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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-70)

PROFESSOR ROBERT BLACKBURN, PROFESSOR PHILIP COWLEY AND PROFESSOR LORD NORTON OF LOUTH

14 MARCH 2007

  Q60  Mr Burstow: I found your paper on training very helpful, and the points you made. You list a number of suggestions as to the ways in which time could be used more creatively in the Chamber. You list four different options. Of those, do you have any in particular that you think we should try out, to see how it might change the balance of debate in the Chamber?

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: The one I would mention is the question for a short debate, I think, because it builds on what Members are used to. You have the half-hour adjournment debate. It is analogous to that; but if you have 60 minutes, think how many Members could actually get in and make the point, on the type of issues that are normally raised in the half-hour adjournment debate. If it is like the half-hour adjournment debate, it is an add-on to existing time. You are not competing with anything else. One could focus on that type of thing.

  Q61  Paddy Tipping: I want to talk about programming. Professor Cowley, you told us that programming was right in principle but the results had been poor in practice. How would you resolve that? What needs to be done?

  Professor Cowley: It could be resolved pretty straightforwardly, if the Government just relaxed the amount of time it was giving. Part of the problem is that things are just too tightly programmed. Government could slacken off a little bit. It does not even need a procedural change to do it. It just needs the Government to be a little bit more relaxed, a little bit more willing to allow its backbenchers to spend time at Report, probing, occasionally being critical, moving amendments; accepting, almost certainly, that it will still get its way in the end but allowing people to get these things off their chest. In the absence of that altruistic Government allowing that time, you would have to consider procedural changes. However, you could do that tomorrow if the usual channels, or the government side of the usual channels, were more flexible.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: It started off well, in that sense you can do it.

  Q62  Sir Peter Soulsby: You have talked about backbenchers hoping to claw back a little more control of the timetable in the Chamber and getting things on the agenda. Is one specific possibility a procedure whereby early day motions, with a certain level of all-party support perhaps, became debatable and thereby gave a topical debate on something of interest and importance?

  Professor Cowley: In response to a request for specifics, that would be one of my specifics. It is certainly worth trying. It would have to be on a cross-party basis, but I see absolutely no reason not to. Apart from anything, it would start to transform the early day motion into something slightly more valuable. It would still allow them to work as a graffiti board and a sounding board, but it would also be a route in to allowing backbenchers, as a collective group, some control of the agenda. I would come back to a point made earlier, I think by Sir Nicholas Winterton, that backbenchers speak only twice in a year. 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. A mechanism like that would help.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: Can I support that fully in terms of the proposed plan for EDMs? It would have to be part of a wider package of reform of EDMs, but fitting within that, and certain mechanisms to ensure it was cross-party; that it did not simply become another tool for government, and, simply affecting the criteria for EDMs, there are too many. Nowadays, each one you put down has less effect, because there are so many. I think that there is therefore an overall case for significant reform, so that it focuses on what is important, what is important to Members, and it can then act as a trigger for what happens in the Chamber. That would be one mechanism for giving control to Members.

  Q63  Philip Davies: Not only am I a new boy on the Committee, I am also a new boy, relatively speaking, in the House. I am hoping that you can therefore put some perspective on this for me. Is the fact that constituency stuff is now so important partly linked to the fact that the parties have become so close together, so that the public think the big political debates do not take place any more; that all the parties agree on everything? "So we may as well forget about that. We will just get the MP to talk about the constituency stuff, where they might be able to make a difference." Is it because—even though in your submission, Professor Cowley, you talk about MPs becoming more independently minded—in my experience the general public's view is the exact opposite? They think that we are more party hacks nowadays, and they therefore think that there is no point in raising issues with us because we will just do as we are told. Is it perhaps partly to do with the lack of induction for new Members in the House? In terms of how you table an amendment to a bill at Report stage, and all this kind of thing, there are probably many MPs who were elected in my intake who still do not know how to table an amendment. Are any of those things factors in the situation we have got ourselves in?

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: On your last point, I think that there is a need for Members not only to know how to table amendments but also to get what they want through using procedure. On your first point about the demand from constituents, I do not think that your analysis explains the demand from constituents; I think that your analysis explains why MPs are responsive to it, because they think, "We're not having great effect collectively in affecting government, so we might as well devote ourselves to the constituency role". Since the demand is increasing from constituents for other reasons, the two things come together. You therefore have Members devoting a tremendous amount of time to increasing constituents' demands.

  Q64  Mark Lazarowicz: It is generally agreed amongst MPs, commentators and academics that select committees are a good thing, both in terms of improving scrutiny and in terms of public interest, and yet it seems to me that there is a real disconnect between the select committee and the Chamber as a whole. You would think that when a select committee report comes before the Chamber, this would be an opportunity for a major discussion on the recommendations. That is, of course, not what happens. The reports sometimes appear months later and there is normally hardly anybody there in the Chamber, except the members of the committee who have written it in the first place. Part of the reason for that, it would seem to me, is the fact that the select committee reports do not have any formal connection with our procedure here. Is there not—and I see, Professor Lord Norton, that you make reference to this in your paper—some way of strengthening the relationship of the select committees with the Chamber, so that if the select committee recommends that we do "X", it comes to a vote and, if that vote is carried, "X" actually happens? Of course, that is not what procedure provides for at the moment.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: That is what I was putting forward. To be fair, there has been far more connection between select committees and the Chamber over time; not least with the Chamber, but also the opportunities in Westminster Hall. Compared with what the initial position was, things are much improved. However, the problem is as you mentioned: those who take part tend to be members of the committee; Members outside are not really that involved. One way might be to allow a committee to recommend one of its recommendations for substantive debate in the Chamber, as a way of energising attention. It may be something that is done rarely, but I can think of occasions when it might be useful. It would get Members involved. It would have to be relevant, and it would be a connect between committees and the Chamber. You would have to be very careful, though, about the type of thing that was selected, so that it was a broad issue of public policy and not one that simply engaged the parties.

  Q65  Chairman: The advantage of that is, although we would have to be very selective about when it was used, it would concentrate the mind of ministers.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: Absolutely, yes.

  Q66 Chairman: To ensure that they paid attention to all select committees, of course, in case they ended up in that situation.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: Yes.

  Professor Cowley: Perhaps I could add to that. You have these two inquiries: one on better use of non-legislative time and the other on strengthening the role of the backbencher. The best way to strengthen the role of the backbencher, it seems to me, is through the select committee system, which we have not really touched on so far. Most of this has been about the Chamber; but if you really wanted to strengthen the role of the backbencher, select committees still seem to me to be the single best way of doing it.

  Q67  Sir Nicholas Winterton: What about the appointment to select committees?

  Professor Cowley: That is different. I do say in my paper that if you really want to open up a can of worms, you could revisit that issue. Even without revisiting that issue, however, you can give more power to select committees than they have at the moment—and that would be a really useful way of doing it.

  Q68  Ann Coffey: One of the more interesting developments is the role of the Internet. Certainly most MPs have websites, and TheyWorkForYou.com gives very easy access to what MPs are doing in the Chamber. It is also helpful for MPs, because it means that you can give links for constituents which give them information; because I do think that part of our job is informing people about the complexity of debates. Do you see that as an important development? Do you think it could be used in a better way?

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: Potentially, yes. I am just finishing off an article on Parliament and the Internet, so I have actually looked at every MP's website—among other things.

  Q69  Chairman: You are a great man! You will end up in the House of Lords, if you go on like this!

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: Twenty are inactive; one links to an online betting site; and another links to Chihuahuas for sale! I think that there is tremendous potential, but it is not fully realised. You are quite right. Most MPs now realise it, but it is used, as you alluded to, for putting information on the Net so that it is accessible. There is very little opportunity for interactivity with constituents. At the moment, it is simply being used as an adjunct to existing activities, to enable you to do what you normally do but in a slightly different way. It is an innovative mechanism, therefore, but it is not being used in innovative ways. The potential for having some interaction is tremendous, but it is not being exploited.

  Professor Cowley: Perhaps I could make a brief point on TheyWorkForYou.com and related sites. They were not set up by Parliament; they were set up by freelancers from outside. They did that because Parliament, frankly, did not do it, so they filled the gap. The trouble is, because they sometimes do not have that good an understanding of what really goes on, some of the statistics and the data they generate are not very useful. That is Parliament's fault as much as theirs, because you created the vacuum and they have come in to fill it.

  Q70  Chairman: We may talk to them. I think that would be a good idea. Could I leave you with one thought? It is very striking that all of us share this view that the increasing demands from constituencies is one of the reasons. Whether you have a "safe" or an "unsafe" seat, the demands are rising. However, what is also palpable is that the way in which Members deal with those demands varies very much. To quote my own example, I am an extremely active constituency MP but I have to devote a very small proportion of the week to deal with it, because otherwise I would go under. However, I would ask this question—and you may want to submit further evidence on this. Is there any research evidence, taking otherwise similar Members, similar backgrounds, with a similar profile here, frontbench, backbench, and so on, looking at how they are doing in terms of votes—and this is fundamental to a democracy but MPs think about this all the time, and so they should—looking at effectiveness and how much time they are spending? Because I do not think that there is necessarily any direct correlation between the two at the moment.

  Professor Lord Norton of Louth: I did some research some years ago and so, if we are going to promote books, you may want to look at Back From Westminster, which I co-authored with David Wood some years ago. What was relevant there was that we found a correlation between vote benefit and first-term incumbents. It fits in with the view that Members who come in new devote a lot of time to their constituency; they get bedded in and, after a few years, they devote more attention to the Chamber, once they feel reasonably firmly ensconced. New Members did benefit relative to other Members relative to challengers; so there is a relation in that sense. I think that the main benefit of constituency activity is not that it changes significant votes. People do not suddenly change from one party to another because they have a good constituency MP. It is a magnetic effect. You are likely to keep existing supporters, who otherwise would drift away from parties that are unpopular. If you are unpopular as well, there is nothing to hold them.

  Chairman: On that happy note, may we thank you very much indeed.





 
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