Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140-159)|
MP AND KITTY
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'
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 unwhippedpresumably
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 staffingdifferent balances between
constituency staffing, Westminster staffingand some discussion
about that with other Members who have had some experience of
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 itand 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
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 knoweitherbut
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
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 ableand we all have talents,
we all have knowledge and we all represent our constituentsto
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
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,
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 peopleboth
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
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
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
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
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 expresseddespite Emily
Thornberry's reservations about herselfwith great force
and in a very articulate way. We are grateful to you both for
coming. Thank you very much.