Letter from Mr Graham Allen MP to the
Clerk of the Committee
Can I warmly congratulate the Leader of the
House on the personal mark he has made with his consultation paper
on Modernisation of the House of Commons, which offers a real
chance not only of reforming its procedures but also making them
more relevant to voters. As he suggests, there is no more important
task for Parliamentarians of all parties than overcoming apathy
and disenchantment towards the political process, particularly
among first-time voters.
I support and endorse all the proposals made
in his evidence and see them as the first important steps towards
the genuinely independent Parliament that our democracy needs
I hope the Committee will find the following
comments and further suggestions helpful as you take this programme
forward with the House authorities and other interested parties.
(Paragraph numbers refer to those in the paper).
Paragraphs 5 and 6 refer to the process
of nominations for Departmental Select Committees, which is being
examined by the Modernization Committee. Elsewhere you have expressed
support for reform of the present system, and rightly so because
essentially it puts selection of members in the hands of party
whips. No other legislature in the world, except possibly the
North Korean, allows the government the power to nominate the
members who investigate its activities.
It would be more logical and more democratic
to have members elected by all MPs. At the beginning of each Parliament,
MPs would nominate themselves for the Select Committees on which
they want to serve. If there were more nominations on a Committee
than vacancies for the party concerned, that party would organize
a secret ballot of its MPs to elect the required number of Committee
places. (I would favour simple first-past-the-post voting, one
vote per member per committee, so as to discourage slates and
I think that such a system would encourage MPs
to choose colleagues whom they most respected and those who could
provide a gender or social or regional balance to the relevant
Committee, while minimising the possibility of hidden influence
or secret deals. The MPs so elected would have the legitimacy
and independence which is essential to their Committee, and would
inspire the greatest belief from the public.
Paragraph 12 Three simple reforms would
dramatically improve the opportunities for Members:
(a) rigidly enforced limits on speeches (10
minutes for backbenchers, 15 for frontbenchersno special
privileges for privy councillors);
(b) members to have extra time added if they
give way to interventions: this would encourage genuine cut-and-thrust
(c) allowing speeches or parts of speeches
not made for lack of time to be "read formally" into
Hansard by being handed to the clerks at the time of the debate
(a facility which Congress enjoys in the United States). This
would give constituents and local media more awareness of what
Parliament might mean to them.
Paragraph 13 I strongly support the outright
abolition of the 14-day notice period for Oral Questions. This
would bring topical political debate back to the daily Parliamentary
questions and public policy in place of detail and trivia. Unless
members want a specific reply on an issue, they should simply
put their names into the ballot. When ministers know who is likely
to be called to ask a Question, they would know his or her likely
constituency and other interests. It is always open to the Member
to give advance notice of an intended supplementary.
On written questions, these are a devalued currency
these days. Written PQs should be limited to three a day and be
given proper answers by government with appeal to the Speaker
if fobbed off. The Speaker would be empowered to call the Minister
to try and answer again, perhaps at 3.30pm on a Wednesday afternoon.
Similarly with EDMs, members should be limited
to one a week with the one which gains the highest cross party
support being detailed for two hours on the following Friday.
Private Members Bills. Six should be chosen
and debated on six separate Fridays (which would go in MP's diaries)
and be given a second reading vote at 2.30pm.
Paragraph 18 You are right to emphasise
the importance and value of publishing bills in draft for scrutiny.
The public at large should be given the maximum opportunity to
comment on draft bills and suggest their own amendments. Two simple
reforms would promote this:
(a) conspicuous public advertisements, in
all media, on the publication of draft bills with an instant response
available to anyone interested;
(b) all bills to be put out for pre legislative
scrutiny [this would allow MP's to become involved in the process],
and comments and suggested amendments be encouraged on-line and
filtered by a professional mediator [this would allow the public
to become involved].
Consideration should be given to rewarding or
recognising individuals who suggest ideas which are accepted by
the government. There are also "Parliamentary trainspotters"
among the general public who often can spot to add technical or
clarifying amendments to aid the work of legislative drafting:
they should be encouraged.
Although not mentioned in your paper, I think
there is much scope to make Standing Committees on bills more
accessible to the public. They should be reported online and on
digital media as they happen, with a team of committee officers
providing a technical "running commentary" on the proceedings
(as in "Ms X has tabled an amendment to make it unlawful
to refuse any hospital treatment on grounds of age.") Members
of the Standing Committee could also take it in turns to answer
questions on live tv on its progress. Our aim should be to remove
the current habit of using Committees in order to sign correspondence
and actively encourage MPs to engage in the process.
It would be very beneficial to both the scrutiny
and public comprehension of legislation if Explanatory Notes on
Bills were given the force of law as a guide to their interpretation.
It could be achieved by a universal provision in all Acts of Parliament:
unless the contrary intention appears in the words of any section
it is to be interpreted as if it achieved the result intended
in the relevant Explanatory Note.
This simple reform would make it far easier
for the public to judge what a Bill was meant to do and whether
its words were likely to achieve it. I suspect it would also save
the country millions in legal bills after complex or obscure Bills
Paragraph 23 I particularly welcome your
suggestion that Parliament should regularly review the implementation
of laws after they have come into force. This would give a welcome
opportunity for practitioners to comment on their first-hand
experience of legislative changesParliament would benefit
greatly from their expertise, which is rarely canvassed under
the present system. Post-legislative scrutiny should be built
into the Parliamentary process. Automatically, 12 to 18 months
after the coming into force of an act, it should be reviewed by
the same Standing Committee which scrutinised it originally.
(I favour the Standing Committee for this job because I think
it would make its members do a better job in the first place if
they know that their work would be reviewed. However, in some
circumstancesespecially of course a new Parliamentits
members might not be available, in which case the job of post
legislative scrutiny would fall to the relevant Select Committee.)
In post legislative scrutiny, the Committee
would have a special duty to take evidence from practitioners.
It would then put forward recommendations for amendments to improve
the working of the Act in question. Those accepted by the government,
whether for technical or policy reasons, could be put into an
amendment bill which should have accelerated consideration in
both Houses (unless the government added amendments of its own).
Paragraphs 33-35 This objective would
be advanced even further if the House had morning sessions on
In paragraph 58 you draw attention, rightly,
to the need to educate and engage young people about Parliament.
This could be done very effectively by creating a mock Parliament
offering visitors some chance of participating in its history
and procedures. For example, actors might re-enact great moments
of Parliamentary history while offering visitors a role in the
drama. Even more creatively, the mock Parliament could allow the
public to simulate the role of present day MPs. It would stage
topical debates, questions and votes in which arcane Parliamentary
procedures could be explained dramatically. It might be possible
for MPs to book the mock Parliament in advance for visitors from
their constituency, including schools and community associations.
The visitors could "put down" Questions and subjects
for debate which would be "answered" on behalf of the
government of the day, either by actors or officials or even by
MPs if they were prepared to participate.
I am convinced that this facility would be very
heavily subscribed and I intend to write about it further. It
would be historically appropriate to stage it in Westminster Hall,
which is underused and under-appreciated by visitors.
I look forward to your response.
Once again a heartfelt welcome to the proposals
in the Leader's evidence and congratulations on his personal courage
in meeting a challenge which so many have baulked at.
25 February 2002