Memorandum from Professor Robert Blackburn
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
4. However, in performing these traditionaland
what I regard as still centralconstitutional 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,
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
opportunityones dealing with pressing, urgent or immediate
public concernsthat are particularly significant.
These "topical procedures"
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 technicalityhowever,
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
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.
At a set time on prescribed dayssuch as immediately after
questions or statements on Tuesdays and Thursdaysbackbenchers
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
Professor of Constitutional Law
King's College London
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