4 Changes to oral statements |
Advance publication of statements
40. When an oral statement is made, it is usual for
Ministers to read out a prepared text. This text is routinely
given to Opposition spokesmen in advance and is made available
to backbenchers after the Minister has sat down. As we have noted
above, the same statement is then read by a Minister in the House
41. The Government proposed that Ministers should
have the option of "appearing in the Chamber to respond to
questions on a written ministerial statement which had been made
earlier in the day without repeating the whole substance of the
This would allow Members more time than they have at present to
scrutinise the text of the statement and prepare lines of questioning.
It would also mean, however, that those outside Parliament would
have access to the statement (and, perhaps, opportunities to question
the Minister) before Members had had a chance to hold the Minister
to account on the Floor of the House.
42. Backbenchers who gave oral evidence to our inquiry
were not in favour of this suggestion. Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP
suggested that "the danger with this is that it's a wonderful
opportunity for the media to grab the subject and to have the
debate about it before the House has an opportunity to question
He added that the change "would encourage Special Advisers
and many Ministers to think about how [a statement] would play
on the 1.00 news rather than on how it would play in the House
at 2.30." Jane
Ellison MP warned that such an arrangement might not be practical
for Members, who "might not be in the House. They might be
in meetings. The first time they might know about something important
in their constituency is from their local paper calling them."
43. It is important to preserve the primacy of Parliament
as the place in which the most important announcements of Government
policy are made. Parliament, not the media, should be the first
concern of a Minister who has an important announcement to make.
We therefore reject the Government's proposal for Ministers to
answer oral questions on written statements released in advance.
Length of time spent on statements
44. At present, the length of time spent on oral
statements and subsequent questions is at the discretion of the
Chair. In Session 2010-11, the time spent on statements ranged
from 26 minutes (on the Redfern Inquiry) to two hours and 31 minutes
(on the Comprehensive Spending Review).
Most statements take between half an hour and an hour.
45. In October 2002 the House approved a report from
the Modernisation Committee which suggested that statements taken
on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays should normally last for
about an hour. The same report also expressed concern that "there
should be a fair balance between contributions from the front
benches and from the back benches" and proposed that "Ministers
should aim to confine their opening statement to within ten minutes
and that the official Opposition should aim to confine their response
to within five minutes."
46. The Government states that it is sometimes reluctant
to make oral statements because they reduce the time available
for subsequent business. In the past, the Speaker has deprecated
the making of statements on Opposition days. The Government argued
that this disincentive to make statements might be removed by
the introduction of time-limits on statements. The Leader of the
We might be able to get two statements in if we knew
that the total time was an hour and a half, whereas if we thought
they might both run on for a long time and that would do injury
to the rest of the business, we might not make the second one.
47. The Government made two proposals for formal
time limits on oral statements and subsequent questioning. One
proposal was that there should be a general time limit on almost
all statements, with certain exceptions, such as the Budget Statement.
Another option was a "new category" of time-limited
statements for "some less significant issues", to be
agreed with the Speaker in advance.
48. In oral evidence, Jane Ellison MP acknowledged
that time limits on statements could allow Members greater certainty
with which to plan their day and prevent statements limiting the
time available for backbench contributions to subsequent debates.
Other Members were not in favour of formal limits to the length
of time spent on statements. Paul Flynn MP argued that pressure
from the Chair for short contributions was "better than simply
any rules to restrict the time".
49. We acknowledge the difficulties that statements
of indefinite length present for both Ministers and backbenchers.
We are not, however, persuaded that a time limit on some or most
statements would encourage Ministers to offer more statements
or improve the quality of scrutiny. It is the occupant of the
Chair at the time at which the statement is made who is best placed
to judge the level of interest among Members, both in the statement
and in the business that follows, and consequently to judge the
appropriate time for the statement. Where a statement falls into
the "less significant" category proposed by the Government,
the interest from Members will be less and the time required accordingly
shorter. Moreover, on most days the business that follows a statement
is sufficiently flexible to absorb the time taken by a statement.
We therefore consider that the benefits of the flexibility of
the present system outweigh any advantages that a system of time-limited
statements might have.
50. It is our
view that the Chair is best placed to determine the appropriate
length of time to be spent on a statement. We therefore reject
the Government's proposals for time limits on almost all statements
and for a category of time-limited statements for "less significant
issues". We do, however, reiterate the proposal made by the
Modernisation Committee and endorsed by the House that the opening
ministerial statement and subsequent Opposition frontbench contribution
should, in most cases, not exceed ten and five minutes respectively.
51. Another means of protecting the time
available for business
following a statement or statements would be to provide additional
time at the end of the sitting to compensate for time spent on
statements. The Leader of the House was not in favour of such
"injury time", on the grounds that "the House puts
a premium on the certainty of knowing when business will end".
Backbench Members were divided on this question. Nick Raynsford
MP said that he was "not uncomfortable about a certain amount
of injury time", and Mark Durkan MP told us that his "instinct
of sympathy would be with injury time" rather than time limits
on statements. Duncan Hames MP, on the other hand, suggested that
"the consequences of injury time can be rather uncivilised."
52. We are attracted by the idea of the Speaker having
the discretion, in exceptional circumstances, to allow "injury
time" to compensate for time spent on oral statements and
are minded to consider it further. Such a change would have an
effect on the sitting hours of the House. Rather than consider
this issue in isolation, we would prefer to address it in the
wider context of the arrangement of the parliamentary day. We
will, therefore, return to this matter in the course of our inquiry
into the sittings of the House.
Oral statements in Westminster
53. To protect time for business in the main Chamber,
oral statements might be made in Westminster Hall. The Shadow
Leader of the House told us that he favoured "looking at
the possibility of using Westminster Hall for some oral statements."
He noted that Westminster Hall had been created "to provide
more time for backbenchers, in particular, to raise questions.
It has been a great success, but there are slots that we could
use." The Leader
of the House described the idea as "an interesting proposition."
54. Jane Ellison MP warned that her experience on
the Backbench Business Committee suggested that some Members felt
that Westminster Hall was a "second string option" and
that holding a debate in Westminster Hall was sometimes seen as
"downgrading their issue".
Duncan Hames MP was cautious about the proposal, saying that he
would not "want it to lead to statements that otherwise would
have been made in the Chamber itself being less likely to be so."
He said that he would only welcome the change if it led to "more
scrutiny of statements that otherwise wouldn't have been oral
Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP disagreed with this principle, suggesting
that it would only serve to "reinforce the perception that
[Westminster Hall] is the second-class place for statements."
He recommended instead that, in cases where notice had already
been given of an intention to make a statement in the Chamber,
any further statements that day should be made in Westminster
Hall. He argued that this would "protect the House's business
against being squeezed and would avoid the Westminster Hall ones
being only those statements that were regarded as kind of second
55. We are not yet persuaded that permitting ministerial
statements to be made in Westminster Hall would achieve our objectives
of encouraging Ministers to make more statements to Parliament
and maintaining the primacy of Parliament as the place in which
statements are made. We remain concerned that the use of Westminster
Hall might lead to the marginalisation of important issues. We
may, however, revisit this question in the future once we have
assessed the effectiveness of the other changes recommended in
Time at which statements are
56. Oral statements are almost always made after
questions, including Urgent Questions, though in exceptional circumstances
statements have been permitted by the Speaker at other times,
including after the moment of interruption or between orders of
57. There have been some calls for greater flexibility
in relation to the time at which statements are made. The House
of Commons Reform Committee (the "Wright Committee")
suggested that "statements could well be taken at a different
point in the parliamentary day".
Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP, in written evidence, suggested that
"greater flexibility in terms of the timing of statements
may be desirable as part of the reform."
The Government does not favour any change to the time at which
statements are made.
58. Changes to the time at which statements are made
would affect the arrangement of the parliamentary day. As with
the question of "injury time", we do not propose to
address this issue in this report but will return to it in the
course of our inquiry into the sittings of the House.
Notice of oral statements
59. A Minister who wishes to give a statement must
give notice to the Speaker. When possible, notice of a statement
to be made is given to Members by means of the annunciators and
notices placed in Members' lobby. Where notice has been given
by the rise of the previous sitting day, the statement will appear
on the order paper.
60. Backbenchers who gave evidence to our inquiry
agreed that greater notice of oral statements would be helpful
to Members. Duncan Hames MP was in favour of the earlier announcement
of oral statements, and suggested that notice should be given
"at least twelve hours" in advance, and "preferably
by close of business on the previous day".
Paul Flynn MP agreed, saying that "there is absolutely no
reason why they shouldn't be announced at least a week earlier
in most cases."
Jane Ellison MP told us that the lack of notice made life difficult
for Members and that she had "found it quite hard to get
to grips with a parliamentary timetable that can be so heavily
shifted very quickly out of kilter by statements, some of which
occasionally are emergency statements, but many of which could
have been predicted quite a long time in advance and planned for."
61. It will not, of course, be possible for the Government
to give notice significantly earlier for all oral statements.
Rt Hon Nick Raynsford MP suggested that statements could be grouped
into three categories: statements whose dates could be predicted
well in advance, such as reports from international events or
conferences; statements relating to unpredictable events, such
as a major international disaster, and statements that are announcements
of government policy.
In the first category, it is clearly possible for the Government
to give notice of a statement well in advance; in the second,
the Government could not be expected to give notice; and in the
third, the Government should give as much notice as possible to
62. We recognise
that notice is routinely given on the order paper of predictable
statements, such as reports from international conferences. We
accept that some statements relate to unpredictable events, and
that little notice can be given in such circumstances. In other
cases, however, we believe that the Government could greatly assist
Members by giving much greater notice of forthcoming statements
than it does at present. We urge the Government to make every
effort to give notice as early as possible of any oral statement
it intends to make to Parliament.
23 Ev 26 Back
HC Deb, 16 November 2010, cc 745-751; HC Deb, 20 October 2010,
cc 949-991 Back
Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, Second
Report of Session 2001-02, Modernisation of the House of Commons:
A Reform Programme, HC 1168-I Back
Erskine May, 23rd edition (London, 2004), p. 359 Back
House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09,
Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, para 187 Back
Ev 30 Back
Ev 26 Back
Ev 29 Back