Ministerial Statements - Procedure Committee Contents


Government Response


Introduction

This Government believes in strengthening Parliament and sustaining its position at the centre of national debate. Indeed, it is only because the Government brought forward proposals for the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee that—for the first time—the House has, on its own initiative, referred this matter to the Procedure Committee.

The Government notes that, in addition to the Leader and Shadow Leader of the House, the Committee received evidence from only 11 Members, together with a memorandum on the legislative process from the Better Government Initiative. This suggests that, while a few Members may have strong views on the subject, there is little evidence of widespread dissatisfaction with the current arrangements.

At all times, the Government has sought, and will continue to seek, a consensual approach to the conduct of business in Parliament. The transfer of a significant amount of parliamentary time, amounting to one day each week, to the Backbench Business Committee is evidence of that; as is a desire to provide adequate time for the scrutiny of legislation. The Government is disappointed that, against this background of willingness to work with Parliament, the Committee was not able to give further consideration to some of the proposals that were put forward in its evidence.

Ministers' obligations to Parliament are paramount, but the Government also has a duty to communicate its policies and programme effectively to the wider public, including through the platform of a 24-hour news media. These dual pressures have been a reality under all recent governments—a point made by Members from both sides of the House during the original backbench debate and in oral evidence to the Committee, but that was not reflected in the Committee's Report.

The 9.30 am limit on Written Ministerial Statements can be a source of frustration for Ministers and departments, and there is no technical obstacle to the effective communication of written statements to MPs—via the internet, e-mail or SMS—at an earlier hour.

Where the content of a statement is market-sensitive, it must be made when the markets open at 7 am. This practice is an essential safeguard of the integrity of the markets and the Government would strongly resist any proposals to change it, but the House's rules prevent the Government from making the statement to the House until some hours later. Since Members do not in any case have an immediate opportunity to question Ministers on Written Statements when they are issued, the House's scrutiny function would not be undermined by releasing them earlier in the day.

Select committees have long recognised the presentational advantages of early-morning publication and 00.01 hrs is now the routine publication time for all but a few select committee reports. This applies even when the Report is to be the subject of a Motion to take note of the publication. The Committee has not made a compelling argument as to why the House should be content to receive reports from its own committees—the content of which will be unknown to all but a very few Members in advance—in the middle of the night and at weekends, but not to receive information from the Government first thing in the morning when the Vote Office is open.

The fact that the Committee suggests that the long-standing practice of the House now needs to be backed by a new punitive regime might in itself be seen as evidence that the procedures of the House are becoming out-of-date.

A House protocol

Recommendation

1. We do not believe that it is practical or desirable to produce a detailed protocol that would cover all possible situations in which a Minister should make a statement. We recommend instead that the House agrees a resolution in which it sets out in broad terms the behaviour expected of Ministers. We propose the following:

That this House expects Ministers to make all important announcements relating to government policy to Parliament before they are made elsewhere on all occasions when Parliament is sitting, and expects information which forms all or part of such announcements not to be released to the press before such a statement is made to Parliament. (Paragraph 17)

Response

The Government agrees entirely with the Committee's conclusion that it is neither practical nor desirable to produce a detailed protocol that would cover all possible situations in which a Minister should make a statement. The Government believes that the protocol set out in the Ministerial Code is fully effective. The Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed the importance of the Code in ensuring proper ministerial accountability to Parliament.

It is not clear, therefore, what purpose would be served by the draft Motion proposed by the Committee. Although it broadly reflects the terms of the Ministerial Code, its wording creates significant scope for uncertainty. For example, the reference to "information which forms all or part of [a policy] announcement" could be difficult to interpret in a situation where the development of a policy had gone through several stages, some in the public domain. Nor is it clear how the Committee intends the scope of the reference to "all important announcements relating to government policy" to differ from the Ministerial Code's reference to "the most important announcements of Government policy".

The Government's view is that it will be necessary in each case to reach a judgement on the best way in which to make an announcement to the House, having regard to Ministers' general duties to the House. This will invariably depend on a subjective judgement about the importance of the announcement (as well as other factors), a position which is simply re-stated in the Committee's proposed protocol. It therefore provides no basis for any objective assessment of which statements should be made in the first instance to the House.

This Government has a strong record of making statements to Parliament. The Government has so far made 91 oral statements in the 138 sitting days since the day of the Queen's Speech. This is a third more statements per sitting day than the previous Government made in 2009-10 and more statements per sitting day than were made in the previous two Sessions. The Prime Minister has so far made 15 oral statements to the House, more than any of his predecessors in their first year in office since at least 1979.

The number of urgent questions accepted has also risen substantially since 2009, from an average of just four UQs per year in 2007-08 to more than one a week in the current Session.

Against this background of growing Ministerial accountability to Parliament, there is no case for the protocol that the Committee proposes.

Enforcing the protocol

Recommendation

2. We recommend that allegations by Members that the House protocol has been breached be made first to the Speaker for his judgment. If he determined that the complaint was without basis or trivial, it would be open to him to dismiss it. In cases where it was clear that a minor breach had occurred, he could take appropriate steps, such as allowing an Urgent Question on the subject or making a statement on its findings. In more serious or more complex cases, he would refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges for further investigation. We would hope that the Committee would choose to take evidence in public as part of its inquiries into such cases. (Paragraph 30)

Response

The House already has a range of options at its disposal where Members allege that a Minister has made details of a statement available to the media before the House. They include the granting of an urgent question, an investigation by the relevant departmental select committee (or any other committee of the House with an interest in the subject), questions to the Prime Minister or to the Leader of the House at Business Questions, and points of order to the Chair. In addition to these options, which have long been at the House's disposal, there is now also the opportunity for the Backbench Business Committee to schedule a debate on any matter which it considers has not been adequately addressed in statements or otherwise in Government time.

The Government considers that this range of sanctions is adequate and is already used to great effect.

Extending the powers of the Standards and Privileges Committee in the way the Committee proposes would risk the Committee being dragged into what are often essentially party-political disputes, undermining the integrity of its role. The Government notes that the Procedure Committee did not receive formal evidence from the Standards and Privileges Committee or from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in relation to this proposal.

Sanctions

Recommendation

3. We believe that a recommendation from a Committee of the House that a Minister should make a formal apology on the Floor of the House is a serious and effective penalty. It would, of course, also be open to the Committee to recommend that such an apology should be made at a time when the House would be well-attended; for example, after Questions on a Wednesday. In particularly serious cases, the moving of a motion of censure on the Floor of the House would be an even more severe sanction. We feel that these options are appropriate and likely to be sufficient by way of both penalty and deterrent. (Paragraph 34)

Response

As the Committee notes, it is not uncommon for Ministers to volunteer an apology where it is clear that a leak has occurred. The Committee has produced no evidence to suggest that there is a significant problem of Ministers refusing to apologise to the House when it would be appropriate to do so.

Public apologies on the floor of the House at the recommendation of the Standards and Privileges Committee have hitherto only been used in the more serious cases where Members have broken the rules of the House or the Code of Conduct for MPs.

Even in the most serious cases, the Standards and Privileges Committee has not hitherto sought to specify the time at which an apology should be made by way of a personal statement and the Procedure Committee's suggestion that it should begin to do so is novel.

Changes to Urgent Questions

Recommendation

4. Urgent Questions clearly have a role to play in encouraging Ministers to provide information to the House. We believe that this role could be enhanced still further. We recommend that, in certain limited circumstances, Members should have a second opportunity during the sitting day to apply to ask an Urgent Question, but only where information becomes known during the day that was not available before the initial deadline. This deadline should fall at 7 pm on Mondays and Tuesdays, 4 pm on Wednesdays, 3 pm on Thursdays and 12 noon on sitting Fridays. The Urgent Question—if granted—should be asked at the moment of interruption. In cases where an Urgent Question to be asked at the moment of interruption has been granted but the House rises early, the Question should stand over until the following sitting day. We would expect this measure to be used only in exceptional cases. (Paragraph 39)

Response

The adoption of this recommendation would be likely to lead to Members dealing with important issues late at night, at short notice, in a poorly-attended Chamber.

The Committee offers no evidence to support the contention that taking an Urgent Question at the end of the sitting day would have any benefit—except, perhaps, in certain exceptional circumstances—over it being taken at the usual time at the following day's sitting. On the few occasions when such exceptional circumstances have applied, then Ministers have in the past demonstrated their willingness to come to the Chamber to make a statement late in the day. In many cases, a new situation which has arisen during the course of a sitting can be fast-changing. Minsters themselves may not have had time to evaluate it or to decide on the Government's intended course of action. There may therefore be little of substance to report to the House.

The recommendation could also create difficulties in the House of Lords, where urgent questions taken in the Commons are regularly repeated as statements. A decision to accept a UQ late in the day could have a disruptive effect on the business of the Lords, where it was considered necessary or desirable to repeat it.

An alternative might be to allow notice of an urgent question to be given the night before, for the following day's sitting, if the Government had given no indication that it proposed to make a statement.

Length of time spent on statements

Recommendation

5. It is our view that the Chair is best placed to determine the appropriate length of time to be spent on a statement. We therefore reject the Government's proposals for time limits on almost all statements and for a category of time-limited statements for "less significant issues". We do, however, reiterate the proposal made by the Modernisation Committee and endorsed by the House that the opening ministerial statement and subsequent Opposition frontbench contribution should, in most cases, not exceed ten and five minutes respectively. (Paragraph 50)

Response

The Government notes the Committee's recommendation. In the absence of any process for agreeing a time-limit in advance, Business Managers will continue to balance decisions about whether to make a statement on any given day against other competing and often equally important demands on the House's time. Members will continue to be alert to the uncertainty over the timing of the main business.

Notice of oral statements

Recommendation

6. We recognise that notice is routinely given on the order paper of predictable statements, such as reports from international conferences. We accept that some statements relate to unpredictable events, and that little notice can be given in such circumstances. In other cases, however, we believe that the Government could greatly assist Members by giving much greater notice of forthcoming statements than it does at present. We urge the Government to make every effort to give notice as early as possible of any oral statement it intends to make to Parliament. (Paragraph 62)

Response

The Government notes the Committee's recommendation and will continue to give advance notice of oral statements wherever possible. The Government has so far given notice of oral statements in around a third of cases this Session, but the proportion has risen over the Session and notice has been given of a greater proportion of statements since the summer recess than beforehand.

As the Government pointed out in its evidence to the Committee, advance notice of an oral statement can intensify media interest in the subject, increasing the risk that media speculation might require a Government response before the statement is made in the House.

Advance notice of a statement is contingent on a range of factors, including the Government being ready to make the relevant policy announcement, the business of the House on the day in question and any other issues which might be the subject of a statement on that day. It is therefore not always possible to fix the date of announcements, even planned announcements of Government policy, very far in advance.

Written ministerial statements

Recommendation

7. It is for the Government to decide whether a particular announcement is to be made by means of a written or an oral statement, but, in some cases, an announcement made by means of a written ministerial statement is significant enough to deserve parliamentary scrutiny. In such cases, there should be a mechanism for backbenchers to question a Minister on the statement. We recommend that the half hour between 11 am and 11.30 am on a Wednesday in Westminster Hall should be available for oral questions without notice on a written statement made in the previous week. We would not expect the Minister to read out the text of the statement. Applications for this time should be made to the Speaker in the same way as applications for adjournment debates and, where the Speaker and the Chairman of Ways and Means judge that a case has been made, the Chairman of Ways and Means should appoint oral questions on that statement as the business for the specified time. We recommend that this procedure be introduced on a experimental basis until the end of the Session. We will conduct a review of its effectiveness at that time. (Paragraph 68)

Response

It is already open to Members to seek a debate in Westminster Hall on any subject. Restricting the half-hour slot on Wednesday morning to questions on a matter which was the subject of a WMS in the previous week would significantly restrict Members' discretion to seek a debate on any subject of their choosing. There are also other mechanisms for backbenchers to question ministers on the subject of Written Ministerial Statements, including urgent questions and topical questions, backbench debates, select committee evidence sessions and adjournment debates in the House.

The Committee's proposal would not work well in the context of the current arrangements for determining the subjects to be taken in Westminster Hall, nor in the context of the departmental rota for responding to business in Westminster Hall.

The Government therefore does not agree with this recommendation, which would add little or nothing to Ministerial accountability to Parliament for the content of WMSs.

Recommendation

8. We believe that neither the removal of the requirement to give notice of written ministerial statements nor the making of such statements at 7 am would be in the interests of the House and its backbenchers. We therefore recommend that the earliest time at which written ministerial statements are released remain 9.30 am and that the requirement to give notice of such statements be retained. We accept that there is a difficulty on non-sitting Fridays and we recommend that the Government be able to give notice on a non-sitting Friday, between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm, of its intention to make a written statement on the following sitting day. We urge the Government to make every effort to give notice as early as possible of its intention to make a written statement. (Paragraph 73)

Response

The Government welcomes the Committee's recommendation in respect of notices given on non-sitting Fridays. This modest improvement to the current arrangements will make it easier for the Government to make predictable announcements to Parliament on Mondays.

However, the Government would strongly urge the Committee to reconsider the proposals which are dismissed in this recommendation.

Continuing to require notice to be given on the previous day is an unnecessary restriction the Government's ability to make statements to the House. The Government does not believe that there is any good reason why ministers should not be allowed to make written statements about events on the day on which they happen, and the Government suggested in its evidence to the Committee various ways in which Members could be alerted to the fact that a statement had been made. The continuing requirement to give notice does nothing to enhance ministers' accountability to the House.

The Government is disappointed that the Committee did not accept its proposals for making written ministerial statements earlier in the day. Certain statements must be made when the markets open at 7 am. It is not clear why the Committee does not believe that it would be in the House's interests to receive these statements when they are made, rather than two-and-a-half hours later. There are various ways in which statements could be made available to Members first thing in the morning, not only through the Vote Office, but by e-mail and on-line publication. The Committee's objection, that Members would face questioning from the media and constituents on the content of a WMS before they had an opportunity to read it, does not therefore seem to be very compelling.

The Government's view, as set out in its original memorandum to the Committee, remains unchanged. The House's interests would be better served, and its position at the heart of the national debate strengthened, if the timetable for making ministerial statements took account of the external constraints on the timing of Government announcements.

Recommendation

9. It is sometimes difficult for Members to know that a written ministerial statement has been made. We recommend that written ministerial statements be published on the Parliamentary website and that an RSS feed be provided so that Members who so choose can be alerted to their publication. (Paragraph 77)

Response

The Government notes this recommendation, which is for the House authorities to implement.

Rt Hon Sir George Young MP

Leader of the House

31 March 2011


 
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Prepared 24 May 2011