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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 91-99)


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 important—quite often after the Whips have told you that you are desperately needed to go there—and 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 time—sometimes taking twice as long as they need—to 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 make it.

  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 constituency work?

  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 legislation?

  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.

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