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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.
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.
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 Governments 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).
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.
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.
choosing the topic for debate via a ballot, as is the case for daily adjournment debates and some Westminster Hall debates, is one suggestion. The Government remain convinced that a ballot runs the risk that the chosen subject may not necessarily meet the required criteria that the issue is genuinely regional, national or international, or allow for occasions where the House has had other opportunities to debate the issue. Also suggested was the topic of debate being chosen by a link to the number of names listed for a particular issue on either the Number 10 petitions website or for Early Day Motions. We believe this would give rise to similar problems;
the Procedure Committee proposed a business committee to take the decision, comprising the business managers together with backbenchers (one of whom would chair the committee). The Government do not consider that formalisation of the current informal processes in this way would be an improvement on the present process, particularly given the need to retain a level of flexibility in managing the time on the floor of the House; and
a further proposal raised during the weekly business statement, was that the Speaker should choose the topic. The Government do not support this view, as the Speaker would not wish to become involved in choosing a debate in Government time or adjudicating on the criteria, which could raise questions over his impartiality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Date||Topical debate||Number ofBack Benchparticipants|
(1)HC337 (13 June 2007)
(2)Cm 7231 (18 October 2007)
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 Houses 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.
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 Houses 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).
e-petitions to be submitted via the parliamentary website.
If they comply with the Houses rules, the petitioners constituency MP would be asked to act as facilitator.
The e-petition would then be posted on the parliamentary website for a set period, with others able to add their names.
At the end of the period, the e-petition would be closed; Members would also be able to indicate support.
It would then be formally presented to the House (either automatically or on the floor of the House). Petitioners and signatories could opt in to receive updates on the progress of the e-petition and/or up to two emails from their constituency MP.
E-petitions would be printed in Hansard and the Government will normally be expected to reply within two months of presentation.
There would be opportunities for petitions to receive further consideration by the House or by committee.
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).
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 orin the case of a Ministerable 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.
the first point of contact for a potential petitioner would be via the website, operated by a petitions office, which would provide a first opportunity for the public to be guided as to alternative approaches if a petition was not an appropriate course (petitioners could also be required at this stage, as in the Scottish system, to confirm that they had already taken appropriate previous steps to resolve their issue);
the rules of order for petitions would be clearly set out on the website, minimising the scope for inappropriate petitions and assisting the petitions office in enforcing the rules; the rules would be drawn more tightly than the current rules, in terms of relevance to the role of the House and central Government; and
the constituency MP would automatically be approached to act as the facilitator for the petition, allowing a further opportunity for the Member to help to suggest alternative ways of addressing the issue raised where this would be helpful.
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