Sitting hours and the Parliamentary calendar - Procedure Committee Contents


6  Other opportunities

66. In our consultation document, we raised three further issues which we said we wanted to consider further in the course of this inquiry. They were:

  • ways to ameliorate the dissatisfaction with the number of amendments which fail ever to be discussed as a consequence of programming;
  • the use of "injury time" (for example, when government statements reduce the time available for a subsequent debate); and
  • further use of Westminster Hall for some backbench business.

Programming

67. The Leader of the House responded concerning programming as follows:

I would urge the Committee not to treat complaints about programming and the problems which underlie them as being consistent through time. Programming has operated with much less contention during the current Session than in Sessions that preceded it. To take two pieces of supporting evidence from among many: the proportion of Programme Motions immediately following Second Reading that has been the subject of divisions has fallen to 44% in the current Session (from 89% in 2001-02) and the number of Public Bill Committees that have finished their work ahead of the deadline has increased to 81% in the current Session (compared with 19% in 2001-02).[56]

68. Exchanges in oral evidence with the Leader of the House and with the Clerk of the House and Clerk Assistant led us to explore with the Speaker the effect of the selection and grouping of amendments at report stage of bills.[57] We noted that the practice whereby amendments concerning issues which have been fully debated in committee are not selected on report no longer seemed to be followed, and noted that this affects the issue of ensuring sufficient time for debate on amendments inasmuch as if there are fewer amendments to be debated, there is that much more chance of time being available to debate them. We asked the Speaker about the extent to which a reversion to the earlier practice might assist in ensuring time to debate amendments both on report and in committee, by avoiding repetition.

69. The Speaker replied

It is particularly at Report stage that the tension between the needs of scrutiny and debate, and the time available, can be most acute.

When the Clerk of the House appeared before your Committee recently, he made the point […] that selection on Report is more generous than it used to be up to 20 years ago. In your letter you relate this to subjects fully discussed in Committee, but the picture is more complex than that. Matters fully ventilated in Committee are often not selected on Report; the real issue may be one of raising the bar so that selection concentrates the House's time on relatively few points rather than a much wider range of sometimes incidental or minor matters.

As Speaker my instinct has perhaps been one of generosity, but I would be happy to explore how selection could make better use of the House's time. […] I would certainly be prepared to see whether revisiting the practices of selection might assist the House.[58]

70. We do not suggest that non-selection of amendments concerning issues already debated in committee provides anything like the whole answer to the issue of the failure to reach amendments on report. More focussed selection could nevertheless make a small but worthwhile difference at the margins, and has the advantage of being not a new practice, but one which used previously to be the norm. We welcome the Speaker's indication that he is willing to see whether revisiting the practices of selection of amendments on report would assist the House. We are sure that the Speaker himself will want in due course to assess the effects of any change in selection practice, and stand ready to give him whatever assistance he may require in doing so.

71. Thinking more broadly about how to ensure adequate consideration of amendments on report, it is evident from the conclusions we have already reached above that this is not a problem which can be easily solved through reform of sitting hours or sitting patterns. We do not see scope for extending sitting hours to provide more time to debate legislation. Furthermore, as the Speaker's letter concerning selection explains, lack of time is not the only challenge: there is also a complex interplay between the number of groups and the use of internal "knives" in programme motions which affects whether the opportunity arises to debate any individual amendment—and whether whole sections of a bill may escape scrutiny by this House.[59]

72. For some, the issue is also linked to the quality of legislation. We note that our colleagues on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee are undertaking an inquiry with a view to making recommendations about how the legislative process may be strengthened to improve the quality of legislation before it reaches this House. That inquiry may provide at least a partial solution to the problem, by suggesting ways of reducing the necessity of technical amendments to bills and increasing the opportunity for debate of policy issues.

73. Although the Leader's memorandum provides some evidence of an improvement in the situation concerning sections of bills going unscrutinised in this House as a result of programming, we are not convinced that the problem has now gone away. We have not, however, been able to devote sufficient time to this complex problem during our inquiry into sitting hours. We therefore declare our intention to look more closely at the operation of the programming of legislation in a later inquiry.

'Injury time' and use of Westminster Hall for Ministerial statements

74. In our report of last year on Ministerial statements, we said

We are attracted by the idea of the Speaker having the discretion, in exceptional circumstances, to allow "injury time" to compensate for time spent on oral statements and are minded to consider it further. Such a change would have an effect on the sitting hours of the House. Rather than consider this issue in isolation, we would prefer to address it in the wider context of the arrangement of the parliamentary day. We will, therefore, return to this matter in the course of our inquiry into the sittings of the House.[60]

75. That report noted that "the Leader of the House was not in favour of such 'injury time', on the grounds that '"the House puts a premium on the certainty of knowing when business will end'."[61] In oral evidence on this inquiry, he added "if you want certainty then you can't have things like injury time for statements, and I come down in favour of certainty rather than injury time on that particular example."[62] Instead, he picked up on a suggestion originally made by other witnesses to our inquiry into Ministerial statements that an experiment might be undertaken with the use of Westminster Hall for some such statements.[63] The Leader elaborated on this suggestion in a supplementary written memorandum:

[...] I should make it clear that this would provide a "spill-over" opportunity for ministerial statements which would not normally otherwise be made on the floor of the House. I have in mind, for example, certain statements on policy announcements on Opposition days, on other days when it is recognised that the time available for the main business before the House should not be reduced and on days when there is already another oral statement (or are other oral statements) which must take priority. The statements in question are generally made in the form of a written ministerial statement at present.[64]

76. The incursion of time taken for statements into that available for other business remains a problem, and one which inhibits the Government from bringing as many of its policy proposals to the House for scrutiny as might otherwise be the case. In the light of the evidence received in the course of this inquiry, on further reflection, and on balance, we tend to agree with the Leader that rendering uncertain the time of conclusion of debate in the House, by the introduction of "injury time", would be undesirable. As we have seen in chapter 4 above, Members desire certainty about the times they are required in the House, especially to vote.

77. Nevertheless we are not persuaded that the Leader's proposal, as it stands, is desirable as a means of securing greater Ministerial accountability without increasing overall sitting hours. The initiative on making statements in Westminster Hall would lie in the hands of the Government, rather than the House. There would therefore be a danger that the Government would use the opportunity to make statements in Westminster Hall on, for example, an Opposition day, arguing that it wished to avoid taking time from the Opposition, when the statement could have been made on another day instead. The Leader's undertaking that such statements "would not normally otherwise be made on the floor of the House" is welcome, but unverifiable and unenforceable.

78. Instead, we return to a recommendation made in our report on Ministerial statements. We said:

[...] in some cases, an announcement made by means of a written ministerial statement is significant enough to deserve parliamentary scrutiny. In such cases, there should be a mechanism for backbenchers to question a Minister on the statement. We recommend that the half hour between 11 am and 11.30 am on a Wednesday in Westminster Hall should be available for oral questions without notice on a written statement made in the previous week. We would not expect the Minister to read out the text of the statement. Applications for this time should be made to the Speaker in the same way as applications for adjournment debates and, where the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means judge that a case has been made, the Chairman of Ways and Means should appoint oral questions on that statement as the business for the specified time.[65]

In this way, Ministerial statements which have not—for whatever reason, whether it be through lack of time or merely by Government preference—been made on the floor of the House may be made subject to oral questioning by backbenchers and by the official Opposition.

79. The Government's response to that proposal was as follows:

It is already open to Members to seek a debate in Westminster Hall on any subject. Restricting the half-hour slot on Wednesday morning to questions on a matter which was the subject of a WMS in the previous week would significantly restrict Members' discretion to seek a debate on any subject of their choosing. There are also other mechanisms for backbenchers to question ministers on the subject of Written Ministerial Statements, including urgent questions and topical questions, backbench debates, select committee evidence sessions and adjournment debates in the House.

The Committee's proposal would not work well in the context of the current arrangements for determining the subjects to be taken in Westminster Hall, nor in the context of the departmental rota for responding to business in Westminster Hall.

The Government therefore does not agree with this recommendation, which would add little or nothing to Ministerial accountability to Parliament for the content of WMSs.[66]

80. This response is not persuasive as a case against the change we have proposed. The loss of one half-hour slot would not significantly restrict Members' discretion to seek a debate on any subject of their choosing. The small loss to that discretion would be amply compensated for by the opportunity to question Ministers orally on matters which might not otherwise be brought to the floor either of the House or of Westminster Hall. The references to the context of the current arrangements for determining the subjects to be taken in Westminster Hall and the departmental rota for responding to business in Westminster Hall are a red herring: neither is a significant obstacle to the introduction of the procedure we have proposed. And the proposal which the Leader has now made to our inquiry into sitting hours is a welcome rowing-back on the suggestion that the opportunity to question Ministers in Westminster Hall on the content of statements "would add little or nothing to Ministerial accountability to Parliament".

81. We are pleased to see that the Government has moved in the direction of our previous recommendation concerning opportunity for backbenchers to question Ministers on the content of a written statement. We renew the recommendation which we made in our report on Ministerial statements, and trust that the Government is now willing to go that step further and accept, on a pilot basis, arrangements for the half hour between 11.00 am and 11.30 am on a Wednesday in Westminster Hall to be available for oral questions without notice on a written statement made in the previous week. In this way it will be possible to bring a Minister to the House to be questioned on a statement without either trespassing on the time available for the main business or causing unwelcome uncertainty in the finishing time for business in the Chamber. Such sessions would take place only when the Chairman of Ways and Means had determined that it was appropriate: we would not expect them to be held every week.

82. Since we made our original recommendation, the Backbench Business Committee has established itself as a mechanism for determining what debates should take place in backbench time. We do not, however, consider that it would be appropriate to give the task of determining which statements should be taken in Westminster Hall under this procedure to that Committee. The task, which is likely to involve Opposition frontbenchers as much as—indeed possibly to a greater extent than—backbenchers, is more akin to that of determining whether an urgent question should be taken than that of choosing subjects for debate. We consider that it therefore lies more appropriately with the Chairman of Ways and Means, as the determiner of business in Westminster Hall under Standing Order No. 10(3).


56   Ev w58 Back

57   Q 231, Q 299 Back

58   Ev w95 Back

59   Ev w95  Back

60   First Report of Session 2010-12 (printed as 2010-11), Ministerial Statements, HC 602, para 52. Back

61   HC 602, para 51 Back

62   Q 300 Back

63   HC 602, paras 53-55 Back

64   Ev w93 Back

65   HC 602, para 68. Back

66   First Special Report of the Procedure Committee, Session 2010-12, Ministerial Statements: Government Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2010-11, HC 1062 Back


 
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Prepared 20 June 2012