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


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 IN CHAMBER

  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.

2.  EMPOWERING BACKBENCHERS—SCRUTINY

  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 Committee.

3.  EMPOWERING BACKBENCHERS—PRIVATE MEMBERS' BILLS AND EDMS

  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 debates—to 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.

4.  SITTINGS

  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 off.

  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 necessary—see 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.

March 2007


Wednesday 28 March 2007

Members present:

Mr Jack Straw, in the Chair

Ms Dawn Butler

Ann Coffey

Philip Davies

Mark Lazarowicz

Mr Adrian SandersSir Peter Soulsby

Paddy Tipping

Sir Nicholas Winterton

Mr Iain Wright





 
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