Examination of Witnesses (Questions 91-99)|
BONE MP AND
21 MARCH 2007
Q91 Sir Nicholas Winterton: May I welcome
Jo Swinson, who is the Liberal Democrat Member for East Dunbartonshire
and Peter Bone, Conservative Member for Wellingborough. We are
very grateful to you for coming to give evidence to us, as part
of our inquiry into strengthening the role of the backbencher
and the use of non-legislative time. To us, these are very important
inquiries and I hope to all Members of Parliament. It is an opportunity
for them to have their say as to how what goes on in this place
might be changed or amended in some way to make the role, not
of the executive but of the backbencher, more relevant and to
enable people to play a more constructive part in what goes on
in our Parliament. May I start by putting the first question from
the Chair? The Chamber is perceived by some as being less significant
now than it was 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. Why do you think
that current Members of Parliament are less willing to spend time
in the Chamber?
Jo Swinson: I think that most
new Members of Parliament, at some stage, will go through the
experience of wanting to speak in a debate, getting there to hear
the opening of the debate, sitting there for six or seven hours
and eventually not being called at all. That is quite a demoralising
experience, when you have prepared a speech. Once you have been
through that, you perhaps look at other ways to make your points
in the Chamber which are not quite so time-consuming. For example,
the Questions hour is a way of getting in, raising your point
with the minister, and it allows you to do other things during
that day and to be more productive. I suspect that a lot of Members,
once they experience that, will look to how they can maximise
their impact but not necessarily have to spend all day, sitting
and waiting, not to get called.
Q92 Sir Nicholas Winterton: You do
not think it is the greater emphasis on constituency work, the
fact that you have a television in your office? Does this in any
way influence the amount of time you spend in the Chamber?
Jo Swinson: I think it does, because
obviously you can be following a debate without having to have
the investment of time of solely being in the Chamber. If you
have other things, whether it is dealing with constituency business
and correspondence, you can multitask, as it were; whereas, going
to the Chamber, you are not allowed to take your electronic devices;
you are not even supposed to take reading material or whatever
else. It is just focused on the debate; whereas if you are in
your office, as I say, you can do other things at the same time.
I think that multi-tasking which, certainly to get elected as
a candidate, you have to get very good at doing, and that habit
stays with you.
Mr Bone: I would agree with a
lot of what Jo said at the beginning. It is very demoralising
to sit in the Chamber for six hours, on an issue which you think
is very importantquite often after the Whips have told
you that you are desperately needed to go thereand then
never being called. One of the things that has struck me is the
power of the executive and how it tries continually to bypass
Parliament. One of the things that I find are the reasons for
people not going in for statements, for instance. Statements should
be a moment when the Chamber is full, because you are going to
hear some news of great importance from a minister. You have already
been rung up by your local BBC radio station, asking for your
comments on the statement and they have the statement in full.
I think that has to stop. That is an abuse of Parliament. I would
really like to see that stopped, so that when statements are made
nobody knows in advance what is in the statement.
Q93 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Would
you like statements to run longer if they are of particular importance,
so that perhaps more people can get in? The Speaker does try but,
of course, people are inclined to rabbit on at greater length
in, as it were, giving a build-up to their questions.
Mr Bone: I think that Mr Speaker
is very fair on all points but in particular on that one. He does
try to let the statements run and for people to get in. It is
very unfortunate when front-bench spokesmen, the person making
the statement and the two frontbenchers replying, take an awful
long timesometimes taking twice as long as they needto
say something. I think that the Speaker has pulled them up for
that. However, the point is that, if you look in the press gallery,
there is nobody there because everybody knows what is in the statement
before it is made.
Q94 Mr Howarth: I may have got this
wrong, but my understanding is that statements are not released
to the media before they are made in the House. I think that would
be quite an abuse of the system if that were to be happening.
As I understand it, it is released as the minister stands up to
Mr Bone: Can I say that if you
drive down to Westminster, as I do on Sunday night, and listen
to the Westminster Hour, not only are they telling you
what the statement is going to be the next day: they are interviewing
the minister about the statement. I think that is wholly unacceptable.
Q95 Paddy Tipping: Could I pick up
Jo's point about constituency work and multi-tasking? There are
very high expectations amongst constituents. There is a view around
that more and more time is devoted to constituency work, not least
because people want to get elected and re-elected. How do you
two see the balance between scrutinising the executive and the
Jo Swinson: From my point of view,
I enjoy both. When I am asked the question, maybe when I speak
to schools, "What is your favourite thing about being a Member
of Parliament?" my answer is always, "The contrast and
the balance", because I think that the constituency work
is a very good contrast to work in Parliament. They both have
different attractions. I sometimes think that if you spent your
entire life doing just one, you would probably be driven round
the bend! I always like that contrast. The constituency work keeps
you grounded. You can sometimes feel in Westminster as if you
are in a bit of a bubble; it is not quite reality. Getting back
out to meet with your constituents helps you to touch base with
what real people are thinking. At the same time, the mental stimulation,
as it were, of picking up on issues of the day and questioning
ministers is part of the job that I find very rewarding. However,
there are some points which Peter has raised about Parliament
being bypassed. Obviously I was not here many years ago, but I
think that there is generally a feeling that Parliament used to
be seen as more important by ministers, by the executive as well;
therefore, what an MP was able to achieve in Parliament had a
greater impact. That could be one reason perhaps why MPs are spending
more time on the constituency side.
Q96 Sir Nicholas Winterton: What
do you think is the main role of a Member of Parliament, Jo?
Jo Swinson: I suppose it is representing
your constituents, and that includes representing their concerns
to ministers and scrutinising the legislation of the day. It also
includes representing the constituency and communicating with
them, because if you do not communicate with your constituents
how well will you be able to represent them?
Q97 Sir Nicholas Winterton: What
about the holding of the Government to account and properly scrutinising
Jo Swinson: I think that is part
of representing your constituents. You are doing that on behalf
of the people that you are representing.
Q98 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Do you
want to add anything to that, Peter?
Mr Bone: I think that I would
slightly disagree with Jo, in the sense that I would put holding
the executive to account as the prime role of a Member of Parliament,
with constituency work coming very closely behind it in importance.
I come down Sunday night and I go back to the constituency very
early Friday morning, and I hold a surgery every week on Friday.
So if a constituent rings between Wednesday and Thursday, my staff
say, "Come and see Peter on Friday". So I have Friday,
Saturday, and unfortunately part of Sunday these days, on constituency
work; but between Monday and Thursday I am spending the bulk of
the time trying to hold the executive to account.
Q99 Mr Knight: Can I ask you in turn
to tell us what changes you would make to encourage backbenchers
to devote more time and attention to the Chamber?
Jo Swinson: One thing I think
is helpful, when it is done, is the limits on speeches in debates.
Obviously, when it is a very busy debate, Mr Speaker does that
already. If that were used more often, it would encourage Members
to think in advance about what they are going to say. Very often,
somebody may speak for 20 minutes and they could probably have
got across the points they wanted to make in 10 minutes, but perhaps
have not sat down in advance and structured it. I very much like
the habit in the Chamber of interventions. I think that is a really
strong part of our debate and, of course, even with time limits
we have ways of getting round that so that interventions are not
discouraged. However, I think a greater use of time limits would
be helpful. Picking up on Peter's point, I think that we can create
a slightly false distinction between constituency work and parliamentary
work. If someone comes to see me in my surgery about an issue
and I raise it in Parliament, is that constituency work or is
that parliamentary work? I do think that holding the Government
to account is part of what you are doing for your constituents.
You can raise the issues that they have raised with you.
Mr Bone: I would have a whole
list of things I would do, and perhaps I could send them to you
because it would probably take an hour to discuss them all now.
I have mentioned statements, where I believe that would get more
Members to come into the Chamber, but also I find the shortening
of debates very unfortunate. If you have prepared a really important
speech for a debate and there are two statements on that day,
you are almost certainly not going to get in as a junior backbencher.
I would add the time on at the end of the day. If the statements
take one and a half hours, therefore, I would add one and a half
hours on to the end of the day; because if you originally thought
that a debate was going to run for six hours, it should run for
six hours. One of the things that I would particularly like to
see done is Business Questions for up to a minimum of one hour.
It is so frustrating for a backbencher. It is the one time in
the week when junior backbenchers get the right to put a question
off the cuff to a senior member of the Government. If there is
a statement, we sometimes find that we have only 40 minutes, and
backbenchers miss out. If it ran for an hour, you would almost
certainly get all the backbenchers in who want to speak. That
would really encourage them. Some of my colleagues now say, "Oh,
we're only going to turn up for Oral Questions if we are on the
Order Paper, because we don't get in". I say to them, "Come
along to Business Questions"; but, when it is cut short,
again it is very frustrating. Those are a few things that I think
could help greatly, therefore.