Memorandum from the Liberal Democrats
Our approach is that the 2001 General Election
has consolidated the pluralist nature of Parliamentary democracy
in the UKending the two party duopoly of the last centuryas
well as endorsing the need for more effective scrutiny and accountability.
The modernisation agenda, so tentatively pursued by consensus
in the last Parliament, should be revitalised rather than reversed.
The core objective is NOT to make life easier
for Parliamentarians, or to make their working hours shorter,
but to make them and their time, more effective.
In addition, we believe that the current review
of proposals for the second stage of Lords reform offers an opportunity
to re-examine the relationship between the roles of the two Houses.
Hitherto the changes in the Second Chamber have concentrated eccentrically
on its membership at the expense of what it should dodeciding
who should be recruited before deciding the job specification.
We recommend the appointment of a Joint Select Committee of both
Houses to consider this issue, examining evidence from the public
rather than simply listening to the introvert views of Parliamentarians
and the political "chattering classes".
The following proposals are in no sense exhaustive.
While these ideas derive from existing Party policies (see footnotes),
they are updated and spelt out in more detail, following recent
studies of these issues.
2. Modernisation OBJECTIVES
2.1 Short Term improvements should include:
Before electronic voting systems
are re-examined, a simple reform would be to install an additional
clerk to record abstentions in the "No" lobby.
The move forward on Programme Motions,
Programme Sub Committees etc will need careful monitoring, but
the other options for improved scrutiny set out in the first Modernisation
Committee Report 1997-98 should also be activated for appropriate
bills (eg pre-legislative scrutinyi, carry-over votes etc). In
addition, we would support investigation of the potential for
committees on Bills to take evidence, as suggested by Michael
In due course the value and validity
of a Business Committee should be reappraised. In the meantime,
the Opposition Parties are justified in demanding implementation
of the Modernisation Committee recommendation of discussions following
each Queen's Speech to seek agreement on the management of the
legislative programme. The advantages of carry-over to the Government
necessitate this quid pro quoii.
The procedure for Private Members
Bills needs urgent revision to make it more effective and less
frustrating for all concerned (eg by taking Bills on Wednesday
Legislation derived from EU Directives
continues to receive inadequate scrutiny: the previous proposal
that more but smaller European Standing Committees would permit
more cross membership with the appropriate Departmental Select
Committees, and so greater specialisation, must be pursuediv.
Similarly, the procedure when European
Standing Committees feel it necessary to bring an issue to the
whole House is anomalous and undemocratic: using Westminster Hall,
or Friday sittings in the Chamber, but voting on the deferred
vote "pinks" could provide the extra debating time to
Scrutiny of treaties would seem to
be another area of democratic deficit: this may be more appropriately
undertaken by the reformed Second Chamber in due course, but in
the meantime a Joint Committee mechanism should be considered.
We support the conclusions of the
recent examination of the various proposals for the reinforced
role of Select Committees by the Modernisation Committee. In particular,
we strongly endorse the concept of a committee of senior backbenchersindependent
of the Whipsto adjudicate on nominations to the Select
The constraints on the ability of
Select Committees to insist on the attendance of witnesses, whose
evidence on the development of policy or its application is considered
vital to an inquiry, should be reviewed. For example, former Ministersnow
in the House of Lordscannot continue to be exempt, and
the role of special advisers must be clarified.
The Library is the principal source
of quality, independent information on which MPs depend to perform
their scrutiny role effectively: the quality of support is excellent,
but turnaround times are sometimes insufficient, and more resources
may be neededsee below for longer term solution.
A separate Vote for communications
technology will be necessary to ensure that, as technologies converge
and become more powerful, Members are able to harness ICT to best
effect for their constituents.
A more comprehensive investigation
of the implications of the new technologies for the political
process is required to ensure that both Parliamentary conventions
and electoral guidelines are relevant and robust.
Notice for oral Parliamentary Questions
should be reduced to the same as for written ones, to ensure greater
topicality. Tabling and answers should be permissible during at
least part of the long summer recess.
2.2 Medium Term improvements should include:
The dividing line between "Parliamentary"
and "political" uses of Short Money is becoming less
and less easy to rationalise, and must be reviewed: when so much
of the Government's activity is communicated via the media, the
restrictions on MPs and Opposition Parties, and on the way in
which they hold the Government to account through the media, look
Some more formal coordination of
the work of the Select Committees in the two Houses seems essential
to prevent duplication and aid coordination: perhaps this is a
role for Liaison Committee?
The whole geography and architecture
of Whitehall can be transformed overnight by Prime Ministerial
dictat, without any reference to Parliament. We suggest that new
Secretaries of Stateespecially when responsibilities changeshould
be called before the appropriate Select Committee (or a similar
Committee in the Second Chamber) to set out their priorities and
The Modernisation Committee should
continue to review the Parliamentary Day, Week and Year. The failure
to attract more women MPs is just one of the issues that should
be addressed in this context. The imbalance between heavy legislative
weeks, less arduous ones and long recess periods (out of sync
with family holidays) also needs attention.
The objective should not be to make
the Commons working arrangements more "MP friendly"
but to make them more "voter friendly". The Parliamentary
Day should be geared to communication with those we represent.
For example, Questions should start at 11.30 am on Tuesday, Wednesdays,
and Thursdays (and Statements should follow immediately) to grab
back the midday news spotlight from Ministerial Press conferences.
Main business debates should end at 9 pm (7 pm on Thursdays),
to enable the conclusion (and divisions) to be reported on the
10 pm bulletins.
This is preferable to the suggested
alternative of Statements before Questions, since those Ministers
and Members required for the latter will be known well in advance,
and potential conflicts with Standing or Select Committee meetings
in the late morning can be avoided, while short-notice topical
Statements at 11.30 am could cause frequent conflicts. This sequence
would also work best for Private Notice Questions, following on
from the main Questions hour.
We have already recommended that
the Summer recess should start earlier in July, it should end
after the August Bank Holiday, the "spill-over" should
be completed before the three party conferences and the new session
should start in mid October. This would more closely relate to
the school year in most parts of the UK.
2.3 Long Term improvements should include:
The above suggestions for strengthening
the scrutiny role are essentially modest. To increase the opportunities
of Select Committees, and individual Members, to hold the executive
to account may require a more radical and holistic approach for
the whole of Parliament. Information is often the key to power.
We suggest the resources of the Lords and Commons Libraries should
be combined and enhanced to provide this additional impact at
minimal additional cost.
The privileged status afforded to "Her
Majesty's Loyal Opposition" is both an absurd anachronism
and a throwback to confrontational politics. That it should still
dominate Commons procedure (although it has not been necessary
in the Lords), and result in an additional £500,000 payment
of taxpayers' money to one party, adds injury to insult.
3.1 Short Term improvements should include:
On Statements and Second Reading
Debates the Speaker should be asked to follow the pattern so successfully
used in the Lords, abandoning the alternation between Government
and Opposition until all three parties have set out their position:
ie Minister, Conservative spokesperson, Liberal Democrat spokesperson,
then Ministerial reply. This sequence both aids a proper triangular
exchange of views and ensures speedier progress to the backbench
The Liberal Democrat Spokesperson
should speak from the Dispatch Box when opening/winding up a debate;
the monopoly claim of the Conservative Opposition is a relatively
recent informal conventionbroken on a number of occasions
throughout the twentieth Centuryand has no practical or
political merit in such circumstances.
In debates and Questions the ratio
of contributions should follow the Parliamentary arithmetic (eg
Conservative spokespersons should not get extra supplementary
questions at the end, on top of the ratio allocation).
The Liberal Democrat reasoned amendment
should not be excluded just because a Conservative one has been
accepted: with the new late night voting arrangements there is
now no practical objection.
Allocation of Opposition Supply Days
is perverse: it should relate strictly to the arithmetic of the
number in each Opposition Party, with the dates and days of the
week selected by the Business Committee (when constituted).
The same arithmetic proportions should
apply to the nomination of Deputy Speakers and Chairs of departmental
The arrangements for wind-up speeches
should be reviewed to take account of the presence of three major
parties in the House.
Similarly, where Government Departments
are combined (eg Transport with Environment, Environment with
Rural Affairs or Transport with Local Government) the Liberal
Democrats should enjoy the same opportunity to nominate two spokespersons
to ask questions as enjoyed by the Conservatives.
3.2 Long Term improvements should include:
The now consolidated position in
the House of the Liberal Democrats as a third major party demands
a review of the funding formula (over and above the Short Money)
to include support for the Leader's and Whip's offices.
The layout of the Commons Chamber
is neither necessarily permanent nor immutable: early venues were
in circular and other formats, and the absurdity of squashing
400 and more Members on one "side" to preserve the fiction
of two party confrontational politics is a practical as well as
an electoral absurdity.
i Cook Maclennanp.15, 6; see also Reforming
Governance in the UK 3.6.1
ii Reforming Governance in the UK 3.2.3, 3.6.1
iii Reforming Governance in the UK 3.2.3
iv Cook Maclennanp.15, 70; Reforming
Governance in the UK, 3.7.2
v Cook Maclennanp.16, 72; Reforming Governance
in the UK, 3.7.1