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

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 should rise?

  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 legislation.

  Q243  Mr Howarth: Uniquely, I would have thought.

  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 honest answer.

  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 division procedure?

  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 to recommend.

  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 first arrive.

  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, Chairman.

  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 the House?

  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 basis.

  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 speech?

  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 speeches.

  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 Members.

  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 to be.

  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, but—query—if 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".

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 20 June 2007