Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Written Evidence


Memorandum from Sir Patrick Cormack MP (M32)

STRENGTHENING THE ROLE OF THE BACKBENCHER

  The balance of the backbencher's life has been tilted too far towards the constituency role, and away from Westminster duties. Whilst I understand the pressures of constituency work (and my own case load has increased 10 fold in my time here)—I often recall the words of Duncan Sandys when he was criticised for not being present in his (London) constituency more often: "I am the Member of Parliament for Streatham in Westminster, not the Member for Westminster in Streatham".

  I welcomed the Jopling proposals but post-Jopling changes to the parliamentary timetable mean that some constituents now expect the Member to be in his constituency on Thursdays. I have been able to resist these demands but many Members with tiny majorities have not felt able to do so, and the consequence for parliament has been a very negative one.

  This is by way of background to some proposals that I would like the Committee to consider.

  1.  I agree very strongly that there should be an induction to parliament. This should take place between the election and the State Opening, even if that means delaying the latter by a day or two. Parties should make it plain that they consider the induction course the equivalent of Three Line business. Experienced Members and officials of the House should explain the procedures in detail, and how best to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the parliamentary timetable.

  2.  As the next election is possibly more than three years ahead a series of seminars should be arranged later this year. Clearly these cannot be regarded as Three Line business, two years after an election, but Members should be encouraged to attend, possibly on some of the Fridays set aside for Private Members' business so that attendance at the seminars would not get in the way of other commitments.

  3.  The Modernisation Committee should look very carefully at the parliamentary timetable. No Member should be expected to be in two places at once. Westminster Hall should not be in session at the same time as the Chamber and Select Committees should be encouraged to do everything possible to avoid clashing with prime Chamber time. There may be something to be said for the House itself not sitting after Question Time on Monday and for Select Committees sitting after that. It follows from this that Thursday would become an important parliamentary day. An alternative would be to devote Thursday afternoons to Select Committees or to ask all Select Committees to sit on Tuesday mornings. It also follows that no Member should be allowed to serve on more than one Select Committee.

  4.  In order to encourage attendance in the Chamber consultations should be held with Mr Speaker to see whether he would be willing to make it plain that he would only contemplate calling Members to speak in debate if they undertook to be present, not merely for the opening and closing speeches, but for most of the debate itself.

  5.  The general public, however unwittingly, are sometimes deceived into thinking that All Party Groups and Early Day Motions are more important than they are. It is far too easy to set up the former and to put down the latter. I would urge that the Modernisation Committee, in conjunction with the Procedure Committee, look carefully at the rules governing both All Party Groups and EDMs.

  6.  Another issue that should be looked at is the Parliamentary Question. This is a currency that has been grossly devalued by the vast number of questions put down, often by Research Assistants. The cost is great and the light generated limited.

January 2007





 
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