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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)


9 MAY 2007

  Q220  Chairman: Perhaps I can start off. You are right to say that Members plough their own furrow and do things differently, on the other hand what is a common factor is that pressures on Members of Parliament have changed in the time since you and I first came into the House, albeit in different capacities, with this huge increase in constituency work and the media focus on that constituency work and, in addition, a change in the nature of the business of the Commons as a whole with the establishment and then the expansion of the work of departmental select committees. Given what I think is a shared view by this Committee that, notwithstanding those pressures, the Chamber ought to be the cockpit of British politics, not having a monopoly but should be the main cockpit of British politics, in your view what do we do to make the Chamber more lively, better attended and, if you like, more relevant to the central role of Parliament?

  Mr Jack: That is quite a big question, Chairman, which I was rather hoping might be the conclusion of your report. I will have a go at it. Going back to what I just said, the problem is it is going to be different for different people. Different things will attract different Members to the Chamber. One of the things I would pick up straight away because it has consistently come out in the evidence given to you is topicality. Obviously there is a strong desire for Members to take part in debates that are topical, that are relevant, that are on matters of the day. That is one particular area where if debates in the House could become more topical then that could attract more Members.

  Q221  Sir Nicholas Winterton: But how would you achieve that?

  Mr Jack: I think one of the themes that have run through the evidence is by shortening debates and perhaps also by giving greater discretion to the Chair with certain procedural changes.

  Q222  Chairman: I think we all accept shortening. The next issue which you touch on in your evidence but do not come down on one side or the other is how you make decisions about these topical debates. You could have a 15 minutes slot in PQs but that is only once every four weeks for departments, so eight or nine times a year. Of course, I just say parenthetically, and it is quite an important point that we need to bear in mind as a Committee, that one of the reasons why Prime Minister's Questions is interesting, apart from the fact it is the main person, is because it is highly topical and on the main issues of the day. Accepting that we move towards more topical debates, who should make those decisions? Should it just be the business managers hearing the voices or should it be the Speaker, should it be a business committee or should it be a combination?

  Mr Jack: I would have thought it could be a combination from different sources. Obviously the Speaker already has some powers to influence the topicality of debates in the sense that he can grant urgent questions, for example, or SO No. 24 debates. There could be ways of balloting perhaps for these topical debates or there could be even greater informality in the introduction of these subjects. I do not know whether Douglas would like to comment on that.

  Mr Millar: I would simply say if the Speaker is involved I think there have to be very carefully set down criteria by which the Speaker could operate because the Speaker could not be seen to be favouring one group over another. There is also what happens in some continental parliaments, that parties have time that they can allocate. That is not something that has traditionally happened here except in the context of Opposition Days but it is something which could be done. If you were thinking of a weekly one and a half hour debate on a topical subject there could be a number of different ways of allocating that slot. We already divide Thursday afternoon debates in Westminster Hall, for example, between select committees and government, so it is not unknown that the same slot can be allocated in a different way.

  Q223  Chairman: Just one thing on SO No. 24s. One of the constraints on the Speaker of SO No. 24s is that they disrupt the business the following day. Is there a case for giving the Speaker much greater discretion? If you take the NatWest Three there was not a need for the debate to take place the next day, there was a need for the debate to take place within the next ten days. It would make it much more difficult for business managers to resist if the Speaker was able to say, "There will be a debate in the next week on this at primetime, it is a matter for the business managers to come forward and propose exactly when". Sometimes they may want to say it is tomorrow because it is really urgent. If that were to happen it would be much less of a nuclear option, would it not?

  Mr Jack: I think it would be. It would rather change our understanding of what SO No. 24 is about, which is urgent debates.

  Q224  Chairman: You could have an SO No. 24 point two which was an important debate, topical debate.

  Mr Jack: I think the other thing is it echoes a little bit the point that Douglas has just made. It is a question of how far Mr Speaker should get involved, as it were, in the business actually regulating the business of the House. He has certain powers under the Standing Orders obviously but they are, as it were, extra to the business of the House rather than directing the business of the House, which this sounds a bit as if it is, if he were to say, "On Wednesday we will have this debate and on Thursday this debate".

  Q225  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Could this be achieved with more recess adjournment style debates where, as we have just before a recess, Members can raise issues that are topical, that are current, maybe to them and their constituency but in some cases nationally or internationally? Would this be a way of proceeding?

  Mr Jack: Yes, I think it would, Sir Nicholas. As we all know, those debates are very popularly subscribed to and they provide exactly the opportunity that you suggest.

  Q226  Mr Knight: They are popular but they are popular for Members to use for constituency issues.

  Mr Jack: Yes.

  Q227  Mr Knight: I question whether they would be so popular for national issues. Is not the problem in securing a topical debate on an issue which is also a difficult debate for the Executive the fact that if you involve the usual channels the debate will not take place and, therefore, the only way of securing it is to have a ballot?

  Mr Jack: I think on the first point about national matters, yes, I would entirely agree it is the case that the adjournment debates are focused on constituency matters. Perhaps I ought not to venture too much into the second area.

  Q228  Mr Knight: Well, let me phrase the question another way then. It is the case, is it not, that we are one of the few parliaments where a backbencher does not have the opportunity to raise an issue on a substantive motion which leads to a vote? We used to have that option.

  Mr Jack: Yes, we used to have the opportunity and we do not now, I absolutely accept that.

  Q229  Sir Nicholas Winterton: Would you like to see them restored?

  Mr Jack: Yes, I would actually; I would like to see them restored. It has been suggested in your evidence that that could perhaps begin in Westminster Hall although that would raise the question of taking business that is not entirely of an unopposed nature in Westminster Hall. That would be a departure from the way that Westminster Hall has been used hitherto.

  Mr Millar: It would require a change in the Standing Orders because six Members can block any debate in Westminster Hall.

  Q230  Chairman: Six?

  Mr Millar: Yes.

  Q231  Chairman: At the moment?

  Mr Millar: At the moment. That is what Standing Order No.10 says.

  Q232  Chairman: To stand up in the Chamber?

  Mr Millar: In Westminster Hall, and then proceedings have to come to an abrupt halt. That has never happened because throughout the time of the use of Westminster Hall, all debates have been on a motion for the adjournment.

  Q233  Mrs May: Could I just follow up some of these threads. We have come round to the issue of Members being able to ballot for a debate through the issue of topicality but, of course, they are different issues because if you have a Members' ballot it does not necessarily mean that the subjects the Members will put in for are topical subjects, they may choose a wide variety of subjects. Therefore, I assume that what we should be looking at is a variety of options to cover both greater ability for backbenchers to have a say in the business through having their own business being debated through the ballot but also other measures that would enable topicality to be introduced to a greater extent.

  Mr Jack: Yes, I very much agree with that. I think it rather echoes the point that I made in the first place about Members having different views on the priority of time being used in the House because it goes right to the core of this. Some Members may think that raising constituency matters, particular cases and so on, is much more important than having a topical debate.

  Mrs May: We just touched on Westminster Hall as well. I have to confess to having been somebody who was a bit sceptical when Westminster Hall was first introduced but now welcome it and think it has worked extremely well. Do you think that it would be of definite benefit to Parliament if Westminster Hall were being used for different types of business from that which it is used at the moment? I think it has been suggested in evidence that it might be used for some Second Reading Debates, even non-contentious Second Reading Debates. There were growls to my left!

  Mr Knight: I growl only because perhaps I should remind the Committee that when Westminster Hall was set up the then Leader of the House gave an undertaking to the Official Opposition that it would not be used for government business.

  Sir Nicholas Winterton: That is right.

  Chairman: I have got no proposals to do so. It has come from the Shadow Leader of the House.

  Q234  Mrs May: I was just referring to evidence that has been given to us that we need to explore Westminster Hall.

  Mr Jack: Yes, absolutely. I am sure that Westminster Hall could be used in new and different ways, even if not going into government business. I think I would say that the appearance of Westminster Hall has reversed an erosion of private Members' use of time in the House which had been going on right through the last century almost, so it has to some extent been a very significant development in restoring opportunities for backbench Members. Perhaps I will ask Douglas to come in because he has much more direct experience of Westminster Hall than I do.

  Mr Millar: Certainly it has expanded the opportunities for backbenchers to raise subjects, although I understand that there is still quite a significant surplus of applications over the slots that are available. Of course, this is a reflection of the pressures which Members are under to raise issues on behalf of their constituents which perhaps 30 years ago they were not under quite so much pressure to do. Obviously Westminster Hall could be used for a motion on a select committee report, for example; that would not be government business as such. It would be possible to discuss take note motions at the initiative of backbenchers but, as Mr Knight said, the introduction of Westminster Hall was not meant to expand government's opportunities. Ultimately there has to be political agreement about what Westminster Hall is used for, otherwise ritually six Members will turn up and block the business, as was initially threatened.

  Q235  Mark Lazarowicz: On Westminster Hall I was interested in the comment that it tends to be used mainly for Members taking up constituency matters. I have just had a look at the agenda today and, in fact, every single item is anything but a constituency matter. In my experience it tends to be used for general matters more than constituency matters and I think that reflects the use that Members see for it. One of the things which struck me was the way in which the cross-cutting question sessions seem to have disappeared from the Westminster Hall agenda and I find that surprising. I wonder if you can comment, if you are able to do so, as to why that might be the case and, insofar as you can be objective, what is your assessment of how those sessions worked?

  Mr Millar: I think the Chairman of Ways and Means was quite encouraged. He chaired each of the cross-cutting sessions that we had and was quite encouraged by the approach that was adopted and the capacity of Members to deal with ministers from different departments on broadly the same subject, but these sessions happened at the initiative of the government. If the government wish more cross-cutting sessions to happen they could arrange it but, of course, that would reflect perhaps the demand of Members to have them as well.

  Q236  Mr Burstow: Just two things. One is picking up on some of the evidence that we have received from the Chairman of Ways and Means. He made another suggestion for the use of Westminster Hall which was the idea of half an hour allocated and divvied up between numbers of Members, presumably on a balloting basis. Is that something that from your knowledge is a practice that is currently being adopted by parliaments elsewhere? Are there any others that have caught your eye as being perhaps interesting and worth consideration by the Committee?

  Mr Jack: They do not come straight into my mind. There are examples in other parliaments where time is used more informally in the sort of way you are suggesting. I am just trying to think whether—

  Mr Millar: I think something of that sort happens in the Lok Sabha, zero hour.

  Q237  Chairman: Zero hour is an absolutely extraordinary event.

  Mr Jack: That was what I was groping for, zero hour.

  Q238  Chairman: People shouting at each other, it is great.

  Mr Jack: There are such examples.

  Mr Millar: Obviously there are issues on which Members are happy to have their three minute ex parte statement and there are others where it is more important for them to have a response from a minister. If you need that it requires a little bit more notice to ensure that somebody is there to respond.

  Q239  Mr Burstow: I am thinking of this point about the variety of means to actually fit the particular purpose at the time. The other thing I wanted to pick up on was this issue of urgent questions and I think you have made some reference to the need perhaps to look at the criteria under which things operate and so on. It seems to me sometimes that one of the constraints with urgent questions is the necessity for keeping in mind the protection of the business that is already on the Order Paper and that must act as a bit of a constraint on the judgments that are being made.

  Mr Jack: Yes.

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