Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Fourth Report



55. Formerly it was the practice that strangers were not admitted while the House was sitting. Accordingly Standing Order No. 163 provides that if any Member draws attention to the presence of strangers, (which is normally done by shouting "I spy strangers"), the Chair is obliged to put the question immediately "That strangers do withdraw".

56. Nowadays there are two real reasons why Members "spy strangers". The first is when a Member or group of Members is genuinely concerned to raise what is a legitimate grievance, and feels that there is no other means available. The second, quite separate, reason is to use the opportunity of a guaranteed division to try to reveal the absence of a quorum (forty Members including the occupant of the Chair plus the four tellers). If there is no quorum the business under discussion stands over to the next sitting. This procedure is most commonly used on Fridays devoted to private Members Bills, and is certainly more likely to succeed on such days than with Government business.

57. If the question were carried, not only would the public gallery be cleared, but the press and Hansard would have to leave and the televising of proceedings would be stopped. This is unnecessary-the Speaker already has power to clear the public gallery without stopping the reporting or televising of the House.

58. We believe that this archaic practice has long outlived any useful purpose it may once have had, and that some new safeguard is needed which does not have these unintended consequences.

59. So far as grievances are concerned, there are already procedures in existence, notably the use of what is normally called a "dilatory motion", usually a motion to adjourn the debate or a variant thereof. The current Standing Orders governing such motions (S.O.s No. 34 and No. 35) allow the Chair either to put the question forthwith, decline to propose the question, or allow it to be debated. Whatever the decision, the Chair will normally allow the Member concerned a brief explanation of why this course of action is being suggested, and will then give a decision in accordance with the Standing Order.

60. For the purpose of testing a quorum, a new procedure needs to be devised since there is no guarantee that the Chair will allow a division on a dilatory motion. The House of Lords has a procedure which allows any Lord to move "That the House do proceed to the next business". (The House of Commons by contrast only has a totally incomprehensible procedure, known as the "Previous Question", which involves the Chair uttering the words "The Question is, That the Question be not now put"). The form of words used in the Lords describes precisely the purpose which is behind the spying strangers formula as currently used to attempt to kill Private Members' Bills.

61. In the House of Lords a "next business" motion is debatable. For the purposes we envisage, the current rule relating to spying strangers is far more appropriate, in other words the Chair should be obliged to put the question forthwith. Like spying strangers, the new procedure should not be used more than once a sitting so that it does not obstruct the business of the House.

62. We therefore recommend that:

    Standing Order No 163 should be amended so as to read "The Speaker or the Chairman may, whenever she thinks fit, order the withdrawal of persons other than Members or Members of the House of Lords from any part of the House"; and

    a new Standing Order (Next business) be made, as follows:

    "If during any business a motion is made that the House do proceed to the next business, the Speaker or the Chairman shall put forthwith the question thereon, which may be decided at any hour, though opposed:

    Provided that such a motion may not be made more than once at any sitting".


63. There may of course be legitimate points of order which have to be raised during a division, and which relate essentially to the conduct of the division. For example the division bells may not have been heard in a particular outbuilding; or there may be extreme traffic congestion in or around Parliament Square; or there may be some technical reason why the question should not have been put. Many other matters which have been raised during a division are matters which could perfectly well be raised after the division was completed, and indeed be more appropriately raised then.

64. At present, if a Member seeks to raise a point of order during a division, he or she must speak "seated and covered"[3]. In practice this means that an opera hat which is kept at each end of the Chamber has to be produced and passed to the Member concerned. This inevitably takes some time, during which the Member frequently seeks to use some other form of covering such as an Order Paper. This particular practice has almost certainly brought the House into greater ridicule than almost any other, particularly since the advent of television. We do not believe that it can be allowed to continue.

65. We believe that the proper course for Members who have, or think they have, a genuine point of order affecting the division currently in progress is to go to the Chair and explain the issue. If it is one of the matters to which we have referred, the Chair itself will intervene, announcing, for example, that in view of the congestion, the doors would remain open for a further x minutes. If the Chair determines that the matter is one which would more appropriately be raised after the division is over, it will advise the Member accordingly. In the relatively rare event that a Member considers that, notwithstanding the advice of the Chair, the point of order must be raised during the division, we would expect the Member to do so by standing in the normal way, but from a position on the second bench as close to the Chair as possible, from which he or she can be heard both by the Chair and by the Official Report without obstructing the movement of Members into the lobbies. We so recommend. If the House agrees to this recommendation we will monitor its effectiveness.


66. There are currently three Standing Orders which deal with what may broadly be called misconduct in the House. S.O. No. 42 gives the Chair power to order a Member whose speech is irrelevant or repetitious to discontinue his speech. S.O. No. 43 gives the Chair power to order a Member or Members whose conduct is grossly disorderly to withdraw from the House for the remainder of the day's sitting.

67. In a more serious situation, or if the powers available under S.O. No. 42 and S.O. No. 43 have proved insufficient, S.O. No. 44 permits the Chair to name a Member who has disregarded the authority of the Chair, or has persistently or wilfully obstructed the business of the House by abusing its rules or otherwise. A motion is then immediately moved, normally by the Leader of the House, that the Member be suspended. For the first such naming the Member is suspended for five sitting days, for the second offence for twenty sitting days, and on a subsequent occasion for the remainder of the Session or until the House itself decides that the suspension shall be ended.

68. While we are satisfied that the existing sanctions are sufficient to deal with serious cases of gross misconduct, we are concerned that the existing Standing Orders are somewhat inflexible to deal with what could be a very wide range of offences. It has to be borne in mind that on many occasions a Member has quite deliberately engineered his own suspension or naming for some particular reason, and has informed the media in advance in order to get maximum publicity. In such cases the very act of naming and suspension itself causes disruption.

69. Following reports from the Committee on Standards and Privileges or its predecessors the House has suspended Members from the service of the House for a specified period and also suspended their parliamentary salary for the same period. We have considered whether a Member who is suspended from the House having been named should also lose his parliamentary salary as part of his punishment. It looks odd that a Member who has been suspended from the House for misbehaviour should continue to be paid; and there should be some consistency in the sanctions imposed on Members who are suspended, irrespective of the reason for their suspension. Accordingly we recommend that Members who are named by the Chair should lose their parliamentary salary for the period of their suspension.


70. The period between 2.30 pm and the start of debate on the main business of the day is when the House is at its most full, and the Press Gallery actually occupied. This is right and proper; the combination of regular Questions to Ministers on their responsibilities and statements by Ministers on matters of national or international importance or on their plans for new policies should be the ideal opportunity for as many Members as possible on behalf of their constituents to ask those governing the country to explain their actions and policies.

71. Because the House has much other business to transact, the time for both oral Questions and Ministerial statements is severely limited. Question time is limited by Standing Orders to one hour each day (and no time on Fridays). There is no formal limit to the time that can be spent on statements, but quite clearly the Speaker has to protect the main business of the day. It is probably because of this strict time limitation and to protect the rights of all those who wish to ask questions that clear rules are laid down for the conduct of Question time and (by analogy) of procedures for Ministerial statements.

72. These rules are set out in Erskine May, but they need to be spelled out in this Report so that there can be no possible doubt what should happen. "The purpose of a question is to obtain information or press for action; it should not be framed primarily so as to convey information, or so as to suggest its own answer or convey a particular point of view, and it should not be in effect a short speech" (May, p.296). So far as answers and supplementary questions are concerned, "An answer should be confined to the points contained in the question, with such explanation only as renders the answer intelligible, ... and supplementary questions, without debate or comment, may, within due limits, be addressed to them, which are necessary to the elucidation of the answers that they have given ... A supplementary question may refer only to the answer out of which it immediately arises, must not be read or be too long, must not refer to an earlier answer or be addressed to another Member, and is governed by the general rules of order affecting all questions" (May, p.305).

73. Concern has been expressed, over recent years, that there has been a growing tendency for supplementary questions not to meet all the criteria set out in Erskine May. In particular, the Speaker has periodically referred to the length of questions and answers and the resulting slow pace of progress at departmental Question Times, most recently on 11th February in the following terms:

74. We believe that it is important to treat Erskine May as a framework and not a rule book. We would certainly not recommend the imposition of arbitrary and inflexible time-limits on the length of questions or answers.

75. However, there is no doubt that the House operates best when, in general, questions and answers are concise and to the point. A brisk exchange provides the opportunity for the largest number of Members to ask questions on behalf of their constituents and ensures the fullest possible accountability of Ministers to the House.

76. We would encourage Members asking and answering questions to bear in mind the limited time available and the fact that many other Members may be seeking to have their questions reached or to catch the Speaker's eye to ask a supplementary question. Questions should be genuine attempts to elicit information and they should not begin with thanks to the Chair or other unnecessary preambles, especially where these are designed principally to provide an opportunity for the Member to offer his or her own views on the matter in question. Answers, in general, should be concise, confined to responding directly to the terms of the question.


  77. Oral statements are an important aspect of Parliamentary life. They are the means by which major changes of Government policy are announced to the House and the country. They also provide a means by which the Government can bring to the attention of the House urgent and important matters which may arise at short notice. As a reflection of their importance, oral statements are regularly broadcast "live" by the media and are extensively covered in news programmes later that day.

78. In those circumstances, the Government Minister making an statement will often wish not just to set out the terms of his or her announcement but to explain the reasons which underlie them. Similarly, the responses from the Opposition front bench and the spokespeople of the minority parties will tend to indicate, briefly, the broad reaction of their parties to the content of the statement as well as seeking further information or clarification on points covered in the statement. We believe that, within limits (see the following paragraph), this is justified and plays an important part in informing the public of the views of the different parties to a major announcement of Parliamentary and public concern.

79. However, as has been noted, oral statements take time away from the business of the House on which Members will be seeking to contribute to the debate on behalf of their constituents and parties. It is important therefore that, with the caveat mentioned above, statements and subsequent questions should follow the general advice given in paragraph 76 above. In particular statements should not normally last for more than ten minutes and, with brisk subsequent questioning, it should generally be possible for all Members who wish to be called so to be and for business to resume usually no later than 45 minutes after the beginning of the statement.

80. The same general approach should apply to Private Notice Questions, though these usually run for less than 45 minutes following a Minister's answer of normally just a few minutes.


81. We urge the House to accept this Report in its entirety. Each of the changes we have proposed is, we believe, valuable in its own right, but as a whole it represents the essential balance between the rights of individual Members and the rights of the House. It is this balance between inevitably competing interests, whether between Government and Opposition, front bench and back bench, one Member and another Member, which is crucial to the effective operation of the House, and which we have sought to achieve not only in this Report but in our Report on the legislative process. It will now be for the House itself, under the guidance and authority of the Speaker, to ensure that this proper balance is maintained, and the quality of debate thereby enhanced

3  May p.373. Back

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