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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 41-59)


14 MARCH 2007

  Q41 Chairman: May I welcome Professor Cowley, Lord Norton and Professor Blackburn, and thank you very much for offering us written evidence and for coming in this morning? We are looking forward to what you have to say. I would also welcome your students who are sitting behind you and hope that they enjoy the session too. As you know, the inquiry we are conducting is on strengthening the role of the backbencher and, alongside that, we are looking at making better use of non-legislative time. That runs straight into the issue of how the existing non-legislative time is carved up and whether there should be more opportunities for backbenchers to have access to that time, and also how it should be used; particularly, whether more of it should be available for backbenchers to decide to put down substantive motions, rather than everything being done on a non-voting basis. That is the background, therefore. Those of us who have been here for some time—three of us have been here for a very long time and some have been here for quite a long time—are aware that the attendance in the Chamber is now less than it was. My view is that is the inevitable consequence of the introduction of select committees, and to a degree of television, but other things may be going on as well. What is striking in the evidence you have put in is the preoccupation of Members with constituency work, which has greatly increased. I think that it is fair to say that our concern is how we strengthen the role of the backbencher in terms of their parliamentary duties of scrutiny, holding the Government to account, and so on, not strengthening the role of backbenchers in respect of constituency duties. That is the background to this. I do not know whether each of you would like to make an opening statement to begin with, or whether you want to go straight to questions?

  Professor Cowley: I have nothing great to add to the paper, except to say that I showed it to someone after I had submitted it, who said that I had been very cheeky. All I was trying to do was to be helpful—although this is not the first time that someone has said that when I thought that I was being helpful!

  Q42  Chairman: We want people to be straightforward.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: The only point I would make in opening is the one I put in the paper: that one can come up with certain mechanisms, but they will not be effective unless Members themselves are prepared to make them work. The political will is therefore a prerequisite for effective change. The second point is that my suggestions are not set in stone. They are meant to provoke thought; to get Members thinking about how they may do it differently, if they wish to do so.

  Professor Blackburn: I have not handed in any written evidence yet, but I will be sending a paper round later on, so I hope that is useful. There are a couple of things that I would like to say to begin with. First of all, I have devoted about six years of my life to producing a book called Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures, which I have co-written with Andrew Kennon, who is the Secretary of the House of Commons Commission at the moment, and whose original authors were Michael Ryle and John Griffith. I hope that book will be of use to you, because it is a mine of information about what actually happens in practice. The basis of the book is structured round how the procedures are used by different components within the House of Commons, particularly the Government, the Opposition, and backbenchers. It shows you exactly how the backbenchers do use the procedural opportunities that are available to them. Perhaps I could make a couple of other points. It seems to me that there tends to be an overly critical view of the House of Commons. I think that it is worth saying right at the outset that this is one of the best legislatures in the world, without a shadow of a doubt. It has tremendous qualities to it: the quality of freedom of speech the robustness of freedom of speech—epitomised of course by Sir Nicholas Winterton—and also the level of personal access that one has to ministers by an ordinary Member is something that I do not think any other legislature has, in the way in which you can meet ministers. There is a first-class fleet of clerks and people who work here as support staff. Information is absolutely critical to Members and I think that the flow of information available to them, including from Library staff, is really first-rate. Of course, a lot of political activity takes place outside the Chamber. The "village" of Westminster is a vibrant place, epitomised by the very lively all-party groups. Many people get the wrong impression of the House of Commons and I think that it is worth extolling its virtues, before one starts dwelling too much on how improvements can be made. Of course, everything can always be improved and that is no doubt what you are thinking of at the moment.

  Q43  Chairman: We thank you for saying that. It is good therapy! I think that what you say is also true, from my experience in my previous job. It was striking in the last evidence session we had that Michael White, who certainly may have been a sceptic about the political process, offered that opinion from his experience as a Washington correspondent: that people looked at the role of Congress through rose-tinted spectacles and that it was a good deal less effective. Could I ask you this, before I ask Sir Nicholas to come in? Should we worry about the fact that what the public see so often is empty benches in the Chamber?

  Professor Blackburn: Yes.

  Q44  Chairman: What do we do about it?

  Professor Blackburn: My own view is that it is quite depressing that the Chamber often does look pretty lifeless and dead. If people tune in to the Parliament channel—it is so much easier now to watch parliamentary proceedings of course—quite often the Chamber is almost empty and there is some relatively uninteresting debate going on, with somebody reading from notes, et cetera. I think that something does need to be done to inject some life into the Chamber, and some creative thinking about it. There should be more free debates taking place on topical subjects, perhaps in the evening; using it for quasi parliamentary purposes, perhaps almost public occasions. As to the reasons, I think that we are all aware of what has happened. There is a feeling that perhaps the House of Commons is not where the action is any longer; that a lot of activity is taking place in select committees—a lot of the most interesting type of work is taking place in select committees. One thing is—and I think that you have already identified this—one does need to have a clear idea of what it is the House of Commons exists to do. There is probably not time to discuss this, but the two Philips and myself spend a lot of time on this with our students, discussing the philosophy and the purpose of Parliament. However, this does need some reflection and I think that the prioritisation of the work of Members has got slightly out of kilter. Far too much time is spent on constituency work, which takes them away from the Chamber. The primary function of an MP should be a commitment to the life of the Chamber.

  Q45  Chairman: It is easier for there to be topical debates on issues which are being raised on the Today programme on television on the floor of the House on the day they happen—for example, what is happening in Zimbabwe—without there having to be a statement by ministers, because there is automatically available an opportunity to raise these things. Would it not make the Chamber more interesting therefore and attract more attention? Perhaps not.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: I think that there are two elements to it. As you are very well aware yourself, Chairman, there has been a decline in media coverage of Parliament. So one could say that it is either the media's fault or it is Parliament's fault from an educative point of view. As you know, when the cameras first entered Parliament there was far more coverage of committees. That has actually declined, for reasons that are not altogether clear, and I regret that. Part of it is educative, trying to ensure that people are aware that Parliament is not simply about the Chamber. I think that is the overarching observation, and I think that one has to look at it in that context. In terms of the Chamber itself, I think that it would be an uphill struggle to get a great deal of media attention as to what is going on. If you have short, sharp debates, I think that would increase the relevance to Members; I do not think that it will affect matters significantly outside. It is worth doing; it would be helpful to Parliament. However, in terms of affecting how the public see Parliament, it is a much wider issue. I do not think that even if you reduced constituency time that would increase attendance in the Chamber. It would give Members more time to do other things outside the Chamber. I do not think that there is much you can do, therefore, that would significantly increase the attendance in the Chamber, as opposed to the attention that Members give to the Chamber, which is a different thing. In other words, they want to come; when it is relevant they are there; they take part in the debate. It is better to have a debate with 10 Members who are interested in the subject than a debate with two Members who are interested but lots there for the purpose of, say, "doughnutting" or just waiting for a division.

  Professor Cowley: I agree with Philip. If you had more topical debates it would increase slightly the number of people in the Chamber and it is worth doing; but it is worth doing for its own good, not because it will somehow pack the Chamber, Monday to Friday, with 100 people—because it will not. One of the points of my submission was to point out how most of these complaints have a long, historical tradition and were being said back in the Fifties. Humphry Berkeley was saying in the late Sixties that the Chamber was dead—"Nobody goes there any more. It's all finished". He said that in the 1960s and you are saying exactly the same thing—

  Q46  Chairman: I do not think it is dead at all. Try being a minister on a difficult wicket!

  Professor Cowley: No, but I suspect that you could go back and go to the Forties or the Thirties, and you would find people saying exactly the same thing.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: You can actually go back to previous centuries.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Our distinguished academics know that we have televisions in Members' offices; that Members are increasingly concerned about getting re-elected, rather than scrutinising legislation—which is actually their job—and to hold the Government of the day to account. They know, of course, that their chances of getting called in major debates is minimal. The Speaker will tell you that a Member of this House could be called twice a year in a major debate. Obviously, people who lead for their parties get rather a better average at the wicket. How are we to achieve what all three of you have indicated: that there should be more topical debates? I put a question to the . . . . I think you were away, Chairman, or were you there? No. You answered, Leader of the House.

  Chairman: It must have been a memorable answer!

  Q47  Sir Nicholas Winterton: It was quite a lengthy one; that I would give you credit for! I put it to the Leader of the House that one way of involving backbenchers more is to have a business committee of the House which is representative of the backbenches as well as the usual channels. Do you believe that, if we set up a business committee, we could have more of these topical, short debates, which would enable Members to highlight matters of concern of the moment, not to have the debates two or three weeks after the matter has been topical and current?

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: Could I start with the principle that embodies it that I think needs to be accepted? I think there is a case for the House itself to have greater control of its business. The business committee is the mechanism by which you do that. It may not be the most appropriate; it is mechanism which is employed widely elsewhere, in other national parliaments in western Europe, and indeed in the Scottish Parliament. It is widely employed, therefore, but it is employed to ensure that Members have a greater say in what goes on in the Chamber. All the evidence is that it does not affect the capacity of the Government to get its business; it organises the time, more responsive to Members. I think that it comes much closer to fulfilling the general rule on which we proceed, which is that the Government is entitled to get its business but the Opposition is entitled to be heard. I think that applies to Members generally. It is how you structure the time so that you can have proper debate, and a business committee or some mechanism that gave Members or the agencies of the House greater control would be a step forward. We are completely out of sync with other legislatures.

  Q48  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Do you believe that there is too much legislation, as against not enough debate?

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: We know that the volume of legislation is expanding considerably. Not more bills; they are just longer and much more complex—which certainly creates a greater challenge for Parliament, because it not only requires more time but it also requires more thought to get one's head round the legislation. The increasing volume of legislation therefore creates a particular challenge for Parliament in making sure it has mechanisms in place to scrutinise it effectively. That involves both time and also procedures, so that Members are well informed.

  Professor Blackburn: I feel quite strongly that there is far too much legislation. It is politically driven. This is a subject perhaps for another committee hearing. Philip chaired a committee on the legislative process in another place. However, I do feel quite strongly that there is an excessive degree of legislation and regulation, used for political purposes. That has a suppressing effect on what Parliament should be doing otherwise. Could I move on to a the suggestion for a business committee that you made? I think that there are three avenues in the way forward in improving the quality of the work of the House of Commons. One is the cultural changes that need to take place. One is the structural changes that need to take place, and then there are some procedural changes that need to take place. These matters cannot be dealt with in a short meeting like this, of course. However, when you talk about a business committee or a bureau to assist the Speaker, I think that would be a good idea. This is in the nature of a structural change that might take place. However—and I know that I am touching on subjects now that you probably will not want to touch with a bargepole—any type of committee you set up in the House as presently constituted will be dominated by the governing party. You will never achieve anything significant in shifting the balance towards backbenchers until you grasp the nettle of having a different method of electing the House. Whatever happened to the Jenkins Commission recommendations?

  Q49  Chairman: I will tell you! It was a very bad idea. That is what happened to it!

  Professor Blackburn: We all know the politics behind that, but it is actually a very serious issue. If you reduce the excessive dominance of the governing party over all these committees and the House, you will have a much more vibrant House of Commons as a whole. For example, you will not automatically have a governing party majority on every committee. That would transform the way in which committees operate. If you are talking about a business committee, you will still have the Government dominating the parliamentary timetable. Until you have fairer representation of political groups in society, I do not think you will achieve very much.

  Ann Coffey: In response to that, it is very difficult to see how you will not get legislation in the House of Commons which is not politically motivated. Irrespective of what electoral system you have, you will be electing politicians. I am not sure, Professor Blackburn, if you can get past that, though I would be interested to see how you would propose to do so. I have been a Member since 1992 and I have noticed a number of changes. One is that the MPs are becoming younger.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: No, you are getting older!

  Q50  Ann Coffey: Let me rephrase that. They are coming in at a younger age. Often, they are coming in from occupations in which they have been used to managing their time, making their decisions, balancing a lot of conflicting demands on their time. Secondly, it is not that we have decided to spend more time in our constituencies; it is simply that that has been the changing expectations of us as Members of Parliament, to which we have responded. Thirdly, a lot of us now have to manage, in effect, small offices. We have to spend a lot of time doing staff management. We have to respond to growing lobby organisations, which again are very demanding in terms of our time. Do you think that one way of looking at it would be to see what would be the best way in how you legislate to respond to those kinds of conflicting demands? My theory would be that if Members of Parliament were much more able to manage their time better, they would be more responsive to the Chamber; because they would be able to decide when they went into the Chamber and they would be able to decide what they wanted to do with their day. Part of the problem is the way that the day is structured. We do not have any control over our time because of running Whips, because of the way that we have decided to vote. Do you think that might be a positive way through?

  Professor Cowley: As a general point with the pull of the constituency—and the constituency is becoming more important for lots of reasons, one of which is an increasing expectation—if Parliament as an institution is to respond, it has to make life at Westminster more valuable for the Member. It has to give more opportunities to achieve things. Whether you do that through a business committee or more generally—and this seems to me to be the general principle—you allow backbenchers, either individually or as groups, to have control of bits of the timetable at Westminster. That is the road to be going down. It does not matter how you do it—and I have ideas as to how I would do it—it is about allowing MPs themselves not to be always at the mercy of the usual channels. As soon as you say that, the Whips' Office has a collective brain haemorrhage at the thought, but you can nudge back a little the control that the major parties have over the timetable—without, as Philip said, stopping the Government getting its business. To me, that seems to be the general principle you need to be adopting.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: I agree completely with the analysis. If the constituency demand increases—which it has, decade by decade—if you cannot close off the demand, you have to manage the supply side. In terms of managing time, there are two aspects, are there not? One is individual time: how do you organise your own office? Then there is the collective time, in terms of the House itself. There are two separate elements and, therefore—as I put in the paper—partly it is for the individual; it is helping to manage time. There is also a resource implication. The separate one is the collective management of time in the Chamber, which will make it more relevant and allow Members to organise their time in a way that maximises effect. I agree with you that there is a linkage between the two, but it is for Members to grasp that, so that time is managed effectively—in a way that it is not at present.

  Q51  Mr Shepherd: Thank you, Professor Lord Norton and you, Professor Philip Cowley, for your interesting submissions; and I look forward to seeing yours, Professor Blackburn. I have been a member of this Committee almost since its inception. What I have watched is that the Government has almost taken over total control and direct control of the Standing Orders of this House. They initiate them through the Leader of the House, Chairman of this Committee. I am particularly interested in an observation in the penultimate paragraph of Professor Cowley's submission to us. It is full of good nuggets, incidentally, but there is reference to the introduction of automatic, what I would call, guillotining of legislation—". . . which has had real consequences for the scrutiny of bills"—and also, of course, for the opportunities for Members of Parliament to participate in Report stage, et cetera. I wonder, in looking through and examining the changes that have happened, have these not worked against, such as, the automatic guillotining of bills and the interest and vitality of backbenchers participating in the process of legislation and giving authority to Government for its actions? I would like to hear your views on that.

  Professor Cowley: My view on programming is that, although it is a legislative subject, in some ways it obviously does affect the topic of the Committee. I have no problem with the principle of programming. Programming is a good example of a good idea, brought forward initially with very good intentions, which has been corrupted. Of the changes introduced since 1997, I think it is the one which has been of least benefit to the House. Most of the other reforms of the Modernisation Committee have been beneficial. Programming, as currently constituted, is not beneficial. One consequence, absolutely, has been to shove out backbenchers from the Report stage of the legislative process. It is one reason—and I made this point last time I gave evidence—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.

  Q52  Chairman: It has not actually worked to ensure greater government control?

  Professor Cowley: No.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Good stuff!

  Chairman: I entirely agree with you.

  Q53  Mr Shepherd: It was a question to the three, of course.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: I would endorse that.

  Professor Blackburn: I would agree with Professor Cowley.

  Q54  Mr Shepherd: So essentially this whole process—the reinforcement of the role of the backbenchers—the fault lies, if I understand it correctly, in ourselves, not in our stars. It is up to us, as backbenchers, to assert ourselves.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: There are two problems, are there not? One is the point I made at the beginning. Unless you have the political will to do it, there is no point talking about structures and procedures. Once the political will is there, you then decide what are the best mechanisms for delivering that. It is really getting the cart before the horse.

  Q55  Mrs May: I would like to ask about the issue of free votes. Professor Cowley referred to this in his written submission and, at the end, said "Free votes may well be good for Parliament . . . but it is less obvious that they are always good for democracy". One of the issues that we touched on earlier was the whole question of being able to have more topical debates. It seems to me that we have three roles here. We scrutinise legislation; we hold the Government to account; but it should also be the forum for national debate on issues of national concern. I would like comments on the concept of less legislation and more opportunity for debates on general issues, possibly on substantive motions with free votes at the end of them, to get a view of Parliament outside of the party system.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: On the general issue of free votes, I think that they are important, particularly where it is to elicit an expression of opinion from the House and to allow an outlet for different views in society. In that context, therefore, they are a good thing. In the context where you are deciding policy, they are arguably a bad thing. They are, strictly speaking, irresponsible, because you have no one body that is then responsible for the delivery of public policy. The Government has to be responsible, or whatever body delivers it has to be responsible. So there is a place, but you have to be quite clear what that place is. I think that it is valuable, to allow the House to fulfil a major role—and it relates also to Ann Coffey's point—as a safety value; an outlet for different opinions in society. If time can be structured to do that, I think it is valuable. If you look at Private Members' time, it takes less than 5% 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.

  Q56  Mr Wright: I was interested in the submission by Professor Cowley and what has been said today, particularly by Professor Cowley and Professor Blackburn, about the role of the constituency. Can I give you an example? I was walking down the street and a woman stopped me. She had written to me about the Sexual Orientation Regulations. She was a staunch Catholic with deeply held beliefs and was fundamentally opposed to it. I had written to her saying, "No, I agree with the Government's stance". She was diametrically opposed to everything the Government was proposing. At the end, she said, "But I might vote for you, because you got a tree removed for me in the garden". Given the ability of the backbencher to change Government policy, when I can get a possible vote by getting a tree removed in a garden, I am going to concentrate on that. In terms of the submissions, I am interested as to how we can manage constituents' expectations, when I do not particularly want to, because it is a potential vote-winner. Do you think that we should be saying, "No, go and see your councillor. We don't have anything to do with that. We're involved in national and international matters"? How on earth do we manage constituents' expectations?

  Professor Blackburn: I think that there is an issue of perception here. One needs to talk up precisely what the job of an MP is. It is quite clear that you are all extremely busy people; you are overworked and it is a matter of prioritisation of what you do, et cetera. However, I think that you do have to grasp the nettle of prioritisation. It seems to me that, as a guiding principle, you should be pursuing constituency matters that raise matters of general public importance. I do not think that you can be a social worker to every constituent who has a problem. If you start doing that, you may make yourself a bit more popular around your constituency; although it could be counterproductive in many cases, because you may annoy other people. However, you have to grasp that nettle to free up more time to devote yourself to the Chamber, which is really important.

  Q57  Mr Wright: I would say that, of all the casework that I get, about 5% of letters I get nowadays are about national politics. I have had about four e-mails and letters about Trident. The point about politics being all local—that it is what you look at when you go out of your door in the morning—is absolutely correct. I think that it is quite dismissive to say that we need to raise people's bars. People think about politics as how they walk out of their door on a morning and see their street. How are you going to manage that?

  Professor Blackburn: A tough decision has to be taken. All I am saying is that I do not think the life of the Chamber, which is your primary responsibility, should suffer.

  Professor Cowley: I think that the constituency link is extremely valuable. I would not want to lose it for a minute. However, I think that there is a problem at the minute. I think that it has gone out of control. It is a problem that is getting worse. I read the Hansard Society study to find that new Members were spending half of their time on constituency work, and one was spending 97%. What are they doing for the other 3%? I should think that is just walking through the lobbies. I think that has gone too far, and there is a real problem that it is getting worse, because expectations of what MPs can deliver are being raised. It is like an arms race. It started with the Liberals in the Seventies—a lot of things started with the Liberals in the Seventies! Labour were infected by the late-Nineties, to the localised campaign vote; and the Tory intake of 2005 have all got it as well. Some of that is very valuable and, for MPs, it is incredibly valuable, because it delivers. If what you are concerned about, however, is how Parliament scrutinises, then I am afraid that at the moment this is the one biggest single detractor from how Parliament scrutinises.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: The point I would make is that, yes, the Chamber is the primary responsibility, but to get into the Chamber you have to be elected.

  Q58  Ann Coffey: Good point!

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: And Members usually want to be re-elected. Members are therefore very bad at saying no to constituents. It comes back to my point about supply and demand. You have to be realistic. Members are not going to tell constituents to "Push off", basically. There was one MP who once suggested that Members should be statute-barred from dealing with constituency correspondence. He was shortly afterwards de-selected! It is whether you think you can close it off, and it is very difficult to do that; so it is how you manage what is happening. If it continues to increase, you have a dual role. That makes it even more crucial that you think about time management, which is partly to do with time and partly to do with resources.

  Q59  Mr Burstow: I am more than happy to own up to having more leverage than we think we have in terms of how we change the culture. However, I have heard a lot of analysis of the problem but I have not actually heard any prescription as to what one does about it, other than telling us that we should manage our time differently. That does not give us a suggestion at all of what we could do differently in terms of (a) a cultural change or (b) moving on to some of the structural and procedural things—in the face of really quite significant societal changes. The attitude to MPs is not deferential, and quite rightly so. It expects us to provide a service, and there is a service focus in the way in which much of the rest of society operates. I wondered if you had some specific suggestions about what we could do differently that could put this genie back in the bottle—a genie that was released, we are told, 20 or 30 years ago.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: I do not think that you put the genie back in the bottle, but the proposals I made in my paper were designed to affect Members once they get to the House initially, so that they use the opportunity. Quite often, Members realise what they need to do some time after the event. The Members who know how to use the procedures—they come to it and eventually they get to utilise it—realise, "If only I had known that years ago". I think that there are mechanisms to affect how Members perceive the work when they get in. There are things you can do, not only in terms of training but also how you organise the time, so that actually it is much more relevant to Members.

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