Letter from the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe
MP to the Clerk of the Committee
I have some comments to make on the consultation
document on modernisation of the House of Commons.
Modernisation should not reduce the opportunity
of the Opposition and indeed other MPs to scrutinise the work
of the Executive. The vast proliferation of timetable motions
covering even the detailed committee stages of Bills, has meant
an increasing amount of law on which Parliament has never voted
and indeed which it has not even debated. No change in hours or
anything else should effect a further reduction.
In this context I do not think limiting a Second
Reading debate to three hours is remotely desirable. Already pressure
on the Chamber has been relieved by debates in Westminster Hall.
That was not a development of which I approved as I believed such
business should be conducted in the Chamber but given that it
has taken place it seems to me to be quite disingenuous to suggest
that debates in the Chamber should be shorter in order to enable
more of them to occur.
The suggestion in paragraph 12 of the report
is that it is frustrating for new members to sit through a whole
days debate without ever being called to speak. Why? Are debates
not for listening as well as participating? What the Report is
promoting is an extension of the already undesirable situation
whereby the Chamber is of less and less importance to Members
and they spend less time in it. It does no harm to have to sit
through lengthy debates sometimes in order to contribute. One
of the greatest diminutions of the importance of the Chamber has
been the advent of live televisions into offices. It is increasingly
less necessary for Members to attend the Chamber to hear a debate
and to simply add to that by reducing incentive to sit through
debates seems to me to be perverse rather than helpful.
Indeed it is a nonsense that a fortnight elapses
between tabling questions and their being answered but simply
reducing the time is not the solution. There will always be highly
topical issues which may come up a few days before the oral questions
are taken or indeed on the day itself. It seems to me that the
Official Opposition frontbench at least, should have a "wild
card" and that there should be one question available to
them the content of which does not have to be specified in advance.
There is nothing particularly revolutionary about this as it will
simply follow the pattern established for Prime Ministers Questions.
I personally would like to see this extended to supplementaries
so that backbenchers could also ask topical questions.
I find convincing the argument for a separate
entry on the Order Paper for notice of written statements.
I am broadly in favour of the concept of pre-legislative
scrutiny providing that does not act as an excuse for reducing
time for debate in the Chamber.
I fail to see how sitting hours which relate
more closely to working practices in the outside world would benefit
the constituents and families of MPs who represent areas outside
London. As MPs have a vast amount of work to do over and above
the business of the Chamber I have always felt that there should
be a predictable time when they are not going to be required in
the Chamber and are able to take on meetings and other appointments.
As most sensible people do not schedule their business meetings
for late evening that period has always been the mornings. I personally
have found Thursdays difficult for that very reason; it is impossible
to predict whether one might be required for morning business
or not. I would therefore be against any further incursion of
sitting hours into mornings.
It is disingenuous to offer three hours of time
between 7 pm and 10 pm on Wednesday to compensate for the loss
of Fridays. Private Members Second Reading debates on Fridays
have up to five hours so effectively by shortening such debates
to three hours fewer Members would have the opportunity to take
I strongly disagree with the proposal to break
up the long summer recess. Summer recess is used for two purposesfirstly
to have a holiday and secondly to have an uninterrupted substantial
period in the constituency. In my view it is crucial to keep September
clear for the second purpose. For example schools are back in
September. Members whose constituencies are at a distance from
London and who are therefore restricted to Fridays for all visits
to schools and businesses value the greater opportunity afforded
by September. I would strenuously oppose the House sitting during
this month which I have always found to be quite invaluable in
terms of constituency visits and work and I speak as a Member
with a constituency close to London who does find it possible
sometimes to go down during the week for these purposes.
It seems to me incredible that the Report gives
a reason for the new proposal acceptability to the press. Since
when did Parliament arrange its affairs according to the likes
and dislikes of the press? As Members have to attend their own
Party Conference, if September were to disappear all the work
now done in a four week period would have to be crammed into two
and I consider this to be unacceptable. Constituencies expect
to see their Members of Parliament and there is no opportunity
like September. Furthermore September is a time when Members with
children will be settling them into new schools etc and seems
to me to be a bad month in which to insist that Members should
be in London.
I am opposed to any form of electronic voting
and I do not think that it would be remotely sustainable that
Members have to actually attend in person to vote electronically.
What would happen would be enormous pressure to be able to do
this at a greater distance. The whole point about divisions is
that they supply real amounts of time for Ministers and colleagues
to mingle and for backbenchers to get access to Members of the
Executive. If Members were simply to come to press buttons and
go again then it would be a very different proposition. The whole
point about Members voting in sequence through a series of divisions
is that they are then physically in and about the Chamber for
a prolonged period of time and I think that if this is lost something
very valuable will be lost with it.
20 December 2001