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


Memorandum from the Liberal Democrats


  Our approach is that the 2001 General Election has consolidated the pluralist nature of Parliamentary democracy in the UK—ending the two party duopoly of the last century—as well as endorsing the need for more effective scrutiny and accountability. The modernisation agenda, so tentatively pursued by consensus in the last Parliament, should be revitalised rather than reversed.

  The core objective is NOT to make life easier for Parliamentarians, or to make their working hours shorter, but to make them and their time, more effective.

  In addition, we believe that the current review of proposals for the second stage of Lords reform offers an opportunity to re-examine the relationship between the roles of the two Houses. Hitherto the changes in the Second Chamber have concentrated eccentrically on its membership at the expense of what it should do—deciding who should be recruited before deciding the job specification. We recommend the appointment of a Joint Select Committee of both Houses to consider this issue, examining evidence from the public rather than simply listening to the introvert views of Parliamentarians and the political "chattering classes".

  The following proposals are in no sense exhaustive. While these ideas derive from existing Party policies (see footnotes), they are updated and spelt out in more detail, following recent studies of these issues.

2.  Modernisation OBJECTIVES

  2.1  Short Term improvements should include:

    —  Before electronic voting systems are re-examined, a simple reform would be to install an additional clerk to record abstentions in the "No" lobby.

    —  The move forward on Programme Motions, Programme Sub Committees etc will need careful monitoring, but the other options for improved scrutiny set out in the first Modernisation Committee Report 1997-98 should also be activated for appropriate bills (eg pre-legislative scrutinyi, carry-over votes etc). In addition, we would support investigation of the potential for committees on Bills to take evidence, as suggested by Michael Ryle.

    —  In due course the value and validity of a Business Committee should be reappraised. In the meantime, the Opposition Parties are justified in demanding implementation of the Modernisation Committee recommendation of discussions following each Queen's Speech to seek agreement on the management of the legislative programme. The advantages of carry-over to the Government necessitate this quid pro quoii.

    —  The procedure for Private Members Bills needs urgent revision to make it more effective and less frustrating for all concerned (eg by taking Bills on Wednesday mornings?)iii

    —  Legislation derived from EU Directives continues to receive inadequate scrutiny: the previous proposal that more but smaller European Standing Committees would permit more cross membership with the appropriate Departmental Select Committees, and so greater specialisation, must be pursuediv.

    —  Similarly, the procedure when European Standing Committees feel it necessary to bring an issue to the whole House is anomalous and undemocratic: using Westminster Hall, or Friday sittings in the Chamber, but voting on the deferred vote "pinks" could provide the extra debating time to correct this.

    —  Scrutiny of treaties would seem to be another area of democratic deficit: this may be more appropriately undertaken by the reformed Second Chamber in due course, but in the meantime a Joint Committee mechanism should be considered.

    —  We support the conclusions of the recent examination of the various proposals for the reinforced role of Select Committees by the Modernisation Committee. In particular, we strongly endorse the concept of a committee of senior backbenchers—independent of the Whips—to adjudicate on nominations to the Select Committeesv.

    —  The constraints on the ability of Select Committees to insist on the attendance of witnesses, whose evidence on the development of policy or its application is considered vital to an inquiry, should be reviewed. For example, former Ministers—now in the House of Lords—cannot continue to be exempt, and the role of special advisers must be clarified.

    —  The Library is the principal source of quality, independent information on which MPs depend to perform their scrutiny role effectively: the quality of support is excellent, but turnaround times are sometimes insufficient, and more resources may be needed—see below for longer term solution.

    —  A separate Vote for communications technology will be necessary to ensure that, as technologies converge and become more powerful, Members are able to harness ICT to best effect for their constituents.

    —  A more comprehensive investigation of the implications of the new technologies for the political process is required to ensure that both Parliamentary conventions and electoral guidelines are relevant and robust.

    —  Notice for oral Parliamentary Questions should be reduced to the same as for written ones, to ensure greater topicality. Tabling and answers should be permissible during at least part of the long summer recess.

2.2  Medium Term improvements should include:

    —  The dividing line between "Parliamentary" and "political" uses of Short Money is becoming less and less easy to rationalise, and must be reviewed: when so much of the Government's activity is communicated via the media, the restrictions on MPs and Opposition Parties, and on the way in which they hold the Government to account through the media, look obsolete.

    —  Some more formal coordination of the work of the Select Committees in the two Houses seems essential to prevent duplication and aid coordination: perhaps this is a role for Liaison Committee?

    —  The whole geography and architecture of Whitehall can be transformed overnight by Prime Ministerial dictat, without any reference to Parliament. We suggest that new Secretaries of State—especially when responsibilities change—should be called before the appropriate Select Committee (or a similar Committee in the Second Chamber) to set out their priorities and objectives.

    —  The Modernisation Committee should continue to review the Parliamentary Day, Week and Year. The failure to attract more women MPs is just one of the issues that should be addressed in this context. The imbalance between heavy legislative weeks, less arduous ones and long recess periods (out of sync with family holidays) also needs attention.

    —  The objective should not be to make the Commons working arrangements more "MP friendly" but to make them more "voter friendly". The Parliamentary Day should be geared to communication with those we represent. For example, Questions should start at 11.30 am on Tuesday, Wednesdays, and Thursdays (and Statements should follow immediately) to grab back the midday news spotlight from Ministerial Press conferences. Main business debates should end at 9 pm (7 pm on Thursdays), to enable the conclusion (and divisions) to be reported on the 10 pm bulletins.

    —  This is preferable to the suggested alternative of Statements before Questions, since those Ministers and Members required for the latter will be known well in advance, and potential conflicts with Standing or Select Committee meetings in the late morning can be avoided, while short-notice topical Statements at 11.30 am could cause frequent conflicts. This sequence would also work best for Private Notice Questions, following on from the main Questions hour.

    —  We have already recommended that the Summer recess should start earlier in July, it should end after the August Bank Holiday, the "spill-over" should be completed before the three party conferences and the new session should start in mid October. This would more closely relate to the school year in most parts of the UK.

2.3  Long Term improvements should include:

    —  The above suggestions for strengthening the scrutiny role are essentially modest. To increase the opportunities of Select Committees, and individual Members, to hold the executive to account may require a more radical and holistic approach for the whole of Parliament. Information is often the key to power. We suggest the resources of the Lords and Commons Libraries should be combined and enhanced to provide this additional impact at minimal additional cost.


  The privileged status afforded to "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition" is both an absurd anachronism and a throwback to confrontational politics. That it should still dominate Commons procedure (although it has not been necessary in the Lords), and result in an additional £500,000 payment of taxpayers' money to one party, adds injury to insult.

3.1  Short Term improvements should include:

    —  On Statements and Second Reading Debates the Speaker should be asked to follow the pattern so successfully used in the Lords, abandoning the alternation between Government and Opposition until all three parties have set out their position: ie Minister, Conservative spokesperson, Liberal Democrat spokesperson, then Ministerial reply. This sequence both aids a proper triangular exchange of views and ensures speedier progress to the backbench contributions.

    —  The Liberal Democrat Spokesperson should speak from the Dispatch Box when opening/winding up a debate; the monopoly claim of the Conservative Opposition is a relatively recent informal convention—broken on a number of occasions throughout the twentieth Century—and has no practical or political merit in such circumstances.

    —  In debates and Questions the ratio of contributions should follow the Parliamentary arithmetic (eg Conservative spokespersons should not get extra supplementary questions at the end, on top of the ratio allocation).

    —  The Liberal Democrat reasoned amendment should not be excluded just because a Conservative one has been accepted: with the new late night voting arrangements there is now no practical objection.

    —  Allocation of Opposition Supply Days is perverse: it should relate strictly to the arithmetic of the number in each Opposition Party, with the dates and days of the week selected by the Business Committee (when constituted).

    —  The same arithmetic proportions should apply to the nomination of Deputy Speakers and Chairs of departmental Select Committees.

    —  The arrangements for wind-up speeches should be reviewed to take account of the presence of three major parties in the House.

    —  Similarly, where Government Departments are combined (eg Transport with Environment, Environment with Rural Affairs or Transport with Local Government) the Liberal Democrats should enjoy the same opportunity to nominate two spokespersons to ask questions as enjoyed by the Conservatives.

3.2  Long Term improvements should include:

    —  The now consolidated position in the House of the Liberal Democrats as a third major party demands a review of the funding formula (over and above the Short Money) to include support for the Leader's and Whip's offices.

    —  The layout of the Commons Chamber is neither necessarily permanent nor immutable: early venues were in circular and other formats, and the absurdity of squashing 400 and more Members on one "side" to preserve the fiction of two party confrontational politics is a practical as well as an electoral absurdity.


  i Cook Maclennan—p.15, 6; see also Reforming Governance in the UK 3.6.1

  ii Reforming Governance in the UK 3.2.3, 3.6.1

  iii Reforming Governance in the UK 3.2.3

  iv Cook Maclennan—p.15, 70; Reforming Governance in the UK, 3.7.2

  v Cook Maclennan—p.16, 72; Reforming Governance in the UK, 3.7.1

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Prepared 5 September 2002