Memorandum from the Conservative Party
The Conservative Party wishes to
see a strengthening of the role, status and powers of Parliament
in general, and the House of Commons in particular.
We recognise that the reduction in
Parliament's standing did not begin in May 1997, although it has
undoubtedly greatly accelerated since then.
We wish to see debates and questions
in the Commons become more topical and more relevant to the majority
of people in the United Kingdom.
We believe that it is essential to
enhance the ability of the House of Commons, and especially its
Select Committees, to scrutinise the actions and decisions of
We seek an enhancement in the role
and influence of backbenchers on all sides, and a greater recognition
of the important role performed by Opposition parties of whatever
political colour at any given time.
We understand that only if Parliament
changes in these ways will public re-engagement with the political
process, and greater participation in elections, become more than
Our approach towards changing the
procedures of Parliament is guided by this simple testwill
such changes increase or diminish the ability of the legislature
to hold the executive to account?
We support those changes which will
boost this scrutiny function. Indeed, we go further than The Leader
of the House in proposing a number of much more radical changes
to do so. Furthermore, we are ready to consider experiments with
a number of proposed reforms which might be controversial at first,
on the assumption that it is understood that not all such experiments
could or should automatically become permanent features.
We will oppose changes which will
yet further enhance the power of the Executive over Parliament,
even if they are presented as measures to make the working life
of a Member of Parliament easier.
We agree strongly with the Leader
of the House that these changes "should not be a partisan
issue" and accordingly look forward to working with him to
find a programme on which all parties, and not just the governing
one, can agree.
"Carry over" Bills
We strongly oppose the idea of permitting
Bills to be carried over from one Session to the next.
This idea would simply give the Executive a
chance to pass yet more legislation, yet more rapidlyat
a time when our society is already overburdened with excessive
amounts of insufficiently considered legislation. The idea of
carry over should not be confused with the concept of greater
pre-legislative scrutiny. It would be particularly inappropriate
for the Executive to ask for such a huge concession from Parliament
at a time when it has just imposed tight timetabling requirements
on the consideration of all Bills. We take the view that the Executive
may ask for either carry over or timetabling, but certainly not
both at the same time.
We propose that most, and ideally all, non-emergency
Bills should be published in draft form well in advance of first
This would enable debate and consideration of
legislation to stretch well beyond 12 months if necessary, without
opening the floodgates to a torrent of new legislation to be introduced
after Easter each year.
Strengthening Select Committees
We support the idea of giving Select Committees
a specific role to review the operation of legislation after its
passage, as well as to consider draft Bills before they are debated.
This will only work well, however, if major
changes are made to Select Committees themselves, as we propose
Better Scrutiny of Secondary Legislation
We support the suggestion that there should
be a Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee modelled on the
European Scrutiny Committee.
Such a new Scrutiny Committee will work best,
however, if Ministers accept that it should be for backbenchers,
not the Whips, to decide which Statutory Instruments are sufficiently
interesting or controversial to merit debate in Westminster Hall
or on the floor of the House.
Proper Time for Debate
We strongly believe that legislation is being
passed through Parliament too rapidly, not too slowly, and after
too little, not too much, debate. Accordingly, we are concerned
by the suggestion that some Second Reading debates should be deliberately
truncated. However, we do recognise that on days when there are
a large number of Ministerial statements to be made this truncation
does happen, albeit (we hope) more by accident than by design.
Accordingly, we propose that there should
be a minimum time set aside for consideration of all legislation
at Second and Third Readingperhaps six hours for the former,
and three hours for the latterand that this time should
always be added on after the close of statements and other business.
This should apply even with "emergency"
legislationit was clearly absurd, for example, that the
First Minister of Northern Ireland was unable to make a speech
on the Third Reading of a recent piece of Northern Ireland legislation
because of time constraints.
Defining the Problem
One of the reasons why Parliament has become
increasingly marginalised in recent years is that Parliamentary
business is decided days or even weeks in advance, and not surprisingly
is frequently overtaken by events. Time and again Members of Parliament
find that the only place in which they can debate the stories
and issues which are of most interest to the public on a particular
day is in the TV or radio studio, because the Chamber of the Commons
has been given over to another topic entirely. We believe that
this problem must be tackled head-on.
More Topical Parliamentary Questions
We propose that Parliamentary Questions should
be tabled a maximum of 72 sitting hours in advance, not as now
two weeks in advance.
It is more important that questions to Ministers
should be topical and relevant than that Ministers and officials
should have the benefit of a full fortnight to prepare answers.
In future, as now, a Minister can always offer to write to a Member
if he does not have the answer to a very detailed supplementary
question immediately to hand.
Topical "Unstarred" Questions
We propose that the Commons should match
the long-established procedure in the House of Lords of having
"unstarred questions" at the start of business on at
least some days every week.
This ensures half an hour of discussion on a
topical subject, picked only hours or at most a day in advance.
This could take place by copying the Lords procedure in toto,
or by providing an automatic allocation of Private Notice Questions
which will always be granted to opposition parties, as now with
Opposition or supply days. A small allocation might also be given
to the Chairman of Select Committees. Such a change would greatly
enhance the ability of the House to hold Ministers to account,
since it would ensure that they came to the Chamber whenever a
major issue arose within their field of responsibility. As with
Opposition days, it would be for those allocated some Parliamentary
time to use it wisely, but it would also ensure far more often
than does the limited use of PNQs at present that Ministerial
statements would be made at the convenience of the House, not
The Importance of Select Committees
We are disappointed that The Leader of the House
has not as yet brought forward proposals to strengthen the role
of Select Committees, since we believe that this is one of the
most important areas to be considered in any changes to the work
of the House of Commons.
Reducing the Power of the Whips
We propose, as did the Liaison Committee
in the last Parliament, that Select Committee Chairmen should
be elected by the whole House.
Striking an Equal Balance
We further propose that the membership of
Select Committees should be equally balanced between Government
members on the one side and those of all other parties on the
This would greatly strengthen the independence
of these Committees from government.
More and more key decisions about public policy
are taken by those who are appointed by Ministers without reference
to the House, and who have a great degree of independence from
all forms of political accountability thereafter. We propose,
as did the Public Administration Committee in 1999, that those
nominated by Ministers to take up senior appointments of this
sort eg those heading up the Food Standards Agency or the Strategic
Rail Authority, the NHS Chief Executive, members of the Monetary
Committee of the Bank of England etc should appear before the
relevant Select Committee to answer its questions before their
appointment is confirmed. We go further and recommend that those
appointments should not be confirmed if the majority on the Select
Committee votes against.
Finding the Right Balance
Conservatives believe the duty of Parliament
to scrutinise the Executive must come first. However, we recognise
the concern of some present and potential MPs with the arrangements
for sittings of the House.
While we are not convinced that The Leader of
the House's proposals are the best way of striking an appropriate
balance between these two objectives, we are prepared to discuss
these matters with an open mind and with no fixed attachment to
tradition for tradition's sake.
Sitting in September
We recognise that the long gap between Parliament
rising at the end of July and returning in the middle of October
weakens the scrutiny of government, since for a period of nearly
three consecutive months no Parliamentary Questions can be tabled
or answered, no Ministerial statements made or requested, and
no national or international issues debated unless there is an
emergency recall of Parliament.
While recognising that Parliamentary sittings
in the first three weeks of September will be very inconvenient
for some Members we believe that the needs of effective scrutiny
must take precedence over MPs convenience.
Accordingly, we support the proposal that
Parliament should normally rise in mid July, return at the start
of September, and rise again only for the length of the Party
Wednesday Sittings and PMQs
However, because again duty must come before
convenience, we oppose the idea of introducing "Thursday
hours" to sittings on Wednesdays.
Moving Prime Minister's Question Time, by far
the most high profile weekly Parliamentary event, to 12 noon is
a bad idea. It would sharply truncate the time available for Members
on all sides, including the Prime Minister himself, to prepare
for the exchanges. It would ensure less coverage for the event
in the following day's newspapers and even the main 10 pm TV news
bulletins, since it would be for them perilously close to "old
news". It would make it less likely that Members could raise
subjects mentioned in that day's regional or local press. It would
make it almost a practical impossibility for any resident of a
constituency some distance from London to be able to travel on
the day to see PMQs, especially if they were dependent on public
transport, and we believe that this would be a grossly unfair
form of discrimination against those living in Scotland, Wales
and the North and South West of England. Even if, therefore, the
House were to decide to sit from 11.30 am to 7 pm on Wednesdays,
we would strongly argue that PMQs should stay at 3 pm.
Making Better Use of Parliamentary Time
From time to time Parliamentary business finishes
unexpectedly early. By definition this has few implications for
the domestic arrangements of Members, who cannot have planned
ahead for this to happen. However, it does create "unused"
Parliamentary time which could be employed more productively than
the present system, whereby at best the Member who has secured
an adjournment debate suddenly finds that (fortunately or unfortunately)
they have much more time in which to make their case.
We propose that there should be a published
list of "reserved" debates which would take place should
progress on the main business of the day be unexpectedly rapid.
In some cases these "reserved" debates
could be on business which has not been fitted in elsewhereeg
minor Select Committee reports. In others, it might be that provision
should be made for "a topical subject" to be debated,
or for speeches on any possible subject to be made as with traditional
end of session adjournment debates, again ensuring that the House
is seen to be a little more relevant than now to the news agenda
which most of the population are following.
Earlier and Better Ministerial Statements
We welcome the Government's recent statement
in a response to a report from the Public Administration Committee
that it will tighten the guidance to Ministers on the necessity
to make statements to Parliament before, not after, briefing the
media. We wait to be convinced of a genuine change of heart and
practice, but are pleased that Ministers are addressing the need
to alter their behaviour. We are however concerned by statements
made by Downing Street on 16 January and the Leader of the House
on 17 January to the effect that it would be impractical to make
all important announcements of policy to the House first. The
proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Accordingly, we are
intrigued by the suggestions that statements should be made earlier
in the day, and believe that this idea is well worth exploring,
perhaps on an experimental basis, in order to ensure more media
coverage both for what Ministers say and for the reaction of others
in the House.
We propose that in the first instance the
House should experiment with having statements on at least some
days before, rather than after, questions and support the idea
that there should be a fixed, not flexible, time for statements
to ensure that questions start at a predictable time. We also
propose that White Papers and other background material relevant
to a statement, plus perhaps the text of the statement itself,
should be provided to Members, on an embargoed basis, at least
an hour before the statement is made so that Members can question
from a more informed stand-point than present arrangements allow.
We have reservations about the idea of electronic
voting in divisions, because we support the view that mingling
between senior and junior MPs in the division lobbies is a vital
part of Parliament's workings.
While we are not opposed to any and all experiments
in this field, we are concerned that any steps which accelerate
voting will reduce the opportunity for this mingling to take place.
We are also concerned that rapid multiple voting increases the
chances of decisions being taken without sufficient thought or
Parliament should not be a place where laws
can be made easily or rapidlyrather it should be a deliberative
forum which makes laws only after careful and, if necessary, lengthy
We support the ideas of publishing written
answers earlier than 3.30 pm, of publishing a list of forthcoming
written answers on the order paper and elsewhere, of sprucing
up the presentation of select committees reports and of routine
live streaming of committee hearings on the internet.
We propose that Select Committees and Government
Departments alike should as a matter of course seek responses
from the "wired community" on matters before them.
We recognise that Parliament has to be seen
to be comfortable with, and indeed enthusiastic about, the possibilities
of the new technologies and would be keen for further work to
be done in this area.
Putting Parliament First
The Conservative Party believes that the issues
raised by The Leader of the House, and in this document, are important
but secondary matters.
The decline in the stature of Parliament has
far less to do with the hours we work or the order of our proceedings
than it does with the steady transfer of power from Westminster
to Whitehall. These fundamental concerns have to be addressed
too. This is not just a debate about presentation.
The Way Forward
We also recognise that Parliamentary reform
cannot consider either House alone or in isolation from the other.
We have already proposed a much more democratic
replacement for the current House of Lords than the present Government
Later in this Parliament we will be bringing
forward proposals to re-establish the pre-eminence of our essential
democratic institutions, and to demonstrate to the electorate
both how their vote can make a difference and how their participation
in democracy does not start or end with a single vote cast every
four or five years.
This document represents some first steps along
30 January 2002