Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)|
BONE MP AND
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 TheyWorkForYou.com, 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
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
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 TheyWorkForYou.com 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 suggestionsbecause 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 debatesan hour and a halfto 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 badand 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 TheyWorkForYou.com. 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 TheyWorkForYou.com?
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
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 TheyWorkForYou.com 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 paperand 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 Ordersfor
example, how you can use Standing Order No. 24, which Nick Clegg
found when we had a debate on the extradition treatythese
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 MemberI
do not know how everybody else felt when they were first electedthe
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 readingpossibly even reading
material about that debateor 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 businessand I know you spoke about this
in an earlier answerhow 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, Sundayconstituency; Monday to
Thursdayscrutiny 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 Regulationswhatever
your views on itand 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 interveneand 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 Questionsnot every one but, by
and large, you would attend Questions every dayand 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
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 officeswhich,
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 hoursthe two hours
you have lost at the beginningit 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 hadwhich is one of the reasons why I was
so frustratedwas 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 thereif you are indeed
members of select committeeseffective 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
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 Whipsand 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
motionand 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
Mrs May: I think that it is the former
Deputy Chief Whip here who may be having a slightly different
Q117 Mr Knight: I was just thinking
that was a very brave comment.
Mr Bone: I do expect a message
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 usefuland I am not sure that all Members
were told about this at the beginningis 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.