swinson said, 'I think that substantive motions can give a point to a debate, rather than it just being a talking shop, as it were'.[147] Nick Robinson was clear in his evidence on the importance of a defined outcome.[148]

84. The Clerk noted that increasing the use substantive motions would have advantages and disadvantages.[149] Substantive motions would allow amendments to be moved and could result in votes; a defined outcome. But debates on the adjournment are more flexible and the rules of debate less strict so that Members do not have to be as concerned about keeping within the scope of what is often a narrowly defined motion. It is worth noting too that the parties (and Members) may also benefit from the looser whipping regime which often accompanies adjournment debates and that might not be possible where a vote is likely or even possible. We recognise that there are good arguments both ways here. The Government should listen carefully to representations from the main Opposition parties and from back bench Members of all parties about whether a debate should take place on a substantive motion to which amendments could be tabled, and a vote held if necessary, or whether it should take place on a motion that allows a debate without the House having to come to a resolution in terms.

85. The House will always want the opportunity to hold a debate without having to come to a decision in terms. But using 'adjournment' debates as a procedural device for general debates is confusing. It would be helpful to Members and to the public's understanding of the House if these debates were renamed. We recommend that debates held for the purpose of discussing a topic be renamed 'general debates' and that debate should take place on a motion 'That this House has considered [the matter of] [subject]'. Such motions are already used in debates in Delegated Legislation Committees. Debate on such a motion would retain all the current features of an adjournment debate and there should be a strong convention that such motions moved for the purpose of having a general debate would not be amended. As a consequence, these motions must be titled and expressed in neutral terms and cannot be used to convey any argument. The Table Office should play a part in vetting these motions. The motion could still be divided on to show disapproval with a particular policy (as is the case now with a motion for the adjournment of the House and on the motions on Statutory Instruments debated in Committees[150]) but we expect that this would happen very rarely. We would expect that like motions for the adjournment now, such consideration motions moved to facilitate a general debate on a topic would lapse or be withdrawn at the end of the debate.

86. Changing the terms of motions for general debates could have implications for the procedures in Westminster Hall. We do not propose changing procedure in Westminster Hall at this stage but call upon the Procedure Committee to consider in light of experience in the Chamber how the changes we have outlined might work in Westminster Hall. To make its proceedings more comprehensible however, we recommend that the Order Paper for Westminster Hall makes clear that the debates there are general debates, on particular subjects.

87. We make no recommendations to change the existing end-of-day adjournment debates. These should remain as an important opportunity for back bench Members to raise a matter with a Minister. But we recommend that the subject and initiator of each end-of-day adjournment debate be recorded in the formal minutes of the House as well as on the Order paper.

SHORT DEBATES

88. In the evidence submitted to the Committee there was plenty of support for shorter debates. Peter Riddell said, 'People do not go and hear sermons any longer, therefore the idea of lengthy speeches is completely alien to most people's understanding'.[151] Lord Norton told the Committee that short, sharp debates would increase the relevance to Members.[152] The Hansard Society resumed its call for short debates on 'substantive issues'[153] and recommended allowing 'public interest debates', short debates requiring a ministerial response where there is a clear case of policy failure.

89. Despite the best endeavours of the occupant of the Chair to provide information to Members on when they are likely to be called, giving up five or six hours to attend a debate in the hope of getting called (on top of the time needed to prepare a speech) acts as a significant barrier to participation. And there is little incentive for Members not seeking to make a speech to attend. We believe that opportunities for a number of shorter debates can be created without any procedural change and that these would encourage more Members to participate. A Member unwilling to give up five or six hours of the day to sit in the Chamber in the hope of getting called may be willing to give up two to three hours to listen, contribute to or intervene in a short debate. We are convinced that greater flexibility in managing the business of the House is needed. The business managers could easily split some of the whole-day government debates into two shorter debates, in much the same way that the Official Opposition do on some Opposition days. We accept there will always be subjects that warrant a full day's debate or more. However, there are many other occasions where two shorter debates would be more popular with Members and better attended. The Government and opposition parties should agree more flexible use of time, splitting some of the current all-day non-legislative debates into two or more shorter, more focused debates where appropriate. This should allow the Leader of the House to respond more flexibly to requests for debates raised by Members at Business Questions. In paragraphs 92 and 94 we discuss the impact of long front bench speeches and propose how they might be discouraged.

DEBATING COMMITTEE REPORTS

90. In Sessions 1999-2000 and 2000-01, the Liaison Committee made a series of recommendations which sought to raise the profile of select committee reports by having more of them debated. These included the idea that debates could take place in the Chamber on substantive motions recommended by committees and the idea that there should be a regular slot for short debates on reports.[154] Some of the issues raised then were raised again in evidence to our inquiry. Following his evidence to the Committee, Mr Alan Williams, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee sought the views of the present Liaison Committee. They supported the proposal made by a previous Liaison Committee for a weekly 'committee half-hour' on the floor of the House, making it possible for Members, including a Minister and the Chairman or another member of the relevant Committee, to make initial brief comments on a Select Committee report. This would not preclude a full-scale debate, in Westminster Hall or in the Chamber, in due course after the Government's full response to the report had been received. They also took the view that Committees should have the option of having their reports debated in the Chamber on substantive motions put forward by the Committee concerned. In many cases Committees might not want to proceed in this way, but the option would be available if the Committee considered it worthwhile.[155] Peter Riddell thought that having fewer debates on reports did not matter as reports often informed other general debates;[156] reports can be listed on the Order paper as being relevant to a particular debate.

91. Few Members other than members of the Committee tend to get involved with debates on Committee Reports.[157] Lord Norton suggested that there could be half an hour on Tuesdays after Question Time for reports to be debated, with a five minute limit on speeches.[158] The Liaison Committee could select the topics similar to the Australian model. He also suggested that reports could contain recommendations that could be put to the House and debated as a motion.[159] Mr Mark Todd, Member for South Derbyshire, also thought there should be proper time to consider select committee reports.[160] We believe there should be a weekly committee half-hour in Westminster Hall in which a Minister can make a brief response to a committee report, selected for debate by the Liaison Committee, followed by the Chairman or other Member of the Committee. The remainder of the half-hour slot would be available to the opposition front benches and back bench Members generally. The usefulness of these weekly slots in Westminster Hall should be kept under review. We also see no reason why it should not be possible for committee reports to be debated in Westminster Hall on substantive motions: this may require a change to Standing Order No. 10 to make clear that debates on reports of this kind cannot be blocked by six Members. These procedures should be reviewed after their first year of operation.[161]

TIME LIMITS ON SPEECHES

92. Long front bench speeches squeeze the amount of time available for back bench Members, and several of our witnesses felt they should be time limited.[162] This might encourage Members to attend for Questions and stay for opening speeches in the debate as there would be greater certainty about how long they would take. Emily Thornberry described how Westminster Hall was more egalitarian as it was easier for Members to organise themselves and to divide up the time fairly or at least in a way that everyone was happy with because there was generally a smaller number of Members wanting to speak in any debate.[163] In his memorandum, Sir George Young recognised that front bench speakers took interventions but said 'this risks becoming a vicious circle. As more interventions are taken, backbenchers see that they are going to be squeezed out of the debate. So they make an intervention instead, thereby further reducing the time for speeches'.[164]

93. Interventions are valued by Members as a means of putting ministers on the spot and are an important part of scrutiny. We are reluctant to do anything that might constrain the ability of back bench Members to intervene on Ministers' speeches. In 1997-98 our predecessors called for self-restraint and did not seek to impose a limit on front bench speeches as they had no wish to diminish ministerial accountability.[165] In 2001-02 our predecessors suggested that a minister should prepare speeches of no more than twenty minutes and that the opposition spokesmen should not feel obliged to match them.[166] In 2002-03, the Procedure Committee did not think it would be practicable to lay down in Standing Orders time limits on front bench speakers but endorsed our predecessors' recommendation that speeches should be no more than twenty minutes plus time for interventions.[167] They recommended that less time should be taken up when only half a day was available for a given debate. The Speaker has recently reminded the House that as a general rule initial Statements by Ministers should not exceed ten minutes, the official opposition response five minutes, and responses from Liberal Democrats or other parties three minutes.[168] This guidance has in the main been followed, and appears to have met with general approbation.

94. The impact of long front bench speeches on days when business is truncated because of a statement or because the business was time-limited can be very dispiriting.[169] Table 9 (see page 38) showed that front bench speeches can take up a significant amount of the time available: nearly 50 per cent. for government adjournment debates and over 50 per cent. on opposition days. Clearly this is related to the number of interventions ministers and front bench spokesmen take. Self-restraint is not working. We believe that in heavily over-subscribed debates the Speaker should have the discretion to impose a twenty minute limit on speeches from the front benches with an additional minute given for each intervention up to a maximum of fifteen minutes of additional time. We hope that the mere prospect that a limit might be applied will encourage all those speaking from the front bench to prepare speeches that last not more than twenty minutes and that the generous allowance for interventions will not lead to any diminution of ministerial accountability. These arrangements should be kept under review.

95. In addition we believe that front bench speeches in the one and a half hour topical debates we recommended earlier in the Report[170] should be limited to ten minutes each. However, front bench spokesmen could receive an additional minute for each intervention they accepted up to a total of ten minutes with similar limits set for smaller parties in proportion to the time limits the Speaker recently announced for statements.[171] The Official Opposition and second largest opposition party spokesmen should be able to choose whether to make an opening or a wind-up speech (although additional time for interventions may not be practicable at the end of a debate). The minister with responsibility for the topic would reply to the debate in a speech lasting no more than five minutes. Back bench speeches in topical debates should be limited to not less than three minutes, the precise allocation depending on the number of Members who wished to speak.

96. Popular debates will always be over-subscribed unless they are given more time. The Clerk said, 'Members may feel that they are unable fully to engage in debates because they are not called to speak on every occasion when they seek to catch the Speaker's eye. But frequently that stems from the fact that the most popular debates are heavily over subscribed and, even with use of the Standing Order on Short Speeches, it is impossible for the Chair to call everyone'.[172] Many speeches could be shorter without losing their impact and there is a case for greater flexibility in imposing time limits on speeches. Jo Swinson said limits on speeches in debates were helpful and encouraged Members to think in advance about what they are going to say.[173] Sir George Young said four eight minute speeches were likely to be more informative than two sixteen minute speeches.[174]

97. The Clerk and the Chairman of Ways and Means drew our attention to a problem with the rigidity of current limits in Standing Order No. 47 which provides for time limits on back bench contributions to debate.[175] Once a time limit has been decided, if Members subsequently withdraw, the time limit set may bring the debate to an end prematurely or if Members seek to catch the Speaker's eye without prior notification the chosen time limit may be too generous to enable all to speak. Sir Alan called for more flexibility in the operation of the Standing Order to avoid the abrupt transition from a reasonable limit in the debate to a much shortened time just ahead of the wind up speeches.[176] He said that trusting the Speaker and giving him more flexibility to manage time limits would allow the occupant of the Chair to judge a situation as it develops and respond accordingly.[177] The Clerk said the point at which shorter speeches were introduced influenced the amount of time to be divided up and that had an effect on how Members made and planned their speeches.[178] Sir Alan said, 'if you have confidence in the Speaker and his assistants to operate the [debate] in the interests of Members, which is our tradition, then place that full trust in the Speaker'.[179] We agree that the Speaker should have greater flexibility to vary time limits during debates with the objective of allowing all those who wish to speak to participate. We recommend that the Standing Orders be amended to give the Speaker greater discretion in setting and revising time limits on speeches, including raising or removing limits if appropriate.

LIST OF SPEAKERS IN DEBATE

98. There have occasionally been calls for lists of speakers to be published. The Speaker's guidance to all Members on conventions for debates says, 'the Chair will generally seek to be as helpful as possible to Members seeking advice on the likelihood of being called'.[180] The Speaker's guidance also says: 'Members speaking in debates should be present for the opening and winding-up speeches, and should remain in the Chamber for at least the two speeches after they have concluded. Members who fail to observe these courtesies will be given a lower priority on the next occasion they seek to speak'.[181] We believe that it is important that Members should feel able to approach the Chair to get some informal indication of when they are likely to be called and we commend the Speaker on his helpful approach.

99. Andrew Dismore's memorandum supported the use of lists of speakers.[182] Emily Thornberry thought there was no risk to spontaneity in debate from lists; having a list would encourage those not on it to make interventions in debate instead.[183] Jo Swinson recognised that having a list could be helpful but might result in fewer people speaking in debates.[184] She recognised that there was a lack of clarity about what the rules were and how they were enforced.[185] However, Sir Alan Haselhurst was not in favour of lists saying, 'Any gain in certainty of timing would, in my view, be more than outweighed by the loss of spontaneity in debate and the temptation for Members to spend even less time listening to their colleagues' contributions'.[186] He pointed out that a system of lists would need rigid rules that could be difficult to enforce. We do not see a need for lists of speakers in debates.

MULTITASKING

100. All Members experience competing demands on their time. Members might be more willing to spend time in the Chamber listening to debates or waiting to be called if they were able to do other work at the same time, either dealing with correspondence or perhaps even using a handheld computer or laptop to deal with e-mails. Several people we spoke to raised the question of multitasking. Kitty Ussher felt multitasking in her office was often a better use of her time given the pressures of work.[187] Jo Swinson said Members could multitask in their offices, listening to debate on the television, but could not do so in the Chamber. Emily Thornberry said, 'Six hours is a very long time just to sit there and not do any work, when you have the time pressures that we have'.[188] Even longer serving Members saw no barrier to the use of hand-held devices in the Chamber provided they did not interfere with the debate or cause a disturbance.[189] Removing barriers to participation is important and the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with e-mails should be permitted in the Chamber provided that it causes no disturbance. The House authorities should ensure that the necessary technical infrastructure is provided to ensure that Members can use handheld devices in the Chamber unobtrusively and without affecting other systems in the Chamber, such as the sound system.

Opportunities to initiate business

EXISTING OPPORTUNITIES

101. In his memorandum to the Committee, the Clerk noted that the potential range of activities in which Members may be engaged was wide.[190] There are five types of business which are effectively in the hands of private Members:

  • private Members' bills,
  • motions for leave to introduce bills (ten minute rule motions),
  • debates on the adjournment, requiring a minister to account for his policy or actions,
  • amendments to Bills, at Report stage, as in Committee, and
  • questions to ministers.

102. In addition, Early Day Motions, although not initiating business, allow back bench Members to put before Parliament issues of concern, and are used as a platform for pressuring Business Managers into finding time for debate, not least via Business Questions.

103. There are other ways for back bench Members to raise subjects of their choosing on the floor, although most provide only a small amount of time for the Member. These include:

  • Prime Ministers Questions and Business Questions (although getting in depends on catching the Speaker's eye)
  • asking an urgent question (under Standing Order No. 21) (with the permission of the Speaker - see paragraph 66)
  • applying for urgent emergency debates (under Standing Order No. 24) (rarely used - see paragraph 67)

104. Back bench Members also have a number of other non-legislative opportunities for examining government policy including written questions, government statements, adjournment debates and early day motions. The opportunities for debate include Opposition days, Estimates days and the set-piece debates on the Queen's speech and the budget. Debates before a recess offer a chance to raise issues that might not otherwise be debated. On days when government business ends early the adjournment debate may expand to fill the time which becomes available. In addition, any Member may attend and speak in Delegated Legislation and European Standing Committees. Members can also present petitions.

105. Standing Orders give government business precedence at every sitting save for twenty opposition days, three estimates days and thirteen days for private Members' business. However, even on days when the business is appointed by the government, back bench Members have significant opportunities to raise issues. For example, at Question time although the rota, called the Order of Oral Questions, is determined by the government, the actual order of the questions is random and determined by ballot and the content of questions is determined by Members. Similarly, time spent discussing legislation is clearly government time but much of it is spent on discussing amendments brought forward by the opposition and by back bench Members.

106. Private Members' Bills (PMBs) are an effective tool for back bench Members.[191] Emily Thornberry stressed that a PMB does not have to become law to have an effect and that they were an excellent way of drawing attention to an issue.[192] Lord Norton said,

'If you look at Private Members' time, it takes less than five per cent of the time of the House. People say it is wasted time because not many bills are passed. I think that misses the point. It is invaluable time for raising the issue, getting it on to the agenda, allowing people to express a view, and to make groups outside feel that they are being heard and those views are being expressed. I think we can see in those circumstances that time utilised in that way is extremely valuable'.[193]

107. Traditionally government's reaction to PMBs has been to resist any that were not government handout bills. A lack of information about what is in a bill can encourage the government to take an unduly negative approach. We believe that the government should be more helpful over the handling of bills but recognise that this will require the Members sponsoring bills to give more notice of the content. It would be helpful if the Procedure Committee were able to look at the question of Private Members' Bills in more detail.

108. Ten minute rule motions are also seen as a valuable back bench opportunity to raise an issue in prime time. From the seventh week of a session a Member is called each Tuesday and Wednesday to make a speech of not more than ten minutes seeking leave to introduce a bill (see Standing Order No. 23). Anyone opposing such a Motion can speak for a further ten minutes. Ten minute rule motions are for the most part unopposed and do not usually take up the 20 minutes allowed for them. But they are sometimes opposed and there may on occasion be a division. Ten minute rule motions accounted for two per cent. of non-legislative time in Session 2003-04.

109. Other Parliaments have a range of mechanisms and procedures by which Private Members can initiate business or raise an issue. Australia, New Zealand and Canada all have specific times set aside for private Members to initiate business. Some control this through business committees. India not only allows time for Private Members' Resolutions but also has several other innovative mechanisms for raising or drawing attention to an issue including, Calling Attention, Half-an-Hour discussions, Short Duration discussions, Rule 377, Zero hour submissions and Special Mentions. These appear to have been designed to allow Members who wish to raise an issue to find a way of doing so. In New Zealand, every Wednesday afternoon an hour is set aside for members to debate issues of their choice. Speeches in these general debates are five minutes each. The Business Committee normally allocates party speaking slots for this debate and Members approach their whips for slots. Australia uses Monday afternoons for non-government business including Committee and Delegation Reports, Private Members' Motions, Private Members' Bills, Members' statements, Petitions and the Grievance debate. The Grievance debate lasts about an hour and a half and is practically unlimited in scope. In it Members have ten minutes to make their speech. Its origins lie in the financial procedures of the House and although strictly speaking it is government time it is a back bench opportunity (just as for adjournment debates).

110. Philip Cowley said, 'Allowing backbenchers some influence at Westminster is more than just when they speak; it is also getting the topics they want on to the agenda, when they want them on the agenda'.[194] Rt Hon. John Gummer, Member for Suffolk Coastal, argued that the Government should control the legislative programme, but Parliament as a whole should have a great deal of control over the timetable.[195] In his written evidence Lord Norton said, 'Experience elsewhere suggests that giving the House greater say over the use of time will not prevent the Government from getting its business, but it will enable time to be used more effectively in calling the executive to account'.[196]

111. There is clearly a demand for new mechanisms to raise issues. In this Report, we have added to the existing opportunities by recommending a procedure for topical questions and debates on topical issues. But with such a wide range of opportunities open to Members perhaps what is needed is more time for existing opportunities and/or better information on how to make better use of them. We discussed providing better information on the new opportunities we have recommended in this Report and existing opportunities in paragraph 46 and 66.

PRIVATE MEMBERS' MOTIONS

112. We have already seen that there are a great number of ways for Members to raise issues (see paragraph 101) and our recommendations in this Report seek to add to them. Debates in Westminster Hall have been a significant success and have, to some extent, reversed the historical erosion of private Members' time.[197] But several of those who submitted evidence and a number of our witnesses said that back bench Members would only have a real power of initiation if they could bring forward topics on substantive motions for debate; several advocated the reintroduction of Private Members' Motions.[198] The Clerk of the House pointed out that 'What back bench Members cannot do currently is initiate debates on a substantive motion which would enable them to test the opinion of the House on a subject at their own initiative.'[199] He went on to say such a reform would be a significant strengthening of the role of a back bench Member.[200] Reintroducing Private Members' Motions could also provide a vehicle for those who felt there should be some mechanism for Early Day Motions to be debated.

113. Private Members' Motions were usually in the form of draft resolutions that if adopted would become an expression of opinion of the House. Private Members' Motions were taken on Fridays reserved for private Members' business and given precedence on ten Fridays and four half-days other than Fridays (usually Mondays until 7.00pm). Friday sittings were divided between Private Members' Motions and Private Members' Bills. Members entered a ballot for the slots available for Private Members' Motions. The ballot for slots on Fridays was held on such Wednesdays as were appointed by the House and on such other days as were appointed by the House for the four half-days. Three names were drawn on each occasion, although it was rare for there to be more than one debate. Private Members' Motions were rarely divided on (no divisions at all in Sessions 1988-89 and 1989-90) and most often debates were allowed to lapse. Debates on Private Members' Motions were ended as part of a package of changes to sitting hours set out in the 1992 Report of the select Committee on Sittings of the House,[201] commonly known as the Jopling Reforms, and became debates on the adjournment on Wednesday mornings that later became Westminster Hall debates.

114. We believe there should be more opportunities for back bench Members to initiate business. There is a strong case for reintroducing Private Members' Motions. In the first instance we recommend an experiment with a ballot for opportunities for debating Private Members' Motions using one of the longer slots each week in Westminster Hall on a trial basis for a whole Parliamentary Session. We recommend that this experiment should take place during the 2008-09 Session.

115. This would create more opportunities for debating Private Members' Motions than existed before the 'Jopling' reforms in mid-1990s which changed the sitting times of the House. Clearly this can only be done with the loss of one of the longer slots in Westminster Hall but on balance we feel that the benefit of allowing private Members another means of initiating business outweighs the loss of the slot. There would be no net loss of private Members' time. Standing Order No. 10 will need to be adjusted to refine the mechanism for holding divisions when a motion debated in Westminster Hall is opposed. We believe that any divisions referred to the House from Westminster Hall should be deferrable. Amendments to a Private Members' Motion will not be possible under this procedure as the mechanism for deferred divisions cannot deal with contingent questions. (This would not preclude the Member making changes to the Motion, in the light of any representations made, up to the day before the debate.) Private Members' Motions deferred in this way should appear on a different coloured ballot paper to distinguish them from deferred divisions on main business and we would expect that Ministers would abstain in these votes.

Timing and timetabling of business

116. The present distribution of sitting time broadly reflects the arrangements made in Session 1994-95 that flowed from the Jopling Reforms.[202]

117. The Jopling Reforms were based on three principles:

  • the Government must be able to get its business through and, within that principle, ultimately control the time of the House;
  • the Opposition must have enough opportunity to scrutinise the actions of Government and to improve or oppose its legislation as it thinks fit; and
  • back bench Members on both sides of the Chamber should have reasonable opportunities to raise matters of concern to their constituents.[203]

118. Sitting times have changed since the Jopling Reforms and new opportunities, such as Westminster Hall, have been introduced but the under-pinning principles still hold true.

A MORE FLEXIBLE APPROACH

119. Sir Alan Haselhurst told us that while the pressure to create more time for constituency and campaigning work was one of the main driving forces behind the changes in sitting hours introduced during the last two Parliaments, they had led to a clash of commitments for Members at Westminster and the scrutiny function was suffering as a result.[204] He recognised it was unrealistic to expect business to be entirely predictable and that business managers need some margin of flexibility in their forward planning.[205] Timing proceedings down to the last minute would be undesirably restrictive. We agree with Sir Alan that there is nothing more dispiriting for Members than to see business collapsing several hours before the scheduled close, with the resultant loss of debating time. Flexible use of time is a theme running through this Report and our last Report on the Legislative Process. Time is a precious commodity and should be used as flexibly as possible so that the House focuses on those areas that needed most attention with less time spent debating areas where there is consensus. Within the overall framework of the Government's legislative programme, exactly how time is used is partly within the discretion of the opposition parties. We believe, therefore, that the business managers of the government and opposition should give thought to and perhaps consult back bench Members on the likely level of demand to speak in a given debate. They can then adjust the amount of time for the business accordingly. As Sir Alan Haselhurst said there are only two or three occasions in a year when there are really high levels of demand to speak in a debate and that on those occasions sufficient time should be allowed.[206]

THE IMPACT OF PROGRAMMING

120. Philip Cowley told us:

'Programming is a good example of a good idea, brought forward initially with very good intentions, which has been corrupted. … Programming, as currently constituted, is not beneficial. One consequence … has been to shove out backbenchers from the Report stage of the legislative process. It is one reason … why you are now getting very large rebellions against bills at Second Reading. You are getting them because backbenchers are no longer sure that they will be able to get their chance to use targeted amendments later on in the process.'[207]

121. John Gummer also drew attention to the problems caused by the programming of legislation.[208] Report stage, in particular, is very compressed. Sir Alan Haselhurst said, 'The principle of programming bills is not necessarily objectionable, but it needs to be applied more sensitively and flexibly. If programming were modified in this way, something approaching a consensus on its use might be achievable'.[209]

122. In fact, Programming has become much less prescriptive and is used to ensure full debate. The number of knives in committee has dramatically reduced, from 69% in 2001-02 to 3% in the last Session and there have been none so far in this Session. The number of Standing Committees finishing early has greatly increased—9% in 2001-02 to 48.5% in 2005-06 and 69% in this Session. The number of groups not reached in Report Stage debates has decreased—average of 3 groups per bill in Session 2003-04, 2 per bill in Session 2005-06 and 1 this Session. The Government works hard to make Programming consensual and opposition to Programming has decreased. The number of divisions on Programme Motions at Second Reading has decreased from 100% in Session 2001-02 to 40% in Session 2005-06 and 35% in this Session. The number of divisions on Programming Sub-Committee resolutions in Committee has decreased—44% in Session 2001-02, to 8% in 2005-06 (although it has risen to 28% in this Session following the introduction of changes to the legislative process).[210]

123. In using programming there is a potential tension between facilitating business and protecting the rights of opposition parties. We recommend the operation of programming is kept under review.

INCREASING TIME FOR PRIVATE MEMBERS

124. Sir Alan Haselhurst told us that Westminster Hall was a valuable source of debating opportunities for back bench Members and was well established as part of the parliamentary scene.[211] There is a significant surplus of applications over the slots available.[212] The Clerk told us that the nine hours available each week in Westminster Hall exceeds by a considerable margin the time that was formerly available either for Wednesday morning sittings or, previously, for Private Members' motions and Consolidated Fund Bill debates. In 1993-94 back bench Members spent about 120 hours debating Private Members' motions, adjournment debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill and in debates prior to each recess, whereas in 2003-04 they spent 307 hours in Westminster Hall alone.[213] Sir Alan Haselhurst argued that more could be done with Westminster Hall than had hitherto been tried including debates on uncontroversial legislation and opportunities to raise topical issues.[214] Second readings of uncontroversial bills (those on which no division is expected) could be taken in Westminster Hall. Sir Alan proposed the establishment of a 30 minute slot for 'issues of concern', which would enable ten Members to raise for three minutes each, and without notice, a matter of national, local or constituency interest without the need for a Ministerial reply. He also proposed a half hour slot for debating newly published Select Committee reports in Westminster Hall with a Minister giving an initial response to the report for five minutes, followed by the Chairman of the Committee, or another Member speaking on its behalf, for five minutes with the remainder of the time available for other Members to comment. In oral evidence, he suggested a half-hour topicality slot.[215] Some of these suggestions are superseded by our earlier recommendations on topicality and debating select committee reports and introducing others in Westminster Hall would be a departure from the unopposed nature of business that has so far been taken in Westminster Hall.[216]

125. The time available for private Members in Westminster Hall now exceeds considerably the time previously available for Private Members' Motions. In his memorandum, the Clerk explained how Westminster Hall has created more opportunity for Members to debate topics of their choice and said time for private Members could be further increased by extending the current Westminster Hall sitting times or by sitting on Mondays and Tuesday afternoons.[217] This would have resource implications for the House and the Government. Members may not be keen on having even greater overlap between Westminster Hall and the Chamber and we share this concern. There are already clashes in the timetable and some of our witnesses called for the timings to be changed so that there was no overlap.[218] The Clerk also highlighted the difficulties caused by overlaps.[219] We do not want to create any more overlap than already exists and for this reason we do not propose any further extension of the time that the House sits in Westminster Hall. Clearly we need to see the impact of our other recommendations, if approved by the House, and will continue to monitor the situation to see how well supply is meeting demand.

INJURY TIME FOR STATEMENTS?

126. Mr Peter Bone proposed extending the length of subsequent debates by the time taken by statements—injury time for statements—saying that the loss of time hit junior back bench Members hardest.[220] Sir Alan Haselhurst also proposed injury time for statements saying that it would allow the occupants of the Chair to let the proceedings run for a little longer and allow more back bench Members to get in.[221] Sir Alan argued that restricting the use of injury time to Opposition days and to remaining stages of bills—the two types of business where loss of time to statements and Urgent Questions is particularly unwelcome and disruptive—would overcome these problems. Debate on legislation could be protected if the time limits set in programme motions specified the number of hours of debate rather than particular times. The Clerk supported the idea of injury time saying, 'If the House wants to devote time to important and topical matters then it makes sense for the time lost to be compensated'.[222] He noted there would be some resource implication of keeping staff on later. Injury time would run counter to the objective of some recent reforms and we are not persuaded that the benefits of injury time would outweigh the loss of predictability.


105   In Table 6 and figure 1, the category 'legislation' includes time spent on government bills, private members' bills and secondary legislation (both to approve and to annul or revoke SIs). 'Addresses' does not include addresses to annul or revoke statutory instruments and is mainly the debate on the address on the Queen's speech. Opposition business includes both opposition days provided for by Standing Order and opposition business taken in government time. Motions moved by back bench Members includes ten minute rule motions, motions to sit in private and a small number of other motions moved by the chairmen of various select committees. Adjournment includes daily adjournment debates, adjournment debates before recesses and government adjournment debates. 'No Question before the House' includes questions, statements, urgent questions, business statements and similar business. Back

106   Q 161 Back

107   Ev 104 Back

108   Ev 104 Back

109   Ev 53 Back

110   Q 178 Back

111   Q 178 Back

112   Q 201 Back

113   Q 20 Back

114   Q 11 Back

115   Q 220 Back

116   Ev 122 Back

117   Ev 116 Back

118   Ev 37 Back

119   Q 195 Back

120   Ev 104 Back

121   Q 225 Back

122   Q 225 Back

123   Ev 53 Back

124   Ev 20 Back

125   Q 29 Back

126   Q 131 Back

127   Ev 80 Back

128   Q 192 Back

129   Q 259 Back

130   Q 261 Back

131   HC Debates,16 Oct 1991, col 329 Back

132   Ev 19 Back

133   Q 200 Back

134   Ev 37 Back

135   Q 198 Back

136   Q 223 Back

137   Q 233 Back

138   Q 238 Back

139   Q 130 Back

140   Lisanne Radice et al, Member of Parliament; the Job of the Backbencher (MacMillan, 1990) Back

141   Back bench Members exclude all Government Ministers and Whips, the Official Opposition Shadow Cabinet, the Leader and Chief Whip of the Liberal Democrat Party, giving a total of 528 backbenchers. Back

142   Table 4 is based on Records from the Speaker's Office for Session 2005-06 Session (see Speaker's Office, RBB M33) The records exclude speeches in debates held in Westminster Hall, speeches in end of day adjournment debates; speeches on Private Members' Bills or Private Business; speeches in Committee of the House; speeches on the Report Stage of a Bill or on consideration of Lords Amendments or Reason; and speeches of less than three minutes. Back

143   Ev 124 Back

144   This analysis takes the same definition of back bench Member as the records from the Speaker's Office (see footnote 141). Back

145   Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Procedure for debates, private Members' bills and powers of the Speaker, HC 491, para 31 Back

146   Q 116 Back

147   Q 116 Back

148   Q 11 Back

149   Ev 104 Back

150   On a motion for the adjournment the government generally votes no to preserve its business and those opposed to the government would vote aye to adjourn the sitting. In a delegated legislation committee those opposed vote no when the question that the Committee has considered the instrument is put. Back

151   Q 10 Back

152   Q 45 Back

153   Ev 37 and Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Procedure for debates, private Members' bills and the powers of the Speaker, Ev 17 Back

154   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 1999-2000, Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive, HC 300 and First Report of Session 2000-01, Shifting the Balance, Unfinished business, HC 321-I Back

155   Ev 127-128 Back

156   Q 35 Back

157   Q 64 Back

158   Ev 19 Back

159   Q 64 and Ev 19 Back

160   Ev 115 Back

161   Changes to Standing Order No. 10 are discussed in paragraph 115. Back

162   Ev 53, Ev65, Ev90 Back

163   Q 133 Back

164   Ev90 Back

165   Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, 4th Report of Session 1997-98, HC 600 Back

166   Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, 2nd Report of Session 2001-02, HC 1168-I, para 89 Back

167   Procedure Committee, 4th Report of Session 2002-03, HC333, para, 23 Back

168   HC Debates, 1 November 2006, col 299 Back

169   Q 273 Back

170   See paragraph 59. Back

171   HC Debates, 1 November 2006, col 299  Back

172   Ev 98 Back

173   Q 99 Back

174   Ev 90 Back

175   Ev 82 and Ev 105 Back

176   Ev 82 Back

177   Q 187 Back

178   Q 272 Back

179   Q 189 Back

180   Reproduced at Ev 100-101 Back

181   Reproduced at Ev 100-101 Back

182   Ev 65 Back

183   Q 135 Back

184   Q 101 Back

185   Q 106 Back

186   Ev 79 Back

187   Q 123 Back

188   Q 132 Back

189   Q 171 Back

190   Ev 97 and Ev 99 Back

191   Ev 38 Back

192   Q 142 Back

193   Q 55 Back

194   Q 62 Back

195   Ev 115 Back

196   Ev 19 Back

197   Ev 99 Back

198   Q 116 and Ev 20 Back

199   Ev 100 Back

200   Ev 100 Back

201   Report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, Session 1991-92, HC No. 20 Back

202   Report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, Session 1991-92, HC No. 20 Back

203   Report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, para 7 Back

204   Ev 78 Back

205   Ev 79 Back

206   Q 192 Back

207   Q 51 Back

208   Ev 115 Back

209   Ev 81 Back

210   Ev 128 Back

211   Ev 80-81 Back

212   Q 234 Back

213   Ev 99 Back

214   Ev 80-81 Back

215   Q 195 Back

216   Q 229 Back

217   Ev 100 Back

218   Ev 123 Back

219   Ev 103 Back

220   Q 99 and Ev 53 Back

221   Ev 80 Back

222   Q 264 Back


 

 
previous page contents next page

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

 
© Parliamentary copyright 2007 
Prepared 20 June 2007