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Evidence on use of House time, 1986

The following evidence was given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure and printed with its Second Report of Session 1986-87, The Use of Time on the Floor of the House, HC 350, as Appendix 20 (pp 29-32).

Memorandum by the Study of Parliament Group's study groups on legislative procedure and debates

This paper is submitted, as is the usual practice, by the academic members of the two study groups. The paper has not been considered by the Study of Parliamentary Group as a whole, and therefore does not commit the Group. The Study of Parliament Group was formed in 1964. It is a private organisation and is composed of university teachers and officers of both Houses of Parliament.

1. The House of Commons fulfils few of the tasks of government. It does, though, stand in a unique position in relation to government. It constitutes the authoritative national forum in which government can be subjected to public critical scrutiny. Its political authority derives from popular election. Its political leverage in relation to government stems from its meeting in public; and the requirement for government to secure its approval of legislation and Supply provides the opportunity for critical scrutiny of Ministers' policies and the way they administer their Departments.

2. The Floor of the House of Commons constitutes the place where most of the critical scrutiny of government is expected to be undertaken. In practice, the capacity of the House to undertake such scrutiny has been eroded. This erosion has been marked and continuous over the course of the past century. It has been facilitated by the confluence of two factors. First, the growth in government business. The business to be completed by the House has, consequently, increased significantly. This has been exacerbated in recent years by the need to consider Northern Ireland orders and documents emanating from the European Communities. Second, the continued emphasis accorded the Floor of the House as the place where business should be transacted has served to generate a parliamentary timetable so crowded that the chamber can no longer fulfil all the purposes for which it is intended. Far from being a forum of critical scrutiny, the chamber has too frequently become a place for the processing of a mass of often undifferentiated business, much of it of limited political significance. Much time (much more than in many Parliaments) is devoted to the details of legislation; far less is available for debating the issues of the day.

3. We believe business on the Floor of the House needs to be considered from a fresh perspective in order that the House may more effectively fulfil its function of critical scrutiny. This, we submit, necessitates a review of the emphasis accorded the Floor of the House.

The use of time on the floor of the House

4. Over the centuries, the House of Commons has evolved on the basis that the Floor of the House is the real place for decision-making and that parliamentary tasks should be delegated to committees only when the pressure of work or the nature of the business means that they cannot be dealt with on the Floor. Such an emphasis has been compatible with prevailing notions of representation. The authority of the Floor of the House still has a strong following, as shown by the debate on televising the proceedings in the chamber and arguments about whether Select Committees detract from the significance of, and lure Members away from, business in the chamber.

5. The authority surrounding proceedings on the Floor of the House continues to be claimed in the face of the diminishing attendance of Members at debates. Fewer and fewer Members appear to attend when they have no intention of speaking. Of those who do attend there is, in many (though not all) debates, an increasing tendency to deliver set-piece speeches with little or no reference to what has gone before. In some circumstances the proceedings can scarcely be properly described as 'debate': within a set period, disparate and often discrete speeches are delivered as much for external consumption as for the benefit of those few Members present. The artificiality of the proceedings is at times reinforced when the whips seek to keep debate going until the expected and agreed time for a division. The greater the predictability of the outcome of that division, the less the attendance appears to be. In practice, therefore, there seems little to sustain the overwhelming significance frequently accorded to the Floor of the House. This is especially true when the government has a large majority; it is less true when majorities are small.

6. Given these features, we believe there is a case for looking at proceedings on the Floor from a new standpoint. The 'House of Commons' covers a myriad of formal and informal activities, many of which (by any calculation of Member-hours) do not take place in the chamber. It may be helpful to consider what the special attributes of proceedings in the chamber are and then apply criteria derived from study to the various parliamentary activities to determine whether they should be conducted on the Floor of the House. It might thereby be possible to make more time available for matters of greatest collective interest and enable a greater degree of topicality to be evident in the proceedings of the House.

The transfer of business

7. The distinctive, but not unique, features of proceedings on the Floor of the House are that any Member can, without notice, attend, seek to speak and vote, and that the business is conducted at the centre of political and press interest. It would seem logical, therefore, that proceedings in the chamber should comprise those on which Members are most anxious to exercise their rights to attend, speak and vote. If this test was to be applied to the many activities which now take place in the chamber and those which at present do not, then it follows from our earlier observations that there could be a reduction in the amount of business transacted on the Floor of the House.

8. By such a test (Members' willingness to attend, speak and vote), the chamber could be spared even more secondary legislation, most debates on European Community Documents and, more significantly, the remaining stages of much legislation and more Second Readings. It could therefore become the rule that business such as secondary legislation and EC Documents would always be dealt within Committee unless specifically brought to the Floor of the House by government, by opposition parties on an Opposition Day or by backbenchers on a Private Members' Day. For consideration of such business in committee the existing practice covering Standing Committees on Statutory Instruments could be applied; that is, any Member may attend and speak but only Committee members (selected to reflect the party political composition of the House) may vote, with any decision on the Floor of the House being taken without debate. Similarly, existing provisions for Second Reading Committees could be employed more extensively.

9. The report and remaining stages of Government bills takes up more time on the Floor than any other single category of business (in 1983/84, for example, 176 hours were spent on report stages and 40 hours on third readings). And on many bills at this stage, nearly all those taking part are the Members who were on the standing committees of the bills; there is little interest in what is often technical by those who were not involved in the earlier stage. It is for these reasons that we recommend that bills should usually be considered at this stage by committees including those who are well acquainted with the contents of the bill.

10. We recognise, however, that various provisions must be made to safeguard the interest of other Members and the House as a whole. We suggest the following could be considered:

11. The transfer of various kinds of business from the Floor of the House would provide greater opportunities for debate on issues of topical concern. We would recommend that, in return for business being taken off the Floor of the House, the right of opposition parties and of private Members to determine the subject of debate be extended. This could be achieved through an increase in the number of Opposition Days and an extension of private Member's time.

12. Extending the opportunity for debate on topical issues may not, in itself, exhaust the topics that Members wish to debate. Those for which time may well not be readily available include matters of specialist and regional interest. Demands for debates on such issues are made regularly on the Thursday business statement. We believe that an outlet for debate on specialist and regional topics should be provided. This could be provided through the greater use of Standing Committees (such as the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs) to complement the Floor of the House.

13. Hence, by changing the emphasis accorded the chamber, the House would be able to transact business, currently taken on the Floor of the House, while at the same time allowing Members to debate issues they wish to debate. It would enable Members to engage in critical scrutiny in a way previously denied them by business overload on the Floor of the House, and to do so, in committees in the morning, at times when they are able to secure better media attention.

14. We appreciate the problems that could be caused by transferring much more work into committees. It would be necessary for committees to spread their work more evenly than at present, but once Members began to see committee work as a major part of their parliamentary function, this would happen.

Short debates

15. More generally, we wonder whether there are not at present a considerable number of debates which could be conducted within a shorter space of time. We have in mind that which we have already drawn attention to: the evident reluctance of Members to attend many debates and the need to keep some debates artificially alive until a predetermined time for a division. The House might be better served by seeking to debate more topics at shorter length as happens on Estimates Days and on an increasing number of Opposition Days. An extension of private Members' time would also facilitate the greater use of short and topical debates.

Statements and PNQs

16. The demand for shorter topical 'debate' is evident also in the recently developing practice of spending more time on statements, Private Notice Questions, and S.O. 10 applications. The increasing pressure from Members to ask questions arising out of statements, as well perhaps as a desire that Ministers should be accountable via oral statements means that the main business of the day is now commonly begun much later than used to be the case. Some deplore this development on the grounds that it produces instant, off-the-cuff reactions since only the Opposition spokesman will have had any advance indication of the contents of the statement. Others, however, accept it as evidence of a real demand related both to the needs of individual Members to make a contribution on topical issues and also to make that contribution at a time that is related to the needs of the mass media, particularly the national press.

17. The Committee may wish to consider whether current practice needs to be legitimised in any way. One means of doing so, for example, would be by having an additional period explicitly set aside before the main business is begun. In the 1984/85 session, an average of 39 minutes a day was spent on statements on those days on which statements were made. A still more generous allowance of time (except on Fridays) for statements would allow Members greater opportunity to probe and comment. Moreover, if there was less pressure of other business on the Floor of the House, it might make it possible for the Speaker to allow a few more Private Notice Questions or even the occasional adjournment debate under S.O. 10. Another possibility would be to relax the rule covering the need for interventions on statements to be in an interrogatory form. In the Upper House, peers are permitted to make brief comments as well as direct questions to the government spokesman. Such a provision in the Commons would allow Members a little greater freedom in responding to ministerial statements while concomitantly freeing a minister of the need to respond to each 'question' asked.

18. Setting aside such a period in the parliamentary day might also allow the opportunity for statements to be made by MPs other than Ministers. In the Canadian House of Commons, for example, 15 minutes are set aside each day for statements (of up to one-minute each) by private Members. In the British House, such a period might be set aside for statements (say, one a day, for up to 15 minutes) by chairmen of Select Committees.

Private Members' time

19. It could be argued that the various opportunities for private Members (adjournment debates, Private Members' bills and motions, debates following the proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill) would, on our earlier arguments, be candidates for removal from the Floor of the House. However, we recognise that, despite the low attendance on many (but not all) such occasions, such a removal from the centre stage would certainly be unacceptable to backbenchers. Indeed, we have suggested that there is a case for the greater provision of private Members' time for short, topical debates. We also believe that, if such extra time is provided, some discretion should be provided to private Members to determine whether the time should be spent on motions or legislation. We would suggest also that the half-hour adjournment debate (appropriately re-named) be taken between 2.00 and 2.30 pm, instead of last thing at night. Opportunity should also be provided for backbenchers to move at 2.30 pm on Fridays (subject to a stipulated minimum of Members voting in favour) that extra time be provided for the matter under discussion to be further considered after 10.00 pm on a later day.

Ten o'clock suspension

20. Late-night sittings continue to be unpopular with Members. The quality of legislative scrutiny, and public perceptions of the House, are not enhanced by a handful of tired Members labouring over a bill in the early hours of a morning. Our foregoing recommendations should help reduce the pressure for late-night sittings. However, we believe that some further discouragement to such sittings is desirable. We would suggest that for the ten o'clock rule to be suspended there should be a stipulated minimum number of Members voting in favour of the motion for it to be deemed to be carried, analogous to the provision for closure motions. The Procedure Committee of 1977/78 recommended that the figure be 200. We would agree with that recommendation.

Conclusion

21. We recognise that the transfer of certain business from the Floor of the House, as well as certain other proposals we have made, may on the face of it appear to be to the benefit primarily of government. Such a perception would be mistaken. Our starting point has been the need to strengthen the House as a forum of critical scrutiny. Our recommendations for achieving this derive not from some abstract blueprint but from the demonstrated wishes of Members of the House. Shorter, more topical debates are generally sought by private Members, not by government. The government looks to the chamber to get its business through. The emphasis accorded the Floor of the House has worked to the advantage of government. The need to transact a mass of necessary business has squeezed the opportunity to debate issues that Members would prefer to debate. Hence, we believe it is to the advantage of the House to decouple the need to transact necessary business from the emphasis accorded the Floor of the House. Transferring much routine business from the chamber would facilitate more short, topical debates. By holding such debates, more Members are likely to be drawn to the chamber, the House is better able to fulfil its function of critical scrutiny, and is able to do so in the full glare of public attention. We recommend our proposals to the Committee for its consideration.

April 1986

© 1986, Study of Parliament Group


Prepared by Simon Patrick, 9 April 2001