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


Letter from Mr Graham Allen MP to the Clerk of the Committee

  Can I warmly congratulate the Leader of the House on the personal mark he has made with his consultation paper on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which offers a real chance not only of reforming its procedures but also making them more relevant to voters. As he suggests, there is no more important task for Parliamentarians of all parties than overcoming apathy and disenchantment towards the political process, particularly among first-time voters.

  I support and endorse all the proposals made in his evidence and see them as the first important steps towards the genuinely independent Parliament that our democracy needs and deserves.

  I hope the Committee will find the following comments and further suggestions helpful as you take this programme forward with the House authorities and other interested parties. (Paragraph numbers refer to those in the paper).


  Paragraphs 5 and 6 refer to the process of nominations for Departmental Select Committees, which is being examined by the Modernization Committee. Elsewhere you have expressed support for reform of the present system, and rightly so because essentially it puts selection of members in the hands of party whips. No other legislature in the world, except possibly the North Korean, allows the government the power to nominate the members who investigate its activities.

  It would be more logical and more democratic to have members elected by all MPs. At the beginning of each Parliament, MPs would nominate themselves for the Select Committees on which they want to serve. If there were more nominations on a Committee than vacancies for the party concerned, that party would organize a secret ballot of its MPs to elect the required number of Committee places. (I would favour simple first-past-the-post voting, one vote per member per committee, so as to discourage slates and caucuses.)

  I think that such a system would encourage MPs to choose colleagues whom they most respected and those who could provide a gender or social or regional balance to the relevant Committee, while minimising the possibility of hidden influence or secret deals. The MPs so elected would have the legitimacy and independence which is essential to their Committee, and would inspire the greatest belief from the public.


  Paragraph 12 Three simple reforms would dramatically improve the opportunities for Members:

    (a)  rigidly enforced limits on speeches (10 minutes for backbenchers, 15 for frontbenchers—no special privileges for privy councillors);

    (b)  members to have extra time added if they give way to interventions: this would encourage genuine cut-and-thrust debate;

    (c)  allowing speeches or parts of speeches not made for lack of time to be "read formally" into Hansard by being handed to the clerks at the time of the debate (a facility which Congress enjoys in the United States). This would give constituents and local media more awareness of what Parliament might mean to them.


  Paragraph 13 I strongly support the outright abolition of the 14-day notice period for Oral Questions. This would bring topical political debate back to the daily Parliamentary questions and public policy in place of detail and trivia. Unless members want a specific reply on an issue, they should simply put their names into the ballot. When ministers know who is likely to be called to ask a Question, they would know his or her likely constituency and other interests. It is always open to the Member to give advance notice of an intended supplementary.

  On written questions, these are a devalued currency these days. Written PQs should be limited to three a day and be given proper answers by government with appeal to the Speaker if fobbed off. The Speaker would be empowered to call the Minister to try and answer again, perhaps at 3.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon.

  Similarly with EDMs, members should be limited to one a week with the one which gains the highest cross party support being detailed for two hours on the following Friday.

  Private Members Bills. Six should be chosen and debated on six separate Fridays (which would go in MP's diaries) and be given a second reading vote at 2.30pm.


  Paragraph 18 You are right to emphasise the importance and value of publishing bills in draft for scrutiny. The public at large should be given the maximum opportunity to comment on draft bills and suggest their own amendments. Two simple reforms would promote this:

    (a)  conspicuous public advertisements, in all media, on the publication of draft bills with an instant response available to anyone interested;

    (b)  all bills to be put out for pre legislative scrutiny [this would allow MP's to become involved in the process], and comments and suggested amendments be encouraged on-line and filtered by a professional mediator [this would allow the public to become involved].

  Consideration should be given to rewarding or recognising individuals who suggest ideas which are accepted by the government. There are also "Parliamentary trainspotters" among the general public who often can spot to add technical or clarifying amendments to aid the work of legislative drafting: they should be encouraged.


  Although not mentioned in your paper, I think there is much scope to make Standing Committees on bills more accessible to the public. They should be reported online and on digital media as they happen, with a team of committee officers providing a technical "running commentary" on the proceedings (as in "Ms X has tabled an amendment to make it unlawful to refuse any hospital treatment on grounds of age.") Members of the Standing Committee could also take it in turns to answer questions on live tv on its progress. Our aim should be to remove the current habit of using Committees in order to sign correspondence and actively encourage MPs to engage in the process.


  It would be very beneficial to both the scrutiny and public comprehension of legislation if Explanatory Notes on Bills were given the force of law as a guide to their interpretation. It could be achieved by a universal provision in all Acts of Parliament: unless the contrary intention appears in the words of any section it is to be interpreted as if it achieved the result intended in the relevant Explanatory Note.

  This simple reform would make it far easier for the public to judge what a Bill was meant to do and whether its words were likely to achieve it. I suspect it would also save the country millions in legal bills after complex or obscure Bills became law.


  Paragraph 23 I particularly welcome your suggestion that Parliament should regularly review the implementation of laws after they have come into force. This would give a welcome opportunity for practitioners to comment on their first-hand experience of legislative changes—Parliament would benefit greatly from their expertise, which is rarely canvassed under the present system. Post-legislative scrutiny should be built into the Parliamentary process. Automatically, 12 to 18 months after the coming into force of an act, it should be reviewed by the same Standing Committee which scrutinised it originally. (I favour the Standing Committee for this job because I think it would make its members do a better job in the first place if they know that their work would be reviewed. However, in some circumstances—especially of course a new Parliament—its members might not be available, in which case the job of post legislative scrutiny would fall to the relevant Select Committee.)

  In post legislative scrutiny, the Committee would have a special duty to take evidence from practitioners. It would then put forward recommendations for amendments to improve the working of the Act in question. Those accepted by the government, whether for technical or policy reasons, could be put into an amendment bill which should have accelerated consideration in both Houses (unless the government added amendments of its own).


  Paragraphs 33-35 This objective would be advanced even further if the House had morning sessions on Tuesdays.


  In paragraph 58 you draw attention, rightly, to the need to educate and engage young people about Parliament. This could be done very effectively by creating a mock Parliament offering visitors some chance of participating in its history and procedures. For example, actors might re-enact great moments of Parliamentary history while offering visitors a role in the drama. Even more creatively, the mock Parliament could allow the public to simulate the role of present day MPs. It would stage topical debates, questions and votes in which arcane Parliamentary procedures could be explained dramatically. It might be possible for MPs to book the mock Parliament in advance for visitors from their constituency, including schools and community associations. The visitors could "put down" Questions and subjects for debate which would be "answered" on behalf of the government of the day, either by actors or officials or even by MPs if they were prepared to participate.

  I am convinced that this facility would be very heavily subscribed and I intend to write about it further. It would be historically appropriate to stage it in Westminster Hall, which is underused and under-appreciated by visitors.

  I look forward to your response.

  Once again a heartfelt welcome to the proposals in the Leader's evidence and congratulations on his personal courage in meeting a challenge which so many have baulked at.

25 February 2002

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