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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 123-139)


21 MARCH 2007

  Q123 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Welcome to Emily Thornberry, the Labour Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury, and Kitty Ussher, one of the stars of the Westminster Hour, who a number of us seem to hear rather frequently on Sunday evenings, as we come down to London. You are well aware of the purpose of these inquiries. We are basically seeking to enhance and strengthen the role of the backbencher and, hopefully, to enable Parliament to make better use of non-legislative time. May I start from the Chair with a single question to you both? The Chamber, sadly, is now perceived to be less significant than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Why do you think Members appear to be less willing to come into the Chamber to participate for Question Time, for the major opening speeches of important debates, et cetera? What would be your response?

  Kitty Ussher: For me, because it is possible to sit in your office and watch it on telly and, at the same time, do e-mails and make phone calls. So it feels like a more effective use of time, to be multi-tasking and doing all three things at once.

  Q124  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Before Emily comes in on this, perhaps I could put this question. Do you not appreciate what the fundamental role of a Member of Parliament is? I may be asking you a rather sensitive and impertinent question. Do you not think that the main purpose of a Member of Parliament is to hold the Government of the day to account, properly to scrutinise legislation? You cannot really be doing that if you are in your office and the debate is going on in the Chamber.

  Kitty Ussher: No, but you can do that effectively without doing it on every single debate. Your question, Chairman, was "Why do you think people aren't in there?" and my answer is because you feel that you are doing your job more effectively because you can do three things at once. However, having said that, obviously it is extremely important. If you are not holding the Government to account, then who is? With the number of MPs that there are, it is quite possible to do your bit of that and also do the other things, because of the pressures that you have upon you. It was simply an answer. When I think, "That's very important. I'd like to be listening to that, so that I can hold the Government to account", I also think, "I have 300 unopened e-mails and the chief executive of my council ringing me every 10 minutes, asking me to ring him back". So if I do it at my desk, I can do all three things at once.

  Emily Thornberry: I heard the evidence of the previous witnesses and I want to reinforce it—from my own experience of the last three times I have tried to be called in the House. I tried to be called in Education Questions and was not. The day before, I sat for six hours in the Trident debate and was not called. The time before that when I tried to be called was in the affordable housing debate, which was a debate as a result of my select committee. I sat in the House for six hours. I have 13,000 families on the waiting list for housing in Islington. It is a big subject for us. I was not called. They are the last three times I have tried to be called. The one time I was called this year was in the fishing debate, which was fantastic. I had been round to all 22 of my primary schools and I had talked to them about the Marine Bill and about marine conservation. They have all been writing letters to David Miliband, and so I got up and I read the letters. So there are ten-year-olds from Islington who are in Hansard now, because I was given an opportunity of speaking in the debate. I appreciate what you are saying—that part of our job is to hold the Government to account—but I look at it slightly differently, in that I feel I am a bridge between my constituents and Parliament and between my constituents and the Government. My constituency is well known for being one where many of the chattering classes live, and many of them write to me; but I also have a constituency which is one of the poorest constituencies in Britain, and I want to make sure that my Labour Government is administering things in such a way that my constituents are getting the sort of investment they should be; that my schools are being looked after properly. I think that my job is very much to lobby ministers and to say to them, "This policy is fantastic on paper, but can I tell you that, for example, when you are putting all this money into doing up social housing in Islington, the leaseholders—the people who have bought their council flats—are being whacked with bills of £55,000?". I have done a survey of my leaseholders and have given the department 160 detailed examples of what has happened to leaseholders as a result of the fantastic investment the Government has put into social housing. It is my job to be the bridge between their experience and what the Government is trying to do. That takes a lot of work in terms of being a good constituency MP. However, once we have collected this information, I can then go and see a minister, knock on the door and say, "I represent 100,000 people. Open the door. I want to tell you about this". It is not just being in the Chamber, frankly, given the amount of time we have to spend in the Chamber and then we do not get called. I am interested to hear that, in theory, Privy Counsellors do not get called in advance of anyone else. I have to say that does not accord with my experience—but I was very interested to hear that. I was a barrister. I would love to get up and talk. Any chance I ever had to get up and talk in the House, I would take it, but I do have other things that I have to do.

  Kitty Ussher: I would like to sit there and listen. I would love to spend all day sitting there and listening.

  Q125  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Can I ask both our witnesses this? If you wish to speak in a debate, do you as a matter of custom write to the Speaker?

  Kitty Ussher: Yes.

  Emily Thornberry: Of course, yes.

  Q126  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am glad you say "of course", because there are a few people who still do not realise that that is a very helpful way of at least being noted and put on the list; and of course research can be done as to what your interests are and how often you have spoken. If you just bob up and down in a debate, it puts you at a disadvantage.

  Emily Thornberry: There is something else I do, which I think shows that I do take the Chamber seriously even though I do not get much of a chance to get called. I did get called for three minutes to speak on Lebanon in the summer. I printed a copy of that; we put it in a covering letter and I went round the streets in Islington where I thought people would be interested and we hand-delivered it. We had a fantastic response from people, saying, "This is a current issue. This is really important. We want to know what our Member of Parliament has to say about this". Since what happens in the House is so rarely covered, it is also quite difficult and so you have to kind of generate that coverage yourself. As I say, we photocopied the bit of Hansard and went round and delivered it, so that people knew the stance that I had taken in relation to Lebanon.

  Kitty Ussher: I did not get to speak in the Lebanon debate, but I did write to the Prime Minister on it. I sent that letter round and it had exactly the same effect. I think that the Chamber should be incredibly important, but you can actually achieve a similar result.

  Q127  Paddy Tipping: I am pleased that you have made a big plug for a long-overdue Marine Bill. I will just get to that in a minute! You both talk quite strongly about the conflict between constituency work and being in the Chamber, holding the executive to account. How do you find the balance on that? There is a lot of pressure from constituents to respond; a lot of council leaders who chase you as well. When you are sorting priorities out, what are your priorities?

  Kitty Ussher: I think that you need to do both effectively. You need to be good at time management and prioritise quite ruthlessly. I am hoping to speak in the Budget debate. I am in committee all day tomorrow. I know that as a junior MP I am unlikely to be called Monday and Tuesday; so I think my only hope is at about quarter to seven tonight. I have therefore cleared my entire diary and I am going to go from here and sit in the House of Commons until close of business. I do not know if I will get to speak, but you have to plan in advance and prioritise effectively. I will be raising national issues and constituency issues. You just have to prioritise. You cannot sit in there for fun, very often.

  Q128  Paddy Tipping: So you plan it; you are making opportunities.

  Kitty Ussher: Yes.

  Emily Thornberry: I have tried to specialise in a couple of topics, so environmental issues and housing. The third one is anything raised by my constituents, which then means so much additional work. I will get half of my constituents who need help writing a letter and the other half, being Islington, are the chief executives of various charities and so on; they are experts and they all get in touch with me and say, "Emily, this is an issue. Will you please raise it with the minister?". They are my priority. What I try to do is that. I have never worked so hard in my life. It is really challenging and really stimulating, fantastic fun, and a tremendous privilege—but such hard work! I do come across constituents who sit and watch the Parliament Channel. I hope they see me now and finally see me on TV, because they say to me, "What do you do all day long, Emily? We never see you".

  Kitty Ussher: You would be doing less if you were in the Chamber.

  Emily Thornberry: Exactly. You would be doing less if you were in the Chamber.

  Q129  Mr Knight: Are there any changes you can think of which you would like to see made in the House, which would encourage you to spend more time there?

  Kitty Ussher: Physically sitting in there?

  Q130  Mr Knight: Yes.

  Kitty Ussher: I was going to suggest the opposite. I was going to suggest that it would be quite useful to have a system to know your likelihood of getting called. I know that if I was going to get called I would certainly be watching it, either on television or in the Chamber, if I did not actually have to be there. There is quite a lot I would like to say about empowering backbenchers to scrutinise more effectively, both in terms of initiating debates and also in terms of the passage of the bill as it goes through. I suppose, if we wanted to come on to that at some stage, that would make some of the business more relevant and climb it up the list of priorities that Paddy was talking about—but I do not know if we want to go down there yet. I participate, just like Emily and I am sure every single Member, if there is something of crucial importance to my constituency or crucial interest to myself. Also, I guess a little bit of me is trying to make sure that I am contributing regularly. I do not want to be "below average" on the TheyWorkForYou ranking. I am sure we are all in that position. I like to intervene enough to make sure that I am doing the stuff that is relevant; so that if a constituent randomly decides to search for my record, they will be reassured that I am raising the issues of concern to them.

  Q131  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Have you ever considered applying for an Urgent Question, if there is a matter of considerable importance that might impact upon your constituency? Have you very often since you have been here sought to use Westminster Hall to raise issues that are of importance to you or to your constituency, or both?

  Kitty Ussher: I have never considered doing an Urgent Question, because I have always presumed those are for major national issues and I have not had one affecting my constituency. I have used a Westminster Hall debate for an issue of great urgency to my constituents, and I felt that it was easy to get a debate and a great way of holding ministers to account. As a new MP, I was very positively impressed by that mechanism.

  Emily Thornberry: I have tried to initiate debates in Westminster Hall but without any success so far, but I have participated in them and I think that they are very good; they are very important. As for the Urgent Questions, I did not know about Urgent Questions, I am afraid, until recently. I perhaps ought to know, but you learn all the time in this job. With regard to getting more people involved in the Chamber, I think that if the Speaker knows in advance how many people want to speak, then he or she should be able to divvy up the time a little better than happens at the moment. At the moment, you will get the front bench speaking for ever; then the more senior Members of Parliament speaking for 10 or 15 minutes; then, by the time I get called, it is three minutes—if I get called at all. As has been said before, my constituents are equal to everyone else's constituents. I appreciate they have a new and inexperienced MP, but they are just as important as anybody else. I think that they should be allowed to be represented in Parliament and be given as much air time as anyone else.

  Q132  Sir Nicholas Winterton: The Procedure Committee, which I chaired and which Greg Knight now chairs, has got the House to agree and the Speaker to agree that he could introduce what they call "short speeches" for the last hour of a major debate or the last half an hour of a half-day debate. Do you think that that procedure should be used more regularly? Would you like to see the Speaker also use his discretion and authority to impose ten-minute, 12-minute, speech limits in more debates, to enable more people to speak?

  Emily Thornberry: I think that what is happening on the big debates is that he does impose a ten-minute limit and then he has the final hour of the three-minutes, but people still do not get called. What I am suggesting is that, if you know that 25 people want to speak and you have a certain amount of time, divvy that time up so that we all get an opportunity to speak, and we get the opportunity to speak for the same amount of time. The number of times I have gone in having written a ten-minute speech; I have cut it down to a five-minute speech; then I cut it down to a three-minute speech—and then I have to put it on my website, because I never get called anyway. It is really frustrating!

  Kitty Ussher: There is an inconsistency. If you are applying for a Westminster Hall debate it is done by ballot, and so your seniority is not taken into account; whereas if you are trying to speak in the Chamber your seniority is taken into account. It feels very frustrating for someone who is not a senior MP. You feel that there is no way of ever becoming a senior MP because you cannot make your mark in any way. A proposal that perhaps the Committee might want to consider is that the Speaker should have discretion, after the front-bench speakers, to call one or two based on seniority and, for the rest of the time, it should be done by ballot. Why is it that one of us cannot get called when someone else is, who has perhaps been in the House an extra 10 years but is not the chairman of a select committee or someone very obviously involved or the constituency MP? Why is it that we have unequal ranking in terms of being called, whereas in Westminster Hall debates we do not? It is random.

  Emily Thornberry: Since we are not allowed to do any work in the Chamber—that may also be one of the reasons why I was not called to start with, because I did not realise that I was not allowed to do any work in the Chamber and so I was sitting there working! Six hours is a very long time just to sit there and not do any work, when you have the time pressures that we have. The current count, excluding people who have signed petitions and sent them to me, is that about 7,000 or 8,000 of my constituents have contacted me in the last two years since I was elected. It is a lot of work. As I say, I have a needy constituency. Every one of their cases is the most important case, and they expect their MP to give 100%. I cannot sit in the Chamber for six hours and do nothing.

  Q133  Mr Knight: Going back to Kitty's comment, I do not think there is anything fair about a ballot. You might find that is worse, because I think that at least the chair does try to be fair over a period of time. Can I ask if either of you have had trouble getting in to speak in Westminster Hall on any debate? Going back to what our two previous witnesses said about the length of wind-ups, do you think that it is justified to have three wind-ups in debates in Westminster Hall?

  Emily Thornberry: I have had difficulty speaking for the amount of time I thought I was going to in Westminster Hall. In the end, the person whose debate it was and I spoke—because they had a lot of people who wanted to come in—and they said, "Do a couple of interventions but we don't have time for you to do a speech". Another time it was, "Do a speech for a couple of minutes, but we have a limited amount of time. We need to have time for the minister to respond". For example, there was a debate in Westminster Hall on leaseholders, which is a big issue for me and I had a lot to say; but we all agreed that we would try to be quite tight with the time available, because we needed the minister to have time to be able to respond to all the points that we made. You do have to be quite disciplined. It is quite egalitarian. A group of MPs turn up; we understand that there is only a limited amount of time and we sort it out between us.

  Kitty Ussher: I would agree with that entirely. You may not have time to say all that you want to say, but it feels like it is for a fair reason—and that is fine.

  Emily Thornberry: Also, we get groups of MPs together to put in for a speech on a topic. Again, it tends to be a gang who will be putting in to speak, and then that gang will get together and, if we have a minister coming, we will work together. We have eight of us who have put in for this debate; one of us has been selected, and then we will divvy up the time between us.

  Q134  Mr Knight: But are you happy with the system of three wind-ups?

  Emily Thornberry: No.

  Kitty Ussher: It had not occurred to me until you raised the point. I think that they should be short, as short as possible—but they are the front-bench speakers and have a right to say something.

  Emily Thornberry: I think that you do need to have the minister responding. That is the point. It is getting the minister's attention on particular issues. Particularly if you do it on a cross-party basis, it can be really effective.

  Q135  Sir Nicholas Winterton: There certainly is concern in the House, I say to our two witnesses, about the time that frontbenchers take in a major debate, and sometimes even in Westminster Hall. The problem is do front-bench spokesmen stop giving way and therefore, as it were, reduce the spontaneity of a debate and people's ability to intervene, or do they allow interventions and therefore, perhaps inevitably, their speech will drift, to be rather longer than they originally planned?

  Emily Thornberry: If we had a list in advance and we knew who was going to speak and who was not, and how much time people had, I think that it would make the whole thing much easier. You would get more people turning up and making an intervention, because they know that they will not have a chance to speak and will have to make their points in an intervention. I think that the whole culture would probably change, with interventions on ministers. However, if everyone else had their time divvied up, a minister going over time—I do not see why they cannot be timed too. I cannot see why, if everybody else comes along and has a limited amount of time to speak, a minister should not also be limited and say what they have to say in half an hour.

  Q136  Mr Wright: Can I ask two questions about skills? Kitty and Emily, you both had proper jobs before you came here. Emily, I know that you were a barrister.

  Kitty Ussher: I was a special adviser.

  Q137  Mr Wright: Do you think the House harnesses those skills in order to strengthen the role of the backbencher? Kitty, I know you were part of the Westminster village, but you have also been an economist. I would therefore have thought that, given today's business of the Budget, you should be very high up on the Speakers' list to be called, because you have important things to say. How well do you think that the House does harness those skills that you have obtained outside the House?

  Kitty Ussher: I have no idea if the Speaker has my CV when he decides whether he will call me this afternoon. I would doubt it somehow.

  Q138  Mr Wright: Do you think that he should?

  Kitty Ussher: Yes, or perhaps in my little note I should have said, "By the way, remember I've got two degrees in economics". Does the House harness your skills? It is up to you, is it not? I could have come in here wanting to specialise on housing policy, even though I am an economist by training. It is up to you to plough your own furrow really. Some people choose to specialise in the area that they come from; other people perhaps want to be more generalist. The opportunity is there for me to choose the subject I want to specialise on. In fact, although perhaps I know more about economic and industrial policy, I have not particularly wanted to talk only about that. I have been wanting to talk about broader themes and constituency themes. I therefore do not feel strongly about it either way. I feel that I could, if I wanted to.

  Emily Thornberry: The skills that I have are that I can get through mountains of paper; I can talk; I do listen to people; and I can be an advocate for people. I am happy to do as briefed. I basically do what my constituents ask me to do and the issues that my constituents are most interested in are housing and the environment, and everything else to do with Islington. That is what I do. That is why I do what I do. It is because, in the end, that is what my constituents have asked me to do. The skills that I have brought with me do come from being a lawyer, and I think that more lawyers should come to Parliament.

  Q139  Ms Butler: Thank you very much for your contributions in regard to the speakers' list and the Chamber, and so on. I think that they are very valid. How can we bring more topicality into the debates? We have had a short discussion on Private Members' Bills. The most famous person I knew was the late Eric Forth, talking them out. How do you think we can make Private Members' Bills more effective, and what do you think of somehow bringing EDMs on to the floor of the House for discussions and debates?

  Kitty Ussher: I think that this is really interesting. As an MP whose constituency, unlike Emily's, is 250 miles away, I feel that it is much harder for me to take part in Private Members' Bills debates. Perhaps it is for Emily, as obviously she has been dragged to Islington as well on a Friday. I think that I have been here twice in the last two years for Private Members' Bills. That feels unfair, because I would like to be able to do a Private Member's Bill and then go to my constituency. I cannot do that because my constituency is in Lancashire. So I think that, even if they are not whipped, they should be at a time when we are all here. After all, ten-minute rule bills are; why cannot Private Members' Bills be there? I would like to see loads of innovative, new ways that groups of MPs could bring things on to the floor of the Chamber. I think that would make it more interesting and—to answer your point to me, Mr Knight—that we are more likely to be there. You mentioned EDMs. I think it is a really interesting idea that I would support, that perhaps if you get a certain number of signatures it initiates a debate. It would tie a lot of people into the debate, to start with, and also perhaps make you think twice about whether to sign it or not. We were talking about this earlier. It is extremely easy to sign everything to keep everyone happy, even if you do not 100% support every single word. That would force you to have a proper debate with your constituents, which I also think is a very good thing. If groups of MPs got together, to have more muscle and power to bring things on to the floor, I think it would be a really good idea.

  Emily Thornberry: I think that to use EDMs as a mechanism it would need to have cross-party support. Otherwise, the Tories will spend all their time just getting EDMs together and taking over business. We need to have a proper cross-party basis to that, therefore, and I think that is a really good idea. I also think that it would be a good idea to have the possibility of select committees being able to promote legislation, so that a group of MPs cross-party and in a select committee can do it. I think that there was an example recently where one select committee did. In the end, it did not get anywhere, but they did go through the business of drafting something up. That is also interesting. The expertise which is being developed in select committees is something that is a very important part of our job. I think that all MPs should be on select committees. I do not think that just some MPs should; everybody should serve on a select committee. You should have your constituency, your job in the Chamber, and you should be on a committee. People should also attend, therefore. There should be additional staffing allowance given if you attend your committee regularly, but if you do not then you should not get that additional staffing allowance. I think that those select committees should have some power, as a group, when they do develop an area of expertise, to be able to promote legislation and to have a debate in Parliament in relation to that. That would be very good and it would be a way of scrutinising the executive. What happens in select committees should be much more publicised. The transcript of what happens in select committees should be more available. We should be able to have these sorts of things on our websites and on the parliamentary websites, much more easily accessible. We can do much more work with select committees, because I think that select committees are very much the future, particularly if we are not going to grasp the nettle and do something about the Chamber, giving more people access to be able to debate in the Chamber. I also think that we should be able to put our debates on YouTube. About a year ago, I spoke on abortion. I have strong views on abortion and I did a very pro-choice, pro-abortion speech. I know that a number of my constituents are interested in it and I wanted to put it on my website. After a bit of a to-do, Members can now put those on their website; but it has a wider interest, to people who are not my constituents, who would be interested in the debate internationally on what people are saying on abortion. We should be able to do that.

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