Letter from Fiona Mactaggart MP to the
Chairman of the Committee
At a meeting today of the Parliamentary Labour
Party Women's Group we had a discussion about your proposals for
modernising the House of Commons. I thought it might be helpful
if I attempted to summarise the discussion as a response to your
proposals. The meeting was attended by 20 Members of Parliament.
Firstly, there was strong support for the broad
thrust of your Memorandum. Members present felt that better planning
and time management will enable them to be better and more effective
scrutinisers of legislation and of government.
There was a sense, expressed by many members,
that many of the current arrangements infantilise Members of Parliament:
not knowing whether you are likely to be called during a debate,
bobbing up to catch the Speaker's eye, the difficulties of planning
ahead both during recess and during the evenings, are all aspects
of this. We believe that members should have more predictability
and control over their time, and that measures to improve this
such a list of speakers who may be called, an annual programme,
the opportunity to introduce bills throughout the year would be
There was therefore enthusiastic support for
an earlier start on Wednesday. Some members strongly urged the
same approach for Tuesdays too and we hope that the Modernisation
Committee will consider this. Members also saw merit in allowing
statements to happen before Question Time so that we all ensure
that the House of Commons is really the first place where ministers
Another method of raising the status of the
Chamber would be to make questions more topical by making the
submission date much closer to the answering period. If this was
generally done it could also extend to Prime Minister's questions
so that members would be able to prepare sensibly for issues to
be discussed. That also led to some discussion of whether the
present lottery arrangement by which questions appear on the order
paper is fair or sensible. Some members felt also that lazy use
of written questions to obtain information which is published
elsewhere should be curbed in the interests of efficiency.
There was a strong feeling that scrutiny will
be improved if pre-legislative scrutiny can become the norm. Involving
MPs through select committees or special standing committees in
the discussion of draft bills could help us to be more thoughtful
and analytical and less tribal, thus improving the quality of
bills at an early stage. More opportunities to connect select
committee reports with policy implementation were also requested.
Carry over of bills and an annual parliamentary
programme would also improve our effectiveness. It would end the
unacceptably long summer recess, when there is no mechanism to
hold the Executive to account. It is fair to say that some members
were anxious that a consequence of the proposals would be that
they would have to take holidays in August, and that some felt
that the substantial block of constituency time in September,
when Schools are back, is very worthwhile.
There was discussion about the contact that
members have with their children and clearly without national
dates for school holidays and half terms this cannot be ensured
by timing of parliamentary sessions. Members present felt that
improved childcare in the Palace of Westminster could play an
Some members with far-flung constituencies urged
an even earlier start on Thursday so that they could finish by
6 pm and be more confident of reaching their constituencies before
Friday. All commented on how crucial Fridays are to fulfilling
our role and how without reform of the Private Members Bill process
they feel reluctant to attend debates on Fridays which so rarely
lead to legislation.
In addition there was a robust debate about
the allocation of time after 7 pm on Wednesday. MPs present felt
that private members bills should be able to be debated then.
There was feeling that the private members bills procedure is
an important means to engage people in the political process,
they deal with issues our constituents are very concerned about
and provide champions for issues. PMBs have traditionally been
an important means to make progress on social issues, such as
abortion and hanging, which are of great concern to women MPs.
People's hopes are unfairly raised that many private members bills
have a chance of becoming law. Perhaps it is time to debate fewer
bills but to give them a fairer chance of success, and to improve
the transparency of the Private Members Bill process.
I hope that this note can help you and the Modernisation
Committee in your important task of improving the impact and effectiveness
of Parliament and ensuring that its members can manage our time
to best effect.
30 January 2002