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


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 government.

    —  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 an aspiration.

    —  Our approach towards changing the procedures of Parliament is guided by this simple test—will 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 rapidly—at 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.

Draft Bills

  We propose that most, and ideally all, non-emergency Bills should be published in draft form well in advance of first Parliamentary consideration.

  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 below.

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 Reading—perhaps six hours for the former, and three hours for the latter—and that this time should always be added on after the close of statements and other business.

  This should apply even with "emergency" legislation—it 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 Minister.


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 other.

  This would greatly strengthen the independence of these Committees from government.

Confirmation Hearings

  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 Conference season.

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 elsewhere—eg 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.


In Voting

  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 consideration.

  Parliament should not be a place where laws can be made easily or rapidly—rather it should be a deliberative forum which makes laws only after careful and, if necessary, lengthy consideration.

In General

  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 plans envisage.

  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 that road.

30 January 2002

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