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


Memorandum from Professor Michael Rush, University of Exeter, and Dr Philip Giddings, University of Reading (M35)

THE ROLE OF THE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT AND THE INDUCTION OF NEWLY-ELECTED MPS

BACKGROUND TO THE RESEARCH[27]

  1.  The data used in this memorandum is drawn from a long-term study of the socialisation of Members of Parliament covering the 1992-97 and 1997-2001 Parliaments, with additional data drawn from the 2001-05 Parliament.

  2.  Two types of data were gathered: attitudinal, based on questionnaires to MPs in the two Parliaments and participatory, based on POLIS/Parline material.

THE ROLE OF THE MEMBER OF PARLIAMENT

  3.  In each of the two Parliaments questionnaires were sent to newly-elected MPs and to a control group of longer-serving backbench Members. Ranking the two enables us to set out the views of our respondents in 1994 and 1999 on their role as Members of Parliament. We asked Members four questions relevant to their role: first, whether they thought MPs should be full-time or part-time; second, who they saw themselves as representing; third, what were the most important parts of their job as an MP; and, fourth, who influenced them in their work in Parliament.

Full-time v part-time

  4.  All Labour and Liberal Democrat respondents thought the job of being an MP should be full-time, in contrast to 28% of Conservatives in 1994 and 40% in 1999. However, most Conservatives who thought it should be part-time acknowledged that the demands of the job rendered it full-time in terms of the number of hours per week needed to meet those demands. This reflected the view, widely expressed in comments made in responses to the questionnaires, that they needed to keep in touch with "the real world" and that outside occupations were the most effective way of achieving this.

The Member of Parliament as a representative

  5.  Members were asked to place in rank order representing their constituents, the nation as a whole, and their party. First and foremost, MPs clearly saw themselves as representing their constituents (64% in 1994 and 68% in 1999), then the nation (22% in 1994 and 16% in 1999), and, a long way behind, their parties (8% in 1994 and 10% in 1999). There were, however, significant differences between members of different parties, with Conservatives more likely to place the nation second and Labour MPs their party second.

The most important parts of the job

  6.  MPs were asked to place in rank order different aspects of their job—scrutinising the government and civil service, supporting their party, influencing party policy, and helping constituents. Again constituents came first overall, though more strongly among Labour than Conservative MPs. The most interesting finding was the difference made by whether a party was in government or opposition. Thus, when in government, in 1994, Conservatives ranked scrutiny fourth, but in opposition, in 1999, they ranked it first. This emerged more starkly if the proportion of MPs ranking scrutiny first or second in the two Parliaments is compared. In 1994, 38% of Conservatives did so; in 1997 the proportion had jumped to 82%. Conversely, in 1994, 46% of Labour MPs ranked scrutiny first, compared with 35% in 1999. There were also differences in attitude towards supporting their party: as with the representative role, Labour MPs were stronger on party in both Parliaments.

Influencing MPs

  7.  MPs were asked who strongly influenced them in their parliamentary activity—the party leadership, their personal opinions, constituency opinion, and representations from pressure groups. The latter were by far the least influential. In contrast to the emphasis on constituents in whom they represent and in the most important part of the job, when it came to sources of influence constituency opinion came some way behind their personal opinions and the party. In short, the party leadership was the most important.

The role of the Member of Parliament—an overview

  8.  MPs regard themselves primarily as representing their constituents. This is reflected in other data we collected showing that most MPs spend more time on constituency work than any other part of their job. However, they say that party, not constituency is the most important influence on their parliamentary behaviour. That is not very surprising since their parliamentary activity—tabling Questions and motions and participating in debates and committee work—takes place within the context of party. "Party" here means not the narrow context of the party whips, but the wider context of MPs being members of parties with which more often than not they agree.

THE INDUCTION OF NEWLY-ELECTED MPS

  9.  Our research explores the extent to which MPs are subjected to a socialisation process once elected to Parliament. We have, therefore, focussed particularly on newly-elected MPs. By "socialisation" in this context we mean a process by which MPs adapt their views and their behaviour to the norms of the House of Commons and their parties.

A steep learning curve

  10.  Newly-elected MPs face a steep learning curve on their arrival at Westminster: the 1997 election took place on 1 May and Parliament met on 7 May, six days later. [28]Within days of election, therefore, MPs, new and returning, are expected to deal with normal parliamentary business and the demands of constituents. We have gathered data on the practice in eight other legislatures and none has such a short gap between the election and the meeting of the legislature: in four of the eight the gap was between 11 and 20 days, in the remaining four longer—as much as 40 days in Canada. [29]

Induction arrangements

  11.  Increasingly, elaborate induction arrangements have been put in place by the House authorities and the parties, although in the latter case those made by the Labour Party are by far the most extensive and those by the Conservatives the least. There is no doubt that most newly-elected Members appreciate these arrangements—and, as a former Secretary of the Parliamentary Labour Party told us, each new cohort of Members expects more and better induction arrangements. From the responses to our questionnaires, the strongest criticism of the post-election arrangements was the allocation of office accommodation. There was a strong and widespread view that this should be taken out of the hands of the whips and undertaken entirely by the House authorities.

Parliamentary activity—getting off the ground

  12.  Despite the steep learning curve, our participatory data shows that most newly-elected Members quickly get involved in most aspects of parliamentary business. Within 50 sitting days:

    —  more than four-fifths of the 1997 intake had made their maiden speeches;

    —  three-fifths had had oral Questions and nearly nine out of ten written Questions answered; and

    —  almost all had signed one or more EDMs, and nearly two-fifths had tabled an EDM.

  There were party differences, notably the much greater propensity of Labour MPs to sign and table EDMs. Initially, there was also a markedly higher proportion of newly-elected Members participating in Westminster Hall sittings when they were introduced in 1999, but this had largely disappeared by the 2003-04 session.

  13.  Newly-elected MPs also quickly became involved in committee activity, especially on legislative committees. In 1997-98, 82% of newly-elected Conservatives served on the former standing committees on bills, compared with 52% of their longer-serving colleagues. Similar figures emerge for Labour—85% compared with 41%, and for the Liberal Democrats—77% and 42%. Experience on investigative committees, mainly the departmental select committees, came more slowly, but by the end of the 1999-2000 session 88% of newly-elected Conservatives, 74% of Labour, and 54% of Liberal Democrats had served on such committees.

CONCLUSION

  14.  Interviews we conducted with newly-elected Members in 1992 and 1997 and the data from our questionnaires both showed that they already have a broad understanding of the role of the Member of Parliament when they first arrive at Westminster. However, they have much less understanding of what that role actually involves in detail. For example, less than 5% of our respondents in 1997 said they were "very familiar" with parliamentary procedure, although as many as 50% said they were "somewhat familiar"; by the time of the third questionnaire in 1999, these proportions were 18% and 73%.

  15.  It was also clear that, before their election, would-be MPs (including those virtually certain of election) had given little thought to and made few, if any preparations for their role as Members, since earlier they were nursing their constituencies and later fighting the election.

  16.  Our research suggests that, on arrival at Westminster, new Members learn about their role and how to do it primarily in two ways. First, there are the fairly intense "formal" induction processes, provided by the House authorities and their parties. Second, there is an informal, and longer process which is essentially "learning on the job". There is no doubt that most MPs appreciate and benefit from the formal induction arrangements, which have become increasingly extensive over the past 20 or so years. Given the short "window of opportunity" between the election itself and the first meeting of the House, what formal induction arrangements can achieve is limited. Once that window of opportunity has closed, new MPs inevitably have to do most of their learning by actually doing the job.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Induction procedures

  17.  Induction procedures, whether provided by the House authorities or the parliamentary parties, need to be flexible, providing alternative formats, modes and sources to suit the needs of individual Members.

  18.  These induction procedures need to be accessible collectively (eg through courses and seminars) and individually (eg through named contacts, dedicated, user-friendly websites, and mentors).

  19.  Each new Member should be assigned by the House authorities a mentor drawn from longer-serving backbenchers and not from the respective whips' offices.

  20.  Consideration should be given by the House authorities to establishing a "welfare officer" to listen to the needs of individual Members and act as a source of confidential advice.

The gap between election day and the first meeting of the new Parliament

  21.  The House authorities, the government and the political parties should review again, in the light of practice in other legislative assemblies, the length of time between election day and the commencement of substantive business in the form of the debate on the Queen's Speech and Question Time [?] Members could, for example, formally take office as Members of Parliament by taking the oath or affirmation within a week of the election, so that, but a longer period could normally be allowed to elapse before the debate of the Queen's Speech. This would benefit not only newly-elected Members, but also newly-appointed ministers, especially when there is a change of government. In the light of the practice in other countries, we would recommend a gap of up to 20 days.

The allocation of office accommodation

  22.  This should be removed from the hands of the whips and undertaken entirely by the House authorities, although it should not preclude initial party involvement in the allocation of blocks of accommodation in different parts of the parliamentary precinct. As far as possible, offices should made available fully equipped with telephone and IT facilities and ready for use.

Michael Rush, University of Exeter

Philip Giddings, University of Reading

March 2007

APPENDIX

Table 1

THE GAP BETWEEN THE ELECTION AND THE FIRST MEETING OF THE HOUSE OF COMMONS (EXCL INTERVENTION OF CHRISTMAS OR EASTER), 1832-2005
PeriodMean no of days MedianRange Change of govtNo change of govt
1832-1910*31.2 (531/17) 155-9816.3 (147/9) 48.0 (384/8)
1918-35*19.3 (116/6)18 4-3720.7 (62/3)18.0 (54/3)
1945-20057.0 (105/15) 55-116.7 (47/7) 7.3 (58/8)


  Source:  F.W.S. Craig, British Electoral Facts 1832-1987, Parliamentary Research Services, Aldershot, 1989 and David Butler and Gareth Butler, British Political Facts Since 1979, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2006.

  *  Excluding Orkney & Shetland (until 1929) & university seats (abolished from 1950) which polled a week or more after other constituencies had finished polling.

Table 2

THE GAP BETWEEN THE ELECTION AND THE FIRST MEETING OF THE LEGISLATURE IN EIGHT COUNTRIES
Country10 or fewer days 11-20 days21-30 days 31-40 daysMore than 40 days
Austria X
Canada X
FranceX
Germany X
ItalyX
New Zealand X
NorwayX
PortugalX





27   This research was supported by an award from the Nuffield Foundation Small Grant Scheme during the 1992-97 Parliament and an ESRC grant (R000222470) during the 1997-2001 Parliament. Back

28   See Appendix, Table 1. Back

29   See Appendix, Table 2. Back


 
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