Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Second Report



78. If we are to make the proceedings of the House more topical, it is essential that we reduce the lengthy notice required for oral questions. It has the effect that the House is frequently prevented from questioning Ministers on the issue of most current concern to Members and the public. For example, in April there were no questions to the Foreign Office on the situation in the Middle East as questions had been tabled prior to the Israeli incursion into the Palestinian territories.

79. We welcome the thorough study into Parliamentary Questions by the Procedure Committee which is reflected in their report.[15] There is much in the report which requires careful consideration. We endorse the following recommendations of the Procedure Committee:

    —  A reduction in the period of notice required for oral questions from ten to three sitting days.

    —  A sharp reduction in the number of oral questions accepted for printing for each day.

    —  A restriction of named day questions to a daily quota of five.

    —  The replacement of planted questions by formal written statements.

80. The Procedure Committee also recommended the introduction of Topical Questions on the lines of the procedure followed in the House of Lords. We did not reach a view on this proposal and await a decision on the report of the Procedure Committee.

81. The procedures of the House already provide a well-tried mechanism for raising issues of urgent topicality in the form of Private Notice Questions. However, their title is technical and obscure to the uninitiated. We recommend that Private Notice Questions be renamed Urgent Questions.

82. Implementation of even part of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee will have a substantial impact on Question Time. We intend to revert to this topic after the House has had a year's experience of any new arrangements.


83. Under the sitting hours we have proposed above,[16] any statements will be taken at 12.30 pm on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and should normally last for about an hour. We are keen to minimise the necessary reduction in debating time from statements and to improve the predictability of opening speeches. We recognise that this may mean from time to time that some Members may not be called to put their question, but this has to be balanced against the consequence that a larger number of Members will be squeezed out of the subsequent debate the longer the statement proceeds.

84. We are concerned by the drift towards longer contributions in the short time available for statements. We are anxious that there should be a fair balance between contributions from the front benches and from the back benches. We propose that Ministers should aim to confine their opening statement to within ten minutes and that the official Opposition should aim to confine their response to within five minutes.

85. We recommend that the full text of a statement should be made available to Members as soon as the Minister sits down or at the same time as a statement is given to the Press Gallery, whichever is the earlier. This would remove the resentment sometimes felt in the Chamber when Members can see the text of the statement being handed out in the Press Gallery when it is not available in the Chamber. As it is not practical for Members who wish to intervene to leave the Chamber to call at the Vote Office, we invite the House authorities to consider how copies of the text might best be made available within the Chamber.

86. By their nature many statements are agreed at short notice in order that the House can hear the Government's approach to emerging issues. Others though may be planned well in advance to accompany publication of a policy document. As a result the press will sometimes know of a forthcoming statement in advance of Members. It would be helpful to Members if on Monday morning notice was posted of known statements for that week.


87. We live in a busy age in which both media and commerce prize brevity of presentation. The House of Commons can appear out of touch with that wider culture of our society if Members speak at a length which implies that time has no limit. Moreover it is unfair to other Members if they are excluded from the debate as a result. We recommend that it should be the norm for backbench speeches to be limited to ten minutes, other than in the exceptional circumstances when there is no significant competition for the time available for debate.

88. We do not wish to discourage the healthy cut and thrust of debate provided by interventions. Under the present rules an intervention does not count towards the ten minute maximum on any Member, but Members are still inhibited from accepting interventions as the time taken by responding to them is at the expense of the time of their speech. We recommend that each Member should be allowed an additional minute for each of up to two interventions per speech.

89. We do not regard it as desirable to place a fixed ceiling on frontbench speeches. There are often occasions when the most valuable part of the Ministerial speech comes in the exchange on interventions which should not be time limited. However we believe backbenchers would welcome it if the prepared text of a Ministerial speech was not normally in excess of twenty minutes and if the official Opposition spokesman did not feel obliged to match the length of speech of the Minister opening the debate.

90. We share the broad consensus that the free flow of debate is better served if backbench Members do not read from a text prepared in advance. However, if Members are to speak extemporarily it is only reasonable that they should have access to the written record as soon as it is available, for instance, for use in their constituency press. We recommend that Members should be permitted to obtain a copy of their own speech from Hansard once it has been corrected. Members should be aware that such an advance copy may not confer the same parliamentary privilege as the Official Report and we do not believe that there should be any advance access to the speeches or interventions of other Members.[17] In due course it may be possible to provide Members by e-mail with transcripts of their speeches ahead of publication in the Official Report.[18]


91. We are conscious of the deep frustration of many of the newer Members that they are often squeezed out of debate by Members with longer seniority. This issue is particularly acute in the present Parliament in which a clear majority of all Members have been elected in or since 1997. Often expertise or special interest may be better criteria on which to select contributions to a debate than the length of service in the House. This is a matter entirely within the discretion of the Chair, but we hope that in exercising this discretion the Speaker will try to ensure that over a Session all Members have an equal opportunity to contribute to main debates.

92. We are impressed by the force with which many Members have urged upon us the desirability of a list of speakers setting out the order in which Members may expect to be called. Such a system works well in the House of Lords. We do not accept that such an innovation would necessarily reduce attendance in the Chamber, nor is there evidence to support that from the experience of the House of Lords.

93. We fully recognise the importance of the Chair retaining discretion not to call Members who had failed to listen to preceding speeches, or to call a Member who had been referred to in the previous speech. Mr Speaker has conveyed the reservations of himself and the Deputy Speakers to the concept of a published list for speakers in a debate. He has expressed concern that such a list prepared in advance would limit the Chair's freedom of choice, would make it more difficult to protect the rights of Members with minority views, and could be embarrassing to Members who withdrew from the debate after publication of the list.[19] We respect the views of Mr Speaker and his team. We make no recommendation at the present time but in view of the wide interest in this question among Members will continue to keep this matter under review with Mr Speaker and his deputies.


94. The complexity and breadth of business of modern Government place a premium on the time to conduct adequate scrutiny of it on the floor of the House of Commons. It therefore is disappointing that so often the Commons will debate only a single issue in a sitting day. It is notable that on those days when the Opposition control business, they may choose to maximise its impact by nominating two debates of a half day each. Any major Bill will require and must be given a full day of debate at second reading and exceptional cases may justify more than one day. However it is not sensible use of Commons time to insist that all second reading debates should take a full day as a matter of principle. While we were drafting this report an occasion arose on which a second reading debate ran for only fifty minutes, although a full day had been allocated to it.[20] This is simply a waste of valuable time in the Chamber. Often the business of scrutiny would be better served by spending less time on second reading debates and more time on report stages.

95. We recommend that on occasion the allocation of time in the Chamber should be a half day, with a full day's debate still being allocated to a measure when it is justified by its controversy or the degree of interest in its provisions. This will be relevant even to those occasions when the House considers remaining stages, where one and a half days may often be more appropriate than a single day's or two days' debate. Consultation would be required between the parties on whether a specific topic justified a full day or a half day.

96. Parliamentary time for debate and scrutiny is at a premium. It therefore is regrettable that some of that time can be lost to divisions which are at the expense of proceedings in the Chamber. This problem will be exacerbated if, as we recommend, there are more debates ending half way through the day. The Scottish Parliament has made more efficient use of plenary time and provided for more predictable demands on Members by designating a fixed time for divisions. Plainly this would be impractical for proceedings in committee or remaining stages on the floor of the House. However the same considerations do not apply when the House is not meeting to consider legislation. We are unable at the present time to reach a recommendation on this matter but hope to examine it further in the next Session.

15   Third Report from the Procedure Committee, Parliamentary Questions, HC 622. Back

16   Paragraph 60. Back

17   Ev 65-67. Back

18   Ev 67. Back

19   Ev 46. Back

20   Public Trustee (Liability and Fees) Bill [Lords], 1 July 2002. Back

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