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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 180-182)


28 MARCH 2007

  Q180  Chairman: For the Chamber as well as upstairs in committee.

  John Bercow: I have no problem with it. I think that the objections are archaic. To a lot of people outside they will seem pompous.

  Q181  Chairman: Thank you very much for that; that was the right answer. The second point is on the issue of speakers' lists. I think there is what they described as an emerging consensus in favour of speakers' lists and certainly having an experiment on this. Are you struck, as I am (the answer to this question, by the way, is yes) that there is the equivalent of a speakers' list for PQs, for oral Parliamentary Questions, and yet there is an increased attendance at Parliamentary Questions rather than a decreased attendance.

  John Bercow: It does seem rather curious. I guess the argument in a sense historically has been that if you know when you are going to get called you will come in to make your speech and you will observe perhaps the parliamentary courtesy of staying for one speech after your own but that is all. It seems to me that you can finesse that quite easily. What you can do is indicate that the way the system will operate is that you will speak at roughly three to three-thirty, you will be expected to be present for, say, at least half an hour before that and you will be expected to be present for at least half an hour after that, and of course for the opening and closing speeches. It will not simply be a case of someone coming in, speaking and leaving. Indeed, if they do, then that person would either be guilty of a breach of rules or would be in such bad odour with the chair as to be damaged in seeking to speak in future debates. Where there is a will there is a way and I think it would make a lot of sense. It is not right that people should have to wait hour, on hour, on hour with no likelihood or guarantee of being called to speak. I would just say, I still have a sense that there is priority given to ex-ministers and to Privy Counsellors. I am not sure at all that that should apply because I think the House needs to hear a representative sample of opinions from Members from all sides of the House and from all sorts of different intakes. Again it seems to me to be an unnecessary parliamentary equivalent of doffing the cap and touching the forelock in that because somebody has been here a long time or has held a senior office he or she should automatically be called first. What one might say perhaps is that somebody who has held a very senior office might get priority in seeking to speak in a debate that relates to his or her former responsibilities, but the idea that ex-cabinet ministers across the board should be able to wander in and probably not even bother to write to the Speaker but be called first is frankly pretty objectionable.

  Martin Salter: Obviously the answer is yes. I would like to lead the Chairman, if I may; I would be very keen if we could read into the record a very brief summary of our views on strengthening select committees and abolishing Fridays which we have not touched.

  Q182  Chairman: Abolishing Fridays?

  Martin Salter: Not in general, just in here. To develop the theme, what we are arguing in our paper is that it is unreasonable, given the tsunami of case work, given the requirements to be in the patch only on a Friday (you are lucky you do not live within commuter distance from your constituency because you get called in all sorts of different ways, believe me). We think it is an unreasonable trade off for people to have to be giving up an entire day away from the constituency, turning down a lot of engagements and the rest of it, when we have a process for private Members' bills where, on the one hand we claim that parliamentary time is at a premium but we deliberately use filibuster to ensure that they do not proceed. You have had evidence from many other witnesses who have said that if there is a case against a private Member's bill let it be made and let it be put to the vote. The whips will hate this but this is one of the reasons why we should look afresh at how we deal with private Members' bills. On select committees I do think it is important that we continue to enhance their roles. They should have the right to command papers (it is sometimes very difficult to get information out of government departments). I think they should have a role in determining their role in pre-legislative scrutiny. I think you were involved in the original decision that with pre-legislative scrutiny it could go to a joint committee, it could go to a public bill committee, it could go to a select committee or it might not happen at all. We are arguing in our paper that the Government should, as a matter of course, have pre-legislative scrutiny and be required to explain why it has not rather than the other way round.

  John Bercow: On select committees I am very attracted to the idea that a select committee ought to be able to get a debate on a key report and then it should have the responsibility itself for deciding from the great wealth of its recommendations which it wants to put before the House and have subject to a vote. I can think of a select committee report undertaken some months ago by the Education and Skills Select Committee on special educational needs—in my view an excellent report—which was subject to a debate in Westminster Hall. It has not been debated on the floor of the House. There was one particular recommendation in that report about separating the assessment of need from the provision of education to meet that child's need which in my view deserves a proper airing on the floor of the House and ministerial reply. It is quite unsatisfactory that several months after that report was issued it has, in a sense, gone into the back garden. My last point is this, so far as Westminster Hall is concerned it seems to me that we have decided to dip our toes in the water but we have refrained from swimming. It would be much better to say that we are now actually going to swim in Westminster Hall and instead of just having debates on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for quite short periods and either a select committee debate or a government debate on the adjournment on a Thursday afternoon, it would make a lot more sense to say, "Wait a minute, what about Monday?" We do not use Westminster Hall on Mondays at all and for those who say that there are a lot of colleagues coming back from their constituencies and it is all very difficult and so on, the answer to that is that there would not be votes there and those colleagues who want to take up issues in Westminster Hall on a Monday should have the opportunity to do so. I would like to see a substantial expansion of our activity in that place.

  Chairman: On that note can I thank you all for a very interesting session.

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