Session 2010-11
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Evidence heard in Public

Questions 1 - 63



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 10 November 2010

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Mrs Jenny Chapman

Mr Roger Gale

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Bridget Phillipson

Jacob Rees-Mogg

Sir Peter Soulsby

Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, Leader of the House of Commons, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Sir George, welcome and thank you for coming. We have received your letter, which I have distributed to the Committee, where you give us an update on a number of issues. We are pleased that, in paragraph 7, you actually agree with our assessment on the subject of the sitting times of the House that the best way forward would be for us to present to the House a series of options for the House to then decide on, and that is actually how we intend to proceed. We agree that we should take evidence and views in the new year on this, so that new Members are used to our sitting times before they decide where they want to be with it.

Sir George Young: I am very hopeful that the move will be welcomed by the House.

Q2 Chair: Good. On the question of ministerial statements, would you like to set out your case before we go to questions?

Sir George Young: Very briefly. Ever since I have been here, this has been a source of controversy between the Executive and Parliament. I am delighted that the Procedure Committee is looking at this, and I very much hope that we can come up with a fresh settlement that is acceptable to Parliament and to the Executive and that recognises that the media operates in a slightly different way than it did when I first got here.

The Government are committed to the principle set out in the Ministerial Code that, in the first instance, all major announcements of Government policy should be made to the House when it is sitting. We have sought, in this Parliament, to make more oral statements than before and to keep the House informed with written ministerial statements, but if we can do better with your assistance, we would be very delighted to do so. Basically, I put forward a number of propositions that might make it easier for the Government to put forward both oral and written ministerial statements.

Q3 Chair: When the House debated this on 20 July, you suggested that the House may be able to find a way of insulating the time taken up by statements from eating into other business, and yet, in your memo to us, you don’t make any suggestion in that regard. Is that something that you have reflected on and rejected?

Sir George Young: I think the House puts a premium on the certainty of knowing when business will end. At the moment, business ends at 10 o’clock or 7 o’clock or 6 o’clock on a Thursday. If we were automatically to allow injury time for statements, the value of that certainty would be eroded. In certain circumstances, we have added injury time, I think, to the Report stage or the Committee stage of one of the constitutional Bills.

The alternative solution, which is one that I put forward in the paper, is that we get the certainty by having parameters around the statements, so we know roughly how long they will take, and perhaps some might be shorter. The Government would prefer to proceed by addressing the issue of the length of time of statements, rather than exempting them and having the business running on beyond 10 o’clock, which raises a whole host of other issues that you might touch on in your proceedings on the calendar.

Q4 Mr Gale: Before I move on to the time limit, Sir George, can I pick up on your reply to the Chairman? Why do you consider that it’s more important to have certainty about the exact duration of the sitting times than to properly examine the statements?

Sir George Young: I think the House puts a premium on knowing when the House will rise. If you allowed injury time for statements, the certainty that the House will rise at 10 o’clock or 7 o’clock would disappear. My perception of the House is that they quite value knowing when the House will stop sitting. It enables them to plan their lives. With some of the constraints that you are familiar with, Mr Gale, there is a premium on knowing when the moment of interruption will come. The problem with putting in injury time is that that certainty is eroded.

Q5 Mr Gale: That leads me straight on to the time limit issue. Surely however convenient or otherwise it may be for Members of Parliament isn’t really the issue. The public expect us to do a job. If that job entails sitting for half an hour or three quarters of an hour longer because of injury time allowed because of questions on a statement, should we not be doing that?

Sir George Young: I very much hope it wouldn’t have the opposite effect of making it more difficult for the Government to make statements because colleagues would know that an inevitable consequence was that the House would sit later. Some statements last up to an hour and a half, which would add significantly to the sitting time of the House. I would want to reflect long and hard before I moved away from the position where we are at the moment, which is, by and large, that the House rises at the times that are fixed. There would be a huge element of uncertainty if we automatically added injury time every time we made a statement. It might have the perverse consequence of fewer statements.

Q6 Chair: But one option would be, would it not, to make injury time not automatic and to give it to the discretion of the Speaker?

Sir George Young: Again, it raises the issue of uncertainty for Members in planning their lives, not knowing whether or not the Speaker would allow injury time for a particular statement. The Speaker might not know until that very day whether or not there was going to be a statement. My own instinct is to try and address it the other way around by looking at the statements and seeing if one can put some parameters around it which both allow adequate time for statements and allow the House the time it needs to deal with the business for the rest of the day.

Q7 Chair: But would you accept that that does rather lead to the accusation being made that you are seeking to protect Ministers from prolonged questioning by colleagues?

Sir George Young: I think some of the proposals that I have made in this paper deal with that. It would be easier for Ministers to make statements if we knew, for example, roughly how long they were going to take. 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. If you can look at some of these proposals, you might find you got more oral statements from Ministers rather than fewer.

Q8 John Hemming: What’s your view on questions on statements in Westminster Hall?

Sir George Young: I think that’s an interesting proposition-whether it would be acceptable to the House for statements, particularly the sorts of statement that we are talking about today, to be made in another forum, presumably when Westminster Hall was not sitting and dealing with the debates that it has at the moment. It also raises the question at what time those statements might be made. Would they be made when the Chamber was sitting, or would they be made at another time of the day?

Q9 Mr Gale: You said that it would make life easier for Ministers if they knew how long it was going to take, but I’m not entirely certain that the House of Commons is there necessarily to make life easier for Ministers. Can we come to the proposals for time limits? Can you explain to the Committee why having some time limit on not only the statement, which could be quite long, with the consequent reduction in the time available for questions-but questions as well is any better than leaving it to the Chair, who, historically, has always done the job very efficiently, in the light of the number of people expressing an interest?

Sir George Young: It could act as a disincentive to make a statement at all or to make two statements, because one has to strike a balance between the time taken up on the statement and the time taken on the rest of the business. The more statements you have, the greater the risk that the House does not have adequate time to deal with a Second Reading, or whatever the remaining business is, which is why I put forward the proposition that, if there were an element of greater certainty as to how long the statements would last, one consequence might be that the Government were more willing to make those statements, rather than risk two statements of, say, an hour or an hour and a half each, then doing serious injury to the business for the rest of the day.

Q10 Sir Peter Soulsby: Isn’t it the job of the Chair to strike the balance that you’ve described, rather than the Government?

Sir George Young: It’s also the job of the Government to decide whether or not to make a statement. When we decide whether to make a statement, we look at the remaining business. For example, we would not seek to make a statement, if we could avoid it, on an Opposition day. So it’s a decision for the Government in the first instance as to whether they volunteer a statement.

Q11 Sir Peter Soulsby: But surely it’s a matter for the Chair to strike the balance between the importance of the statements and the numbers of Members who are interested in it and the business that is to follow.

Sir George Young: Certainly, once a decision has been taken to make a statement, the decision as to how long it runs is one for the Chair, and rightly so. The decision whether or not to offer a statement initially is one for the Government.

Q12 Mr Gale: Forgive me, Sir George, but you’re suggesting that it shouldn’t be a matter for the Chair-that it should be preordained that there will be a time limit that wouldn’t allow the Chair the flexibility to say suddenly, "I’ve got 30 Members standing and there’s obviously a great interest in something to do specifically with the north-east of England. I’ve a lot of Members who want to ask questions and I have to accommodate them, as the Speaker or Deputy Speaker."

Sir George Young: A consequence of an open-ended series of statements is reluctance on the part of the Government to make statements, because of the injury it would do to the business for the rest of the day, which may well be about holding the Government to account or a serious debate that the Government want to spend time on.

Q13 Mr Gale: You’ve made another proposal, which is that less significant issues might perhaps be time-limited. Who will decide which issues are less significant?

Sir George Young: We’ve proposed that there could be a gradation. For example, if there is a flood in one part of the country of enormous interest to a small number of MPs, there might be a 30-minute statement. Other statements would run for a much longer time. What we’ve proposed is that there should be a discussion with the Speaker about how long a statement would last. The average statement is about 49 minutes. If you knock out the very long statements-the Budget statement-it is about 45 minutes, so 45 minutes might be a parameter that one would consider. That would inject an element of certainty. But some statements might take less time and if we knew that a statement would take less time, there might be a greater probability of the Government’s offering a statement on that particular subject on that day.

Q14 Mr Gale: A discussion with the Speaker about a time limit and what is significant and what is not is the only proper way that this could be done. If the Government gave an early enough indication-perhaps midday for a 2.30 pm sitting or 9 am for a 10.30 am or 11.30 am sitting-that they were going to make a statement, it would allow Members with an interest in the subject time to notify the Speaker that they wish to raise questions on it, which would give the Speaker a better idea of how long was needed. Should it not be left to the Speaker in that way?

Sir George Young: The proposition set out in paragraph 6(a) of the evidence that I have submitted says that the Committee might consider such measures as "introducing a new category of time-limited statements for some less significant issues, the use of which would be agreed with the Speaker in advance, at the request of the relevant Minister. This might involve a shorter time limit on the statement itself, as well as on the subsequent questioning". If you had, say, 30 minutes, the opening statement by the Minister might take five minutes rather than 10. The thrust of this is to make it easier for the Government to offer statements to the House to keep it informed about the direction in which the Government are moving.

Q15 Chair: If the statement is not market-sensitive or sensitive in any other way, what is your objection to the Minister making his statement available to Members before he rises to his feet? If that happened, could you not then have the Minister in the House answering questions on his statement, removing the necessity for him or her to read it?

Sir George Young: One proposal in the paper is that, for certain statements, a written ministerial statement should be made available first. For example, a very long statement like the one on the revenue support grant or a statement on road investment should be made available and MPs should have an opportunity to look at it. Subsequently, there would be an oral statement at which the Minister would not have to repeat what was already in the public domain. MPs would then be able to ask the Minister questions on the basis of what was in the public domain. Therefore, the question and answer session might be better informed. That option is well worth exploring.

Q16 John Hemming: So you put out, say, a paragraph of the oral statement and shorten the statement by that much. Do the Government have a clear policy on when supporting documents are made available to Members?

Sir George Young: They should be available as soon as possible. Some are made available after the Minister has sat down.

Q17 John Hemming: Is it better to make them available beforehand, because it informs the questioning?

Sir George Young: In some cases it makes sense to have them beforehand, particularly in cases such as the detailed ones that I have just mentioned. It makes sense in those cases for the House to have them in advance.

Q18 Chair: It does make sense for the House to have them in advance, but is there not a policy not to do that?

Sir George Young: Again, you have to strike a balance. If you make it all available in advance, you have the media running the story, because you put it in the public domain through whatever means, before the Minister has come before the House to make his oral statement. You have to strike the right balance between informing the House and giving them an opportunity to cross-question the Minister.

Q19 Chair: At present, is it not the case that in many instances the Vote Office will not release papers until the Minister sits down?

Sir George Young: Those may well be their instructions. I am happy to look again at what the instructions are about the release of relevant documents, if the Committee feels that it is a barrier to information, particularly if there are some specific examples where you believe that it would have been helpful to have them earlier.

Q20 Sir Peter Soulsby: I’d like to take you to written ministerial statements. In your memorandum, you draw attention to the difficulty with the requirement that the Government give prior notice of written statements, particularly in the gap between a Thursday and a Monday. That means, in practice, you cannot get written ministerial statements most Mondays-that doesn’t make sense. In response to that, you suggest that the time for giving written ministerial statements should be brought forward to 7 am and that it should be possible for the Government to give those statements without prior notice. I can see how that helps to get over the Thursday through to Monday issue. However, in other respects, does it not significantly disadvantage the House, particularly Opposition Members who will not have had prior notice, and particularly Members who have an interest in the subject?

Sir George Young: The proposition is that we will continue to give notice when it is possible so to do. If something happens after Thursday night and we want to make a written ministerial statement on Monday, at the moment, as you rightly say, we can’t. We would like to have the freedom to do that. The option then is either to make an oral statement, or to wait until Tuesday for a WMS. As Select Committee reports can be launched at one minute past 12 without any notice to the House, the Government are making a proposition that is not quite so radical, which is that we should be able to make written ministerial statements without having given any notice the night before.

Q21 Sir Peter Soulsby: But I think that, if I understood your memorandum correctly, you were suggesting that it should be possible to do that more generally, and that it should be possible to do that without giving notice at all. Am I misunderstanding that?

Sir George Young: The House would have to be given notice that it was happening. At the moment, many people do not discover that it has happened until they come into the House. It is available in the Vote Office at 7.30 that there will be a ministerial statement, but the statement then comes out at 9.30. In practice, the notice is of no relevance at all for many people, because they get here and there is both the notice and the answer. We would like some flexibility to put in the public domain certain written ministerial statements before 9.30, which is a freedom that the Select Committees have but, at the moment, the Government do not have.

Q22 Sir Peter Soulsby: But surely the way to respond to that is to look at changing the way in which that notice is given, rather than to remove the requirement to give it.

Sir George Young: In the Lords, no requirement at all is needed to give a written ministerial statement. We would like more flexibility to be able to give the notice and make the statement, without having had it on the Order Paper the night before, simply because sometimes things happen between a Thursday and a Monday morning.

Q23 Chair: Wouldn’t one simple solution be that you can give notice on any Friday, whether it is a sitting day or not?

Sir George Young: Give notice of what?

Q24 Chair: That you intend to make a written statement on the Monday.

Sir George Young: A general catch-all one, without saying which Department? I’m not sure.

Q25 Chair: No, you were saying that the problem affecting Departments was that we don’t sit every Friday and that therefore the specific notice had to be given on a Thursday. Would it not get round that problem if notice could be given on a Friday, whether the House was sitting or not?

Sir George Young: It would solve part of the problem. You have still got the Saturdays and the Sundays where something may happen and you still have the issue of the recesses. It would solve part of but not all the problem.

Q26 Chair: Can I go back to your answer to Sir Peter? If you were to change the time that the details are issued from 9.30 am, when most Members and their staff are in their offices, to 7 am, when I would venture that Members’ staff have not yet arrived at work, would it not significantly inconvenience Members if their regional media telephoned them while they were still in bed to ask for their comments on something that had been announced at 7 am?

Sir George Young: At the moment that could be the position with Select Committee reports that are released at one minute past 12. We would propose that MPs should have access to both the notice and the written ministerial statement itself. Modern means of communication are available to MPs, so they can get access to written ministerial statements without physically being in the building. They could, for example, go on the House of Commons website when they are released by Ministers.

Q27 Chair: I am not sure that your analogy with Select Committees is necessarily a good one. Most Select Committees put out press releases to tell the whole world when the report is coming out. Secondly, their reports are only recommendations anyway whereas, in many cases, ministerial announcements are about executive decisions that have been taken.

Sir George Young: I think that Select Committee reports do generate a lot of media interest. Certainly the one on Tuesday from the PAC on railway overcrowding generated a lot of interest. That was released at one minute past 12, and I am sure that colleagues were rung up by regional media without necessarily having seen the report.

Q28 Mr Gale: From a news management point of view, I can see a huge advantage to the Government in being able to release information in time for the breakfast radio and television programmes. What is the value to Members of Parliament in releasing it at 7 am rather than 9.30 am?

Sir George Young: I think the Government have an obligation to inform the public about what they are doing, and they are entitled to use the media in the same way as anybody else to reach out to people. At the same time, one has to safeguard the interests of the House of Commons and Parliament. The proposition to make it simultaneously available to the media as a whole and to the House reflects the Government’s wish and need to communicate, particularly early in the morning when a lot of the news is made, while at the same time respecting the wishes of Parliament.

Q29 Mr Gale: Let us go back to Mr Hemming’s question and your answer to him. Why would it not be possible to fix, depending on the sitting of the House-so 10.30 am, 11.30 am or 2.30 pm-a time for the release of all statements? That might be 9 o’clock in the morning on days there was a 10.30 am sitting; 10 o’clock in the morning on days there was an 11.30 am sitting; and midday on days there was a 2.30pm sitting-for the media and for Members of Parliament simultaneously. That would give Members the opportunity to go to the Speaker to ask for a UQ on the relatively rare occasions when it might be relevant. More specifically, it would give Members the opportunity to prepare lines of questioning in response to oral statements based on the information contained in the statement to be made. Everybody would then be on a level playing field. I cannot see any justification for your argument that it should be brought forward from 9.30 am to 7 am, other than the convenience of the media.

Sir George Young: It goes back to what I said a moment ago about the Government wishing to communicate with the public about their intentions and what they are doing. At the moment, to use the example you have just given, a Select Committee can catch the early morning news by releasing a report but the Government cannot. We have to wait until 9.30 am, which is when the WMSs are published. What we are seeking to give additional flexibility to the Government but, at the same time, to respect the wholly legitimate interest of the House of Commons to remain informed of what the Government are doing. Under one of these options, MPs would have more time to reflect on what the Government had said through its WMS and to decide whether or not then to apply for a UQ, because it would have the WMS at an earlier date.

Q30 Mr Gale: The problem with that is, unfortunately, that the opinion is then up and running and shaped by the media before Members get their hands on it. Members of Parliament generally, I think-colleagues around the House, consistently, on both sides of the House, in government and in opposition-bridle at the fact that the media tend to have information where Parliament ought to be sovereign. Surely the answer to that is to create a level playing field and to say that everyone-Members and the media-will have the material at the same time?

Sir George Young: The proposition that I made is that they would both have it at the same time. The proposition is that it would appear on the House of Commons website at the time it was released.

At the end of the day, Mr Gale, the Committee will have to decide whether the proposition put forward by the Government for greater flexibility is one that it can recommend to the House, or whether it prefers to stick with the regime we have at the moment.

Q31 Sir Peter Soulsby: It just strikes me that it is, literally, an attempt to catch Members napping. Inevitably, at 7 in the morning, most Members-Opposition Members who might be interested, or Members with a legitimate interest in something-will likely still be in bed. It gives the Government a head start. Surely that is the intention, is it not?

Sir George Young: No. The intention is for the Government to have access to the media in a way that is unconstrained by the current 9.30 am publication of WMSs. Other organisations within the House of Commons have that freedom, but at the moment the Government do not. So, this is an argument for the Government to be on the same basis as Select Committees when putting information in the public domain.

Q32 Sir Peter Soulsby: I will not pursue this very far, Chair, but surely, Sir George, you accept that there is a very significant difference between a Select Committee publishing its report and the Government making an announcement?

Sir George Young: There is a difference but, in terms of the media, both can generate similar levels of interest, as we saw last Tuesday with the PAC report, which dominated the airwaves from 7 o’clock onwards.

Chair: Okay. May we move on to the question of whether there should be a new protocol and what sanctions should be applied when a Minister has leaked information to the press before making a statement to the House? Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Q33 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Sir George, I think we all realise that Ministers from all Governments, regardless of party, leak things to the newspapers before telling Parliament. It is probably unrealistic to expect this to come to a complete full stop, but what do you think can be done to minimise it, in terms both of enforcing the ministerial code and of conceivable sanctions that Parliament could impose?

Sir George Young: Parliament has a range of sanctions already. If a Minister makes a statement of major Government policy outside the House, he is then exposed to a UQ and can be summoned to the House to make a statement. He is also exposed to the Select Committee that covers his portfolio-he can be summoned to a Select Committee to explain his behaviour. If the Select Committee so wanted, presumably it could publish a report about him and, subject to the decision of the Backbench Business Committee, time could then be found for that report and for any vote the Select Committee might want to attach to it. That is quite a portfolio of sanctions against a Minister who errs in that way.

Breaches of the ministerial code are a matter for the Prime Minister. He is the ultimate judge of whether a Minister has broken the code. Again, he has a range of sanctions at his disposal.

Q34 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Do you think, to some extent, it is really a matter for the Government rather than Parliament? Was it Hugh Dalton who had to resign having leaked a few words of the Budget? At that point, the Prime Minister thought that that was simply wrong and therefore insisted on a resignation, whereas now it is just seen as one of those things that happens-it might be in the code technically, but everyone turns rather a blind eye to it.

Sir George Young: Following the sequence of events that I outlined if, at the end of the day, the House of Commons, in a vote, censured a Minister as a result of a Select Committee report, I think that that would be very significant indeed for that Minister’s career.

Q35 Jacob Rees-Mogg: And do you think a UQ is something that Ministers find embarrassing, or, as an experienced Minister, did you find that it was just something that went with the territory-occasionally you would get a UQ and it would interrupt your day, but you would not lose sleep over it?

Sir George Young: The background is very important. Ministers are ready to respond to UQs. The Speaker has made it clear that he is much more active in responding to UQs. We welcome that and are happy to do that. But if the background to a UQ was the one that you have outlined-namely it was because a Minister had made a statement of major policy outside the House-I think that would be very uncomfortable for the Minister when he appeared before the House. I am not sure that any Minister would particularly look forward to such an encounter.

Q36 Jacob Rees-Mogg: So, broadly, you wouldn’t recommend any changes to the current situation. You think that it covers a Minister who briefs beforehand. Does it embarrass him if it is done under his auspices, rather than directly by the Minister himself?

Sir George Young: I don’t think Ministers should authorise leaks of major changes in Government policy. He shouldn’t do it himself and he shouldn’t do it at second hand.

Q37 Mrs Chapman: I have not been in the House a very long time, but I have seen Theresa May in just the situation you are discussing. I don’t think that she was particularly uncomfortable about it. Can you suggest any sanctions that we might want to consider, given the growing unhappiness, particularly among Back Benchers, about this practice? It does inhibit our ability to challenge.

Sir George Young: The Home Secretary genuinely apologised for what happened. From memory, we were going to make a written ministerial statement and we then decided to do an oral statement, but the press release for the written ministerial statement went out. She came along and apologised for that. I am sure that she was sincere in regretting what happened and that she would have been much happier if it hadn’t happened. I don’t think that that was a particularly comfortable moment for the Home Secretary. I missed the last bit of your question.

Q38 Mrs Chapman: I just feel that as a new Member, you want to know what it is that you are going to be challenging the Government about. If something is leaked to the press, you get challenged as a Back-Bench Opposition MP, and you need to have the information in order to do your job. I find it quite frustrating.

Sir George Young: We have tried to make more written ministerial statements and we are making more oral statements than was the case in the last Parliament. There are nearly 50% more oral statements per sitting day than there were. We are making a genuine attempt to keep the House better informed and to make more written ministerial statements. We would like to do better.

The background of our discussion over the past half hour has been removing what the Government perceive to be some barriers to putting more information in the public domain. The answers have been, "Is this the Government trying to pull a fast one on everyone else?" and, "What about the time you make your statements?" We are trying to find a better settlement that enables us to put more information in the public domain, but without catching MPs on the hop or doing injury to the rest of the time available to Parliament.

Q39 Mr Gale: Sir George, this is not about, "Is the Government trying to pull a fast one on everybody else?" This is about the playing field that exists and the teams playing on it, which are on one hand the Government and the media, and on the other, Members of Parliament seeking to hold the Government-any Government-to account. It does appear that the Government are seeking greater flexibility in terms of media management. I was suggesting not that you are trying to pull a fast one, but that we want a level playing field. Whenever the information is released, it should be released to everybody simultaneously.

Sir George Young: That is precisely the proposition that I have put before the Committee, but instead of everybody getting it at 9.30, it should in some circumstances be earlier. But everyone would get it at the same time.

Q40 Mr Gale: Give or take the fact that those of us who are insomniacs and come in at 7 o’clock in the morning might be available, most Members of Parliament are not quite so sad and are not here when the "Today" programme is on air, not to put too fine a point on it.

Sir George Young: It’s beyond my pay grade to answer that question.

Q41 Chair: Have you discussed any of your proposals with the House of Lords yet?

Sir George Young: No. This is a House of Commons Committee and I have put evidence without touching base with the House of Lords. As I mentioned, the procedure there is slightly different-they don’t have to give notice of written ministerial statements.

Q42 Chair: If you do enter into dialogue with the House of Lords and, as a result, your views change, perhaps you would keep us updated. If, at any time during our inquiry, you wish to add anything, please feel free to drop us a line. Indeed, if you wish to subtract anything, let us know. We are at an early stage in this inquiry and all options remain open, so feel free to submit any further memos should you want to do so. Thank you for your time today. Is there anything you want to add?

Sir George Young: No. Thank you very much. We are anxious to see the outcome of your report and its recommendations. I hope that it can build a better settlement than the one that we’ve got at the moment.

Chair: Thank you.

Examination of Witness

Witness: Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, Shadow Leader of the House of Commons, gave evidence.

Hilary Benn: Good afternoon.

Q43 Chair: Good afternoon. Thank you for coming. Unlike a court of law, you have heard what the other witness has said, so feel free to comment on anything that you have heard in the last half hour. I shall start in the same way: do you wish to make an opening statement?

Hilary Benn: Not really, only to say that I, too, greatly welcome the fact that the Procedure Committee is looking at this question for reasons that were very well aired in the debate that took place in the summer. It seems to me that the principles we should be trying to work to are that we want the Government to make announcements and to tell the House; we want the House to know first and/or at exactly the same time as everybody else, which picks up the point that Mr Gale made a moment ago; we want Members to have the opportunity to question Ministers as appropriate; and there should be reasonable notice of what is going on, for Opposition spokespeople and of course for Members of the House. We are wrestling with all the pressures that were well set out in the debate that I referred to a moment ago. That is all I wanted to say by way of openers.

Q44 Chair: Thank you. Could you let us know your views on the innovation suggested by the Leader of the House, that there should be a new category-a grade 2 oral statement-which is time-limited.

Hilary Benn: In one sense, the Speaker currently judges the amount of time. If you look at the figures for the length of time that oral statements last, depending on the importance of the subject and the number of Members who want to speak, the Speaker is applying that judgment at the moment.

One of the genuine difficulties that we are all facing and wrestling with, is the words in the ministerial code-"most important", however you define that. I must say in passing, that it seems a bit odd that the Executive are setting out to Ministers the obligations that Ministers ought to have to the House; I think the House ought to have an expectation in addition to that. What is "most important" is in the eye of the beholder.

We are also wrestling with the problem of time. I favour looking at the possibility of using Westminster Hall for some oral statements. Considering the total time that is available, there are great pressures on the main Chamber, and we created Westminster Hall to provide more time for Back Benchers, in particular, to raise questions. It has been a great success, but there are slots that we could use.

Another practical thing we could do is that the moment a written or oral statement is made or laid, it should be e-mailed immediately to every single Member, because we are all on e-mail. If you want a belt and braces approach, we all get texts all the time from our Whips on a group text arrangement, so you could do that as well. Members would know when something had been laid and could see the text. You could also apply that to the notice arrangements. I agree with Sir George that we ought to make use of the modern technology that is available to answer some of the questions that you were raising, such as how Members will know what has been laid.

Q45 Chair: Are you saying that if there was to be a statement-let’s say it was a regional issue, something affecting Devon or perhaps Yorkshire-you would be quite happy in those circumstances for a ministerial statement to be made in Westminster Hall?

Hilary Benn: That is one of the criteria that could be used, probably by the Speaker, in determining where the appropriate place was, because it would provide more opportunity for oral statements and it would be a way of dealing with the problem of pressure on time in the main Chamber. In the end, it is a matter of judgment. However, as I reflected after receiving your kind invitation to give evidence, why not as part of the solution use the mechanism that we have already created for some of this?

Another suggestion that I would make is that we have created the Backbench Business Committee to protect the rights of Back Benchers. In relation to some of the many written statements that go through, on which Ministers are never questioned-not that they need to be questioned on all of them-the Backbench Committee might decide that there are some on which they would like to invite Ministers to answer questions. It would be another mechanism for ensuring that the right of Members to question Ministers could happen. Again, you could do that in Westminster Hall if you felt that it was useful.

Q46 Chair: So you would favour a written question slot in Westminster Hall, where Members could come along and question Ministers on certain written statements?

Hilary Benn: Yes, but you would have to give Ministers notice. At the moment, the Backbench Committee is operating what Sir George christened its salon, where Members make bids for Back Bench business debates on a Thursday. You could have a similar mechanism. I was looking back over the written statements that have been put down in the last week, for example. Back Benchers might say, "Well, we really think that we should have an opportunity to debate beak-trimming laying hens,"-or the Leasehold Advisory Service annual report, the pension age or the convention on biological diversity. The Backbench Committee would take soundings and form a view, and say, "Right, we are going to invite the Minister to answer questions on his or her written statement at this time."

These are ideas trying to respond to the central problem that your Committee is grappling with-how to have more opportunity for Members to hold the Executive to account and how we deal with the pressure on time.

Q47 Chair: The reason I press you on this is that my party, when we were in opposition, was against the Government of the day using Westminster Hall for further Government-related business. I wish to make it quite clear that you see no objection to there being a dedicated slot for Ministers to be cross-examined in Westminster Hall in the way you have just outlined.

Hilary Benn: That is an option that ought to be considered, because it is one way to deal with the pressure on time. Secondly, in relation to Westminster Hall, obviously there are debates that are initiated by the Government as well as by Select Committees, and obviously by Back Benchers. We need to think creatively about how we provide more opportunities, in exactly the same way as we thought creatively when establishing Westminster Hall to provide more opportunities for Back Benchers to raise matters that they thought were important.

Chair: Thank you.

Q48 Mr Gale: I shall come in a moment to written statements, and how Ministers should be questioned on them. Just before we leave Westminster Hall, however, there is clearly a danger that some issues could seem to have been marginalised. You heard the conversation that we had earlier with the Leader of the House about less important statements being given less time, but someone has to judge. This is awfully difficult for anybody, which is why I personally cannot help feeling that the Speaker, with his advisers, is probably the right person to do this. Something may superficially appear to be quite mundane, but it may affect a group of Members and their constituents. You have indicated that it could be the west country or Wales or whatever. The moment you go down that parochialising route, there’s a danger that you shunt something into a siding-in this case the sidings of Westminster Hall. I can see a situation in which-notwithstanding the creative thinking that you are applying to this-there could be a first-class statement and a second-class statement. I just wonder how you would overcome that.

Hilary Benn: The first thing I would say is that the House has to decide whether it thinks that Westminster Hall is a second-class place. As far as I am concerned, an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall has exactly the same value and importance as an Adjournment debate in the Chamber. Having established that, we should not cede to anyone else the idea that it is second class. Part of the argument for making the suggestion is that it seems to me that it would augment the status. I am acutely conscious, Mr Gale, of the point that you make about not wanting to end up with first and second-class statements, but as I indicated earlier, the Speaker currently makes a judgment in deciding how long a statement will run, which is partly a function of the number of people still standing and partly a function of the importance of it. We give a lot of other responsibilities to the Speaker, which he exercises with great diligence, and this could be another one. In the end, a lot of this is a matter of judgment. It is a matter of judgment for Ministers, as to whether they are going to make a written statement or an oral statement. It is a matter of judgment for the Speaker as to whether or not he is going to grant an urgent question. As one of the central problems is the question of time, this provides a way-unless we extend the hours, which is the alternative-of enabling us to cut through this.

Q49 Mr Gale: Let’s come on to the written statements and, to some extent, the oral statements and blur the lines a little. There is a suggestion that Members should have the opportunity in the Chamber to question Ministers on written statements. There is a perfect logic in that. You cannot have everything done as an oral statement. John Hemming has had to leave for another Committee, but you heard the Leader of the House’s answer to him when he suggested that oral statements might be released earlier. I suggested that they should be released for the media and to the House at exactly the same time, but maybe an hour or an hour and a half in front of a statement. Is there any merit in a Minister coming to the Dispatch Box and reading a statement that every literate Member of Parliament is quite capable of reading for themselves? Might it not be better, whether that statement is written or oral, to release it in written form so that Members could then come into the Chamber briefed? That would save time and save the Minister the sweat of having to stand up and read it. Members could then get stuck in to the nitty-gritty, which is, "What’s this all about?" and "How are you going to respond to this, please, Minister?"

Hilary Benn: I see the argument, but let’s apply that for a moment to the statement on the comprehensive spending review that took place on 20 October. As I recall, it lasted just under an hour. In that case, I don’t think it would be sensible to say, "Here it is two hours beforehand. Now, questions." That is one end of the spectrum. The other end, if you think of written statements, is, "Yes, it’s pretty short and we can read it pretty quickly and then we can get stuck in." It comes back to this question of judgment. It is certainly helpful to Members if we get as much advance notice as possible both of the fact that a statement is going to be made-whether it is oral or written-and of the content so that we can think about it and raise it. What really irritates Members, as the Committee has already indicated, is when it appears that other folk, who are not Members of Parliament, have got it before us. That is something that would be well worth looking at.

Mr Gale: You have done this job-

Q50 Chair: Sorry, Roger. Before we move on, may I tease a little bit more out of you on that?

Hilary Benn: Sure.

Q51 Chair: Let’s leave aside, for the moment, Treasury-related statements, which can be market sensitive. You know, because you’ve been a senior Minister, that on a day when we sit at 2.30, a Minister has to notify the House authorities by, I think, 12 o’clock whether he or she is going to make an oral statement. Let’s say that we had a system in place for non market-sensitive statements whereby at 12 o’clock the statement was released; it was available in the Vote Office and released to the press in written form, and the Minister could go on "The World at One" or any other lunch-time programme and talk about his statement, but then at 3.30 present himself to be questioned by Members. He would not read the statement out, because we can all read it, and he would then be subject to scrutiny by Members who were far better informed on the issue because of the early notice of the statement and having had the ability to reflect on it. What is your view of that procedure as a leading member of Her Majesty’s Opposition?

Hilary Benn: You would certainly gain in terms of Members’ ability to put questions that were pertinent, well informed and researched in the time available. The disadvantage, although not from the Opposition’s point of view, relates to the fact that one of the things that all of us have been seeking to do is to make the House of Commons the place where people come to hear what’s going on. If all that debate has been played out and the questions have been asked on "The World at One" and the lunch-time news, there will be slightly less interest by the time you get to half-past 3. What we’re trying to grapple with there is the balance between Parliament being the fulcrum of national conversation and debate about what’s going on, and the relationship with the media. In the end, it seems to me, the fundamental choice that the Committee has to make is how we are going to balance those things, because it’s hard to achieve both of them.

I remember one occasion in particular, shortly after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, when he came to make his statement on the constitution of Britain. That had not been briefed. I remember sitting on the Government Benches and looking at the expressions on the faces of Opposition Members as he said things and people said, "Ooh, I hadn’t heard that before." We’ve become so used to everything that we hear when a statement is made having been trailed beforehand that it was quite instructive and it had a galvanising effect both on the questions and on those up in the Gallery, but as we know, that has tended to be the exception rather than the rule, hence this inquiry.

Q52 Mr Gale: You’ve covered most of this. I agree entirely with the Chairman’s view that whichever route we recommended going down, we would want to exempt market-sensitive Treasury statements. I would probably include in that certain other things, like perhaps a statement on the London tube bombing, which took place in the rush hour, when the security services would need to brief and when the Prime Minister of the day would need to brief the Leader of the Opposition of the day and probably establish a huge degree of consensus, right up to the last minute before a statement was made. In those circumstances, it would be unreasonable to suggest that Members should have the thing first.

Let’s come back to the written statements. You heard Sir George suggest that the release should be brought forward to 7. You heard me say, and it does seem to me, that that has more to do with the media than the House of Commons. No Government are in power for ever. How would you feel if there was a fixed time-a reasonable hour in mid-morning-when all statements were released? Members could then have the opportunity to raise an urgent question, to go to the Speaker and say, "This written statement was released mid-morning and there’s stuff in it that the House ought to be able to question the Minister on, so will you ask the Minister to come to the House?" That would be a fixed time, on a wholly cross-party agreed, regular basis, which would allow the House, by and large, the opportunity to do its job with Ministers first.

Hilary Benn: I sometimes think in this debate that if the "Today" programme was on at a slightly different time, like the midday programme, a lot of these problems would disappear, to be perfectly honest. Short of the House meeting-I’m not suggesting this, I hasten to point out-just before the "Today" programme goes on air, this will always be a problem that we have to wrestle with.

It is quite difficult for Ministers if everybody knows there’s going to be an announcement on a given day on a subject. You’re invited on, and, of course, the Government of the day want to argue their case, but saying, "I can talk about this, but I can’t talk about that because I must reveal those details to the House of Commons first," can be difficult in those circumstances. I’m not sure about 7 o’clock, but I think that we should find a way of ensuring that those things get published at a time when Members have a reasonable opportunity to be made aware of them at the moment they are published and they have a chance to look at them.

In this new Parliament, the extent to which the Speaker has chosen to grant urgent questions has been striking. It goes to the heart of the points that you were raising with Sir George about sanctions. I can’t remember whether I was ever the subject of an urgent question, but, believe you me, as a Minister you take all things in Parliament very seriously, but you take an urgent question very, very seriously indeed. You think, "Right, we’ve got to get ourselves organised here." I think it’s a very effective sanction and there is no doubt in my mind that the increasing tendency to grant UQs has put more of the focus back on Parliament, which is what all of us want.

Q53 Mr Nuttall: What is your view on the idea put forward about having a time limit on statements? Assuming for the moment that we carry on with the oral statements, as has been the custom, should there be a limit? What’s your view on the limit to the overall time and perhaps to the length of Front-Bench statements, which can often eat in to the overall time by 15 minutes or so?

Hilary Benn: If we want to provide more opportunities, that is one of the ways in which we can do it. I know that time limits are a matter of debate and controversy, but then, we have applied them to speeches to give more people an opportunity to get in. As I indicated earlier, I think it really is a question of judgment. If you had a half-hour or 45-minute slot and were trying to shoehorn into that, in a rigid way, the kind of example that Mr Gale gave of a major terrorist outrage-that would be an occasion when the all the eyes of the nation would be on the House, rightly so, and the House should have a full opportunity to get information. In those circumstances, the Home Secretary coming to the House to report on what was happening could speak for 20 or 25 minutes to give us the facts. We should not create an over-rigid system. It comes back to the point about judgment. What is the subject? How much interest is there in it? How do you give it the appropriate amount of time?

Q54 Chair: I think the Committee recognises all you are saying about the downside of having an arbitrary time limit on a statement, but what is your view on the other way of dealing with it-to have discretionary injury time, which could be given at the discretion of the Speaker after a certain period had elapsed? If it was clear that the mood of the House had taken everyone by surprise and the statement went on for an hour, the Speaker would then-for example, once 45 minutes had elapsed-have the power to reinstate all or part of that hour at the end of the business. What is your view?

Hilary Benn: I think on that that I have would have a different view on days that ended at 7 o’clock. Let’s talk about the parliamentary week. If there’s a lot of injury time on a day when there will be votes at 10 o’clock, then there are questions about when we end and Members getting home and so on and so forth; and, obviously, on a Thursday, a lot of Members return to their constituencies, which is why we end at 6 o’clock. Having made that point, yes, that option could be looked at to ensure that we don’t create pressures on Ministers. Sometimes, as a Minister, you wanted to make an oral statement but those managing the business of the House said, "Well, it is an Opposition day, and we’ve been criticised for eating into time," or, "There’s another statement on this," and you found that you couldn’t.

That is another argument for making it possible in those circumstances to table a written statement, perhaps not having to wait for the next day, because you might say, "If I cannot make an oral statement, I shall table a written statement once I know the decision that I cannot make an oral statement." That’s another change that could be considered to make it easier for information to be given contemporaneously to the House, without having to wait for the next day.

I very much take the point that Sir George raised about the Thursday to Tuesday problem. We ought to do something about that, because we have our sitting times and hours, but stuff happens-events occur-and we want Parliament to be up to date, which is why urgent questions on oral questions, for example, is a sensible change to make.

Chair: Do you want to add anything on that, Jenny?

Q55 Mrs Chapman: Sir George was keen to press that he thought the House now put a premium-I believe that was how he described it-on finishing at a certain time and certainty about hours. Do you share that view, or do you take a slightly softer line and are more flexible in your thinking about that?

Hilary Benn: Personally, to put my cards on the table, I was in favour of sticking with the 7.30 finish on a Tuesday. On Monday, people are travelling down from their constituencies. However, we need to think about the lateness of the hour at which the House finishes, so that is a consideration for Monday in relation to the injury time proposal, and, in relation to Thursday, Members being able to get back. It depends on how long the business will be extended. Otherwise, if you have a 7 o’clock finish on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, I do not think that a bit of injury time, of itself, would be an enormous problem, if the issue had been of great significance.

The other way of looking at it is that, depending on the remaining business, the Speaker might take a view, looking at the number of people who have applied to speak in the debate, and say, "Well, actually, we might be stretching it out, and therefore injury time may not be required." You have to look at the totality of the rest of the day to decide how we will fit everything in. I think the Speaker is in a very good position to do that on our behalf.

Q56 Sir Peter Soulsby: One of the other reasons that Sir George gave in his argument about the lack of notice for a 7 am statement was that when the Government have to give notice the night before, there is a disincentive to do that if there is any risk that the statement might not ultimately be given. How credible did you find that? Obviously, you have been there.

Hilary Benn: For most things, you have a pretty clear idea that you want to make a statement, whether oral or written, because it will be the culmination of policy that has been prepared, developed and discussed in Government, and cleared over quite a long period of time. However, there will be occasions when you need to do something quite quickly. I think it is fair to say that the 7 o’clock proposal is really about being able to go on the media before 9.30 in the morning-that is how I would interpret it. In the main, the Government ought to be able to give notice to Members and Opposition spokespeople, and as a Minister I always thought that it was very important that we did so.

Chair: Can we move to a possible House of Commons protocol and sanctions?

Q57 Jacob Rees-Mogg: This is really the same question that I asked Sir George, but, particularly as you are now on the other side of the fence-gamekeeper turned poacher, whichever way you want to put it-do you think to some extent it is simply the natural course of events that Governments will be accused of leaking and Oppositions will get very cross, and then when the Opposition are in government, the reverse will happen; and that, therefore, trying to be too strict about it simply will not work?

Hilary Benn: There are leaks and leaks. There are occasions when things come out of your Department as a Minister that you didn’t want to come out, and you certainly didn’t play any part in it. How do you deal with a Minister in such circumstances? He or she will say, "It genuinely had nothing at all to do with me, mate."

The urgent question is the first and most important sanction, because it makes Ministers sit up, and it makes the point that the Speaker thinks, on behalf of the House, that the judgment you made, if you had given a written statement when it really should have been oral, was not the right one. It comes back to the point about "most important." How do you make that judgment?

Secondly, I really do think that the House ought to have its own protocol in relation to this. For the reasons I set out earlier, I think it is really odd. Of course, the Government should say to Ministers, "You ought to take the House of Commons very seriously," but I think the House of Commons ought to say to Ministers, "You should take us seriously-and, by the way, this is what we expect." Another approach could be that if an UQ wasn’t granted, the Speaker might write to a Minister and oblige him or her to give a written explanation of what on earth has been going on in those circumstances.

Those are the two ideas I would offer. The difficulty with taking it further is who, in the end, is going to resolve the question of the "most important" or whatever words the House decides to use for any protocol that it draws up? That very much depends on your point of view.

Q58 Jacob Rees-Mogg: So in a way the starting point is what statements ought to be made and when are they important enough to come to the Chamber? That may tie in with Westminster Hall and the things we discussed earlier. If they are not important enough for the Chamber are they, in fact, important enough for oral statements? The question is: how would the House write a protocol that a Government would allow to pass through the House? It’s a case of who would bell the cat, isn’t it? The Government like a system whereby it is essentially a matter of ministerial and prime ministerial discretion because then, if something goes wrong, they can get away with it, or do you think that is unfair?

Hilary Benn: It’s going to be very hard to have a system under which the House gets into conversations in Departments about possible announcements and statements and says, "Well, my view is that this is a most important one and you ought to do this." Ultimately you have to leave it to the Government to make those decisions. The protocol is about how the House expresses its view when it thinks that Ministers have got it wrong-for example, when they have announced something and they haven’t had the courtesy to tell anyone about it at all.

A recent example is the defence treaties signed with the French Government. There are also past examples, so I am not making a party point at all. Looking at that example, it struck me that it was pretty darned important, frankly, and that the House ought know what’s going on and ought to get to see the documents. I checked in the Library as soon as that statement was over and the documents had appeared, but if it hadn’t been for the fuss and the fact that there was an urgent question, I am not sure that that would have been the case. The House ultimately will be the judge of whether Ministers have got it right. The question is, what is the appropriate way of expressing that? The UQ and the other suggestion I have made are the two ideas I came up with when I was reflecting on this. The Committee will no doubt have other views of its own.

Q59 Jacob Rees-Mogg: How does this affect the position of the Speaker? If he is seen always to be the one who is bashing the Government for failing to do things, does that begin to politicise his position?

Hilary Benn: In the case of an UQ, obviously the Speaker is responding to a question that a Member has put in, so he is acting as the vehicle for giving expression to the view of one Member and he will make a judgment-in the end it is a judgment. In the case of my second suggestion, well, that could be the Speaker acting on a complaint, representation or whatever. I take your point: one wants to protect the Speaker from any appearance that he is acting in a partisan way. He is responding to the House-the will of the House.

Q60 Chair: I think that’s the point. If we have a House protocol, the Speaker would be the natural person to enforce it. But the protocol is a protocol of the House.

Hilary Benn: That’s exactly it. I agree.

Q61 Chair: Can I put to you something suggested to us that has not convinced us, just to see what your view is? One suggestion was made to us that where a Minister comprehensively leaks information that is to be contained in an oral statement, the Speaker should have the power to refuse to allow the Minister to make that statement. We are not entirely convinced that that is the way to deal with it. I would welcome your comments.

Hilary Benn: Well, it depends whether you gave the Minister notice that you were going to do that. If you had been working away and you turned up and the Speaker said, "Order, order. Since I’ve read about all of this in The Times this morning, I think we’ve all heard about it. Thanks very much. We’re going to move on to the next business," it would have a certain salutary effect. The only trouble is that the conclusion that Ministers might draw is, "Well, in that case, I don’t have to think so much about statements because I can just carry on doing what I’ve been doing." But the first time it happened, it would certainly lead to a lot of raised eyebrows, would it not?

Chair: I think so.

Q62 Mr Nuttall: May I come in there, Chairman? The only drawback is that Back Benchers would not have the opportunity to question the Minister.

Hilary Benn: I think that considering the momentary satisfaction compared with a loss of opportunity for the House to question the Minister, in the end, the opportunity to question the Minister is really important.

Q63 Chair: Is there anything you want to add?

Hilary Benn: No. I think I’ve covered all the ground I wanted to. I hope it has been helpful.

Chair: Thank you for your time. We have a very difficult task ahead of us, as you can probably see, but you and Sir George have made it less difficult. For that, we are most grateful.

Hilary Benn: Very kind-thank you.