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

Memorandum from Martin Salter MP and John Bercow MP (M40)

  All MPs experience some time as backbenchers and for most of us this role will constitute the majority of the time we spend in the Commons.

  The backbench MP has a number of roles including:

    —  Scrutinising and seeking to improve legislation.

    —  Speaking up for constituents both collectively and at times individually.

    —  Pursuing policy interests and debates of national concern.

    —  Engaging constituents in the democratic process.


    —  Presenting petitions.

    —  Parliamentary Questions (PQs).

    —  Debates on legislation.

    —  Adjournment debates.

    —  Early Day Motions (EDMs).

    —  10 Minute Rule Bills.

    —  Private Members' Bills (PMBs).

    —  Select Committee work.


  MPs have access to the facilities of the House, including free use of rooms for meetings and the research and reference services provided by the House of Commons Library. They can book constituents on tours of Parliament and arrange tickets for the public galleries.


    —  Time and space to scrutinise legislation properly.

    —  Ability to get subjects debated on the floor of the Commons in prime time.

    —  Realistic opportunities to promote PMBs successfully.

    —  Recognition of the growth of constituency work.

    —  Opportunities for all Members to have a fair chance of being called to speak.

    —  Career progression for Members and their staff.

    —  Training and induction for new Members.

    —  Arcane procedures still unreformed.

    —  New Members have made it clear that there was too much information and not enough time available to make best use of the initial training and induction programmes. Most new Members in 2005 were not allocated offices for at least six weeks—it was even longer for previous intakes. The hot desking facilities were insufficient.


  The following represent some ideas that the Committee may wish to consider and possibly work up in more detail. We both endorse the principle of these suggestions but with different degrees of emphasis in some circumstances.

    —  Abolish Friday sittings, except for special circumstances, in recognition of constituency work.

    —  End the facility for Members to talk out Private Members' Bills on a Friday. If the House does not wish the Bill to proceed, Members should give their reasons and then vote to prevent its passage. The spectacle of one Member talking for hours to stop another Member making progress is bad for the reputation of the House.

    —  Move PMBs to 20 three hour slots on Tuesday or Wednesday evenings in compensation for the 13 five hour "lost" Fridays. Raise the number of proposers required on a Bill from 10 to 50.

    —  If a Member secures, say, 250 signatures on an EDM with at least 50% from the non-government MPs it qualifies for a debate and indicative vote in government time.

    —  The 10 minute speech limit to become the norm unless specified by the Speaker with front bench speeches limited to 20 minutes and 10 minutes of interventions to allow more time for backbench contributions.

    —  Priority for Privy Counsellors still seems to apply in most debates. The Committee might wish to consider suggesting a refinement of current practice so that more Members have an opportunity to contribute.

    —  Review the frequency of ritual debates on the adjournment.

    —  Increased resources for MPs office costs to take account of regional variations in pay rates and office rents and to allow Members to reward experienced and long serving staff with salary increments.

    —  How do we establish a career progression for MPs beyond serving on their respective front benches? Can Member training be improved?

    —  Better coordination with the parties of new Members' induction which needs to take place over a longer period. Offers of basic training for endorsed parliamentary candidates and refresher courses for longer serving Members.

    —  Consider a longer period of time following a general election to allow for the allocation of offices and a more sensible period for new Member training and induction. Perhaps some temporary clerical staff could be made available to assist during the first month or so.

    —  It may be worth having a mechanism for MPs to expand their skills in other fields—eg a secondment in a housing association if one wants to improve housing policy.

    —  Open parliament at weekends and allow groups such as the UKYP to hold the occasional Saturday debate in the Chamber (the Lords have just agreed to this).

    —  A proper business committee to be established including backbenchers in its membership to give MPs a greater say in setting the timetable for parliamentary business. This would reduce reliance on the "usual channels".

    —  Pre-legislative scrutiny to become the norm with government being required to explain why they decide not to publish a bill in draft form.

    —  More topical debates:

    —  Debates in Westminster Hall should also take place on Mondays and there could be merit in shifting Government Adjournment Debates and/or debates on Select Committee reports to Monday afternoon, leaving Thursdays free for two hour topical debates. These should be driven by a democratic procedure, either chosen by the Business Committee or on the basis of requests to the Speaker.

    —  Select Committees—suggestions for strengthening:

    —  Select Committees to be empowered to insist on the release of government documents and to be able to table amendments to bills in the name of the Committee.

    —  Select Committees to be able to determine their own role in the pre-legislative scrutiny process.

    —  In order to bolster both the independence and the credibility of the Select Committees, the House should resolve to reconsider the means by which they are constituted.

    —  More timely debates on Select Committee Reports, wherever possible on the Floor of the House, and with the opportunity to put key recommendations to a vote? The Select Committee itself could decide which such recommendations should be tabled.

  It has often been said that better scrutiny leads to better legislation but without adequate time, space and resources, coupled with appropriate training, Parliament will always struggle to hold to account a well-resourced Executive. We hope that these suggestions are of assistance to the Committee in seeking to strengthen the role of backbenchers and to make better use of non-legislative time in the Commons.

March 2007

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