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

Memorandum from Professor Robert Blackburn (M45)



  1.  Members should not be instructed on what they should and should not be doing. That is a matter for their own interpretation, and that of their electors, as a political representative in the British state's national assembly. Each individual Member has a number of claims and priorities on his/her time, and must judge for him or herself how to balance these. Far less should Members be given contractual job descriptions or instructions on their job by party whips.

  2.  The British parliamentary system of government fuses the executive and legislative branches of state through an overlap in personnel, giving the great advantage of direct personal access, contact and control by Members over ministers in holding them to account. This constitutional balance underlying our national system of politics depends on the strength of character and talents of backbenchers in asserting their parliamentary rights and protecting their independence.

  3.  Backbenchers, collectively and individually, have traditionally served as custodians of the values and welfare of the nation. They have had an essential part to play in keeping a vigilant eye on the executive, and ensuring government is operating in the best interests of those whom they represent rather than for the administrative convenience of ministers, civil servants or other state agencies. Backbenchers have been a conduit for leading and informing opinion in the country, and for feeding back to the Commons the views, preferences and concerns of their electors.

  4.  However, in performing these traditional—and what I regard as still central—constitutional tasks at Westminster, the institution of the backbencher is encountering serious problems. It is a matter of both cause and effect that the standing of Members in the country is low, the Chamber has become lifeless and almost empty for most of the working week, there is growing popular disenchantment with the Westminster political process, and this has been reflected in decreasing interest in parliamentary elections.

  5.  One aspect of this is that backbenchers are now spending increasing amounts of time acting as welfare officers outside Parliament. There has been a transfer of energy from Westminster to constituency work, feeding local perceptions about what it is that a backbencher is expected to do for them. This is a downward spiral, with many backbenchers now justifying disproportionate amounts of time acting as a constituency welfare officer by expressing fears of electoral retribution if they do not perform this role.

  6.  Equally worrying is that research now suggests that many backbenchers feel that their constituency work is the principal means by which they feel they can achieve something, or make any difference, in their job as a Member of Parliament.

  7.  In my view, the most urgent aspects of strengthening the role of the backbencher and bringing about a better use of their non-legislative time lies in:

    —    reinvigorating and energising the Chamber as a debating forum of topical and major issues of public importance, and

    —    buttressing the position and authority of the Chamber as the key arena where ministers are held to account by backbenchers across the House.

  The means by which these aims might be achieved involve considerations of different kinds, procedural, cultural, and structural.


  8.  It is worth focussing on precisely what (non-legislative) procedures exist at present specifically enabling backbenchers to contribute to the Chamber. These are in addition to speech making on motions brought before the House on a government or opposition day motion. Some backbench procedures are routine, being scheduled or balloted in advance, and therefore not always allowing for immediacy or topicality of the day. Such routine opportunities include the half-hour adjournment debates at the end of sitting days, the parallel debates now held in Westminster Hall; and of course there is oral question time of ministers.

  9.  There are other procedures available to backbenchers that are more immediately topical, allowing them to respond to current or daily events. Since the major concern of this memorandum is to energise the Chamber and make it more relevant and central to events, it is these types of procedural opportunity—ones dealing with pressing, urgent or immediate public concerns—that are particularly significant.

  These "topical procedures"[26] include:

    —    Urgent (formerly private notice) questions. This procedure allows an individual backbencher on any sitting day to raise a serious matter of current concern at short notice. The Speaker decides whether the matter is sufficiently urgent and important to justify disrupting the day's scheduled business. The length of time then spent by Members questioning the government front bench varies according to circumstances but on average is around half an hour.

    —    Applications for emergency debates. Ostensibly this is a key procedure available to backbenchers for a three hour debate the following (or same) day on a subject of urgent major topical concern. In practice though they are only rarely allowed by the Speaker. However, making an application for an emergency debate is a very useful procedural device in itself for a Member, for he or she is permitted three minutes in prime time in the Chamber (at commencement of the day's business) in order to draw attention to the subject of concern.

    —    Business questions. Diligent Members who attend the Chamber when the Leader of the House makes his Thursday announcement of forthcoming business the next week in practice have a flexible opportunity to express issues of concern, or press for further parliamentary action, on virtually any topic. The Speaker sees the value of these occasions in enabling as many Members as possible to make a brief point.

    —    Points of order. The opportunity to catch the Speaker's eye uttering "point of order" is a useful method by which a backbencher can ventilate some strongly held view or opinion. The usual response is, of course, that the statement made is not on a procedural technicality—however, by then the issue, statement or demand has been raised by the Member in the Chamber. It is a useful means whereby a backbencher can express strong feelings on some issue of the day.

    —    Early day motions. Although these motions will not be debated, yet they are tabled and appear on the day's Notice Paper in the hands of every Member, thereby attracting publicity inside the Chamber (and in the media) for the backbencher and his or her views on the subject of topical concern. They are also useful as a device for publicly recording the level of backbench support for the proposition being put, as large numbers of supporters' names can be, and regularly are, attached to the motion.

    —    Petitions. As a procedure, petitions are a democratic tool to be initiated by members of the public or an interest group, but in practice (whether acting in collusion or not) the petition procedure in standing orders is an opportunity for a Member to present an issue directly to the Chamber. If he or she supports the case being made in the petition, the Member can choose to read the petition on the floor of the House, making clear that it has his or her own support.

    —    Interventions during ministerial speeches. A diligent backbencher may always indicate to a minister during his speeches to the House that he or she wishes to express some point, question or comment on what is being said, and these are generally allowed by the minister speaking.

  10.  On how backbenchers can perform their role in the Chamber, therefore, there are in fact numerous procedural opportunities available to them to make their presence and concerns felt. The degree of success in which they perform their role, and in elevating the life, topicality and public interest of proceedings in the Chamber, depends very largely on the degree of initiative, energy and ingenuity coming from the backbench Members themselves.

  11.  On learning and induction matters for new backbenchers, equipping them with greater "know how" for the utilisation of procedure, clearly it is useful for facilities to be made available, such as talks and reading/viewing materials by experienced party colleagues or Commons support staff. However, it seems to me to be inappropriate, not to mention patronising, for any party or parliamentary authority to be actually instructing a backbencher to attend specific training sessions or continuing professional development courses. A diligent backbencher who is determined to utilise the procedural opportunities available must obviously make efforts by whatever means to understand and master the rudiments of parliamentary law and procedure.


  12.  It is essential that ministers treat the Chamber as the central and most important body to which they are accountable. If ministers treat the Chamber with minimal commitment, so will Members. Non-attendance in the Chamber by the Prime Minister and senior Cabinet colleagues on debates of major public importance is corrosive to the authority of the Commons. So too is the insidious practice of major government policy decisions or executive actions being announced direct to the media instead of personally to the Chamber. Several recent trends have diminished senior politicians' institutionalised sense of belonging to the Chamber and its conventions. For example, the growing practice of the Prime Minister appointing very recently elected Members as ministers is at striking variance to the former expectation that progression into government comes only after a substantial period of successful parliamentary service and experience.

  13.  Select committees have conferred on backbenchers greater authority and influence by enabling groups of them to scrutinise government affairs and ministers more intensively. However, there is a danger that the Chamber is suffering from the volume of work now conducted by the select committees, which has dramatically increased over the past ten years. Consideration needs to be given to balancing the demands of the Chamber with the demands of select committee work. In my view, select committee inquiries and oral evidence taking sessions should be less frequent and more highly selective. It is important committees are genuinely responsive to cross party backbench opinion when choosing their topics for inquiry.

  14.  Strengthening the role of backbenchers in the Chamber will almost certainly involve some re-balancing of the relative proportions of time spent in the House between government and backbench business. The government's excessive use of regulatory legislation as a tool of social control and management is a subject for another memorandum. However, the enormous quantity of government legislation crammed (and now programmed) through Parliament in recent times has had a negative and deadening effect on the overall life of the Chamber. This annual load needs to be reduced, freeing up more time for discussion and ventilation on topical subjects selected by backbenchers.

  15.  If the parliamentary parties can agree, perhaps through the brokerage of the Modernisation Committee, the Speaker could be encouraged to be more liberal in his interpretation of matters that are of an "urgent" character, taking into account greater consideration of topicality and popular interest. This would then facilitate greater use by backbenchers of private notice questions under Standing Order No. 21(2), and emergency debates under Standing Order No. 24.

  16.  There is a case for experimenting with some new, time-limited procedures deliberately designed to inject greater topicality and spontaneity in the Chamber.

    —    "Zero hour". At a set time on prescribed days—such as immediately after questions or statements on Tuesdays and Thursdays—backbenchers should be allowed the opportunity to raise and comment on any subject they wish for three minutes. Obviously the working of this new procedure, operating (at least initially) within 15-20 minute sessions, will depend on the fairness and judgement of the Speaker in selecting Members, who can informally indicate their interest earlier in the day to him or her. Its success or otherwise will also rely on Members using this new opportunity responsibly, in other words for raising genuine issues of national concern in a spirit of co-operation with colleagues.

    —    Debated questions. The procedures on oral questions should be modified, reducing the number of questions tabled at ministerial question time, and facilitating greater consideration of a topical subject with other backbenchers able to participate. In substance, this would enable a mini debate rather than mere question and answer, providing for opening points by the backbencher raising the subject, several brief contributions from other backbenchers, one ministerial response, and a few concluding remarks from the initiating Member, all within a fixed time frame. The current curt exchange at oral questions tends to be frustrating and boring, and what would be lost in numbers of questions asked would be greatly outweighed by developing a more interesting, meaningful, and worthwhile discourse in the Chamber.

    —    Select committees and the Chamber. Select committees should more clearly service the Chamber, for whose benefit they were created. One development of benefit to the Chamber would be greater use of short, swiftly conducted (taking days, not months) discussion papers/reports on topical or urgent departmentally related matters. There should also be provision in standing orders whereby time is reserved for discussion in the Chamber of the most important or urgent select committee reports, ensuring ministers' response. The selection and priority of reports to be discussed in the Chamber could be determined by the Speaker in consultation with the Liaison Committee.

  17.  There are some structural changes to the House that would serve to strengthen the role of each backbencher. Thus, as is widely accepted, the size of the House should be brought down to below 500 Members. This would elevate the authority of each individual backbencher and offer greater prospects for their participation in the Chamber when they wish to speak. Now is a particularly convenient moment to initiate this process, as the Boundary Commissions have just completed a review, so revised statutory rules on the redistribution of seats can be put in place in time before the next review to be undertaken by the Electoral Commission commences.

Professor of Constitutional Law

King's College London

May 2007

26   See my co-authored work for a comprehensive study of these procedures and detailed research on how they are utilised in practice: Robert Blackburn and Andrew Kennon (with Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth), Griffith and Ryle on Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures (Sweet and Maxwell, 2nd ed, 2003), Chapter 10. More generally, see its final evaluation section, Chapter 13. Back

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