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

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 have to.

  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 consideration.

  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 compensated.

  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 voices—speaking personally, it is true—and, 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 argument—not your statement, your argument—at 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 backbench time.

  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 speeches?

  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, he did.

  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.

previous page contents

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 20 June 2007