CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1370-i

HOUSE OF COMMONS

ORAL EVIDENCE

TAKEN BEFORE THE

Procedure Committee

Sittings of the House and the Parliamentary Calendar

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Dr Ruth Fox and Professor Sarah Childs

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1-43

USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT

1.This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

2.The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.

Oral Evidence

Taken before the Procedure Committee

on Wednesday 29 June 2011

Members present:

Mr Greg Knight (Chair)

Mr Roger Gale

Mr James Gray

John Hemming

Mr David Nuttall

Bridget Phillipson

________________

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: Dr Ruth Fox, Director, Parliament and Government Programme, Hansard Society, and Professor Sarah Childs, Professor of Politics and Gender, University of Bristol, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: Dr Fox and Professor Childs, thank you for coming and giving us your time and the benefit of your opinions. We are making this a very thorough inquiry indeed, and at this stage we have an open mind on all aspects of what we are looking at. Would either of you like to start with an opening statement or shall we go straight to questions?

Professor Sarah Childs: I am quite happy to go straight to questions.

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes, straight to questions.

Q2 Chair: There is a view, I think, among most MPs that their role is changing and that the amount of constituency work they have to do has vastly increased. Do you have any empirical evidence that would corroborate that?

Professor Sarah Childs: Academically speaking, there has been very little, in recent times, systematic coverage. Obviously, you (Ruth) can talk about the Hansard Society survey, but we do not have a great deal of research about it. It is predominantly anecdotal and in autobiographies and in other sorts of survey where it is captured marginally through other kinds of questions. There has not been a large-scale systematic academic study of which I am aware.

Dr Ruth Fox: We know that, in terms of constituency casework, for example, if you just look at the figures on the constituency postbag that comes into the Palace of Westminster and comparative figures historically, the sheer volume has increased dramatically. Obviously, email has in a sense exacerbated that. The Hansard Society has historically looked at how Members split their time and what indications that gives you. Certainly, in our study, A Year in the Life, looking at new Members of Parliament and their life experience in 2005, which we are repeating this year with the 2010 intake, we found that, although the majority of the time physically may be spent Monday to Friday on the parliamentary estate, in terms of how Members are dividing their time between constituency or local-focused work and parliamentary work-Chamber or Committee work-it is about 60% on the local constituency and 40% on the parliamentary side. They are spending more time here, but their focus is still quite localised. But, as Sarah said, we do not have any substantial data to underpin exactly what the sheer volume is other than what Members anecdotally report in various ways.

Q3 Chair: If you had to make a judgement on it, would you say that email was the main driver of this change? Certainly, from my own postbag in the last decade, email has gone from being 5% of how constituents contact me to now being about 90% of the chosen mode. It is so easy to do. Do you think that is the main driver or could there be other factors such as 24-hour news, for example?

Dr Ruth Fox: I think there is a range of factors and I do not think this is something that has happened just in the last few years with the communications revolution driven by the internet. That has certainly exacerbated it, and the evidence we have is that a significant proportion of correspondence now is coming in through email, and the level of expectation is rising in terms of the rapidity of response and turnaround that Members can provide to constituents and interest groups and so on.

However, the drivers are more complex than that alone, and this goes back, in my view, 30 to 40 years. I think party influence is quite significant. I do not think this is just about procedural issues or how MPs focus their work when they arrive here. It is about how they begin life as candidates before they get here, and the party influence in their recruitment and their selection as candidates. There is very much a pressure and an emphasis placed on them as local candidates, providing a constituency service at the local level to establish their reputation, their name and so on. If you look at the parties historically, I think it begins in its early form in the 1970s with the Liberals and community politics and focusstyle campaigning. You see that picked up by the Labour Party in the 1980s and 1990s to the point where, after the 1997 general election, I think it was, the Labour Party had essentially a contract with their new MPs in that new intake that if they contacted X number of people per week-and there was a calculated figure from the point at which the contract was reached with the party, if you like, through to the next general election; I think it was something like 25,000 households-they were guaranteed key seat status with all that accompanied that.

Now, inevitably, if you are going out and having door-to-door or telephone contact with constituents on that level, it generates correspondence, contact, issues and grievances that the Members are then in a position of servicing. I think party influence is part of it, and by the time candidates get here who have been perhaps campaigning locally for four, five, six, seven, eight years perhaps, through to the last general election to try to win their seats, trying to pull away from that level of local community resident service is quite difficult because an expectation has been built up. You say it is impossible; I tend to agree with you. An expectation has built up, and they are candidates who are campaigners and then all of a sudden they become parliamentarians, but very little about their pre-election experience is dedicated to thinking about what they are going to do when they get here and what it is going to mean in terms of time management, workload and so on and how that is going to be managed with the local service. I think for some there is a sense in which they retreat to a comfort zone as well. It is very difficult to say no, it is very difficult to manage the workload as a consequence, and for some there is satisfaction in it, but there is also a degree of comfort zone in the nature of the work.

Q4 Chair: Do you think this inevitably downgrades the role of Parliament?

Dr Ruth Fox: Not necessarily. I think it depends from Member to Member in terms of what they do and how they manage it. In 2005, in our Year in the Life study, we had one Member who reported through the surveys that they spent 97% of their time on constituency casework and correspondence and so on. I think if you are getting to those kinds of levels it downgrades the role of Parliament, but I think there is a balance to be struck. Clearly, Members use their constituency casework to inform their parliamentary work. The best Members will be able to utilise the process and procedure here to generate results for their constituents, generate information, generate some solutions, or at least air issues and tease out problems in debate or through Committee work or whatever. Certainly, I think there is a sense that possibly the balance is tipping a bit too far on the local side, and there are worries about the degree to which scrutiny and accountability here is sufficiently focused.

Q5 Chair: Have either of you ever studied what happens in Germany where members of the Bundestag in effect appear to do very little constituency work as we know it? Most constituents are encouraged to refer their complaints to a parliamentary petitions committee. Over there, parliamentarians just deal with the work in Parliament. Do you think we could ever move in that direction?

Professor Sarah Childs: I am not a comparative politics person, so to speak, on this topic anyway, but I think that is what I was trying to get at when I talked about perhaps an attitudinal shift towards recognising different spheres of influence, because one of the drivers, as well as the emphasis on local, which has been documented in academic work, is this sense that the downgrading of local government over the last couple of decades-that disappearing sense of the local politician who will sort out the local issue-has meant that the MP has had to compensate, and may be very willing to compensate. I think they not only look back to their campaign, they are looking forward, because studies also show that one can gain votes through local presence and local campaigning.

I do not have the experience of someone who is on the ground being an MP and has all these demands on them, but I think it would have to be a mediumterm attitudinal change that would require some kind of new structure to take up the issues. I think you are right that the constituency representation side can feed into being a good parliamentarian, but I am not sure it necessarily has to be at the level of being, in effect, the case worker. In all sorts of ways we are told that MPs do not always do the casework. They will have a case worker and then they will hear about it themselves. It may not always be firsthand. Perhaps somebody else, maybe a local ombudsperson, could do that kind of casework, with the MP still aware of what was going on in their constituency. I think there is a difference between representing constituency issues in Parliament and issues that might come up through the constituency and your being the person responsible for dealing with that person who has a problem with the local health authority. Do you see what I mean? That information could be passed to the MP through different kinds of structures rather than their always having to do it themselves.

Dr Ruth Fox: On this issue generally, again, we do not do much international comparative work. Our focus tends to be comparatively with Scotland and Wales, and they have exactly the same problems. I think that, with a country like Germany, there is a different political culture associated with multilayered governance, and there is an expectation of and a strength to more local level politics and government that we do not have here. I think one of the issues for many MPs is that if you have a constituent who comes to you with a housing problem, say, you are not in principle minded to say, "That is a local government issue; I am not getting involved" and you make that your approach from the outset, if you do engage in these issues. There is a reluctance I think for, say, a Conservative politician to hand it over to a Labour councillor if it is in their ward and that is their responsibility. I said Conservative to Labour; I think it is equally true Labour to Conservative or even Liberal Democrat to Conservative. There is a reluctance to pass on the issue to someone who may be a representative of another political party because there is a risk that, firstly, you do not know what is going to happen to it; secondly, you lose the potential electoral dividend that may be attached to solving that problem.

Part of it is also that there is a concern about, frankly, the levels of competence of some local government members and the degree to which they are resourced to do some of the casework that Members are facing that they would be then passing on. Whereas what you have, what a lot of MPs find, in my experience, is that in effect they have somebody at their local council who is appointed and staffed to resource the MP’s incoming correspondence and bring the weight of the MP’s authority, and add something that perhaps sometimes the local councillor just does not achieve. There are problems with that.

We were talking earlier of the possibility of reaching a situation that Sarah alluded to in her evidence-it would have to be a multilateral agreement; there would have to be real political will by the parties to do it. Could you reach a situation whereby MPs just said, "You know what? This has gone too far, and across the board we are all going to agree that we are not going to engage with certain types of cases, certain types of correspondence and certain types of agencies"? Define what those are and then that reduces the level of demand. I am dubious about whether that could be done. It is similar in the United States where US Senators, for example, represent their constituents only on federal agency issues and will refer state or judicial or civil matters to the requisite body or individuals at the local state level, but they have a different system of government.

Professor Sarah Childs: I think you would also have to think about doing it in a context where you make clear to the public that you were not trying to do less work, because, of course, the current climate would be suspicious, it seems to me, of MPs saying, "Look, we do not deal with that anymore. It never was our remit but we did it for a couple of decades, and we realise we really should not be doing it and we are now going to turn our backs on you". But I do not think that is necessarily a reason not to try, as long as it is part of a wider package where you are selling yourselves as parliamentarians, as scrutinisers of the Executive, of engaging in activity and being present, because it seems to me that a lot of the issues around these points of reform are about misperceptions on behalf of the public of how much time MPs spend on X or do not spend on Y or are on recess and all of those kind of issues. I think it has to be part of an educative package around subsequent reforms or additional reforms.

Q6 Mr Gale: In a sense this is more of an observation, I suppose, than a question, but one thing that we all have to take into account is the vast discrepancy between constituencies. If you have a constituency with very high social deprivation, your volume of constituency casework is going to be colossal. If you represent a middle class, leafy suburb and the electorate is well used to and capable of dealing with its own problems, you do not have the same volume. Can I gently suggest to you that the concept that you take a parliamentary view, "We will draw a line and not do that", simply cannot work because it will have a huge impact in some areas?

Professor Sarah Childs: Even if it was replaced by some other structure or body that would pick that up? At one level, that is suggesting there are two different classes of MP, some of whom have the luxury, shall we call it at this point, of representing a constituency where one does not have those demands, and others who may be absolutely overwhelmed. That then suggests that an MP’s ability to participate fully at Westminster may be determined by the kind of seat for which they are selected.

Mr Gray: That is true.

Mr Gale: There is an element of truth in that, yes.

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes. I suppose what I am asking you is whether that is considered to be problematic and unfair and restrictive on what the House can get out of its MPs, but also what individual MPs can do within the House, if that makes sense. I do not think it solves the question.

Mr Gale: Your other structure suggestion is effectively already there, but it does not work.

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes.

Q7 Mr Gale: If I get a constituency query concerning housing, for instance, I have two options. I pass it to the local councillor, ward councillor, who may well be of my own party, or I go direct to the housing officer. If I do the former, I am just seen to be passing the buck and it takes more time, and it means another letter and another letter instead of one letter. I might as well just do it myself in the first place. That is the problem.

Dr Ruth Fox: That is the problem.

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes. Still, I suppose the question I would ask is, if the problem is in the ability of that local level to deal with the issue that they should be dealing with, why is it that Members of Parliament are seen to be the solution to that problem as opposed to, in some sense, reforming or holding this other level to account?

Q8 Chair: Isn’t it more complex than that? Doesn’t the size of the sitting MP’s majority perhaps play a role as well in the sense that if you are in a marginal seat you may well be not prepared to face an electorate and say, "Look, this has nothing to do with me. Go to your local councillor" because you would not want it said down the local pub by that person, "The MP didn’t want to know; he sent me to someone else".

Professor Sarah Childs: I appreciate the difficulties of all of that. I suppose it is a question of whether one wants to try to change things over the medium term. I am not in any way trying to tell you how it would be if I was in your shoes and having to deal with a constituent who was saying, "Look, that bloody MP has ignored me, just deflected me onwards", but it is about, I suppose, considering a mediumterm change and whether there is a form of words that could be found, which is that there is this new structure and this is how it will be dealt with and that you are not passing it on because you are not interested in it but because it is the appropriate level at which to solve it.

Dr Ruth Fox: I was just going to add that I think my view is with yours. I do not think you are going to stem the demand. I just cannot see a political way through to stem the demand without huge changes to the system of government and representative politics at all levels. I have two worries about how it might get worse. One is the reduction in the number of MPs and the size of constituencies, and the second is particularly given that MPs are, if you like, the top end of the complaints process or grievance process, and you often get the most difficult, intractable cases. One of my concerns, and I flagged it a few months ago in Wales when I was there talking to the Remuneration Board about similar issues, is the impact of the cuts to the citizens advice bureaux network on certain MPs’ caseloads and on the advice structures at local level, whether that is going to drive even more casework your way, and the impact that then has on your resourcing. Then you come to the relationship with IPSA, which I hesitate to mention.

Q9 Mr Gray: Just on this question of making it worse, would you agree with me that there is a risk that some of the structures we are putting in place at the moment ourselves might make it worse? I am thinking particularly of staffing, where the Clerk of the House said that 40 years ago, when he got here, there was a total of 27 employees covering all 625-I think it was then-MPs and today there are 2,000 or something. The figures may be wrong but it is along those lines. A large number of those people are sitting in shops in high streets in the constituency saying, "Please, whoever you are, it does not matter who you are, bring us your problems. I am the MP and I will mend it". Some of the things that we are talking about here, or perhaps elsewhere, might correct that; in other words, focus staffing back in Parliament rather than the constituency. What do you think about that?

Dr Ruth Fox: It is in tune with what I was saying earlier about the degree to which MPs and the way they work in their constituencies in terms of their campaigning style and so on carries over as an MP. If you are making yourself highly available, with regular face-to-face contact with constituents as part of your campaigning strategy, particularly in marginal seats, then inevitably you are going-

Mr Gray: Sorry to interrupt. I was not talking about MPs. Of course we all do that. I was talking about parliamentary staff paid for out of the public funds.

Dr Ruth Fox: But the staff are there resourcing them, whatever is coming through. I do not know how many MPs have their office in a highly visual central shopping centre location.

Mr Gray: There are significant numbers.

Dr Ruth Fox: A fair number. It might well do, but then you have the issue of how you balance that with the desire and the need to be visible, to be seen to be present in the constituency and so on. If you are not there during the week-

Q10 Mr Gray: Sorry to interrupt. Parliamentary funds are not allowed to be used for campaigning or for increasing your own vote. They are allowed to be used only for parliamentary functions and if, therefore, what you are describing is MPs using parliamentary funds for staff sitting in the high streets for what effectively becomes either personal or political reasons, then there is something rotten right at the very heart of Denmark here. We are actually talking about abuse of parliamentary funds, are we not?

Dr Ruth Fox: I don’t think we are. I am rather more relaxed about this definition of parliamentary and political because I think you are all politicians; you are all elected. Any engagement you have with the public has a political element to it, otherwise what are you doing, frankly? Elected representatives are elected on a party ticket. Everything that you do operates, to my mind, within a shroud of a political perspective. I think that trying to draw the line on a constituency engagement issue or problem and dividing it as to whether that has come through a political route or a parliamentary route is highly difficult to do, and I think it gets into all sorts of tortuous questions.

I think that all the evidence shows that with the public, in terms of their attitudes to politicians and to Parliament, there are some real significant difficulties. Public knowledge may be going up but understanding is lagging behind. Every MP manages their office structure differently and I think it is for them to make that judgement. I suspect, if you are an MP in London or the south east who can get back to your constituency a little bit more often and, therefore, be more of a physical presence, you might feel differently about it from an MP in Scotland for whom getting back is much more difficult and, therefore, having their staff there and a presence is quite important. On the other hand, having staff here is more cost-effective because at Westminster the costs are all covered. If you base more staff here, you do not have the office rental and you do not have the phones and all of that. I think every MP is going to have to manage it individually, but there are some real difficulties with trying to decide what is political and what is parliamentary.

Mr Gale: Just so that it is a matter of record, the minimum additional cost of basing your staff in the constituency, as opposed to using facilities that are hidden costs because they are paid for by the House, is £17,000 a year.

Q11 Bridget Phillipson: Before I move on to the other question I was going to ask, just talking about casework and whether you take a case or send it on, I know colleagues take a different view, but for me it is not simply whether that person will vote for you but that you have a surgery; in my case someone may have travelled six, seven, eight miles to come and speak to me about an issue that may, as you have said, be an intractable problem that has taken some solving. I would find it personally very difficult to say, "It is lovely to see you, Mrs Smith, but on your way, it is a council matter".

Dr Ruth Fox: There are some MPs-I don’t know about this Parliament, but there were certainly a number of MPs in the last Parliament-who took the view that they would represent someone only if they were on the electoral register. That is a view to take. I think very few MPs take that, and my view, if I were in your circumstances, would be as yours. If somebody is coming through to your constituency surgery in a very emotional state with an intractable, difficult problem and you have some ability possibly to work and resolve that, it is very difficult to turn around and say no.

Q12 Bridget Phillipson: The Hansard Society memorandum says that public attitudes to politics, MPs and Parliament are complex, contradictory and rarely uniform. What do you both think has caused that gap? Is it up to MPs to change that or is it a question of the public better understanding the role of MPs?

Dr Ruth Fox: Do you want to start with that one? I will be here all day.

Professor Sarah Childs: Probably not, no. There have been so many changes culturally and politically over the last few decades, from the decline of partisanship to less deference to perhaps changes in family structures and society structures. I just do not think there is a single reason why. We know not to be too reactive to it, albeit about the expenses scandal, and it is not just a UK issue. It is such a big issue that has many, many factors driving it. I think perhaps MPs have some role to play in rectifying it, but I do not think that you could solve it.

Dr Ruth Fox: I think I have used the phrase a number of times in a number of speeches about public attitudes, and it is a polite way of saying that the public can often want diametrically opposed things, and say diametrically opposed things in the same conversation. The public attitude is based on our annual audit, which is an engagement survey that we have now done for the last eight years, so we are able to benchmark and track changes and so on. Expenses have minimal impact. MPs were already distrusted. It served to confirm public attitudes rather than change and alter them, so it is not that.

I think it is about a lack of understanding, and there is a clear knowledge problem. There is a growing level of interest in politics, but there is a knowledge deficit. Parliament, for example, does not have an institutional independent identity from Government, so people mix up what Parliament and Government are. They do not really understand the differences between them. That is problematic for the perception of this place as an institution. I think the relevance of Parliament has declined; in our survey it was significantly behind in terms of, "What are the institutions that most impact on your everyday life?" It was significantly behind media every time and also behind local government. But interestingly, and this is where the complexity comes in, people feel that local government has more impact and more relevance to their everyday lives, and they feel that they are quite interested in local government, but they feel less knowledgeable about local government than national government.

It is a very complex picture and I don’t think there is any magic silver bullet that is going to solve it. If there were, I would be a rich woman and I would not be working at the Hansard Society. It is hugely complex and an awful lot more work needs to be done. We are going to be doing some of that over the course of the next year with some academics at Sheffield University and Southampton University, getting out of London, right across the country, and doing qualitative research to look at it. The audit tells us what they think, but not why they think that, how they arrive at those attitudes and what the influences and the pressures are. A lot of academic research has been done by numerous academics globally about this, but a lot of that is based on quantitative work, survey work, and we need to dig down to how people arrive at those perceptions, but we are not there yet in terms of understanding it.

Q13 Bridget Phillipson: Something that comes up with me time and again specifically as an MP from the northeast is, I think, the confusion people sometimes have about the nature of your role in terms of simply where you are based. You will speak to people and they say, "How often do you go to London? Do you go to London?" or, "Why are you not in the constituency? Why are you in London?" I think there is sometimes that misunderstanding about how you do your job, what your role is and where you need to be in order to do that.

Professor Sarah Childs: I think that needs to be demystified. The point Mr Gray made concerning-or I think you made it perhaps first, Ruth-reduction in the size of the House is a perfect opportunity for an education campaign about what an MP is and what an MP does, because we will have a rupture and we can say, "Look, we are going to have this money and this is what they do and this is how we do it". I think that is a perfect opportunity. It is one of those moments where you can perhaps try to change some of the terms of the debate because the structure will change, and if you change the structure you have an opportunity to try to change attitudes and expectations. I think there is a possibility of doing that, and I think it would be very useful if there was a means by which people really did have an understanding of what an MP does. I think you are right; I think they hear-and I think the media are culpable in this-long recesses, they see images of the Chamber very empty or they see the very "yah-boo" politics and they do not really understand about all the other spaces within the House that you inhabit and all the other work that is not visible beyond those who really look for it. I think there is something very important about changing people’s perceptions of what the job is and what it involves.

Q14 Bridget Phillipson : I think one aspect of that is the work of select committees. For example, apart from being here, I also serve on the Home Affairs Committee. I think that is very important. I have certainly learned a lot in the last year doing it. I feel it is an important role in terms of holding the Government to account and changing policy, but it is not something that will ever get me a great deal of press. It is not what I seek to do it for, but, as you say, it is often that kind of hidden work that is vital for ensuring that this place functions and that Government is held to account, but that is not really recognised.

Dr Ruth Fox: No, and from our audit and the work we are doing with the new MPs, it is not something that constituents necessarily value, because what is it that they prioritise in the work of MPs? Championing the constituency; helping individual constituents-I am going through orders of priority-third, scrutinising legislation; fourth, holding the Government to account. It is that. We talk about constituents wanting a local MP, and what does "local" mean? Is it residency, is it connections, is it having grown up in the constituency, all of that? Whatever they want, they want that local focus. Yes, your service on committees is never going to excite them down at the Dog and Duck, I suppose.

Q15 Mr Gray: There is an important distinction between the actual role and the jobs that we might do, even those jobs that no one knows about and no one respects. Maybe it is a function of size of majority or other things or possibly length of time in this place that some people will do things only to get more votes. Other people are doing things because they are the right thing to do, even if it gets them fewer votes, if you see what I mean. I think you are right.

This question of a review of what we do, review of the role, which people are always calling for and I myself called for-I think, Dr Fox, in your submission you particularly said that we should do a review-has that ever been done in any of the British assemblies or parliaments or, indeed, internationally that we know of?

Dr Ruth Fox: Review of the role and function of the Member?

Mr Gray: Yes, a fundamental review of the role.

Dr Ruth Fox: Not that I am aware of. Not by the institution itself, that I can think of. There have obviously been academic pieces of work about the role, case studies and so on, but not actually by the institution itself, although I think the National Assembly for Wales Remuneration Board did start to look at some of this last year. I would not describe it as a complete review of the role and function of Members, but certainly they did explore aspects of the role and function of Assembly Members.

Q16 Mr Gray: Given diversity, and we talked about different kinds of MPs and different kinds of constituencies, different distances from London, different ways of working, different sizes of majority, different backgrounds and all that, do you think that any such review would, in fact, be possible? Wouldn’t it simply come to the conclusion that there are 650 different organisations all operating within this building?

Professor Sarah Childs: I do not think there would be 600. I think one could create typologies.

Mr Gray: I exaggerated in my speech, but a number.

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes, I know. Again, there have been studies; Professor Lord Norton’s work on this, but also Donald Searing’s work. We know there are different kinds. I think when the report came out they were different kinds of parliamentary men. I think one would create a list of characteristics or roles and functions, some of which or most of which an MP would do, but they would not necessarily be expected to do them all. I have a memory, and I probably should have a better memory, that the Speaker’s Conference considered this somewhat and found it quite difficult to agree on, so it might be worth just looking back at the Speaker’s Conference report in the context of trying to advertise the job. If you could come up with a job description, you might increase the diversity of the House. I think there was debate, but I am not sure whether that-

Mr Gray: They called for it. I am not sure it was achieved.

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes, that is right. I think it proved quite difficult.

Q17 Mr Gray: All right. You would have to have some such clear definition or some such analysis of the role if you are to have the thing that you are proposing, I think, this constituency convention. What is it and how would it work?

Professor Sarah Childs: I think it goes back to and draws on the points about recognising that we are not a federal system, but that we have different levels of government. We are also hearing localism being championed. We have had devolution of various types, and recognising that certain levels of Government are responsible for certain kinds of decisions and actions. That would be where you would distinguish between what is and what is not for the Member of Parliament to deal with. I do not mean to say that you should send that person away and say, "Look, I am not interested", but it is the extent to which the presumption is that the MP is where you go. I realise that that is often the last port of call, but I am still not sure that that is where one should be going, because all it is doing is reinforcing the idea that the MP deals with that.

I also think that when we talk about representing a constituency we can distinguish between casework and representing one’s constituency. It may be possible, when you are in your Home Affairs Select Committee, to represent your constituency without that meaning that you are dealing with a particular hospital or whatever it is. In fact, we may be able to think more creatively about what representing your constituency collectively is, other than the increasing daily emails about particular individual aspects from your constituents. I think there has been some slippage, not here but over the last decade, between what acting for your constituency means, and it appears to have become very individualised and it is casework and it is reactive as opposed to, I suppose, those rather more romantic ideas that you gather the issues of your constituency and then you articulate them in Parliament.

Q18 Mr Gray: So, the convention would be a codification of what we should be doing?

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes, I suppose so. Yes, I think that is what I am pointing to.

Q19 Mr Gray: It would be a document that says, "Here is what we believe that MPs should be doing. If you are doing something other than this, you are doing something that may be beyond the core function", perhaps.

Professor Sarah Childs: It came out of a reflection on the current practice that I understand is still upheld, which is that if you have a letter from another constituency, you refuse that and you refer it back to the MP. That works. Again, I do not think there have been studies on this but, just anecdotally talking to MPs about it over the years, MPs respect that. It seems to me that that is what I am pointing to, a similar kind of convention, which is that that is the responsibility of the local council, and if the local council is not fulfilling it, an ombudsperson will address it in the same way, so that you would just say, "I cannot deal with your inquiry".

Q20 Mr Gray: You are proposing the establishment of a person or an office in each constituency or-

Professor Sarah Childs: I don’t think I have thought through the actual practical implications. I am going to plead my ivory tower case. I am just thinking through one of the means by which you could do it. I would not want to state today what the actual structure would be.

Q21 Mr Gray: Sure. What I am getting at is: are we talking here about a physical thing or are we talking about a piece of paper that says, "This is what MPs should do" and, therefore, if it is a housing matter, that should be referred to the chair of housing in the local authority?

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes.

Q22 Mr Gray: Is it codification on a piece of paper or is it some form of structure? If it is the latter, would you not agree the likelihood of its being achieved or established is pretty remote?

Professor Sarah Childs: That is not necessarily a reason not to put it on the table as an idea. I think I am actually asking for both. I don’t know whether I am thinking of a piece of paper, but I think I am thinking of that kind of convention. I do not know whether it needs to be written down, but it could be one that says, "These kinds of requests are not really ones for MPs". I am thinking, therefore, that the demand you are getting from constituents needs to be met somewhere in the system. I also think that if there was a person or a structure, it would be really useful for MPs to receive a report on what is coming across their desk so you do not lose some of that communication but you are not practically dealing with it on a day to day basis.

Q23 Mr Gray: That would be more difficult and more complicated, but I think the former makes an enormous amount of sense. A document or something written down that says, "This is what we expect MPs to do. This is why you come here", a job description. Couple that with a degree of education of the public and you are moving towards focusing on what we are here to do and away from what we are not supposed to be doing.

Bearing in mind that the purpose of our study is to look at sitting hours and all that, would you agree with my broad starting point, which is that until such time as we have some agreement about what an MP is for, what our role is, it would be difficult, if not misleading, possibly, to change our hours or our sitting procedure or anything else? We might end up doing so for all the wrong reasons. We will end up doing so in order to make life more convenient for MPs, but that actually might make some of the things we were discussing earlier worse rather than better.

Professor Sarah Childs: I think you can change them in the absence of drawing up roles and functions because there is a broad understanding. I would argue that there has been too much of a tilt towards the constituency and, therefore, I think there needs to be more hours at Westminster. But that is my view. I do not necessarily believe that everybody would agree with that.

Q24 Mr Gray: No, and lots of the representations we have had constitute people saying, "Oh, no, we need more time in the constituency. We want constituency days, for example. Let us move private members’ bills from Friday so we can have such a day". I remember in 1997 Labour introduced one week in four as a constituency week. Many of the pressures that we are under in producing this report seem to me to be moving in precisely the opposite direction from the one that, I think I am right in interpreting, both of you as saying we should be moving in.

Professor Sarah Childs: I think I want different kinds of constituency time. I am worried that you are trying to do everything in one week. You will find that Ruth and I somewhat differ here, I think. The problem is that you are trying to do everything all at the same time, and I think maybe separating out some of the constituency representation from the parliamentary work might be a means by which that balance shifts, so that when you are in Parliament you are not spending lots of time in Parliament dealing with your constituency work and trying to do stuff on a Friday, which means you probably want to leave on a Thursday, and then you leave Fridays not populated enough at Westminster, and not coming down on Monday. You end up with this big middle where you are all trying to do more than one committee and things in the evening, and then you get late nights and all that. I think I want to be a bit of a Big Bang theorist, but I should let Ruth speak because I think we differ.

Dr Ruth Fox: I am more of an incrementalist or realist. I think you could arrive at a job description in which, a bit like most job descriptions, you have essential and desirable functions. I could probably agree that the essential and the desirables will depend on the type of constituency and all the rest. In terms of how time is then used, I am not convinced that, even if you arrived at that and there was less emphasis on the local stuff, that necessarily and automatically leads to a scenario in which the Chamber is fuller and more active and there is more active engagement in the Chamber. In preparation for this Committee I was reading the Modernisation Committee on revitalising the Chamber, and Professor Philip Cowley of Nottingham University at that time-I think it was 2007-recounted a story of Humphrey Barclay in the 1960s, who was bemoaning the decline of the Chamber as long ago as that. I am just not convinced that if you take away X amount of work it automatically translates and means that Members will spend more time on Y. Just as we have to question what the roles and functions of Members are at the local level, we should question what the roles and functions of Members here are and how time is best used here.

This balance is between, I think, the Chamber and committees. There is a constant focus on the Chamber as the primary point of interest when it is empty a lot of the time and, therefore, from the public perspective, the real question is about respect for the institution and the way in which the institution is regarded, when actually there is a huge amount of incredibly valuable work being done in committees.

The Hansard Society has advocated for a long time that there should be perhaps an approach whereby you have a whole day when the Chamber is not sitting and it is committee day and committee work, and you do not have those clashes of time and so on. If we are going to question how time is spent locally, I would also like to see how time is spent nationally, but equally I recognise you can have all the procedural reforms, all the sitting time reforms in the world-some of this is out of the hands of Members and Parliament because, bluntly, if the Government proceeds with the same tidal wave of legislation that we have seen for the last 10 to 12 years and that is continuing at the moment, if you have the same arrangements with the volume of bills, the number of statutory instruments that are going through, unless there is a cultural and attitudinal change in the legislative process, the ability to save some time and use some time more constructively is much more difficult. The ability of Members to manage their time more effectively is more difficult. I think it is about more than just procedural issues and sitting time.

Chair: Thank you. I would like to bring this session to a close as near as possible to 4.30pm.

Q25 Mr Gale: There are five Members of Parliament in this room and I do not suppose anybody in the outside world has the foggiest clue of, one, that we are here at all and, two, what we are doing. That is in spite of the broadcasting light saying that this session is being broadcast. When I go into the House of Commons, to rise at midnight is early; to rise at 3.00 in the morning is quite frequent, and to sit all night was occasional but not uncommon. The sitting hours of the House have been juggled around a bit, but the bottom line is you are still working about 80 hours a week if you are doing the job half properly. It does not matter how you juggle those hours, it still takes 80 hours a week.

There is a question here on the piece of paper that says, "Do you have any evidence that the long hours are making Parliament less effective?" Well, I am not sure that I know what a short hour is; I think they all have 60 minutes in them. Is Parliament effective? Is it working and, if so, should we not be worrying too much about mending something that is not broken? Or should we be looking radically at the hours that we work, not only the number of hours that we work but the hours between which we work, the days upon which the House sits and the amount of time we spend on holiday in the recess, which means working in the constituency, but nobody understands that either? I would like your opinion. You have spoken to a lot of people.

Dr Ruth Fox: It is a huge debate to open up and to answer in a few minutes. I think there is a danger that among parliamentarians, as in many careers, you can mistake activity for achievement. I think MPs are great at being very busy and there is a certain culture of "meetingitis", "Let’s have a meeting about it", and the meeting is held and there is a feeling that, "We have done something". That is not the same as achievement. Is Parliament effective? It depends on what your view of an effective Parliament is. What must it achieve? I would argue-and it is predicated a lot in the research and the work that we produced in our last major publication, Making Better Law, published in December of last year; all Members should have had a copy-you can look at an area like financial scrutiny, for example. I would argue that Parliament is not effective in scrutinising financial matters. That is not an easy problem to resolve, but I think that there are good reasons to believe that financial scrutiny in this place is not as effective and as adequate as it could and should be.

Are bills as effectively scrutinised as they could be? Sometimes, but not all the time, and procedures sometimes do not help that. If I was trying to save time in the Chamber and to use time more effectively, I would question why so much time, for example, is spent debating how much time you are going to spend debating on the programming motions. If there is a time saving in the sitting week, that surely has to be something to be looked at. But again, it is not entirely within your gift because it used to work a little bit when there was consensual programming, but there isn’t now, although the Government says that it wants to move towards that. There are whole areas where you can argue that it is not effective.

In Making Better Law we have argued that Parliament should stand up to Government more in terms of legislative standards and simply not accept every bill that comes through and say, "This is fine" even if it is technically deficient, even if it is poorly drafted, even if the level of information provided is inadequate, and that Parliament should have, ideally on a bicameral basis, a range of standards agreed in party with Government, and criteria for the level of quality of legislation that comes through: not policy but technical quality. One could argue that if Parliament were to do that, it might improve things. Opening up that debate about whether Parliament is effective means we could be here for several days. I am happy to have that discussion. It is hugely difficult. It depends upon what you are prioritising and what matters most.

Professor Sarah Childs: If I can just jump in there. Ruth talked about the idea of whether it is working in terms of scrutiny; I think we might want to ask for whom it is working? Is it working for Members? Is it working for the public? Is it working in terms of the legislative process? It seems to me we can raise questions about work/life balance and the diversity of the House. I am an unapologetic advocate of what I call "modern professional" and "family friendly" and all those kinds of hours. We have them in other institutions and other organisations. It seems to me that we could have them here, notwithstanding lots of opposition from all sorts of people.

I think, in terms of the public, we know that the public rate their individual Member but do not rate the collectivity. Again, I think reforms need to respond to that perception-it may be a misperception, but it is a perception-that it is not working. That needs addressing, too. I think it is not just about Government and parliamentary business. It is about to whom that question of whether it is working is directed, because it seems to me that a House that is lacking in legitimacy cannot be working even if it is doing some of the other things better than it might. There is a lot to be said about scrutiny, but there are also ideas around who it is working for.

Q26 Mr Nuttall: We have had a very interesting discussion, let me say, for the last 50 minutes or so. If we accept just for the purpose of the next few minutes that the objective of Parliament is to produce effective legislation that deals with the problems that society has and that need to be dealt with, that is what we are here to do: produce effective legislation. Accepting that for the moment and leaving aside the constituency matters that an MP has to deal with, first of all, Dr Fox, what would you do? Do you think we are spending enough time on that role here in Parliament? Would you have us here more days? Do you think we should be here more days?

Dr Ruth Fox: I am not convinced that simply building in more time for scrutiny necessarily leads to better scrutiny. I think it is a question of what you are prioritising in the scrutiny that you do and how you are doing it and how you are resourced to do it.

Q27 Mr Nuttall: In terms of time that we are here, we have enough time here already, you think, to do the job? It is a question of how much use we make of the time that you are concerned about?

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes, it is the effective use of the time.

Mr Nuttall: Yes, it is what use we make of the time that you are concerned about?

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes. I think you can make time savings a little bit here and there and I have referenced-

Q28 Mr Nuttall: One of the things you have mentioned, I think, is electronic and deferred voting. Why do you think that would be a help?

Dr Ruth Fox: To set this in context, I think there is a fairly limited amount of time saving that can be done this way. I do not have the calculation, but if you were to look at, say, voting, say on average it takes 15 to 20 minutes for each division. Within a week that might not add up to a huge amount, but cumulatively over a session it does. If you could shave five minutes off that, for example, cumulatively what does that give you? Does it give you enough to justify, on a cost-benefit analysis, implementing that change? I think that is worth looking at and at least considering, but when I talk about electronic voting in particular I am very clear that I do not think that should facilitate Members not being present and voting externally. I think that Members being present in the lobby is important. There is value to that.

Q29 Mr Nuttall: It would not save an enormous amount of time in that case.

Dr Ruth Fox: It would not save an enormous amount of time, but if you looked at it as a time saving not day to day but cumulatively over a session and over a Parliament, what does that look like, and are there ways then to use some of that time better? It would depend on what the figures looked like.

Q30 Mr Nuttall: Equally, in terms of the hours that we are here, which is the other aspect that we are looking at, the same would apply? It is not really the number of hours; it is what we do in those hours that matter?

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes.

Mr Nuttall: Professor Childs, do you have anything just to add on that, the question of the number of days that we are here? Do you want us to be here more days?

Professor Sarah Childs: I would go back a step and sit down and think about the average number of bills one faces in a parliamentary session and-

Mr Nuttall: And look at some evidence?

Professor Sarah Childs: And look at some evidence to see if there was enough time. How much time would this bill need if we added in more pre- and post-legislative scrutiny? If we had more hearings, how much time would we need? And then you could work out on an evidence basis how many days you need to be here. Then you can think about when those days should be present. Some of this comes from my experience of being attached to the Speaker’s Conference. You just get this sense that the time is very-

Mr Nuttall: It is all about competing pressures on time.

Professor Sarah Childs: That is right, and you cannot always go to everything you want.

Q31 Mr Nuttall: The Government has so many bills that they want to bring in, I would submit, that the Government would have us here all the time to get their bills through. The sooner they could get all their bills on the statute book, the better for them. That is what they are here for. Equally, on private members’ bills, which is the next thing I just quickly want to turn to, virtually every Member you speak to could say, "Well, I have a fantastic idea that I would like to see become law" and, therefore, there is a trade-off between all these things that the individual might think is a good idea, and perhaps a few of his chums, but everybody else might think it is not such a good idea.

Professor Sarah Childs: I think there is also a means by which you can distinguish between core business and other parliamentary activity, and perhaps the core business can be protected during a big chunk in the middle of the day, and other things can go on at other times so that you are not so torn between what you might be engaging with or trading off being present at certain kinds of meetings and Committees.

Q32 Mr Nuttall: We have that at the moment on a Friday when we have private members’ bills, which invariably-

Professor Sarah Childs: Yes, but if people have buggered off on the Thursday then it is not terribly helpful, is it?

Mr Nuttall: But these bills still need scrutiny.

Professor Sarah Childs: Indeed.

Mr Nuttall: Because, of course, a private member’s bill can affect everybody in the land in the same way as a public bill.

Professor Sarah Childs: I agree.

Q33 Mr Nuttall: If more private members’ bills were to become law, I think they would still need to be properly scrutinised. How do you feel that that should be fitted into the week? Do you think they should be moved off a Friday?

Professor Sarah Childs: For me, it depends. They need to be discussed when the House is properly full. What I do not like is the idea of maybe moving to a parttime Friday or that people leave on a Thursday afternoon because they think, "Oh, it is only private members’ bills the next day". I do not like this idea that people can just disappear because other things are competing for their time, whether that is back in the constituency or-and I understand the desire to go back to the constituency because of all that we said at the beginning. We are talking slightly facetiously. If you moved PMQs to Friday lunchtime, people would be around for private members’ bills. Do you know what I mean? Keeping people in, keeping people present. I do not think it is an isolated question. It is about ensuring that when the House is engaged on business, people are here.

Q34 Mr Nuttall: On any business, including private members’ bills?

Professor Sarah Childs: I think private members’ bills are sufficiently important to warrant that, yes, not least because in the past it has been an important means to see legislative change.

Q35 Mr Nuttall: I think it was suggested that there should be an additional PMB report committee.

Dr Ruth Fox: In terms of the Hansard Society paper, we produced some proposals on this a few weeks ago. Our argument is not that we imagine that there is going to be a sudden wave of PMB legislation or a significant increase in PMBs, but that the PMBs you have at least get a fair wind and are properly scrutinised and debated and are rejected on the basis of a majority vote in the House rather than what you effectively have now, which is Members being forced to choose between their constituency commitments and imperatives, and the desire perhaps to be there for their own or a colleague’s private member’s bill on a Friday that they may have a particular interest in. That, combined with the particular procedural things that pertain to private members’ bills that do not pertain to other legislation, means that bills are not getting a fair wind. As I say, in terms of what we have recommended, we are not proposing that-

Q36 Mr Nuttall: What do you mean by "fair wind"? Can you just expand on what you mean by "fair wind"?

Dr Ruth Fox: That they are not filibustered, talked out through the use of the procedural rules, but the-

Q37 Mr Nuttall: But there is a rule in Standing Orders that can stop anybody. If other Members were sufficiently interested in getting that on to the statute book, 100 Members can bring it to a stop.

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes, but that is the problem, because it is on a Friday. If it were on any other day, in most circumstances during the week, that may not be a problem, but because it is on a Friday, it is a particular disadvantage to private Members’ legislation because of this clash with constituency time. With the best will in the world, if you are, I would imagine, trying to persuade some of your colleagues to stay behind on a Friday, to give up their constituency commitments, particularly those who live some distance, and your bill is second or third on the Order Paper and you do not know whether it is going to get through, and then you have to sit through those interminable Friday morning debates while they effectively talk them out, the reality is that a lot of Members have said-

Q38 Mr Nuttall: Do you think deferred divisions would help that?

Dr Ruth Fox: I think the combination of Friday sittings with the procedures that apply to PMBs at the moment is just a toxic mix that does not work for PMBs.

Q39 Chair: One option would be to say that the question be put on a second reading of a private members’ bill, say after two and a half hours.

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes.

Chair: Without the need for the 100 threshold.

Dr Ruth Fox: Yes.

Q40 Chair : You would support that, would you?

Dr Ruth Fox: I would prefer to see them not on Fridays. Because of this problem around constituency pressures, I think it is unfortunate to ask Members to choose between the two, particularly given some of the vast distances that some Members have to travel. I would just prefer not to put private Members’ legislation on Fridays, and I would move them.

Q41 Mr Nuttall: Would Friday then be free completely?

Dr Ruth Fox: That is for the House. Other debates, adjournment debates or topical debates that might want to be held could be utilised, and it is not so important in terms of the numbers and presence of Members if people want to use the time for that. Yes, we have suggested that you could utilise PMB second readings only on that day if you deal with the procedural issues, if you want to use Fridays in a flexible way. But I generally tend to the idea that there is an opportunity and an interest, I think, particularly among the new Members, from what I can tell, in private Members’ legislation, and to ask Members to make that choice is unfortunate and unhelpful.

Q42 Chair: We have covered a lot of ground today. Is there anything you want to add?

Dr Ruth Fox: No, I don’t think so. I think it is just a hugely complex area and unpicking it is going to be very difficult. You have my sympathies.

Q43 Chair: It is indeed, as we are discovering. I thank you both for your extremely valuable contributions. Your evidence is very helpful to us and we appreciate the time you have given to us today. Thank you.

Dr Ruth Fox: Thank you.

Professor Sarah Childs: Thank you.

Prepared 12th July 2011