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


APPENDIX 14

Memorandum from Richard Burden MP

INTRODUCTION

  1.1  The Modernisation Committee has before it a Herculean task—to ensure the Commons is effective in its scrutiny of Government and legislation; to adapt the Parliamentary system to make more efficient use of Members' time and to do both in a manner understood by the public. I agree with the Leader of the House that the test of success for these reforms will be in whether they increase the esteem of the public for their Parliament.

  1.2  With such far-reaching ambitions it is important that consideration of the modernisation of the House of Commons is taken as part of an overall re-assessment of our whole system of democracy. This submission is an attempt to respond to the reform programme laid out by the Modernisation Committee but the overall emphasis is intended to address "Parliament" as a whole. I hope it will be seen therefore in the context of other aspects of Parliamentary improvements such as reform of the second chamber and a more proportional electoral system.

OVERVIEW

  2.1  I believe the Consultation paper put forward by the Committee is a good start and agree with many of its proposals. It maps out important steps in the right direction but I believe reform can be taken further, especially in terms of the Parliamentary timetable and the role of Select Committees.

MODERNISING THE SCRUTINY OF LEGISLATION

Select Committees

  3.1  As the Modernisation Committee are considering publishing their report on Select Committees, which I am informed may be sometime in early 2002, I will not place here my full list of comments or suggestions for these bodies. Nonetheless I believe it is relevant in this consultation to state that the Departmental Select Committees must have their powers and resources expanded. They must be clearly positioned as the key bodies in the country for scrutiny of government policy and ministerial conduct.

  3.2  I warmly welcome the suggestions of giving Departmental Select Committees a role in Pre-legislative Scrutiny [18] and I would like to see this taken further with the kind of approach already being tried out in the Scottish Parliament, where Committees can even initiate legislation. There may also be a role for members of a reformed second chamber to join the Select Committees at this foetal stage and I refer the Committee to my response to the White Paper on second chamber reform which expounds on this. [Appendix 1]

  3.3  Following this logic, perhaps Select Committees should not have their membership restricted to MPs only. There is much that could be gained from expanding the role of outside bodies in the Select Committee process both in terms of specialist knowledge and connection with the public at large. This can build on such innovations as the Human Rights Committee which has equal numbers of Members and Peers.

  3.4  I welcome the direction in the Consultation paper to make Committee publications more attractive [55] and to make live coverage of public committee sittings available through the internet [56]. We also need to think of other ways of making committee publications more attractive and should consider better use of specialists to achieve this.

  3.5  In my experience I have found presentations such as PowerPoint introductions to topics immensely beneficial. I would welcome moves to allow greater use of technological aids such as these during official committee meetings and generally recommend the use of more technology and creative methods to convey information to Committee members.

  3.6  I welcome the suggestions for post-legislative scrutiny [23] and believe a key role in this can be played by other levels of government such as local authorities and the emerging regions. There needs to be an expanded role for citizens in reporting to their Parliament on how they are being affected by the legislation enacted on their behalf.

  3.7  The importance of expanded Select Committees will be judged partly on the basis of the time allocated to them in the Parliamentary Timetable. I believe there is room for a radical re-think of the timetable that could allow for this.

Parliamentary Timetable

  4.1  The Parliamentary Timetable must enable individual MPs to balance their roles of government scrutiny, constitutency representative, legislator and contributor to discussions of the issues of the day.

  4.2  I acknowledge and welcome timetable reforms such as the possibility of the publication of an open list of speakers [12], greater transparency of ministerial statements [15], the possibility of the carry over of Bills from one session to the next [21], and a regular slot for Statements [37], I would also like to see Hansard publish the speeches of Members who attended debates but were unable to speak because of a lack of time.

  4.3  I welcome as helpful and positive the suggestions for debates which are shorter but fewer in number [10], making better use of the mornings [29-32], making the Parliamentary calendar more predictable [40-44], and the idea of more constituency Fridays [33]. However, maybe we can go even further. Is it really the best use of MPs time, whether they are considering legislation or scrutinising the Executive, for the Commons to sit in what are often fairly theatrical plenary sessions for at least four days every week?

  4.4  Could we not have a monthly cycle in which one designated five-day week focuses Parliamentary and public attention on the deliberations of expanded Select Committees, one week devoted to giving MPs quality time with their constituents and one or two five-day weeks bringing Parliament together in plenary session to consider the work of different departments (and proposed legislation relating to them) on a rolling basis? Select Committee report backs could have equal status to those of ministers in their allocated week and time could also be set aside to discuss matters of urgent concern.

CONCLUSION

  5.1  Democracy in Britain faces a profound crisis—evident from the lowest turnout at a general election since 1918. Too many people feel disconnected from the political process and I am convinced that many of the ways we conduct our affairs add to that disconnection.

  5.2  This consultation along with the current debate on the future shape of the second chamber provides a unique opportunity for re-assessment. We now have a long overdue chance to rectify some of the glaring anomalies of the present system, to strengthen the powers of scrutiny and accountability and thus the role and standing of Parliament as a whole.

  5.3  If we are to tackle the fundamental problems within our democracy and reconnect citizens with the political process then we must look holistically at Parliamentary reform. In that context we must be prepared to be bold in reform of the House of Commons and implement the measures necessary to allow members to perform all of their roles successfully and efficiently

30 January 2002



 
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