Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report


ADVANCING THURSDAY SITTINGS

The Government's proposal

44. Under the Government proposals the House would meet at 11.30 am for Questions, with the business statement at 12.30 pm. If there were no other statements the main business of the day would begin between 1.00 pm and 1.30 pm, with the opening speeches lasting until 2.00 pm or thereabouts; but if there were another statement the main business might not begin until about 1.45 pm. In either event whipped business would end at 7.00 pm.

45. These proposals would have the obvious benefit of enabling most (though not all) Members to devote a full Friday to constituency business, having left London at or soon after 7.00 pm the previous evening. The House would continue to sit on some Fridays, as set out in paragraph 16. These changes would allow Members more time to devote to constituency matters without reducing the time of the House to perform its traditional functions, although at the cost of transacting at lunchtime business in which many Members would wish to take part.

46. The Speaker, in a letter to the then Chairman of the Committee, which is also appended to the Report, put forward a series of what she saw as potential practical problems in the Government's proposals. In the following paragraphs we therefore deal in some detail with the various issues raised.

(a)  Select committees

47. The proposed change could reduce the attractiveness of Thursday as a possible day of meeting for select committees, but we doubt whether in practice it would make much difference. Only three select committees at present regularly meet on Thursdays, normally in the morning. Since select committees have complete freedom over the timing and length of their meetings, they could if they wished meet at 9.30 am (as they often do) or earlier if necessary, and conclude by 11.30 am if there was a general wish to attend that particular Question Time. Much might depend on which Department was answering. Select committees could also meet in the early afternoon after Questions.

(b)  Standing committees

48. The current Standing Orders specifically debar standing committees from meeting between 1.00 pm and 3.30 pm, in other words during Question Time. We believe that standing committees should not meet during Question Time, whatever the time in the Parliamentary day at which Questions are taken. The Government proposals recognise that the Standing Orders would need to be changed to ensure that standing committees did not meet between 11.30 am and 12.30 pm on Thursdays, and suggest that on Thursday mornings standing committees could meet from 9.00 am to 11.30 am.

49. The Chairman of Ways and Means, in a letter which is also appended to this Report, has drawn our attention to the difficulties which might be faced by standing committee chairmen, and by Members in general, in arriving in good time for a 9.00 am start, particularly if the House had sat late the previous evening. Extra pressure would also be placed on staff of the House and on civil servants involved in meetings of standing committees: many of them need to begin work at least an hour, and often much longer, before the start of a meeting, and some of them might have been on duty until late the previous evening. The timetable for the production and delivery of amendment papers would also be very tight. Members would have little or no opportunity to study the papers for the meeting before it began.

50. If standing committees were to meet as early as 9.00 am, we think it would be desirable to impose an earlier cut-off time for the tabling of amendments, so that the papers for a Thursday morning meeting could be made generally available on a Wednesday evening. In the longer term the greater use of the methods of pre-legislative scrutiny which we have recommended in an earlier report may reduce the need for large numbers of amendments to be put down for consideration in standing committee.

  

(c)  Questions, Private Notice Questions and Statements

51. We appreciate, as do all Members, the immense amount of work that the Speaker puts into ensuring that the interests of backbenchers at Question Time and on private notice questions and statements are fully considered. A change to an 11.30 am Question Time on Thursdays would increase the pressure on the Speaker and on her office. It might be possible for much of the preparatory work for Question Time to be undertaken the previous day: the order of questions is known two weeks in advance, and changes very little. (Equally much of the work on selection of amendments to bills could be done from a marshalled list the previous day.) On the other hand there would be considerably less time for the Speaker to consider applications for private notice questions and for Members to make applications, and for Ministers to be given notice of the Speaker's decision. Likewise there would be less time for the Speaker to consider the claims of backbenchers to be called both on private notice questions and on statements. Nonetheless the deadline of 10.30 am for applications for private notice questions, which is what the Government's proposals imply, would still be later than is the case now on Fridays.

(d)  Divisions

52. It is of course possible that divisions could take place, depending on the business, at any time from its commencement. This is essentially a matter for the business managers, who would, we are sure, seek whenever possible to table business on a Thursday which should not involve early potential divisions.

(e) Close of sitting

53. It is also the case that the option of going on beyond the new moment of interruption would remain. We think the business managers would only in exceptional circumstances wish to take whipped business on a Thursday after 7.00 pm. At present, as we have already noted, there has been a tendency to table non-whipped business for Thursdays to avoid potential votes at 10.00 pm. On occasions non-whipped business could be taken after 7.00 pm (possibly to allow a subject in which there was great interest to be debated from 2.00 pm or so until 10.00 pm); on other occasions the 5business managers might be able to leave open the possibility of the House's finishing before 7.00 pm. We would expect afternoon sittings of standing committees to continue beyond 7.00 pm only in a real emergency and with the general consent of the committee concerned.

(f)  Public access

54. We value public attention on our work, but we believe that the electorate expects its Parliament to be a workplace, more than a showplace. Both visits to the Palace of Westminster as a building of historic interest, at times of the day when the House is not sitting and on non-sitting days, and some more access to debates, both in the Chamber and in Committees, are to be encouraged. An earlier start might mean the public gallery was fuller for more of the day, and the possibility of weekend and recess access is being actively considered. We urge the relevant committees and the House of Commons Commission to pursue the question of public access to the Palace of Westminster as a matter of great urgency. Facilities for the public at present lag far behind that provided in many other Parliaments, and while security must of course be paramount, we believe that far more could and should be done.

(g)  Staff of the House

55. We are the first to acknowledge that the staff of the House work long and often unsocial hours. Advancing the hours of sitting on Thursday would not increase these hours; it would make them, if only marginally, somewhat less antisocial (apart from the difficulty we have noted in relation to the earlier time of meeting of standing committees). Staff readily adapted to the far more drastic changes of hours brought about by Wednesday morning sittings, just as they did some years ago when Friday sitting times were changed from 11.00 am to 4.30 pm to the current 9.30 am to 3.00 pm. We agree with the Speaker that the staff of the House in all Departments would adjust their working pattern to whatever the House decided.

(h)  The Speaker

56. We are grateful to the Speaker for the contribution she has made to our consideration of the practical implications of change, and for her assurance that she and the staff of the House would seek to operate to the best of their ability within any changed pattern of working approved by the House. We have given much careful consideration to the concerns she expressed to us.

An alternative to the Government's proposal

57. There is an alternative scenario which might avoid changing the time of Questions (and the time of meeting of standing committees). Although Questions have traditionally come at the beginning of the day's business, they do not necessarily have to do so, and indeed under current procedures they do not do so on Wednesdays. There would be no reason in principle why the House should not meet on Thursdays at 11.30 am to consider substantive business until 2.00 pm (allowing time then for any division which might occur) and then proceed with Questions, the business question, statements, etc., followed by further business until 7.00 pm. What is important, in our view, is that proper use is made of the time on Thursdays.

58. This option would permit an Opposition day to be taken, as it frequently is now, in two half-days. But these timings would be less attractive if a single item of business, such as the second reading of a major Government bill or a full day Opposition debate, had to be taken on a Thursday, since the debate would be interrupted at 2.00 pm and would not be resumed until Questions, the business question and any statements had been disposed of. The interruption could be both lengthy and indeterminate; it could be argued that this would be disruptive and would not encourage good debate. Disruption would be significantly lessened if steps were taken to prevent a Member from being interrupted in the middle of his or her speech. That could be done by the Chair informally suspending the sitting a little before 2.00 pm, rather than calling a Member who would be unable to complete his or her remarks before 2.00 pm; or by allowing a Member who had the floor at 2.00 pm up to ten minutes to finish his or her speech before the suspension of the sitting took effect (that is after all a shorter extension to the morning sitting than would be needed if a half-day debate were to conclude in a division at 2.00 pm). The same result could also be achieved by the traditional techniques of business management.

59. If the main business of the day began at 11.30 am there would be some possibility of a division from 12 noon or so onwards, rather earlier than might be the case under the Government's proposals to begin with Questions. Nonetheless we would expect the business managers whenever possible so to arrange matters that divisions should not in practice arise until shortly before 2.00 pm.

60. Under this option, there would be no need to change the timing of standing committees. They would meet at 10.30 am, avoiding the need for an early start, adjourn at 1.00 pm for lunch and Question Time, resume at 4.30 pm, and rise at 7.00 pm when the main business in the Chamber was brought to an end.

Summary

61. The differences between the options we have considered for restructuring the House's sittings on Thursdays are illustrated below in the form of a table.


The case against advancing Thursday sittings

62. The letters we received from Members of the House indicated that although a clear majority of respondents supported the Government's proposal for changing Thursday sittings, a significant minority opposed it. The main arguments advanced against the Government's proposal, which the House will wish to take into account before coming to a conclusion, are—

  • that the House would still be able to sit after 7.00 pm, so Members might find they have to rearrange their diaries at relatively short notice to take part in debates;

  • that not many votes take place after 7.00 pm on a Thursday anyway;

  • that the proposal would further erode Thursday's status as a Parliamentary day;

  • that more progress in the direction of certainty and better use of Members' time could be made through the usual channels;

  • and that in future Sessions it might be possible to achieve an early finish to sittings on Thursdays without an early start because the transfer of some business to devolved institutions will reduce the pressure on time on the floor of the House.

63. We give our assessment of the relative merits and demerits of advancing the hours of sitting on Thursdays below; but before doing so we consider another pattern of sittings (which we have termed "block weeks") which might also give Members greater certainty of periods of time away from Westminster.


 
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Prepared 7 December 1998