Memorandum from Kitty Ussher MP (M41)
Thank you for the opportunity to give oral evidence
before the committee on 21 March. I would be grateful if I could
submit this letter as further written evidence. I hope this is
of use to the Committee.
1. TIME SPENT
I think the crucial point here is that being
physically present in the Chamber, while important at times, is
not necessarily the best way to either represent the interests
of your constituents or hold the government to account. A carefully
phrased question at the right time, or requiring answers from
ministers during an adjournment debate, or laying amendments to
a piece of legislation are all effective ways to raise an issue
or probe the government's intentions. However, requesting and
holding meetings with ministers, building coalitions of like-minded
people both inside and outside the Chamber, and running campaigns
through the media are all also effective tools in both holding
the government to account and representing constituency interests.
Since none of these can be done while physically in the Chamber
it would be madness to suggest that MPs who are not sitting day-in,
day-out in the Chamber are not doing their job.
In fact, I would argue quite the opposite. A
good MP is one who uses the threat of action in the Chamber as
a last resort to achieve their ends. For example many is the time
on constituency issues I have got local agencies and companies
to consider the matter I am raising more carefully when it is
explained that I would have no hesitation in raising the matter
in the Chamber if the issue is not resolved. But I couldn't even
have that conversation if I was sitting in the Chamber listening
to a debate that was not relevant to the issue concerned. Similarly
I know of occasions where ministers have refused to meet backbench
MPs on issues of importance; it is only by threatening to hold
an adjournment debate on the subject that the matter is resolved.
In both instances it is used as a last resort to achieve an aim;
it is the ends not the means that is important.
Constituents expect their MPs to be involved
in national debates of the day; however that is very different
from being involved in every debate every day.
It would be very helpful to have more advance
notice of Chamber business so that MPs are not prevented from
being in the Chamber due to having entered into other commitments
that are difficult to rearrange at short notice.
When legislation is being considered, there
are two forms of opposition to it. The first is principled opposition
with the aims of the legislation (eg I disagree that we should
have ID cards) which can only be resolved by a substantive vote.
The second is where parties agree on the aims, but disagree on
the means (eg I agree that we should have ID cards but the way
you are proposing to do it is overly bureaucratic). In this latter
case, it is in everyone's interests that the legislative scrutiny
process is used to achieve the best possible piece of legislation.
For that, proper scrutiny is required.
It is unacceptable for rafts of amendments to
be introduced in the Lords when the Commons is the more democratic
body. It is my opinion that the Modernisation Committee should
set itself the hypothetical question: "If the Lords did not
exist, how should the Commons organise itself to scrutinise legislation
in the most effective way?". The answer must presumably include
pre-legislative scrutiny by select committees, "cooling off
periods" after standing committees when the executive can
take advice on how to best amend the Bill to consider issues that
have been raised, and perhaps return to the Select Committee for
consideration, and giving backbenchers the power to call witnesses
at the evidence stage before the Bill is considered in Standing
I support the idea of giving time for PMBs that
have originated from select committees; perhaps one or two a year.
I do not think that there should be any optional business on a
Friday, as it discriminates against those who have far-flung constituencies.
It is a good idea that EDMs with sufficient signatures and cross-party
support should prompt a motion on the Floor of the House, again
perhaps a couple a year. They could share time with the themed
adjournment debatesto take a recent example it is quite
possible that a motion commemorating the abolition of slavery
could have attracted enough support to be debated without there
being a separate decision to hold one by the usual channels.
I see no reason why we shouldn't sit for a few
weeks in September, providing the House is in recess when schools
are on their summer holidays and additionally the House does not
sit when the main parties are holding their annual conferences.
Even hard-working MPs should feel refreshed after most of August
Since we got onto the subject of evening sittings
at the end of my oral evidence, I wonder if I could offer some
more reflections. There is clearly a huge battle between MPs who
do want evening sittings and those who don't. I think that parliament
should support ALL Members in making the arrangements that are
most appropriate for their own families. That means not working
on Fridays and Monday mornings and working 9 till 5 on Tuesdays,
Wednesdays and Thursdays. If that means we need to work in September
as well, and that committee times clash with times that the Chamber
is also sitting, so be it. (That latter point would be helped
by more forward planning as to what debates are held when in the
main Chamber to enable backbenchers to resolve clashes with committees
as necessarysee point 1 above).
It is completely absurd and insulting that some
MPs should feel able to tell other MPs how they should organise
their family lives. The system should support both those who have
families settled and supported in their constituencies and also
those (often with younger children) who chose to bring their families
to London so that they can be together during the week and then
travel to the constituency together at weekends.
I hope this is useful and would be happy to
answer any further questions or expand on any points if the Committee
would find that helpful.
Wednesday 28 March 2007
Mr Jack Straw, in the Chair
Ms Dawn Butler
Mr Adrian SandersSir Peter Soulsby
Sir Nicholas Winterton
Mr Iain Wright