Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Professor Lord Norton of Louth, Professor of Government, University of Hull (M34)

  Strengthening the role of the backbencher and making better use of non-legislative time constitute desirable goals. They should be seen as part of a wider diet of changes designed to strengthen the House of Commons in fulfilling its various tasks, especially that of calling the Government to account. Delivery, however, rests on political will. Academics and commentators—as well as committees of either House—can generate reform agenda. Only the Members can deliver and sustain it.

INDUCTION

  Though the material made available to new Members has improved enormously in recent Parliaments, there remain important gaps, both in terms of substance and timing of delivery. An awareness of what is available in terms of practices and procedures—and how to deploy them to greatest effect—is necessary, though not sufficient, if MPs are to fulfil the roles ascribed to them, not least those of scrutinising and influencing Government. The sufficient conditions are provided by the political will: MPs have to want to fulfil those roles if the means available to them are to mean anything.

  Enhancing induction can be achieved in a number of ways. These can be subsumed under the headings of timing, substance and delivery.

  Timing. In terms of timing, there is a case for having a rolling programme of induction. Delivering everything at once when a new MP arrives in the Palace of Westminster is both too early and too late. There is a case for providing basic information about parliamentary practices and procedures to all those adopted as prospective parliamentary candidates. Most will never be elected, but there is value in raising their awareness about the institution and those who are elected will arrive with some knowledge of what to expect. Providing the information once the election campaign is under way is unlikely to be productive: candidates are by then otherwise engaged. Providing it when the new MP arrives in the Palace runs the risk of the Member taking in only parts of it; there is too much to absorb in a short period of time. There is a case for providing induction on a rolling basis.

  Substance. There is a need to go beyond explaining the procedures and rules of the institution. Members clearly need to know what these are, but they would benefit also from training in (a) time and office management, (b) the utilisation of rules and procedures, and (c) forensic questioning.

    (a)  Time and office management. MPs are extremely busy but there is a difference between activity and achievement. Even if time is spent effectively, it may not be spent efficiently. The demands made of Members mean that they are normally in response mode: they end up dealing with the detail and not having time to stand back and think strategically. There have been difficulties in achieving parliamentary reform because MPs find themselves in a catch-22 situation. They are too busy to have the time to stand back and decide how to achieve changes that would lessen the burden. Many Members also are not well versed in running an office. Some Members generate work in such a manner that they themselves become part of the problem. There are 646 ways of running an MP's office. Not all 646 Members are utilising best practice. Early training in time and office management would enable Members to organise themselves, and their offices, from the beginning of their parliamentary careers. There is no reason why such training should be confined to new Members.

    (b)  Utilisation of rules and procedures. There is a difference between knowing rules and procedures and exploiting them to achieve desired outcomes. Officials can advise MPs what the rules and procedures are, but are limited in what they can say about using them to achieve what may be seen as political outcomes. Induction that deals with the question "What are the rules and procedures?" is necessary, but so too is induction that is designed to answer the question: "If I want to achieve this, what is the best way of going about it?" The formal rules are one thing, the tricks of the trade are another. This has implications for who should deliver the induction.

    (c)  Forensic questioning. A central part of the life of the MP involves communication. MPs are often well versed in delivering speeches and, increasingly (courtesy of party training), responding to media interviews. (They also have the opportunity to have some training, courtesy of PICT, in information technology.) They are sometimes less well versed in questioning, especially detailed questioning that is essential to the work of select committees and potentially now public bill committees. Training in forensic questioning would be beneficial to MPs generally but especially those serving on evidence-taking committees. This can be delivered at different stages and be offered to all Members.

  Delivery. This concerns the who and the how. The authorities of the House are already engaged in the process. So too are the parties. Both have a role to play but though they are necessary they are not sufficient. Officers of the House, as already indicated, are necessarily limited in what they can say. The parties, especially the whips, are understandably self-serving in the training they provide. Neither officers nor the whips are likely to lay on a seminar on, say, "How to cause trouble". The existing suppliers thus need to be complemented by those who can provide a greater degree of detached analysis and advice, drawing not least on academics, senior Members and former Members. An induction programme may be developed in-house or by an external body, operating in the sphere of parliamentary or legislative studies, commissioned by the House of Commons Commission. There are a number of bodies that could undertake the task. How to deliver it? The traditional format of meetings and printed material could be complemented by on-line delivery. MPs are increasingly cognisant of what the Internet can deliver and many, I suspect, are frequent visitors to www.revolts.co.uk and www.theyworkforyou.com. Developing a user-friendly site that can deliver guidance on good practice could be enormously beneficial, not least in that Members could then access the material at a time convenient to them and when it may be most salient.

  Once MPs are grounded in the use of existing rules and procedures, then they are likely to have a greater impact than would otherwise be the case. However, existing structures and procedures do not necessarily enable MPs to fulfil their tasks as fully as they might.

MORE IMAGINATIVE USE OF THE CHAMBER

  Members are limited by the way in which time in the Chamber is controlled and employed. The UK Parliament is distinctive among legislatures in the developed world for the extent to which time is controlled by the executive. 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. There is clearly a case for a dedicated business committee and, less radically, for giving at least a greater say over the allocation of time to an agency of the House. (At the moment, the only agency that has a role, a narrow one, is the Liaison Committee in the choice of reports for debate on Estimates Days.) There is also a case for the more imaginative use of time in the Chamber. Changes may usefully include:

    —  Introducing Questions for Short Debate, emulating practice in the House of Lords. There, a QSD (formerly known as an Unstarred Question) lasts for either 60 minutes (If taken as dinner hour business) or 90 minutes (if the last item of business). This enables several members to take part. In the Commons, such a practice could be used on a Wednesday evening at 7.00 p.m., either in place of the existing half-hour adjournment debate or prior to it (the adjournment debate taking place at 8.30 p.m.). This business would be an add-on and would involve only those who wished to be involved; other MPs would not be inconvenienced waiting for later business. If such a practice proved successful, it could be extended to 6.00 p.m. on a Thursday.

    —  The use of short emergency debates, enabling Members to request a 60-minute debate on a matter of immediate importance, with the rules for granting them less restrictive than at present. The debate could take place at the start of public business on the day following the request.

    —  Enabling Select Committee reports, or particular proposals in reports, to be considered on a substantive motion. The Liaison Committee recommended that half-an-hour following Question Time on a Tuesday should be given over to discussion of a Select Committee report, with each speech limited to five minutes. A variation would be to allow a Select Committee to propose that a particular recommendation be put before the House and debated on a motion to agree with it, with the Liaison Committee having responsibility for determining which request should be granted.

    —  The re-introduction of Private Members' motions. These could be in place of the Questions for Short Debate proposed above, but as they could be divided on they would involve Members remaining for a (possible) division. Another possibility would be to enable a short debate (30 or 60 minutes) on a Private Member's motion in place of some existing business. The Business Statement on a Thursday is possibly close to its sell-by date and might be replaced by a Private Member's motion, or possibly reduced to half-an-hour enabling a 30-minute Private Member's motion to follow.

  These proposals can also be linked to a proposal to extend the provision for time-limits on speeches. Indeed, there is a case for a time-limit to be a standard practice. Speeches in the Lords (including, depending on the business, front-bench speeches) are time limited, with no obvious adverse affect on the quality of debate; if anything, the reverse. A time limit necessitates giving thought in advance as to what to say and ensuring that the key points are made. It is a useful discipline for the speaker and also enhances the likely interest of listeners. A series of short, informed contributions is likely to hold the attention of listeners more than a few long-winded speeches. My perception is that debates in the Commons in which speeches have been time limited have tended to bear this out. For short debates of the sort envisaged, a provision reducing the time limit (as with the five-minute proposal for half-hour debates) may also be desirable, enabling several Members to participate.

  If time limits on speeches were to apply to all public business, then there would be significant implications for Private Members' Bills. Talking out a Bill on a Friday would be possible, but not as a consequence of one or two very lengthy speeches but rather as a result of contributions from several Members. Opponents of a Bill would thus need to mobilise greater resources than has usually been the case.

WESTMINSTER HALL DEBATES

  The use of debates in Westminster Hall has proved reasonably successful in providing Members with an opportunity to raise issues of concern and elicit a ministerial response. It has provided a useful additional resource to the Chamber rather than (as some of us feared) taking matters away from the Chamber. There may be a case for utilising it more—possibly on Thursday morning—in order to extend the opportunity for back-benchers to raise issues or to debate select committee reports. Other than that, there may be a case for re-considering whether debates in Westminster Hall should be in the Grand Committee Room. The nomenclature is somewhat misleading for the public and the location suggests that the proceedings are somewhat peripheral to the main business of Parliament. It also militates against what may be termed passing trade. I am not aware that any study has been undertaken of Members' attitudes towards the holding of debates in Committee Room 10 while the Grand Committee Room was being refurbished, nor of visitor numbers, but there may be a case for considering whether there are benefits to holding debates in a location (the main Committee Corridor in the Palace or the Committee Corridor in Portcullis House) that is more central to other parliamentary activity. There are obvious resource implications, so the benefits would need to be clear.

CONCLUSION

  There are various changes that could usefully be made to strengthen the role of the backbencher and make better use of non-legislative time. However, these proposals have to be seen in the round. Each has some merit and can contribute to strengthening the House in fulfilling its tasks. They are nonetheless modest proposals, not least in the context of the relationship between Parliament and the executive. The most important changes that could usefully be made are those in relation to the legislative process—not least (following the introduction of public bill committees) in pre and post-legislative scrutiny—and in further strengthening the role of select committees. Changes in these areas could contribute enormously to the work of the individual Member, enabling them to contribute to calling the executive to account and in influencing public policy.

March 2007



 
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