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

Memorandum from the Clerk of the House of Commons (M23)


  1.  How backbenchers perform their role as Members of the House is largely a matter for each Member to decide. It is of course important that all Members attend the Chamber as frequently as possible and participate in proceedings. But the potential range of activities in which Members may be engaged is wide and it is inappropriate for me to prescribe how they should perform their functions. Instead I address some of the detailed questions posed by the Committee's terms of reference.


  2.  The first important matter highlighted in those terms of reference is about the arrangements made after a general election to introduce new Members to the work of the House. The Clerk's Department has played a full part in the House-wide induction programme for new Members since 1997. Details of the induction programme in 2005 are included in the Memorandum from the Services Information Group.

  3.  The induction training for Members is much more complicated than that which the Department operates for staff because of the breadth of information which must be made available and the wide range of services of interest to Members. As I have already said, since there is no model job description for Members they must decide for themselves what aspects of Parliamentary work they wish to concentrate on and what they need to know to do their job effectively.

  4.  The Clerk's Department naturally concentrates on explaining the work of the Chamber and Committees, for which the Department is responsible. [1]We have a large number of staff with long experience of the institution and of how Parliamentary opportunities can be used to full effect. It is an important resource at the disposal of Members. A programme of briefings on House business and procedure is offered but we could provide individual briefings for Members if that was wanted. In any case, Clerks are always ready to advise Members in private about any matter of the House's business. To improve on what was done in 2005, I would welcome views from the Committee on what further assistance we can offer Members after the next General Election.

Period available for induction of new Members

  5.  There is a very limited time for new Members to learn about the work of the House before they become inundated with constituency and party obligations. This is partly due to the relatively brief gap which occurs between the General Election itself, the meeting of the House to elect a Speaker and to swear in Members, and the State Opening of the session. The table below shows that the period between the election and the formal commencement of business has not always been quite so compressed.
Date of General Election First day of the meeting of Parliament Intervening daysDate of first day of Queen's Speech Debate Intervening days
Thursday 23 February 1950Wednesday 1 March 1950 6Monday 6 March 1950 5
Thursday 25 October 1951Wednesday 31 October 1951 6Tuesday 6 November 1951 6
Thursday 26 May 1955Tuesday7 June 1955 12Thursday 9 June 1955 2
Thursday 8 October 1959Tuesday 20 October 1959 12Tuesday 27 October 1959 7
Thursday 15 October 1964Tuesday 27 October 1964 12Tuesday 3 November 1964 7
Thursday 31 March 1966Monday 18 April 1966 18Thursday 21 April 1966 3
Thursday 18 June 1970Monday 29 June 1970 11Thursday 2 July 1970 3
Thursday 28 February 1974Wednesday 6 March 1974 6Tuesday 12 March 1974 6
Thursday 10 October 1974Tuesday 22 October 1974 12Tuesday 29 October 1974 7
Thursday 3 May 1979Wednesday 9 May 1979 6Tuesday 15 May 1979 6
Thursday 9 June 1983Wednesday 15 June 1983 6Wednesday 22 June 1983 7
Thursday 11 June 1987Wednesday 17 June 1987 6Thursday 25 June 1987 8
Thursday 8 April 1992Monday 27 April 1992 19Wednesday 6 May 1992 9
Thursday 1 May 1997Wednesday 7 May 1997 6Wednesday 14 May 1997 7
Thursday 7 June 2001Wednesday 13 June 2001 6Wednesday 20 June 2001 7
Thursday 5 May 2005Wednesday 11 May 2005 6Tuesday 17 May 2005 6

  6.  While it is unrealistic to expect much of a gap, there could be a slightly longer period than has been allowed recently for induction of new Members, allowing them to concentrate on adjusting to the Parliamentary way of life before the pressure of formal business builds up. The table shows that from 1955 to 1974 and again in 1992 the House did not meet formally until at least the second week after the election. Reversion to such a practice would provide a window of opportunity for new Members to settle into parliamentary life. If such a timetable were adopted, the Clerk's Department (along with others) would be ready to offer any additional services and support that was thought useful and up to date.


  7.  The procedural briefings given, and leaflets prepared in 2005 included those on the conventions and courtesies of the House. These are largely based on rulings from the Chair, frequently given at the behest of Members. They have evolved for good reason. The House is a debating chamber and most conventions are designed to assist (or not interrupt) the flow of debate and to facilitate a proper and orderly exchange of views. [2]Mr Speaker regularly writes to Members about the conventions of the House and a brief article elaborating the conventions is contributed to The House Magazine after each General Election. A copy of Mr Speaker's most recent letter is appended to this Memorandum. The Modernisation Committee has previously considered these conventions in 1998 and some have been modified as a result of the Committee's Report and it may be timely to review them again. [3]


  8.  I have already noted that most procedures and conventions are designed to ensure that there is genuine debate and exchange of views in the Chamber—another example is the rule against reading out speeches except in certain cases so that there is a more natural "flow" of debate. [4]Members may feel that they are unable fully to engage in debates because they are not called to speak on every occasion when they seek to catch the Speaker's eye. But frequently that stems from the fact that the most popular debates are heavily over subscribed and, even with use of the Standing Order on Short Speeches, it is impossible for the Chair to call everyone. The problem that new Members may experience in getting called to speak was addressed by the Modernisation Committee when it recommended that precedence in debate no longer be accorded to Privy Counsellors. [5]

  9.  New Members may also feel inhibited by the Chamber but that may result from a lack of familiarity with it rather than the hostility or unsympathetic nature of its atmosphere. Years ago, incoming Members would be encouraged to sit in the Chamber on a regular basis to soak in the atmosphere before taking part in debates themselves. Nowadays a Member is inundated with constituency work from the outset of his or her parliamentary life and select committees and party activities compete for Members' time to the exclusion of the Chamber. It is nonetheless important for Members to become accustomed to participation in the Chamber, and find their own style and way of contributing to its sometimes lively atmosphere. I think establishing that style goes a long way to dispelling any notion that it is an unfriendly or exclusive place.


  10.  General guidance is already offered to Members in the induction programme about serving on committees of all types. Members appointed to select committees will be given support by the staff of their committee and specific assistance is offered to Members joining a committee. If the Modernisation Committee has any suggestions for further guidance or assistance, my Department would be happy to consider them.


  11.  Some Members are concerned about the limited opportunities available to participate in the work of select committees or Public Bill Committees. Below is a table showing the total membership of different types of committees since session 2002-03.
Number of Members who served on:


(Public Bills)



2002-03424525 2741394
2003-04373483 2640372
2004-05194477 2840348
2005-06382545 31274382

  Although the figures do not tell the full story, it is clear that not all Members are able to participate in the mainstream work of either Public Bill Committees or select committees.

  12.  At the beginning of this Parliament, the size of some select committees was increased, thereby adding to the number of places available overall. But even now, only some 288 places are available on the Departmental and other main investigative Committees, with a further hundred places being available on domestic or scrutiny committees. That leaves a significant proportion of backbenchers without a select committee placement. It would be difficult to add significantly to the number of Members involved in select committees as presently constituted without changing the character of the committees or increasing the number of sub-committees operating. Clearly, the establishment of more committees or sub-committees would have resource implications for the House. But it is a matter which the Modernisation Committee might wish to consider.


  13.  There is also a limited number of seats for members on Public Bill Committees. In the last Parliament in the two normal length sessions, 2002-03 and 2003-04 424 and 373 Members respectively attended such committees (then known as Standing Committees). Some of these committee placements involved only a small number of sittings. It should also be borne in mind that Government Ministers and Opposition frontbenchers are included in the figures. Overall a significant proportion of Members is excluded from participation in any one session.

  14.  It is true that any Member may attend and speak in Delegated Legislation and European Standing Committees. But the opportunities to attend and speak on significant or controversial proposals are not frequent and even then lack of time will lead to some Members being left out.

  15.  Adding to the number of Members taking part is not a straightforward option. There is an optimum number of Members who can participate in the proceedings on a Bill and expanding numbers on each Committee would not make best use of Members' time nor would it necessarily be welcomed by them.

  16.  One development which may have a positive impact is the change from Standing Committees on Bills to Public Bill Committees. The provision to allow Public Bill Committees to take evidence (just launched in January 2007) may lead to Members gaining a greater sense of involvement in the legislative process by making individual contributions to the scrutiny process.


  17.  Since the creation of Westminster Hall as a parallel debating Chamber, backbenchers have considerably more opportunities to initiate debates than have been available since 1945 and a continuing erosion of backbench opportunities throughout the last century has, in this particular way, been checked. As the Committee will know from its inquiry into the use of non-legislative time, these debates stemmed partly from the inquiries in the mid 1990s on the sitting hours of the House (the Jopling reforms) and the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee to replace Wednesday morning sittings in the Chamber with more extended sittings in Westminster Hall. Four one and a half hour and six half hour adjournment debates are available each week. [6]This total of nine hours exceeds by a considerable margin the time that was formerly available either for Wednesday morning sittings or, previously, for Private Members' Motions and Consolidated Fund Bill debates. For example the paper on the use of non-legislative time shows that in 1993-94 backbenchers disposed of a total of approximately 120 hours for debates on Private Members' motions, and on adjournments on the Consolidated Fund and prior to each recess, whereas in 2003-04 they had 307 hours in Westminster Hall alone.

  18.  It would be possible to increase the number or length of sittings in Westminster Hall, adding time at the end of current sittings or holding additional meetings on Monday or Tuesday afternoons for example but that may not suit Members and would have resource implications both for the House and for Government.


  19.  What backbench Members cannot do currently is initiate debates on a substantive Motion which would enable them to test the opinion of the House on a subject at their own initiative. The Committee will be aware that in the period before the Jopling reforms, Private Members' motions took precedence on 10 Friday sittings and on four Mondays up to seven o'clock. The Fridays were gradually diminished partly in favour of additional time for Private Members' Bills and finally to facilitate the establishment of Constituency Fridays. The Monday afternoon debates were ended as part of the changes following the Jopling report. Many Members found the debates unsatisfactory; most were poorly attended and only a minority of Members wished to retain them.

  20.  The questions for the Committee are whether there is a demand for additional debating time for backbench Members; and whether Private Members' Motions should be revived but if so, how the time could be found for them. It should be recognised that the success of Westminster Hall has been related to the fact that the business taken there has been unopposed. It is unlikely to be possible to take substantive Motions there without a consensus for such a change or without an amendment to the Standing Orders since only six Members are able to block proceedings under SO No 10 (10) and they would be likely to do so if it was felt that matters to be referred should properly have been debated in the House itself. But such a reform would be a significant strengthening of the role of a backbencher.

Malcolm Jack

January 2007



16 May 2005


  At the start of the new Parliament it may be helpful if I identify for all Members—but particularly for new Members—the conventions and courtesies of the House which I, and the House, regard as of particular importance:

    —  Members must address the House through the Chair. Accordingly, other Members should not be addressed as "you" but should be referred to as "the honourable Member for [constituency]", "my honourable friend" or "the honourable Member opposite". Privy Counsellors should be referred to as "Right Honourable". Ministers can be referred to by office or simply as "the Minister".

    —  On entering or leaving the Chamber, Members should give a slight bow to the Chair, as a gesture of respect to the House.

    —  Members should not cross the line of sight between the Speaker and the Member who has the floor, or at Question time, between a Member who is asking or has asked a Question and the Minister who is responding to him.

    —  Members wishing to speak in debates in the Chamber or in 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall should write to me in advance. Members who have not written in may still take part in debates by approaching the Chair or seeking to catch the Chair's eye, but it is likely that preference will be given to those who have written in.

    —  It is the custom of the House that new Members should not seek to participate in exchanges in the House (at Question Time or following Ministerial statements) or in Westminster Hall until they have made their maiden speeches.

    —  Members must resume their seats whenever the Speaker (or a Deputy) is on his or her feet.

    —  Members should notify colleagues whenever:

    (a)  they intend to refer to them in the Chamber;

    (b)  they table Questions which specifically affect colleagues' constituencies;

    (c)  they intend to visit colleagues' constituencies (except on purely private visits).

    —  Members must speak from the place where they are called, which must be within the formal limits of the Chamber (eg not from the cross-benches below the bar).

    —  Members may intervene briefly in each other's speeches, but only if the Member who has the floor is prepared to give way.

    —  Members speaking in debates should be present for the opening and winding-up speeches, and should remain in the Chamber for at least two speeches after they have concluded.

    —  Members may refer to notes but they should not read speeches or questions at length.

    —  Members seeking to be called following a Ministerial statement, Urgent Question or the Business Question must be present for the whole of the opening statement.

    —  Members with oral Questions on the Order Paper who cannot be present at Question Time must notify the Table Office of their absence in good time.

    —  Members with oral Questions should not leave the Chamber until supplementary questions on their Question have ended.

    —  Electronic devices, including mobile phones should not be used in the Chamber. Such devices may be switched on as long as they are in silent or vibrate mode. Members should not use electronic devices as an aide-memoire, or to receive messages when addressing the House. Members in the Chamber, whether seated or speaking, will be asked to either resume their seat, or leave the Chamber, if they are seen to be actively using these devices.

    —  Members should bear in mind Erskine May's dictum that "good temper and moderation are the characteristics of Parliamentary language". It is important that exercise of the privilege of freedom of speech is tempered with responsibility.


    —  Prior to Departmental question time or Ministerial statements, Members should only write to me seeking to be called where they wish to draw my attention to a particular fact (eg a constituency connection or personal interest) which they think I should bear in mind. Members who submit generalised requests to be called will be given no preference.

    —  A request to be called at Prime Minister's Questions should be submitted only in the most exceptional circumstances. An example might be where a human tragedy has taken place in the constituency. Generalised requests to be called will be counter productive.


    —  Members wishing to speak in debates in the Chamber or in 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall should write to me in advance. Members who have not written in may still take part in debates by approaching the Chair or seeking to catch the Chair's eye: but it is likely that preference will be given to those who have written in.

    —  Selection of speakers in debate is at my discretion. My objective at all times is to give all Members a fair opportunity to take part in debate. I will take account of relevant experience or expertise (in or outside the House), Members' expressed interests or constituency involvement and the number of times Members have previously spoken (or have failed to catch my eye) during the Parliamentary session. Under the Standing Orders of the House, wherever it seems to me appropriate I will impose time limits on speeches in order to give as many Members as possible the opportunity to contribute to debate. Members must understand, however, that it will not always be possible for them to be called when they wish to speak. The Chair will generally seek to be as helpful as possible to Members seeking advice on the likelihood of being called.

    —  It is not necessary to apply to speak when the House is in Committee or is considering a Bill at Report stage. It will be sufficient for Members to rise in their places on such occasions.

    —  My office keeps comprehensive records of Members' success and failure in being called in debate, following Ministerial statements and at Prime Minister's, Business or Urgent Questions. These statistics are always taken into account on a subsequent occasion.


    —  Half-hour adjournment debates in the Chamber or in Westminster Hall are intended to be an exchange between the Member and the Minister, who will respond on behalf of the Government to the issues raised. Other Members may intervene in the debate only with the permission of the Member and Minister concerned and, if such permission is granted, the Chair must be so notified. It is inappropriate to criticise other Members for failing to attend an adjournment debate in which they cannot expect to participate.


1   Briefings were also given by members of the Department on Standards and the Code of Conduct in 2005. Back

2   For example, the requirements that Members entering or leaving the Chamber should not pass between the Member speaking and the Chair and that Members speaking in a debate should be present for the opening and wind-up speeches. Back

3   For example, changes were made to the procedure for points of order during divisions, and the prohibition on quoting from speeches in the House of Lords was lifted. Back

4   See Erskine May Parliamentary Practice 23rd Edition, 2004, p 425. Back

5   Fourth Report 1997-98, Conduct in the Chamber HC 600. Back

6   A further three hours of debate in two weeks out of every three is devoted to debate of select committee Reports. Back

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