Ministerial Statements - Procedure Committee Contents

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 of Lords.

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 statement".[23] 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 the Minister."[24] 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."[25] 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."[26]

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).[27] 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."[28]

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 House explained:

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.[29]

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.[30] 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".[31]

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.

Injury time

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".[32] 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."[33]

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 Hall

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."[34] 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."[35] The Leader of the House described the idea as "an interesting proposition."[36]

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".[37] 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."[38] He said that he would only welcome the change if it led to "more scrutiny of statements that otherwise wouldn't have been oral statements".[39] 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 degree."[40]

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 this report.

Time at which statements are made

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 the day.[41]

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".[42] 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."[43] The Government does not favour any change to the time at which statements are made.[44]

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".[45] 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."[46] 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."[47]

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.[48] 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 Members.

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

24   Q90 Back

25   Q91 Back

26   Q93 Back

27   HC Deb, 16 November 2010, cc 745-751; HC Deb, 20 October 2010, cc 949-991 Back

28   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

29   Q7 Back

30   Q86 Back

31   Q87 Back

32   Q3 Back

33   Q87 Back

34   Q44 Back

35   Q44 Back

36   Q8 Back

37   Q89 Back

38   Q94 Back

39   Q94 Back

40   Q95 Back

41   Erskine May, 23rd edition (London, 2004), p. 359 Back

42   House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, para 187 Back

43   Ev 30 Back

44   Ev 26 Back

45   Ev 29 Back

46   Q65 Back

47   Q65 Back

48   Q66 Back

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