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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)


21 MARCH 2007

  Q140  Mr Knight: Why can you not?

  Emily Thornberry: The House authorities will not let you put it on to YouTube. It seems to me to be something that we should be able to do. It should not just be podcasts. If you do a set-piece speech, you should be able to put it on. Youngsters use YouTube and they use the Web, and we should be trying to engage youngsters in every way we can. That is the future. We should not be afraid of that.

  Q141  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Let me say from the Chair that we will certainly follow up the point that Emily Thornberry has just made and it will clearly form part of our report. Can I confirm with you that you would like to see select committees given greater authority?

  Kitty Ussher: Yes.

  Emily Thornberry: Absolutely. The way to give them extra authority is to put all Members on select committees; to give them additional staffing allowance if they attend regularly; and to allow them as groups to promote legislation and for that legislation to be put on to the floor, so that you get cross-party groups who become experts in particular areas, promoting things. They can also then have a much more active role in scrutinising the Government on particular topics that they become experts in.

  Q142  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Just to keep the Committee informed, there have been reports, both by the Procedure Committee and I think by this Committee, on matters relating to early day motions forming the subject of a debate on the floor, and also perhaps a way of reorganising Private Members' Bills. These have formed part of reports to the House, from either Procedure or Modernisation, over the last few years. I am hoping that, because they have been raised today, there will be cross-references in our report to earlier reports and the recommendations that were made in earlier reports. I think that this will bring it up to date.

  Emily Thornberry: Can I put a plug in for Private Members' Bills? I came nineteenth in the ballot, which people would say effectively meant that my bill would not become law. However, if you use it creatively, it can be really useful. I did a highly controversial interview in Housing Today, in which I said various things about housing associations and democracy. Everybody then wanted to come and see me, and we have been sitting around saying, "We want to do a bill giving greater democracy to housing association tenants. What are your ideas?". I have been able to hoover it up and have got a great bill together. I have also consulted my housing association tenants. Now the Government is having the Cave Review and we are feeding that into the Cave Review. I have my housing association tenants as a housing panel, coming to see Cave to say why they think there should be greater democracy. Okay, the bill in itself may not become law, but I hope that it will have an effect. It is a very creative way in which Members can use Private Members' Bills.

  Q143  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I think that we all understand that and accept the point that you make. Kitty, did you want to comment?

  Kitty Ussher: I just wanted to support the point on select committees. I think it is crucial that they should be given some real powers, and that means proposing legislation. I also wanted to come on to the issue of scrutiny and to mention very briefly that there was a vote a couple of weeks ago on the House of Lords, about abolishing it altogether. I supported that, and I understand that I am in a complete minority of MPs. The reason I supported it was because I think it would have forced us to use back-bench MPs in the House of Commons far more effectively in scrutinising government legislation. Imagine if there were no second Chamber: we would have to use the first Chamber far more effectively. You could not have the situation where civil servants are putting amendments in through the Lords because they forgot about it last time, and so on. I think that the way to do that is to slice things up a bit and have a system where the select committees are effectively scrutinising legislation. I do not know if it should be whipped or unwhipped—presumably unwhipped. That would be really empowering for back-bench MPs and make the whole system far more democratic. The House of Commons is always going to be the more legitimate, the superior Chamber. Therefore it should be the House of Commons that is scrutinising legislation, even if there is a House of Lords as well, because we are more legitimate. The only way to do that is to use our backbenchers more effectively in doing so.

  Q144  Sir Peter Soulsby: Clearly you both came with some very relevant experience when you were elected; none the less, you experienced the induction process like the rest of us. I wondered what your impressions were of how effective it was and whether, as others have suggested, it was trying to do far too much in far too short a time.

  Kitty Ussher: I think your experience is also extremely relevant, Sir Peter. I found it very useful. I liked the "freshers' fair" kind of stalls that we had in the first week. I thought that was great. There was then a second-tier level of questions that I had, perhaps two weeks later. I think that it would have been useful if it had carried on longer. However, I felt that people had made a real effort to be available at the beginning. Whilst I do not think that would ever have been an easy time, I felt that people were trying to make it easier. I also found the induction that our own party did to be extremely useful. Again, I would not have minded another session a bit later on.

  Emily Thornberry: I came in completely exhausted and could hardly string a sentence together, so the whole thing was a bit impressionistic. The impression I got was that the House authorities were quite accessible, friendly and were there to help. So although I could not remember anything they had said, I have been in touch with them since and found that the information is there. You just have to ask. Dawn and I set up a meeting with Gordon Clarke and our staff after a little while and said, "We have some very basic questions. Could you just explain a few things to us?" and it was very helpful. I found that, whenever I have spoken to any of the clerks and said, "I really don't understand this", they say, "Thank goodness you have asked. We can't come along and suggest to you that maybe you should do it in this way because it would be so much better. You have to ask us first. If you just ask, of course we can help". Then they sit down, and it is extremely helpful. Perhaps because they are lacking in confidence and do not want to seem ignorant, people do not dare ask; but you are never going to learn unless you ask.

  Kitty Ussher: What would make a real difference is some kind of other system about employing staff right at the beginning, because it is the most awful thing. As Emily says, you are completely exhausted; you turn up and every single person on the entire planet writes to you to ask you to join their all-party group or come to this or do that, and you do not have any staff. I do not know whether we should look at a system of perhaps being able to offer contracts, conditional on becoming elected, so that you could think about recruiting people months in advance, or whether there should be some kind of pool of staff that we can just tap in to for the first few weeks, so that you can conduct an interview process. I think that all of us appointed the first person who turned up to open the post, and then has had to unravel that situation or offer a short-term contract, with all the tensions that that brings.

  Q145  Sir Peter Soulsby: Do you think that it might have been quite useful to have had some exposure to different models of staffing—different balances between constituency staffing, Westminster staffing—and some discussion about that with other Members who have had some experience of it?

  Emily Thornberry: We did have that within the party. I am afraid that I went straight to Oona King's office and employed the person in charge of Oona King's office, because she had always been an excellent constituency MP and I knew that she had excellent staff. I just went and employed her the next day. That is what I did!

  Kitty Ussher: You have to do that, but it is not really a proper way of appointing people. Ideally, you should advertise, with four week's notice.

  Emily Thornberry: She then insisted that we then had equal opportunities and appointment after that.

  Kitty Ussher: You cannot do it when you have this much post and no one to answer the phone.

  Emily Thornberry: And I absolutely support what people said before about the ludicrous situation of not having an office. I had a situation where I had been given a phone number. It was in a room. We were still in negotiation with the Palace authorities as to whether or not I was allowed to have that room. My constituents were ringing that phone; I was not able to go into the room and answer it—and there were letters in the local paper about it. I took the local paper to the Serjeant-at-Arms and I said, "I have a majority of 484. What are you doing to me?" and I finally got an office.

  Q146  Sir Nicholas Winterton: What answer did he give?

  Emily Thornberry: I got an office!

  Q147  Mr Burstow: We have been talking a lot about how we can give backbenchers more control over the business of the House, more opportunities to raise topical issues, and so on. We have had a lot of useful ideas in this session and in the last one. One question that was put in the previous session on which I would be interested to get your views is whether or not you think there is a need for a more transparent process for determining which business comes when in the House, so that there is a greater clarity about how those decisions are made. In other words, whether there is a need for a business committee rather than usual channels for determining the business.

  Kitty Ussher: To be honest, it is not something where I have ever thought, "We must do that. I'd really like to know how that happens". You get a couple of weeks' notice in effect, at least 10 days anyway, which is perfectly sufficient, I think. The only thing is, coming back to the initial point—

  Q148  Mr Burstow: The point is that you are getting notice of what is coming or what is being given to you, rather than knowing who it is who is making those decisions about what might be on the agenda. I will give an example. Many Thursdays now will be given over to a Government-chosen topic for an adjournment debate. Sometimes they show great wisdom in the subject they have selected, but occasionally perhaps they do not. Is there not something to be said for a committee where Members of the House are able to consider representations about the topics that might be chosen? In other words, the process that we have on a Thursday when the Leader takes suggestions for statements becomes a real process that does indeed lead on to a business committee discussion.

  Kitty Ussher: I guess that what you propose is slightly more democratic in that it is more transparent. The issue as a back-bench MP is more about notice, so that you can do what you have to do, which is to clear your entire diary, just to sit there on your bottom for six hours, for no apparent purpose if you do not get called.

  Emily Thornberry: I agree.

  Q149  Mr Burstow: Can I ask a quick question, to follow up on select committees? You said that you thought all Members should be on a select committee. I do not know the precise numbers now, but that would suggest a significant increase in either the size of existing committees to accommodate all Members who were not in government or had front-bench responsibilities, or more committees. Which is it? Is it a combination? How would you see that being done?

  Emily Thornberry: No, I do not think that it would be possible for ministers to be on.

  Q150  Mr Burstow: No, excluding ministers and frontbenchers, but everyone else. There would still need to be many more Members' places found on select committees. Would you see it as being an expansion of the existing committees and so more Members on each committee, or do you see there being a case for more committees to cover more ground?

  Emily Thornberry: I do not know—either—but I think that all Members should be on a committee, and those committees ought to have some authority.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I think that there is one problem at the moment. A Member may be on more than one select committee, which goes some way to dealing with your problem, Paul, about not enough places currently on select committees. I am pretty sure there would not be enough for everybody, but certainly at this moment there are quite a number of Members who sit on more than one select committee, and perhaps that should not be permitted and other Members should be allocated or offered those slots.

  Q151  Philip Davies: I speak as one of these people who is on two select committees. I will always be on the back benches for however long I am here and so it is quite easy for me to say that we want to strengthen the role of backbenchers. Is not the problem that, whilst now you may think that we should strengthen the role of backbenchers, because you are both clearly very talented people it is inevitable that, one day, you will both be ministers. Will you still hold the same views when you become ministers as you do when you are new and on the back benches? Is that not the problem: that you may change your mind when you become ministers?

  Kitty Ussher: I think that is quite a tricky one to answer. It feels a little hypothetical.

  Emily Thornberry: I do believe in creative politics. I believe that if you draw ideas out of people and you listen to them, you do in the end get better politics. If you treat people like grownups, they behave like grownups. I have found that speaking to my constituents, and always encouraging them to contact me and tell me what they think, has made me a better politician. I learn from the public and I think that the same thing could happen within Parliament. If the system were a little better, so that we were able—and we all have talents, we all have knowledge and we all represent our constituents—to feed that more into government, we would get better politics.

  Q152  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Emily, is your ambition to become a minister? And I would say the same to Kitty Ussher. Because some people are very happy to be backbenchers. It is a very worthy job in its own right.

  Emily Thornberry: I find the job that I have at the moment the best job I have ever had, and I cannot imagine doing anything more than I do.

  Kitty Ussher: That sounds like an extremely good answer. From another perspective, I have not been a minister but I have been a special adviser to a minister. My memory and experience from that time is that the desire when legislating is to get consensus and to reach out. I also remember great frustration when officials say, "Oh, by the way, Clause 99.2A— we got the legal drafting a bit wrong. We're going to have to amend it in the Lords". It is, "Why didn't you get it right first time? It is extremely embarrassing, having to introduce amendments in the Lords". From my experience, having worked alongside a minister, ministers, regardless of who they are, want good bills to be effectively scrutinised and work with Parliament in order to do that. We just need to think all the time about how can this place, how can this Chamber, produce the best possible legislation in the most inclusive way.

  Q153  Mr Knight: Can I take you back to what you said earlier? You suggested that you thought we should be able to debate early day motions where there was cross-party support and they were signed by a large number of Members. Why do you feel we should debate issues about which, by definition, there is a broad consensus? Is there not a stronger argument for saying we should debate issues of minority interest or controversy?

  Emily Thornberry: No, because the reason that there is an early day motion is because there may be consensus about it but it is not happening. That is why you have the EDMs. You have an EDM saying, "There should be this change and we all think this".

  Kitty Ussher: You should do both. The individual should be able to take an interest, but you also need to have ways to empower the backbenchers. That is what this Committee is about. Using EDMs is a way to do that.

  Q154  Mr Wright: On that point about EDMs, I always get the impression that the public think that EDMs are possibly more powerful than they actually are. I am therefore interested in whether we would debate, after a certain number of signatures. I get the impression that the public also think that all-party groups are more powerful than they are possibly. In terms of strengthening the role of the backbencher, do you think there is a role to enhance the power of all-party groups, so that if an all-party group has a certain number of members, they will be entitled to have something similar to an Opposition Day?

  Emily Thornberry: I am chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group and we are intending to put in, as a gang, for a Westminster Hall debate. Although we are not influential enough, it is very interesting how influential we can be if we get organised. Again, if we work with members of the public outside who also campaign on cycling issues, we can be quite an effective lobby group; and it is really important that it is cross-party.

  Kitty Ussher: I think that what Emily is proposing is fine, but I would be very wary of giving formalised powers to all-party groups, unless we regulate them far more effectively. I am afraid that I see them as clubs. Yes, a cycling club can put in those sorts of things, but they are often serviced and sponsored by private interests, and I tend to stay clear of them for that reason.

  Emily Thornberry: Apart from cycling.

  Kitty Ussher: Apart from cycling, of course!

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Are there any further observations that our witnesses would like to make or any further questions?

  Q155  Ms Butler: Do you think it is childish that we finish at 10 p.m.?

  Kitty Ussher: I am so glad you asked that. I see no fundamental reason why being an MP is any different from any other type of job in terms of working hours. Please can we work nine-to-five? It would make life so much simpler in every single way. I am willing to give ground on Mondays, because I think it is also nice to have the choice as to whether to stay in your constituency on a Sunday night or not; but please can someone tell me what it is about doing this job that means you need to sit here beyond five o'clock? Because I do not understand it at all.

  Emily Thornberry: Also, if we want to have Parliament that represents a cross-group of people—both Kitty and I have kids, and I want to be able to put my seven-year-old to bed some nights. I do not see any reason why I need to be here half the night. I am quite happy to be here during the day. My constituents think that it is mad too. Worse than that: they hear all this about there having been modernisation, and they think that we work normal hours now. I have to say to them, "Unfortunately, Parliament lost its half-heart".

  Kitty Ussher: That is more important than anything else we have discussed. I want to put that into perspective.

  Q156  Sir Nicholas Winterton: We note what our witnesses say but, interestingly, both of them have said that they are extremely busy and there is scarcely enough time to do everything. Maybe that is an explanation as to why Parliament historically has sat at strange hours; you might say unsocial hours. Although I think Emily said that she was a lawyer.

  Emily Thornberry: Yes.

  Q157  Sir Nicholas Winterton: To an extent, in the past the House sat from 2.30 in the afternoon to allow the very many lawyers that were Members of the House in all parties to practise their profession in the morning and in the early afternoon before they needed to come to Parliament. That was one of the explanations as to why the House sat when it did.

  Emily Thornberry: This lawyer thinks that you should be a Member of Parliament and not have any other job. I have given up being a lawyer. My other full-time job is that I am a mother, and I want to be able to do both. I think that I really contribute because I have kids, and the experience I have makes Parliament richer and makes me a better politician.

  Q158  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am sure you do all three jobs extremely well and very professionally. The debate on this matter has taken place in the House on a number of occasions, of course, and I think that the House has probably struck about the right balance. I say that as an individual from the Chair.

  Kitty Ussher: I disagree with you, Chairman, much as I respect you. May I give an example, which is Tuesdays? If you are on a committee on Tuesday, it means that you are in this place in the morning and in the afternoon and in the evening. There is therefore no possibility to see your family at all, and that seems to me to be arcane. I understand that this Committee is discussing the future and not the past, and so I hope it will consider this point, although it has been discussed.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Perhaps, taking the final word from the Chair, the only comment I would make is that there are very many Members of Parliament who represent seats, like you do, very many miles from London. You are over 230 miles; I am about 180 miles. Before my wife came in, my family was up in Cheshire; I was down here. My wife knew that I was in the House and not doing other things outside, in clubs, restaurants and various other attractive places. However, I know that we could debate this at great length!

  Q159  Sir Peter Soulsby: I am very sympathetic to what the witnesses are arguing for but, if we were to change the hours in the way that you are suggesting, would that not exacerbate the difficulties we have been discussing as a Committee and provide more overlap and more conflict between the time Members might want to spend in committee and the time they might want to spend in the Chamber? I am very sympathetic with the point you make, but it would make it even more difficult, would it not?

  Kitty Ussher: My response to that is let us find other ways of solving that problem; for example, September sittings, and so on. Let us work out what our priorities really are. I would say that if our priority is to get people in Parliament to fully reflect the community out there, you need to make it attractive to people who have children who are under teenage years. I understand that some Members will have those in their constituency and some will have them in London. I was not saying in any way that we should trade Fridays, but I am happy to trade September. We just need to acknowledge that MPs of my generation with little children are increasingly bringing them in to London, even if that is not their home, because then you can be with them during the week and at the weekends; and that is what parents really want to do.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: This is an important debate but perhaps not entirely relevant to some of the questions that have been put today. However, it has been noted and clearly it will be discussed. On behalf of the Committee, can I thank Kitty Ussher and Emily Thornberry for, again, the very radical and forthright views which they have expressed—despite Emily Thornberry's reservations about herself—with great force and in a very articulate way. We are grateful to you both for coming. Thank you very much.

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