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


Memorandum from Mr Peter Bone MP (M38)

  Thank you very much for inviting me to give evidence at the Modernisation Committee on Wednesday of this week. I was very grateful to be given the opportunity to relate my views as a new backbencher to the Committee and hope that my evidence was helpful.

  As discussed, following on from my oral evidence I have prepared a note on some of the issues that I think need to be addressed if the role of a backbench MP is to be strengthened.

  I would suggest however that it is not just the power of the backbench MP that needs to be strengthened but that more power and influence needs to go to Parliament and less power and influence needs to be held by the Executive.

  When I was first elected to Parliament, I was sent the book "The Last Prime Minister: Being Honest about the UK's Presidency", the author being the Honourable Member for Nottingham North.

  I think that book describes accurately the growth of power and influence by the Executive. I do not accept the conclusion that we have to accept a UK presidency and in effect a different role for Parliament. However I do recognise the reality of the situation that if power is not brought back to Parliament then we will drift inextricably towards what is in effect a UK presidency.

Annex

STRENGTHENING THE ROLE OF BACKBENCH MPs

1.  THE LEADER OF THE HOUSE AND A BUSINESS COMMITTEE

  One of the problems that frustrates me most is the way the Business of the House is selected and debated. It appears it is done to maximise the Government's position irrespective of whether it is good for Parliamentary debate or not.

  The most recent example of Government manipulation of Business refers to the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations 2007. It appears to many people that the usual channels stitched up the arrangements for dealing with these Regulations to minimise debate. It was done without regard to what backbench Members of Parliament thought. It has become clear that whatever side of the argument you might have been on the procedures used to deal with these Regulations were wholly unacceptable.

  The phrase "usual channels" fills me with dread. It undoubtedly means a decision made between the two front benches without taking into account backbench opinion.

  If we look in detail for a moment at the process relating to the Sexual Orientation Regulations. They were laid and re-laid twice within the space of a week. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments had less than a day to consider the final version. Members of the public were unable to get those Regulations on the website.

  The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments normally has a week to consider regulations that are often non-controversial yet for one of the most controversial regulations the Committee was given less than a day to consider them.

  Within an hour of the Joint Committee approving the technical detail of the revised Regulations, a Committee of Selection was formed to nominate a Delegated Legislation Committee. That Committee was given less than 16 hours notice to consider these Regulations. The Committee was forced to meet in a small committee room with no television coverage, officials sitting on the floor and not enough seats for Members of Parliament.

  The so-called debate on the Regulations lasted for one and a half hours and only front bench spokesmen were called to speak. Not a single backbench Member of Parliament was able to contribute to the debate.

  The Delegated Legislation Committee, having considered the Regulations, the vote on the Statutory Instrument was scheduled for Monday of this week. The day chosen was when there was a one-line whip for the main business and many MPs would not even know the vote was taking place and would not be in the Palace of Westminster. It is my contention that if there had been a Business Committee of the House such a farce would not have occurred.

  Therefore I would recommend that your Committee considers recommending the creation of a Business Committee.

  The current Leader of the House of Commons is highly respected and his integrity is beyond doubt. However he has to split himself into two. He has to protect the interests of Parliament and in particular the interests of backbench MPs. But at the same time he has to be a full Cabinet Member with collective responsibility and the need to be politically partisan.

  I do not think that this position is tenable. I believe that the Leader of the House's sole responsibility should be to uphold the interests of Parliament and backbench MPs.

  Therefore I recommend that your Committee considers whether it would be appropriate to have an independent Leader of the House who acts in a similar way to the Speaker but to protect the interests of Parliament and who should be elected from MPs at the beginning of a Parliament to serve until the end of that Parliament.

2.  QUESTIONS

  One of the tools a backbench MP has to hold the Government to account is the use of oral and written questions. In relation to oral questions, it is to my mind an abuse of Parliament the way some Ministers deliberately do not even attempt to respond to questions asked. In particular I recently remember a question from the Honourable Member for Somerset and Frome where he asked the Secretary of State for Health "What percentage of NHS Trusts have a) deferred operations, b) made redundancies and c) restricted provision of treatment in 2006-07 on the grounds of reducing cost and what percentage plan to do so in 2007-08?"

  The Secretary of State for Health replied "As set out in the most recent financial report, it is now clear that the NHS will achieve the three financial targets set for this year while maintaining key service standards. Achieving financial balance this year means that the NHS will be in a far stronger position in the new financial year and, in particular, will be able to make substantial progress towards achieving the target of 18 weeks maximum from GP referral to hospital operation."

  This was in Health Questions on 13 March 2007.

  I would contend that that answer was not even an attempt to answer the question posed.

  Therefore I recommend that the Leader of the House should have the power to reprimand a Minister if they do not attempt to answer Honourable Members' questions.

  Another way questions could be made more relevant and strengthen the role of the backbench MP is by having part of the oral question session reserved for open questions. This would allow topical issues to be raised and be more relevant both for Parliament and the public.

  Therefore I recommend that your Committee considers that part of each major oral question session be open.

  Business Questions I believe is the most useful session scheduled each week for backbench MPs. It enables them to raise issues both relevant to their constituency and nationally without notice. However far too often the Business Question session is cut short because of a Statement being made. I would like to see Business Questions given a specific minimum time allocation.

  Therefore I would recommend that your Committee considers whether it would be appropriate to allow Business Questions to run for a minimum of one hour if Members of Parliament still wished to ask questions.

  With regards to written questions it is exceptionally annoying that many of the questions are not answered either because a) the Government claims it has not got the answer, b) they choose to answer a different question to the one that was asked and c) they just do not bother to answer it at all. It seems of little point to ask a named day question as you very rarely get an answer within the time period, even if the question is very simple.

  Therefore I recommend that your Committee considers giving power to the Leader of the House to formally monitor the speed, accuracy and content of answers to questions made by Ministers.

3.  DEBATES

  Like many other Members of Parliament I have sat through debates where I have wanted to speak and have not been called. It seems to me that there ought to be a better method of allocating time limits to speaking. In particular it is the length of the front bench speeches that often restrict severely the time available for backbench MPs to speak. The other factor that causes a reduction in the time for backbench MPs to speak is the imposition of a Statement during the day's Business.

  Therefore I would recommend two matters to be considered by your Committee in relation to debates. One to impose a time limit on how long front bench speeches can be made and two, to add on time at the end of the day to correspond with the time lost because of a Statement.

4.  STATEMENTS

  Oral Ministerial Statements should be a high point of a Parliamentary day. A Minister coming to the House of Commons to announce some important measure or to clarify some urgent topic is what Parliament should be all about. It gives backbench MPs the opportunity to quiz Ministers in person about an important, current topic. However what happens in reality is that the details of the statement are given to the media at least a day in advance so that the Government gets an additional news cycle from the Statement.

  I am fed up being telephoned early in the morning by a newspaper or local radio station for my comments on a statement that is going to be made later that day in Parliament. They have full details of the statement yet as a Member of Parliament I have none.

  Therefore I recommend that your Committee considers making it a breach of Parliamentary Privilege for Ministers or Departments giving details of a statement prior to it being made in the House. An additional benefit of this would be that the media would have to attend the press gallery to find out what important issue was being discussed.

5.  HOLDING THE GOVERNMENT TO ACCOUNT

  One of the key roles of backbench MPs whether they are in Opposition or in Government is to hold the Executive to account. It is Members of Parliament that should be holding the Executive to account, not the media. The media has a role to play in challenging the Government but the primary holders of the Government to account should be Members of Parliament. I fail to see how having an eleven week recess of Parliament can be justified in regard to holding the Executive to account. I strongly believe that Parliament should not have such a long recess. Equally I am not arguing that in September Parliament should convene in the way that it does for the rest of the year.

  Therefore I recommend your Committee considers whether it be appropriate that during September and the first two weeks of October that Parliament sits for the basis of scrutiny only with question time including Prime Minister's Question Time and ministerial statements being made.

6.  MINISTERIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS FROM THE DISPATCH BOX

  One of the things that has been most frustrating for me as a backbench Member of Parliament is that when Ministers speak at the Dispatch Box and use facts that are incorrect, there is no easy way to challenge this.

  May I give you an example. On 30 November 2005 the Prime Minister claimed at the Dispatch Box that nobody waited more than six months for an NHS operation. This statement was repeated by many other Ministers and the Prime Minister again at the Dispatch Box over the coming months.

  At no time has that statement ever been factually correct and yet using every Parliamentary procedure that I could muster it proved impossible to stop what most people would call a misleading statement, even if inadvertently made being repeated.

  Therefore I would recommend that your Committee considers whether it be appropriate for the Leader of the House to have a specific responsibility to look into complaints from backbench Members of Parliament about the accuracy of statements by Ministers at the Dispatch Box with the specific power to make Ministers correct their statements.

  The other issue relating to Ministerial pronouncements is when they realise after they have said something that what they said was incorrect. I remember the Deputy Prime Minister in answer to an oral question from myself giving the wrong information relating to how far people were from a Post Office. He very promptly wrote to me and apologised for the error and gave me the correct information. However only I and the Deputy Prime Minister knew of the correction.

  Therefore I would recommend that your Committee would consider printing in Hansard the corrections to answers that are inadvertently incorrect given by Ministers at the Dispatch Box. Backbench MPs would therefore have their roles strengthened in relation to the Executive.

6.  VOTING

  As I said in my oral evidence I am very concerned about the ever-increasing power the Whips want to exert. I would certainly welcome any measures that could create more free votes.

  However there are occasions when I may not wish to support the Government's position nor the other view that is being expressed. It would be most helpful on those occasions that a positive abstention was available.

  Therefore I would recommend that your Committee considers a procedure for positive abstentions in voting to be provided.

7.  CONFIRMATION OF CABINET MINISTERS

  A radical way in which more power could be brought to Parliament and therefore backbench MPs is regarding the appointment by the Prime Minister of Cabinet Ministers. I see no reason why the Prime Minister should not propose someone to be a Cabinet Minister but I would like to see a Committee of the House carry out confirmation hearings similar to those held in the US. This would be a check on the power of the Executive.

  It would also be a check on the Executive stopping them from firing well qualified senior Ministers such as Foreign Secretaries for political reasons rather than in the interests of the country.

  Therefore I recommend that your Committee considers recommending appointing a Committee to scrutinise and confirm senior Cabinet Members.

March 2007


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 20 June 2007