Time limits on speeches in the Chamber Contents

Time limits on speeches in the Chamber

The issue

1.In this report we examine how the present arrangements for limiting speaking time during debates in the Chamber have operated and whether the rules governing time limits ought to be changed.

2.The Speaker wrote to the Chairman in January 2018, on behalf of all the occupants of the Chair, to raise with us the present regime for adding ‘injury time’ to time-limited speeches to ensure that a speaker who has taken interventions in a speech is not penalised for doing so.1 He indicated that the practice could lead to up to four minutes being added to a Member’s speaking time in the Chamber.

3.We subsequently discussed the issue with the three Deputy Speakers, upon whom the burden of managing backbench contributions at the end of debates very often falls. The Chairman of Ways and Means wrote to us in May 2018 to summarise the principal concerns of the Deputy Speakers:

As occupants of the Chair we strive to provide time enough for colleagues to deliver considered speeches, opportunity for challenge or support through interventions and the chance for as many colleagues as possible to participate in each debate. The potential of four additional minutes to every time-limited backbench speech makes speech lengths more difficult to control or predict.2

Following our meeting, the Deputy Speakers made a proposal for change which we address below.

Provision for interventions in time limited speeches

4.Experiments with limiting speaking time in the Chamber were undertaken during the 1980s, under the supervision of sessional Procedure Committees, and the first standing order providing for limits to be placed on speeches was made permanent by the House in 1988.3 This standing order was rewritten in 1995 to authorise the Speaker to impose a ten-minute limit on all backbench speeches in a debate, or between particular times in a debate.4

5.In 1998 the Modernisation Committee recommended that extra time be allowed for interventions. That committee feared that increasing pressure on debating time would lead to greater use of the ten-minute speech limit. Without additional time, Members subject to the speech limit would be reluctant to give way in debate, and the character of debates in the House would therefore be put at risk: spontaneous and informal debates which were stimulating and productive could be displaced by a series of set speeches. The standing order was therefore amended to provide that the Speaker may disregard time taken in interventions when calculating speaking time.5 A further amendment had the effect of allowing the Chair to determine the time limit to be applied: while the Committee did not recommend making provision in standing orders for a minimum time limit, it considered that it should never be less than eight minutes.6

6.The Committee drew attention to one risk, for which there was a simple remedy:

The only possible difficulty might be if a Member, for whatever reason, decided to waste time, in collusion with other colleagues, by deliberately encouraging lengthy and frequent interventions. […] In such rare cases the Chair would simply use its inherent authority and announce that any further interventions would not be taken into account in calculating the Member’s time.7

7.Revisiting the issue in 2002 the Modernisation Committee recommended that a ten-minute limit on backbench speeches should be the norm, except in circumstances where there was “no significant competition” for debating time.8 The Committee found that time limits continued to inhibit Members from accepting interventions, even with the stopped-clock rule introduced in 1998, since the time taken to respond to interventions cut into the remaining time to make a speech. The Committee recommended that a minute’s ‘injury time’ be added to speaking time under a time limit for each intervention taken, up to a maximum of two minutes.9 The House agreed to this change in October 2002.10

8.In 2007, further Modernisation Committee recommendations aimed at achieving a better balance between frontbench and backbench speeches resulted in a rewritten standing order, introduced provisionally in October 2007 and given permanent effect in November 2008.11 This provided for speech limits to be applied in advance to frontbench speeches in cases where debates were known to be heavily oversubscribed: frontbench speeches could be limited to 20 minutes each, with the clock stopped and up to 15 minutes injury time added for interventions.12 Tighter time limits could be applied to the 90-minute ‘topical debates’ which the Committee recommended and which were a feature of Thursdays in the Chamber in the last three sessions of the 2005 Parliament.

9.The new standing order also allowed the Chair greater discretion to vary the speech limits in the Chamber, allowing the Chair to respond to developing situations. The Modernisation Committee recognised that, under the arrangements as they stood, it was impossible for the Chair to call all Members wishing to speak. It recommended that the Chair ought to have greater flexibility to vary time limits, “with the objective of allowing all those who wish to speak to participate.”.13

The present situation

10.As the Speaker observed, time limits on backbench speeches in debate are now the norm. The Speaker and his deputies are using the flexibility in the present standing order to allow as many Members as possible to participate in debates. It is now far from unusual to find speeches in the Chamber at the end of debates limited to three minutes, and sometimes even two.14

11.In debates where tight time limits are applied, a speech where one intervention is taken and the resulting additional minute is granted can have an effect on the Chair’s plans to manage the debate, and can even lead to one or more speakers not being called at the end of a debate despite the Chair’s best efforts to get them in. It is not clear to us that this was understood to be the consequence of those changes introduced in 1998 and 2002 which were intended to encourage more spontaneous debate: such changes were made when a ten-minute speech limit was considered the norm.

12.Understandably, Members are often tempted to use the ‘injury time’ allowance to protect or extend their speaking time, or the speaking time of their colleagues, at the expense of others. This places the Chair in a difficult position in managing the debate and acts against the interests of those waiting to be called at the end of the debate.

Our view

13.The Speaker and his deputies have identified a genuine issue which causes irritation in many parts of the House and which merits review. We agree that the present arrangements for adding ‘injury time’ to time limited speeches where interventions are taken can be improved to the overall benefit of the House.

14.The Chairman of Ways and Means, on behalf of the team of Deputy Speakers, has made the following proposals:

We address these in the context of our overall conclusions below.

‘Injury time’

15.The present arrangements for ‘injury time’ for interventions were designed to encourage interventions and spontaneous debate. This is a welcome objective: but in the context of significant time constraints on backbench speeches, not envisaged when the present arrangements were introduced in 1998 and 2002, we find that the arrangements are too generous. It is rare to find Members taking the whole of their one or two additional minutes to respond in full to interventions taken.

16.We recommend that the provisions of Standing Order No. 47 be revised so as to encourage genuinely spontaneous interventions while safeguarding the Chair’s discretion to manage debates which are heavily oversubscribed.

Time limits

17.In line with the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee in 2007, Speakers and Deputy Speakers have used the greater flexibility in managing debates to great effect, and many more Members have thus been able to speak in high profile and important debates.

18.Different Chairs will have different approaches to debate management, and we have no intention of reintroducing standing order provisions which would unnecessarily fetter the discretion which the Chair presently has to apply speech limits. As a former Chairman of Ways and Means, Sir Alan (now Lord) Haselhurst, told the Modernisation Committee in 2007:

[I]f you have confidence in the Speaker and his assistants to operate the [debate] in the interests of Members, which is our tradition, then place that full trust in the Speaker.16

Time limits under Standing Order No. 47 are not the only means whereby debates can be managed effectively. An announcement of an informal and advisory time limit at the start of a debate, or after the conclusion of the last frontbench speech, can lead to a more balanced allocation of time without the successive reductions in time limits which are often necessary once Standing Order No. 47 is invoked. There are clear benefits in inviting Members to take responsibility for the length of their own contributions rather than relying on the Chair to impose time limits.

19.The occupants of the Chair will be as aware as we are that rapid successive reductions in time limits at the end of a debate cause significant difficulty to those Members waiting to be called, since it obliges them to recast their planned contributions at short notice. Arguably, implementation of the changes we recommend above would make it less likely that time limits later in a debate had to be revised downwards to enable as many Members as possible to be accommodated. While the Chair will use best efforts to ensure that as many Members as possible who want to speak can do so, it will on many occasions simply be impossible to call everyone who wishes to speak. In general we do not consider that drastic reductions in speaking time at the end of a debate are desirable, though we recognise that there may be circumstances where it is appropriate to enable as many Members as possible to make a contribution to a debate, however short.

20.In our view, the minimum time limit which ought to be imposed on backbench speeches in the Chamber is five minutes. Should debate management demand that the length of speeches be reduced below five minutes, the Chair can, rather than imposing speech limits, encourage cooperation from remaining speakers to allow all to get in. This has often been done effectively by announcing the remaining time available to backbenchers in the debate, announcing the number of speakers expected to be called, and inviting Members to perform the necessary calculation.

21.We consider that over-regulation of speaking time is counterproductive and does not necessarily lead to spontaneous debate. In debates where speaking time is likely to be limited, Members ought to respect the Chair’s desire to call as many speakers as possible and plan to adjust their remarks accordingly.

22.In our view, the minimum time limit to be imposed by the Chair in a debate in the Chamber should be five minutes. We recommend that interventions on speeches where a time limit of five minutes or lower is imposed by the Chair should not result either in stopping the clock for the intervention or adding of injury time.

Standing Order change

23.We recommend that changes to Standing Order No. 47 be brought forward to provide that, for debates in the Chamber where time limits of more than five minutes are imposed:

Where a time limit of five minutes or lower is imposed by the Chair, the clock should not be stopped for any intervention and no injury time should be added.

A proposed revision of the Standing Order is set out in Annex 1.17

Other factors affecting debate management

Time taken in frontbench speeches

24.In this report we have addressed the issues of ‘injury time’ and interventions in debate which cause the greatest difficulty in time management at the end of a debate. We have not undertaken a systematic examination of the use of speaking time by frontbenchers, and the impact which lengthy frontbench speeches, whether or not extended by interventions, have on the amount of time available to backbenchers and the way in which the Chair manages debate once the last frontbench speaker has sat down.

25.In paragraph 8 above we referred to the provision of Standing Order No. 47 which allows the Chair to announce at or before the start of a debate that time limits of 20 minutes, plus up to 15 minutes for interventions, will be imposed on all frontbench speeches.18 The Chair has not, to our knowledge, made use of this provision to limit the length of frontbench speeches, though informal guidance has been offered from time to time.

26.We consider that over-long frontbench speeches may unnecessarily curtail the ability of individual backbenchers to contribute to important debates in the Chamber. We recognise that it is valuable to the House for Ministers and those speaking for their parties to be able to set out their positions in some detail, and to be encouraged to take interventions. In doing so they must nevertheless have regard to the overall management of the debate and to the number of Members who wish to contribute.

27.We encourage the occupants of the Chair to continue to make known to the front benches those occasions when a debate is known to be heavily subscribed, in the expectation that they will adjust their remarks accordingly.

28.We will analyse the balance between frontbench and backbench speeches in time-limited debates in this Session to date, and will monitor the balance for the remainder of the Session. We encourage Ministers and other frontbenchers to continue to have regard to the rights of backbenchers when preparing and delivering their remarks. Should we identify practices which are operating to the detriment of backbenchers, we will not hesitate to recommend that the Chair use the reserve power in Standing Order No. 47 to limit frontbench speeches.

1 The Speaker’s letter is published in the Appendix to this report.

2 The letter from the Chairman of Ways and Means is published in the Appendix to this report.

3 13 July 1988 (CJ (1987–88) 659)

4 2 November 1995 (CJ (1994–95) 547)

5 4 June 1998 (CJ (1997–98) 596)

6 Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Fourth Report, Session 1997–98, Conduct in the Chamber, HC 600, para 19

7 Ibid.

8 Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Second Report, Session 2001–02, Modernisation of the House of Commons: A Reform Programme, HC 1168, para 87

9 Ibid., para 88

10 29 October 2002 (CJ (2001–02) 785)

11 25 October 2007 (CJ (2006–07) 610) and 12 November 2008 (CJ (2007–08) 685)

12 Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report, Session 2006–07, Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bencher, HC 337, para 94

13 Ibid., para 46

14 A summary table indicating the imposition of time limits since Session 2015–16 is at Annex 2.

15 See the Chairman’s letter in the Appendix.

16 Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report, Session 2006–07, Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bencher, HC 337, para 97

17 The proposed revision of Standing Order No. 47 incorporates the revisions to the language of that Order proposed by the Procedure Committee in its Sixth Report of Session 2014–15, Revision of Standing Orders, HC 654. The revisions to the language include the introduction of gender neutral language to refer to Members, and consistency with the provisions of Standing Order No. 42.

18 Standing Order No. 47(3)

Published: 18 September 2018