CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1370-v

House of Commons

Oral evidence

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Procedure Committee

Sittings of the House and Parliamentary calendar

WEDNESDAY 18 January 2012

Robert Rogers, David Natzler and Matthew Hamlyn

Evidence heard in Public Questions 195-237

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 18 January 2012

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Karen Bradley

Thomas Docherty

Sir Roger Gale

Mr James Gray

Tom Greatrex

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Jacob Rees-Mogg

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Robert Rogers, Clerk of the House of Commons and Chief Executive of the House Service, David Natzler, Clerk Assistant and Director General of the Department of Chambers and Committee Services, and Matthew Hamlyn, Head of the Office of the Chief Executive, gave evidence.

Q195 Chair: Gentlemen, thank you for coming today to give evidence and helping us with our inquiry into the parliamentary calendar. I have been told there may be a vote any second, and if that is the case, we will obviously suspend to allow Members to take part in the Division, but I see no reason why we should wait for that event to take place; we plough on.

Would any of you like to make an opening statement?

Robert Rogers: Perhaps I should say there is a poetic appropriateness about a vote taking place during your evidence into the parliamentary calendar.

Can I introduce my colleagues? David Natzler, on my left, is the Clerk Assistant, who is also Director General of the Department of Chamber and Committee Services, who are in the front line of supporting the proceedings of the House and its committees; and on my other side, Matthew Hamlyn is Head of the Office of the Chief Executive and played a key part in pulling together a lot of the analysis and facts that went into my memorandum to you.

Might I just say something very briefly before we do start? I think the key thing is that whatever the House wants to do, we will support it. That is what we do as a House Service. We do it professionally, and we take great pride in it. In advising you on possible changes, I think I, as Clerk of the House and Chief Executive, have two concerns: people and money. I want us to continue to be a good and understanding employer, able to get the best out of our people and treating them with respect, and I would commend many of the points made to you by the trade union side in their evidence to you.

I greatly value diversity in the House Service, and I have a personal aspiration to make working here attractive and accessible to people who would never have thought about working in Parliament.

On the financial side, I am required to achieve savings of nearly one fifth of our budget over the four-year period ending in 2014-15, and of course as Clerk of the House, my great concern is to ensure that in that process core parliamentary functions are not disadvantaged. Extra expenditure resulting from any changes in sitting patterns will have to be found from savings elsewhere, so you will not be surprised if I have a bias towards a cost neutral or even-dare I hope?-a cheaper option, but certainly a cost neutral option.

Q196 Chair: You have seen our consultation paper. Looking at the options we canvassed there, are there any great financial variations? And perhaps you could say something about the cost of September sittings.

Robert Rogers: The point which is made very plainly in my memorandum is that a lot of our costs are fixed costs throughout the year, so you are putting activity at different times and in different places, but it does not make a fundamental difference to the cost that we incur. The figure of £3.77 million per week amortised over the year is given in my memorandum. On pages two and three of the memorandum, you have the costs in paragraph eight for an additional unplanned sitting at £20,000, which is also in reverse an opportunity cost of a sitting that does not take place. In paragraph 10, you have late-night/late-sitting costs. Those are the ones that we have been able easily to identify.

Q197 Tom Greatrex: In your memorandum, you make the point at paragraph 3 about the impact of marginal financial consequences but significant impact on staffing arrangements, particularly for staff supporting work in the Chamber. I wanted to ask you about what those impacts would be, particularly in relation to sitting at 11.30 on Tuesday mornings and bringing sitting hours forward on Wednesdays.

Robert Rogers: Certainly. I will turn to David Natzler in a moment for the detail on that. I think more broadly though it is important to emphasise that our staff are extraordinarily flexible. This is something where over the years, the loyalty and the readiness to be redeployed, to go the extra mile, to do an extra task has been of huge value to the House, both value in flexibility but also value in monetary terms as well. I think it is important to put that on the record. Elsewhere in my memorandum, there are examples of people who do one thing and then they come back perhaps later in the day and they do a different task.

The scenario you describe would end up with one very long period of time with an eleven hour gap in the middle, and it is that fixture in the middle of the parliamentary week that would give us difficulties, because working through that scenario it is pretty clear that a lot of the staff would be working over hours that they could be or should be permitted to work. Whereas, in other circumstances, flexibility allows us redeployment, there we would probably have to staff for peaks. So the likelihood of additional expenditure is much higher.

David, do you want come in on that?

David Natzler: You were talking about 11.30 am on Tuesday?

Tom Greatrex: Yes, and then bringing forward hours on a Wednesday.

David Natzler: To?

Tom Greatrex: We talked about different permutations but around 10.30 am; the same as Thursday.

David Natzler: Bringing Tuesdays forward to the current Wednesday timetable, I assume also means that you are rising at 7.30 pm, which is of course what we had for a couple of years between 2003 and 2005. It was then reversed and we went back what we might call a late-starting Tuesday. I don’t think in itself an 11.30 am start on a Tuesday causes the Chamber staff much trouble. It depends a little on if you were sitting very late on the Monday, but there is no reason to suppose that you would be, and then rising at 7.30 pm on a Tuesday is fine. The earlier the start, the greater the danger that it bumps back into the previous evening in terms of, as Robert has said, not getting the 11 hours in. I would have thought if you stopped promptly at 7.30 pm on a Tuesday, you would get your 11 hours in. You have to think about Committees, as we have discussed in private discussions, when a Public Bill Committee is going to be sitting, but an 11.30am start is not a problem there. They can obviously start at 9.30 am or 10.00 am and so get an hour and a half or two hours in before the House starts.

Robert Rogers: I should just say, if I may, that my original answer was predicated on putting in that private Members’ bill slot that you were thinking of on one of those days, so that of course would introduce a rigidity and an additional period of sitting hours in that time span. I absolutely agree with David in terms of, if it were possible, stopping promptly at 7.30 pm, but in the Parliamentary environment, it is often not possible to stop with any firm confidence at a particular time, of course.

Q198 Tom Greatrex: You have touched on standing committees, but let me ask about Select Committees as well. A lot of the select committees find that Tuesday mornings are the key time.

David Natzler: Yes, that is a problem of space, possibly, rather than staff, to be honest. It is up to select committees when they sit. Although it is technically true of general public bill committees, it is politically not so true; there is a very conventional time when they meet and for how long in a week. A select committee can meet whenever it likes, and they do indeed like to meet on Tuesday mornings for obvious reasons, because the House does not meet until 2.30 pm. So it might be that select committees would want to start somewhat earlier than they currently do on a Tuesday. This could put heavy pressure on staff who were working for the Chamber because we do not divide staff quite as absolutely as is suggested; there are not Chamber staff and committee staff. When you go through a division, the chances are quite high that you will have your name ticked off by someone who works for a select committee, to put it at its simplest. I would not say an 11.30 am start on a Tuesday would, in itself, inherently cause select committee staff a problem. I am being very cautious and taking each proposition at a time, because it is obviously the combination of them that you come up with that we can then react to.

Q199 Tom Greatrex: Were the select committees at the same time as a period of time when there may be divisions in the Chamber, then that potentially cause difficulty?

David Natzler: I think that does happen now, of course. Those who sit on Wednesday afternoons-

Chair: Like us. [Interruption.] I was waiting for that. Perfect timing. I will adjourn the Committee for 10 minutes.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

Q200 Sir Roger Gale: Notwithstanding the fact that the press pay virtually no attention whatsoever to standing committees, it will not surprise you to know that I rather take the view as a member of the Chairmen’s Panel that the standing committees on legislation-public bill committees-are some of the most important work in the House. It does seem to me that in all of what we are considering, there is a very great danger that these will be marginalised. David Natzler touched upon the effect of changed hours and earlier sittings upon standing committees. The present experience on Thursdays is not a particularly happy one. My understanding is that the Clerks have to come in very early in the morning in order to prepare for at 9.00 am start. We then only get an hour and a half before the House sits, which is just about time to get a head of steam up, before you have to stop again. Then we sit at 1.00 pm, when the House is sitting, which bars Members of Parliament effectively from taking part in matters on the floor of the House. If we sit earlier, it would also have the effect, as I understand it, if we rise earlier, of preventing the buffer sitting that is possible at the moment on a Tuesday evening, when it is still feasible within the bounds of the sitting of the House to sit from 8.00 pm until 10.00 pm if a bill is running out of time and there are matters that have not been discussed that need to be discussed.

What I would really like to know from you, particularly probably from David Natzler, is what effect he thinks this is going to have upon the legislative process in particular and also the members of staff who have to manage that process from the clerking point of view and from a Hansard and police point of view; all the Officers of the House.

David Natzler: Yes, you are right. The earlier the start of a public bill committee or any general committee-but particularly a public bill committee-the earlier the staff have to come in, particularly in this case the Clerk and the office clerks who copy papers and so on. Let us say an hour before and sometimes more than an hour before. On Thursdays, when the House sits at 10.30 am, conventionally committees have decided to meet at 8.55 am or sometimes 9.00 am, but it tends to be 8.55 am to give them a clear 1 hour 30 minutes before the 10.25 am break, so they can get down to the Chamber for questions.

Mr Greatrex put to me 11.30 am on a Tuesday. Of course, it is up to public bill committees themselves as to when they would start if they had an 11.30 am or 11.25 am end time. If it was the same as they are doing on Thursdays, the start time would be 9.55 am,1 which would still give them an hour and a half before going downstairs. Am I wrong? It is 8.55 am on Thursdays now for a 10.30 am start. For an 11.30 am start, it could be 9.55 am.

I don’t think that is an excessive demand on the Public Bill Office staff or Hansard or the doorkeepers. If, on the other hand, public bill committees decided they wanted two hours in the morning, or two and a half hours, as may be the case on a standard Tuesday morning now, then indeed that start would possibly become-I would not say intolerably early-but awkwardly early for the staff, particularly if they were those who had attended in the office on the previous Monday evening until say 11.30 pm or so. But I do not want to stress that because it is up to the public bill committees themselves to decide when they meet.

Can I just deal with the 8 to 10 pm point? That is a new point to me. Public bill committees decide themselves when they meet, and the House does not have to be sitting for them to meet. It happens of course occasionally, as you well know, that the public bill committees are sitting after the House has gone home. Nobody wants to encourage that but there is that possibility if they are running out of time to finish a bill or they want to catch up with an informal programme, or what have you. I don’t think that an 11.30 am to 7.30 pm sitting on a Tuesday impacts too severely on public bill committees. That is my judgment.

Q201 Sir Roger Gale: And it would not have any effect upon the tabling and publication of amendments?

David Natzler: I am going to say no. You would have to table the amendments before the rising of the House, but then the committee would have met that much earlier anyway. So in that sense the whole thing has just moved forward a slab. Do you see what I mean? From memory, in 2003 to 2005, it was not perceived as being any particular problem in relation to public bill committees, but I may come back to you afterwards, if having consulted my colleagues who are no doubt watching this on the television, if the Public Bill Office thinks I am completely wrong then I will, if I may, come back.

Q202 Sir Roger Gale: Could I just ask one other question? Robert Rogers in his opening remarks touched upon the willingness of the staff of the House to do more or less whatever the House wanted in order to further the business of the House. Historically, that has certainly always been the case and it has been a matter of huge pride within our parliamentary process, I think. The trade union evidence rather suggested that that was being eroded and that whereas, without putting this too grandly, in the past working for the House of Commons had been seen to be a vocation, there is a tendency right now it be viewed as a job and that the goodwill was probably much less than it was. To what extent has this sort of uncertainty about the times and the natures of the business of the House had upon the erosion of that goodwill if, indeed, it has been eroded, as the, I think that I am fair in representing, union side has suggested.

Robert Rogers: I would not be apocalyptic about this. I think it is important to look at it in a proportionate way, but there is no doubt-I would not say that it is being significantly eroded-that of course there are a lot of things that are putting it under strain and many of those are connected with the current financial austerity. For example, we have been running a voluntary exit scheme for two years for staff. Those who take voluntary exit, and some good people do, there is a commensurate loading on others. There is a feeling of austerity. Now, that is offset, in my judgment, and I say this very plainly and quite frequently to the getting on for 2,000 members of the House Service, working for Parliament, working for the House of Commons, is a terrific privilege because unlike a lot of people in a lot of walks of life we know that what we do is really, really worth while. So there is a balance there.

One of the things I said to the whole House service on my first working day in the job was that we had three things to do. One was to continue to develop and deliver excellent services and, where possible, to improve them. The second was to make the savings that we are committed to do; we have been instructed to do by the House of Commons Commission. And third, and most relevant to what you are asking, is to support and develop our staff through that process. The more challenging the employment environment, the more sensitivity, time and effort you have to give to that area of business.

Q203 Thomas Docherty: I think, Mr Rogers, just following on from that point that the evidence we received from the trade unions was that it is this combination of a pay freeze, something that would-without too much hyperbole-suggest that there is a deterioration in the pay and conditions, coupled with a significant impact on their hours. For example, the evidence from the unions was that they were coming in much earlier to set up the House, the example they used was that if a Monday night ran to 10.30 pm or perhaps later, if there are votes on a Monday night, then for example the Table Office have to stand beyond another hour, and yet do they actually have to come back in again? I think that was the specific question Sir Roger was asking. Do you accept that is a legitimate concern for the 2,000 colleagues who work for you?

Robert Rogers: Very much so, and I think it is reflected not only in the trade unions side evidence but in my memorandum to you. The more that people multi-task or they finish duty in one area and at one time and then they are called upon perhaps earlier than before in another area, that imposes strains, and that is exactly the sort of thing that, in my opening statement, I was underlining.

David Natzler: Are you asking if the uncertainty itself is unsettling, or are you asking have there been recent changes in sitting hours that have made people’s lives difficult? They are two separate questions.

Q204 Thomas Docherty: The suggestion made by Mr Gall, as the full-time official, was that there is, for obvious reasons, a pay freeze for our staff as part of the savings programme and that terms and conditions have, as a consequence, been deteriorating. It is not a criticism; it is a reality of the situation. If you then coupled that with we are asking them to do more for less, for want of a better phrase for it, do you accept that is a legitimate criticism of any significant change to the sitting hours on the Tuesday in particular, and that there is a concern from Mr Gall that it will become harder to persuade people to do more within such a tight time scale?

Robert Rogers: I think it is very important to preface any comments David has on that by saying that we are statutory bound to stay broadly in line with the home civil service. Clearly, we are doing rather different jobs in different circumstances, but nevertheless the House of Commons Administration Act 1978 requires that of us. So those pay issues are not directly part of the savings programme; they are part of a broader context.

David Natzler: I read Ken’s evidence obviously, and I would agree that because of the context that we are in, which includes the pay freeze, concerns about pensions and other things virtually beyond our control as a House service, staff feel under pressure, and were there to be changes that made them or asked them to work regularly longer hours that would be very difficult. Ken, for example, said a 12-hour contractual day, especially in Hansard where they have no foreseeable meal breaks-they take meal breaks when they can-would not be tolerable. As I think Robert said in his memorandum, if it was a proposition that you had a very long Wednesday, which we do not now-I am just differentiating between the possibility that things might change and what we have now, but the possibility of change in that direction is the more unsettling because staff are already feeling under a certain amount of personal financial pressure.

Thomas Docherty: That is very helpful, so we will perhaps come back, Chairman, later in the session about the Wednesday option.

Chair: Are you now moving on to Thursday?

Thomas Docherty: Yes.

Chair: Before we get to Thursday in the week, can we finish off on Monday?

Q205 John Hemming: The Leader of the House has suggested taking questions at the end of the day on Monday. Do you have any comments on that?

Robert Rogers: I think my comments are very specifically from a House point of view. I do not see any intrinsic difficulty at all. There might be ministerial teams who find it a little unwelcome, but that is not for us to comment on.

Q206 Jacob Ree-Mogg: It might be quite difficult under a finance bill there.

Robert Rogers: If you have open-ended business, and I think Mr Rees-Mogg is on a very good point, which in a sense links with another point in your consultation paper about perhaps limiting the types of business that might be taken on any particular day of the week. Yes, if you have business which is open-ended by practice of the House then you do have difficulty if you are going to reverse the running order on any individual day, like a Monday.

Q207 John Hemming: But from the point of view of managing the people side of it, swapping questions around at the end is not a problem?

Robert Rogers: No.

Q208 Thomas Docherty: We have touched briefly on Thursday. You will be aware that one of the options that we are considering, Mr Rogers, is the issue of moving by an hour the start time on the Thursday and the consequential finish time. That is to say a 9.30 am start with an interruption coming at 5.00 pm, and the argument was it would allow colleagues to do a fuller day on the Thursday and still return to their loved ones and their families. First of all, what are the financial implications for that?

Robert Rogers: I do not think that in itself that is going to have significant financial implications or indeed any particular financial implications. I think in terms of preparing for the business of the day-we are already sitting at 10.30 am on a Thursday-there are various things that precede the sitting. Just to take one example, Mr Speaker has to decide on any applications for urgent questions; we obviously make our very best efforts to put him in a good position to decide on urgent questions, which means getting factual briefing and formulating our advice on the subject. But that is just one thing.

If, for example, the House were to be in Committee of the whole House or taking a report stage there is the business of preparing a selection of amendment sheets and so on; marked up amendment sheets. Obviously, the basic amendment sheets will be printed overnight. So there are those considerations. I would not say that any one of them is lethal, but they need to be taken into account.

David Natzler: Coming back to Sir Roger Gale’s point, I am not quite clear how you envisage public bill committees managing with a House start at 9.30 am. I do not think you want public bill committees to start-maybe you do-at 07.55, which would be the equivalent to bringing the current start time forward.

Q209 Thomas Docherty: One option might be hypothetically that the start time would come, say perhaps, at 11.30 to allow two hours for oral questions and then business questions or statements. Then it would be at the discretion of the Chairman to determine the point for a break during the course of the day. But that is something I think we probably will have to consider. Finally, Mr Rogers, can I just ask for an update as to where you are with the book?

Robert Rogers: I recall this question being asked in other fora.

Thomas Docherty: It will keep coming up until it is written.

Robert Rogers: The large assemblage of red boxes and material is moving closer and closer to my desk. A new edition of How Parliament Works will issue in not too long a time, I hope.

Thomas Docherty: This session?

Robert Rogers: I am not able to give bankable assurances, I am afraid.

Q210 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Could I just ask a quick follow-up question? If Thursday moved an hour earlier and Wednesday took private Members’ business, that would present a problem-would it not?-because Wednesdays then would not be finishing until 10.30 pm and you would be starting at 9.30 am, so any overrun and you would not be getting the 11 hour gap.

Robert Rogers: That is exactly the scenario that I mistakenly attributed to Mr Greatrex earlier on. Yes, then we would be in the position of an institutional long day followed by an early start.

Q211 Thomas Docherty: What would be the financial consequences of ending Friday sittings and moving it to either, for argument’s sake, the Tuesday or the Wednesday? Just to clarify, if you assume that it was a 7.30 pm point of interruption or indeed a 6.30 pm point of interruption.

Chair: In other words, not having 13 sittings on a Tuesday or Wednesday, but sitting every Tuesday or Wednesday from 7 until 10.

Robert Rogers: There are some of the implications set out in paragraph 20. There are obviously going to be savings in not having a Friday, and that is where the £20,000 I mentioned earlier on kicks in. But, of course, there is countervailing expenditure of the sort mentioned in paragraph 10, so it is swings and roundabouts, I think.

Matthew Hamlyn: If I can add to that, Chair. Part of the answer to the question is what you do with the Fridays. In assembling this paper, we realised that an enormous number of variables stick together. At the moment we have, in our House, roughly 13 sitting Fridays in a typical session. If we had no sitting Fridays and we knew we were not going to have sitting Fridays and we knew how many of those days would coincide with non-sitting Fridays in the Lords, we would have a lot more scope for planning tours. We then need to decide whether they should all be commercial tours, going back to the conversations that Mr Gray and I were engaged in in a different committee earlier, which would generate possibly more income for the Houses, or more scope for Members’ tours. Depending on decisions you have taken earlier with the sitting patterns, would you need those Fridays for the maintenance and running repairs, which you would normally do at non-sitting times of the week from Monday to Thursday?

It is quite difficult to give a clear financial answer until we have worked through the decision tree, and then you can go back and say, "Right, we have this time; we know what we can do with it." So there is quite a complex equation to work out there. I think I would add the point that Robert made at the beginning, which is the total cost of running Parliament in this particular building, in this particular place, and given the way we do it-we do not close it at weekends; we keep the place open for Members, staff and others at all times of day and evenings, and sometimes night-the total impact of changes at the margins of sitting patterns would probably be quite small. There is a figure in the paper about the impact, for instance, of not having a September sitting, or having one. We tried to work out a figure for that-about £1.5 million on the capital budget-that is out of a total spend in the House of Commons of well in excess of £200 million, so these are not enormous impacts.

David Natzler: It is difficult with different scenarios, but I think you are now suggesting that the option is Tuesday you meet from 11.30 am or you meet from 2.30 pm. Where the extra three hours comes makes a difference to the cost, because the later at night the House sits the more otherwise avoidable costs rack up.

Q212 Thomas Docherty: If the scenario is, without being day specific at this stage, that the normal House business is concluded by 7 pm?

David Natzler: On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and then you have three hours of Private Members’ Bills every Tuesday and Wednesday.

Chair: On one of those days.

David Natzler: On either one or the other?

Thomas Docherty: Yes.

David Natzler: But that does mean either between Tuesday and Wednesday or between Wednesday and Thursday, which you may also be bringing forward, you have a very short break for those who are Chamber committed. That means if you also have an 11.30 am start on the Wednesday and you are running through to, say, 10 pm or 10.30 pm on the Wednesday and then you are possibly starting again at 9.30 am on the Thursday, and that is a regular pattern, then you are into this situation of both having a very long single shift-I am particularly concerned on Hansard there for which it is difficult-which we would probably have to change radically. It is very difficult to cost, but we would not be able to expect the same people to serve for 12 hours. You also do not get much chance of getting near the statutory working time directive 11 hour break.

Q213 Thomas Docherty: What are the procedural consequences, Mr Rogers, in terms of when would amendments be, to use very poor English, lodgeable until, for example? It strikes me that the moment of interruption has not occurred until the House finishes sitting, so that surely you still table questions or you still table amendments to future business, and would that have an impact? Would we have to make procedural changes as a consequence?

Robert Rogers: At the moment, I think the normal expectations would be valid, so that it would be the time of rising that would be the cut-off time for, for example, amendments for legislation on the Floor, whether Government legislation or private Members’ legislation and in Public Bill Committees. Although, of course, there is a different between a three-day notice period and a two-day notice period.

David Natzler: It does not matter what the business is, in the House, either the House is sitting or it is not, and things that you can do until the rising of the House you will carry on, we assume, being able to do until the rising, whether it is private Members’ business or Government business or backbench business.

Q214 Thomas Docherty: Would we have to consider where the Adjournment debate falls as well? As the Clerk of the House, what would be your advice as to where that should fall?

Robert Rogers: Adjournment debates are debates on the adjournment at the end of which the House decides to adjourn or it is adjourned willy-nilly by the operation of the Standing Order. So I think if you insert, as it were, a half-hour interpellation elsewhere in the proceedings, it loses the character of an Adjournment debate and you might have to put the automatic closing of the sitting after the business that you put after that.

Q215 Chair: But adjournment debates are helpful to staff, because they know they have another half an hour to go once they see the word "adjournment" come up. I am thinking of Refreshment Department staff, and so on.

Robert Rogers: But if you were to follow that with time-limited business between 8 pm and 10 pm, people will be counting down from the clocks anyway. I do not think there is any magic about seeing "adjournment" come up, provided you know what the finishing time is.

Q216 Chair: The natural place for it would be at the end of the business, would it not?

Robert Rogers: The natural-and as long as it retains its characteristic as the question before the House being that this House do now adjourn, I think it is very difficult without changing the procedural character of that proceeding to move it elsewhere in the day.

Q217 Thomas Docherty: I am curious because I am conscious that we have the Leader of the House’s office sitting taking notes behind you. There is a suspicion that some less scrupulous than this Leader of the House might insert additional business, such as European documents, between the normal business and the private Members’ business to, as I am sure unintended consequence, drive it into the early hours of the morning. Is there anything that you can do procedurally that would stop the Leader of the House spending an order to drive the business back, or is that something you have to live with?

Robert Rogers: I certainly would not personalise it, if you will forgive me, in that way. Governments as yet unborn might like to adopt that concept. Yes, of course, because you can always by Standing Order say that a particular class of business shall finish at a particular hour, but of course the House is always master of its procedure. A majority to change a Standing Order, which is constraining in that way, is always going by the necessary steps-perhaps put on nod or nothing, or if objected to, given debating time-that is always a way that you can do it. The only way that you will inhibit that more substantially is to introduce a system, which I have suggested to this Committee in other circumstances in the past, of some sort of weighted majority, which has always been a way of addressing routine suspension of Standing Orders of that character.

Chair: But it would be quite possible-would it not?-for the House to decide that between 7 pm and 10 pm private Members’ bill shall be taken and any further Government business shall come back after 10 pm?

Robert Rogers: Of course.

Q218 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Continuing with private Members’ bills and how the day’s debate operates-which I know some people are not enormously enthusiastic about-do you think it would be right to encourage the Speaker to set time limits on speakers in backbench bills? And is there any precedent for setting time limits when there have not been other speakers wanting to speak and there is time available?

Robert Rogers: I think it is difficult to answer the question, if you will forgive me, in precisely the terms as you phrased it, but the power is there in Standing Order 47. The Chair has never exercised that power in respect of backbench or private Members’ bills because of course we are all aware-everybody in the place is aware of the particular characteristics of debate on private Members’ bills-and to impose speech limits would imply a different regime operating. There are always practicalities, of course, of imposing speech limits and traps; that you can have a lot of people who put in. I am talking now about other types of business. The Chair may impose a limit; they may withdraw and the limit has to be changed. I think it would be entirely a matter for Mr Speaker, but he might appreciate the guidance of your Committee before employing Standing Order 47 powers on private Members’ bills.

Q219 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Has the Speaker in the past used those powers when there have not been speakers to fill the time available?

Robert Rogers: Not when it is known there are not enough speakers to fill the time available because there is no reason to impose a time limit. But, as you will see, day by day, the occupants of the Chair adjust and they have quite a complex task, which I think they perform very successfully of adapting the time limit up and down to make the best use of the time to get the most Members in.

Of course, with private Members’ bills, the rationale and the motives may be slightly different on the part of Members, not just trying to get in in order to make a contribution to a very crowded debate but perhaps wishing to speak for a longer period of time for reasons that may relate to their enthusiasm for seeing the business under discussion succeed.

Q220 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Indeed. That is a very elegant way of putting it. Do you think further to that, that with or without time limits on Members’ speeches, that there ought to be specific time limits on stages, so perhaps three hours for a second reading, so that people would know more clearly when things would come on and would remove the need to have 100 voting aye for a closure?

Chair: I think the point is, in other words, that after, say, three hours on the second reading that the question be put is built into the Standing Orders, because it seems to me if you have that you would not need to worry too much about time limits on speeches.

Robert Rogers: That is true. It is a form of a programme and it is just a question of how attractive you find that proposition. It is certainly possible to do.

Q221 Jacob Rees-Mogg: In your view of proceedings in Parliament, do you think it is in line with precedent to have that sort of programme when very small numbers are present?

Robert Rogers: I do not think that I have a sensible or helpful answer to give you on that. I think I would return to my original answer that it is a matter of judgment. All types of programme are without prejudice to finishing the business that they regulate earlier than the deadline set in the programme. So I do not think that in practice that is going to be a problem that arises.

David Natzler: I entirely agree with Robert-

Robert Rogers: He does not have to.

David Natzler: I mean if we are on about private Members’ bills I think we may want to think, "Do you think it would be conducive to the dignity of the House if, on the second reading vote of a private Members’ bill on an ill-attended Friday or an ill-attended Wednesday evening, the vote was 12 in favour and five against on a matter maybe of some great public interest, will the House-

Chair: The Bill would then fall, would it not?

David Natzler: Yes.

Robert Rogers: It would be put off to the next sitting.

David Natzler: It would effectively, but it is the message that may go out to the public. They might misunderstand that Members had not expected to vote on this and did not want to vote on it and therefore neither for nor against was there a number of Members in any way related to the significance of the subject. So you would want to avoid that, I would have thought.

Q222 Thomas Docherty: I think we have had a case though in very recent times where a Bill has passed on a Friday because-dare I say it?-the Government did not do its sums and put too many people into a lobby, and that it was able to get a second reading almost by accident, without naming the bill.

Robert Rogers: Accidents on private Members’ Fridays are not very far to seek.

Q223 Thomas Docherty: There are bills passing out of the Friday at the moment that have relatively low-

David Natzler: Yes, you could have, I think the lowest number, which is a legitimate number under the current rules in favour of a bill, when there is a division, and that is what I am talking about-a recorded division-is I think 18. You could pass a bill by 18 to 17, and I think we had one very close to that recently. I am just raising, was that a good thing? I am just saying you may want to think about that, if it is on a subject that is to some people of real importance, it might not look as if the House was taking it seriously.

Robert Rogers: I think there is quite a relationship here, Chairman, with deferred Divisions, which was a question raised.

Chair: That was the next question.

Robert Rogers: I would not encourage you to go for more deferred divisions, to be quite frank. I think separating debate and vote seems to me to devalue debate when we should be putting a higher value on it if we are trying to recalibrate and revalue what the House does. I think that may be particularly true with private Members’ bills, because they are a backbench phenomenon. They are very often unwhipped-that might change if they move to a different part of the week-but they are an area where one does see opinions change, and where the strength of feeling and the strength of debate can make a difference.

I think there is also a reputational element to this. When we are trying to enhance the reputation of the House and what it does, I am not sure that the convenience of deferred divisions and the convenience to Members, which I entirely accept, always plays very well with those outside the House who think that if a matter is worth debating, it is worth debating properly and then deciding at the end of the debate.

Picking up a rather similar point to the one that David made a moment ago, I think people find it very hard to understand how a second reading of a bill, which is perhaps a real issue, not something that necessarily challenges Government policy or anything like that, but it might be a moral or conscience issue. It might be debated by a very small number of people in the Chamber-perhaps six, seven, 10, a dozen-and then the deferred division on a subsequent day is decided by 320 to 280. I think that mismatch could play very badly with the public, and it would not conduce to the understanding of the sort of thing that Parliament is doing.

Q224 Karen Bradley: One of the areas that we have looked at in the consultation is giving Members greater certainty about whether they are required to be in the House, and part of the balancing act that Members have between constituency business and business in the Chamber and also private business as well, shall we say. You made clear your views on deferred divisions, which was one of the suggestions of how perhaps greater certainty could be provided. But you do not, in the memorandum, make any comments about any of the other possible ways that times could be more set. For example, the use of defined voting times or other examples. I just wonder if you could perhaps expand to the Committee your views on how it might be possible to give Members greater certainty and any thoughts you have on the merits of those ideas?

Robert Rogers: I am only too well aware of the tensions, which I think over recent years have got more powerful, between Members’ duties in this place and the sort of expectations that are placed on them by their constituents, leaving aside their own family and private life, and it has been a circle that I have seen over nearly 40 years becoming increasingly hard to square. I have a lot of sympathy with that position.

I think voting at defined times does bring us back to decision time and deferred divisions. I think most of the other weapons in the armoury, if I can describe them like that, are in the hands of the Government of the day. In a sense, we are in an unusual situation because we are coming to the end of a two-year legislative session, and I think after May there will be quite a sharp reminder-I am not privy to the Government’s legislative programme-of the eternal verities of legislation and the sort of pressure that that puts on the Chamber. What I am saying is that without the interposition of some other authority, whether it is a Backbench Business Committee for backbench business or whether it is a House Business Committee, it is very much with the Government of the day to decide how to order the business of the week, and it is very much then for the parties to decide how contentious something is. It will be contention and time available that are the real determinants of how foreseeable or unforeseeable the process is.

David Natzler: There may be some room perhaps for the issue about the middle of the sitting day. I mean the division that you have just taken part in-which you probably know what it was about-if that had been delayed, if they had said during a Committee of the whole House stage or report stage, I suppose it is conceivable that you could have those Divisions delayed, not a deferred division as we understand it now to a Wednesday lunchtime on pink paper, but to a particular time or around a time in which any divisions that failed to be taken in the previous X time could then be taken, interrupting inevitably the flow of debate currently on the second group.

I suppose that would be less of a separation of debate and vote, although it still would be because it would be understood to be part of the same general flow of debate, so that you would then not have been interrupted in your select committee hearing and the many Members coming over from Portcullis House who are on a running whip, I imagine today and next Tuesday and so on, might say, "Well, we are pretty confident that between X and Y there will be no votes," so that a vote called then will be put off slightly to a pre-determined time. This is off the cuff.

Robert Rogers: David is striving to be as helpful as possible. I think the difficulty that you will encounter on legislation is that of contingent questions. That if you are going through a Bill, it is certainly possible to construct that sort of scenario, but equally often there will be something where the decision on something may make a subsequent decision impossible, or it may change the character of the decision that the House is being asked to take. We are very happy to look further at that, but I would not be unduly hopeful that it is an easy answer to your problem.

Q225 Karen Bradley: It is sometimes the case that when we are doing a report stage or a Committee of the whole House there is a defined time for when the groupings will end and that presumably is in the hands of the Speaker to determine?

Robert Rogers: No, it is not. There is an interplay between the programme applied to a Bill and the selection notice.

Q226 Karen Bradley: So it will be down to the Government to make the decision if they wanted to have a programme motion that says the groupings would be taken at this time.

Robert Rogers: It is more complex than that because the more detailed a programme motion becomes, naming and identifying amendments to a certain thing or new clauses relating to a certain subject, the more it tends to take away from the Chair the absolute discretion to select, because you have a slot that is assigned to new clauses. Maybe the Chair does not want to select any of those new clauses, so you do have a tension between the two ways of regimenting or ordering the business.

If you have no internal knives, and the tendency in recent years has been not to have internal knives because they can distort the proceedings, a deadline becomes a target and that very often does not reflect the amount of content in the groups that you have. The difficulty then becomes greater, because you have a clear run, let us say, from 3.40 pm after a tenminute rule bill to 10 pm and you do not have a clear indication as to when the votes are going to be. That is quite a problem. Of course, if the House moved in the direction of a House Business Committee, it could well be that a different approach to this could be explored, but that is yet to be determined.

Q227 Karen Bradley: What could the House do to prevent the Government from, for example, having a running whip effectively more than one day a week, so stopping the Government from having a report or Committee of the whole House stage more than once a week?

Robert Rogers: Yes, you cannot prevent a running whip, because that is a matter of the arrangements made within and sometimes between the parties. You could by Standing Order say, and in the 19th century there were Standing Orders that said all sorts of business could not be taken at a particular time or on a particular day of the week. You could do that, but you will recall the rather strong counter-case that the Leader of the House put in his letter to the Chairman about the ability of the Government to select how it wished the House to consider its business. I think you need to be quite cautious before, as it were, imposing a Standing Order regime, which regulates all these things, which when the shoe pinches you then have to change, constantly putting down motions to not withstand particular Standing Orders. Perfectly possible, but it is not always the best course. I think if one can possibly manage something, simplicity is a very attractive characteristic about any of these things.

Q228 Karen Bradley: If you do not mind, Chair, if you could permit me to perhaps raise the issue-this has been put to us-of the idea of having published speaker lists that would admittedly not give more certainty about the time of votes, but would give Members more certainty about the time when they were needed to be in the Chamber, and I wonder perhaps if you could just give the Committee a couple of minutes on your views on pre-published speaker lists.

Robert Rogers: The authoritative views on this, of course, will be expressed to you by the Speaker and his deputies if you consult them. From my perspective, I would greatly discourage it. I think certainly there is spontaneity in the way that matters are organised now, which is valuable. The Chair, and I think this is not always appreciated, puts a lot of work into almost constructing the debate. Who is it sensible to call next? How many times has X or Y spoken. There is expertise, perhaps constituency interest and demand, the number of times somebody has spoken, fairness, balancing the two sides, perhaps balancing more than the political sides if it is something where there is an argument that goes across the House, not necessarily between the two sides of the House.

I think also that it will have an effect on attendance, "Another six speakers to go, I will not go in yet." Now, if you do not go in yet and you do not have a feel for the tenor of debate, it may be very convenient. I am not saying that it should not happen, but I think that it will be one of the results that it could stultify the way that a debate proceeds.

I think also there would be a natural tendency-I would not criticise anybody on these grounds-to swap places around, and you would never know where you were. I think managed uncertainty, but benign uncertainty, may be the best way of handling it. But, as I say, that is just my view from the touchline and if you want authoritative views on this I think you have to consult the Chair.

Q229 Chair: It may also have the same effect as one of these websites that comments on our activity; it could lead to people putting in virtually for every debate, if this published list was also published in the press gallery.

Robert Rogers: I think you are taking us into an area we would not be comfortable with there, Chairman.

Q230 Mr Nuttall: Following on this issue of programming, in his submission the Leader of the House suggests that perhaps this Committee should not be too concerned about programming because its use is declining. Is that your impression?

Robert Rogers: Certainly. In this perhaps-dare I describe it as a slightly more leisurely Session?-that is absolutely true. There are all sorts of ways, of course. Programming is just one way of handling the tension between scrutiny and debate and the Government securing its legislative business.

David Natzler: It is not for me to defend the Leader of the House; I do not think he actually said it had been used less.

Mr Nuttall: Diminishing, I think.

David Natzler: No, I think he said it is operated with much less contention during the current Session. It is not quite the same thing.

Mr Nuttall: He then goes on to give figures that show a decline in the numbers of programme motions.

David Natzler: No, sorry, the decline in the number of programme motions subject to Divisions. What I think he is suggesting is it has been less contentious.

Q231 Mr Nuttall: You are right. He suggests the number of divisions has fallen to 44% in the current session from 89% 10 years ago. Nevertheless, there is a general feeling among many Members, particularly at report stage, there are far too many amendments that are never discussed. I appreciate, leaving aside the politics of it, is there any simple way that this matter could be resolved other than simply throwing oodles of more time?

Robert Rogers: It is a manylayered problem. One way of attacking it is through selection. If you have, let us say, a day on report and you have amendments, which on one interpretation will happily divide into 14 or 15 different groups, you know in the nature of things by long experience that you would be lucky if you get to group 5 or group 6. That can be addressed by the Chair selecting much larger groups, so that more amendments get to be debated and if they get to be debated they will be available for division, subject to the discretion of the Chair. Of course the downside of that is you have far less focused groups, and that may not be the best thing in terms of constructive debate of particular provisions.

David Natzler: I absolutely agree. It is visible that the number of groups has fallen, I believe, in response to this stronglyheld complaint that amendments are "not debated". I say quote unquote, because you shove 30 or 40 in a group and some Members will barely have a chance to speak to the amendments if they have them down in that group but they are counted as having been debated. How realistic is that? We can just have one big group and then you would say everything had been debated ultimately, which is obviously absurd.

Robert Rogers: I think it is also worth saying that selection on report is much more generous than it used to be 10 or 15 or 20 years ago. It was a very high bar indeed to get an amendment selected on report. It might be that it is better to go back to those days where the highest political priorities and things which have not been fully worked out in the public bill committee focus the House on many fewer propositions at report, and that is an option that you might like to consider.

Q232 Sir Roger Gale: I just want to make a couple of points and ask for comment. I think the Clerk of the House referred to a terrifying 40 years of experience.

Robert Rogers: 39, I have to say.

Sir Roger Gale: We will allow the other year. For a lot of that time, there was no such thing as a guillotine, and it strikes me that you are absolutely right to suggest that the bar for amendments on report was much higher. But the consequence of that was that most of them were debated because, apart from anything else, the House if necessary sat for a great deal longer. It was only relatively recently that in order to accommodate all sorts of things the hours were curtailed. But the other slight danger in the Leader of the House’s suggestion that this process has been less of a problem in the last 12 to 18 months has to be a consequence of effectively this is a two-year session and there is less legislation. When we go back to a one-year session, with the State Opening, there is going to be much more compressed into much less time, and I suspect we shall find ourselves going back to timetable motions in a fairly vigorous way.

Robert Rogers: Let us see what the pressure of the legislative timetable is, but if it is a single-year Session, as compared with a two-year session, obviously it is going to be moving in that direction. Of course during that period, just looking, the guillotine Standing Order was passed in 1971, and there have been quite a few famous or indeed infamous collections of guillotines imposed over the years but not routinely. You are quite right. The thing about programming is that the concept, as originally put forward by the Modernisation Committee, was a routine allocation of time to bills.

Q233 Mr Nuttall: If we go back to the provision of time for scrutiny of Government legislation, one of the concerns is that very often the time available is eaten into by the Government putting down often two or three ministerial statements on the day. One suggestion has been to provide for injury time at the end of the day to make up for time that has been lost. Clearly, this would have an impact, not just on Members’ certainty of sitting hours, but would have an impact on staff and other matters. How realistic, how sensible, how straightforward would that be from your point of view if that was to happen, and we added on 40 minutes or 1 hour 40 minutes at the end of a day?

Robert Rogers: Perhaps I can preface that with a slightly philosophical foreword that we do not necessarily need to paint ourselves into the corner of always in the future doing legislation the way we do it now. I think that there are many more things than the allocation of time, or the handling of time, for legislative scrutiny that could contribute to a much better style of legislation, whether it were more draft bills, whether it were more select committee type input. There are lots of options, and it might well be that in the next three or four years those start to rise to the top of the priority list.

But as long as we are where we are, the idea of injury time I think is very difficult, because it goes exactly against what Karen Bradley was talking about of introducing a degree of certainty into proceedings. It would of course put pressure on the Chair in the number of backbenchers the Chair was able to call on a statement, for example, because every additional minute that passed them would be reflected with an injury time minute perhaps at 11.20 that night.

Q234 Chair: Not necessarily; you could give the Speaker power-could you not?-to add an appropriate amount of injury time, which is not necessarily equal to the length of the statement.

Robert Rogers: What do you mean a half hour or hour box or something like that?

Chair: Yes.

David Natzler: Yes. I do not know if this is absurd. I think what you mean is possibly the business that follows the statement or urgent question should have a pre-fixed length of time. I think that may be an easier way of understanding it, at least for me. So you might say the report stage on a bill will be six hours, and it will start when it starts and it will end after six hours. You then get away from this idea that someone has the clock. Obviously, what Robert has described has exactly the same effect. The longer the statement runs, the later report ends, but you currently have business that is predetermined by Standing Order to last for 45 or 90 or whatever numbers of minutes, so you could-

Chair: If I could just interrupt. I think what we are saying is you could give the power-could you not?-to the Chair to decide and it is the Chair’s discretion, so the Chair will not necessarily always use it, that in certain circumstances where representations are made an amount of injury time be added to the business following the statement and that amount of time be at the Chair’s discretion.

Robert Rogers: Because it might be a very likely subscribed debate, for example.

Chair: Yes, or I am thinking perhaps of an opposition day where the Opposition have argued behind the scenes through the usual channels, they did not want a statement on their day and they end up having a statement on their day, so they then appeal to the Chair.

Robert Rogers: It is certainly workable in technical terms. I think it is very much a political judgment. You do need to bear in mind of course that divisions, particularly legislative business, if a knife comes down at the end of that period, you could be looking at three divisions in a row, an extra 45 minutes, or you could be looking at a division on an amendment and a division on a main motion, adding perhaps half an hour. But then, that is how everyday life works anyway.

Q235 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I just wanted to ask in this context about the Royal Grants Bill, which you may remember did not have a second reading. It went straight to a vote because the timetable worked in such a way that the time allowed for the second reading had been eaten up entirely by the statement, and it seemed to me that this was a ludicrous position to be in. You could not debate principles of a bill before deciding it, and I wondered whether in that context you thought there ought to be some particular Standing Order that ensures there is a minimum time at least for second reading debates.

Robert Rogers: David, you were Clerk of Legislation at the time-I’m not starting to blame you.

David Natzler: Yes, I was Clerk of Legislation at the time. That was a very curious circumstance, which I think we got round by having a generous clause 1 stand part debate, which the Chair offered, and it was obviously unintentional. Whether any general lessons can be drawn from that I do not know and there was a very unusual bill, as you will also remember in the sense we had already had a debate on the motion or the resolution on which the bill was founded, if I am right. So it was a rather unusual case, but indeed it does seem odd that a bill can get second reading without debate.

Robert Rogers: Of course you can get subsequent stages squeezed as well if you were to allow an hour for third reading on a programme and you had four divisions, you would not have a third reading debate. Of course, not so very long since we never had a third reading debate unless six Members put down a motion asking for one-Standing Order No. 56, as it was then, but that has been left some time in the past. But it does reflect, I think, the fairly longstanding feeling that actually third reading debates do not add a huge amount to the scrutiny of a Bill.

Q236 Mr Nuttall: Of course we do see private Members’ bills go into committee without a second reading debate.

Robert Rogers: Yes, clearly it does happen.

Q237 Chair: Gentlemen, thank you for your time today. We are dealing with very wide-ranging and complex issues and your evidence has been invaluable to us. Please, if there is anything that occurs to you following this session after today which you have a view upon, please do feel free to write to me. Can I just thank you again on behalf of the whole Committee?

Robert Rogers: Thank you very much, Mr Chairman, and if I can respond in kind, if anything else comes up during the remainder of your inquiry we can help with, we would be very happy to do so.

Chair: I will be knocking on your door.


[1] Note by witness : During the period when the House sat at 11 . 30 am on Tuesdays the prevailing practice of publi c bill committees shifted from 8 . 55 am as a standard start time, all owing two and a half hours, to 9 . 25 am , allowing two hours.

Prepared 31st January 2012