Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar - Procedure Committee Contents


4  Providing certainty about when Members are required to be present in the House

49. A recurring message which we heard from Members in the course of this inquiry was the desire for certainty about when their presence will be required in the House (specifically, to vote).[43] Diary commitments in the constituency and elsewhere can be badly disrupted by lack of notice of the business to be taken in the House, and short-notice changes to the business or, particularly, the whipping. David Blunkett, for example, suggested that

[…] what would help, in a purely practical and common sense way, would be certainty of sittings, proper notice, the ability to manage time effectively, and the avoidance of complete disruption to a range of activities inside and outside the House which are directly related to the role of a Member of Parliament and their political duties.[44]

Jo Swinson argued on similar lines for

[...] more advance notice of business. In any modern workplace meetings and events are planned more than two weeks in advance. MPs do lots of work outside of the Chamber, and the uncertainty over meetings due to changing parliamentary business makes diary management incredibly inefficient, using additional staff resource that could be better deployed serving constituents. No one will mind if an emergency means there is a sudden need for legislation or debating time and business needs to change, that is the nature of politics. However, to set business only a week or two in advance purely for the convenience of government is not sensible when 650 MPs' working patterns should be considered.[45]

50. Procedural solutions to this issue are, regrettably, very difficult to find. In our consultation document, we floated four possibilities:

  • greater use of deferred divisions;
  • a defined voting time;
  • more advance notice of business;
  • providing that no running whipped business, or no business requiring a division in the middle of the sitting day, may normally be taken on one or more specified days of the week.

51. There are great difficulties, either of principle or of practice, with all of these. Referring to the third and fourth of these options, the Leader of the House commented "Some of the possibilities to which you refer would be incompatible what the House of Commons Reform Committee referred to as 'the Government's right to have the opportunity to put its legislative and other propositions to the House, at a day of its choosing'."[46] Questioned on the point in oral evidence, the Leader proved no more inclined to address the issue, arguing, "If we were going to lose a quarter of the week by having, for example, Wednesday, no votes or no business in the Chamber, it would cause quite a lot of problems in terms of business management".[47] These comments effectively rule out any possibility of avoiding votes in the middle of the sitting day on any particular day of the week. We suspect in any case that any such provision would be likely to be honoured more in the breach than the observance, as the Government tabled business motions to "notwithstand" the relevant standing orders to take business which it considered to be urgent.

Advance notice of business

52. Notice of business is now normally given, in the Thursday business statement, for the following two weeks; and although changes are sometimes made to the business announced, we recognise that the Government generally tries to give as much notice as possible. It is inevitable that Parliamentary business is subject to change, and notwithstanding the difficulties which that causes for other aspects of their Parliamentary role, business in the Chamber remains a central focus for Members of Parliament and they need to be prepared to attend to it whenever that is called for. Nevertheless there may be more which the Government, and others, can do to ensure that Members are able to use their time at Westminster effectively. We urge the Government to redouble its efforts to provide Members with accurate and timely information about the business which is to be taken in the Chamber.

Voting

53. There remains the possibility of deferred divisions, or a defined voting time such as is provided for in the standing orders of the Scottish Parliament. Both the Leader of the House and the Clerk of the House declared themselves inclined against such reform, on the grounds that it would divorce debate from decision and thereby undermine one of the principal functions of a Parliament. The current provision for deferred divisions tends (albeit not without exception) to apply not to the decision or decisions at the end of a debate, but to business which is taken without debate in the Chamber, such as the approval of statutory instruments which have been debated in a delegated legislation committee.

54. We are much influenced by the views of the Clerk of the House and the Leader of the House on this issue, and consequently we do not recommend the introduction of greater use of deferred divisions, or of a defined voting time, at this time. We intend to look in more detail at the issue of voting, including whether to introduce electronic voting, in a later inquiry, during which we will consider these possibilities further.


43   See, for example: Qq 63, 89, 100,120, 178; Ev w66, w74, w77, w82, w88. Back

44   Ev w3 Back

45   Ev w86 Back

46   Ev w58 Back

47   Q 279 Back


 
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Prepared 20 June 2012