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

Memorandum from the Clerk of the House of Commons (M39)


  1.  The current inquiry of the Modernisation Committee is being undertaken together with an inquiry into strengthening the role of the backbencher. I have already responded to that inquiry and this Memorandum should be read in conjunction with my earlier Memorandum on that subject. The Committee has also received a paper on the use of non-legislative time prepared by the staff of the Committee to which I will refer in this paper. [7]


  2.  The present distribution of sitting time broadly reflects the arrangements made in 1994-95 which in turn stemmed from the Jopling Report on Sittings of the House published in February 1992. [8]

  That Report was based on three principles:

    —    the Government must be able to get its business through and, within that principle, ultimately control the time of the House;

    —    the Opposition must have enough opportunity to scrutinise the actions of Government and to improve or oppose its legislation as it thinks fit; and

    —    backbench Members on both sides of the Chamber should have reasonable opportunities to raise matters of concern to their constituents. [9]

  3.  After more than two and a half years of discussion behind the scenes, a comprehensive package of changes was introduced in 1994, at first on an experimental basis. [10]When the Procedure Committee reviewed the experiment in 1995 in its Report on Sitting Hours Reform, [11]it recommended that the changes be incorporated in Standing Orders and this was done on 2 November 1995. [12]


  4.  In its Report, the Procedure Committee published the following list of annual set piece debates which took place in the Chamber. [13]
Queen's Speech Debate   6 days
Opposition Days  20 days
Estimates Days  3 days
Budget Debate  5 days
Summer economic Debate  1 day
Armed Services  3 days
Defence White Paper  2 days
EU matters  1 or 2 days
Reports of the Public Accounts Committee   1 day
Welsh Affairs  1 day
Foreign Affairs (usually)  1 day

  5.  It is quite striking that, in respect of the debates held in prime time, the allocation of time in 2006 has changed very little since the early 1990s. Only the Summer economic debate has fallen regularly from this schedule. Although time spent on defence has been given a different focus, the number of days has remained broadly the same. [14]If it is accepted that the amount of time devoted to legislative business is unlikely to be reduced, and there continues to be a requirement to allocate time to these regular annual debates, the scope for creating additional opportunities for different types of business is necessarily limited.


  6.  Despite this apparent continuity, the analysis of business taken each year[15] illustrates a number of changes in sitting patterns since 1995, including the removal from the floor of debates on statutory instruments and a reduction in hours of sitting which have taken place in addition to the main daily business in the Chamber. [16]These developments have been accompanied by an expansion of opportunities for back bench and select committee adjournment debates, originally (in line with Jopling) on Wednesday mornings in the House and, since session 1999-2000, in Westminster Hall. The intention of the Jopling reforms was to reduce the amount of time that the House sat after the moment of interruption and in that it has broadly succeeded, as the Committee's own Memorandum demonstrates. [17]


  7.  For the purpose of this memorandum, I have assumed that the House will not wish to sit on more days each year than at present. This is not surprising as the House of Commons sits on more days and for more hours that almost all legislatures in the developed world. [18]I have also assumed that the House would not wish to revisit the issue of sitting on Fridays, except for private Members' Bills. Constituency Fridays have become indispensable to Members' constituency work.

  8.  There is also little enthusiasm for the House to go back to regular sittings beyond the moment of interruption. The hours and arrangement of sitting were reconsidered in January 2005 at the end of the last Parliament and the House decided that the hours of sitting on Tuesdays should revert to the traditional afternoon pattern. [19]At that time there was no great pressure to extend sittings for other types of business. Among the options canvassed at that time were sitting after seven o'clock on Wednesdays or increasing the time available in Westminster Hall.


  9.  I have noted above the limited scope to extend the hours of sitting of the House. How the Jopling Committee and the Procedure and Modernisation Committees in the past have approached this task was to move certain business off the floor or to create new types of sitting. The Modernisation Committee is considering not only opportunities to rebalance current sitting hours but also the possibilities of introducing new types of proceeding.

  There are a number of ways which could be used to make time for new types of business. These include:

    —    extending the number of hours of sitting of the House;

    —    reallocating time currently devoted on a regular basis to the existing business;

    —    extending further the use of the parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall.

Extending the hours of sitting

  10.  The Committee may wish to consider whether there is scope to add to the number of hours during which the House sits. If the House sticks to the broad consensus that business should not regularly be taken after the moment of interruption (especially after 10 o'clock) and sitting hours remain the same, the only option available to increase sitting time at a reasonable hour would be to extend Wednesday evenings by three hours up to 10 o'clock. The Opposition parties would doubtless resist more time being available for Government business. On previous occasions no consensus has emerged on whether that time should be used and if so what business might be taken.

Reallocation of time currently used for existing business

  11.  Although there may be limited scope for changing the regular pattern of set piece debates or for changing the amount of time available on the floor of the House for the various stages of legislation, there remains a variety of other regular business taken each session. For example, there are annual debates on matters such as social security and pensions uprating and local government and police financial support which must be accommodated. Time is also provided each year for debates on current issues. Since the last election there have been debates on important White Papers or Reports such as on the Conventions of the UK Parliament or Pensions reform. The Government is continually pressed to find time for debates on particular subjects as can be seen every Thursday at Business Questions. At times of the year when legislation is not pressing, the Government holds debates on the adjournment to enable topics to come before the House. Such debates frequently take place on a Monday or on a Thursday when they can take place without the need for whipping and they may not be heavily attended. Because the debates do not arise on a regular basis, it might be difficult to translate these occasions to provide predictable opportunities for other types of business. In any case, Members might not welcome removal of such occasional opportunities to debate subjects which are of topical interest and for which the Government is pressed to find time.

Westminster Hall

  12.  Debates in Westminster Hall have been a significant success and have, to some extent, reversed the historical erosion of private members' time over a long period. 12 hours of debate occur each week, nine of which provide opportunities for backbench Members. The regular Thursday debates also provide select committees with ready opportunities to follow up their reports. The scale of the opportunities for backbenchers has enabled many topical debates to held, in recent times on Farepak, on rail services, on air passenger duty and on the future of cottage hospitals, which otherwise would have been confined to Question Time.

  13.  The debates in Westminster Hall have settled to a regular pattern on Tuesday morning, on Wednesday morning and afternoon and on Thursday afternoon. During some of these sessions, the House is sitting. 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. That might not suit Members and would have resource implications both for the House and for Government. Unless Monday mornings were used, any further sitting time would need to be also at a time when the House is sitting, a practice which already leads to conflicts of interest and complaints from Members who cannot be present at two debates at the same time.

  14.  As I have noted in my other Memorandum, the success of Westminster Hall has been related to the fact that the business taken has been unopposed. It is unlikely to be possible to take business other than adjournment Motions there without a consensus for such a change or without an amendment to the Standing Orders since, under SO No 10 (10), only six Members are able to block proceedings and they would be likely to do so if it was felt that the matter to be debated should properly have been discussed in the House itself.


  15.  Since 1997, the House has addressed the issue of making its business more topical and a number of procedural changes have been made. The notice period for oral questions was reduced from two weeks to (in most cases) three sitting days; the creation of additional opportunities for adjournment debates in Westminster Hall has increased the likelihood of early success in the ballot.

  16.  If the House wished to add a further opportunity for topical debates, time from the regular business would have to be found. A difficulty here is that Members do not welcome the truncation of the main business on a particular day, for example when there are programmed proceedings on bills or there is an Opposition Day. There are frequent complaints when statements eat into the time for that business. Were the Committee minded to propose that on one or more days a week a limited period be set aside for "topical" business, it would be helpful if this was done on a regular basis so that the business managers could take account of that fact when scheduling business and heavily oversubscribed debates or legislative business were not affected.


  17.  Debates regularly take place on substantive Motions in Government and Opposition time. All Opposition parties benefit to some extent from the twenty days provided each year pursuant to Standing Order No 14. As part of the Jopling package, the procedure for private Members' motions was discontinued and I have commented on this matter in my memorandum on Strengthening the role of the backbencher.

  18.  Statistics provided to the Committee show that more than twenty debates are held in the Chamber each session in Government time on motions for the adjournment of the House. [20]It has sometimes been suggested that many of these debates could be held on the basis of a substantive motion. That would facilitate the moving of amendments and provide the occasion for votes in the House, neither of which can occur readily in an adjournment debate. On the other hand, it could be argued that debates on the adjournment are more flexible and the rules of debate less strict so that they can be arranged more quickly, for varying lengths of time and will enable Members to contribute without constant reference to a motion which might limit what can be discussed. The parties (and Members) may also benefit from the looser whipping regime which may accompany them. It is for the Committee to determine where the balance in this argument lies.


  19.  Currently the Government controls the time of the House, subject to the allocation of time by Standing Order in respect of Opposition Days, Private Members' bill Fridays and specific timed business such as that for 10 Minute Rule Motions.

  A number of methods are currently used to allocate opportunities:

    —    A ballot administered by the Speaker's Office is used to select subjects for adjournment debates,

    —    A shuffle is done electronically to determine precedence of notices of oral Questions,

    —    A queuing system is used to allocate 10 minute rule Motion slots,

    —    The Speaker decides whether applications for Urgent Questions or emergency debates under SO No 24 meet the criteria laid down in Standing Orders and should be granted,

    —    The Speaker's chooses one adjournment debate in the House and another in Westminster Hall each week.

  20.  Among the suggestions previously considered for allocating time has been the idea of a Business Committee which could determine the priority and scheduling of business. That idea has ramifications well beyond the use of non-legislative time and has not previously found favour with the usual channels who currently determine business.

  Other possibilities canvassed for allocating time in the Chamber include:

    —    Giving further responsibility to the Speaker for determining priority of different types of business. This might well bring the Speaker into political controversy unless some objective criteria could be established on the basis of which he could make his selection.

    —    Providing that Early Day Motions with sufficient support might be debated. Under this proposal, it would not readily be possible to discriminate between subjects which were suitable for debate and those which were popularly supported but would not generate significant discussion. This form of allocation might also generate organised party activity to gain a debating opportunity when each of the main Opposition parties (and the Government) already have time at their disposal.


  21.  The Committee has indicated that it may wish to consider the adoption of novel procedures to expand the opportunities for the House to challenge the Government. One procedure proposed for consideration is the Interpellation.

  22.  The procedure has been used in continental European Parliaments at different times. It generally is based on a Member introducing a subject for discussion for a limited period after which other Members might contribute. At the end of the debate a Minister might reply and in some jurisdictions a vote might follow.

  Points that the Committee should consider are:

    —    How might the right to initiate an interpellation be established?

    —    Would the procedure be intended for backbenchers or Parties to use?

    —    How far the worth of the procedure would be dependent on a Ministerial response or the possibility of a vote on a Motion at the end?

    —    In what part in the Parliamentary week should it be scheduled?

    —  How far would this procedure differ from Opposition business?


  23.  On 1 November 2006, the House incorporated the temporary order on Shorter Speeches into Standing Order No 47 on Short Speeches. Now the Speaker can apply a time limit on speeches at the beginning for the whole or a part of a debate and towards the end of the time apply a shorter speech limit. The reaction of Members to these limits varies. Some (and most newer) Members prefer the imposition of limits to enable a larger number of Members to speak. Others resent the inhibition which it places on their ability to make a sophisticated and extended argument.

  24.  One problem which has emerged is the rigidity of the limits set—a minimum of eight minutes for short speeches and three minutes for shorter speeches. The calculations which the Chair must make are affected by the number of Members who have written in advance seeking to be called. If Members subsequently withdraw, the set time limit may bring the debate to an end prematurely. Similarly if Members seek to catch the Speaker's eye without prior notification, the chosen time limit may be too generous to enable all to speak. Clearly it would be wrong to fetter the Speaker's discretion in setting limits. But the Committee may wish to express their view on the use of the two elements of the Standing Order and whether a more flexible approach might be adopted, for example by the Chair altering the limit mid-way through the debate and not only towards the end, in the light of progress of the debate.

Malcolm Jack

March 2007

7   NLT M 1 (not printed). Back

8   HC 20 (1991-92). Back

9   Ibid para 7. Back

10   HC Deb. 19 December 1994, cc 1456-1509. Back

11   HC 491 1994-95. Back

12   HC Deb. 2 November 1995, cc 405 et seq. Back

13   HC 491 op cit para 31. Back

14   In 2005-06 on Defence in the UK, Defence in the World, Defence policy, Defence procurement and Armed Forces Personnel. Back

15   See memorandum from the staff of the Committee NLT M 1. Back

16   This has been achieved by eliminating some debates on Money and Ways and Means resolutions and the adjournments after the passage of Consolidated Fund Bills and the debating of statutory instruments in Committee. Back

17   NLT M 1 op citBack

18   See, for example, the comparison of annual number of sitting days in Commonwealth parliaments in The Table, The Journal of the Society of Clerks-of-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments, Vol 22, 2004, pp 210-11. Back

19   CJ (2004-05 p 116. Back

20   NLT M1, para 19. Back

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