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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)


21 MARCH 2007

  Q100  Mr Knight: Again, my question is to you both. To what extent do you think the behaviour of some backbenchers is influenced, and indeed distorted, by    the existence of websites such as, encouraging Members to intervene when they would not intervene and then to run down to Westminster Hall and intervene in Westminster Hall, so that they are then reported as having made two speeches on that day?

  Jo Swinson: I think that it can be an influence. Any time you have a league table, it is probably human nature for people to be aware of that and it can be quite a negative influence. In defence of the website and the creators, who also run other websites like WriteToYourMP and HearFromYourMP, I think that this Internet impact on our democracy is a positive thing. It helps to bridge the gap between Parliament and the constituents. It is an evolving tool, and they have taken on board feedback from MPs on how they do it. They used to rank MPs from 1 to 646 and they now give a "This is roughly above average", "This is well above average". So I would encourage Parliament and this Committee to engage with the people running these sites, because I think that they are an important tool for engaging people with democracy. However, as they evolve, we obviously find that there are problems and they perhaps have to tweak how they do it.

  Mr Bone: I certainly agree with what Jo said at the end. I think that transparency and openness about Parliament is very good. More publicity about what happens in this place is excellent. I do not know of a single Member who does what Mr Knight suggested: makes an intervention and then runs down to get into Westminster Hall. I would find that an extraordinary way to carry on. If the question is, "Are new Members more active than some of the old Members?" that is probably in the nature of things. For instance, I have no other roles in the party and so I am perhaps able to attend more often in the Chamber than some of the more senior Members, who have other work to do. I think that websites such as are a great help to people understanding what happens here in Parliament.

  Ms Butler: Thank you both for coming in today. This is the Modernisation Committee, so do not be afraid of coming out with some extreme suggestions—because that is what we are here for. I know some are on this Committee to make sure that we do not modernise too far!

  Mr Howarth: Perish the thought!

  Q101  Ms Butler: However, I would encourage you. Do please send the list that you have mentioned, Peter. In regard to the Chamber, I find that there is a kind of elitism and snobbery, if you like. Some people think that new Members do not want to go into the Chamber to contribute, and you are absolutely right, Jo, that sometimes when you go in, have waited for hours and not been able to speak, you think about everything else that you should be doing. What do you think about having a speakers' list of some kind introduced into the Chamber?

  Jo Swinson: Presumably to give people some idea of whether they would be called to speak. I think that would be helpful. On the downside, you may get fewer people attending debates because they know that they are not going to be called to speak. One of the things is about the time investment that is made. If it is six hours, that is a big chunk of your day. If there were also more debates and sometimes Westminster Hall debates—an hour and a half—to have a good canter round a particular issue, speak to the minister about it, it would be something that was quite easy to fit into the rest of the things you are doing that day. If there were also an opportunity to have more short debates in the Chamber, I think that might encourage greater participation. Certainly a speakers' list has merit in encouraging people to put their name down to try and speak.

  Q102  Sir Nicholas Winterton: When you say "short debate", do you mean a topical, current debate or just a debate short in time?

  Jo Swinson: A debate shorter in time, similar to when we have Opposition Day debates, I suppose. They are often split into two different sections of three hours each. Certainly, if we had more slots like that, it would give us the opportunity to have greater topicality and to discuss things which suddenly arise.

  Mr Bone: First of all, I hate to appear before something called "the Modernisation Committee". I think it would be much better if it were called the "Reforming" or the "Structure" Committee. "Modernisation" has very poor vibes for me. I have suggested many things and have got into trouble for them. I am very much in favour of September sittings and using them for scrutiny. I would strengthen very much the role of the Leader of the House. As an example today, the Leader of the House cannot be here because he has other, senior business to do in the Cabinet. I would have a Leader of the House who has nearly as much authority as Mr Speaker in the running of the business, and I would have a business committee. I would abolish usual channels. Whenever I hear the words "usual channels" being raised, something is bad—and I would get rid of that. If you had the Leader of the House as a very senior Member who was in position for four years and could not be removed by the Government, I think that would be a step in the right direction for backbenchers.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Dawn Butler challenged you to be radical; you have been.

  Q103  Ann Coffey: I was quite interested in what you were saying about In fact, they probably filled a gap that was not provided by Parliament. If you are a member of the public accessing the parliamentary site, it is very difficult to find out what your MP is doing. Would you be in favour, as the parliamentary website develops, of MPs having their own website as part of that parliamentary site, perhaps developing some of the work that is being done by

  Jo Swinson: I imagine that most MPs do have their own websites by now. They obviously vary in terms of how up to date they are kept. There might be a role for House authorities to provide some support and advice for Members who are not sure about how to do that, because I think that it is very important. It is particularly important in engaging with young people. There is a lot of recent research which shows that young people are less likely to read a newspaper but they will read news online. I am like this. If I need to research something or find out about something, the first place I tend to go is Google and type it in. I imagine that if I were not involved in politics and wanted to find out about my MP, the first thing I would do is Google them and see what came up. So it is a very important channel for people engaging with Parliament. You are absolutely right. I would say that there was a gap not filled by Parliament. Although there have been improvements to the parliamentary website, I still think that it is lagging behind what other sites are doing; although there is some advantage in having an independent site that is monitoring what MPs are doing, because it perhaps has more legitimacy.

  Mr Bone: I do not actually have a website at the moment, mainly because it appears that websites are used by the Opposition to go back to something you said five years ago and you are horribly embarrassed by it! However, I do send an e-mail out once a month to quite a large list of people. I also post it. I offer it free to any constituent who asks for it. The other advantage of is that there are 60 people who get an e-mail once a month from me, and I do not know who they are. If you want to get the information about the MP but you do not want them to know that you are doing it, that is quite an advantage.

  Q104  Ann Coffey: The other question I want to ask relates to some of your comments about the induction process. Did you find that you were given very helpful information and advice when you first came here? What do you think could have been done better? What do you think was not done right and what would you advise for the future?

  Jo Swinson: We are always told how it is so much better these days than it used to be, and I am glad; but I am always slightly worried when I hear that. I think that people were trying hard, but my experience of it was that there was very helpful information but just far too much of it too soon. You arrive here, you get your pass, then you go round and all the different departments have got their stalls. You come away and you suddenly have all this paper—and you do not even have an office to put it in. You do not get an office for about two months, which is incredibly frustrating. You are working from one of the committee rooms, hot-desking, taking your stuff to your locker every night, feeling like you are back at university or something. I really think that we need to have a rolling programme of induction. For example, there were helpful training sessions on asking parliamentary questions, but they were in the first few weeks of the Parliament and, frankly, I was worried about making my maiden speech at that point. You could not ask an Oral Question until you had made your maiden speech. Then, at the point where I was perhaps feeling more confident about asking those questions, the training sessions had finished. I therefore think that we need to have a rolling programme. I would not say that it should be only over six months. Still now, there are lots of procedures I find confusing. I found out something only the other day, as a result of the committee that discussed the Sexual Orientation Regulations. I had assumed that I was not on the committee and therefore there was no way that I could attend it. Then you suddenly read that, because of Standing Order 200-and-something, other MPs turned up and were able to make points of order. These things just come out of the blue. If we had a rolling programme, perhaps after a certain amount of time we could talk about the more intricate details of parliamentary procedure. Standing Orders—for example, how you can use Standing Order No. 24, which Nick Clegg found when we had a debate on the extradition treaty—these things would be completely unknown to most MPs.

  Q105  Sir Nicholas Winterton: In one sentence, anything to add, Peter?

  Mr Bone: We must sort out accommodation on day one for the new Members. It is in a frightful mess. No business would have its senior executives waiting six months to get a desk and a telephone. It is the most appalling incompetence, and that needs to be sorted out.

  Q106  Mr Wright: Jo, I was interested in what you were saying, and I share your frustrations about waiting six or seven hours to make a speech and then you may not be called. I was certainly interested in your views about a speakers' list. You mentioned relaxation of rules regarding things to be taken into the Chamber, such as electronic devices and paper. I have two questions. Do you think that it is a bad thing for democracy and for public perception of parliamentary procedure when they turn on the telly and they see an empty Chamber? Following on from that, do you therefore think that the rules should be relaxed, as you suggest?

  Jo Swinson: Yes, I think that people do assume that MPs are not working if they are not in the Chamber and when they see an empty Chamber, and therefore that is damaging. Although I have to say that what I think is even more damaging is when they turn the television on and they see a full Chamber at Prime Minister's Questions, and quite often the behaviour of MPs can be shocking at that point. That does not do the reputation of politics any good either. However, as to the rules being relaxed, to be honest, I am not exactly sure what the rules are. I have seen MPs taking in signing sometimes, if it is a long debate, but then you hear that you are not necessarily supposed to do that. It is seen as okay to sign your EDM booklets when you are in there. I do not think that anyone will tell you off for that, because you see lots of people do it. It is one of those things where the rules are not quite cut and dried, so that you are not really sure what you are allowed to do and what you are not allowed to do. Particularly as a new Member—I do not know how everybody else felt when they were first elected—the last thing you want is to be publicly told off by the Speaker for doing something wrong, and there seem to be so many different things that you could be doing that are wrong. I remember the tale of my colleague Jenny Willott, who was told off for doing two things wrong in the Chamber. The first thing was to wear her outer coat in the Chamber; the second thing she did wrong was to remove her coat while in the Chamber! It is one of those things where you cannot quite get it right. Personally, I think that a relaxation that allowed people, if they were sitting in a long debate, to catch up on some reading—possibly even reading material about that debate—or some of the administrative stuff that has to be done, would be helpful.

  Q107  Mr Wright: Peter, can I ask you the same question? Before you answer, however, my feeling about you, with the greatest respect, is that you are never off your feet in the Chamber. For one of the 2005 intake, I would cite you as probably the best example of someone who has taken to it like a duck to water and who is called by the Speaker a lot. Given the various challenges to an MP's time of constituency and parliamentary business—and I know you spoke about this in an earlier answer—how on earth have you been able to manage that, in a way that maybe other colleagues have not?

  Mr Bone: I think it came down to the fact that I have two very good members of staff: one in the constituency and one here. Perhaps if I am any good at anything it is delegation. We have split it. We have made a conscious effort to say Friday, Saturday, Sunday—constituency; Monday to Thursday—scrutiny of the executive. On the question of debates, I am not sure how you improve any of that, because they are debates and you should be in the Chamber to listen to what people have to say. Where I think Parliament comes into contempt is where you have something like the Sexual Orientation Regulations—whatever your views on it—and not a single back-bench Member of Parliament has been able to speak on it. Not a single Member. It is only the three front benches that talked it out in the delegated committee. We have to do something about that. You cannot have important legislation like that, stuck in a small committee room, with no television, with officials sitting on the floor, with one Member having to do a limbo dance to get under the bar to get in to the committee to try and intervene—and not a single Member of Parliament other than the front bench being able to speak. Yet we can have six hours of debate on something where there is no substantive motion at the end of it, and there are only a few people there. I think that needs looking at.

  Mr Howarth: At the risk of sounding regressive, Sir Nicholas will remember when, 20 years ago, the convention was that you would attend Questions—not every one but, by and large, you would attend Questions every day—and certainly there was an expectation that you would be in the Chamber for the opening speeches and the closing speeches, whether or not you intended to take part in the debate. That has eroded enormously in the 20 years that I have been here. Would the two witnesses think that maybe the time has come to revive, not compulsory attendance but the expectation that people would spend those certain times during each day in the Chamber?

  Q108  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I will ask Peter first because I suspect that it will be the shortest answer.

  Mr Bone: I agree entirely that people should be in for Questions. We have just had a very comprehensive note from the Speaker of do's and don'ts. That was not in the list, but I think that it should be frowned upon if you are not doing it. Opening speeches? Again, if the opening front benches are going to take an hour each to do it, then no; but if they are going to do proper opening speeches, yes.

  Jo Swinson: I find Questions very helpful to go to, and I would share Peter's point regarding the concern about being there for the opening and closing speeches. Sometimes that would be quite a significant commitment, in the way they do take a lot of time. The other thing I would say is that presumably it is quite difficult to revive a convention like that. I suppose a note from the Speaker would be one way of doing it, but how will it be enforced? That will always be difficult. How are you going to encourage people to do it? I think that the best way to encourage people to be in the Chamber is for it to be as relevant as possible; for them to have opportunities; and, for example, if the opening speeches say something new and are interesting, people are more likely to be there anyway.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Perhaps this could be the one good purpose and objective of the usual channels. Well, the silence is golden!

  Q109  Philip Davies: One of the things that both of you have said which will resonate with every new Member of Parliament is the point you made at the start, Jo, about waiting for six hours and not getting called. Everybody has been through that. I know that you mentioned a time limit on speeches as a way of solving that particular issue, but I wondered if there were any other things that you wanted to mention on that particular point. For example, the fact that lots of new Members, although they will come to appreciate it in years to come, probably resent the fact that all the big hitters and old-timers get to go first and it is always the new ones who end up missing out on getting a chance to speak. There is also the fact that there are some debates that finish three hours early, which clearly no one is particularly interested in; but if they were to speak in that debate, they would then be penalised and would not be able to speak in a debate of more importance. I wondered if you had any views on those issues.

  Jo Swinson: I think that it is ridiculous that, in a democracy where MPs have an equal right to be representing their constituents, constituents in a seat that happens to have a Member who has been an MP for 20 years are more likely to have their views represented in a debate. That clearly is madness. Like so many things in this place, everything goes by seniority, even down to the allocation of offices—which, I would totally second, is a crazy system for doing that and in any business world just would not be tolerated. I think that time limits would be good in terms of making debates more interesting and making Members focus more on what they want to say. Also, Members working as a team possibly, and not having to make every single point themselves. Perhaps if we had ten-minute speeches that would be enough time to go into a particular angle of the argument, but you may have colleagues who want to elaborate another point of the argument, rather than having everybody feeling that they have to cover every point in the debate, but doing it very quickly. I think that should be extended even to Fridays. The experience of Members going in to a Private Member's Bill debate and having two or three Members deciding to make two-hour-long speeches and therefore talking it out, is one which is very demoralising. It is a strange way to run things. Frankly, if people do not want a Private Member's Bill to pass, then get enough people there to vote against it. Otherwise, what opportunities do backbenchers have to bring forward legislation? That is the one slot there is, and it is so easy for one or two obstructive people to stop it in its tracks.

  Q110  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Would you appreciate, Jo, that sometimes the Government of the day does not want that Private Member's Bill and that therefore they will themselves talk it out, let alone other backbenchers?

  Jo Swinson: Absolutely. Also, the Government will talk it out rather than have the vote. I would rather that they won the argument and won the vote on that issue, rather than this procedure just not letting it go through.

  Mr Bone: I think that it is a difficult one. One of the things I would say is about extending the length of debate with their statements. If there is not a lot of interest, the debate will finish early; but if there is real interest and you get an extra two hours—the two hours you have lost at the beginning—it would be of benefit. I do not understand why we have to pack up, for instance, at 10 o'clock in the evening. It seems childish to me.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am sure that we could have a very lengthy debate on that. I know Ann Coffey's view, and I am not going to ask her to come in!

  Q111  Mr Knight: Can I ask what use you have made of the ample Private Members' time that is available on a Friday?

  Mr Bone: As I have explained, my arrangements are that I do my surgeries on Friday and work wholly in the constituency on Friday. Unless it is of particular interest to me, I will not be here on a Friday.

  Jo Swinson: I choose whether to be here on a Friday on the basis of what bill is the top bill being discussed. There have been several I have tried to support: the Climate Change Bill; the one about Parliament waging war, for example, in the last session.

  Q112  Mr Knight: Have either of you ever spoken on a Friday?

  Jo Swinson: Yes. Well, intriguingly, an experience I had—which is one of the reasons why I was so frustrated—was when I had prepared a speech to speak on the Climate Change Bill. Because we knew that a Member was going to try and talk it out, there was all the usual channels, running round the Chamber, speaking to people and saying, "If all the people who are supporting this bill and who have made the effort to be here speak, it will get talked out. What we have to do is for everybody to decide not to make their speeches. We will then let the obstructive person speak for two hours, but at least this will mean that we can actually get this through". They were trying to get the next bill through as well and, in the end, the next bill did not get through. That was a very frustrating experience. I had turned up on Friday, wanted to support the bill, and I actually did decide that I would rather the bill went through. That was more important than my making my speech on it.

  Q113  Mr Knight: So you have not spoken on a Friday?

  Jo Swinson: I have spoken on a different bill on a Friday, and I think I made some interventions in that case.

  Q114  Sir Peter Soulsby: We have focused so far on the competing demands on the time of a backbencher from their Westminster office and their constituency, and at least the perceived effect this has had on the central role of the Chamber. I think that elsewhere we have some evidence that, if you look back over time, it has not always been as central to the life of MPs as some have suggested it was. However, the one thing you have not touched on as being an important part of the role of the backbenchers is their work on select committees. I wonder whether you have found your work there—if you are indeed members of select committees—effective in terms of scrutiny and valuable in terms of the use of your time.

  Jo Swinson: I am not on one, so Peter is better placed to answer this.

  Mr Bone: I am on three select committees. I am on Trade and Industry and I am on the two joint Statutory Instrument Select Committees, which are two very different select committees. I think that Trade and Industry is exceptionally well run. The Members of all parties act independently and really scrutinise the Government and give ministers a hard time. I think that it is a very important part of parliamentary business. The Select Committee on Statutory Instruments is a very important committee but unfortunately it meets in private, which I do not agree with. I think that we should have as many committees as possible meeting in public.

  Q115  Sir Peter Soulsby: In your case, Jo, is that a deliberate choice, not to be a member?

  Jo Swinson: Yes. It was because shortly after being elected I was asked to take on a junior spokepersonship in Culture, Media and Sport. I took the view that, with learning about the role of being an MP, full stop, and taking on that portfolio, there were only so many hours in the day, and I would rather do things and spend time trying to do them properly, rather than to take on too many things and then find that I could not do it effectively.

  Q116  Mrs May: I would like to raise two issues, if I may. First of all, we have talked about holding the executive to account and constituency work. Is there not another role for MPs here in the Chamber, which is that the Chamber should be a forum for the debate of key national issues? If you agree with that, what more could we be doing to ensure that? Jo mentioned short debates. Should we be freeing up time, having less legislation, more time for debates, possibly with substantive motions and possibly with free votes at the end of those?

  Mr Bone: I entirely agree with more free votes and less interference by the Whips—and definitely less interference by the usual channels. It is frustrating. I am sure that there was a very good debate yesterday on the celebration of the abolition of the slave trade, but there would not have been a substantive motion at the end of that. I think that more debates where there is a result at the end would be most useful. I can think of debates, for instance, on police mergers. We had one in Westminster Hall which was exceptionally well attended, but of course there was no substantive motion at the end.

  Jo Swinson: I would agree. I think that substantive motions can give a point to a debate, rather than it just being a talking shop, as it were. I definitely think that we should have less legislation. If you look at how many bills would typically go through a parliamentary session 40 years ago compared to now, it does not bear comparison; it has mushroomed hugely. That means that each bill has less time to be scrutinised and, of course, there is less time within the business of the House to have those topical debates that you would otherwise have. So I would be keen for there to be a business committee that would be able to look and say, "Let's have a topical debate on this issue"—whether it is Zimbabwe, or whatever it is. I also think that there should be procedures that enable back-bench MPs to propose having debates, other than just half-hour adjournment debates, in the Chamber as well as in Westminster Hall. Westminster Hall is a very important forum and it is a good thing that has come out of this Committee, but it does not have the same status as a debate in the Chamber and we have to accept that. It is being able to initiate debates as a back-bench MP, as well as through a business committee and the usual channels or whatever they are. Individual MPs should have that opportunity too.

  Mr Bone: The Whips' Offices have to be less control-freakish. The only time I am ever summoned to the Whips' Office is to be told off because I have called a vote on something that they did not approve of; though in fact it was none of their business, because it had been a business motion—and I had told them that I was going to do it, out of courtesy. They really have to get away from this "control-freakery", and trust the Members of Parliament.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am not sure that the Shadow Leader of the House will necessarily agree with you!

  Mrs May: I think that it is the former Deputy Chief Whip here who may be having a slightly different view.

  Q117  Mr Knight: I was just thinking that was a very brave comment.

  Mr Bone: I do expect a message after this.

  Mr Knight: I would not go out alone!

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: But perhaps shoulder to shoulder with me!

  Q118  Mrs May: On a completely different topic, Jo made reference earlier to time management, and we have had a question about the induction programme. Do you think that there is scope for more continuous professional development of MPs, in areas that are not just about the procedures of the House but on issues like time management and other management skills, dealing with personnel and so forth? If so, do you think those courses should be run by the House authorities or by the parties? I am afraid, Peter, that would probably mean the Whips' Office.

  Jo Swinson: I think that definitely this is an important issue. When I talk about having a rolling programme of induction and training, I think that rolling programme should be for all MPs, even MPs who have been here for a long time. Things are changing; there is more to learn. To be honest, to get a sufficient quality I think that it should be done through the House authorities. Otherwise, it could end up that some parties might do it very well and others might not. There should be a standard, I think. There is a role for the parties as well, particularly on feedback. I suppose that, as a Member of Parliament, you get a huge bit of feedback every four years but, in between, it is not easy to know whether what you have been doing has been effective or how you could do it better. You are really left to fend for yourself and everyone is ploughing their own furrow. It would be very helpful if MPs could have continuing professional development and feedback on how they could improve their effectiveness.

  Mr Bone: Mrs May, no to the idea that the Whips should run training courses. I have no problem with the House providing training courses, though I think it should be optional. It would be rather silly for me, who has chaired a public company, necessarily to want to go on a human resources course. It may well be a good thing to have, but what I have found exceptionally useful—and I am not sure that all Members were told about this at the beginning—is the help that you get from the Table Office, the Speaker's Office and the clerks. If I go in there and say, "Look, I'm really unhappy about the way the executive has done this", they will give me a route by which I can challenge. That is really useful. They are impartial and they give you exceptionally good advice. I think that is something that back-bench Members should be encouraged to take up.

  Q119  Mr Sanders: I have two questions, which are completely different. The first is this. A lot of people come to this House with a great deal of expertise that they have developed over the years before becoming a Member. Do you think that the appointments system for committees properly takes that into account? Not just in terms of your own experience but maybe your observation of colleagues around you.

  Jo Swinson: I think it works differently in different parties. My own experience is through the Liberal Democrat Party, but people are asked to request what committees they would be interested in. You would expect that, during that process, you would say, "I was a doctor for 20 years before getting elected, and so I would like to go on the Health Committee", and therefore you would expect that to be taken into account. I am not sure how it works in the other parties. It is important to have that but, equally, it is important to have lay people's views on things, because you do not necessarily want just particular interests to be represented on committees. You also need people who are coming at a particular issue from a fresh perspective, with expertise in perhaps a different area.

  Mr Bone: I think that the system in the Conservative Party works the same way. We are asked which select committees we would like to apply for. For instance, in Trade and Industry the Conservative Members are all from business; so it seemed logical that Trade and Industry had business people on it. The one thing I do find worrying is the effective choice of the chairmen of select committees. I think that should be a House decision; it should not be a decision of the usual channels.

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