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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.