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


Letter from Mr Andrew Robathan MP to the Clerks of the Committee

  I would like to comment on the memorandum put forward by the Leader of the House, outlining his proposals for further modernisation.

  I would like to make several points:

  1.  I do not think that Parliament should be bound by the whims of the media or "the media agenda" (paragraph 31). I note that paragraph 44 also refers to "a more acceptable pattern to the Press". Paragraph 54 again seems to be purely interested in media coverage. The content of our debate and our scrutiny should influence the media agenda—far too often it is too lightweight.

  2.  Similarly the idea that because a modern audience has a short attention span we should pander to that is distressing (paragraph 10). Good legislation requires detailed scrutiny and detailed debate. The courtesies and rituals of the House lead to a much better mannered debate than might otherwise take place. The fact that a modern audience might prize "informality and brevity" should not really be relevant to the making of good legislation.

  3.  The idea that deferred divisions have "increased the number of Members taking part" (paragraph 8) is somewhat far-fetched. Deferred divisions have no relationship to debate and are frankly rather embarrassing for the House of Commons.

  4.  I disagree with the view that new hours on Thursdays are a success (paragraph 31). I find it has made Thursdays often rather an irrelevant day.

  5.  Paragraph 28 suggests that the reform of sitting hours is "not to make life easier for MPs". I would disagree and I would not wish to see the House sitting on more mornings. If the House sits in the morning, when would a Select Committee sit? Most MPs that I know start at 9.00 am or shortly afterwards anyway and it seems to me that any change to the pattern of sittings would be to convenience MPs and the executive and I see no reason why it should lead to a more effective Parliament.

  6.  There is much that is sensible in the memorandum and I would single out the following:

    (a)  I applaud the idea of beginning the summer recess in early July, since so many MPs, including myself, have children at school. I am not sure why we need to have October off for Party Conferences—why can they not take place over a weekend?

    (b)  The reduction of warning for oral questions.

    (c)  Pre-scrutiny of draft Bills which seems to me to be long overdue.

    (d)  Post legislative scrutiny, especially by Select Committees.

  7.  Views are asked about making use of modern technology and in particular the idea of electronic voting (paragraph 48) and being able to table questions and amendments by e-mail (paragraph 50). My view has certainly not changed about electronic voting and I believe that the system of voting should not be changed—apart from anything else it requires a certain amount of courage to rebel in a division lobby whereas pressing a button might not take the same sort of courage. Regarding tabling questions, if a Member is in his or her constituency when Parliament is sitting, that is surely just bad luck. I suggest an MP's work is in Parliament when Parliament is sitting. One can get somebody else—even a Whip—to put down a question for one.

  8.  Finally, there is no mention of limiting the length of speeches, but I think there should be. Whilst I do not wish to be influenced by the fads of a modern audience that "prizes brevity", it seems to me that 10 minutes is usually long enough in which to develop and make an argument. I would therefore propose that back bench speeches are always limited to 10 minutes and that front bench speeches should be limited to 20 at the beginning of a debate and 15 in summing up. If debates end early, so be it.

7 February 2002

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