19.The long-standing practice of the House in the organisation of its debates is that “[t]he occupant of the Chair […] does not announce in advance the order in which Members will be called.” This practice has been suspended since 22 April 2020, the date on which the first call list was published.
20.Call lists are prepared for each separate proceeding for which they are required on each sitting day. The call lists for each day are compiled into a single paper, which is published on the House’s business papers website and made available in hard copy via Vote Office counters. References to the call list paper are incorporated into the daily Order Paper.
21.The call list paper may be updated as call lists for the various proceedings on the day are finalised and issued: for instance, the deadline for applications to contribute on urgent questions and statements taking place during a Monday sitting is at 11.30 am that day, and the relevant call lists are typically issued by 2.00 pm the same day.
22.The present temporary requirement for call lists to support proceedings in the Chamber under current conditions was not challenged by any of our witnesses. The Clerk of the House, Dr John Benger, told us that call lists
are essential at the moment because we have to limit the numbers of individuals in the Chamber at any one time and to have a degree of predictability and certainty about that. That is to fulfil our obligations under public health guidance.
The Chairman of Ways and Means, Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP, confirmed that under current restrictions call lists were necessary to operate proceedings with very few Members present.
23.The Principal Clerk, Table Office (Colin Lee) has indicated that “it would not be possible to manage attendance [in the Chamber] fairly without a list available in advance of those needing to be present to participate in a particular proceeding.”. Call lists are also required to manage virtual participation in scrutiny proceedings, so that Members can be connected over Zoom in good time and can be cued in smoothly to make their contribution.
24.The present restrictions on the use of the Chamber are understandable under current conditions. They nevertheless run counter to a principle which is fundamental to the House’s procedure and practice: that every Member has the right of access to the Chamber while the House is sitting, in order to follow proceedings, to seek to be called to speak or to ask supplementary questions, to seek to intervene in debate, to voice support or objection to questions put from the Chair and to object to further proceedings on business where consensus has not been secured. Restricting a Member’s access to the Chamber is, in normal times, a severe disciplinary sanction.
25.The restrictions imposed on access to the Chamber under current conditions are understandable and a proportionate means of implementing public health guidance. They nevertheless run counter to the House’s practice and affect the operation of a fundamental procedural principle: that every Member has an equal right to be present in the Chamber. We expect the House authorities and business managers to bear this in mind in the decisions they make about the conduct of House business, and to facilitate the right of all Members to be present in the Chamber as soon as public health considerations allow.
26.While call lists for each are published in a single document, the process for compilation of each list varies according to the category of proceeding. There are three types of call list:
Staff of the Chamber Business Team are involved in the preparation of the first two types of call list, both of which relate to scrutiny proceedings at the start of the day’s business. The Principal Clerk, Table Office has provided a detailed memorandum on the principles and processes underlying the establishment of call lists in these categories.
27.The process for establishing call lists for oral questions to Ministers and to Members answering on behalf of other bodies is designed to replicate, as far as possible, the random selection of questioners and the balance of questioners across the Chamber, between front and backbench questioners and between parties which under normal circumstances are achieved by the Table Office ‘shuffle’ and the practice of the Speaker in calling supplementary questions from those ‘bobbing’ in the Chamber.
28.Questions are balloted randomly in advance through the Table Office ‘shuffle’. To achieve the party balance which in normal times would be provided by the Speaker calling supplementary questions in the Chamber, a ration for the party balance to be achieved in the shuffle has been established.
29.The names of Members successful in the shuffle are sent to Departments and provided to the Speaker’s Office. Departments propose groupings of similar questions to the Speaker’s Office. The Speaker’s Office arranges the balloted names on the call list, grouped as appropriate, together with the names of Opposition frontbench questioners and of the chair of the relevant select committee. The final call list is then issued.
30.Applications to speak on Ministerial statements and Ministerial responses to Urgent Questions, are made through MemberHub by the relevant deadlines (11.30 am on Mondays for UQs and statements later that day; 1.30 pm on the previous day for UQs and Statements on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).
31.A shuffle is run for each event, and the names of successful Members are provided to the Speaker’s Office. The Speaker’s Office sets the number of successful Members for each event and is responsible for the final order of names on each call list.
32.The timetable for production of these call lists has been substantially compressed, to give as much time as possible between the announcement of a Minister’s intention to make a statement, or the Speaker’s grant of an urgent question, and the deadline for submitting names through MemberHub.
33.Notice of debates on motions and on stages of legislation for each sitting week is generally given by the Leader of the House in response to the Business Question on the preceding sitting Thursday. Call lists are opened for each debate listed in the statement. Backbench applications to speak in such debates are sent directly to the Speaker’s Office, typically by email: the deadline for applications is generally set at 1.00 pm on the preceding weekday.
34.The Speaker’s Office arranges each name received on the call list for publication, together with the names of the frontbench speakers who will open and (where appropriate) close each debate. For debates on certain legislative stages (Committee of the whole House and report stage), the Public Bill Office indicates to the Speaker’s Office the name of the proposer of the lead amendment, new clause or new schedule in each grouping.
35.Unlike the two types of call lists for scrutiny proceedings described above, all names received by the Speaker’s Office are published on the call list which is issued for each debate.
36.A common theme through much of the evidence we have received from colleagues is that the difference in character between the three types of call list, and the difference in their method of production, is not always fully appreciated. Since the lists are compiled into a single business paper, this is perhaps understandable. In our view, the operation of the call list system would be better appreciated by colleagues if more information were readily available to describe the preparation of each type of list.
37.To aid general understanding of the call list system, we recommend that a short note be included at the head of each list published in the daily call list paper, indicating the type of list it is and the basis on which it has been prepared.
38.Many colleagues have indicated that they would benefit from earlier publication of call lists for debates, particularly for debates on a Monday. We recommend that the Speaker’s Office examine how best to ensure that call lists for debate are published as early as possible following the closure of the list to applications.
39.We have received representations from colleagues on a number of issues related to the preparation and operation of call lists in general. In this inquiry we have focused on the particular issues raised by the use of call lists to manage debate on motions and on legislation, which we discuss further below.
40.We have taken note of the separate issues raised by the necessary use of pre-published call lists for scrutiny proceedings. In particular we note the concerns raised about the apparent advantage the present system gives to Ministers answering questions at the despatch box. Since the name of each Member to be called to ask a supplementary question at Question Time is now published several days in advance, an element of spontaneity, which many argue is essential to the function of Question Time, has been lost. Ministers are able to prepare in advance for potentially challenging supplementary questions, and Members cannot at present be called spontaneously to raise questions of importance to their constituents.
41.There is no ready solution to this issue under current conditions: allowing spontaneous supplementary questions to be called in the Chamber would encourage Members to attend in numbers well in excess of its current safe capacity. Proposals have been made to increase the capacity of the Chamber for Members contributing to scrutiny proceedings. We discuss these further in chapter 4 below.
42.The restriction on numbers in the Chamber has significantly changed the process whereby Member seek to contribute to a debate. Under normal conditions a Member would seek to catch the Chair’s eye by ‘bobbing’ in the Chamber: Members with a particular interest in a subject to be debated would write to the Speaker in advance to indicate a wish to be called. This practice has allowed the Chair to divide up the available time as equitably as possible between various parties or strands of opinion in a debate, and has enabled a reckoning to be made as to whether a time limit on speeches ought to be imposed.
43.Under the present restrictions on attendance in the Chamber, ‘bobbing’ is not possible for debates where call lists have been issued: each application to speak has to be made in advance. Members who wish to contribute to debates are invited to email the Speaker’s Office with a request to be included on the call list. It appears that the requirement to register an interest in speaking in advance, by email has resulted in the task often being delegated to Members’ staff and treated in a similar way to registering over MemberHub to participate in an urgent question or a Ministerial statement.
44.Dame Eleanor thought that more care and discernment ought to be taken over individual applications to speak. She indicated that Members were more likely to be placed highly on a call list if they had taken the trouble to write to the Speaker to explain why they had a particular reason to speak in the debate in question, either when registering for the debate or subsequently.
45.Steve Brine MP suggested that advance applications to be called in the Chamber, submitted digitally, were not aiding the quality of debate:
[I]nstead of […] those who are in the Chamber wanting to be there, needing to be there and having a good constituency reason to be there, or a particular interest because they have former ministerial experience in that area, [the present system] rewards those who have been quick [to ] click. […]
[T]he quality of debate is around who has been quick to click, not who is meant to be in there. I do not think it is serving Parliament very well.
46.The Chairman of Ways and Means told us that under present conditions debates were now heavily oversubscribed, with very many Members applying to speak in even the shortest debates. In the last Parliament the Speaker might receive ten or fifteen prior requests to be called during a ninety-minute debate: Dame Eleanor suggested that it was now common to have 60 or more applications to speak in a debate of that length.
47.Members present at Westminster no longer have to commit to spending time in the Chamber in order to be called in a debate: but they cannot speak in a debate unless they are registered on a call list. It appears that some Members therefore apply to speak in as many debates as possible in the hope that they might be placed high enough on at least one list to be called to speak. Party business managers may also encourage Members to apply to speak, either to give the best opportunity for their party’s case to be put to the House, or to reduce the opportunity for alternative points of view to be presented. While this objective could easily be achieved in the past by encouraging Members to come to the Chamber, the only way to pursue it now is to press Members to apply to speak in advance.
48.Among the factors taken into account when determining the arrangement of names on call lists are the number of times a Member has already spoken in debates in the present Session and the number of times Members have been present in the Chamber to speak but have not been reached. Dame Rosie Winterton MP, First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, indicated that indiscriminate applications to speak were likely to be counterproductive:
[The situation] does require individual colleagues to understand. People can get very indignant and say, “Why am I bottom of the list when this is so dear to my heart?” You say, “Because you have spoken three times more than anybody else who has put in for this debate and it is important that people are given an equal chance to speak”. You do have to understand […] that it is common sense that you need to save yourself up a bit for when you really do want an opportunity on the one thing that you really want to speak on. You will get it if you have been a bit clever about not putting in for everything all the time.
Mr Nigel Evans MP, Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, suggested that Members ought to be showing some self-restraint in their applications to speak:
A lot of responsibility […] rest[s] with the Member. If they are putting in to speak in every debate, they should not be surprised if they are sometimes pushed further down a list.
49.The publication of call lists in advance of a debate can assist Members in gauging the potential duration of items of business, and thereby working out when debates will start and end. If listed to speak, Members can use call lists to ascertain when they are likely to be required in the Chamber in order to be called. Given the current restrictions on the use of the Chamber, it is important that the House’s business papers—of which call lists form a part—give as accurate a picture as possible of the business before the House and when and whether it is likely to be reached. Members’ applications to speak are now published in advance of a debate: in planning their working day, it is reasonable for colleagues to rely on applications to speak having been made in good faith.
50.The Government has a responsibility in this regard, not least to indicate in advance when it expects debate to arise on Government motions, in order that a call list may be opened. Bringing on a debate in circumstances where a call list has not been published creates potential challenges for the observance of social distancing protocols in the Chamber.
51.On Thursday 19 November the Government gave advance notice of five items of Government business to be taken on the floor of the House on Tuesday 24 November. Call lists were opened for each of these items. On the afternoon of Monday 23 November, and after the relevant call lists for the following day had been closed, the Government Chief Whip arranged for orders of the day and notices of motion corresponding to the business announced in advance to be placed on the Order Paper for Tuesday 24 November. Notice was given of a further motion: the Leader’s motion on virtual participation in debate, which had not made progress on 18 November and which had not been moved the following day. No indication was given that the Government planned to initiate a debate on the motion, and consequently no call list was opened.
52.The final call list for the following day’s business was issued at 10.27 pm. 40 backbenchers had applied to speak, several in more than one debate. Four of the five debates were time-limited, and several of them were oversubscribed. Had each such debate run its full length from the start of the House’s main business at 2.24 pm on 24 November, the opening speech in the fifth debate would have been called no earlier than 6.39 pm. It is therefore unlikely that debate would have arisen on the motion concerning virtual participation in debate. No advance indication was given of the Government’s intention to arrange the House’s business so as to provide for a debate on the motion, and Members had no opportunity to apply in advance to be considered to speak in the debate.
53.In the event, the Government decided, without any advance notice to the House, not to move three of the five intervening motions. The motion on virtual participation was moved formally at 4.54 pm: the Leader chose not to speak to the motion (thereby passing up the opportunity to take interventions and provide elucidation on the motion’s purpose). In the absence of a call list, the Deputy Speaker applied the normal conventions governing eligibility to speak, with some leeway for Members who had not been in the Chamber for the start of the debate. In her remarks, the Chair of this Committee referred to the “unexpected and surprising” way in which the debate had been brought forward by the Government.
54.Challenged on the Government’s management of its business, the Leader subsequently asserted that “it was extremely likely that we would get, under all normal circumstances, to the debate on virtual appearances in debates”: his expectation was that “we would have had between three quarters of an hour and an hour for it, had the previous debates gone in the normally expected way.” That assertion is at variance with the inference which might reasonably have been drawn from the Order Paper and the published call lists. It may of course be the case that the Leader was privy to information about the likely course of proceedings in the Chamber—including the potential length of frontbench speeches and the readiness of Members named on call lists to contribute to the relevant debates—which was not available to the House in general.
55.Under normal circumstances, Members with an interest in the progress of any motion on the Order Paper can, in the absence of any other information about its progress, go to the Chamber and await developments. That option is not presently available to backbench Members, who are encouraged not to come to the Chamber unless named on a call list and expecting to participate in a debate. Similarly, where business is brought on at short notice, Members with proxy votes in operation are not always readily able to issue voting instructions to their proxies: there is therefore a risk that votes in snap divisions on House business may inadvertently be cast against Members’ wishes.
56.We regret that a Government motion to facilitate a form of virtual participation in debate was brought forward for decision by the House in a precipitate fashion and with scant regard to the current conditions which govern the operation of the Chamber and of divisions. The issue is self-evidently House business, and of importance to this Committee and to many other Members—several of whom are not able to participate in debates under current restrictions. We trust that this apparent disregard for the operation of the House under current conditions will not be repeated.
57.We recommend that the Government bring forward a motion for a Business of the House order to govern the conduct of a resumed debate on the question proposed on 24 November. The motion should provide for the selection of at least one amendment to the main question, and for the questions on any selected amendments, and then the main question, to be put at a predictable hour.
58.The published call lists for debates list every Member whose application to speak in the debate has been received by the Speaker’s Office by the deadline (typically 1.00 pm on the preceding weekday). Unlike the call lists for oral questions, urgent questions and statements, no quota is imposed. As we note above, the call lists can on occasion be very long because debates are heavily oversubscribed.
59.We discussed with the Deputy Speakers whether a quota should be applied to call lists for debate, to make them more manageable and to give a more realistic reflection of the number of Members likely to be called. The Deputy Speakers did not think it necessary to shorten the call lists artificially. Scrutiny proceedings typically run for a predetermined period of time and entail brief contributions from Members, whereas many debates on motions and on legislation, and many contributions to those debates, are of highly variable length. They therefore thought it necessary to keep an exhaustive list of all who had applied to speak, to ensure that debate was not curtailed artificially early because of speakers dropping out: experience showed that this often happened once time limits on speeches were announced and Members on the call list could estimate their chances of being called.
60.Dame Eleanor described the position thus:
[Speakers] at the end [of the call list] are surplus, but we don’t say to them, “You cannot speak,” because it might happen that there is some time at the end of the debate. It might be that we put on a time limit of, say, six minutes, and then 10 people speak for four minutes each and you suddenly have an extra 20 minutes, so those people who are the reserves at the end of the list come in. By and large, that has been working reasonably well. Believe it or not, you do find sometimes that people do not speak up to the level of the time limit and that there is spare time.
Mr Evans indicated that Members dropping out of call lists without notice caused problems for the Chair:
With […] call lists, increasingly we have noticed that some people, even though they are on the call list, are not coming into the Chamber and not telling the Speaker’s Office that they are not turning up. That makes it way more difficult for us to work out what the time limit [on speeches in the debate] should be.
61.Publication of the full list of Members who have applied to participate in a debate ostensibly indicates the level of interest in contributing to that debate: systematic comparison of call lists may indicate Members who appear to be making indiscriminate applications. A published call list indicating that the debate is heavily oversubscribed may encourage frontbenchers and backbenchers alike to tailor their remarks to enable more colleagues to contribute. Therefore, we do not think it is necessary to impose quotas on call lists for debates.
62.Where a Member’s name has been published on a call list and he or she is no longer able to participate in the debate, it is a courtesy to the Chair, and to other Members expecting to speak, for the Speaker’s Office to be informed as soon as possible so that appropriate adjustments can be made. In our view, the Chair would be justified in treating persistent withdrawals from call lists, especially without notice or explanation, as a discourtesy to the Chair and to the House, to be taken into account when compiling future lists. Withdrawals which, in the Chair’s view, are part of a strategy to mislead Members as to the progress of the House’s business ought to be treated particularly severely.
63.The House’s practice has been to allow the Speaker (and by extension, the occupant of the chair) complete discretion over whom to call in debate, and in what order. The long-established practice has been for backbench Members generally “to be called alternately from either side of the House (or, when the subject of debate is not a matter of party politics, from those adjudged to be supporters or opponents of the question).”. Some of the responses received to our survey of Members indicated a dissatisfaction with the practice of calling Members with greater experience at the start of debates.
64.Erskine May indicates that “in practice, the Chair will often accord some priority to [Privy Counsellors] or to Members with other relevant positions or experience including, for example, the Chair of a relevant select committee.”. Dame Eleanor confirmed that the ordering of backbench names on the call list for each debate took into account the experience and position in the House of those applying to speak:
There are times when there is a debate on the Second Reading of a Bill or on a specific subject, and it is very obvious that of the 60 people who put in to speak, the first 20 are those who are on the Select Committee dealing with that subject, who have a particular constituency interest, or who have been a Cabinet Minister dealing with that subject.
There are all sorts of reasons why they have a very legitimate reason to speak on that subject but, at the end, you might have 20 people who just put in every day to speak on everything and, quite frankly, no.
65.While constructing a call list was not an exact science, Dame Eleanor rejected the proposition that equal time limits ought to be applied from the start of a debate:
[I]t certainly would not always be the case that we should give everybody three minutes from the beginning to accommodate everyone who has stuck their name in that day. […] [W]hat we would often find in [that] sort of situation […] is that by the end of the day, we would have put a limit on and 12 people will draw out of the debate because they did not really want to speak, and they only put their names in because the Whips asked them to do so.
As she put it, it is the responsibility of the Chair “to try to make sure that everybody from every point of view has a chance [to contribute].”. She stressed the importance the Chair placed on balancing contributions from across the House:
It is all about balance. We work very hard to get a balance. We never ever say, “Oh, it does not matter.” We never ever say, “Oh, too bad.” We always try to get the balance right because this is […] the heart of democracy. If we do not get that balance right, democracy isn’t working right, and we do everything we can to get [it] right.
66.Some concerns have been raised about the relative inflexibility of published call lists and the apparent difficulty of changing the published order of speakers to accommodate other responsibilities Members have in the House. Mrs Maria Miller MP pointed out the difficulties caused when the start time of a debate was changed because of the length of time taken to complete previous items of business.
67.While call lists generally indicate the strict order in which Members are to be called, Mr Evans told us that some flexibility was allowed: Members can exchange places on a list, although the Chair does not expect to take any part in brokering such exchanges.
68.Members on a call list who also attempt to put their views on the record by intervening early on in a debate can affect the likelihood of colleagues placed lower on the list being called to speak. Where the Chair has judged that such interventions are gaming the system, the Members concerned have been penalised by being moved lower down the list.
69.The Speaker and his deputies are chosen by the House to exercise a number of key functions on the House’s behalf, using their experience and judgment in the interests of the House as a whole. One of the areas in which they are called upon to exercise this judgment on each sitting day is the ordering of Members to be called during debate, so as to ensure that the House has the benefit of a range of views and experience. The temporary requirement to publish call lists has brought this function into sharper focus.
70.The House sits for 32 hours in a typical sitting week: if every Member eligible to speak were to have an equal period of time allotted, each would be entitled to speak for just under three minutes. It is clearly not possible for every Member to expect to be called in each debate for which she or he has applied to speak, in addition to the opportunities to contribute provided by the random shuffles for oral questions and the process for compiling call lists for urgent questions and statements.
71.The ordering of names of a published call list is the responsibility of the Speaker and his deputies, who are elected to their positions by the whole House and who take their duties in this regard very seriously. They are best placed to determine the mood of the House and its requirements, and to manage the flow of debate in the House accordingly. We see no need to recommend any explicit change in current practice arising from the temporary use of call lists.
72.Colleagues who would formerly have sought to ‘catch the Chair’s eye’ in the Chamber are at present required to apply in advance to be considered to speak. We remind colleagues that it assists the Chair, and the House in general, if an application to speak is accompanied by reasons why the application should be considered.
23 The call list for proceedings on 22 April 2020 is published at
24 Call lists for each day’s proceedings are now published on
27 House of Commons Service ()
28 For an example of an attempt to divide the House on a question put from the Chair, see HC Deb, 15 September 2020, .
29 Standing Order No. 43: the Chair is empowered to direct Members conducting themselves in a grossly disorderly manner to withdraw from the precincts of the House for the remainder of the sitting day, thereby preventing any further physical participation in proceedings in the Chamber
30 House of Commons Service ()
31 Formerly, the name of each Member tabling a question for oral answer was published in the Question Book in the order in which it was drawn in the shuffle. In 1990 the House authorised the introduction of quotas of oral questions to be printed for each question time, set according to the length of the appropriate slot.
32 House of Commons Service (), paras 9 and 10 and Table 1
33 [Rt Hon. Dame Rosie Winterton MP]]
34 House of Commons Service (), para 19
35 Thus the deadline for applications to speak in a debate on a Monday is 1.00 pm on the preceding Friday, whether or not that day is a sitting day.
36 [Dr John Benger]
37 [Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP]
38 [Steve Brine MP]; [Mr Nigel Evans MP]
39 Erskine May (25th edition, 2019),
40 [Rt Hon. Dame Eleanor Laing MP]
42 . The benefits of writing in to indicate a particular interest in the debate were recognised by other witnesses: for example [Rachael Maskell MP].
45 Aaron Bell MP ()
46 ; [Steve Brine MP]
50 Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Prohibition on Quantitative Restrictions (EU Exit) Regulations 2020, followed by motion to approve a money resolution relating to the Prisons (Substance Testing) Bill, followed by a motion relating to the appointment of members to the Independent Expert Panel, followed by a motion relating to the Committee on Standards 11th report of Session 2019–21. HC Deb, 19 November 2020, .
51 The final call list for questions, urgent questions and debates on Tuesday 24 November was issued at 10.27 pm on Monday 23 November:
52 Consideration of Lords Amendments to the Private International Law (Implementation of Agreements) Bill: 1 hour (under the programme order moved by a Minister at the start of public business). Motion to approve a draft statutory instrument: 90 minutes (Standing Order No. 16(1)). Motion to approve a money resolution relating to a Bill: 45 minutes (Standing Order No. 52(1)(b)). Motion relating to the appointment of members to the Independent Expert Panel: 1 hour (Standing Order No 150C(9)).
53 In practice the first speaker would have been called later than this because of the current practice of short suspensions between each item of business to allow Members to leave and to ender the Chamber in safety.
54 HC Deb, 24 November 2020,
55 Ibid, .
56 Ibid, .
57 HC Deb, 26 November 2020,
58 The Deputy Speaker announced that 15 of the 17 backbenchers who had applied to speak in the debate on the statutory instrument concerning Exiting the European Union had withdrawn from the call list for that debate: HC Deb, 24 November 2020,
62 Erskine May, 25th edition (2019),
63 See Annex 3
64 Erskine May, 25th edition (2019),
69 Rt Hon. Maria Miller MP ()
72 : the Clerk of the House quoted a figure of 2.9 minutes.