Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Modernisation Committee Report

The Modernisation Committee has published its report "Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench member". It's a very useful report for anyone who wants to know how the House of Commons is operating in 2007. There are some excellent tables and the wealth of evidence presented to the Committee is published in full. Peter Riddell comments in The Times "These proposals could help to make the Commons more central to media and political discussion." The report is available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200607/cmselect/cmmodern/337/337.pdf

The major Conclusions and Recommendations are:
  • The House authorities should identify ways of publicising the work of the Chamber
  • There should be a longer gap than usually occurred in the past between the election and the day the House first meets to permit some of the practicalities that prevent Members from focusing on their new job to be addressed and to make time for an induction programme before the House starts its work. "We recommend that the gap should be about twelve days."
  • "We recommend that the House authorities make continuous development opportunities available to all those who want them."
  • "We believe that the current short guide to procedure should be expanded."
  • "We recommend that oral Question Time should be divided into two periods: an initial period for oral questions under the current arrangements followed by a period of ‘open’ questions. "
  • The topicality of debates in the Chamber should be improved. "We believe that the House will attract greater attention from Members, the public and the media if it finds a means of debating topical issues."
  • provision should be made in Standing Orders for topical debates on issues of regional, national or international importance to be held on one day each week. Topical debates would last for an hour and a half and be taken immediately after questions and statements but before the main business of the day.
  • "For the majority of regular debates we recommend rebalancing the current allocation of days and mix of subjects."
  • The Government should listen carefully to representations from the main Opposition parties and from back bench Members of all parties about whether a debate should take place on a substantive motion to which amendments could be tabled, and a vote held if
    necessary, or whether it should take place on a motion that allows a debate without
    the House having to come to a resolution in terms.
  • Debates held for the purpose of discussing a topic be renamed ‘general debates’ and that debate should take place on a motion ‘That this House has considered [the matter of] [subject]’.
  • "We believe that opportunities for a number of shorter debates can be created without
    any procedural change and that these would encourage more Members to participate. "
  • "We are convinced that greater flexibility in managing the business of the House is
  • The Government and opposition parties should agree more flexible use of time, splitting some of the current all-day non-legislative debates into two or more shorter, more focused debates where appropriate.
  • There should be a weekly committee half-hour in Westminster Hall in which a Minister can make a brief response to a committee report, selected for debate by the Liaison Committee, followed by the Chairman or other Member of the Committee. The remainder of the half-hour slot would be available to the opposition front benches and back bench Members generally. The usefulness of these weekly slots in Westminster Hall should be kept under review. "We also see no reason why it should not be possible for committee reports to be debated in Westminster Hall on substantive motions: this may require a change to Standing Order No. 10 to make clear that debates on reports of this kind cannot be blocked by six Members."
  • "We believe that in heavily over-subscribed debates the Speaker should have the discretion to impose a twenty minute limit on speeches from the front benches with an additional minute given for each intervention up to a maximum of fifteen minutes of additional time."
  • Front bench speeches in the one and a half hour topical debates recommended earlier in the Report should be limited to ten minutes each. However, front bench spokesmen could receive an additional minute for each intervention they accepted up to a total of ten minutes with similar limits set for smaller parties in proportion to the time limits the Speaker recently announced for statements. The Official Opposition and second largest opposition party spokesmen should be able to choose whether to make an opening or a wind-up speech (although additional time for interventions may not be practicable at the end of a debate). The minister with responsibility for the topic would reply to the debate in a speech lasting no more than five minutes. Back bench speeches in topical debates should be limited to not less than three minutes, the precise allocation depending on the number of Members who wished to speak.
  • The Speaker should have greater flexibility to vary time limits during debates with the objective of allowing all those who wish to speak to participate. "We recommend that the Standing Orders be amended to give the Speaker greater discretion in setting and revising time limits on speeches, including raising or removing limits if appropriate. "
  • "We do not see a need for lists of speakers in debates."
  • Removing barriers to participation is important and the use of handheld devices to keep up to date with e-mails should be permitted in the Chamber provided that it causes no disturbance.
  • "We believe there should be more opportunities for back bench Members to initiate business."
  • "We recommend an experiment with a ballot for opportunities for debating Private Members’ Motions using one of the longer slots each week in Westminster Hall on a trial basis for a whole Parliamentary Session. We recommend that this experiment should take place during the 2008–09 Session."
  • "We recommend the operation of programming is kept under review."

An interesting set of proposals. Many are worth further consideration. I personally think these are excellent proposals, though I regret that the Speakers Lists proposal and the idea of 'injury time' have, for the moment been rejected.