4 BUSINESS IN THE HOUSE
The balance of power between the Executive and
Parliament will remain too firmly tilted in favour of government
until MPs win a say on the agenda of their proceedings through
some form of collective business committee. (Robin Cook, The Point
of Departure, 2003)
A. Terms of reference and connected
|(iv) In this section we map in some detail the terrain of what is meant by "scheduling of business in the House". We identify a number of closely connected issues, in particular the handling of Bills at report stage, which can only be properly addressed following the solution of the main question, of how the business of the House is scheduled; the question of on what days the House should sit through the year; and related scheduling issues in general committees. There is much necessary detail in the first four sections of the chapter, with our main proposals from section E onwards.
BUSINESS IN THE HOUSE
95. Our terms of reference direct us to examine "scheduling
business in the House". As originally tabled by the Leader
of the House they referred to "scheduling non-Government
business in the House". We welcome the change, which
has enabled us to consider how all business in the House is scheduled.
As we show below, the distinction between "Government"
and "non-Government" business is far from clear-cut.
By looking at business as a whole we can give a more rounded picture
of business in the House and how its scheduling can be improved.
Scheduling and timetabling
96. We have taken "scheduling" to mean the act
of deciding which items of business are to be taken; on
what specific day they are to be taken; and in some respects
for how long items of business are to be debated. Some
itemsfor example a motion to approve secondary legislation
in an affirmative instrumenthave a time-limit fixed in
Standing Orders; others are conventionally understood to last
for an approximate time often referred to as a "day"
or a "half-day". The actual time available for a "day"
is rarely the maximum of around 6 hours. It is determined in practice
by how much time is left after the end of questions and statements
and before the fixed end-point of each parliamentary day at the
"moment of interruption".
97. Scheduling is therefore different from
timetabling, which conventionally refers to the detailed
arrangements made for a given item of business to start or end
at a specified time or after a specified period. It is a term
particularly applied to legislative business. In practice of course
there is overlap between the two terms. The Procedure Committee
announced in May 2009 that it was undertaking an inquiry into
timetabling of business, examining "recent developments in
the use of business motions and programme motions to govern Commons
business on the Floor of the House and in Committee". The
paper from the Clerk of the House provided in connection with
that inquiry sets out in detail the issues arising.
We have sought to avoid duplication with that inquiry.
98. The principal constraints of scheduling business
in the House and on the volumes of business which can be transacted
in a session are the total number of days on which the House sits
in a given year, and the length of those sittings. Both issues
have been well ventilated in recent years. We have for the sake
of argument assumed:
a) the current pattern of around 35 sitting weeks
in a typical year and around 155 days;
b) the current 4-day week plus 13 Fridays;
c) the standard sitting day from Mondays to Thursdays
of around 8 hours, whether it starts at 2.30 p.m., 11.30 a.m.
or 10.30 a.m.;
d) the 3 half-days for sittings in Westminster
Hall on 3 days a week, amounting to 12 hours in total.
99. Holding sittings of the House in September would
of course increase the number of days available for business,
unless countervailing reductions were made in sitting times at
other points, for example by rising earlier in July. Following
a decision of the House in October 2002, the House sat for the
first fortnight of September in 2003 and 2004. There was Government
and non-Government business. In 2005 the House was unable to meet
in September because of the erection of the security screen in
the Chamber. On 1 November 2006 the House decided on a vote not
to sit in September, unless subject to an emergency recall.
100. There is not much Ministerial legislative business
needing to be done in September, since the most contentious Bills
are by then in the House of Lords. Greater use of carry-over of
bills from one session to another, meaning they can conveniently
be introduced at any time in the session, could alter that (see
para 103). Other categories of business could also be scheduled
for September sittings. It is no doubt undesirable that the executive
enjoys a 80 day period free from parliamentary scrutiny; while
noting that since 2005 it has been possible to table written questions
and receive written answers to them in September. There is also
a widely held view, mistaken though it may be, that when the House
is not sitting then Members are on holiday. We recommend that
the House in the new Parliament should be asked to decide on the
issue of September sittings, along with other sittings issues,
sufficiently early in its life to be able to decide whether to
sit in September 2010.
101. There are a number of contentious issues over
the House's sitting patterns, much debated over the past 10 years.
Under Standing Order No 25, decisions on the sitting pattern of
the House are taken at present on the basis of effectively unamendable
motions which can only be moved by a Minister, and are decided
without debate. We have no collective view on September sittings,
nor on the issue of the recall of the House, on which proposals
were made in the Governance of Britain Green Paper and referred
to the Modernisation Committee and which remains unresolved. But
we do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself
when it sits and does not sit.
Annual sessions and carry-over
102. We have also of necessity assumed continuation
of annual sessions. In some Westminster-style parliaments these
have been either lengthened to two years or more or effectively
by-passed by having a single-session Parliament.
Longer sessions would mean a loosening of the constraints on Bills
having to complete their passage in one twelve-month session and
would of course have an effect on scheduling. It may be time
to re-examine the need for annual sessions overall, drawing on
the varying practice of parliaments around the world who face
103. The House agreed in 2002 to allow for the "carry-over"
of bills from one session to the next, so as to allow a smoother
flow of legislation through the parliamentary year. Relatively
little use has been made of this provision. The Standing Order
provides that the passage of a Bill must still be completed in
12 months from its introduction. It was suggested to us that a
slight relaxation in that time-limit might be helpful.
Greater use of carry-over of Bills from one session to the
next could have a significant effect on scheduling business in
House of Lords
104. The House of Lords exercises a powerful if barely
visible influence on the scheduling of business in the Commons.
Its commitment to fixed intervals between stages of Bills, the
absence of time limitations on debates in the Lords on legislation,
and the detailed scrutiny of much legislation taking place on
the floor of the Lords Chamber rather than in committees as in
the Commons, mean that the time allowed for by the business managers
for the passage of Government legislation in the Commons is heavily
influenced by the time to be allocated to the passage of legislation
through the Lords. The business managers have to pencil in a date
for Third Reading for a Bill introduced in the Commons which allows
sufficient time for its passage through the Lords.
Closely connected matters:
Committees: public bill committees
105. Our terms of reference also allow us to consider
matters which we consider to be "closely connected"
to our principal terms of reference. We have not examined in any
detail the scheduling of business in the House's public bill committees.
They are indeed closely connected to business in the House but
subject to a separate set of rules. The recent changes in these
committees have been broadly welcomed. A research review identified
some areas for improvement of practices and procedures.
We are aware in particular of concerns at some aspects of the
way the evidence sessions in these committees are scheduled and
the witnesses selected.
This is an aspect of detailed timetabling of business, since it
arises in part from the short time between Second Reading and
the first day of the public bill committee. It may well form part
of the Procedure Committee's current inquiry into timetabling.
Meanwhile, we hope that a more open approach to the scheduling
of public bill committee evidence sessions can be piloted in the
short 2009-10 session without the need for changes to Standing
Orders, and request that the relevant authorities produce a report
for an appropriate successor Committee in the new Parliament to
Committees: Grand Committees
106. Standing Orders provide for the existence of
Grand Committeesdebating committees with a membership comprising
all members of a part of the United Kingdom, such as the Welsh
Grand Committee, or a region of England, such as the North West.
They are "closely connected" to business in the House
by virtue of functioning like the House in miniature, with questions
and debates. The scheduling of business in these committees is
effectively in the hands of Government. Motions to set up a meeting
can only be tabled in the House by Ministers. The motion put to
the House sets out the proposed subject of debate, the place and
starting time and length of meeting. If the House is to take greater
control of the scheduling of non-Ministerial business in the House,
as we propose below, it must follow that it should take similar
steps in relation to these debating committees. It should be
open to others than Ministers to schedule business in Grand Committees,
by relaxing Ministerial control of what Motions can be put to
the House and decided.
Committees: delegated legislation committees
107. Most items of the Government's secondary legislation
requiring the positively expressed consent of the Houseso-called
"affirmative instruments"are debated in a small
specially convened committee upstairs, and then later (normally
the next day) formally agreed to by the House without debate.
The decision as to whether in exceptional cases to hold the debate
in the Chamber is for Government. Similarly, the power to bring
on a debate on a prayera motion seeking to disapprove an
item of secondary legislation which does not require consent resolution,
so-called "negative instruments"is also vested
in Ministers. These arrangements will not stand up to examination
in the light of the general principles we set out below. The Procedure
Committee as long ago as 1996 recommended a system which at least
provided an avenue for Members to seek to get prayers debated
in a committee. There
will have to be relaxation of Ministerial control of motions to
refer negative instruments for debate in committee.
Committees: European standing committees
108. European standing committees question Ministers
and debate European documents which have been recommended for
such treatment by the backbench European Scrutiny Committee. Ministers
determine the timing and table the substantive motion which is
debated and then reported to the House for its decision without
further debate. Ministers need to hold these debates because otherwise
they would be prevented by the terms of the House's 1998 Scrutiny
Reserve Resolution from agreeing to the documents in the Council
of Ministers. The
European scrutiny system offers an admirable if still imperfect
model of responsible backbench committee control of business,
in partnership with the Government, on an important part of the
Closely connected matters:
Report stage of bills
109. The single greatest cause of dissatisfaction
which we have detected with current scheduling of legislative
business in the House arises from the handling of the report stage
of government billstechnically the "consideration"
stage when a Bill has been reported back to the House from a public
bill committee. In the majority of cases, the programme motion
decided without debate immediately after Second Reading allows
for a single day for report and Third Reading. It also usually
specifies that the report stage will end one hour before the moment
of interruption, leaving at most one hour for Third Reading. Even
where no other business is taken first, such as a Ministerial
Statement, that leaves around five hours for a report stage.
110. The report stage is a highly valued opportunity
for scrutiny of legislation for a number of reasons.
- It offers all Members of the
House at least a theoretical opportunity to propose amendments
to a Bill or speak to them.
- It provides the one opportunity for the House
as a whole to vote on a major specific provision of a Bill or
a closely connected issue, including issues of public concern
which might have been dealt with in a Bill but are not.
- Because it is on the floor of the House, debates
on report stage represent the only opportunity for detailed participation
in scrutiny of the Bill for senior backbenchers such as select
committee chairmen who have not served on the public bill committee,
for dissenting backbenchers who have not been chosen to serve
on it and those members who for other reasons have been unable
to serve on it.
- It represents what in many cases will be the
only opportunity for Members from the smaller parties to participate
in legislative scrutiny.
The report stage is the only opportunity for the
House as a whole to engage with proposed legislation and debate
and decide its principal provisions in any detail.
111. Practice and procedure on report have a significant
effect on outcome. New Clauses moved by Ministers are taken first.
They may well be grouped for discussion with related new Clauses
and amendments moved by the Opposition or other parties or individual
Members. Ministersand only Ministersmay move a motion
to take new Clauses and amendments in a different order so as
to prioritise one "topic" over another. Ministersand
only Ministersmay move a motion to provide for end-times"knives"for
particular groups of amendments so as to give time to others further
down the list.
112. In practice, as a result of the programme motion
proposed by Ministers and approved with little or no debate, the
situation is that on many report stages several groups of amendments
from Opposition parties or backbencher amendments selected by
the Chair and grouped for a joint debate are not even reached
for debate, let alone a decision. The practice of the Chair is
only to allow a vote on a non-Ministerial amendment or new Clause
if it has been part of a group which has at least had some debate.
At the end of the time allowed for report, there is a ritual whereby
Government amendments within the last group to be debated, and
those relating to later unreached and undebated parts of a Bill
are put without any explanation and routinely agreed to, while
other amendments are simply lost. Because of the default position
of Ministerial new Clauses being taken first, backbench propositions
which seek to amend the Bill, including those with cross-party
support, are most likely to be "lost" in this way, rather
than propositions seeking to add new matter to the Bill. The extent
of the problem can be demonstrated by the number of groups lost
in this way in bills in recent sessions and the number of Bills
113. This is an issue which causes great dissatisfaction
in the Opposition parties and on the backbenches. The Government
stands accused, not always fairly, of having prevented or suppressed
debate, and the House bemoans at Third Reading its failure to
exercise full and proper scrutiny. The point is then often echoed
in the Lords and used by that House as the basis for significant
revision in those areas of a Bill not touched upon by the Commons.
114. There are a number of means of ameliorating
these problems within existing arrangements or under new arrangements,
which do not necessarily require scheduling more time on the floor
of the House. They include a combination of one or more of the
- more frequent use of internal
finishing times"knives" ;
- protection of time for report stage from intrusion
by statements or other urgent business;
- greater use of partial re-committal: that is,
requiring part of the bill, or selected new Clauses and amendments,
to be sent back to a public bill committee to deal with some or
all Ministerial new Clauses and amendments if these are too numerous;
- power given to the Chair to change the order
in which new Clauses and amendments are taken;
- use of speech limits at report stage or development
of a special speaking time regime;
- encouraging the prompter tabling of new Clauses
and amendments on report so that the a possible timetable can
be established several days in advance: given that there are sometimes
weeks between the out-date from Committee and the bringing on
of a report stage there is ample time to table texts.
115. Effective scheduling of business at report
stage of many bills would often require nothing more than the
allocation of a sufficient total time. It is too often insufficient
at present. The House Business Committee which we recommend below
will be a forum for agreeing the length of time to be devoted
to a report stage in order to fulfil the scrutiny function adequately.
But that is not enough in itself. Because effective scrutiny of
legislation is of fundamental importance to the role of the House,
the detailed use of that time must be a matter of concern. We
believe that the time should be set so that the House should if
it wishes be able to vote on new Clauses and amendments in every
group, if and when they are selected for separate division by
the Chair; and that there should be a presumption that no major
group should go undebated. The House of Commons would then be
able to exercise the same rights as the House of Lords.
116. This is precisely why we will have a House
Business Committee. It will decide where, if at all, knives should
fall bringing debate to an end on each group of selected new Clauses
and amendments. As now, priority would be given to Government
new Clauses and amendments. It would normally propose a provisional
agenda a fortnight ahead as at present. At that stage it would
have a provisional view as to how new Clauses and amendments would
be most helpfully grouped and would communicate that to the Chair.
By its next meeting a week later there would normally be a sufficiently
clear idea for the House Business Committee to be able to agree
how the report stage should be arranged. That proposition could
then form part of the agenda to be put to the House.
117. It will be for the
House Business Committee working between its formal meetings to
interact with all the players to resolve all the practical issues
which will require resolution: for example, the tabling at relatively
short notice of unanticipated fresh amendments and new Clauses,
including Government new Clauses, which inevitably disturbs any
previously proposed timetable, and is likely to lead to the Chair
making a different grouping; and the extent to which a specialist
knowledge of the Bill and its contents is required to be able
to construct such a timetable. On the first, the House Business
Committee could reconvene if necessary in the event of new groups
of new Clauses and amendments being tabled late in the day, and
agree a revised scheme. On the second the House Business Committee
could invite representations from those who have tabled new Clauses
and amendments setting out their preferences as to those matters
on which they place particular weight. It is not for us to
second-guess the minutiae of House Business Committee business.
We are confident that it will deal with these and other such issues
and that as trust and experience grow it will operate ever more
consensually and effectively.
118. In order to ensure that this system can work,
without using up too much time and to avoid attempts to "talk
out" full debate, we recommend the introduction of a regime
of speaking time restrictions at report stage. We have gone beyond
the issue of scheduling total time for report stage because we
recognise that unless the current problems in this area are resolved
then there will continue to be dissatisfaction and a sense that
the House is failing to perform one of its core duties. In those
circumstances, we will have failed in one of the primary parts
of our mission. Our recommendations outlined above as part of
the general reform which we propose below of the scheduling of
business are intended to ensure that the House itself decides
what matters are debated and decided at report stage of a Ministerial
or a Private Member's Bill.
Closely connected matters:
consideration of Lords amendments
119. Similar issues arise when the House considers
Lords amendments. Unless Ministers bring forward a Motion to change
the sequence, Lords amendments are considered in the order in
which they relate to the Bill. Although they may be grouped for
debate, that can leave the motions to agree or disagree with significant
Amendments to later and thus not reached before the allotted time
expires. The rules about the scope and form of permissible amendments
in the later stages of "ping pong" - the passage of
amendments back and forth between the two Houses - are incomprehensible
to most participants. While we recognise that time for consideration
is of necessity constrained in the later stages of further consideration
of Lords amendments and messages, the initial consideration of
Lords amendments is often too compressed. We recommend the
introduction of a scheme similar to that described above for report
stage for consideration of Lords amendments, including restrictions
on speech lengths.
B The current framework
|(v) In this section we set out the existing system for the scheduling of business as embodied in the House's Standing Ordersits rule-book.
120. The gradual takeover by the Government of House time began
in the first half of the 19th century, in response to the growth
in Government financial business and Ministerial legislation.
In 1811 Mondays and Fridays were reserved for Orders of the Day
as opposed to Notices of Motions: these Orders were principally
Government Orders. In 1835 Mondays and Fridays were reserved
for "Government Orders", a category of business recognised
for the first time in that way. Ministers could no longer tolerate
waiting in a disorderly queue behind a mass of backbench business,
and constantly liable to procedural devices of delay or diversion.
The public had growing expectations that a Ministry would bring
its own detailed legislation to the House, discussed and agreed
in outline in Cabinet, announced in a Royal Speech and drafted
by professional draftsmen working for the Crown. By the 1880s
legislation was seen not only as largely the preserve of Ministers,
but their principal function. In 1896 Balfour first limited by
temporary and annually renewed Orders the business of Supplythe
principal opportunity to raise debate by moving amendments to
a formal Question or by seeking to amend the actual Supply motionsto
a fixed number of days each session, with the Opposition given
the freedom to choose the subjects. On 11 April 1902 the House
agreed to what was first Standing Order No 4, and in a revised
form is Standing Order No 14, giving "government business"
precedence at every sitting unless otherwise provided.
121. SO No 14 (1) provides that "Save as
provided in this order, government business shall have precedence
at every sitting". The specific savings in SO No 14 are
- Opposition days each session,
allotted on days determined by the Government: and
- Private Members' Bill Fridays each session, fixed
by the House at the outset of each session on the basis of a Motion
moved by a Minister.
122. Time in the Chamber is also set aside by other
Standing Orders for:
- oral questions for an hour
on Mondays to Thursdays and Urgent Questions [SO No 21];
- motions for leave to bring in Bills under the
"ten-minute rule", on Tuesdays and Wednesdays [SO No
- emergency debates [SO No 24];
- end of day 30 minute adjournment backbench debates
every sitting day [SO No 9];
- three Estimates days each year, for debates under
the auspices of the Liaison Committee [SO No 54];
- opposed private business [SO No 20], to be distributed
between "the sittings on which government business has precedence
and other sittings".
123. Time in Westminster Hall is technically at the
disposal of the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker)
under SO No 10. It is used on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for five
separate 30 or 90 minute backbench debates selected by ballot
and on Thursdays for debates on either select committee reports
or other matters chosen by the Government. The same Standing Order
provides for the Speaker to appoint six days in Westminster Hall
for debates on select committee reports chosen by the Liaison
Committee. In practice the majority of Thursdays in Westminster
Hall are on select committee reports less formally nominated by
the Liaison Committee.
Order in which business is taken
124. Government control of the agenda covers not
only what items are considered but the order in which they are
considered. SO No 27 allows Ministers the right "of arranging
government business, whether orders of the day or notices of motion,
in such order as they think fit". The Government therefore
organises the Order Paper more or less as it wishes. It chooses
which items of Government business to put on the paper. A backbencher
may name a specified future day for an item of business but unless
the Government assents it does not even appear on the effective
Orders for that day.
Technical business motions
125. Only Ministers can move the Business of the
House or other procedural motions required to ensure that items
of business are decided at a fixed time of day or after the passage
of a period of time, or to allow debate to continue after the
normal end of the day's business.
126. The default position is therefore that time
"belongs" to the Government, subject to a number of
exceptions and practices which allow others to influence and even
determine the agenda. Put crudely, and subject to maintaining
a majority, the Government enjoys not merely precedence but exclusive
domination of much of the House's agenda, and can stop others
seeking similar control.
C. Government-initiated business
|(vi) In this section we categorise in detail the various sorts of business which are currently scheduled by Ministers for debate in the House. The categorisation shows how much of this business is not in origin initiated by Ministers.
127. Coming to an unarguable definition of "Government business"
is not easy. Some business would be placed by most observers in
that category, including legislation brought in by Ministers.
This is not to deny that the time devoted to its scrutiny is the
House's time, not the Government's, since it is the House that
scrutinises legislation whatever its source and Parliament that
passes laws. Some business is patently not Government business,
such as motions moved by the Opposition front-bench on Opposition
days. But items of business such as debates on the floor of the
House on affirmative statutory instruments which have been sought
by the Opposition or backbenchers could be categorised as "Government
business " in that it is Ministers who initiated the matter
and who move the motion the House is asked to consider, but others
who have insisted it be debated on the floor of the House rather
than in a committee upstairs.
128. Because of the difficulties in defining the
term, we set out below a rough categorisation of most of the business
which now comes before the House as a result of Government initiative,
and briefly identify how each comes to be placed on the agenda.
The fact that at present it may be Government Ministers who either
initiate the business or move the relevant Motion has little or
nothing to do with whether it is usefully to be regarded as "Government
business". We prefer the terms "Ministerial business"
and "Government-initiated business".
Who owns time?
129. Ownership of the time of the House is to
be distinguished from responsibility for sponsoring or promoting
the business before it. There is a strong case for regarding all
time as the House's time. It is not the Government that seeks
debate but the House: what the Government needs are the decisions
which enable it to carry out its programme. In practice Ministers
may subscribe to the theory that parliamentary scrutiny is good
for them, and that good scrutiny makes for good government. But
it is hard to believe that, other things being equal, they would
of their own volition bring on critical debates. There is not
in reality the stark dichotomy suggested between business taken
in time controlled by the "Government" and other business.
1. Ministerial legislation
130. Most business initiated by Ministers is legislative
business. It is entirely the result of the Government's own proposals:
if they bring in a lot of Bills then there will be a lot of time
spent examining them. Legislation accounts for 35-40 per cent
of time on the floor, measured in hours and minutes, and around
50 or 60 days in the rougher measure of business management. On
the floor of the House that means for a typical Ministerial Bill
a Second Reading debate lasting a day: a further day typically
several months later devoted to report and Third Reading: and
often a half day devoted to Lords amendments. Several Bills have
all their stages on the floor of the House, because of their content,
urgency or, on occasion, relative insignificance. Ministerial
legislative business also covers the associated financial resolutions
and programming motions, most of which are not separately debated.
Government Bills: 2008-09
|Stage of Bill||Days required in Commons
|Second Reading ||17 days
|Committee of the whole House||7 days
|Report and Third Reading||16 days
|All stages||1 day|
|Lords Amendments|| 8 days
The figures are approximate. Some minor bills were given or required
a half-day for committee of the whole House and all remaining
stages. One Bill was given 2 days for CWH and all remaining stages.
Lords Amendments time is calculated as a day or half-day (three
hours) or one hour. Days or fractions of days on Bills carried
over from the previous session or to be carried over to the next
session are included.
131. The annual Debate of several days (four days in 2008-09)
on the Budget arises technically on the first of the many Ways
and Means Motions moved by the Chancellor on Budget Day, which
are necessary to give effect to the Government's fiscal plans
for the year. In that sense these are days devoted to Ministerial
legislation. The debate is in practice an opportunity for a general
economic and financial debate, and in that respect may be seen
as at least in part House business. The number of days devoted
to these debates is not wholly of the Government's choosing, in
that Ministers would presumably have no objection to fewer days
being required, but is determined with an eye to the assumed wishes
of the House.
132. In a similar category to the Budget debate are the five
or more days each year dedicated to the debate on the Queen's
Speech (six days in 2008-09). The debate on the Queen's Speech,
although technically arising on a motion for a loyal Address moved
by a Government backbencher, is in effect a debate on all aspects
of the Government's programme. The Government constitutionally
needs the approval of the House and a defeat would be fatal, so
in that sense it is Government-initiated business. But in practice
it is a central part of the House's work in holding the Government
to account by wide-ranging debate.
4. Ministerial statements
133. There are typically around 80 Ministerial statements in
a year, meaning between two and three a week. The statement and
subsequent question and answer normally take around an hour. A
statement is madein theory at leastof a Minister's
own volition, and in that sense it is Government-initiated business:
but it offers an opportunity for Opposition and backbench critique
as well as praise, and in practice again is in part House business.
And in practice statements are often made in response to pressure
from inside or outside the House.
5. Affirmative instruments and European documents
134. Time also has to be found on the floor for other debates
which arise on Ministerial motions, and concern matters for which
Ministers are responsible, but where the debate arises because
of demands from the House rather than the needs of Ministers.
These are now relatively infrequent. The two main categories are:
- debates on the floor of the House to approve affirmative
statutory instruments, all of which would otherwise be held
in committees off the floor, but where convention dictates that
they be held on the floor. Several recurring affirmative instruments,
including those on the annual local government and police grant
settlements, council tax capping, annual social security up-rating,
and prevention of terrorism, are by convention normally debated
on the floor.
- Debates on European documents where there
has been a recommendation from the European Scrutiny Committee
that a debate is held on the floor rather than as is generally
the case in committees. This is now relatively infrequent, with
only one debate in the 2008-09 session.
6. Prayers etc
135. When the Government "gives" time on
the floor for a prayer against a statutory instrument (see para
107) the motion is tabled in the name of the Memberusually
but not always an Opposition front bencherwho has tabled
the prayer and who will lead the debate. That is now infrequent.
In 2008-09 there were two such motions taken on the floor. Such
business is scheduled by the Government in response to demand
and arises out of Ministerial actions, but is not in fact initiated
by Ministers nor is the relevant Motion moved by them.
136. Estimates Days are a survival of the procedures
whereby the Government needed to obtain the consent of the House
to spend money, which was the peg for debate and the raising of
grievances. The necessary financial motions are now moved formally
by a Minister to enable debate to take place on a select committee
report selected by the Liaison Committee. This is not really Government-initiated
business but an extension to select committees of the 20 Opposition
days, which also have their origin in financial supply procedure.
The Liaison Committee has proposed, in the context of reporting
on the Treasury's Alignment Project proposals for reforms in the
way expenditure figures are presented to Parliament, an additional
two days' debate, combined with a widening of the scope of debates
on Estimates Days to permit "genuine examination of future
137. We broadly endorse the Liaison Committee's
proposals for increasing from 3 to 5 the number of Estimates Days
and in particular its suggestion that the type of debate on such
days be widened to allow substantive opinion motions on expenditure
plans for future years. These would normally be tabled and
moved by the Chair of the relevant departmental select committee,
thus giving committees an increased influence on the House's agenda.
The Chair of the Liaison Committee wrote to the Chair of this
Committee on 4 November to convey the Liaison Committee's decision
that it would be prepared to select for debate a particular departmental
138. In view of our desire to enhance the relevance
of select committee work to the work of the Chamber we consider
that these debates on Estimates Days could also usefully cover
substantive motions on departmental annual reports, and recommendations
in select committee reports which in the view of the Liaison Committee
have not been adequately addressed by the Government's response.
139. We also note the Liaison Committee's repeated
view that the Government should give an undertaking to provide
a day's debate on the outcome of each Spending Review and on each
year's Pre-Budget Report. Pre-scrutiny of expenditure is weak
at the moment. In its recent response the Government said that
it will aim to provide "adequate time" for debate of
these issues, depending on other business. That neatly encapsulates
the problem that it is the Government and not the House that determines
what time is allocated to holding the Government to account. The
debates on the outcomes of Spending Reviews and the Pre-Budget
Report sought by the Liaison Committee are exactly the sort of
debates which it should be up to the House to decide whether or
not to schedule.
8. House business
140. Perhaps the most significant category of business
scheduled by Ministers but not Ministerial business is the collective
domestic business of the House itself. Motions on these matters
are conventionally moved by the Leader of the House in her awkward
dual role as a Government Minister and a spokesperson for the
House. In recent
sessions they have included a number of motions on Members' pay
and allowances and related matters. Some of these are in a technical
sense linked to Ministerial business, since the effective motions
on Members' pay and allowances require a Money Resolution, which
can only be moved by a Minister.
141. In the 2008-09 session time has been spent on,
among other things, business relating to the police searches of
a Member's office in November 2008; changes in select committees
consequent on machinery of Government changes; the proposal that
the UK Youth Parliament use the Chamber; and the membership of
the Speaker's Committee on the Independent Parliamentary Standards
Committee. Into this broad category also fall matters of privilege,
such as those arising out of findings of the Standards and Privileges
Committee, or where Mr Speaker has authorised a Member to raise
a matter as one of privilege. And exceptionally in June 2009 a
day was laid aside for the election of a new Speaker.
142. The Government will also on relatively infrequent
other occasions put on the Order Paper motions to be moved by
non-Government Members, such as those responsible for Church of
England or Electoral Commission business. Motions to appoint members
to the House's permanent select committees are tabled in the name
of the backbench Chairman of the Committee of Selection.
143. House committees such as Modernisation, Procedure
and Administration - all of whose business is intimately linked
with the House as an institution - have no special right of access
to the House for their proposals. This committee is in the same
boat. Committees rely on Ministers to find a slot on the Order
Paper for their proposals to be put to the House and decided upon.
As we note below, the system is such that a proposal such as for
e.petitions does not reach the House at all (see para 252). Where
there is no opposition, a substantive proposal can go through
without debate if tabled by the Government on the Order Paper.
But if there is any objectionas was the case with the establishment
of this committeethen committees are dependent on time
being "found" by the business managers.
144. There is also no opportunity for the Speaker
to put a proposition to the House for its decision, other than
through the good offices of the Leader of the House. Any such
matters will almost by definition be House and not Ministerial
business, and often of some significance.
9. Set piece debates
145. Much Government-initiated business is scheduled
as much from respect for conventions that certain debates are
held in the course of the year as from a positive desire on the
part of Ministers to hold a debate. These debates are sometimes
referred to as "default" or "set piece" debates.
They include each year:
- five days for defence debatesarising
from the former two-day debate on the annual Statement on the
Defence Estimates and the three individual service debates;
- two days for pre-European Council debates;
- two half-days [formerly one full day] on recent
Public Accounts Committee reports;
- one day on the work of the Intelligence and Security
- one day on Welsh Affairs;
- one day to mark International Women's Day;
- four days for "periodic adjournment"
debates normally held immediately before recesses, during which
any matter can be raised.
146. The Government is also responsible for initiating
general debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall on subjects
determined by the Government, whether or not following consultation
with others. It is comparatively rare for such debates to be held
on a substantive motion; recent examples include the debate on
18 March 2003 on Iraq and on Trident on 14 March 2007. Instead,
they are held on an unamendable motion in the form recommended
by the Modernisation Committee, that the House has considered
the matter. In session 2008-09 there were 12 general debates in
the Chamber as set out below. Most were on Thursdays.
11. Topical debates
147. Following a recommendation from the Modernisation
Committee, a new category of debate was introduced in 2008, known
as "topical" debates. They are in effect shorter versions
of the general debates referred to above, lasting 90 minutes and
with a bespoke regime for front-bench speech lengths. They have
to date always been held on a Thursday. They last 90 minutes.
In session 2008-09
there have only been 10 topical debates, compared to 25 in 2007-08.
The subjects are explicitly selected by the Leader of the House;
there has been some controversy over the means of selection.
148. Leaving aside the 20 Opposition days, three
Estimates Days, and business initiated by individual backbenchers,
it is Ministers who decide whether a particular debate is held
in the House; if so, when; and on what terms. Business scheduled
by Ministers is diverse. It is by no means limited to matters
the Government is comfortable with debating. But much of the business
scheduled by Ministers as a result of their control of the agenda
is neither required by Ministers for their legislative and political
programme, nor initiated by Ministers. That is the issue. There
is no transparent mechanism for individual backbench Members or
groups of such Members to get motions onto the effective Orders,
let alone secure a decision of the House. That includes motions
to give effect to select committee reports as well as the choice
of subjects the House is to debate.
D Process of scheduling business
|(vii) In this section we give a brief overview of some of the mechanics of the scheduling of business.
Sitting and non-sitting weeks
149. The scheduling of business is dictated by the annual calendar
of sitting and non-sitting"recess"weeks.
This calendar is now normally announced by the Leader of the House
in the autumn, running up to the return of the House from the
summer recess in the year ahead. The dates of the end of the session
in the autumn"prorogation"and the start
of the next session are usually not announced until shortly before
the House rises for the summer. The dates of the Christmas, February,
Easter, Whitsun and Summer adjournments now follow a fairly standard
pattern. Although announced in advance on a firm but provisional
basis, the dates for each recess are only formally put to the
House for decision without debate as each individual recess approaches.
150. The business programme is managed at official level by the
Private Secretary to the Government Chief Whip and his staff in
conjunction with his opposite numbers in the House of Lords. At
the outset of a session, or shortly before it begins, the business
managers look at the Government's proposed legislative programme.
Decisions have to be taken on which House each Bill is to start.
Some Bills may require Royal Assent faster than others. A few
may be introduced later in the session and be carried over. For
each Bill, estimated dates are needed by when they should reach
the second House. From these considerations spring the dates by
which committee proceedings in the Commons must endthe
"committee out-date"which appears in the programme
motion now usually applied to Government Bills in the Commons
immediately after Second Reading. The date by which the managers
wish to conclude Commons proceedings, at Third Reading, is not
published. The business managers also have to allow for scheduling
of the 20 Opposition days and the scatter of "default"
debates (see para 145) through the year, as well as the Queen's
Speech and Budget debates.
151. The business for the next fortnight is agreed internally
by the Government business managers at a weekly meeting.
Before and after this meeting there are some consultations through
the usual channels with the Official Opposition Whips. The Leader
of the House then announces future business to the House each
week on Thursday as a rolling two-week programme, with the second
week avowedly less firmly determined than the first. Business
in Westminster Hall is often announced more than two weeks in
advance. The announcement of future business is akin to a Ministerial
statement but preserves the facade of being an Urgent Question
from the Shadow Leader.
152. The House is not given the opportunity to approve or amend
the draft agenda. Individual members can comment on it in the
course of Business Questions, which usually runs for an hour and
in which typically 30 members are called to ask questions, meaning
all or most of those who seek to catch the Speaker's eye. Few
interventions are directly related to the details of the business
announced and in practice the occasion is used by backbenchers
to raise a range of matters of concern to them.
153. The statement is neither definitive nor all-embracing. Ministers
retain the freedom to put whatever they wish on the Order Paper,
whether or not announced at Business Questions, with the conventional
courtesy of making an additional business statement if there is
a substantial change. These are infrequent: there were two in
session 2008-09, one making a proposed topical debate on Gaza
into a full day's debate, and the other bringing on a full day's
debate on Afghanistan in place of one planned on preparations
for the Copenhagen climate change conference. In both cases this
was in response to demand within the House. The debate on the
Queen's Speech in December 2008 was interrupted on its third day
to debate the setting up of a committee on the search of a Member's
office. The business in the second week is explicitly provisional:
it is not uncommon for there to be some change, including the
re-allocation of announced business from one day to another, when
it is announced a week later as a firm plan.
Matters not announced until later
154. The subject of a forthcoming Thursday topical debate is as
a rule not announced until the Monday evening before, by using
the House annunciator system and insertion of the information
in the House's papers for the next day. The Opposition parties
are not obliged to give more than minimum advance notice of the
subjects they propose to raise and may change them; the actual
texts of Opposition Day motions are usually not tabled until the
afternoon of the previous day, and the Government amendments therefore
Matters not announced
155. Detailed Business of the House and other procedural motions
are not announced in advance and are often tabled only the evening
before they appear for the first time on the effective Order Paper.
Formal questions to be put forthwith or without debate, such as
those on statutory instruments requiring affirmative approval
are not announced. Some Ministerial statements are announced several
days in advance but most are not. Although Ministers will use
the Future Business section of the Order Paper to give advance
notice to Members of significant Motions which the Government
intends to put to the House on a subsequent day, that is by no
means the invariable practice.
E Is the current system satisfactory?
|(viii) In this section we describe the strengths and weaknesses of the current system, and identify five ways in which it fails to match the basic principles set out at the beginning of the report: in relation to parliamentary control of business, cross-party working, transparency, topicality and the use of time.
156. The fact that the House has referred to us the issue of "scheduling
business in the House" implies that the matter requires
examination and that there is something unsatisfactory about the
157. Some of the dissatisfaction arises from frustration
felt by individual Members or parties represented in the House
at the difficulties they have in bringing on a debate on a matter
of their choice so that Parliament properly fulfils its function
as a forum for deliberation and debate on issues of importance
to the country. It may also reflect frustration that even where
there has been an opportunity for debate there has been no resolution
of the issue, because there has been no vote on a substantive
158. Others see the fundamental fact that the Government
controls the House's time as both a cause and a symptom of the
weakness of the House of Commons as an institution, demonstrating
the inadequacy of parliamentary procedures and processes as a
means of holding the Executive to account. As a result, reformers
have for many years called for changes in the management of business.
159. We acknowledge the grounds for discontent and
the extent of a desire for change. In shaping a new approach we
must seek to build on the effective elements of the current arrangements.
In comparison with the situation in many of our sister parliaments
we have several advantages.
- Advance Notice:
An outline agenda is now announced two weeks in advance and is
largely adhered to; Westminster Hall Thursdays are announced even
further ahead. Some seek further notice.
But in many parliaments there is little or no advance notice of
- Challenge: every week
there is an opportunity for backbench Members to challenge the
Leader of the House on the future agenda, even if not to vote
on it, and to seek debate on other matters or a change in the
suggested agenda: although we recognise that it is now used by
Members primarily for an assortment of other purposes.
- Consultation: The
Official Oppositionalthough generally not other partiesare
at least recognised as deserving limited informal consultation
and the opportunity to make representations, even in the absence
of a formal Bureau or Committee as is the general practice in
other European parliaments. We are aware that the supposed beneficiaries
of this consultation do not on occasion feel it is of much value.
- Protected slots: There
are protected and regular time slots in the House for the Opposition
parties, select committees and individual members to debate matters
of their choice and to question Ministers, and no suggestion that
these should be reduced or constrained.
- General debates: debates
on general policy topics are on at least some occasions brought
forward in "government time": and contrary to the impression
sometimes given there is not a mass of time taken up by general
debates on wholly innocuous topics selected by Ministers.
- Westminster Hall:
the sittings of the House in Westminster Hall offer backbenchers
the opportunity for short 30-minute debates with a Ministerial
reply, like those at the end of each day in the Chamber, and longer
90 minute debates on issues of wider interest of their choice,
subject only to the luck of the draw.
Operation of the system
160. It is also important not to let frustration
with the system spill over into criticising those who operate
it, whether Ministers or officials. We acknowledge the excellent
work of the professional civil servants in the Chief Whip's Office,
in the Leader's Office and in the Opposition Chief Whip's Office.
Ministerial-sponsored legislation reaches the statute book by
the desired date having been debated on the floor (at least for
some parts) and in committee; the 20 Opposition Days are scattered
relatively evenly through the session: the days of set-piece debate
which seem to be regarded as required are scheduled in. Hundreds
of Statutory Instruments are laid, debated and formally agreed.
The House runs according to rules which are obeyed and enforced.
The smooth running of the House, whatever the political arguments,
owes much to the talents of those operating the business system.
It is no mean feat in a Chamber of 646 vigorously individual Members,
and with a second chamber with interests and concerns of its own.
Failure to match principles
161. But we have concluded that the system fails
in several ways to match the basic principles set out at the beginning
of this Report. We set out below five ways in which it fails to
meet these tests.
PARLIAMENTARY CONTROL OF BUSINESS
(ix) It is wrong in principle that, in addition to controlling its own legislative timetable, the Government rather than the House decides what is discussed, when, and for how long.
162. It is entirely right that a democratically elected Government
should have a priority right to put its legislative and other
propositions before the House at a time of its own choosing, and
to be able to plan for the conclusion of that business. But it
should be for the House as a whole to determine how much time
to devote to such debate and scrutiny. It is also right in a democratic
Chamber that the Government is free to deploy its majority to
pass its business. But the procedures and practices which have
grown up over the past two centuries have delegated to Government
too much power to fix the agenda, and to take too many decisions
without reference to its notional majority in the Chamber. We
consider it for example unacceptable that Ministers can determine
the scheduling of Opposition Days without reference to others;
that they have an untrammelled power to decide the topics for
general and topical debates; that they can determine which issues
in major bills are debated on the floor of the House and by corollary
which issues are not; that they can determine the fate of backbench
legislation by procedural means rather than by decision of the
House; and that they determine which pieces of secondary legislation
are or are not debated in the Chamber. It is not easy for Members
to bring on a debateas opposed to a 30 minute exchange
between a Member and a Ministeron a topic which Ministers
do not want to have debated, irrespective of the strength of feeling
across the House: let alone a debate on a substantive motion.
Nor does the House have a mechanism to establish its own inquiry,
beyond existing select committees, when the Government is unwilling
to do so.
(x) The current framework provides protected time in the Chamber for the Government, Opposition and individual Members, but scarcely recognises the cross-party work of select committees, let alone other groups of Members.
163. The House devotes considerable resources to select committees
and then largely neglects their output in drawing up the House
agenda. That is in sharp contrast to prevailing parliamentary
practice elsewhere. Time in Westminster Hall is not a substitute
for committees having access to the House agenda when it is most
useful rather than when it suits the convenience of Ministers.
|(xi) The system for scheduling business is not transparent to many inside the House, let alone those outside.
164. Even the term "the usual channels" has a distinct
air of mystery which demonstrates the difficulty of establishing
who has made or can make a particular decision.
There is no consultation with minority parties or backbenchers.
Most decisions are taken in private, do not have to be justified
in public and can sometimes only be gleaned after the event. Naturally
much of the detailed planning and negotiation needs to be conducted
in private, but the process itself needs to be clear in order
to be legitimate.
(xii) The House is not systematically using its time to debate those matters of current concern which the nation expects its elected Chamber to be debating, nor is it responding flexibly to a swiftly moving political agenda, nor setting a long term policy agenda.
165. This applies to general and topical debates in the Chamber,
and in Westminster Hall. Some debates seem to be mounted as platforms
for speeches a department wishes its Ministers to make. Others
are provided because there may be a row if they are not or because
they have traditionally been provided; it may be a convenience
for the business managers to plead such force majeure.
As a result controversial select committee reports are often not
debated promptly; and other controversial issues are avoided.
USE OF TIME
(xiii) Time in the House is frequently described as a scarce commodity; but it is often wasted on business stretched out artificially to a pre-determined voting time or on arid debate on subjects on which backbenchers on neither side much wish to speak.
166. Ministers may not be best attuned to deciding how long or
short an item needs to be. Each session around 30 hours of possible
Chamber debate are "lost", measured by the half hour
adjournment coming on early. Many other debates are pointlessly
strung out. In Westminster Hall a number of the 3-hour Thursday
debates on subjects picked by the Government fall away early and
time which backbenchers might have welcomed is lost: almost a
third of the available time for the 8 such debates in session
2008-09 was not used, and only 2 backbenchers on average participated
in a debate. This could of course change if there were whipped
votes on Thursdays on a regular basis.
F Five elements of a reformed system
(xiv) We describe five elements of a reformed system: the House determining its own agenda and sitting pattern; backbench business to be scheduled by backbenchers and the House; the Government retaining the initiative on ministerial business; more say and more freedom for the Opposition on its business; and enhanced opportunities for select committees and individual Members. We propose a committee of backbenchers to propose backbench business, and that business should be put to the House in a weekly agenda motion.
167. We consider that there is a strong case for change, particularly
in the scheduling of debates on backbench business in the House
and Westminster Hall, but also in the way in which the agenda
as a whole is decided and justified.
I.The House should determine its own agenda
and sitting pattern
168. Time in the House belongs to the House. At present the House
has no mechanism for determining its own business and therefore
takes no responsibility for it and for the difficult choices which
have to be made. It is then all too easy to blame the Government
for not providing time for debate: the Business Statement is followed
by a raft of suggestions for additional debates but no proposal
as to where the time is to come from. The current system infantilises
Members and demonises Government: ending it would be to the advantage
of both Ministers and Parliament.
Weekly agenda motion
169. The agenda should therefore fall to be decided by the
House, if need be by a majority. The straightforward way of doing
that is by putting a motion to the House on a set day and time
each week. That is standard practice in many parliaments around
the world and has operated in the Scottish Parliament without
problems for the last decade. No extra time would be required
as it would take the place of the Business Statement and subsequent
questions. This Motion would:
- set out the basic details of the agenda in the House for the
week ahead, including the next Thursday in Westminster Hall;
- be available for inspection by Members by the
middle of the previous day;
- be open to amendment, subject to the Chair's
powers of selection;
- be put formally to the vote after the elapse
of a period set in Standing Orders, such as 45 minutes;
- if an amendment were selected, give rise to a
debate with specific speaking time limits following the 45 minute
question and answer session, and would if need be end in a non-deferrable
Business for the second week in the cycle
170. The House would plainly want to retain the advance
notice currently given for the second week in the cycle, if not
get a rather longer forward look.
The introduction in the 1992 Parliament of the fortnightly forward
look was widely welcomed as helping members and others plan ahead.
A draft agenda for the second week should also be announced
to the House at the same time as the formal agenda Motion, and
on broadly the same provisional basis as at present. It would
be explicitly provisional and it would be open to Members to make
representations to the Business Committees (see below) before
it was finalised for the formal motion the succeeding week.
171. There is no reason why there should as a
rule be a vote on the agenda, all the more once it has been the
subject of wider discussion than at present and will have been
exposed in draft the previous week. But the ability of Ministers
to deploy a whipped majority provides a necessary insurance policy
for them. On what we expect to be the rare occasions when push
comes to shove, a disciplined majoritarian party can have its
way if it disagrees with a proposed agenda or if it wishes to
defeat a proposed amendment. Such decisions will of course normally
be taken on a whipped vote. It would be unrealistic to seek to
stop the whips from operating in votes on such decisions. The
Government will generally be able to secure a majority, should
it wish to do so. But if a significant number of its own backbenchers
are unhappy it will at least have had to make a convincing case,
and in public: and at the cost of delaying the main business for
the day and interrupting the smooth flow of business for all Members.
If the time lost as a result of debate and vote on an amendment
moved by Ministers comes out of backbench business, there should
be commensurately more backbench time available in the next week's
Scope of possible amendments to agenda motion
172. The Speaker's power of selection of amendments
would be required to ensure that merely destructive amendments
were not selected and that a proposition coming from the House
Business Committee (described below) was treated with respect.
No consideration would be given to amendments which had not been
raised previously with the committee. Amendments intended merely
to draw attention to some issue without proposing an alternative
would not be in order, and we would expect the Chair only to select
amendments demonstrating widespread support. But where Members
across the House disagreed with, for example, the specific topic
proposed for a general or topical debate and wished to press a
cogent alternative expressed in an amendment, it should ultimately
be for a majority in the House to decide. Such amendments to backbench
business should however only be in order if tabled and moved by
backbenchers. The House could not restrict the overall time allocated
to backbench business (as set out below), nor deny the Opposition
or government its time. It could not alter the topic of an Opposition
Day, which is properly the property of the Opposition frontbench.
But Members could, for example, propose that time on one Government
Bill be curtailed in order to allow for more debate on another.
We would hope that such challenges, to either government-initiated
or backbench business, would be rare, with most difficulties ironed
out beforehand in the House Business Committee.
173. Where there is serious dissent a majority will
of course prevail. That majority may not always be the majority
of the governing party. But the system we propose will clearly
have failed if disagreements have to be re-fought on the floor
of the House. It will also have failed if debate on the agenda
becomes a ritual leading to a ritual party vote. Ideally the agenda
will be put together so as not to require a vote or an amendment:
the effectiveness of the mechanism is not to be judged by the
frequency of discord but its absence.
174. A votable motion on the agenda provides a
traditional accountability mechanism for such decisions, and ultimately
a sanction were the wishes of a majority of the House to be misjudged
or ignored. Any programme which requires the positive approval
of the House will necessarily be drawn upand we deal below
with how and by whom it is to be drawn upwith the intention
of satisfying a clear majority of members and delivering to the
Government sufficient time to get the business it initiates through
175. As set out above [paras 100-101], the House
as a whole must also be given the opportunity to determine on
a regular basis when it is to sit, on the basis of a proposition
made by the House's own Business Committee in the autumn for the
year ahead, which can be amended by the House nearer the time
of each adjournment should it be thought necessary.
II BACKBENCH BUSINESS SHOULD BE
SCHEDULED BY BACKBENCHERS AND THE HOUSE
176. Backbenchers should schedule backbench business.
Ministers should give up their role in the scheduling of any business
except that which is exclusively Ministerial business, comprising
Ministerial-sponsored legislation and associated motions, substantive
non-legislative motions required in support of their policies
and Ministerial statements The rest of the business currently
scheduled by Ministerssuch as House domestic business,
select committee reports and general and topical debatesis
for backbenchers to propose and the House to decide.
177. On some business there needs to be an explicit
partnership between Ministerial and backbench scheduling:
this includes the length of debates on the Budget and Queen's
Speech, the timing of Estimates Days and the handling of secondary
legislation and European documents on the floor. And the rota
for oral questions must allow for ministerial availability but
is also quintessentially an opportunity for the House to scrutinise
the Executive. The suggestion has for example been made that oral
questions might be switched from being first business to later
in the day, so as to give an opportunity to the majority of the
population who are otherwise engaged during the day to see it
live. This would be a matter for backbenchers and for Ministers
to agree together.
Backbench Business Committee
178. The scheduling of backbench business by backbenchers
will require a means to decide what proposals for such business
should be put to the House for its agreement. The obvious route
is a committee of backbenchers elected by the House for that purpose.
Such a committee's task will not be an easy one. But it is
in our view time for Members of the House, through a committee
of their elected colleagues, to take some responsibility for what
the House debates, when and for how long; and also for what it
does not wish to debate, either at all or at its current length.
For example, the House must be enabled to decide whether to sacrifice
or curtail or move to another forum one or more of the set piece
debates to make space for other business.
179. This will reduce the current extent of Government
control or influence over the Parliamentary agenda. But the matters
"lost" to Government will be principally those in which
it has no direct interest: for example, the timing and topics
of general debates and discussion of select committee reports.
Rather than Ministers seeking to prioritise the many demands for
time that are presented by Members, this responsibility would
be handed to a committee representative of the House as a whole.
180. We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business
Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven
and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole,
with safeguards to ensure a due reflection of party proportionality
in the House as a whole. The Chair would also be elected by ballot
of the whole House. Frontbench members of all parties and PPSs
would be ineligible for membership of the committee. The committee
would have its own secretariat, provided by the Clerk of the House.
To ensure that it was fully informed on a range of considerations
affecting the scheduling of debates, such as the availability
of Ministers, it might wish to invite the attendance of the Government's
business managers for part of the meeting. The committee would
meet weekly to consider the competing claims for time made by
select committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals
for the protected days and/or time-slots [see below] available
in the two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the
backbench business in the week immediately ahead.
181. So what would be gained by a Backbench Business
Committee along the lines we suggest? We believe that establishment
of clear "backbench time" managed by a Backbench Business
Committee will be a major step forward. Without in any way compromising
Government's ability to have its own initiatives discussed and
scrutinised, this Committee will take clear charge of part of
the agenda for at least one day a week or its equivalent for the
House collectively to discuss those matters that Members feel
should be prioritised. It will create new opportunities for all
Members, giving them a greater sense of ownership and responsibility
for what goes on in their own House. It will make debates more
responsive to public concerns, as fed in to Members by their constituents.
It will strengthen the position of the widely-respected select
committees. We feel that this is an essential reform which will
have many benefits for Members, for Parliament as a whole, and
for the esteem in which it is held. But these gains will not be
realised unless individual backbenchers are committed to parliamentary
activity and avail themselves of these opportunities, and that
will only happen if they think it a more worthwhile use of their
time than the many other tasks which make up the life of an elected
III THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD RETAIN
THE INITIATIVE ON SCHEDULING MINISTERIAL BUSINESS
182. Ministers should continue to have the first
call on House time for Ministerial business, meaning Ministerial-sponsored
primary and secondary legislation and associated motions, substantive
non-legislative motions required in support of their policies
and Ministerial statements on major policy changes. Ministers
would for example retain the right to determine the date of second
reading of a Government Bill, and the day by which the Bill was
to conclude its passage through the House.
Ministerial control of timing
183. Ministers should also continue to be entitled
to put to the House for its assent the order in which items of
Ministerial business are scheduled and the day on which they are
to be taken. They would also retain the ability, which any Member
in charge of an Order of the Day has, to prevent others bringing
a Ministerial-sponsored item forward onto the Order Paper which
Ministers do not want to have moved at that time. Their control
over the timing of the business they need to be put to the House
will thus be preserved.
Length of business
184. The Government's right to have the opportunity
to put its legislative and other propositions to the House, at
a day of its choosing, should not however extend to deciding without
any reference to the House for how long these are to be debated
by the House. Scheduling must allow for Ministers to have
a proper opportunity to present their case; for Opposition parties
to present theirs; and for backbenchers to speak. But it cannot
be right that Ministers effectively decide with little or no consultation
the length of a Second Reading debate or the report stage of a
Bill or the time to be devoted to Lords amendments. There needs
to be some means of consultation with Members speaking for the
House and not just front-benchers.
185. Under programming of most Government Bills,
the time allowed for the report stage is put to the House in the
programme motion moved immediately after Second Reading. These
motions are effectively unamendable and are not open to separate
debate. It is unnecessary for the House to be asked to agree so
peremptorily before a Committee stage how long the report
stage should last.
186. Generally there is and will be no controversy.
The current "standard allowance" of a day for Second
Reading, a day or two for report and Third Reading, and a day
or a half day for Lords Amendments is broadly recognised. But
there are rough edges and rough justice. Every session there are
second readings to which a full day is allocated which is not
required: report stages which may require an additional half or
full day to the amount given, or which do not require a full day:
and Lords amendments which are unnecessarily squeezed. The House
itself should take responsibility for determining how much time
it wishes to devote to such matters.
187. Some similar considerations apply to the time
devoted to ministerial statements and the subsequent question
and answer, which conventionally lasts for 60 minutes, up to a
third of which may be devoted to the Minister reading out the
text of the statement in full for up to 10 minutes, and the exchanges
with the Opposition parties front-bench spokesmen. The text of
the statement is not made available to most Members in advance.
There is plainly room for different procedures designed to
give an opportunity for a more thorough form of parliamentary
scrutiny, without undermining a Minister's right to make a statement
and respond to questions on it; and statements could well be taken
at a different point in the parliamentary day.
IV THE OPPOSITION ARE ENTITLED TO
MORE SAY IN WHEN OPPOSITION DAYS ARE SCHEDULED AND HOW THEY ARE
188. The Official Opposition and other Opposition
parties should continue to have a pre-emptive right to their fixed
number of days, to be spread evenly through a session. There is
a case for the Opposition parties to be given more say on when
they can take such a day or half day. In order to give the
Opposition parties more opportunity to have a debate when they
need one, Standing Orders could provide for the Opposition to
have the right to schedule a day at a week's notice, exercisable
on a given number of occasions in the session. Opposition business
would not come within the ambit of the Backbench Business Committee.
Content of Opposition Days
189. There is a "somewhat ritualistic element"
to Opposition days.
A wider range of business could be taken rather than what has
now become the standard fare on Opposition Days of two debates
of three hours each, dominated by the front-benches: such
as the introduction of the format used in European Committees
of question and answer followed by debate. It has also in the
past been suggested that there could be Opposition legislative
business. This would represent a change in practice sufficient
to require an explicit decision of the House and could of course
have repercussions for the existing system for prioritising non-Ministerial
bills. But it would in our view represent a significant opportunity
for debate to focus around a specific legislative proposition
from an Opposition party.
Announcement of topics
190. We are also aware of the inconvenience and uncertainty
sometimes caused by delays in announcing the subjects to be debated
on Opposition Days, or those subjects being changed at the last
moment. We consider that the subjects of Opposition Day motions
should normally be laid down with at least two days' notice.
V SELECT COMMITTEES AND INDIVIDUAL
MEMBERS SHOULD BE GIVEN ENHANCED OPPORTUNITIES, WHILE RETAINING
THEIR EXISTING RIGHTS OF INITIATIVE
Select committee debates
191. Select committees do have some opportunities
for having their reports debated. Most Thursdays in Westminster
Hall are taken up from 2.30pm to 5.30pm by such debates. That
may not be the most popular time or place, but these debates are
often lively and reasonably well-attended. Six further select
committee reports are in practice debated on the floor each year
on the three Estimates Days [see para 136 above] . But there are
flaws in the system, which the Liaison Committee has pointed out
over the years. It is hard for select committees to get the attention
of the House itself. Debates are not held until a Government Reply
is received, which can take two months to compile, and sometimes
more. And where there are debates there is no opportunity for
a committee to test its conclusions in a vote of substance, based
on a draft resolution it can put forward, itself then subject
to amendment. Furthermore the now standard time of three hours
for a debate on a report either on an Estimates Day or in Westminster
Hall is on occasions too long and could usefully be reduced to
90 minutes, as for topical debates and longer backbench debates
in Westminster Hall. These are the sort of opportunities which
should be possible under a reformed system. Select committees,
including those concerned with the House's own affairs, deserve
greater access to the agenda, so that they can have their reports
debated and decided upon a substantive motion, at a time which
best suits them and the House.
Individual Member initiatives
192. Individual backbenchers must continue to
be able to raise subjects as adjournment debates in the Chamber
and in Westminster Hall, and to press legislation through Private
Members' Bills, as well as participating in debate and questioning.
In addition, any revised system must respond to the widespread
sense that the right should be restored to Members to get a substantive
motion put to the House and decided. We propose below [paras
271-2] the introduction of a regular slot for debate on a heavily
signed motion from the backbenches, separate from the EDM system.
That would offer a return to backbenchers of the right to move
a motion in the House which was lost in 1994. We also propose
some other new forms of business which might be introduced, to
be scheduled within backbench time.
Private Members Bills
193. Several Members have expressed dissatisfaction
with the system of Private Members' Bills. It was last reviewed
in detail by the Procedure Committee in 2002-03.
The proposition that they be taken after the end of other business
on Wednesdays enjoys some support, as do the ideas that there
should be some sort of automatic guillotines after a certain number
of hours of debate on second reading and report, so as to constrain
the ability of a handful of members or a Minister to "talk
a Bill out". Our recommendations on report stages apply equally
to Private Members' Bills.
194. One essential test of the House's control of
its own business is whether the handful of legislative propositions
tabled by those backbenchers fortunate enough to win one of the
top 7 places in the sessional ballot should be able to see their
bills progress in the House unless and until defeated by a majority.
The House should be responsible for ensuring that merely procedural
devices cannot obstruct Private Members' Bills, and that they
are brought to a decision. This could among other things mean
scheduling Private Members' Bills at some other time in the week
than Fridays, such as Wednesday evenings. As a corollary to this,
the Government and other parties should be free to whip against
those Bills it opposes; but the outcome should be clearly dependent
on a decision of the House one way or another.
KEY ELEMENTS OF REVISED SYSTEM
195. In summary, we envisage a system whereby
Ministers indicate as now the business they intend to bring forward,
principally legislation and related motions. It would not be realistic,
or indeed reasonable, to expect Government to surrender control
over these decisions to a committee of backbench Members. Ministers
quite rightly want to determine the broad timing of the legislation
they sponsor. At the same time, a committee of backbenchers should
be set up to bring forward proposals to the House for backbench
business. The Opposition should have some greater say than at
present in when it uses its Opposition Days. Select committees
and backbench Members deserve enhanced access to the House agenda.
By giving Members greater control of the agenda, we are confident
that the House of Commons will be strengthened.
G Assembling the jigsaw
In this section we set out our proposals for a House
Business Committee which would assemble a draft agenda to put
to the House in a weekly motion
196. A draft agenda will have to be assembled from
these various separate streams of business as a "composite"
motion to be moved in the House, a task now carried out for want
of any other structure by the Government Chief Whip's office.
We considered a number of options before deciding on a model to
recommend to the House.
Option 1: a single Business Committee deciding
197. One option would be an all-purpose Business
Committee with responsibility for all scheduling decisions, including
backbench business. Any backbenchers on the committee would be
in practice overshadowed by the Whips, as on the Committee of
Selection. The conclusions of the studies by Meg Russell and Akash
Paun of the Constitution Unit is that a Business Committee with
wide-ranging and quasi-decisive power will in practice be dominated
by party whips, and was so dominated in every case studied where
that system currently runs, including Scotland.
If such a committee was created and then dominated by the Whips,
the House would have gained no more ownership of backbench business
than it has at present. We therefore rejected this option.
Option 2: the existing system with a Backbench
Business Committee bolted on
198. Another option would be to continue with a variant
of the present system, with a Backbench Business Committee feeding
in its proposals for the use of backbench time. Such an arrangement
would fail on several counts. The Backbench Business Committee
would be just one more playeralbeit a significant oneon
the stage, together with the Official Opposition, the Liaison
Committee, and other parties. It would as now be left to the Leader
of the House and Government officials to sort it all out. There
would therefore be no real sense of House ownership of the Ministerial
part of the agenda: and no backbench challenge possible to it
before the agenda was put to the House. A Backbench Business Committee
created in these circumstances might not long survive. The House
would gain something by its creation, but not to the degree we
believe possible under other schemes. We therefore rejected
Option 3: a House Business Committee with two
199. A further variant would be to have a single
House Business Committee with two sub-committeesa backbench
sub-committee and a government business sub-committee. This would
have the advantage of giving clear and equal weight to both backbench
and government business. It would also formalize the usual channels.
However, we accept there may be some reluctance from the executive
to take this additional step. We therefore rejected this option.
Option 4: a House Business Committee and a Backbench
200. Our preferred solution is to have two committees.
The task of assembling a draft agenda to put to the House should
be undertaken by a unified House Business Committee, comprised
of representatives of all parts of the House with a direct interest:
backbenchers, Government and Opposition. The members of this
committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench
Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated
by the three party leaders. We would expect the Leader and shadow
Leaders of the House to be among these nominees. The House
Business Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and
Means [the Deputy Speaker], whose would have been elected by the
House as a whole to that office with this function partly in mind.
It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support
the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials
who currently support the usual channels.
House Business committee: internal operation
201. Given the complex nature of House business and
the competition for scarce time, we accept that, in the interests
of individual Members and the need for Government to get its business,
and in order for our proposed system to work, extensive informal
negotiation would take place well before the formal committee
meetings. In such meetings, the frontbench members of the House
Business Committee would be free to comment on the propositions
brought to the Committee by the Chair of the Backbench Business
Committee, but would not be able to alter or attenuate them. Similarly,
the backbench Members of the House Business Committee would be
free to raise objections to, make suggestions on and seek explanations
of the Government or Opposition propositions. Either part of the
committee would be free to change their original proposition following
discussion. Standing Orders would oblige the Committee to accommodate
the reasonable demands of Government, Opposition and backbenchers
for time. A consensus would have to be arrived at. We do not envisage
that a vote in such a committee would be possible. In the absence
of a consensus the Chair would have to use their discretion to
settle the matter so far as deciding what was to go into the draft
agenda to be put to the House. Anybody wishing to challenge that
would have to contemplate moving amendment to the draft agenda
on the floor of the House.
Agenda and agenda motion debate
202. The resultant draft agenda would be moved formally
in the House in the name of the Chair of the House Business Committee.
We envisage that the question and answer session thereafter would
be answered by the Leader of the House as at present where the
matter concerned Ministerial business or the Chair of the Backbench
Business Committee if it concerned backbench business. This session
would in effect provide a similar opportunity to the current Business
Questions on Thursdays.
Process of consultation
203. We would expect both committees to meet weekly,
with the Backbench Business Committee meeting first to consider
backbench business to be brought up to the House Business Committee.
We would also expect that there would be a process of constant
consultation and negotiation between the secretariats of the two
committees. The drawing up of a draft agenda for the second week
gives a further chance to reach consensus as well as to react
to the views of Members. Discussion in the privacy of a select
committee should also enable Members to resolve any remaining
204. It may be that the Government and Opposition
nominees on the House Business Committee will want to meet separately
in advance of the House Business Committee meeting to settle so
far as possible the scheduling of the business for which they
each have responsibility. We regard that as a matter for them
and should they wish to constitute themselves as a Government
business committee comparable to the Backbench Business Committee
that could be accommodated and would have the benefits of greater
Annual planning transparency
205. The House Business Committee will not operate
effectively unless it has a handle on the sort of annual planning
exercise carried out at the start of each sessionor rather
before thatby the business managers. Without some sense
of what other business might be coming up, it would not be possible
to challenge the judgements being made about the time to be devoted
to an item of Government business or how far additional time could
be spared without creating countervailing pressures elsewhere
in the programme. It is legitimate that some of this be held in
confidence by the Government: for example, if they have in mind
some legislation not yet announced which they do not wish to reveal
to others. But we believe most of this provisional long-term planning
could be shared with such a committee without damage.
Advance notice of plans
206. If there is not a guaranteed day each week for
backbench business it will be difficult for the Backbench Business
Committee to know what spaces it is seeking to fill. Even were
there to be a regular day, there would still be the option of
scheduling some backbench business on days largely devoted to
other business. The Government should therefore be under an informal
obligation to indicate to the Committee and its staff well in
advance the slots it envisages needing in the coming fortnight
for specified government business, and the Opposition likewise.
By the time the House Business Committee meets to agree a draft
agenda, there should be no surprises for anyone.
Minor unannounced business
207. Present practice allows a good deal of latitude
to Ministers to bring up additional items not mentioned in the
Business Statement. These are principally motions of a technical
nature put down for the end of the day and either requiring unanimity
to be agreed, or being capable of being voted upon as a deferred
division on the next Wednesday. But they also include motions
of real significance which seem as if they are being "smuggled
through" [see para 155]. We would expect a greater discipline
to be applied in giving advance notice of motions, to the extent
of allowing the Speaker to refuse to put a Motion to the House
of which sufficient notice had not been given.
Avoiding undue rigidity
208. Tying the agenda down in a Resolution of
the House should not be allowed to impose excessive rigidity on
the House's business. There are rare occasions when the announced
business has to be changed at short notice [see above]. We believe
that the Leader of the House should be given the right, subject
to the discretion of the Chair, to move a supplementary business
motion without previous written notice, and have it decided by
vote if need be after 10 minutes. The Leader would be obliged
to signify the consent of the Chairman of Ways and Means and the
Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.
Decisions of the House
209. The House Business Committee could be empowered
to include in the agenda to be put to the House a binding propositionwhich
the House could amend or rejectthat debate on a specified
item of business be brought to a decision point after a fixed
period for example "after 90 minutes"or
at a specified timefor example "at Four o'clock"
: or a mixture of the twofor example "at Four o'clock
or after 90 minutes, whichever is later". Such propositions
could also cover backbench business. Some advance timetabling
is fairer to the House and ensures that debate cannot be used
to talk out a specific proposition where it is reasonable to expect
the House to express a view. But we would expect such a power
to be used sparingly.
210. Most general debate in the House and in its
debating committees proceeds on neutral and unamendable motions.
There will on occasions be good reason to hold a debate on, for
example, a foreign policy issue or a general social topic where
being tied to the detailed terms of a draft proposition may be
positively unhelpful. A substantive motion may invite amendment
and stimulate dissent without necessarily achieving a useful outcome.
On such occasions a take note or equivalent motion is positively
helpful. But in general terms we favour more use of substantive
motions so that the House can come to a recorded conclusion which
will then carry weight. The Backbench Business Committee will
be in a position to decide as to what sort of motion is best suited
for the backbench business it proposes and to put forward for
inclusion on the agenda either a neutral motion or a substantive
motion already drawn up by a select committee or by backbenchers.
H Time available to the backbench
|(xv) We set out the options for protecting the time available for the business to be scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee: a nominated day each week, whether always the same day or a movable day, or the equivalent of a day spread through each week or through the year as a whole. We conclude that the minimum offering should be of one day a week or the equivalent.
211. Put very crudely, the current system relies on the Government
taking the time it needs for legislation; the Opposition getting
its allocation over the year as a whole; any other of those with
a call on timesuch as for opposed Private Businessbeing
satisfied; and then filling the rest with set-piece debates either
from the list of hardy annuals or ad hoc debates. Some weeks there
is virtually no non-Government business other than an Opposition
Day; in other weeks there may be two days of miscellaneous non-Ministerial
business. The creation of a Backbench Business Committee will
call for a more transparent system and one which gives the protection
of Standing Orders to backbench business. We have identified several
A foreseeable weekday every week?
212. The simplest and probably most transparent way of ensuring
sufficient time for backbench business spread evenly throughout
a session, and susceptible to planning by the Backbench Business
Committee, is to identify in Standing Orders a fixed day of the
week as reserved for backbench business. From the figures available,
one day a week could easily be devoted to backbench business as
we have defined it above, leaving more than enough days required
for a standard Government legislative programme and for Opposition
days. The Backbench Business Committee could fill the day as it
thought fit, drawing on the menu of possible items we refer to
below, and with regard to any regular mandatory slots. This system
would be easy for all to foresee. It would import a degree of
rigidity, however, and it might also tend to rule out shorter
items of backbench business being taken on days otherwise given
over to Ministerial business.
213. If a particular day were to be identified, and
if it were to be the same day every week, the first suggestion
made is likely to be Thursday. With the move in 1997 of
Prime Minister's Questions to Wednesdays, Thursdays in the Chamber
have lost status and are now increasingly used for unwhipped or
only lightly whipped business. They are not well attended. The
prospect of votes on substantive motions may change that. Another
possibility is Monday. This is a day for main-stream business.
But Members from further afield may only reach Westminster some
way through a Monday, in time for an evening vote. Ideally,
if a particular day is to be protected, we would like backbench
business to be scheduled on Wednesdays, with Thursdays once again
becoming a "main" day for debate on Government legislation
and other matters. It is important that backbench business
is not relegated to a backwater, and that Thursday be revived
as a proper day for business, with its earlier finishing time.
One suggested way of doing that would be to return Prime Minister's
Questions to Thursday. We ask the Chief Whips to pursue the
suggestion that Prime Minister's Question Time be timetabled for
A changing weekday every week?
214. Alternatively, it could be left open to a process
of regular discussion and negotiation as to which day of each
week would be devoted to backbench business. This would avoid
the rigidities referred to above.
Equivalent of a day every week?
215. Another means of providing a guaranteed minimum
amount of backbench time every week would be to spread backbench
time over each week in packets of half days or smaller fractions.
This could ensure some backbench business on most days but might
be unduly diffuse.
A minimum ration of days through the year?
216. A further variant, drawing on the parallel of
the provision of 20 Opposition Days each session, would be to
provide for a similar but higher number of backbench business
dayssay 35 Backbench Business Dayspossibly with
a requirement in Standing Orders that they be spread over the
year as a whole. This could also allow for half days and shorter
periods. In order to allow for some weeks which for good reason
would be devoted exclusively to Government and Opposition business,
there could be a fixed number per three month "term".
Quotas for specified categories of business
217. Whichever option is chosen, it would also be
possible to create an obligation on the Backbench Business Committee
to schedule a given minimum number of specified items for the
agenda over a period of a month or the year as a whole, or indeed
every week. For example, it could be an obligation to have
- one topical debate each week:
- one select committee report presentation slot
each week or fortnight
or 35 select committee presentation slots spread through the year:
- one debate on a heavily supported backbench cross-party
motion each month.
218. Whichever option emerges from the debate
and discussion which we expect to follow this Report, some time
must be identified and protected for backbench business, not less
than the equivalent of one day a week. We propose that Standing
Orders should be sufficiently tightly drawn to guarantee this,
but with some flexibility, so that the Backbench Business Committee
can take matters forward.
I Backbench business
219. In the time we have had available it has not
been possible to conduct an exhaustive inquiry into all the possible
categories of backbench business which a Backbench Business Committee
might in future bring forward. Over recent years there have been
a number of suggestions and propositions, but no means of implementing
them or even putting them to the House. A Backbench Business Committee
will be empowered and expected to do that. It would be up to that
Committee to innovate and mix and match. The last thing we would
wish to do is to try and set down a narrow menu now.
220. Existing categories may well be adapted. Some
changes may not require changes to the Standing Orders, or very
minor changes. For example a topical debate could in future be
led off by a back-bencher; some general debates could draw on
the European Standing Committee format; and a debate on a select
committee report could usefully be held on a substantive draft
resolution based on that report. We would expect the Liaison Committee
to continue to take the initiative in selecting select committee
reports for presentation and debate, leaving it to the Backbench
Business Committee to find an actual slot.
221. There are a number of welcome ideas for new
sorts of business or revised forms of current categories. A Backbench
Business Committee would be in position to seek the House's agreement
to try these out. Some of the sorts of business which we would
hope to see included are :
- substantive motions moved by
backbenchers either after a ballot or based on the sort of procedure
we identify in para 271;
- some category or categories of non-Government
bills given priority over, or at least equality with, those presented
following the ballot;
- brief presentation of a select committee Report
in the Chamber by the Chairman and one or two Members, without
it engaging instant rebuttal by Ministers;
- alternative uses of the 10-minute rule bill slot
or its extension to Monday and/or Thursday;
- periods for short miscellaneous speeches not
expecting a Ministerial reply, on the Australian model, where
in the equivalent (and predecessor) of Westminster Hall six 10-minute
speeches from backbenchers on any matter are permitted in a weekly
"grievance" debate and ten 3-minute "constituency
statements" at the start of proceedings: neither attracting
a ministerial response.
222. We have concluded that reform is both necessary
and desirable. We have not drafted the specific changes to Standing
Order No 14 and many other Standing Orders which will be required
to implement our recommendations, but we believe that work on
that task should now begin.
223. The House is unused to deciding its own business
and has become dependent on Government. It may therefore be understandably
fearful about change. But the public would find it strange if
Members do not summon up the confidence to give effect to the
view of all three party leaders that the time is now right for
a clearer and more important role for Parliament. It is also worth
pausing to consider how some of the practices and procedures we
now value would look if proposed as an innovation, and how quickly
they take root. Who would now suggest a 10 minute slot for a backbencher
to move a motion to bring in a Billa quite unnecessary
stage in procedural termsat prime time before the main
business of the day? And how many people 10 years ago could imagine
that the parallel Chamber in Westminster Hall could thrive as
it has? Is there any likelihood that the House would turn its
back on topical questions introduced only a couple of years ago?
Innovations swiftly become traditions; and it may in the future
come to seem odd that the House once lacked the ability and confidence
to control its own business.
26 Robin Cook, The Point of Departure, 2003,
pp 236-7 Back
See www.publications.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmproced/memo/timetabling/uctb0502.htm Back
HC Deb, 1 November 2006, col 418 Back
See Ev10 footnote 7 for international comparisons Back
Jessica Levy, Strengthening Parliament's Powers of Scrutiny?
(Constitution Unit, University College London, 2009) Back
eg Ev9 Back
Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 1995-96, Delegated
Legislation HC152 Back
Standing Orders of the House of Commons, HC 2, 2008-09, pp 167-169 Back
In Session 2008-09, on selected significant Ministerial Bills,
the numbers of groups not reached included Apprenticeships,
Skills, Children and Learning, 5 groups out of 10; Coroners and
Justice, 7 groups out of 15; Marine and Coastal Access [Lords],
2 groups out of 8; Policing and Crime, 4 groups out of 8; Political
Parties and Elections, 9 groups out of 18; Welfare Reform, 5 groups
out of 8. Back
See Erskine May, 24th Edition, pages 6-9 Back
Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, Financial
Scrutiny: Parliamentary Control over Government Budgets, HC 804,
para 116 Back
See Justice Committee, Eleventh Report of Session 2008-09, Constitutional
Reform and Renewal, HC 923, paras 40-49 Back
Rush and Ettinghausen, Opening up the Usual Channels (Hansard
Society, 2002) Back
See eg OR 28 October 2009, cols 397ff Back
Ev 7 [Jo Swinson MP] Back
It dates back to at least 1905, when used by the then Prime Minister
Arthur Balfour in response to a question. Back
Ev 7, [Jo Swinson MP]; Ev 26,para 9 I [Hansard Society] Back
Conservative Democracy Task Force, Power to the People,
p 5: Ev 27, para 15 II Back
Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2002-03, Procedures
for Debates, Private Members' Bills and the Powers of the Speaker,
HC 333 Back
Meg Russell and Akash Paun, House Rules? International Lessons
for Enhancing the Autonomy of the House of Commons (Constitution
Unit, University College London, 2007) Back
Ev4 [sir Patrick Cormack], Ev6 [Dr Brian Iddon] Back
Eg Ev6 [ Michael Meacher] Back