Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240-259)|
9 MAY 2007
Q240 Mr Burstow: Is there anything
that could be done perhaps to lower the threshold so there is
more scope for the Speaker to select more urgent questions?
Mr Jack: Well, I think this comes
back to what I said at the very beginning and that is extra time,
quite frankly. You are quite right in saying that in considering
an urgent question one of the things, among the many things, the
Speaker has in his mind when he looks at the question is what
effect it is going to have on the business of the House. For example,
today we had two statements. If he was also going to allow an
urgent question the two statements already ate into the time that
we would have on important business and that is a problem. Then
you come back to the notion of injury time: do you want to add
time on at the end of the day and is there an appetite for doing
that because I think the House has increasingly got used to very
predictable finishing times, for understandable reasons? It is
quite a difficult one, I think.
Q241 Sir Nicholas Winterton: What
is your view on this point? I think it is critical. You are here
to ensure that Parliament works and to advise Members of Parliament.
Is it your view that there is too much legislation coming forward
to be dealt with within the time available to Parliament? As today,
there were two statements and the Speaker was very generous particularly
on the first because he felt it was a sensitive issue on which
people might wish to go on slightly longer than the normal supplementary.
Do you think there should be injury time, ie if there was an hour
and a half or a bit more spent on statements today should there
be an hour and a half after the so-called time that the House
Mr Jack: I think that if Members
wish for that to happen then it should, yes. There is an imperative
on Parliament to deal with urgent matters urgently and that is
one of the consequences.
Q242 Sir Nicholas Winterton: You
have not really answered my first question, you have avoided it.
Do you think there is too much legislation within the time constraints
of Parliament, ie that Members of Parliament, and I mean all Members
of Parliament, who wish to participate in important legislation
are limited in doing so or, in fact, stopped from doing so because
of the hours of the House?
Mr Jack: I think there is a lot
of legislation and as the previous Clerk of Legislation, of course,
I had to read it all so I am very well aware of the burden of
Q243 Mr Howarth: Uniquely, I would
Mr Jack: In respect of the proportion
the Committee has got some figures before it. I was slightly surprised
that the breakdown was roughly 40% of the House's time is spent
on legislation and 60% on other business. I was rather surprised
by that, because I thought that the legislation might be more.
I would have to say, yes, I think there is too much legislation
and it is pressed through the House too quickly, if that is an
Chairman: It is certainly an honest answer.
Sir Nicholas Winterton: Very honest.
Q244 Mr Knight: Can I just go back
to debatable, palatable Private Members' Motions. If we did decide
to recommend such a procedure with the debates taking place in
Westminster Hall, presumably it would not create too much difficulty
if any vote on such a motion was then subjected to the deferred
Mr Millar: We routinely vote on
Statutory Instruments that have been debated in a Standing Committee
so it would be perfectly possible to devise a procedure where
a motion came to the point of resolution in Westminster Hall and
came to the House for a vote. That vote could either be at the
moment of interruption, like potential votes on Statutory Instruments,
or it could be referred straight to a vote by an analogous procedure
to the deferred division procedure. It is a matter for the Committee
Q245 Mrs May: I wanted to pick up
something that you put in your evidence on a different topic,
if I may, which is this whole question of induction of new Members
and the timescale for Parliament sitting after an election. You
provided a very helpful chart which shows that actually it has
been reducing, by and large it has been reducing, although there
have been ups and downs over time. I just wonder if you could
expand on your comments here. You seem to support the idea that
there should be a slightly longer period between an election and
Parliament starting to sit.
Mr Jack: Yes, that is right. As
you say, I think it is on the second page of the memorandum that
we set out the statistics going back to 1950 about the gap between
the date of the General Election and the first meeting of Parliament.
It has actually sometimes been remarkably short but, on the whole,
it seems to be shortening. The answer is an absolute yes, if this
time were kept to a reasonable length it would provide, as I have
put in my paper, a window of opportunity for Members to really
get on their feet and settle down, particularly on the practical
matters of finding accommodation, IT support and all those things,
which are the things that press on new Members most when they
Q246 Chairman: When I read your evidence
here it seemed implicit to me that what you were arguing for was
a lengthier first period between the General Election and the
date of the first meeting of Parliament.
Mr Jack: Yes, that is right.
Q247 Chairman: Typically doubling
the kind of norm of six days to 12, say?
Mr Jack: Yes, that is correct,
Q248 Ms Butler: Thank you for your paper.
What role, or what increased role, do you think the Clerks can
play in terms of the induction period for new Members coming into
Mr Jack: Well, we have already
played a role, and I hope you benefited from it when you first
came to the House. There are many different and bewildering things
that must face a Member on arrival here. I would think at the
very beginning the practical things are the most important, ie
getting a room, getting a desk, getting a computer. Those really
must be the top priority. If you are asking me about procedural
advice which Clerks are most competent to give, my own feeling,
and this is something we have learnt as we have improved induction,
is I suspect that might be better lengthened in time because for
a new Member to arrive here and suddenly have the Standing Orders
thrown at him or bits of Erskine May would not be very
helpful. Learning, for example, about how to table questions or
amendments to bills, that sort of thing, probably comes a bit
further down the induction. The other thing which I would like
to add as an observation is this: I think we do have continuous
induction. We have continuous induction in the sense that the
procedural offices, the Table Office and Public Bill Office, do
exist to help Members and they are there all the time so, as it
were, the induction process does go on. I noticed that one or
two of your witnesses said that the Clerks were very helpful "when
asked" and naturally we have to wait for Members to come
in and seek the advice, but it is there and it is on a continuous
Mr Millar: Could I just say something
that is a little bit more risky. That is we need to have the support
of the whips for this because if we do not get the support of
the whips, the whips organise their own induction for their new
Members. If that cuts across our induction arrangements then Members
may feel they have already heard about what we have to say. We
are prepared to assist in whatever kind of induction programme
Members want but there needs to be some sort of agreement. I attended
an international Conference of Clerks last week in conjunction
with the Inter-Parliamentary Union and we had a discussion about
the induction and the problems of induction of new Members are
very similar the world over. The only thing that this Parliament
did not have to face until 1997 was such a large number of new
Members. That makes it far easier for Members to rely on their
colleagues, who are a little bit more experienced, to learn how
to go about things. When you have 243 brand new Members, as I
think we had in 1997
Mr Jack: That is very difficult.
Mr Millar: the currency
of support is not quite so available.
Q249 Mr Howarth: Is the maiden speech,
which is kind of the key that unlocks all the other things you
can do, still the first hurdle? It is still the case, is it not,
that you cannot ask a question until you have made your maiden
Mr Jack: It is a convention, it
is not a rule.
Q250 Mr Howarth: Would it not be better
if that convention did not exist? It is far easier for a first
outing to ask a question than to make a speech and there is more
scope for people to ask questions. Inevitably when you get a big
turnover there is bound to be a queue of people making maiden
Mr Jack: What lies behind the
convention is the notion that you have come to the House and you
are now part of the House and you introduce your face, as it were,
making a speech. I do not see any great difficulty.
Mr Millar: Some of the conventions
were changed in 1998. Some of them were softened after a report
of the Modernisation Committee when clear recommendations were
made and there is no reason why that should not be done, although
I would say I was keeping a close watch on how many and how quickly
Members made their maiden speeches after the last General Election
and virtually all of them had done so before the summer recess,
which was not a very protracted period after the Election.
Q251 Chairman: There were fewer new
Mr Millar: Indeed, about 120.
Mr Jack: I think Douglas has put
his finger on it really. It is the number of new Members who arrive
after a General Election.
Q252 Sir Peter Soulsby: Whether it
is six or 12 days after a General Election, is it not the case
that the complexity and the strangeness of this place is such
that there is very little prospect of a new Member taking in very
much at all in that initial period? I take your point about the
availability of Clerks and others to assist Members after that
but do you not think there would be benefit in it being more structured,
say six months down the line, with the opportunity for Members
to sign up to something at that stage? I do also take your point
about whips and the need for it to be better co-ordinated but
there is not anything structured six months down the line.
Mr Jack: Absolutely. I hope I
was not giving the impression that I was not keen on that. As
I said, we have learnt that possibly some of the well-meaning
advice that is given early on is just too early, which I think
is your point.
Mr Millar: Could I just add to
that. We did actually do this process before 2005, and I cannot
remember whether it was after 1997 or 2001. We did repeat the
series of procedural talks on a second occasion and we got very,
very little take-up. It may have been that the first round was
more effective than we might have anticipated and, therefore,
Members had had enough. Obviously we missed the critical moment
for the second round in that sense because the talks, however
well advertised, were not taken up.
Mr Jack: It is difficult to get
the timing right. Certainly I do not want to leave any impression
that we would not be anxious to extend induction.
Q253 Chairman: I think the point
that Douglas made about co-ordinating with the whips is crucial,
and that includes co-ordinating with the whips for the later sessions
as well. Either it is the whips who will get people there or you
tell people they will not get their pay cheque or something like
that, which is probably a bit de trop.
Mr Jack: May I just add one thing.
Members will only really become interested in one aspect of procedure
or another when they have to use it. There is not really much
point in giving a general procedural seminar. A Member wants to
know how to put down an amendment to a bill when he or she wants
to put down an amendment.
Mr Millar: On a select committee,
a new Member joining a select committee will get appropriate induction
from the Committee Clerk.
Q254 Chairman: They will find that
much more familiar because if Members have been on a local authority,
health authority or even just a business, this kind of committee
takes place across the country in all sorts of forums and institutions
whereas the Commons Chamber is rather different. Can I just take
you back to this issue of topicality? We all want to achieve greater
topicality, that is number one. Number two, I think we are all
aware that if you just leave it to the usual channels, and here
speaks a man of authority, Deputy Chief Whip in the Government,
self-evidently if there is going to be huge embarrassment to the
government then that will be a factor to be taken into consideration
when it comes to the allocation of time, and since this is a public
session I will put it that way. I think just leaving it to the
usual channels ain't going to work to make the business of the
House more topical. The question is what machinery is going to
work that could be put in place? There is one suggestion from
Sir Nicholas which is for a business committee, which I certainly
do not rule out as something which I think is not an alternative
to the usual channels but as a complement to their work, especially
in respect of non-legislative time, but in the real world there
will still be a government majority, for example, there is bound
Mr Millar: Indeed.
Q255 Chairman: It will still change
the dynamics of decision-making.
Mr Jack: Yes.
Chairman: It is either ballots, which
are slightly rough and ready, it is EDMs, which amount to a sort
of a ballot, who scrubs around gets the most signatures, and that
would mean if you go for the largest number of signatures they
would tend to be fairly non-contentious issues, or it is at the
Speaker's discretion. If I can just demystify what I know about
the Speaker's discretion: each of the four Speakers I have served
in the House have had their own particular styles, they usually
make their own decisions, but it is also true that they do so
on advice from the Clerk, the Clerk Assistant and other notables
who assemble in the Speaker's room a couple of hours before the
session starts. Although there are not many SO No. 24s received,
and still less granted, loads of urgent questions are received.
Virtually every day Monday through Thursday there is a UQ, which
I see as Leader of the House, and I guess about one in five is
granted. There is also the process, as you know, where it may
not be granted but a message comes back either via my office or
the minister's directly that it would be good career advice to
the minister to make a statement tomorrow. My point here is that
the combination of the Clerks and the Speaker are actually being
quite active in managing that bit of business to try and make
it topical. Since that Rubicon has been crossed, is there any
reason why that role could not be extended? Should we not feel
reassured that the Speaker and the Clerks have been able to do
this quite impartially without anybody ever challenging the integrity
of the Chair, so why would they challenge the integrity of the
Chair if it came to allocating slots?
Sir Nicholas Winterton: What you are
suggesting is that it should be made more flexible than currently.
Chairman: I am saying with more urgent
questions you would have to have injury time. With more flexibility
on SO No. 24s you have to have greater flexibility of time, butqueryif
you allocated the slots for topicality or, for example, in Parliamentary
Questions there is a 15 minute slot for topical questions, the
Speaker could say, "I have looked down the list, we have
not got time to go to the foreign policy things", even three
days before the topical issue was not on the Order Paper or out
of the ballot probably, so he will say, "Oddly, Darfur or
Iraq are not going to be subject to questions so I am going to
announce" and it will go on the enunciator that morning,
"that the topical issue will be Darfur or Iraq or whatever"
and he will do the same with each. Would that not work? It is
a tiny bit more effort for you guys but you are full of talent.
Q256 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Yes!
Mr Jack: Yes, I think it could.
It would be shifting the gear up on influencing the business.
Mr Millar: Could I say though
on that point, and I do not think it would be betraying anything,
that a lot of the applications for urgent questions come from
the opposition parties.
Q257 Chairman: Of course.
Mr Millar: Therefore, it depends
on what kind of slot you are trying to provide. Are you trying
to provide one for backbenchers or are you trying to provide a
slot which the opposition parties will try to move into?
Chairman: Both, I think. I used to generate
loads of urgent questions at PMQs, that was part of my dignifying
role on the opposition frontbench.
Mrs May: Just one observation on this:
of course, there is a convention at the moment that if you put
in an urgent question and it is refused you do not make that known
publicly because it is questioning the Speaker's discretion. I
think if you are going to move into this sort of scenario you
have to address that issue as well as to whether it is open and
up for grabs and everybody who knows can point the finger or not.
Chairman: I agree with that. There has
to be some way other than chance, it seems to me, to ensure that
what the House is debating is more topical.
Q258 Mr Sanders: Is it written down
anywhere what your definition of "topical" is under
the current arrangements?
Mr Jack: No, there is no definition.
Q259 Mr Sanders: Should there be
to guide Members?
Mr Jack: The only things contained
in the Standing Orders do not talk about topicality but "urgency"
and we have to judge what urgent means or "matters of importance".
There is no definition of "topicality".