Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons

Session 2006-07 20 June 2007 No. 8

Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member

Wide-ranging proposals aimed at revitalising the Commons Chamber and placing it at the heart of popular debate on the key issues of the day are unveiled in a report today.

The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons chaired by Commons Leader Jack Straw, puts forward a package of measures which would allow more up-to-date questions and debates to take place in the House of Commons. The proposals would also mean the introduction, for the first time, of time limits on speeches of front bench speakers in many debates.

The report also recommends improvements to the induction process for newly-elected MPs better to prepare them as they seek to get the balance right between the demands of Parliament and their constituencies.

The report, entitled Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member, is the conclusion of two ten-month inquiries into strengthening the role of the backbencher and into the better use of non-legislative time. It follows on a major report, published last September and now being implemented, on improving the legislative process, including by select committee-style hearings on bills at Committee stage. The Committee took evidence from a wide range of witnesses, including academics, journalists and MPs themselves.

The report suggests that questions to ministers should be reformed to create a new "open" question period where MPs would be able to ask about topical issues without giving prior notice. Under the current system, departments' questions must be tabled with three days' notice and only the Prime Minister and Leader of the House have regular question times without notice.

The key recommendations are:

€Topical question times€”in each 40 and 55 minute departmental question times, the last 10 or 15 minutes would be for open questions. MPs could ballot for both the 'closed' and 'open' slots;

€A new weekly 90 minute debate in prime time on a big issue of the day;

€Greater discretion for the Speaker to grant urgent debates, better guidance to MPs on applying for these and for urgent questions;

€Time limits on front bench speakers for all shorter debates and for many full length ones;

€Back bench debates on motions selected by ballot, to be taken in Westminster Hall, but with a deferred vote when required;

€A weekly 30 minute slot for debating select committee reports in Westminster Hall;

€Replacement of the archaic form of "debate on the adjournment" for discussing issues of the day, with more comprehensible "general debates";

€Greater flexibility on time limits on speeches in debates to allow more Members to take part; and

€Removal of unnecessary barriers to participation in debate, including the use of handheld devices in the Chamber to keep up to date with e-mails, provided that it causes no disturbance.


€Better co-operation between the House authorities and whips to deliver better induction for newly elected MPs; and

€A longer interval between a General Election and the date of the first sitting of the new Parliament to allow more time for the induction.

Mr Straw said today:

"Contrary to some ill-informed opinion, MPs are conscientious in representing their constituents. They are working harder than ever.

However, they are also faced with traditions that, for example, require them to spend a lot of time waiting to raise an issue in a debate. That needs to change, to enable MPs to have more varied and timely opportunities to do so.

We also have to take account of the world, as it now is, of constant media focus on a changing agenda. That is a clear case for ensuring that Parliament's voice is heard in a topical way. In turn, I hope the media will respond to the improvement in relevance and topicality, and give greater weight to reporting what happens in Parliament.

This package aims to address the realities that MPs now have to compete with many other voices and media interests outside the Chamber for the public's attention. I believe it marks a step-change in our approach."