Previous Section Index Home Page

Prison Service Pay Review Body

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I am pleased to announce that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has appointed Mr David Lebrecht for three years as a member of the Prison Service Pay Review Body, commencing June 2008. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has also reappointed Dr. Peter Riach for a second term, lasting two years, as a member of the Prison Service Pay Review Body, commencing 1 March 2008. Both appointment and reappointment have been conducted in accordance with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ guidance on appointments to public bodies.

Leader of the House

Topical Debates

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I am today publishing the outcome of my review into the operation of topical debates. I announced the review on 7 February, following their introduction in November 2007, on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session. My intention is to place topical debates on a permanent basis and to bring forward a motion before the end of the Session for the decision of the House.

22 July 2008 : Column 94WS


On 25 October 2007 the House welcomed the report of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, “Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member”(1), and approved the proposals for change set out in the Government’s response(2) to the report introducing topical debates on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session.

In a written ministerial statement on the 12 November 2007, I set out the process for applying for such a debate, including the criteria on which they would be chosen. The first topical debate, on immigration, took place on 15 November 2007 (a full list of debates is below).

The review

I am grateful to all Members who submitted their views to me, either in writing or on the Floor of the House during business questions. Comments fell into three main areas; the choice of subject for debate (including the issue of the transparency of that process); the scheduling of debates and the time limit on speeches.

Choice of subject for debate

In its report the Modernisation Committee said that “subjects for topical debates would be announced by the Leader of the House following consultation with the Business Managers”. In its response to the report, the Government recognised that the selection of debate would be announced by the Leader of the House following representations from opposition parties and Back Benchers.

Several alternatives to this approach have been proposed:

As the Modernisation Committee proposed, topical debates involve no increase to the overall time that the House sits, or any alteration to the nature of other business taken on those days when topical debates take place, which continue to be used for main business. Topical debates take place therefore within Government time. The original approach recommended by the Committee and endorsed by the House, of the final choice of subject resting with the Leader of the House after consultations, is consistent with this.

22 July 2008 : Column 95WS


Building on the increased transparency I announced in February (where we would publish a list of all subjects proposed for debate on a quarterly basis), I now propose that these lists should be produced on a monthly basis.

Scheduling of debates

The success of topical debates is dependent on backbenchers suggesting and attending them. The Procedure Committee evidence stated that “there are advantages with a predictable slot for topical debates...We believe, however, that taking them on Thursday has led to lower levels of participation than could have been expected on other days”. The Government agree. We will therefore look for opportunities to schedule topical debates on days other than a Thursday, subject to other business management considerations.

Time limits

A concern has been raised regarding the time allocated to the second largest opposition party. Under Standing Order No. 24A, the governing party and the main opposition party currently have up to 10 minutes to speak (plus an additional minute for each intervention to a maximum of 10). In contrast, the spokesperson for the second largest opposition party is limited to six minutes (plus an additional minute for each intervention to a maximum of six). The effect of this, in topical debates where no other time limits are set, is that the spokesperson for the second largest opposition party has less time than Back Bench Members speaking in the debate. To address this I propose that the Standing Orders should be amended to limit all Front-Bench speeches to no more than 10 minutes each, with a reduction in the time allotted for interventions from a maximum of 10 minutes to five minutes. This would reflect the principle used for other debates and would increase the overall time available for Back Benchers, the control of this time being a matter for the Speaker under Standing Order No. 47.

Next steps

I have considered all representations. The Government believe that topical debates should continue, with the Leader of the House continuing to choose and announce the topic for debate.

Topical debates will continue to provide a forum for important debates on a wide range of issues. I urge backbenchers to take the opportunity to request debates. This is the single biggest measure that will contribute to their future success.

22 July 2008 : Column 96WS
DateTopical debateNumber ofBack Benchparticipants


Bercow Review









Dangerous Dogs



Knife Crime






Middle East






Drug strategy



Policing in London



NHS Staffing



Holocaust Memorial Day






Preventative health services



Availability of financial services for low income families



Health consequences of the availability of cheap alcohol



Future prospects for apprenticeships



Climate Change






The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I wish to make the following statement.

Procedure Committee reports on public petitions

The Procedure Committee published a report on e-petitions on 6 April (First report, 2007-08, HC 136). This followed its 2007 report on updating the traditional petitions procedure. Both these reports arose in part out of the growing search for measures to re-engage the public with Parliament and with politics, together with awareness of developments elsewhere including the way the petitions process operates in the Scottish Parliament. A number of changes were made to the House’s petitions processes as a result of the 2007 report, including agreement within Government to respond to almost all petitions, for petitions and responses to be published in Hansard, and for encouraging individual Back Benchers to select petitions for debate or to ‘tag’ them to existing debates. The Committee indicated its intention of conducting a further inquiry into e-petitioning, noting the then recent introduction of the Number 10 petitions website.

This written ministerial statement responds to the Committee’s further report on e-petitions, ahead of a proposed debate in the autumn, referring as applicable to the recommendations in the report.

The Government welcome the report from the Committee, as foreshadowed in the July 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper, and endorses the basic recommendation for the House to develop an e-petitioning system. Such a system is likely to lead to a very significant increase in the number of petitions received. The Government agree with the Committee that e-petitioning will reinforce the House’s historic role as recipient of public petitions and help to make a major contribution to making the House more accessible to the public (Recommendations 1-3).

Basic features of an e-petitioning system

The report proposes that an e-petitioning system should have the following basic features:

22 July 2008 : Column 97WS

The petition website would close when Parliament is dissolved. The Committee indicates that these elements are to some extent illustrative and that a range of further details remains to be worked through. The Government agree with this basic approach. Further consideration will need to be given to whether it will be possible or proportionate for the Government to respond to all e-petitions given the large increase in the number envisaged (Recommendations 4-6 and 8-9).

Filters to ensure focused and relevant petitions:

The Procedure Committee proposes that the traditional ‘Member link’ to a petition, under which a petition should be sponsored by a Member (even if the sponsoring Member does not agree with the petition) should be retained. The constituency Member would be asked to act as facilitator (where the constituency Member is not willing or—in the case of a Minister—able to act as facilitator, another Member could act). The Committee also proposes that e-petitions should clearly state the action the petitioners desire the House to take and that the rules for petitions should be kept under review.

The Government agree that e-petitions should so far as possible be well-focused and relevant to the role of the House and national Government rather than about matters which are the responsibility of other authorities, such as devolved Administrations and legislatures and local authorities. This should be reflected in the rules and in the instructions to officials dealing with petitions, which may therefore need to be tighter than the current rules.

There would therefore be three interlinking filters to promote effective engagement between potential petitioners and the system:

Next Section Index Home Page