Examination of Witnesses (Questions 260-273)|
9 MAY 2007
Q260 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Do you
think you should seek to define "topicality" for us
because in my view there is a great difference between an urgent
question and a topical debate? If the Speaker is to have any say
in this clearly he has got to have firm advice as to what topicality
is. I know Mark is looking very askance at me but you must have
some form of definition of topicality to enable that to work.
Mr Jack: I think I pick the Chairman
of Ways and Means' words: "Trust the Speaker".
Q261 Sir Nicholas Winterton: We would
Mr Jack: It would be very difficult
to devise a formula that defined "topicality" to the
satisfaction of 646 Members of the House.
Mr Howarth: I think it is better to rely
on the meaning of the word, is it not?
Q262 Mr Sanders: I think the biggest
difficulty is, if you like, the gap between what the Member sees
as really, really important in their patch and how it is viewed
from up here.
Mr Jack: Yes.
Q263 Mr Sanders: It is how you can
get satisfaction for both parties in that conflict.
Mr Jack: I did say trust the Speaker
and I think the Speaker does take that sort of consideration into
account. If he is considering an urgent question which has had
some huge effect on the constituency of a Member that will be
a factor that he will consider in whether or not to grant the
question. It is a factor that already is fed into the existing
Chairman: I am going to bring this to
a close in a moment because it is very familiar territory and
we are very grateful to you for your evidence.
Q264 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Could
I just ask them to clarify whether they would support injury time.
You have answered other questions extremely well in my view and
left us in no doubt. Do you think, like today, if there was pressure
for the Borders Bill that extra injury time should be allowed
at the point of interruption?
Mr Jack: Yes. I think I have already
said I would support that. There would be some resource implications
in the sense of keeping people here and so on, there would be
some cost to this. If the House wants to devote time to important
and topical matters then it makes sense for the time lost to be
Q265 Sir Peter Soulsby: Would you
leave that as a matter for the discretion of the Speaker as to
whether that injury time is granted because clearly it would not
always be necessary?
Mr Jack: Yes.
Q266 Chairman: Can I ask one final
set of questions. I have set this in a table which suggests that
a whole chunk of time on the floor, more than I thought, is taken
up by the frontbenches. It is really very striking: 48% of the
time on Government Adjournment Debates is taken up by the frontbench;
a third of the time in respect of Government Motions and over
half in respect of Opposition Days.
Mr Jack: Yes.
Q267 Chairman: I do remember the
time when we were in opposition and we tried to avoid this, slightly
better than the previous lot but not brilliantly, when it was
almost invariable if you had two half days you would get a couple
of nice, big juicy statements so the only time available was for
a couple of frontbench speeches and a bit extra. As someone who
has been on the frontbench for a very, very long time now, I am
struck by the fact that first of all we all like the sound of
our own voicesspeaking personally, it is trueand,
secondly, there is the issue of interventions. The House of Commons
works as a debating chamber because of intervention. Debates are
fundamentally higher quality than, say, statements or any other
form of exchange because people will challenge your argumentnot
your statement, your argumentat any stage either by standing
up or by walking out, by use of their feet.
Mr Jack: Yes.
Chairman: It really does put ministers
on the spot. All of us who have been here for any time have seen
ministers held below the waterline by a good intervention in a
way that no other facility can do. I am wholly opposed to using
that but I do think that there needs to be a greater control on
how long frontbenchers, people like me, go on. I just wonder if
it was a full day debate, if there was an indicative guideline
that it was a 20 minute speech and you were told to prepare for
a 20 minute speech, then you had the one minute injury time, which
could be as many as you wanted, up to a maximum of 35 minutes,
say 15 interventions, each intervention, as it were, accruing
a minute but if you managed to get two interventions in two minutes
you were not subject to 15, as it were, but up to a maximum, I
think that would reduce the number of prolix ministers and would
not cut down on the forensic nature of the debate, would it not?
Q268 Mr Howarth: Could I just add
to that. I would support that. The other thing is Members have
got more adept at working out where they are on the speakers'
list on occasions and if they do not think they are likely to
get called in the wider debate they will use an intervention to
get their point across. If there was more time available for backbenchers
to take part in those debates it might actually lessen the number
of interventions that are made for that purpose rather than to
hold ministers below the waterline.
Mr Jack: Two points, Chairman.
One is that we recollect this Committee making a recommendation
of this sort in the past about frontbench speeches. The other
thing is that I do understand what Members are saying but, of
course, there is always a balance. Chairman, you mentioned debate
and I think debate is very important, and interventions during
a minister's opening speech
Q269 Chairman: Are crucial.
Mr Jack: are sometimes
crucial. They can set the tone of the whole debate. Like so many
of these things, there are these difficult balances.
Q270 Chairman: We had a two day debate
in the House and that was an important occasion but people were
pretty relaxed about the time. I took about 25 interventions,
as I remember, and I think people wanted me to take them. The
Speaker would be able to judge this. On the other hand, if it
was a six hour debate on a really hot topic then a bit of economy
by the minister and 15 interventions you cannot complain about,
or 15 minutes of intervention which could be 20 interventions.
Mr Jack: No, I absolutely accept
the point. I am sure that Mr Speaker is very concerned with protecting
Q271 Sir Nicholas Winterton: What
about the use of short speeches? My Committee when I chaired Procedure,
now chaired by Mr Knight, looked at this. There are problems in
the short speeches. How would you overcome that, because that
would enable many more people to speak in a debate and get their
view on record, which a lot of people want to do? How could we
overcome the problems that I do accept since that recommendation
was made do arise in respect of three, four or five minute speeches
at the end of a full day or half day debate?
Mr Jack: You mean to have shorter
Q272 Sir Nicholas Winterton: We have
got the Standing Order which allows the Speaker to have, say,
20 people with three minutes each at the end of a full day's debate
but there are problems with that.
Mr Jack: There are problems because,
of course, the point at which you introduce that influences the
amount of time that you have got to divide up, if you see what
I mean, and that has an effect on how people will make their speeches,
how they will plan their speeches.
Mr Millar: Some Members leave
when the shorter speech rule is invoked so they are not prepared
to cut their remarks down from ten or 12 minutes to three. It
is a very difficult audience to satisfy and a very difficult calculation
to make. I think Sir Alan, in his evidence, exposed some of the
issues that are involved.
Q273 Sir Nicholas Winterton: Yes,
Mr Millar: I would support his
comment about trusting the Chair really because the Chair is aware
of these things, does try to operate the rule sensitively and
in the interests of the largest numbers of Members, but with the
best will in the world sometimes it is a very difficult thing
to achieve. I would also say on the frontbench speeches what is
very dispiriting is when for some reason or other a debate is
much more truncated than anticipated and ministers, and opposition
frontbenchers for that matter, just make the same length of speech
that they had originally thought they were going to be able to,
even more heavily squeezing the backbenchers. That is slightly
awkward for the House, I think.
Mr Jack: Also, just to add another
point, the subject matter of the debate is sometimes more suitable
to shorter speeches, it depends what the debate is. In some debates
it is very, very difficult to say anything meaningful in three
minutes; in other debates, it is not.
Chairman: Can I thank you very much indeed
both for your memoranda and also your evidence. Thank you both.