Select Committee on Procedure of the House First Report



Statements

  51. Statements share some of the features of Starred Questions. They are frequently taken before a full House; and they are subject to a time limit (20 minutes after the front-bench exchanges)[21] but there is no list of speakers. Therefore, like Question Time, Statements put self-regulation under strain. As at Question Time, there is no "Question" before the House, so there cannot be debate; it is worth emphasizing that only "brief comments and questions for clarification" are allowed (Companion page 81).

  52. Unlike Questions, Statements are primarily front-bench events, serving the constitutional function of enabling Ministers to give important news first to the Parliament to which they are accountable; and they can be highly disruptive to the scheduled business of the House. Most Statements, of course, originate in the Commons; according to the Companion the decision whether to have a Commons Statement repeated is for the Leader of the House,[22] but by current practice it is up to the Official Opposition. The Opposition spokesmen usually receive the text of each Statement in advance, to enable them to prepare their remarks; back-benchers usually do not. It is therefore reasonable that the front benches have the lion's share of the time. In dealing with Statements, the front benches must nonetheless bear back-benchers in mind: both those who wish to raise questions on the Statement, and those waiting to take part in other business which the Statement interrupts or delays.

  53. It has been put to us from several quarters that fewer Statements should be taken, and that both front- and back-bench interventions should be shorter. Some Lords favour time-limiting the front benches; some even wonder whether Commons Statements should be repeated at all.

  54. The nature and scale of the problem can be seen by looking at the 20 Statements (all repeats) between the summer and Christmas recesses in 1998.[23] The following points emerge:

    (a)  20 Statements were repeated out of a possible 28, i.e. 71 per cent of Commons Statements were repeated. Of the 8 not repeated, 3 were answers to Commons Private Notice Questions, and 3 were the second Statement of 2 on the same day.

    (b)  On average, Lords proceedings on the 20 Statements[24] lasted a total of 52 minutes. Commons proceedings, to which no formal time limits apply, lasted on average just 5 minutes longer. On 5 occasions, this House took longer than the Commons.

    (c)  On average, front-bench exchanges took 22 minutes. On 4 occasions they took 30 minutes or more; and on 2 occasions the length of front-bench comments drew protests from the back benches.

    (d)  The average number of back-benchers to speak within the 20 minutes allowed was 6; the total was never more than 10. In the Commons, the average was 18, the total never fewer than 10. On 2 occasions the duty Whip rebuked a back-bencher for going on too long.

These figures only confirm what active members of the House already know.

  55. We do not recommend any formal rule changes; we believe that the House's existing conventions on Statements are satisfactory, provided that all Lords respect them. However, in our view, the Opposition should be more selective in asking for Statements to be repeated.[25] Seventy-one per cent seems to be too high a figure.

  56. Secondly, the front benches should be brief, and should restrict themselves to "brief comments and questions for clarification" as the Companion says. In 1995, the House agreed that "the time for front-bench questions and comments and the Minister's reply should not normally be longer than the period for back-benchers", i.e. 20 minutes.[26] This decision is not reflected even in the up-to-date Companion accessible via the PDVN,[27] and appears to have been forgotten; we recommend that it be reaffirmed and respected.

  57. Back-benchers too should exercise restraint, restricting themselves to brief comments and questions rather than speeches, so as to allow more Lords to intervene within the 20 minutes available. In this respect Lords could learn from the example of the House of Commons.

  58. We also recommend that:

    (a)  The time when a Statement is to be taken (e.g. "after amendment 20" or "after the first debate"), once agreed between the Whips, should be put on the annunciator.

    (b)  A Lord who was not present to hear a Statement should not speak on it.[28]

    (c)  The practice of noting unrepeated Statements on the cover of Hansard should be revived.[29]


21  A 20-minute limit was introduced for discussion of repeated Statements in 1988, and extended to Lords Statements in 1989. The front-bench exchanges were excluded from the time limit in 1990. Back
22  "Ministerial statements made in the Commons are repeated in the Lords, when, in the opinion of the Leader of the House following discussion through the usual channels, they are on a matter of national importance" (Companion p. 81). Back
23  Excluding the Statement on Iraq on 16 December, which was made the occasion of a short debate, by agreement among the usual channels. Back
24  Including the Statement itself. Back
25  This is not a novel recommendation. In their 1st Report 1987-88, the Procedure Committee recommended "that the criterion for oral repetition of a Statement should be strictly interpreted, so that the number of Statements taken orally is substantially reduced." In 1985-86, 74 per cent of Commons Statements and answers to Private Notice Questions were repeated in the Lords. Back
26  Procedure Committee 1st Report 1994-95, agreed to on 10 January 1995. Back
27  Parliamentary Data and Video Network. Back
28  This is the practice in the Commons: see Erskine May p. 307. Back
29  This practice was introduced in 1988, but has lapsed. It is up to the Government Whips Office to notify the Editor of Debates when a Commons Statement is not to be repeated. Back

 
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