Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Letter from Mr Andrew Dismore MP to the Clerk of the Committee

  I am writing in response to the memorandum of the Leader of the House concerning modernisation dated 12 December.

  I think that there is a lot to be said for many of the suggestions, but I do have some comments.

  In relation to paragraph 11, I think there is little problem in having shorter debates, but my concern about the short debates at the moment is that so much time is taken up by front bench speakers on both sides that there is little opportunity for back benchers to contribute, and this could be made even worse if the debates are made shorter.

  In relation to paragraph 19, having been involved in the select committee which attempted scrutiny of the child support agency proposals on the basis of the policy document rather than the Bill itself, I can say it is rather harder to do, without the Bill. One of the advantages of pre-legislative scrutiny is to look to see whether the wording of the Bill actually matches the policy, a function which should happen in standing committee but it rarely seems to turn out that way. I think it is difficult to conduct as effective pre-legislative scrutiny without the Bill itself.

  My main concern is over the suggestion of changing the times of the parliamentary day on Wednesday. In practice I think this will have the reverse effect. Assuming that business finishes, as it does on a Thursday, at approximately 7.30-7.45 pm, few members with London or south east constituencies will be able to get back to their constituencies in time for any meaningful work in the constituency, or "quality time" with their families. Many members use Wednesday mornings for constituency visits, which still gives sufficient time to get back for Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday afternoons. The effect of changing the day round would in fact be the opposite of that intended, in my view, cutting down the amount of time that could be spent in constituencies, and while people might get home a bit earlier, not providing an equivalent at the end of the day.

  In relation to the business on Wednesdays, whilst I think there is a case for saying that the adjournment debates which presently happen on Fridays should be shifted to Wednesday evenings, I think it would be wrong to suggest that this could happen for private members' legislation. I regularly attend on Fridays for private members' business. As business is unwhipped, part of the tactics and strategy both to promote or to block a Bill depends very much on the ability to muster support for it, or otherwise, on a Friday. The dynamics of private members' business would change dramatically, should this be shifted to a Wednesday evening. I think that any suggestion that private members' business should be shifted to Wednesday evening should only take place as part of a much wider reform of private members' legislation, (in relation to which I have quite a few ideas), but I think there are significant dangers of simply moving all private business "lock, stock and barrel".

  In relation to paragraph 44, I would not support a removal of the September recess. Whilst I can see a superficial advantage of matching recess to school holidays, it has to be borne in mind that members also like to visit schools in their constituencies, which by definition cannot happen during holiday time. I am sure that many members like myself use September as a good occasion to catch up on school visits and I do not think that this would be compensated for by a three week conference recess, particularly bearing in mind that the Labour Party conference is in the middle of the three weeks, which means that a good run of two weeks work in the constituency would not work for Labour members. It also has to be borne in mind that the second week in September comprises the TUC conference, and I know many members attend that event.

  I think the remainder of the document provides some very welcome and thoughtful suggestions, so the criticisms I have set out in this letter ought to be seen in the context of general support for modernisation and the thrust of the paper.

11 January 2002

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