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CORRECTED TRANSCRIPT OF ORAL EVIDENCE
To be published as HC 1062-i
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms
Thursday 14 March 2013
Dr Meg Russell
MS Catherine Bochel
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 63
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
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.
The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee
on Thursday 14 March 2013
Mrs Eleanor Laing (Chair)
Mr Christopher Chope
Mr Andrew Turner
Examination of Witness
Witness: Dr Meg Russell, Deputy Director, Constitution Unit, University College London, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Good morning, Dr Russell. Thank you very much indeed for coming to see us again.
Dr Russell: Hello. Thank you for inviting me.
Q2 Chair: As you know, we have been looking at the implementation and consequences of implementation of the Wright reforms, and of course you were involved in helping to put those reforms together. We are delighted that you are able to be here this morning to help us consider the consequences. I have some general questions for you to start with, but would you like to address the Committee? Would you like to say something about your own observations of what has happened over the last couple of years?
Dr Russell: I submitted some written evidence to you rather late, for which my apologies.
Chair: We are very grateful for your written evidence. Thank you.
Dr Russell: If Members have had a chance to look at that written evidence, it should serve as an introduction. I explain who I am, and I give some views on what has happened so far, but more importantly on the forward agenda. So, unless people feel that they have not had a chance to look at that and want me to explain, then that is probably an introduction.
Q3 Chair: For the benefit of observers who are not members of the Committee, would you care to give us the main points of your observations?
Dr Russell: Yes. I started by saying who I am. I am an academic who works at University College London at the Constitution Unit, with a particular research interest in Parliament. I wrote a report that was published in 2007 looking at how the House of Commons might get better control of its own agenda and procedures. That was informed by two years that I spent working as a special adviser to Robin Cook when he was Leader of the House of Commons. That report recommended the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee and, also, that there should be changes to the ways that Select Committee Members were chosen. That report helped to spark the establishment of the Wright Committee. It was mentioned by Tony Wright in his letter to the Prime Minister suggesting that a committee should be set up, and he was urging some of these reforms-particularly the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee-on Gordon Brown. That committee was set up and I became its specialist adviser. Some of the key recommendations made by the Wright Committee were very close to the recommendations I originally made in 2007.
I have to confess that, since then, I have not researched in any detail how the reforms have played out. As I say in my written evidence, there are two reasons for that. The first is that I think, as one of the architects of the reforms, I do not have a sufficient degree of objectivity to look at how successful they have been. I think that is probably better for other people to do, because I want the reforms to succeed and that might colour any judgments I make. Also I think it is very difficult to assess the effectiveness of reforms like these. There has been an awful lot going on in the last couple of years; a change of Government and, crucially, a shift from single-party Government to coalition Government. There is an awful lot that has changed the environment. It is hard, then, to pin down which changes are a result of particular reforms, but I think broadly they have been welcomed. I was very pleased to see the Procedure Committee being very flattering about the Backbench Business Committee and what it did in its first two years. I think the Backbench Business Committee itself has concluded that it has been a success.
The big questions that it might be interesting to get into discussion about here are: what happens next? Particularly the House Business Committee, which was something that in my original 2007 report I was quite sceptical could be made to work in the way that some Members hoped it would. That was one of the reasons why I proposed a Backbench Business Committee in the first place. The Wright Committee went along with the analysis that there were important things that could be achieved through the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee, which might not be achieved if you went for a broader ranging committee that also tried to schedule Government business.
Q4 Chair: Thank you very much. Although you have modestly said that, from your point of view, you do not want to make a judgment on the success or otherwise, would you say in your observation of Parliament over the last two years that the reforms that so far have come into play have increased the vitality of the House of Commons?
Dr Russell: As I say, there have been a lot of changes all going on at the same time. Another one that inevitably came with the change of Government was the arrival of a lot of new Members. As you know, the Wright Committee was established in a time that I think could reasonably be described as a crisis after the MPs’ expenses crisis, or scandal or whatever you choose to call it. It was a very bleak time for Parliament, so the mood was very depressed at that time. The new Parliament arrived, bringing a new Government and a whole lot of new Members, partly as a result of people leaving because of that crisis. So the mood would have changed fundamentally anyway, post-2010. The fact that some of the first things that Members had to do-particularly the great number of new Members arriving in 2010-was engage in elections to choose their Backbench Business Committee, choose its Chair, choose their Select Committees, created a kind of vibrancy and sense of an outbreak of democracy happening in the Commons, which I think was quite a useful early bit of socialisation for those new Members.
Q5 Chair: Rather more than just socialisation, do you think it has had an actual effect on rebalancing the relationship between Parliament and the Executive?
Dr Russell: I can be very boringly academic on some of these questions. How does one measure the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive? These are very difficult questions to answer with certainty and reliability, but I think that the Wright Committee reforms created a much stronger sense for Members of the Commons that they had a degree of ownership of their own institution, that they had a significant role in deciding how their institution would be run and by whom it would be run. The Backbench Business Committee was entirely new, and taking over control of that business was a significant shift of power primarily from the Government Whips to Members. The same was true of the selection of Select Committee Members and Chairs, where in the past Whips would have been controlling those decisions. It was important that the Chamber had to endorse those decisions and, as we know, in 2002-over Gwyneth Dunwoody and Donald Anderson-there was a shock when the Chamber refused to endorse those decisions. It wasn’t that Members were totally powerless in the selection of Select Committee Members and Chairs, but they have really taken control of that away from the Whips rather than just endorsing the Whips’ decisions, and I think that is very important.
Q6 Chair: Absolutely. Sorry, I should have said when you came in-and I beg the pardon of the Committee for not having done so-that the Chairman, Graham Allen, sends his apologies for not being able to be here today and he has asked me to stand in as Chairman this morning.
That prefaces my saying that Select Committees certainly feel that they have more authority because, first of all, the Chairman is elected by Members and then the members of Committees are elected. Having competition to become a member of a Select Committee has, I would suggest-and I seek your opinion-increased the authority and standing of Select Committees. Would that appear to be the case?
Dr Russell: Yes, I think that is the case. However, I think you also begin to make one of my points for me; that if you want to know how well the reforms are working, probably the people that you should ask are the people who are engaged in this work themselves. There is potentially an important piece of academic work to do to talk to people who were on Select Committees before and after the reforms, and ask them whether it feels different. I can see Paul Flynn nodding. He was on a Select Committee previously and he is on one now. Does he feel that he has more legitimacy than he had before? You can ask Members those questions.
Q7 Chair: What I was seeking to do was to have an outside opinion from you as to whether a report from a Select Committee, in the last two years, carries more weight in the outside political world, in academia and so on, than it did previously when the reports were made by people who were put there by the Whips.
Dr Russell: We must not denigrate the Select Committee system that existed before. The Select Committees were very well respected previously.
Dr Russell: Despite the problems with Whip involvement in their selection, particularly I think since 2002, when the House asserted itself and said, "Look, you Whips, if you pick people that we don’t want then we will come back and bite you", there has not been a particular problem with lack of respect for Select Committees, although the change can only reinforce that respect and help to underpin it. It was a shame in a sense-although that is democracy for you-that some positions were uncontested for Select Committee Chairs, and I think that next time we might see a livelier contest across the committees as a whole. Some of the committee Chairs were very closely contested, most notably the Public Accounts Committee Chair. Of course the Public Accounts Chair has subsequently had a pretty high profile, so perhaps that helps to answer the question.
Chair: It does. Thank you very much.
Q8 Paul Flynn: Can I come in briefly to say that-as a great admirer of your work and Tony Wright’s work on this-I think there was a key weakness in this. Certainly there were people on Select Committee chairs who would not have been had the Whips been in full control, as they had been in the past. There were eight uncontested nominations where it was Hobson’s choice really, and there was a weakness there. There are other changes that have taken place that are more significant, such as we have a reforming Speaker and, instead of having three urgent questions a year, as we used to have before, we sometimes have three or four a week, sometimes two a day. That has done far more to move the influence of Back Benchers into prominence than the changes in the Select Committees, which have been significant. We were discussing earlier on that the Whips are still actively engaged in deciding who goes on Select Committees and they still actively campaign.
Chair: Paul, I think that is not a question that you can ask Dr Russell.
Paul Flynn: No, sorry. I feel an obligation, at Meg’s introduction, to give evidence to Meg and the rest of the Committee.
Chair: I do not think it is fair to ask Dr Russell to comment on exactly what goes on in any Whips office but generally-
Dr Russell: You do draw in another important bit of background in terms of, as I said, there has been a whole lot of changes that happened at once. I think you are quite right, the election of John Bercow as Speaker-which was another knock-on effect of that 2009 crisis-is another thing that has been important in improving Parliament’s profile and Members’ sense of independence and so on. It was another thing that I said in my 2007 report: this is not something that you can legislate for or write Standing Orders for, but one of the things that would help the House of Commons to gain a sense of ownership of its own affairs was electing a Speaker who was going to be an outspoken defender of Parliament. You did so by choosing John Bercow and I think that has been another very positive development.
Q9 Mr Chope: I would like to talk about the House Business Committee. However, before that, you were very critical of the decision by the Government to change the system by which the members of the Backbench Business Committee were elected. There did not seem to be any justification for doing that. Why do you think that was done?
Dr Russell: I think that is another question that is asking me to get inside the heads of people and comment on decisions to which I was not party. I can tell you why I think it was a bad idea. You would have to ask the people concerned with taking the decision why they thought it was an appropriate decision to take, and I would be interested to hear their answer. I felt two things. One was that this was a change that was clearly contrary to what the Wright Committee had explicitly recommended: that these should be positions that were elected across the whole House to represent the whole House. I guess this does answer in part your question. I think that one of the reasons why there was disquiet about that-and the Government was fairly explicit about this at the time-was a concern that somehow there could be mischief-making with members of one party ganging up in order to ensure that representatives of another party, who were not popular with their own Front Bench, were elected. The Wright Committee did discuss these kinds of potential problems and thought that in truth they weren’t a real problem. Nevertheless, the fact was that if it was the Conservative party that was unhappy with the people who were elected, then those positions were uncontested. So you certainly cannot blame the electoral system. Perhaps you need to blame members of the parliamentary Conservative party for more of them not coming forward and in contested elections perhaps other people would have won.
It was misjudged because it seemed to be blaming an electoral system for something that was not the fault of the electoral system. It was inappropriate because it was directly contrary to what the Wright Committee had recommended. Also it was inappropriate in the way that it was proceeded with, without any consultation, as I understand it, with the Backbench Business Committee, without consultation with the Procedure Committee when the Procedure Committee was engaged in an inquiry reviewing the Backbench Business Committee, and put forward as Government motions and, as I understand it, whipped business.
Q10 Mr Chope: Yes, and it only got through because of the payroll vote. If the payroll had not voted it would not have got through.
Dr Russell: As I say in my written evidence, I think that both that and the business about e-petitions demonstrate that there is a fundamental misunderstanding in Government or an extent to which there are some parties in Government who just don’t get it, in terms of what these reforms are supposed to have been about, which is giving the House of Commons control over its own timetable and its own procedures, not across the board but with respect to Backbench business. The fact that some people in Government think it appropriate to meddle in that business, and to do so unilaterally without consultation, seems to me to demonstrate that there is a fundamental level at which some people in Government have not understood what is supposed to have changed.
Q11 Chair: Is it that there is a misunderstanding or is it-hardly surprisingly-that those in Government want to hold on to power and exercise as much power as they possibly can?
Dr Russell: I think this change was not a matter of holding on to power. It was a matter of trying to take back power that had been given away as a result of a unanimous decision by the House of Commons to back the Wright Committee proposals.
Q12 Mr Chope: So it is not so much the Government not getting it, it is the Government not wanting it and at every stage trying to use its power to dictate the terms of engagement. It succeeded in changing the rules because it did not like the awkwardness, particularly, of the Conservative members of the Backbench Committee in the first session of Parliament, and thereby ensured that by changing the rules they were wiped out. The Government is again now trying to assert its authority by interpreting-in a wholly absurd way-the commitment to bring forward the House Business Committee by the end of the third year of the Parliament. We come to the end of the third year this May. They are now talking about doing something by the end of 2013 at the earliest, thereby again tearing up the agreed rulebook because they themselves in Government cannot abide the prospect of giving any more influence to the Back Benches. Would you agree that that is the motivation behind stalling on the House Business Committee being set up?
Dr Russell: I think the two are slightly different. Is it a misunderstanding or is it calculation? This is a classic cock-up versus conspiracy kind of question and I think it is probably a degree of both. There probably are some who actively do wish to undermine and perhaps reverse some of the reforms that have happened. I suspect that most really don’t give it that much thought, particularly Members. You say that it was the payroll vote-and I confess I have not looked at that-but I also say in my written evidence that if you are thinking about recommending future reform it would be a good idea to read my paper in Parliamentary Affairs, which reviews the process of getting the Wright Committee reforms agreed. For the record, I should say it is 2011 volume 64, number 4. I reread it last night, and I confess that even I had forgotten just what an enormous struggle it was against the forces of the Whips, both Government and Opposition, to get those changes agreed. So, undoubtedly there are forces who were uncomfortable with the reforms previously, tried to stop them and I imagine would now like to reverse them. Moreover, the other key factor is that most Government Ministers have far too much to do to be thinking about parliamentary procedure and most Members of Parliament themselves don’t spend a great deal of time thinking about parliamentary procedure. If they are asked to go through a lobby by their Whips to support something they will tend to trust their Whips and do so. That is the environment in which reform has to take place.
I think there is a difference between the two scenarios that you are talking about, in terms of responses to the Backbench Business Committee and the failure to bring forward the House Business Committee proposals. The House took clear decisions to set its Standing Orders in a particular way with respect to the Backbench Business Committee. What we have seen is an unravelling of those Standing Orders to some extent, whereas with the House Business Committee there was only ever an "in principle" decision before the 2010 election. There has not yet been a piece of work to work through the detail of what a House Business Committee should look like and to put forward Standing Orders to propose that. Perhaps that is one of the things your Committee wants to do. That is a necessary next step.
Q13 Chair: That is a helpful suggestion. Thank you. I am going to use the procedure of this Committee for a moment, if you will forgive me, Chris, interrupting the flow of your questions. I note that you say in your evidence to us that the written evidence to this Committee by Natascha Engel, the Backbench Business Committee Chairman, sets the issues out well and you agree with that analysis. My manipulation of our procedure this morning is that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is present in this room but her presence is not recognised as she is not here around the table, either as a witness or as a Member of this Committee. As she has no voice, would you care to elaborate on your agreement with Natascha Engel?
Dr Russell: I certainly hope that Natascha will have an opportunity to engage in a similar discussion with the Committee on a future occasion.
Chair: I hope so. It would help our deliberations this morning.
Dr Russell: Natascha was very good and got her written evidence in on time, which is something that I did not do, unfortunately. I am very grateful for the fact that I could read hers in preparing mine. What she does is try to get to the nub of the question, which is: what exactly is it that this House Business Committee is supposed to be for? In devising a House Business Committee or in responding to any proposals that the Government might bring forward for a House Business Committee, I think that it is very important for Members to think about: what is the fundamental problem we are trying to solve here and then how can we best address that question in a realistic way that has a chance of getting through? So, firstly, what is the role of this committee supposed to be and then who is the appropriate membership, who is the appropriate secretariat and so on? Her evidence sets out some of those very clear questions, which are the essential questions to answer.
It also makes very clearly and strongly a point that I would make myself and I have made in the past, which is that it is absolutely imperative that if a House Business Committee is created it is not created in a way that in any way undermines the existing role of the Backbench Business Committee. I think there is pretty universal agreement-perhaps Whips excluded-that it has been a successful innovation that has given Members better control and it is very well respected. There is a danger of encroachment on its territory with the establishment of a House Business Committee, which you have to be wary of.
Q14 Mr Chope: The Coalition agreement committed the Government to setting up a House Business Committee. Do you think when that agreement was drawn up anybody knew what they had in mind when they were talking about a House Business Committee? Can you answer that one first of all?
Dr Russell: Again, you are asking me to comment on what went on in back rooms. It would be a guess. My guess would be not really, no, and similarly to some of the commitments that they made to House of Lords reform, which we might discuss on a future occasion.
Q15 Mr Chope: We are now told by the Leader of the House that work on the development of proposals for a House Business Committee within Government is ongoing. Are you familiar with any of the work that is being done, if anything?
Dr Russell: No, I am not, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect to be. Let me try saying something perhaps a little provocative but it might help concentrate minds a bit. I think you could argue that we already have a House Business Committee. A House Business Committee already exists inside Government. It meets weekly. I used to attend its meetings when I was a special adviser to the Leader of the House. In those days it used to meet in his room in a building that no longer belongs to the Leader of House, where the Leader of the House sat opposite the Chief Whip. The Deputy Leader of the House was there. In fact, the Deputy Chief Whip was not there at that time but I suspect that under the coalition the Deputy Chief Whip would be with the Chief Whip, given that there is a party split between the two, and similarly the Deputy Leader of the House with the Leader of the House. The private secretary to the Chief Whip and their various advisers and officials were there. They would discuss the draft business for the week, which the Chief Whip had drawn up with his or her private secretary, which would be put to the House on a Thursday in the business statement.
I think it is fairly well known that there was a rather tense relationship between the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House at the time I was there. The Leader of the House, Robin Cook, was the only real line of accountability for the decisions that had been taken by the Chief Whip and her private secretary before that business was put to the Chamber. At times he would question and challenge her decisions to programme business in a certain way, because he felt that perhaps Members would like something different and so on. Then he had to stand up and present this to the Chamber in business questions. So there is a degree of accountability that goes on but the committee is behind the scenes and not formally recognised. The Leader of the House then effectively stands up and defends the decisions of that committee but the Chamber has no opportunity to overturn those decisions.
That is the status quo. The question is which bits of that do you want to change and how should you go about changing it? I can understand that those inside Government are very nervous of the idea of including others. Effectively a House Business Committee would be opening up those discussions that already go on, I imagine, to include at the very least the shadow Leader of the House and the shadow Chief Whip-the Opposition.
Q16 Chair: Can I take you a little further on that? I am delighted to hear you say what you have just said and explain that, long ago, I was also a special adviser to a Leader of the House, and I recognised the description of the type of committee that you have just given. Most people have no idea that that occurs.
Dr Russell: We did not call it a committee. It was simply called the business managers meeting, and very occasionally there would be something that we called 4BMs, the four business managers, which included the Lords Leader and Chief Whip as well.
Q17 Chair: I recognise that as well. It is a matter of good management of the business of Parliament. Would you say that it is sometimes not properly recognised that the Leader of the House has a responsibility to the House of Commons, as well as to the Government of which he or she is part? Perhaps sometimes, in the hurly-burly of party politics, it is forgotten that the Leader of the House has a responsibility and that is why he or she spends an hour every Thursday being accountable.
Dr Russell: Yes. Natascha Engel’s evidence-I have not printed it out so I don’t have it-puts this quite nicely in terms of the Leader of the House being a kind of link. He represents Parliament to Government and Government to Parliament, effectively. I must say it is not a particularly comfortable position because it is quite difficult to balance. When it was Robin Cook and Hilary Armstrong there were some tensions at times, because it was the role of the Leader of the House to stand up and defend decisions of the Chief Whip that he had not always been party to. In some respects I think it might be sensible now to roll those two jobs together, so that the Chief Whip has to stand up and defend his or her own decisions. However, that is a bit of detail.
Chair: I think that would undo all the good, but that is a matter of opinion.
Q18 Mr Chope: Just to finish this off. Surely so much depends upon the nature of the Leader of the House, in the same way, as you said earlier, as a Speaker who sees his role as being to promote the interests of Back Benchers, and hold the Government to account, is going to be a very different animal from a Speaker who believes that he is part of the establishment and should basically nudge and wink what the Government asks him to do. Robin Cook is one example on the side of the Back Benchers, but we have had quite a lot of examples of Leaders of the House who see it as their role to be the Government’s representative to Back Benchers rather than the reverse. If the Leaders of the House were actively campaigning on behalf of Back Benchers in the same way as Robin Cook did, there might not be so much of a need for a House Business Committee, but what is happening now is that the usual channels are crowding out a lot of what you might describe as the minority opinions on the Back Benches, and perhaps represented by Members around this table, for example. How do we get a look in, because so much of the listening is done on the basis of the two Front Benches? Isn’t that where the House Business Committee could really make an impact and ensure that, for example, when you get Report stages of Bills that the material for which there is time for debate is the material that a number of awkward Back Benchers want to have discussed rather than the usual channels?
Dr Russell: I think you are quite right, that it is very dependent on personality. Because it has this dual role of Parliament to Government and Government to Parliament, some Leaders of the House tend to play one role rather more strongly than the other and sometimes it is the other way around. I think the fundamental question is: are there institutional structures that could be put in place to ensure that there is greater transparency, accountability, whatever, for those decisions, which would perhaps encourage the business managers to be more responsive to the wishes of Members?
I do think that there is a fundamental tension when you talk about minorities of Members. Probably the best that can be achieved-and the important thing-is to ensure that those who are scheduling decisions about what goes on in the Chamber are responsive to the majority of Members. That is where the real problem comes. If you have a groundswell of opinion in the Chamber, for example, that there is a need for more time on a particular report stage, and that is being denied, there is no way for the business manager’s hand to be forced to create more time. I don’t think you can expect the business managers to be able to give away a lot of slots of time to satisfy the desire of minorities of Members, because fundamentally we need to appreciate and respect the fact that managing time in the Chamber is a very difficult job, that there are numerous demands on that time, that there are 650 Members of the House and you could probably fill 10 times as much time as you have, so the business managers have a very difficult job of making decisions.
The question is are they making the right difficult decisions all of the time, and are there perhaps mechanisms that could be put in place to ensure that the Chamber has some kind of sanction when a majority of Members feel that the wrong decision has been taken? That is why I emphasised in my report-and I mention in my written evidence-one of the most important bits of unfinished business from the Wright Committee report is this idea that the business motion on a Thursday should perhaps be on a votable basis, and could be amendable by Members with changes made if a majority of Members of the Chamber felt that time was being allocated in an inappropriate manner. That is something that happens in the Scottish Parliament. It also happens in the German Parliament. It is not an outlandish thing to suggest; that it would improve accountability from the business managers to the Chamber.
Q19 Mr Chope: Do you think there is a role for giving greater influence to Back Benchers over the choice of people, for example, to serve on Joint Committees? At the moment, I and a number of colleagues have an amendment down to the motion on the Order Paper relating to the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill Joint Committee, because at the moment the membership of that Committee is being set up through the usual channels. Our suggestion is that it should be for the individual party Back Benchers to decide on the membership of that committee. Do you see that there is something to be said for extending the role of the Select Committee election process to that sort of Joint Committee?
Dr Russell: Yes, that is a very interesting point. One of the things that I mention in my written evidence is that another recommendation of the Wright Committee, which I don’t think has been acted upon and which I think is important, is with respect to legislation committees. Now that the mechanisms for choosing Select Committee Members have become more transparent, democratic, legitimate, it is increasingly anomalous that there are other important committees where that same level or even a reduced level of democracy and accountability does not yet apply. The thing that I drew attention to was the choice of members of Public Bill Committees, which is made by the Committee of Selection, which is a pretty unaccountable committee, largely made up of Whips, and there is no opportunity for the Chamber to overturn decisions of the Committee of Selection in the choice of Public Bill Committee members, even in the way that the Chamber used to be able to overturn their choice of Select Committee members, as it did with Dunwoody and Anderson in 2002. I am less clear on the process for Joint Committees, but I imagine it is the same as the Public Bill Committee process, in that members are chosen by the Committee of Selection with no oversight by the Chamber.
Q20 Mr Chope: No. They have to be approved by a motion of the House. It is different in that respect.
Dr Russell: They do. Of course, yes, I do remember that.
Mr Chope: So you can amend it.
Dr Russell: I do remember that, and of course it has to be approved in both Houses. I think that is a very legitimate point and it would be a sensible reform. Of course, one of the tricky things is the nature of Joint Committees. Members of the House of Lords have to be chosen for them as well. Therefore, taking unilateral decisions about a change in the Commons probably has a knock-on effect for the Lords, where they are discussing questions as to whether they should be catching up with some of the Wright Committee reforms and perhaps introducing elections for committees and so on.
Q21 Chair: It ought to be noted that, in the setting up of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege about six months ago, six members were nominated by the Commons and six members by the Lords. I am not certain whether there was a vote, but the Lords made it clear that they would not accept the six member nominations because there were no women among them. I particularly note this, because I was the only woman on the House of Commons nominations and, therefore, the only woman on the committee. The House of Lords refused to accept that and now there are three women in total on the committee.
Dr Russell: That is good. I did know that-because of course I know about the establishment of various Joint Committees on Lords reform and things, and I have watched some of those-but I had forgotten that the Chamber does have oversight, and that oversight by the Chamber should not be underestimated as a backstop. That is valuable. I would also say that, of course, there is nothing in Standing Orders to prevent parties electing the members of any committee if they want to. It was interesting that, prior to the Wright Committee reforms, the members of the Wright Committee were all elected in their party groups. Even under existing Standing Orders, parties can choose to democratise if they wish.
Q22 Mr Turner: Do you think it is more desirable that the House Business Committee should scrutinise or should it make the decisions itself?
Dr Russell: This is one of the choices put in Natascha Engel’s paper. As I say, I think the key thing is to think through very carefully what it is that you are trying to achieve with the House Business Committee and then how that can best be achieved. I think that the line between scrutinising or accountability and decision-making is blurrier than perhaps we often assume. One of the suggestions in her paper-which I think is a very interesting suggestion-is that the House Business Committee could be established on a totally different model to any that I had previously considered or that the Wright Committee considered, that it be a committee of Back Benchers in front of whom the Leader of the House appears to defend the decisions and has to answer questioning. That is not like the House Business Committee in any other Parliament that I know, and it is not what the Wright Committee proposed. It is a very interesting suggestion and potentially could work. That would not be a decision-making committee: it would be an oversight committee. Although, the fact that there is oversight can result in different decision-making by the people who are making the decisions.
We should not underestimate the importance of the fact that the Leader of the House has to stand up and make the business statement, and that the shadow Leader of the House is able to stand up and ask questions and Backbench Members can ask questions or raise objections. That is an important level of accountability. Without those kinds of accountabilities, business managers could take much more self-interested decisions, and, by throwing light on the decisions and creating an environment in which they have to be defended, you may change the decisions.
There is a blurring of the line, I think, between accountability and decision-making. It is very unlikely that-except perhaps in periods of minority government-you will have a decision-making body that comes to different decisions. You will not be able to establish a decision-making body that will take different decisions to the ones that the Government business managers would have taken, because any such body will be established with a Government majority. Government business managers will sort out what they want the agenda to be behind the scenes. This is what happens in all other Parliaments that have business committees. They will bring it to the business committee for approval. I think the key questions are probably ones about accountability, the level of accountability and where that accountability takes place, whether the Leader of the House is subjected to questioning in a committee or whether they are subjected to questioning on the Floor of the House. My preference would be for beefing up the accountability on the Floor of the House, rather than for trying to get accountability in a new committee that is less inclusive of Members of the House.
Q23 Mr Turner: I think you are suggesting that the whole House is more capable of holding people to account than the Committee. Why?
Dr Russell: If there is a committee, I think there are questions as to whether it is a decision-making committee. I think the Wright Committee has slightly dodged that question. There was a suggestion that the House Business Committee would not normally vote and that it would take decisions by consensus and so on, which is a bit of a fudge. If a committee is a decision-making committee, then clearly the balance on the committee becomes fundamental. How can the majorities be created? The experience from business committees around the world-or at least in the places that I looked at, as reported in my report in 2007-is that they are committees of Whips, not unlike the Committee of Selection, or a beefed-up version of the business managers’ meeting that currently happens, including Opposition Members. Those who can garner a majority on that committee will come to decisions on their own outside the committee, and then will use their strength in the committee to get them through, if necessary, so the committee itself becomes pretty much a rubber-stamping exercise. It is much more difficult to make the Chamber a rubber-stamping exercise, because there are all sorts of people who can pop up and raise all sorts of suggestions.
If you create a House Business Committee, there are questions as to whether it has Backbench representation on it, and, if so, how many are there, how are they chosen and so on?
Backbench representation on a decision-making House Business Committee will make business managers very nervous. They will seek to control who those Members are and how they vote. The Chamber is much less controllable and if there is a genuine concern, particularly on the Government Back Benches, that debate is being suppressed, that there are things that should be discussed that are not being discussed, then ultimately it is Government Back Benchers who have the power by coming to agreement and voting with the Opposition to overturn Government decisions. To defeat Government I think is more achievable and it is also more transparent, more democratic in that environment in the Chamber than in a committee, where perhaps you are looking at the swing vote of one or two individuals who come under enormous pressure and who the Whips try very, very hard to control.
Q24 Chair: It is not surprising that the Whips do that, is it?
Dr Russell: Of course not, no.
Chair: Because this is the game we are in; it is politics.
Dr Russell: Yes, absolutely, and I think the Wright Committee was quite clear about this. We have to be realistic about the environment in which we are operating, which is that Government wants to get its business, it has a right to get its business and that Government Back Benchers are fundamentally loyal, except in extreme circumstances. Perhaps it is for those extreme circumstances that we need to try to have procedures to make sure that Backbench Members, on the Government side in particular, are not being bamboozled and denied the opportunity to debate things. If there is a genuine majority in the Chamber, which is different to the Government’s own partisan majority, then that majority should have a right to get things discussed. I think that is best demonstrated in the Chamber itself. It is harder to demonstrate it in a committee.
Chair: That is a very good point. Andrew, could I ask you to be fairly brief, because I want to get everybody else in.
Q25 Mr Turner: Yes. I am not quite clear whether we are talking about a House Business Committee except Back Benchers or except for the Backbench stuff, which they will continue to do, or whether we are going to throw that into one committee that does both and will almost certainly be pinched by the Government.
Dr Russell: Yes. I would absolutely urge you not to endorse any proposal that had the Backbench Business Committee in some way gobbled up by a bigger committee. This is the fear with the Wright Committee model, I think particularly in retrospect with-what is it now?-nearly three years of operation of the Backbench Business Committee and very successful operation, I think even more strongly that the Wright Committee model of building a House Business Committee on the foundations of the Backbench Business Committee, and including those members, is probably a bad idea. It is a much more sensible idea to keep these matters separate. If there is a House Business Committee then perhaps the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee should be a Back Bencher with a seat on that committee, in order that there is a line of communication between the two. However, I think that any committee that seeks to graft Government business on to the Backbench Business Committee could be a way of killing the Backbench Business Committee, and is dangerous.
Q26 Sheila Gilmore: It is interesting, what you said about the Scottish Parliament. I am not aware-although I don’t follow it terribly closely-that the fact they take a vote on business results in any great changes. I do not know if anybody has looked at this.
Dr Russell: I haven’t researched it since 2007. I did look at it at that time, and at that time there was a decision taken by the Chamber on its business every week. Effectively there is a decision at the end of what we have as the business statement and, at that time, the record had been that I think there was a division about five or 10 times a year. So that is very much a minority of weeks that there would be any controversy about the content of the business. I don’t think that the proposed business had ever been overturned either.
However, I go back to the point that I was making to Andrew Turner, that accountability can be very important in influencing the decisions that are taken beforehand. The fact that whoever is drawing up the business knows that there is an opportunity for it to be amended, and that if a majority can be found for an alternative agenda of business that they will be at risk of defeat, I think is very important in the behind the scenes decision-making about what to put to the Chamber. That is how it works. It does not work through business being overturned. It works through those who draw up the business knowing that they have to defend that in front of the Chamber and it could be overturned. That is why Governments are not defeated on their legislation, by and large. Often they are not defeated because their Back Benchers wholeheartedly agree with them on the policy. But sometimes when they have problems with their Back Benchers, they negotiate behind the scenes on the policy until they know it is in a position that Back Benchers will not rebel against to the level that defeat is likely. That is how Backbench power is exercised most of the time.
Q27 Sheila Gilmore: So who would chair a House Business Committee?
Dr Russell: That is a very interesting question. I think there is a question as to whether you think you are setting up an entirely new body or whether you think what you are doing is making some changes to the body that already exists, which is the committee that I described and that Eleanor Laing said she also sat in on for a time when she was working in Government. I think that the idea that the discussion between the Leader of the House and Chief Whip and their deputies is opened to other people-particularly from the Opposition-is something that makes those people naturally nervous and that would cause a fundamental change to the dynamics of those conversations, as would the inclusion of Back Benchers. You then have a separate question about the Chair, and the suggestion usually is that the Chair should be somebody like either the Speaker or a Deputy Speaker. Again, I think that would fundamentally change the dynamic and it would also change the relationship of that individual to the Chamber.
There are some risks of drawing the Speaker and Deputy Speaker into decisions that they then might be expected to defend in the Chamber itself. I think it is a tricky question. I mean, arguably, it should be chaired by somebody from the Government. It could be chaired by the Leader of the House perhaps, but it is this fundamental question as to whether you are seeking to simply slightly change a committee that already exists or to create a brand-new committee. A brand new committee is never going to be accepted by the Government. I don’t think it is really a runner.
Q28 Sheila Gilmore: Is it worth having the re-badged committee, if you just make a few tweaks?
Dr Russell: It perhaps is, because-I say this in my written evidence-at the moment, the business is decided by the usual channels. You could not come up with something much further away from the notion of transparency than the term "usual channels". I think it probably would not do any harm, and it might even do a little bit of good, to list on the Parliamentary website who the people are who are consulted on the business. At the moment, that meeting that I have described goes on behind the scenes between people who are in Government. Of course, there have been separate meetings with the Opposition Chief Whip and perhaps occasionally involving the Opposition Leader of the House, on a bilateral basis, going from the Chief Whips’ Office. There could be a small element of transparency achieved by having a committee that was composed of the business managers from all parties and perhaps with one or two Back Benchers-like the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee-on it. So that people going to the website know who is responsible for taking those decisions, and, if they are unhappy with those decisions, can perhaps write in and tell those people that they thought that some scheduling was inappropriate or whatever. In terms of actual power, I don’t think much would change.
Q29 Chair: Isn’t that what happens on a Thursday during questions to the Leader of the House, that people raise their concerns about the timetabling?
Dr Russell: People, as in Parliamentarians, MPs-but I am talking about people outside Parliament as well. There is no page on the website that you can go to which is headed, "Usual channels" where you can get a list of who these people are and what their role is, and that might be a slight improvement.
Q30 Chair: Nevertheless, isn’t that because accountability comes to the people through their Member of Parliament, and the person to whom a member of the public ought to write or email is their own Member of Parliament? Isn’t that how the democratic system works?
Dr Russell: Arguably, yes, and those things are very defensible things to say when it comes to e-petitions. I think the Government is in a bind. It has a commitment to establish a House Business Committee. I believe it was in the Conservative party manifesto, and presumably it feels a need to deliver on that commitment. I don’t think a wide-ranging House Business Committee-however democratic its membership and so on-is ultimately going to be able to wrest power from the business managers who control the majority in the Chamber for the timetabling of Government business. So I am not sure whether that is worth doing. One thing that could be done is to re-badge the arrangements that exist now, which might slightly enhance transparency to those outside Parliament who don’t know what this term, "usual channels" means.
Q31 Sheila Gilmore: Yes. What you described as "these small changes", they really are a long way from giving Back Benchers much control.
Dr Russell: Yes.
Sheila Gilmore: It is a long way from the proposal.
Dr Russell: Yes. The purpose of my research in 2007, and one of the main drivers of it, was to look at whether the suggestions that had been around for a few years-the establishment of a business committee to give the Chamber greater control of its business-could be informed by the way that business committees operate in other Parliaments, and what we could learn from the way that they operate in other Parliaments. What I learnt on my travels to these other Parliaments that had business committees, was that-as has been referred to already with respect to the Scottish Parliament-they are effectively a conclave of Whips who get together and agree the business. If there are other people on those committees who are not Whips, then the main business takes place outside the formal meetings between the very people who do the business in this Parliament. Then they take it to that meeting, which rubber-stamps it. So I think we have to be realistic that in the end, those people who can garner a majority in the Chamber are going to do deals between themselves to fix the agenda. The question is: can you shine more light on that? Can you create more accountability for those decisions, and, if so, is the appropriate place to do so in a committee or on the floor of the Chamber or both? As Eleanor Laing has said, we have to recognise political reality. This is the world we live in.
Q32 Sheila Gilmore: I don’t know if it has always been like this, but the business statement that is just shortly going to start, as far as I can see, it is often a kind of opportunity for everybody to put in their particular issue of the moment, rather than necessarily serious scrutiny of the business. You get a whole lot of people who get up and say, "I would like to have a debate on the state of roads in whatever" so that they can put it in their press release that they raised it with the Leader of the House or whatever. So it is our fault that we do not use that.
Chair: Yes, it is, exactly. It is exactly that, is it not? It is the fault of Members of Parliament for playing to their local newspapers in the hope of getting a line or two in for their constituents to see instead of doing their job in the House of Commons.
Dr Russell: I think you are quite right. That is the function that it performs most of the time. Again I haven’t researched this, but when I was working for the Leader of the House I watched the business statement every week and I helped in his preparation for it. There are occasions when there is a matter on which the Government is under genuine pressure to bring forward a debate. The obvious thing in the run-up to 2003, working for Robin Cook, was whether there should be more time given to debating the question of going to war in Iraq. There were some very serious pressures from Back Benchers on all sides of the House for debating time on an issue like that, and those were raised at the business statement.
When it came to the Wright Committee proposals-as I document in that Parliamentary Affairs paper-the first struggle was to get the proposals even debated in the House. There was pressure on the Leader of the House, week after week, by a small core of Members, some of them from the Wright Committee themselves, saying, "When are we going to get this debate? When are we going to get this debate?" That does create a degree of accountability. It is fairly soft and my suggestion is that you should look seriously at the proposal that the Wright Committee made that there should be an opportunity to offer a constructive amendment to the business statement, and have a vote on that amendment, in certain limited conditions where there is clear cross-party support. The Speaker would not select vexatious amendments that were simply time-wasting or partisan point-scoring or whatever. That would create a greater degree of accountability. It would perhaps also create a greater sense of responsibility in the minds of Members to raise serious matters. But perhaps also the fact that Members stand up and raise minor constituency matters is an indication that, fundamentally, they are quite happy with the programme that has been put, otherwise they would band together and make complaints about it collectively.
Q33 Paul Flynn: I am very grateful for the answers you have given and for your paper. I was just thinking about when I was last on a legislative committee, and I think it was about 21 years ago. My chance of getting on a legislative committee is similar to my chances of being elected Pope yesterday. I think the paradise that was envisaged by the Wright reforms, which were practical and based on knowledge of the House, have had a limited success, but it was certainly success. Do you think they have done much to rescue us from the ugly screaming nightmare of the expenses scandal? How long is it going to take before we restore the confidence of the public in MPs as existed before the scandal?
Dr Russell: With respect to your remark about legislation committees, you raise it in a humorous manner but it is a serious point. It is one that I think your Committee could reasonably report on: the fact that there was a recommendation from the Wright Committee that there be reform of the way that Members of legislation committees are chosen, and that, at the very least, there should be accountability to the Chamber; that the Chamber should have to approve, in the way we have established it does for Joint Committees and used to do previously for Select Committees; and that the Chamber, at the very least, ought to approve the list of names put forward. Perhaps going further than that, you could move to the Wright Committee model, whereby parties themselves should be electing their members on legislation committees. Then you might find that you have a better chance of getting on on those things that you have an expertise on.
On the other question, I think that is a much more difficult question. Obviously Parliament reached a very low point with the expenses crisis in 2009 and I think its reputation has been restored at least to some degree since. We would be in pretty dire straits if it had not. Partly that is just the passage of time. Partly it is the sense of freshness, of a new intake. The Wright Committee reforms may have contributed to that to some extent. However, I think we also have to be realistic that, in enhancing public confidence in Parliament, there is probably a limit to what Parliament itself can do to achieve that. There is a great lack of clarity in the public mind in the difference between Parliament and Government. If people are unhappy with the Government, they will probably say in response to an opinion poll that they are unhappy with Parliament. A lot of the image that Parliament has in the public mind is also to do with the way that it is reported in the media, the fact that the things that reach the news are the big spats rather than those more constructive points of agreement, things that go on on Select Committees and so on. So I think there is a limit to what Parliament can do to gain control over that. But it is very interesting these days that, when you turn on the radio or open the newspapers, often there will be two or three Select Committee stories in a day about serious reports being produced on serious matters, and this can only be good for Parliament.
Q34 Paul Flynn: I think we owe a debt to the Wright Committee proposals for the increased influence of Select Committees. The great weakness is that-and I do not know if you have any suggestions for how we get around it-there is a necessary distribution of chairmanships between the parties to make sure that the minority parties are not left out, otherwise all chairmanships would go to the majority party. The difficulty, in practical terms last time, was that eight of the chairmanships were uncontested. In the case of the inheritor of Tony Wright’s committee, the three people elected were three doughty Back Benchers. There was Christopher Chope, Ian Liddell-Grainger and Bernard Jenkin, and no one could ever accuse any one of those of being in the middle of the road as far as the Conservative party was concerned. So we did have a choice between people on the extreme right wing of the Conservative Party only and another committee where it was just the one was in the Welsh Committee, only one Member put himself forward. There were eight Conservative MPs. Again, no choice there at all. I do not know if you have any ideas on this, how we can ensure and know the strength of the personality of chairs in these committees.
Dr Russell: We are in a slightly peculiar position perhaps, that those elections have been run only once and it was new for everybody. It was new for Members but it was also new for Whips. I imagine that next time round the Whips will have worked out a little better whether there are ways that they might try to get influence in those elections, but Members may also be a bit more savvy. I agree with you that I thought it was a shame that some positions were uncontested. Although in the end, if Members are not going to put themselves forward, it is hard to force them to do so.
I think in particular-I cannot now remember the detail, and I probably should have checked-that Liberal Democrat positions were uncontested, perhaps across all of the committees. I don’t now remember. That suggests that they had a different decision-making process behind the scenes to ensure that there weren’t open elections. If that is the way that Members want to operate, it is very hard to see how you can make them have contested elections if people don’t put themselves forward as candidates.
Q35 Paul Flynn: Seventeen of the e-petitions received 100,000 votes. In the great majority of cases, the ones who achieved those votes were strongly supported by tabloid newspapers. Do you think the e-petitions have improved the influence of the tabloids rather than the influence of the public?
Dr Russell: Perhaps it is both. However, what it hasn’t done, I think, is particularly improve the influence of Parliament, because the e-petitions is another area where the Government seems to have become rather confused as to where its writ ends and Parliament’s writ begins. The fact that you put something up on a Government website guaranteeing a backbench debate in Parliament seems to me entirely inappropriate and somewhat ill-educated. If the Government doesn’t know the difference between Government and Parliament, then heaven help the public. We ought to be trying to educate the public in these matters.
Q36 Chair: Do you have a suggestion as to how that could be better done?
Dr Russell: I don’t really.
Chair: Perhaps it is unfair of me to ask. You don’t have to have-
Dr Russell: Petitions are not really my thing. I would just say-again, reiterating what I said in written evidence-that it would be a great shame if the solution were to change the Backbench Business Committee by stealth into a petitions committee, whether it is dealing with petitions on a Parliament website or the Government website. I think that there are some who would like to encroach on the territory of the Backbench Business Committee, for one reason or another and in one way or another, and I think that should be resisted.
Chair: Thank you very much. Dr Russell, I appreciate that we are running over time.
Q37 Paul Flynn: Can I just say finally on the question of the Backbench Committee, and you have raised painful memories from the past about the decision on the Iraq war, but the Backbench Committee-
Dr Russell: Robin Cook was your champion, of course.
Paul Flynn: He was indeed, in every way. So much depends on personality, as it happened with George Young, who was a genuine reformer. The combination of George Young and Bercow were then very beneficial and hugely influential, I think, and an inspiration for Parliament. However, it does seem extraordinary. The Backbench Committee had a very distinguished group of people, including Rory Stewart and Bob Stewart and the Green Member and a senior Labour Member, who had been asking again and again for a debate on the Iraq war-there are few things you think would be more important than we might be going to war in Syria, in Iran-but that wasn’t allowed. However, the debate that bolstered the view that Hussein could have been and should have been got rid of anyway on the 25th anniversary of the massacre of the Kurds has been debated, and I think it extraordinary that something like this matter of finding out why on earth we took the worst decision in my years at Parliament to go to war in Iraq-
Chair: Paul, I have to bring you to a question.
Paul Flynn: I know. If you do not disturb me, I would stop in about half an hour anyway. While the Backbench Committee have been very valuable, the hand of the Whips is still visible there, do you think?
Dr Russell: I think you are asking me about a case that I do not know about, but if you are talking about Backbench business, there is one thing I was going to say, and I should have said earlier, which is that when thinking about the House Business Committee that we already have, if I can put it that way-the one that meets behind closed doors with the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip-when I was there, and I imagine that when Eleanor Laing was there, one of the things that they sat and discussed was what debate Members should be given on which issue of the day. Of course at that time, as I have said, there were pressures on whether we should be having more time debating the difficulties in Iraq and the Government’s intentions and so on. The forum for deciding that was a private meeting between Robin Cook and Hilary Armstrong, which then had to be defended by the Leader of the House in the Chamber. That is not true anymore. Those decisions are now taken by a committee of Back Benchers who are elected by Back Benchers, accountable to Back Benchers. That bit of the existing Business Committee, the Government Business Committee’s business, has been removed.
Chair: That is a huge difference, huge.
Dr Russell: It was inappropriate that Government business managers sat around saying, "What shall we give them a debate on? You know, should it be St David’s Day or should it be International Women’s Day or do they want this or do they want…" Let them decide. It is not Government’s business, and that has been a tremendous advance.
The question is what next? If you want to change the way that decisions are taken in that forum, which other bits of decision-making do you want to take? I think there are two things that are decided that remain in that forum. One is how much Government time should be spent on different things, so particularly stages of Bills and Government-sponsored debates, but the other thing that remains in that forum, which I think is rather inappropriate, is when Opposition days should be given, and now when Backbench days should be given. Those over-arching decisions not about what to do with Government time, but about when non-Government time takes place, remain in the hands of Government, and I think perhaps that is the next bit of encroachment that might be sensibly made-to either put those things more firmly in Standing Orders or to have some other forum in which those decisions are made about Opposition business, private Members’ Bills, timetabling of Backbench business and when Government slots are compared to when these other slots occur.
Q38 Chair: Is it noticeable from your analytical point of view that Thursdays are becoming like Fridays used to be-Fridays being private Members’ Bills now-and on Thursday afternoons this place generally empties, because it is Backbench business?
Dr Russell: Of course one of the recommendations firmly in my report and subsequently-not quite so firmly-in the Wright Committee report was that Backbench business should, by default, be programmed on a Wednesday. I suggested Tuesday or Wednesday, and the Wright Committee suggested that Prime Minister’s questions should be moved to a Thursday afternoon in order that Thursday is a big business day when the Chamber is well attended, and I don’t believe that that has ever been discussed.
Q39 Chair: Has anybody done an analysis-I am not expecting you to answer this question off the cuff when we are way over time already-of the effect on Parliament of changing Prime Minister’s questions from how it used to be on Tuesdays and Thursdays to only being on a Wednesday? I certainly recall when Thursday was a very big day in Parliament and the Prime Minister would be at the Dispatch Box until the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday and so the Parliamentary week ran longer.
Dr Russell: I don’t know about any such research, although it may be out there. I suppose the danger with that shift is that Monday becomes a dead slot perhaps.
Chair: Depending on the whipping. Dr Russell, I am aware that we are way over time and I have not allowed Stephen Williams to say a word yet. Do you have another couple of minutes?
Dr Russell: I am supposed to be at the other end of the building in about seven minutes, but-
Chair: Stephen, would you like a very, very quick word?
Q40 Stephen Williams: Anyone watching this might think this has been a very self-indulgent conversation about how MPs get on to committees rather than what the public are probably concerned about, which is whether these committees are any use at all. Have you come across any ground-breaking reports by Select Committees or recommendations under the new system, since June 2010, which might not have been made under the old system?
Dr Russell: I think the straight answer to that is no. Moreover, as I said before, I don’t think that, as I say in my written evidence, the fundamental problem with Select Committees wasn’t a problem about what they were doing or how well-regarded they were. I think there was just this awkward problem about the accountability of how their members were selected. I do not think that the aim of the Wright Committee was to basically change what Select Committees did, but was to make them feel more legitimate and more defensible. Select Committees have been pretty high profile since then, not least the Culture, Media and Sport Committee over the phone hacking scandal and the Public Accounts Committee. Though at the other end of the spectrum, some people express concerns about Committees playing to the gallery too much. So, with respect to Committees connecting with the public, I think it is a delicate line to walk and some of the most successful Committee reports are ones that don’t have a very high profile but which are read seriously by civil servants and Ministers and result in quiet changes of direction behind the scenes. So it is very difficult to gauge.
I have done a piece of work looking at the success of Select Committee recommendations, which shows that a substantial portion of Select Committee recommendations do go on to be implemented, ultimately, by Government. Nevertheless, Select Committees have other important roles as well, not least the one that I have referred to repeatedly in other contexts, which is accountability, with Ministers and others from industry and so on having to appear in front of them and defend their decisions. That is a very important role. I do not think we were looking for a fundamental change in how they behaved.
Chair: No. Thank you very much.
Stephen Williams: Can I ask a very similar question about-
Chair: Very quickly, if Dr Russell will allow.
Q41 Stephen Williams: It is exactly the same question. It is essentially about the Backbench debates. While issues have been given an airing which wouldn’t have had time otherwise, do you think anything has changed or do you think there needs to be another process change when there is a divisible motion? For instance, on my motion for the vote at 16, which Fabian Hamilton supported as well, the House of Commons has now expressed an opinion. They think 16 and 17 year olds should be able to vote, but there is no way of getting that into law unless the Government agrees.
Dr Russell: That is a problem. If there are too many of those decisions that Government chooses to ignore, you could get into a pattern where the decisions themselves become pointless. Again, this is a very delicate area where you have to be careful to use your weapons only occasionally, perhaps, because you might get into a pattern where you are continually being overridden. But at the moment-I think somebody else has raised this in written evidence to you-there is no mechanism for Government to have to respond to a decision of the Chamber in the way that it has to respond to a Select Committee within a couple of months. That may be a sensible thing to implement to try and deal with some of those issues.
Q42 Chair: Thank you very much indeed. I apologise that we have overrun, but it is because what you have been saying has been so interesting, and it has been really good to examine these matters.
Dr Russell: Thank you very much. I suspect that some of it was because some of what I was saying was too long, but thank you for your tolerance.
Chair: Not at all. Thank you very much indeed for coming before us again.
Dr Russell: I look forward to your report with great interest.
Chair: Thank you very much indeed.
Examination of Witness
Witness: Ms Catherine Bochel, University of Lincoln, gave evidence.
Q43 Chair: Catherine, good morning and thank you very much indeed for coming to speak to us this morning. I noticed that you were here for most of the last session, so you have an idea of the lines that we have been exploring this morning in considering the implementation and the consequences of the Wright reforms. We appreciate that your speciality is in petitions, and we appreciate the work that you have done-of which you have made us aware-is on the workings of e-petitions. As a very general question to start with, can I ask you if there is anything you would like to draw to our attention, and can I ask you do you think that the expectations of people who sign e-petitions are being met?
Ms Bochel: I would just say to start with that I am from the University of Lincoln, an academic there. I have been researching petition systems in the UK for a number of years, specifically in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, but I have also looked at the House of Commons’ paper system. I come to this because the Government launched its e-petition system while I was undertaking my research, so I do see that there are aspects that could perhaps be improved, drawing on my experience in the other systems.
Do I think people’s expectations are being met? I think that clearly, in terms of the existence of the e-petition system, their expectations are probably being met because it exists and they are allowed to communicate their views to Government. So that is a good thing. Certainly I was looking at the website last week and I think there have been approximately 37,000 petitions so far, of which just under 20,000 are admissible, so it is a mechanism for communicating with Government. It is very popular, and clearly I think we could make more of that.
Q44 Chair: Have you had a chance to consider the fact that, of those many thousand petitions that have been started, 17 have actually led to debates in the Chamber, having been taken up by Members and brought to the Backbench Business Committee?
Ms Bochel: Indeed, and that is very positive. Those petitioners have had the opportunity to have their voices heard. They have had a debate and they have had an outcome. So that is very positive. The opposite side to that is all petitions below 10,000 signatures do not receive any form of feedback at all. In fact, in their report in 2012, What next for E-Petitions? the Hansard Society said that 97.7% of petitions receive less than 1,000 signatures. So, for the vast majority of people, this system doesn’t really allow anything other than just communicating their voices to Government. They do not have the opportunity to have their voices heard, so there is little or no empowerment or real participation for them.
Q45 Chair: However, isn’t that the workings of democracy? If they have less than 1,000 signatures, then that shows it is not a matter that has such widespread support that it ought to be debated in Parliament.
Ms Bochel: There are issues about whether it should be about signature thresholds. Although I think the main point about the system is that it is supposed to be about public engagement and if the House wants to improve engagement with the public, then it would be really good to improve the existing system to allow more people to engage, albeit in different ways and at different levels. It doesn’t have to be via the opportunity for a debate once they reach the 100,000 threshold.
Q46 Fabian Hamilton: Can I be slightly controversial for a minute and put this to you: surely e-petitions are just a lazy way of communicating with Parliament or Government? Given what was said earlier about the confusion-Dr Russell outlined this-between what is Government, what is Parliament, and the number of people that think that I am a member of the Government because I am a Member of Parliament. Actually they think I am a councillor as well, and if I am not they think I can tell the councils what to do. Given the general confusion, isn’t it simply far too lazy just to say, "Oh click here. Type your name in there and your email address, and that is it, you have done what you should do", rather than engage with your Member of Parliament? Most MPs are very open to members of the public coming to see them, emailing them, tweeting them, phoning them or coming to their advice surgeries, or even having visits from them. Isn’t that the better way to have democratic accountability and get your message across as a member of the public?
Ms Bochel: It might be, but the system has been launched and it has proved to be very popular by the number of petitions that are being submitted. So why not use it as an opportunity to improve engagement? For example, you could have something like an online seminar that actually does a bit of what you have just said, saying to people, "This is what petitions can achieve, this is what they cannot achieve. Actually, you do not need to use a petition system. There are other ways of engaging with Parliament". Trying to illustrate that there are all sorts of different interests involved, that policymaking isn’t at the click of a mouse it is much more complex than that. So there needs to be some form of educative process behind that.
Q47 Fabian Hamilton: Precisely my point, and the point that my colleague Paul Flynn made just earlier, which is do you agree that there is a danger that these petitions just empower the tabloid newspapers rather than empowering the public and the voters?
Ms Bochel: I think it is problematic. That tends to be attached to numbers thresholds, doesn’t it: once you reach the 100,000 it is wrongly assumed that you will get a debate in Parliament, but certainly petitions become eligible for a debate in Parliament at that stage. Perhaps there need to be other things than just the system being purely reliant on numbers thresholds. You cannot get away from the tabloid press doing this, I don’t think, but I think there should be other mechanisms built into such a system.
Q48 Fabian Hamilton: Let me come back to your point about education, though, because one of the problems is that people believe that, because they have seen their MP or because they have signed a petition online, the job is done, things will be changed. Going back 10 years to the Iraq war, I remember the number of people who said to me, "I went on the demonstration; 2 million people went on the demonstration and it didn’t change anything". How do we bring people back to the idea that we have a representative Parliamentary democracy, rather than a mass democracy, where if the majority say they want something it gets done? Who owns the petitions, Parliament or Government?
Ms Bochel: Right, well-
Chair: That is a lot of questions all at once.
Fabian Hamilton: Yes. I apologise. Do you want to pause there?
Chair: It is not really fair to put Catherine entirely on the spot.
Fabian Hamilton: No, I agree.
Chair: Break it down. First of all, let us look at the representative bit, and then it is a totally different question about Parliament or Government, but a very valid question, if we can come to that in a moment.
Fabian Hamilton: Let somebody else ask that.
Ms Bochel: In terms of the representative bit, there is a tension between representative democracy and participative democracy and clearly there are challenges associated with that. However, drawing from my experience with the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales, if the petition systems are integrated into the wider political system-of which they are a part-then they can work with existing representative institutions rather than against them. I have noticed that the systems in Scotland and Wales are very highly thought of and appear to be well integrated into their respective elected representative bodies. They can call on assembly members-MSPs-to come before the Petitions Committee to give evidence, for example. Members appear to be very happy to do that, and there seems to be a broader culture that the petitions systems are part of the elected system, the wider political system, and that is about how Members feel about them. If the ownership of the petitions system was part of the House of Commons here, then Members could vote on it. They could decide what happens to it and perhaps they would have more commitment to it.
You asked about expectations as well. I would like to quote Natascha Engel, who chairs the Backbench Business Committee, because expectations have been built up enormously with this system.
Fabian Hamilton: Yes, they have.
Ms Bochel: She said, and this is from 2011, The Guardian, "The popular expectation is that when it reaches the magic 100,000 threshold not only does it trigger a debate, but a debate on the floor of the House, a vote and then a change in the law". That goes back to what the purpose of the system is. Is it just to communicate views to Government or is it to have something much more substantial to allow people’s voices to be heard?
If you go to the website, it says, "E-petitions are an easy and personal way for you to influence Government and Parliament in the UK". However, there is a real mismatch there between what it says on the website and what can happen for the vast majority of petitions in practice.
Chair: There’s a surprise.
Q49 Fabian Hamilton: Absolutely. Dr Russell’s point was that there should be a mechanism, like there is with Select Committee recommendations, so that the votes that we had, for example, on votes at 16-that Stephen Williams led a few weeks ago-should have a two-month response period from Government to those debates. What would your views be on that?
Ms Bochel: To what, sorry, can you make your point again?
Fabian Hamilton: When we have a Backbench Committee debate, as we did on votes for 16 year olds-which Stephen Williams led and I supported-we had a vote on the Floor of the House. The motion was carried and that is the end of it, nothing happens. Whereas with Select Committees you make recommendations and the Government has a fixed period in which to respond. They don’t necessarily carry out those recommendations but they have to respond to them.
Ms Bochel: They have to respond, yes.
Fabian Hamilton: Dr Russell’s suggestion was that we should change the procedure, so that the Government has to respond to a vote on the Floor of the House.
Ms Bochel: Certainly petitioners would feel that they were getting something more from that, yes.
Fabian Hamilton: Thank you.
Q50 Sheila Gilmore: My question has really been answered. It is, shouldn’t the petition system be transferred to Parliament rather than to Government?
Ms Bochel: Like Dr Russell was saying earlier, there is confusion between the terms "Government" and "Parliament", and I think that is not helpful. The system is rather unclear, because petitions come to the Government and then only when they pass the 100,000 threshold are they transferred to the Backbench Business Committee to consider. I think it would certainly be helpful if the ownership of the petition system was in one place, and my view is that it would be better with the House of Commons.
Sheila Gilmore: Or Parliament.
Ms Bochel: Yes. Certainly at the moment the Backbench Business Committee has no say over the statements on the website, for example, so it has no control over the purpose of the system. Neither does it appear to have much control over the actual process either, so it only has control over petitions that pass the 100,000 threshold. I know it has had debates on some, and indeed it has tagged one to a debate but, short of that, it doesn’t seem to have any actual power to do anything.
Q51 Chair: Is that surprising, since it is the Government that holds the power?
Ms Bochel: Absolutely not. My point is that the ownership definitely should be in one place and with Parliament.
Chair: With Parliament.
Ms Bochel: Yes.
Chair: That is a point that we have been exploring this morning. That is helpful.
Q52 Sheila Gilmore: For petitions that don’t quite get to 100,000, should there be the ability to be considered? I think people sometimes feel they are not being listened to.
Ms Bochel: I said in my written evidence that I think there could be a whole range of different options, ranging from a wide range of numbers thresholds through to much more flexible options. Perhaps not necessarily focusing on numbers thresholds, but for example if you have a Petitions Committee, and a staff in a petitions office, they can look at petitions as they come in. Just keep an eye on them and perhaps tag them to an existing debate. Perhaps if there is a Private Member’s Bill going through they could attach it to that. If an MP has a specific interest in that area, the MP could be made aware of it. So there are all sorts of flexible options that you could introduce that would not necessarily be attached to numbers thresholds. Equally, you could have other numbers thresholds perhaps. I think it is in the Bundestag that they have something like a 50,000 numbers threshold that, if you get that many signatures in a certain period of time, then you get a hearing before the petitions committee, for example.
Q53 Chair: That is a very interesting idea without very much change in the system. We have no way of knowing what petitions have been submitted, or how many have, let’s say, over 50,000, and not just how many, but on what subjects there is significant attention from the public in general, or from a particular lobby group that is getting its people to email. Let’s not forget of course that that is how it is done. Lobby groups and pressure groups with a large database can get 100,000 signatures on a petition just like that. People like the RSPCA or others can get 100,000 signatures just by asking for it. However, are you suggesting that there should be a way of drawing that to the attention of Members of Parliament who might be involved in those subjects?
Ms Bochel: If there is a relevant petition that has come in and it fits with a Member’s interests, then that could happen, assuming you had a staff in a petitions office who were just keeping an eye on such things. Indeed, in their report What next for E-Petitions? the Hansard Society refer to a whole range of different options like this.
Chair: That is a very good idea. Sheila, has that answered your questions? Thank you.
Q54 Stephen Williams: It was mentioned earlier that most of the petitions have fewer than 1,000 signatures and, as Eleanor was just saying, it can be quite easy for an NGO to get 100,000. Is the difference in the two accounted for by the fact that the smaller ones are more localised rather than on a national basis, or is there some other reason why there might be a discrepancy?
Ms Bochel: I have to say my research is not on that. Clearly the ones that are getting the 100,000 tend to be big issues that are popular with huge numbers of people. So I suspect some of the smaller ones will be more individualised issues.
Q55 Stephen Williams: Would it be a reasonable recommendation, say for this Committee, then to say that there ought to be two types of petitions? If somebody wants to build a new bridge in Bristol or Newport or something, then the trigger point is-I don’t know-5,000, 10,000 signatures. Whereas, if you want to change a system of national taxation then it should be 100,000, because quite obviously they are totally different sorts of things. There is no reason why anyone outside Newport or Bristol would be remotely interested in a petition about a bridge in either of those two cities. So it is quite obvious they would never get to 100,000.
Ms Bochel: It might also be to do with the fact that perhaps petitions are being submitted to the wrong place. Perhaps the smaller ones might be more to do with a local issue and perhaps are better with a local authority. So it might be that it is more appropriate to perhaps signpost petitions when they come in to other places and say, "Perhaps it is not appropriate for here".
Q56 Chair: Have you included in your research and your consideration of e-petitions, the House of Commons’ petition system that has worked, well, for centuries really, where constituents bring a petition-literally a petition, bits of paper signed by people-to their Member of Parliament, and the Member of Parliament at the end of a day’s session presents the petition to the House? Because when a Member of Parliament does that there is an obligation upon the appropriate Minister in the Government to respond to the petition.
Ms Bochel: I have. It is really interesting because there is a real contrast between the two systems. You can submit a paper petition with just one signature on it, and you get a response from the relevant Government Department. They are called observations. For the e-petition system you need 10,000 signatures to get a similar response from a Government Department, and I am not sure that people have picked up on that quite yet.
Q57 Chair: Except that to get 10,000 signatures, a pressure group with a database can get 10,000 signatures in the time that somebody who wants to change the parking regulations in their street can-
Ms Bochel: It takes an individual a lot longer to get that number of signatures.
Ms Bochel: They are entirely different systems, and it is important that you have a paper system to allow people who do not have access to the internet to have this facility too. The House of Commons’ paper system says on the website that it is a way for people to mobilise opinion and attract publicity. So they are fairly narrow in what they are promising, and so people know that they are not going to achieve that much with it. It is often seen as part of a wider campaign, and I think people appreciate that. They also get to see the petition presented on the Floor of the House and it is a permanent record in Hansard, but it rarely achieves anything. I interviewed one MP who said, "You always get a bog standard response to a petition submitted on the Floor of the House. I don’t even bother to read them". Nevertheless, they get a response and as long as they appreciate it is just part of a wider campaign then that is fine.
Q58 Paul Flynn: The previous system collapsed in the 19th century, and still on the statute is a Bill or an Act against riotous petitioning. If anyone wants to object to a petition in the House that has more than 16 signatures it is declared out of order. This is forgotten. The reason the House did that is they were doing nothing but consider petitions, and they decided to legislate against it a long time ago. The point I am making is that the Wright Committee were rightly lukewarm on the subject of e-petitions because they thought they would not be effective in the long term. It seems extraordinary that in August 2011, at the time of the London riots, there were 333,000 hits sometimes on the site, and 333,000 was the threshold at which it would collapse, which it did. Extraordinary interest, because of the high hopes there were. Although, haven’t those hopes been largely dashed because they were based on the naive view of the wisdom of the crowds and forgot about the more prevalent stupidity of crowds?
Ms Bochel: I don’t think I can comment on the particular petition. I am well aware of the petition but I haven’t analysed those petitions in detail. However, I do think it brings us back to the point of public expectation and what is the purpose of the system. If you manage the purpose of the system, then public expectations are reduced and you can have a system that works-
Q59 Paul Flynn: Can I give you an example of the crudity of the approach? If a petition is put up saying, "We are against pollution from cars. We are against increased accidents from cars. We are against increased congestion from cars" a huge number of people would sign it. Nevertheless, if another petition is put up asking for cheaper fuel that would be signed as well. The two things, if you have cheaper fuel you are going to get all those consequences of more congestion, more accidents and more pollution. It is a very simple system of people agreeing to one tiny point without considering issues on the whole.
Ms Bochel: Perhaps there need to be much stricter admissibility criteria, in terms of what is accepted and what isn’t. In Scotland and Wales clerks look at petitions when they come in and offer petitioners advice. So they reword them so the petitions make sense. The first one you talked about did not seem to ask for anything. It just said they were against something. Things need to be much clearer. So it is about having a system that works.
Q60 Paul Flynn: On the results of petitions, the one on what happened at Hillsborough did have an effect but it is hard to think of any of the others that have fulfilled the hopes of those who signed them. Isn’t there going to be increasing disillusionment with the value of petitions and with them falling into disrespect?
Ms Bochel: I think it depends on how you define an outcome. What is an outcome? In the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales they have a whole range of different options they can take that range from calling for further information from relevant bodies and organisations on the petition, through to commissioning inquiries and calling Ministers before petitions committees to ask for further evidence.
If a petitioner writes to an organisation for information they may not get it, but if a petitions committee writes they may be more likely to get the information. That is an outcome in itself, and so it is about educating people about the system-"These are the sorts of outcomes that you can get from this particular system". I have interviewed petitioners and they are happy with things like that because they have managed to progress their issue. So the expectation shouldn’t be, "Oh, it is about getting a debate" it is about, "These are the sorts of outcomes you might get from this particular system".
Q61 Paul Flynn: Could you give us an example from Scotland or Wales of a successful petition? You say they have been satisfied but are there any ones that-
Ms Bochel: There was one on banning plastic bags in the National Assembly for Wales. The petitioners gave evidence to the Petitions Committee. They referred it to the Sustainability Committee who carried out an inquiry, and they recommended to the Welsh Assembly Government that they introduce a levy on single use plastic carrier bags, and in November 2011 they introduced a 5p charge. So there are lots of examples I could give you.
Q62 Chair: Did it actually work? From looking at what has happened in Scotland and Wales, and the fact that the Wright Committee did not recommend that we should have a Petitions Committee here, due to the high volume of petitions that such a Committee would be likely to have to deal with. Given that the e-petitions website received 36,000 petitions in 18 months, what would you recommend to ensure that a Commons Petitions Committee wasn’t swamped with work? How could any Committee deal with 36,000 petitions?
Ms Bochel: Of those, I think it is 37,000 now and 17,000 were rejected because they were inadmissible. So we are talking about just under 20,000, and that is in just about a year and a half-
Q63 Chair: Yes. That is still swamping.
Ms Bochel: It is still quite a lot. However, if you look at the 10 Downing Street system, in its first year it received 29,000 petitions. Initially it gave responses to all petitions over 200 signatures and then it raised that to 500. A Petitions Committee need not be swamped with petitions. It is about having stricter admissibility criteria to start with, so that you are very clear about what you accept and what you do not accept. You reduce all the duplicate petitions, because there were an enormous number of duplicate petitions when the system was launched. Drawing from Scotland and Wales, they ask their petitioners to demonstrate that they tried to resolve their issue elsewhere, so they have been to their local MP, their local councillor. If you can demonstrate that, that you have tried and failed, then they look at them. I am not sure they always apply that, but it is one of their criteria.
Chair: That is a very good point.
Ms Bochel: If you do apply something like that then you will have much more manageable numbers.
Chair: Yes. Thank you very much. Sheila, Paul, are there any further questions? No. This has been really helpful. Thank you very much indeed. I appreciate that we haven’t had a very long time this morning, but it has been quite intense and we have had the opportunity to read what you had said previously, which we greatly appreciated.
I should have said at the beginning when you came in, Catherine, apologies from Graham Allen, the Chairman of the Committee, that he is unable to be here this morning but he will read what you have said, what we have asked, and we are really pleased to have your input to our general inquiry. Thank you very much indeed.
Ms Bochel: Thank you for inviting me.
Chair: Thank you.