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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 160-179)

JOHN BERCOW MP, MR ANDREW DISMORE MP AND MARTIN SALTER MP

28 MARCH 2007

  Q160 Chairman: Good morning and thank you for coming to give evidence and for the memoranda you have sent in. We are very grateful to you. I know you understand the scope of these inquiries which is about strengthening the role of the backbencher, and linked to this is the better use of non-legislative time. Could I start off by asking this question of each of you? Each of you came in at the same time in 1997, you have been here 10 years; each of you actually is active in the Chamber as well as outside and you represent constituencies with varying degrees of marginality so you are a spectrum to that extent, proving that it is possible to be active in the Chamber as well as active elsewhere and I have no doubt active on behalf of your constituents. Reflecting on your experience and intuition about this place, what do you think we ought to be doing to encourage more Members to take part in their parliamentary work as opposed to constituency work? What we are struck by on this Committee is the fact that there has been a sort of retreat into constituency work.

  Martin Salter: I think the answer to your question is actually the evidence from Philip Norton and, to some extent, backed up by the evidence from Philip Cowley and the evidence from the new Members. We have all looked very carefully at the evidence sessions you have had and it is interesting, looking at the contributions from Philip and some of the other new Members, it is not a retreat into constituency work, it is a tidal wave of it that overwhelms you in a way that you quite rightly yourself said when you very skilfully deflected the Jenkins Report. You helpfully dug up the figures from the House of Commons Post Office from the 1950s which showed that Members of Parliament in those days got between 15 and 25 letters a week; we are now, as everyone here knows—thanks to whoever it was who invented e-mail—getting between 300 and 500 different communications a week. In Andrew's case a lot more because he obviously goes out and looks for it as well, as indeed many assiduous Members do. There is then a resource implication and it is something that the House authorities and Parliament cannot escape. If work is increasing by 10 or fifteen fold I firmly believe—we put it in our submission here—that we are only as effective as the skills we have and the staff we have working for us. There are real issues about capacity; there are real issues about prioritisation. There are also real issues about a pay structure which I think is risible to say the least. Any decent business, any public service employer would have, within a pay structure, the ability to pay increments for loyalty and for experience. What we have is a flat budget. Most of us are spending to the upper limit of our budget and often topping it up (particular in the south-east where you are paying London office rents) from our own salaries. Therefore we cannot pay our staff a reward—an incremental point if you like—for experience, for getting up skills, for getting well trained, so there are real issues about resources as well. We could all spend more time in the Chamber if we could cope with the tidal wave and we had the resources to do so. The second point I would make—and again it is backed up by the evidence particularly from new Members—I am not sure that people are prepared to trade six hours sitting in the Chamber, not getting called, when there is six hours' worth of work that is piling up from constituents and from NGOs and from other organisations. It is the ability to speak and the ability to use our time efficiently and effectively and it is the resources that we have to do the job (and it is a job that is growing). It is not a question of retreat.

  Mr Dismore: I have two points to make, the first is the point that Martin has made, and that is the resource implication. This must be the only job in the world where productivity is a downer, not something to be praised. The net result of more productivity is more hassle and ultimately a poorer service to everybody else because you have those limited resources. I do not think we would necessarily want to re-run the SSRB submissions today, but on behalf of the London MPs—I chair the London Labour MPs Group—I did a lot of research to put a pitch to SSRB showing how much extra it costs to run a constituency in London and the significantly higher work load generated by the peculiar circumstances of the work that we have in London and the fact that the populations we represent are significantly under-represented on the register. As far as spending time in the Chamber is concerned, I do not spend nearly as much time as I would like to primarily because I think a lot of the time it is a waste of time. I think the key to it would be a speakers' list. If I know I am going to get called at a certain time that would be helpful. You can adjust it a bit by saying that you have to be there for a speech or two before and afterwards, but if you are going to spend half a day—three or four hours—preparing a good speech and then sitting in the Chamber for hours waiting to deliver it, that is crazy. I remember, I think it was over Iraq, where I sat through three debates before I was called and that was a waste of something like 18 hours altogether and all that time you have this tsunami wave coming up behind you that takes forever to catch up.

  Q161  Chairman: I am not being facetious here, but was it a waste or did you learn something?

  Mr Dismore: I did not learn anything I could not have learned from reading the newspaper reports and the huge amount of other material they had around it. It is good to participate in debates but I think in the end it gets very ritualistic and I think what we have to try to do is make sure that people's time is spent effectively, is not wasted and that we do have some proper time management. I think in any business where you spend six hours twiddling your thumbs because you cannot do anything else is a complete waste of quite well-paid people's time.

  John Bercow: I agree very much with what has already been said. Specifically so far as Martin's opening remarks are concerned I think I would say this, that if colleagues are disproportionately immersed in work in the office on behalf of constituents when they could—and perhaps should—be engaged in committee work or Chamber activity, it is absolutely inescapable that the reason for that is that they do not have, for whatever reasons, a sufficient staff resource. I think we have boldly to argue the case for an increase in resources and as, in fairness has been done to a degree already—not least during the period when Robin Cook was Leader of the House—the Leader of the House has to make that case and has to be able to rely upon cross-party support. We have to try, with an act of statesmanship—if I can put it in that slightly pretentious way—to take on those in the media who would rubbish and belittle and decry us and suggest that of course it is just snouts in the trough. On the one hand you have constituents saying, "I want an answer. I expect this; I expect that". On the other hand they are inevitably prey to an extent to the cheapest media headline and grubbiest campaign to try to rubbish the idea of increased allowances. It infuriates me beyond belief that it is sometimes suggested that we are paid a couple of hundred thousand pounds a year. This is nonsense. All colleagues here know that those resources that are allowances are paid to staff or used to purchase equipment, but if we are to make progress it has to be done on a cross-party basis. So far as getting colleagues into the Chamber and contributing more often is concerned, I think the one theme that has come through the evidence that you have heard and received in writing so far is that what takes place in the Chamber has to be to a greater extent topical, relevant and the subject of an outcome. Insofar as it lacks one or more of those qualities, then the opportunity cost of going into the Chamber is too great and colleagues will do something else. We can explore some of these ideas in detail, but let me put it like this: when I came into this place—and I love it every bit as much now as I did when I came in after 1 May 1997—I was, perhaps because I am a Conservative, quite attracted to some of the ritualistic practices of the House. After a while, frankly they pall when you see that the ritual is not for the preservation of some great tradition which is of benefit to our scrutiny or our reputation or our effectiveness, but ritual for the sake of ritual. Too much of what is done here falls into the category of ritual for the sake of ritual. I would like to see more opportunities for colleagues to speak and that does have implications for the timing of debates, the timing of speeches and if people are to feel that this is actually going to have an outcome then we have to have something at the end of it which justifies the commitment of time and effort. All too often at the moment I think that is lacking.

  Q162  Ms Butler: I would like to thank you all for your contributions and your papers which I found very interesting. In fact you have covered all the points that need to be covered except for technology. There is an omission of technology there. I am not actually going to touch on that although I normally do because I was so excited by your paper, I must say; you are all modernisers sitting there and I think it is excellent because we do not have that many modernisers really. However, I did a little bit of research and read, Martin, particularly your maiden speech and I was absolutely shocked to find in your maiden speech in 1997 that you made some modernisation points there. What shocked me even further is that we are making the same points again and we still have not moved very far. I am just wondering, does this place somehow beat the modernisation out of you after a certain amount of time or do you just submit to it and say that this is the way it is going to be forever? What advice would you give to this Committee to make sure that in another 20 years' time we are not still raising the same points again? I wanted to raise a couple of points that were highlighted in your paper. I quite like the idea of considering a longer period of time following a general election before we open Parliament to give Members a time to settle into the role, to give us time to get started and so on. I think that is a very valuable point and I wonder if you would expand on that. Another point, which is very, very prevalent—especially with me being the chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group—is opening up Parliament at the weekend for groups such as the UK Youth Parliament so they could maybe come in and hold debates. I think that is so important to the democracy of our country and young people getting involved in politics and I just wondered if you would expand on those two points for me.

  Martin Salter: The cause of modernisation is a lonely, lonely furrow. There are many great reforms that are more than well rehearsed across the generations before they are enacted in this place. I think specifically I remember making the argument in my maiden speech—many other Members have made it and you have had it in your evidence sessions—early day motions are political graffiti at the moment. We can sign them to keep our constituents happy but, as John was saying, there is very little outcome and we would be very grateful if the Committee could give some serious consideration to this idea of 200 or 250 names, on a cross-party basis, actually triggering a debate I would say in the main Chamber potentially at prime time because there is an outcome there and it makes the process real.

  Q163  Sir Nicholas Winterton: On a substantive motion?

  Martin Salter: It could be on a substantive motion, Sir Nicholas. This is something you have to explore. What we are doing is putting ideas forward and we are looking forward to your report. Secondly, I did raise this issue and it was the cause of some conflict between me and Sir Nicholas about the idea that non-elected bottoms could sit on the green benches. I think it would be fantastic for the UK Youth Parliament and possibly for other groups of young people. Part of our job, as we said in our introduction, is to bring our democracy alive. Is it not ironic that apparently the Scottish Parliament allows young people in at the weekends to experience the flavour of their Chamber and I am told that even the House of Lords has just granted that concession, but in the House of Commons we shut it up at weekends and there is a wonderful resource for people there that would really benefit them and we are very happy to be putting that proposal forward for further consideration again.

  Mr Dismore: I think first of all there is a generational thing here. I think the 1997 intake and post-1997 had a very different attitude to the way politics were dealt with. I think that people who have been here a lot longer are rather more resistant to change. I think their way of doing the job was very different to 1997. It is cross-party, not just the Labour intake. I think the same can be said about 2001 and 2005; there is a very different attitude in the way they do the job. I think we have to start making sure that the processes here reflect that. Secondly, I caution about thinking that things are not going to happen the day after you are elected. I remember when I was elected my honeymoon period lasted the bank holiday weekend because of a major issue relating to the NHS in my constituency and I came in on the Tuesday to a pile of post that high already. I think the key to it is to make sure the resources are in place even if they are temporary resources to enable people to immediately get down to work whilst they get themselves properly sorted out: an office, a phone and at least somebody to help with the secretarial side and also to show you the way around and how things work. The key to it is to make sure you use the time in the Chamber effectively. One idea I have which I have not put in the paper is that one of the most popular debates is at the end of term adjournments (the Easter adjournment and the Christmas adjournment) so why do we not have more debates like that—say one a month—ballot to go into them and speak in the order that your name comes out of the hat as we do for private Members' bills. Everybody gets 10 minutes on a particular subject which they can notify three or four days ahead. It is topical, you know you are going to get called, you know when you are going to get called and you are going to get to make a point which the Government will answer at the end of the debate. I think that would be quite a useful experiment and I think you ought to think about doing it with existing end of term debates as well. That way everybody gets a fair crack of the whip and if people are concerned about speakers' lists—as I think we should be doing, as I said before—this would be a useful way to try to experiment with it.

  John Bercow: Opening the House at the weekend to outside groups and in particular to the UK Youth Parliament or offshoots of it is not just a gesture. It would be a gesture, but I think it would be a very welcome gesture and a display of openness by the House and I am rather horrified and disappointed to discover that the House of Lords has beaten us to it. I think that we should be spurred by that to do something sooner rather than later. It would actually be taken up and in terms of impact I think it would probably be very great. It is one thing to say that the chair or host will present prizes following debating competitions between schools or students in our constituencies. It is quite another thing to say, "Sample it for real; come here and have a go". Of course there will be objections—there are objections to everything—of course there will be people who say that the seats might get damaged or whatever. You have to take some risks in this life and it seems to me that if we are to engage with young people I cannot think of a single initiative that would more positively say to those people: "Be part of our world for a weekend; do what you do, your attempt at full-hearted and detailed debate, in our Chamber". I think that would be a very worthwhile thing. There is another important point about the introduction to life in the House of Commons. When people get here, first of all if they do not have staff, there ought to be some sort of arrangement whereby one can draw upon a pool of temporary staff to facilitate one's activities. I was shocked and rather surprised when I discovered from Emily Thornberry (who I think gave evidence to you very recently) that she was in an appalling situation when she first came into this place. She did not have facilities; she did not have a proper office (she had what I gather is called a hot desk); it was a completely unsatisfactory situation. She had come in with a very small majority and she had to put up with her political opponents in her constituency firing off letters or e-mails to the local paper saying, "Where's Emily? She's not answering our correspondence." She just did not have the resources. No modern, professional, reputable organisation or employer should operate in that way. May I say that the whips do have their purposes. I am not one of those who subscribes to the Power Inquiry view of the world; I think it is na-­ve and ill-informed. The whips do have an important role. The whips really should not have a role in the allocation of office accommodation. Of course they have to be challenged, as they have to be challenged on other things, because people who have power—even if they are not very good at exercising it and even if they are not the appropriate people to have it—do not want to give it up. Of course they do not want to give it up but they have to be told that they should give it up and that system has to be changed.

  Q164  Mark Lazarowicz: I would like to raise three points, first of all on the question of the extra London costs. I accept there are issues about London, but I know that in my case I have office costs, rates of pay, the kind of mixture of work which probably gives me greater demands on my costs than probably apply to my colleagues 50 or 60 miles further away. The issues of office costs vary between different parts of the country just as much in London, outside London, they might vary in different parts of Scotland and there will be issues about people with big constituencies who might well argue for two offices if they are a hundred miles apart. I would like your reaction to that; would it not be the case that if you go for an increase in office costs there would have to be some ring fencing of an extra allowance to allow for the different costs in different parts of the country? The second point is in relation to time limits and debates and speakers' lists. I can see the argument that having speakers' lists could lead to the Chamber becoming very much a ritual presentation of 10 minute prepared speeches where people come and go and there is no debate. I would not mind being told that I had to stay in the Chamber for a full three hours of debate, and if it was only a three hour debate and if there was a 10 minute limit as a rule so we all had a reasonable chance of taking part in the debate; if we did not then at least we would not be spending the entire day there. The last point is this, which is this issue of the flood of e-mails and letters that we all get. There is of course a problem in that this is an area where the demand is uncontrollable, partly because the nature of politics means we seek that kind of work and also the nature of communications means that the amount of that kind of letters is going to increase beyond any possibility of coping with it. How do we respond to the fact that this is an area where we are never going to be able to deal with it just by providing more staff and resources because there is no end to what we could actually be faced with if we simply meet the potential growth with the provision of more resources to deal with it?

  Mr Dismore: Can I deal with the office costs point first? It might be helpful if I tell you about the submission I sent to the SSRB because it had a lot of very detailed, worked out numbers. London is not unique in this respect; it probably has more higher costs than anywhere else but there are other high cost areas and I think the way you deal with the costs of the rent, for example, is to say that X square feet—or square metres in modern money—is an appropriate size for an office for a Member, so you go round the estate agents, submit two or three estimates from appropriate places to prove you are not fiddling it and take the cheapest of the two or three that actually fit that. In fact when I did the exercise for this purpose I found that we are living in a hovel and any decent office would be at least twice what we are paying now or even more like three times. I think that is easily coped with. Similarly in relation to staff wages I think there are arguments in certain high cost areas for similar allowances. However, the fact remains that what we should be trying to do is to push people off the parliamentary estate because it is very, very expensive office space, into the constituencies where inevitably it is going to be cheaper. Rates in Hendon are cheaper than in Westminster even though they are very expensive compared to other places. I think we have to make sure they are properly equipped with a photocopier, with the phone bills met (because that is a very expensive cost compared to free phones here, free photocopying here and so forth). We should have a properly set up office suite for however many staff is appropriate. On the time limit point, what I simply say about this is that if people know they are going to be called it is not unreasonable to expect them to be there for two or three speeches before and afterwards, and the opening and closing of the debate and if they are not then the Speaker has the discretion not to call them. As far as speaker times is concerned, I think that 10 minutes is probably the norm but there will be days when it is slack and you do not need a time limit and there will be days when you need a much tighter time limit. I think the House of Lords has a very good way of organising it which is to find out how many people want to speak and divvy it up between them and if it turns out you have four minutes then that is what you have; if it turns out that you have eight minutes or 12 minutes, that is what you have, but everybody has a chance. That might be an interesting way to look at it. As far as the volume of work is concerned, I do not see anything wrong with that. We should be encouraging people to engage with us as politicians. Picking up the point that John and Martin have made, if people want to write to us or sign a petition or send us an e-mail or contact us through a website we should be encouraging that and responding to it if we are serious about trying to make politics relevant to modern society and engage people and let them think we have something to say on their behalf here. That is what we should be encouraging.

  Martin Salter: Regional variations are what John and I put in our paper and not London, which picks your points up. I do not have a problem with a large rural constituency having two offices, one at each end. We have an allowance within the amount of money allowable for election expenses which distinguishes between a county seat and an urban seat. We actually spend more pence per elector if you have a rural seat and that is precisely built into the system for local elections and national elections because of that very point. We think 10 minute limits on speeches should be the norm. One other point that came up when we were talking to colleagues was this idea of having six or seven frustrated Members at the end of a debate unable to get in at all. Why not axe the last speaker? Why not divvy up the times so that people can make even a two minute contribution?

  Q165  Sir Nicholas Winterton: It is in the Standing Orders already.

  Martin Salter: Sir Nicholas, there is a world of difference between theory and what actually happens.

  Q166  Sir Nicholas Winterton: It is not theory, it is there.

  Martin Salter: Privy Counsellors are not supposed to have priority in speaking yet everybody knows that they do, so let us talk about the real world. The last point again came out in the evidence. We cannot manage the demand, therefore we have to manage the supply.

  John Bercow: I agree with what Martin has said on time limits. Picking up on Sir Nicholas's point that there is already provision in standing orders on this, Sir Nicholas, I accept that but I think it still does not apply very often. I know I was one of those 10 who fell into this category who was asked to make a three minute contribution in the second reading debate on the Education and Inspections Bill. The bulk of the time had been taken up and then I think it was Sir Michael Lord in the chair who said to me, "John, you will get in tonight but it will just be a very quick snippet". I think I am right in saying, Sir Nicholas, that that provision has not been often applied and I think it ought to become the norm rather than the exception. It should not simply be left to the usual channels to see if they can reach an agreement between colleagues on different sides because then all sorts of other factors can come into play, whether one person who is itching to make a 10 minute contribution dislikes the chap or woman on the other side and is not willing to let that person in. I do not think it should work that way; it should be the norm rather than the exception and it is perfectly doable. As someone who is not naturally brief, all I know is that if I have to do it I can and I do not want the shame and slight humiliation of being told to sit down so I simply look at the clock and I make sure that whatever the limit is I do finish within time. On the subject of this great profusion of correspondence which is increasing, I broadly agree with what has been said. I think the only point that I would make in addition is this: we have to manage it as colleagues and we should not be slaves to people whose preference for the use of technology leads them either explicitly or implicitly to demand a quicker reply than Mrs Higgins writing on a piece of exercise book note paper and sending her letter with a second class stamp which she feels she can ill afford from her rather small pension. There is no reason why she should have to wait longer and I think we have to decide what is a priority, what is urgent. I am always happy to deal with people by e-mail if they so wish, but I do tend to say to people, particularly those who are prolific e-mailers to me, that I will deal with it in general terms depending on the seriousness of a particular case or emergency, I deal with cases sequentially.

  Q167  Philip Davies: Andrew is one of the people I admire most, certainly on private Members' bills and so given that he is the new Eric Forth in terms of Fridays I think it would be interesting to find out his view about how Fridays work and the whole private Members' bill thing. More generally, I have a deal of sympathy with the points you make, but just to try to test them out a bit more, I think the chairman made a very perceptive point at the start which is that you are diligent MPs both in the Chamber and outside and therefore that would lead me to say that clearly it can be done. I think I spend an above average amount of time in the Chamber; John Bercow has always sat two seats in front of me whenever I am in there, so he must be in there virtually all the time. What strikes me about the Chamber is that it is like Madam Tussauds, it is the same faces in there; whatever the debate, the same faces are in there all the time. There is always an excuse why you people cannot be in the Chamber, but if you did increase the allowances and increase staffing and all this kind of thing, would any more people turn up? Clearly people can turn up if they want to already. People like Philip Hollobone have no staff and they are always in there so they can do it as well. Is it that nobody is in the Chamber because the public do not care what goes on in the Chamber? Or do the public not care what goes on in the Chamber because nobody is in the Chamber? Which way round is it? If it is the fact that the public do not see a great deal of relevance in what goes on in the Chamber, surely however many allowances you gave people or whatever changes you made, if the public do not think that what goes on in the Chamber makes a fat lot of difference to the world nobody would be in the Chamber whatever happened, they would still be in their constituencies cutting ribbons for new factories that have opened or something.

  John Bercow: That is why, if I may say so, an increase in allowances is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of increasing and improving Chamber activity. I think that it would enable our staff to pick up some of the slack and deal with matters in the office and give colleagues the chance to contribute in the Chamber, but that is not enough. I think you need to do more. You need to make debates in the Chamber more accessible and more interesting and more topical. I would like to see a lot more short, sharp debates in the Chamber. When I say short and sharp I mean not exceeding two hours and, in some cases, even shorter debates than that, preferably topical. One can argue the toss as to the means by which one topic rather than another would be selected; more SO No. 24 requests put forward and, when appropriate, granted. I think that the Liberal Democrats did get a worthwhile debate on the NatWest Three and I think there was real interest in the Chamber and in the media in that. I also feel that we probably need a new culture. We need to show some self-respect if we are expecting to be respected. What that means is showing that the role of the backbencher is valued. If people come into this place and they think that the only purpose of being here is to climb the ministerial or shadow ministerial ladder, then it is inevitable that people will not think that being in the Chamber is very important. Philip, you are one of the very small number of people who have come into this house and said right at the outset, "I intend to be the voice of Shipley; I have no desire to be a member of the front bench at any stage", but very few people are in that category. I would like to think we could have a genuine career path for people who either will not become front benchers, were and do not want to be again, or whatever. We have not really got that yet. We have made some progress in paying chairmen of select committees and so on and I think we probably still need to think of new ways of investing the role of the backbencher with greater respect and importance than are currently attached to it.

  Mr Dismore: I was asked about Fridays. The present system is not very effective but it is a system. I do not think it should be easy to get a private Member's bill through; that is my starting point. It should be subject to proper scrutiny and there are certain basic conventions. It should be relatively modest, it should not cost anything and it should attract broad support across the House. When bills do not, they get into trouble; when they do, they have a reasonable prospect. I did put in a paper to Sir Nicholas Winterton's former Committee for a comprehensive reform of the system which involved pre-legislative scrutiny, timetabling and so forth which I think would achieve all the objectives without having to shift from Fridays and I think we circulated a copy. [1]Rather than go through that now, I think it is all set out there in a pretty comprehensive way. It should also include an opportunity to get 10 minute rule bills through as well, although subject to certain criteria. I think topicality is the key to it. I am the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I have been trying to get a debate through the Liaison Committee on people trafficking since the end of last October/November and it still has not been timetabled. If anything is topical at the moment it is people trafficking and it has still not been timetabled. I think part of the problem with select committee debates is that now they have been shoved off to Westminster Hall they are less attractive. Westminster Hall provides a useful function and we should use it more, not less, but at the same time we have to recognise that certain debates are rather more important and should be back on the floor of the House. Equally, some of the stuff on the floor of the House probably could be sent off to Westminster Hall, some of the more general debates.

1. Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Procedures for Debates, Private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker, HC 333, Ev 71.

  Q168 Chairman: On the people trafficking debate, have you also suggested that to the whips or to my office? I was not aware of it. I can think of two or three occasions recently where we might have found a half day slot for it.

  Mr Dismore: That is a useful thought; I shall write to you forthwith.

  Chairman: I think it shows deficiencies in how we allocate government time that is available for non-legislative debates.

  Q169  Sir Nicholas Winterton: I have three questions; I hope our witnesses can answer them. All three have made great play about the need for more resources, more office staff. Do our witnesses not think that Members of Parliament are now taking on responsibility for matters which have absolutely no bearing on their responsibilities at all, particularly local government matters relating to housing and planning, et cetera? It is because people are so conscious of wanting to be re-elected that they take on every approach, every representation. Is that not one of the reasons why Members are now flooded with e-mails, letters, telephone calls, et cetera? Instead of concentrating on matters of importance, that is holding the Government to account, they are more conscious of being re-elected and their constituency duties actually come before their duties to this House. That is question one. Question two: would our witnesses wish us, in this Committee, to make representations to the Speaker who has not been mentioned so far in the questioning today but who is critically important not only in respect of whether or not we can establish the precedent of the House of Lords, ie having a speakers' list (by the way, the House of Lords has also set the pace in respect of questions where there are questions and a debate on that question, ie a short debate) and the Speaker is also very relevant in respect of implementing the standing orders relating to short speeches at the end of a half day debate or a full day debate, the last hour or half hour being devoted to short questions. Would our witnesses like to see the establishment of a business committee which could be representative of backbenchers in all parts of the House which could facilitate, for instance, the debate on an early day motion which has 200 or 250 signatures to it and which has cross-party support and is also very relevant and current? Those are three questions and to my mind they are critical to this inquiry.

  Martin Salter: Let me start off with the first one. With respect, there is a cultural difference here. There are Members of Parliament who do not believe we should be taking up individual cases at all. Eric Forth was a classic example. Eric believed—and I respected him for it— that his prime duty was to legislate and not much else. There are Members of Parliament who do not hold constituency surgeries, but there are not that many of them now. Actually it is not for us to determine what the public want or should have. The public is the boss here; we are their representatives. If they choose to raise policy issues with us, if they choose to ask us to take up issues, then in some ways we have to respect that and we have to respect that change of atmosphere. I do not think there is anything to be ashamed of for MPs wanting to get re-elected. Politics is the battle of ideas and it manifests itself through elections. I got the second biggest swing in the country in 2001 but I did not do it by being diligent in the Chamber. I am not particularly diligent in the Chamber, I do not mind admitting it. My priority is my constituency. I live there; I travel up every day, de facto I have less time to devote to work in the Chamber. There are so many other devices you can use like interventions, like early day motions and the rest of it which allow you to skate the surface of a debate and satisfy a constituent, but you are not really getting in there and getting under the argument in the way that you and John do with your much more diligent presence in the Chamber. I am afraid we just have to recognise that the public's requirements and the public's aspirations have changed and we have to skill up and resource up and change our process to meet the demand, because otherwise there is going to be even more dissatisfaction with our political process and even less engagement.

  Mr Dismore: I would simply say that if a lone parent with four kids in a one bed flat that is damp comes to me because the local authority (which is not of my particular persuasion) refuses to engage with her or have anything to do with her or re-house her, I am not going to turn that person away. To that person what I do is extremely important indeed. It may not be important in the national scheme of things, but politics is about people and if we cannot engage with the people we are here to represent and help them, then what are we doing here? It is important that we hold the Government to account; it is important that we scrutinise and select committee work is a vital part of that, but if we are not helping our people not only will we not get re-elected, I do not think we are actually being human beings and experiencing what our constituents are experiencing (albeit at second hand) so that when we do speak here we can speak with some authority and background on the issues we are talking about. If I talk about housing I am talking not of my own housing experience but from the cases that have been brought to me by constituents complaining about over-crowding, complaining about the inability to get re-housed, about poor conditions, and that means I can speak with a degree of passion and also with a degree of authority which would not otherwise be there.

  John Bercow: I think that you get a proportion of letters from people, for example, about planning matters and when you do it is quite important to be clear what you can do and what, frankly, you cannot do. In dealing with representations on those matters I will tend to say, that yes, I am happy to write to the Planning Committee but it is important for you to know that there is no question of Mr Bercow using his power to tell the Planning Committee—or the Development Control Committee in my area—what to do; it does not work like that. I am disinclined to get involved in lengthy correspondence about matters of that kind because I do think that they fall within the bailiwick of councillors. However, I distinguish, if I may say so, between that and the sort of case that Andrew has just described. I do see myself as standing up for the person who is battling for a better life either against an imperious public agency or against corporate misbehaviour by a large company (or indeed a small company for that matter). Frankly there is scarcely a limit as to how much time I am prepared to spend when I think that somebody otherwise is going to have his or her life badly damaged. I would not attach too much significance to the supposed impact of us being asked to deal with too many things that are not our business. I think the idea of a business committee is excellent. I have said it before. I came before your Committee in May of last year and I said on that occasion that I think that a business committee of the House would be a good thing. [2]I do not myself object to programming. I think, however, programming has been effectively corrupted and abused and the reason is that it is run by people who should not be running it. To be fair, the Government should not be determining the programming. I do believe that a business committee, preferably with no overall party majority on it, would be a better way of ensuring that time is divvied up in such a manner as to allow the likes of minorities to be represented and to give Members, including above all backbench Members, a chance to contribute. One other point, I like the business committee model but I am open to the idea, if people do not want to run with that, of giving more powers to the Speaker him or herself. My main point is that just as I object to the executive picking the members of select committees which then scrutinise it, so I object to the executive determining how much time should be devoted to the scrutiny of it in relation to particular subjects.

2 Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 2005-06, The Legislative Process, HC 1097, Ev 26.

  Q170 Mr Wright: Can I mention two very brief points? In terms of career progression I am particularly concerned about up-skilling, about continuing professional development, and I would throw that question that you have in your memorandum back at you and ask if you have any practical ideas as to how we can do that. Given the range of skills that a modern Member of Parliament needs—we have talked about the expansion of office resources, management of staff—in terms of continuing professional development to strengthen the role of the backbencher, what do you suggest?

  John Bercow: I think there is a lot to be said for better training of Members at the outset and, to use the jargon, continuing professional development, in other words the chance of refresher courses. It probably would be quite expensive to do, but worthwhile because democracy costs. Why can people who have a particular interest in a given subject not have an opportunity to explore that interest further? I think somebody floated the idea of secondments. At the moment we have quite an old-fashioned idea: you can either go on an Industry of Parliament Trust Fellowship or you can go on the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme or I think there is possibly provision to do some time working with the police or whatever. I would like to see a much wider range of opportunities. If somebody wants to specialise in housing or in mental health policy or, dare I say it, a particular passion of mine over the last year or so, in the field of special needs, why should one not have a chance to do an internship with one of those specialists in the field. I think that would be a really good thing. The only other point I would make at this point, lest I forget, is this: Martin talked about the need for more relevant debates and fewer rather formulaic debates. I do think—I made this point to each of the last two of your predecessors—we ought to look at this ritualistic practice of having several debates a year on motions for the adjournment on the European Union lasting several hours each, defence in the UK, defence in the world and Wales. It is not in any sense an insult to be interested in the European Union or defence in the UK or defence in the world or Wales; it is simply that I feel that the Government puts those debates on as a filler and it would be much better to have topical two hour debates not with a 10 minute speech limit but a five minute speech limit. Instead of giving people the impression that all that really matters is rising onto the front bench, you would get some credit and some respect from your colleagues in the House by taking part in those, then we could gradually make some progress.

  Martin Salter: It is funny how Members can find time to go to Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth, always to nice hot places when it is cold over here. Apparently you can learn an amazing amount having lunches with ambassadors and visiting nice places and the rest of it. That is good for democracy and that up-skills us, but how about spending a day or a week working as a care worker or having a secondment to whatever public service or, as John said, a particular passion that grips our fancy?

  Q171  Sir Peter Soulsby: I found all the written evidence we have had very helpful. You have commented quite a bit on the effect of the growth in electronic communications and particularly focussed on the effect of the tsunami of e-mails that we all suffer from. Can I just ask you about two other aspects of this? One is the growth of websites like TheyWorkForYou and the effect you think that is having in terms of enabling people to use it to contact us but also because of the measurements that they use, perhaps having a perverse incentive to Members to behave in ways they would not otherwise. Also on the point of electronic communications, the availability of these things—PDAs—and whether you think there is a case for these to be used quite openly in the Chamber in the way that many of us use them rather covertly both in committees and in the Chamber. It does enable us to keep on top of some of those e-mails and to make some contact with the outside world and to be doing something useful while we are sitting waiting to have our 10 minutes of speech.

  Martin Salter: I think the electronic communication point also relates to a point that Emily Thornberry and others gave in evidence. How crazy is it that you are there for six hours and you can be pulled up for signing a letter or going through paper work in a more obvious way, and yet we have all seen the video footage of MPs asleep on the green benches. You do not operate in that way anywhere else. I think the TheyWorkForYou website is actually insidious because the measurements that are used are manipulatable. There is the same rating on it for an intervention as for a speech and frankly this is a service that Parliament should be offering. Philip Cowley said this; we have allowed it to be sub-contracted to freelancers out there. This is a service that we should operate and it should be done on an objective basis. I feel really sorry for new Members who are running around, worrying about their scores on the TheyWorkForYou website (this is something that Sir Nicholas and I at least agree on). Many of us on the Government side do not actually table parliamentary questions because we will get more information by actually writing directly to a minister and expanding an argument and hopefully getting a coherent response more so than you ever will do by taking PQs, but that does not make us less diligent Members of Parliament; it just means we have been more comprehensive about how we have taken up a policy issue on behalf of our constituents.

  John Bercow: The House is still very amateurish in that way and Martin is right, we ought to have our own system and of course if there is a void it is filled. I do think that the TheyWorkForYou website has had a partially damaging effect but I am not particularly inclined to moan very much about it. I think we have to put something in its stead. I suppose because I believe in healthy competition I tend to say "So be it", if they are making a mess of it and they are misrepresenting the significance of one activity rather than another, then it is up to another player to come in the market—perhaps indeed the House of Commons itself—to put the record straight. On the question of technology, very simply what I would say to Peter Soulsby is that my only concern about the use of electronic devices in the Chamber or in standing committees is disturbance and interruption. In other words I have no pompous concern that it is interfering with the integrity and independence of Members; it is quite wrong that members of the public should be able to send us e-mails while we are in committee. That is what I call the pompous objection which does not do anything for the reputation of the House. I have no problem with people communicating with us while we are in committee, but what I think is important is that we do not have a constant clatter. We do not want typing taking place or noise being generated. It is difficult enough sometimes with the acoustics of this place to get focus and concentrated attention in our work and we do not want that being interfered with. Otherwise I have no objection whatsoever to the greater use of technology. It seems to me to be a reflection, if we accept it, that this place is coming into the 21st century.

  Mr Dismore: I would simply say that the genie is out of the bottle with all these websites. There is nothing we can do about it and we just have to live with it. It is also a way of people monitoring us, holding us to account and also, through those websites, communicating with us. I do not object to them in that respect. As far as electronic devices are concerned, I would draw the line on them in select committees. I have one member who is always on his mobile phone and it is extremely distracting for the members and in particular I think it is a discourtesy to witnesses. Otherwise I would agree with what John says, so long as they are not scaring the horses it is not a problem.

  Q172  Ms Butler: Can I just say on this point, we went to Wales where they had rubber keyboards so they were very silent and also part of the thinking behind having it in committees is that you have all the papers on the screen so you can cross-reference, look at the explanatory notes and all of that on line and have it colour co-ordinated just to make the process simpler rather than being able to do work there.

  Martin Salter: Can I just throw a point back on that one? We all know what happens. Primarily the government members of a standing committee would sit at the back there, we will do our case work, we will take very little notice of the proceedings. There is a bit of a to-ing and fro-ing between the frontbenchers but it is okay for us to carry on our case work in a standing committee whether we are scrutinising or not important legislation, but if we dared to do it in the House where we might be sitting for seven or eight hours, apparently that is wrong. This stuff is for the birds, it really is.

  Q173  Ann Coffey: If a million people petitioned Downing Street objecting to road charging, do you think that should trigger off a substantive debate on a substantive motion and a vote in the Commons? If not, why not? Why should people contact their MPs if they can contact the Prime Minister? Do you think that there are some tensions in that kind of impact on the Internet in terms of direct actions and the traditional role of an MP representing their constituents and how do you think we can deal with that and still make Parliament seem relevant to people and, indeed, make MPs relevant to people?

  Mr Dismore: I think the real problem is to respond not to those who shout loudest. You get a very good pressure group campaign where everybody is terrified of it because you get this pile of postcards or e-mails or demands to do this, that and the other and I think you have to step back from those sorts of things. I think if people contact their individual MPs there should be a way of trying to feed that through perhaps in letters to the House, not just take it up with the minister as an issue but say, "Look, I've had fifty postcards or fifty communications on this particular issue" and if other Members are seeing the same maybe we would want to think about having a debate on that particular issue or look at some of the other reforms that have been suggested by us here as a method of triggering a debate. I do not think people bombarding Downing Street websites is necessarily a good indicator of what should or should not be debated. It may be something that has been debated the day before and they object to what the Prime Minister had to say. I do not think that is necessarily a good trigger.

  John Bercow: There is a difference between numbers and quality. I do not think there should just be a numerical trigger because I think quite a lot of people can be persuaded, particularly when it is very easy and convenient to sign up to something and they will not necessarily have given it any significant thought.

  Q174  Ann Coffey: Does that go for MPs signing EDMs as well?

  John Bercow: Yes, it does, which is why we should have a better system whereby instead of just having parliamentary loo paper we should have a system whereby colleagues know that if they sign an EDM there is a possibility that a debate will be triggered and they can then be legitimately looked to—particularly if they are a top six signatory—to be a participant in the debate. I think we have to be very careful not to replace one form of ritualism and automaticity (about which I was complaining earlier) with another form of ritualism and automaticity. Yes, we want to engage with people and we want people to have the right to feed in their views, but the idea that we should allow a well-organised pressure group campaign to dictate the parliamentary agenda is wrong. If you were to say, "Don't we open ourselves to that", there comes a point at which we have to remember that we have judgment and we have to have the guts to assert ourselves sometimes in exercising it and to say that it is a relevant issue, the Prime Minister, the Government, Parliament note that a lot of signatories have put their names to this, but that does not of itself justify changing our timetable or our agenda and we do not intend to do so.

  Q175  Ann Coffey: Following on from that, when we had the editors from the papers they said that part of the difficulty with this place is that we are not seen to respond to what is out there. If you are saying, well actually we should not be responding to what is out there, we should be taking the judgment, is that not just furthering the problem that people already see, that what they are thinking we are not debating?

  John Bercow: Not really because I think the fact that somebody signs up to something like a petition to Number 10 after a very considerable amount of pressure has been exerted in a short period is not necessarily indicative of very much. I think it would be more significant if, over a sustained period, there was a lot of evidence—qualitative evidence as opposed to merely evidence of numbers—that said "We feel that Parliament simply has not addressed X issue or Y issue". This is fairly knee-jerk stuff and I do not myself believe the Government should change its legislative timetable or its parliamentary timetable simply to reflect that. If we do that we are absolutely making a rod for our own backs and instead of being here exercising our judgment we become simply delegates in what is effectively a plebiscitary democracy.

  Q176  Ann Coffey: What is the point of Downing Street having these kinds of websites? People feel they have influence and access here.

  Martin Salter: That is a question for the Prime Minister. It is not the power of a Number 10 petition, it is the fact of what happens to petitions when they arrive here and they are presented in the middle of the night to an empty Chamber and put in a bag basically. I think the Scottish Parliament at least has a Petitions Committee and some process whereby the petitions can go somewhere and trigger something. That is what you should be looking for.

  Q177  Chairman: The Procedure Committee are doing something on petitions, by the way.

  Mr Dismore: The short answer to that is that if people e-mail the Prime Minister, it is for the Prime Minister to respond to them. If he wants to give his explanation of what he has done and why then that is up to him, it is nothing to do with us.

  Q178  Mr Sanders: I would like to test your views on topicality. The idea in oral questions to have a catch all question that could open up a topical debate of something that has happened maybe in the previous 24 hours rather than several days before when questions would have been tabled, what are your views on that?

  Martin Salter: We think that is rather clever and we are annoyed we had not thought of it.

  Mr Dismore: It is like doing PMQs with cabinet ministers; there is no problem with it as long as it does not become the dominant feature of the question time. Prime Minister's Questions is a circus; it is not about actually eliciting information or achieving a debate. The thing about ordinary ministerial question time is that it does give the opportunity to develop a series of arguments backwards and forwards across the Chamber through six or seven—even more sometimes—supplementaries, whereas PMQs is one, one, one, one, one; there is no effort to develop the debate. That is why I think what the Liaison Committee does with the Prime Minister is so important because we can, in the Liaison Committee, develop a line of argument which you cannot do through the open question system.

  John Bercow: I agree with that suggestion from Adrian. What I would say is that in a 60 minute question session it is perfectly reasonable to have a reserved portion lasting, say, 10 minutes in which such a topical matter can be raised. The worst example of the weakness of the old system, partially reformed now when you have to submit questions for oral answer only three days before as opposed to a fortnight before, was the time when in Foreign Office questions nobody could raise the subject of Pinochet because it was not on the Order Paper but it was in everybody's minds. The Speaker of course can assert himself and insist on very short supplementaries and make it clear that in that 10 minutes he hopes to get in at least half a dozen colleagues.

  Martin Salter: If you are successful, Adrian, it will become known henceforth as the Sanders Slot.

  Q179  Chairman: The Procedure Committee is looking at this. It is irritating if you are a minister in the Foreign Office, time and again wanting to say something about a particular issue, even with the three day notice, not being able to get in. I would like now to ask a couple of points. I am going to lead the witnesses because the clerk tells me it is helpful to have this as evidence based report. When I came in all those years ago I used to sit on the backbenches as well as in committee doing my constituency correspondence. No-one upbraided me for this. I used to sign letters in there and was discreet about it. I cannot for the life of me see what the difference is in principle between doing that at a time when only paper and pen was available, and somebody being able to use discreetly a PDA to perform exactly the same task. Would you agree?

  John Bercow: Yes, I have no problem with that at all.


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