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


Memorandum from Rt Hon Sir Alan Haselhurst MP, Chairman of Ways and Means (M42)

STRENGTHENING THE ROLE OF THE BACKBENCHER AND MAKING BETTER USE OF NON-LEGISLATIVE TIME

INTRODUCTION

  1.  I am grateful for the chance to contribute to the Modernisation Committee's enquiries into Strengthening the Role of the Backbencher and Making Better Use of Non-Legislative Time. The Committee has expressed the hope that the two inquiries "will feed into one another". I myself certainly see a link between the two subjects, to the extent that strengthening the backbencher's role is likely to involve some enhancement of opportunities to initiate or take part in debates other than those which involve the scrutiny of legislation.

  2.  I have not, therefore, attempted in this memorandum to deal under the separate inquiry headings with the specific issues suggested by the Committee for discussion.

  3.  I start from the proposition, as I think does the Committee, that the recent reductions in overall sitting time to permit Members to spend more time in their constituencies seem to be an accepted part of the Parliamentary timetable. There may not be much appetite for reversing this trend by, for example, providing for more Friday sittings, in addition to the 13 dedicated to Private Members' Bills. It follows, therefore, that any attempt to carve out greater opportunities for backbenchers must involve either additional sitting time within the existing envelope of the Parliamentary week, some readjustment of the way in which time is currently employed, or making better use of existing time-slots.

INDUCTION FOR NEW MEMBERS

  4.  Induction for new Members, in the broadest sense, has improved greatly in recent years, and more particularly over the last decade or so. A great deal of effort by the staff of the House is now put into ensuring that a formal reception process is followed by a series of briefings and seminars on such issues as accommodation, IT and other office support, basic procedure, and security. These measures are all fine as far as they go. What is missing, in my view, is advice to newly elected Members on what might best be described as "how to understand the procedures and conventions of the House and to be effective". It is true that the first of these issues is partly addressed in the statement to the House which Mr Speaker now makes at the opening of every Session (and by occasional written reminders about the conventions and courtesies of the House). But I believe that there is no substitute for new Members as a group hearing directly from their more experienced colleagues about the responsibilities and duties of Members, as well as about how best to take advantage of the various Parliamentary opportunities open to them. I recall from my own initial election to the House in the 1970s that the then Conservative Chief Whip organised a seminar for new Members on precisely these matters. I understand that his successors arranged something similar after the 2001 and 2005 general elections. I would welcome a situation in which this type of induction were provided by all the parties to their new Members as a matter of routine after every election. I would suggest that such a process might benefit from appropriate input by relevant Officers of the House on matters such as registration of interests. I also think that it would be helpful if the Clerk of the House, as Chief Executive of the House service, formally welcomed all new Members as a group on their first day at Westminster, to be followed by the Heads of the various Departments introducing themselves and explaining their roles. Such an event works very well, I understand, in the Australian House of Representatives, where it takes place in the Chamber.

  5.  The first and paramount role of a Member of the House of Commons is to represent his or her constituents at Westminster, not the other way round, and, in doing so, to carry out scrutiny of legislation and the activities of the Executive. It is not clear to me that all Members, particularly those elected more recently, accept (or at least act on) this principle. That in turn raises the question of how much time Members are willing to commit to being at Westminster. And the scrutiny role is challenged by a much wider range of activities competing for Members' time than used to be the case. I would mention in this context, for example, party meetings, backbench committees, pressure groups, campaigns of various kinds and, of course, the ever-increasing demands of the 24 hour media. It is sometimes said, and it is difficult to deny, that a one minute soundbite on the evening television news is worth any number of speeches on the floor of the House, not least because of the opportunity it offers to make direct contact with a large and captive audience. The pressure to create more time for constituency and campaigning work was one of the main driving forces behind the changes in sitting hours introduced during the last two Parliaments. They in turn have led to a clash of commitments for Members at Westminster, with the scrutiny function suffering. A further effect of the changes has often been to turn Thursdays, for example, into a virtual non-day. Whipped business is now rarely taken, and, if it is, the last votes are often scheduled for four or five o'clock. The main business frequently consists of uncontroversial, rather anodyne adjournment debates of the sort that used to be taken on Government Fridays. It is scarcely surprising that once Question Time and the Business Statement have finished, the Chamber empties.

PREDICTABILITY AND TOPICALITY OF BUSINESS

  6.  It is not easy to see what can be done about this state of affairs. Two solutions sometimes suggested are greater predictability in the timing of business and more topicality in the House's proceedings. I deal with each of these in turn.

  7.  I can understand why greater predictability (particularly as regards voting and speaking) is attractive to some Members. But it is not a view I share, not least because it clashes with the other, and I believe more important, goal of topicality.

  8.  It is in any case unrealistic to expect business to be entirely predictable. Business managers need some margin of flexibility in their forward planning and timing proceedings down to the last minute would, in any case, be undesirably restrictive. But it ought to be possible, for example, to avoid the sort of situation that occurs from time to time, in which business is announced by the Leader of the House which is plainly not sufficient to occupy a whole day's sitting time. There is nothing more dispiriting for Members than to see business collapsing several hours before the scheduled close, with the resultant loss of debating time which is at such a premium, particularly for backbenchers.

  9.  I should add that I would not favour bringing back the former practice of second and third adjournment debates. Because of the short notice at which they were called, and the lack of opportunity for Ministers to be properly briefed, these often took the form of statements read into the record by the Member concerned rather than a debate in the proper sense of the word.

  10.  Nor would I welcome the introduction of published speakers' lists as a means of giving Members greater predictability as to whether, and if so when, they will be called in a particular debate. Any gain in certainty of timing would, in my view, be more than outweighed by the loss of spontaneity in debate and the temptation for Members to spend even less time listening to their colleagues' contributions. This would, unless counteracted by pretty rigid and difficult to enforce rules, further erode the principle that, in order to be able to speak, Members need to be in the Chamber.

  11.  I do, however, have one or two thoughts to offer which are designed to enhance the topicality of proceedings, as well as to ensure that those items of business which are already topical, such as Ministerial statements, are used more effectively.

STATEMENTS

  12.  The first idea, which the Committee might like to revisit, is that statements should be made available in advance to all Members, rather than simply to Opposition front bench spokesmen. I can see no practical difficulty with such an arrangement, other than that of creating sufficient copies in time. But, given the political will, departmental resources ought to be equal to this challenge. [1]Receiving a statement, say, half an hour in advance would enable Members to digest its contents and to put specific questions to the Minister on points of clarification or elucidation, rather than, as often happens at present, rehearse matters already covered in the Minister's remarks. And the Committee may also wish to consider whether, building on what it and Mr Speaker have already achieved in this area, there is further scope for injecting more crispness and discipline into the Statement procedure. This would produce the double benefit of creating more time for backbenchers to put questions and of enabling statements to be more effectively scrutinised. [2]I appreciate that some statements may not be finalized until close to their delivery in the House—in which case Departments should still use their best endeavours to ensure that copies are available to the Vote Office as speedily as possible.

URGENT QUESTIONS

  13.  So far as Urgent Questions are concerned, the Committee might like to consider the criteria which currently govern the Speaker's decisions.

  14.  Under Standing Order No 21(2) the Speaker may grant an Urgent Question which is "of an urgent character" and relates "either to matters of public importance or to the arrangement of business". The Committee might wish to consider whether, in consultation with Mr Speaker, it would be useful to draw up some informal guidelines about the sorts of issues or events which would meet the test set out in the Standing Order, with a view to tilting the balance slightly more in favour of Urgent Questions being granted.

  15.  It would assist in the goal of creating more opportunities for backbenchers to take part in statements and Urgent Questions if the occupants of the Chair felt able to let the proceedings run for a little longer than is customary at present. They would doubtless be encouraged to do this if they did not feel under pressure to protect the subsequent business from undue encroachment. The best way of ensuring this would be to provide for "injury" time. It could be argued that such a course would run counter both to the desire for predictability and to the aim of avoiding late votes (or votes later than the moment of interruption). For that reason, I would restrict the use of injury time in this way to Opposition days and to remaining stages of bills—the two types of business where loss of time to statements and Urgent Questions is particularly unwelcome and disruptive.

  16.  The suggestions I have made in relation to Urgent Questions and statements, apart from creating more opportunities for backbenchers to raise issues in the House, would, in parallel, also contribute to a goal to which the Committee rightly attaches importance—namely, connecting better with the public. It would do this by showing that procedure is not acting as an unreasonable barrier to the ventilation in the House of matters of concern to voters in their everyday lives.

PRIVATE MEMBERS' MOTIONS

  17.  One opportunity for backbenchers which no longer exists is Private Members' Motions. These were abolished in 1995 as part of a package of procedural changes, the full significance of which the House may not fully have appreciated at the time. I personally think it a pity that backbenchers do not have a chance to test the mood of the House by putting a specific proposition before it, in addition to being able to raise an issue with a Minister. Some means of selecting such Motions for debate would be needed—either a ballot, as used previously, a Speaker's discretion or some combination of both. This task could also form one of the roles of a new Business Committee, whose creation I favour but which is perhaps a little outside the scope of the Committee's current inquiries.

WESTMINSTER HALL

  18.  Westminster Hall is a valuable source of debating opportunities for backbenchers (and, on frequent Thursdays, for Select Committees). It has now established itself as part of the parliamentary scene to the extent that many Members who originally opposed its introduction as a distraction from the Chamber have now changed their minds. This does not, however, mean that it could not be put to better use. In general, Westminster Hall offers a hitherto unexploited forum for taking more unwhipped business and for trying out new ideas (whether they are intended for eventual implementation in the Chamber or Westminster Hall itself). In terms of specific proposals, I have in mind two possibilities: debates on uncontroversial legislation and opportunities to raise topical issues. These innovations would be worth introducing in their own right. But there would also be the benefit, in the case of debates on uncontroversial legislation, of bringing Westminster Hall closer into line with the Main Committee in the Australian House of Representatives—on which it was originally modelled. Indeed, the Standing Order relating to Westminster Hall allows for other categories of business to be taken there in addition to adjournment debates. If more debating time were thought to be needed as a result of these changes, Monday afternoons might be a possibility:

(a)   Debates on uncontroversial Legislation

  19.  I see no reason why, for example, second readings of uncontroversial bills (that is to say those on which no division is expected) should not be taken in Westminster Hall, thus freeing valuable debating time in the Chamber. This might include debates on bills of the sort which are currently referred to a Second Reading Committee. Such a development ought not to cause a headache for the Government business managers, since they would have the assurance, under the Standing Order, of knowing that, if a division were unexpectedly called, this would be remitted to the floor of the House. I accept, of course, that taking Committee and Remaining Stages in Westminster Hall would not be practicable, because of the dependence of proceedings on the outcome of earlier decisions.

(b)   Raising topical issues

  20.  Another possible development of Westminster Hall—perhaps on a trial basis initially—would be the establishment of a 30 minute slot[3] for "issues of concern". This would enable ten Members to raise for three minutes each, and without notice, a matter of national, local or constituency interest without the need for a Ministerial reply. If this trial were successful I would hope the new procedure could be introduced in the Chamber.

(c)   Select Committee Reports

  21.  Another topical use of time in Westminster Hall would be a weekly half hour slot, along the lines originally recommended by the Liaison Committee in 2000, [4]for debating newly published Select Committee reports. The slot would begin with a Minister giving an initial response to the report for five minutes, followed by the Chairman of the Committee, or another Member speaking on its behalf, for five minutes. The remainder of the half-hour would be available for other Members to comment. There would need to be a mechanism for the selection of reports for debate in this way, which ought to involve the Liaison Committee. Since it would not be practicable for the Committee to meet every week, the task could be delegated to the Chairman, consulting other members of the Committee as appropriate. If this idea worked well in Westminster Hall, I would hope that serious consideration would be given to transferring it to the Chamber.

(d)   Cross-cutting Questions

  22.  I would also mention in this context cross-cutting questions. These were introduced in Westminster Hall as a means of enabling Members to raise issues which engaged the responsibilities of more than one Department. Although the experience was variable (not least because the interaction of Ministers from different Departments depended to a large extent on the ability of Members to table suitable Questions), I regret the fact that this practice appears to have fallen into abeyance. The last session of cross-cutting questions was held in October 2004. I would hope that some way could be found of restoring the procedure for a more extended trial period.

PROGRAMMING

  23.  The principle of programming bills is not necessarily objectionable, but it needs to be applied more sensitively and flexibly. If programming were modified in this way, something approaching a consensus on its use might be achievable. I set out below some examples of what I have in mind:

    —    The outdate for the bill should be the product of genuine negotiation between the usual channels, with the Government prepared to give serious consideration to requests for more time for the passage of the bill, whether overall or in respect of a particular stage; the flexibility Ministers have shown on some bills in acceding to requests for additional sittings at the Committee stage needs to be more routinely observed. And the rights of backbenchers, or groups of backbenchers, with a view distinct from that of their party must also be given proper weight.

    —    In the case of major or particularly complex bills, more time should be allowed for Report stages; it is not conducive to effective scrutiny of a bill if debate on amendments is truncated or if whole groups of amendments are not even reached before the knife falls. To the extent that the Speaker's grouping of amendments inevitably takes into account the total time available and the incidence of any knives, this can lead to larger groups than would otherwise be the case.

    —    Injury time should be allowed for divisions at the end of Report stage; it is wrong that votes should eat into the already limited time for Third Reading. I suggest that this would best be achieved by allowing a protected maximum time of, say, one hour for Third Reading. I acknowledge that this would remove one aspect of predictability in the timing of business. But the additional time would not be taken up in all cases; and when it was it would almost always be in relation to an important or controversial bill.

    —    Third Reading itself should revert to its traditional, and proper, purpose of reviewing the progress of the bill, highlighting the main amendments made, including concessions to the Opposition parties, and indicating any outstanding issues to be resolved; whilst there is a place for expressing brief thanks to those who have made a contribution to the passage of the bill, this has become, in many cases, the centrepiece of Third Reading speeches, particularly those from the front benches.

SHORT SPEECHES

  24.  The short speeches provision is, in principle, a useful adjunct to the power of the Chair to seek to regulate debate—in this case in order to ensure that in oversubscribed debates as many Members as possible can be called. But I have some doubt as to whether the relevant Standing Order is working well in practice. At present, Mr Speaker can impose a time limit on backbench speeches of not less than 8 minutes, which is announced at the beginning of the debate. And, following a recent change to the Standing Order, the Chair can now, with Mr Speaker's agreement and if the number of Members still wishing to speak appears to justify it, introduce a shorter limit of not less than three minutes between certain designated times (for practical purposes, the last hour). [5]It is not always straightforward for Mr Speaker to assess the demand to speak in a particular debate from the number of Members who write in in advance. Some Members who have not made a written request to speak come to the Chair during the debate itself and may be able to muster a persuasive case to be called—though not necessarily with any priority. Others, by contrast, deterred by the prospect of waiting several hours without any guarantee of being called, may give up and leave the Chamber. And however hard the Chair tries to accommodate as many Members as possible, there is bound to be some disappointment at the end of a heavily over-subscribed debate.

  25.  I would like to see more flexibility in the operation of the short speeches Standing Order. It should be possible, at the beginning of a debate, for the Chair to announce a provisional limit on speeches of, say, 10 minutes. That would represent a maximum figure, which would not be increased. But, as the debate progresses and the Chair was able to form a clearer picture of the number of Members seeking to get in, a lower limit of perhaps seven or eight minutes could be imposed—to take effect from the next but one speech after it is announced. This additional flexibility would help to avoid the abrupt transition from a reasonably generous allocation of, say, 10 minutes or more to a minimum limit under the Standing Order of only three minutes during the last hour. Not only is the concept of the last hour of the debate definable only in terms of a pre-determined starting time for the front bench wind-up(s), but some Members who have waited patiently throughout the debate might prefer not to speak at all rather than condense their remarks into such a short time limit.

  26.  I have put forward these ideas in a personal capacity and purely in the context of the themes of the Committee's inquiries. No doubt the Committee, if it decides to pursue them in more detail, would wish to seek Mr Speaker's views.

March 2007



1   Under the existing arrangements, Departments already supply 300 copies of a statement to the Vote Office, to be distributed when the relevant Minister sits down. Back

2   I welcome the recent announcement by the Leader of the House that he intends to give notice, on the Order Paper, of oral statements, whenever possible. Back

3   ie a maximum of 30 minutes. Back

4   Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive, First Report of the Liaison Committee, HC (1999-2000) 300. Back

5   The relevant recommendation from the Procedure Committee referred to "the last hour before the wind-ups". The Standing Order itself refers only to "between certain hours". Back


 
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