The Mother of Parliaments may have a somewhat staid, matronly reputation
abroad, but actually she is constantly updating her wardrobe. This article
looks at some of the latest procedural fashions in Westminster, as introduced
since the election of a New Labour government in 1997.
A good parent should be prepared to learn lessons from her offspring. One
excellent example of this practice can be seen in the decision in 1999
to adopt at Westminster a variant of the Australian Parliaments Main
Committee. In Canberra, the House of Representatives has since 1994 sat
in more than one room at once. When sitting outside the main Chamber, the
House is constituted as the Main Committee. This committee, which is not
unlike Committee of the Whole in that any Member may attend, provides an
additional forum for the second reading and later stages of bills as well
as for the debate of committee reports and of other papers laid before
The advantage of such a system is clear: the House is able either to conduct
more business, or to devote more time to the business it already conducts.
The potential disadvantages are also clear: with two chambers in operation,
Members are required to choose which debate they will attend; and attendance
in both chambers is likely to be less than it is when just one chamber
is in operation.
The Modernisation Committee of the British House of Commons (formed by
the New Labour government to drive forward its agenda of reform for the
procedures of the House and chaired by the Leader of the House) was impressed
by Canberras Main Committee, and in 1998 brought forward proposals to
do something similar at Westminster. With its large majority, the government
was able to override the misgivings of traditionalistsnot all of them
in the ranks of the Conservative oppositionand on 30 November 1999, sittings
of the House began in Westminster Hall.
Or more accurately, sittings began in the old Grand Committee Room, which
lies just off historic Westminster Hall. The term committee was not used
for these sittings, as it was felt this would detract from the fact that
they are sittings of the House, albeit not in the House. When the House
sits in Westminster Hallwhich it does three days each week and sometimes
at the same time as it is also sitting in the main Chamberthe only question
before it is that the sitting be adjourned; unlike the Australian model,
no substantive business is taken. The main purpose of these sittings has
been to provide opportunities for backbenchers to raise issues of current
interest and to hear a ministerial reply. This is achieved by a series
of short debates, which may last for 90 minutes or for 30 minutesits
not unlike a drawn-out version of the Canadian late show. Members apply
for their debates by submitting a topic to the Speaker, who has complete
discretion over what to allow. They are grouped so that particular Ministers
answer on particular days.
Other, 3-hour debates in Westminster Hall may be initiated by the Government,
or by the Liaison Committee. In the latter case, the subject for debate
(still on a motion that the sitting be adjourned) will be a Report from
a committee of the House.
Sittings in Westminster Hall have become popular among most Members, only
a few diehard traditionalists refusing to have anything to do with them.
Many have realised these debates present excellent opportunities for a
longer exchange than is possible in Question Time, and a less heated, more
useful one at that. The full record of the debates is published in Hansard,
as with any other sitting of the House, and many are covered by the press.
All in all, an interesting case of a mother borrowing her daughters clothes,
adjusting them to fit, and finding they suit her well.
Changing the Hours
Another consequence of the election of an unexpectedly large number of
new Membersmany of them womenin 1997 was the renewed call for more family
friendly sitting hours. For decades, the House met at 14.30 daily (9.30
on Fridays) and continued until 22.30 or often later (14.30 on Fridays).
Such hours undoubtedly suited those Members, who by 1997 were very few,
who wished to spend their mornings practicing law or otherwise engaging
in business outside the Palace of Westminster. Wednesday morning sittings
had already been introduced by 1997, but this was not going to be enough
to satisfy new Members, such as the Blair babesas the British tabloid
press, with its characteristic disregard for political correctness, labelled
the large number of women Labour MPs elected in the 1997 landslide.
Thus the newly created Modernisation Committee once again appalled the
traditionalists by proposing new sitting hours, and the House perhaps surprised
itself a little by voting to change the times of its sittings on Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday. Monday was left unchanged, in order to allow most
Members to travel to Westminster from their constituencies on Monday morningnot
to have done this would have wrecked the purpose of the new family friendly
So, starting in January 2003, the House met at 11.30 on Tuesday, Wednesday
and Thursday and rose at 19.30 (18.30 on Thursday). To anyone who had been
in the House before 1997, this felt very strange. It was not so much the
early startsthese left plenty of time for a hearty breakfastas the
early finishes. What does a Member of Parliament do in the evenings, if
the House is not sitting?
Well, do not imagine that the bars and dining rooms did a roaring trade,
because they did not. In fact, takings plummeted. No longer tied to the
environs of the House, Members found their diaries filling with outside
dinner invitations and, much worse, requests to meet or speak to all sorts
of people they would really rather not spend their evenings with, but whom
they could not reasonably refuse.
So why were not they with their families? For the nearly 600 MPs whose
constituencies lie outside London, those families were still a frustratingly
difficult commute away. Some brought their families to London, but their
families did not really like London, so that did not work either. Disillusionment
set in, fuelled by the fears of absent partners unhappy that their previously
preoccupied MP spouse was now at a loose end.
The backlash soon came, accentuated by the concerns of senior Members that
select committees were finding it difficult to choose meeting times that
did not conflict with important business on the floor of the House. The
decision was revisited, and in a compromise that gave nobody all that they
were wanted but most people some of what they wanted, the former sitting
hours were reinstated for Tuesdays, and on Thursdays the hours of sitting
were adjusted to run from 10.30 to 18.30. The House now sits on only 13
Fridays each year, and then to consider exclusively private Members business.
Incidentally, the shortening of the Westminster week to run effectively
from Monday evening to Wednesday evening (Thursdays business generally
being unwhipped) has reinforced a trend already observed, for Members to
spend more time in their constituencies. Many contend that MPs are in danger
of becoming glorified social workers, more concerned with coverage in their
local newspapers than contributing to debates in the House on issues of
national or international concern.
Such can be the unintended consequences of seeking to give Members more
time with their families.
Changing Some Terminology
The term stranger has long been applied to anyone in Parliament who is
not a Member or Officer of either House. For as long as anyone can recall,
the public gallery in the House of Commons has been known as the Strangers
Gallery; and the bar to which Members and Officers may take guests is the
Strangers Bar. And, when the Speaker processes to the House to open each
sitting, a policeman selected for his loud and authoritative voice cries
Hats off, Strangers!
But stranger is not a very respectful or inclusive term to apply to members
of the public who elect and pay for Parliament. So concluded the Modernisation
Committee in 2004, and within months the House had voted to abolish the
term. Wherever it occurred in the Standing Orders, the term stranger
was replaced by the words member of the public, and the Strangers Gallery
became the Public Gallery. Some have suggested that the policeman with
the loud voice should shoutor maybe just say, politelyWould stakeholders
kindly remove their headwear? but this has not yet caught on.
And the Strangers Bar? Well, thats not a creation of the Standing Orders.
Neither is there a sign on the door that bears the offending word. So for
the time being it remains the Strangers Bar, and no-one expects that to
Oaths, not Imprecations
By law, every elected Member wishing to take his seat at Westminster must
either swear the oath of allegiance to Her Majesty, or make a solemn affirmation.
The forms of both the oath and the affirmation are set out in a 1978 Act
In 1997, the election of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness for constituencies
in Northern Ireland created an interesting set of circumstances. Members
of Sinn Fein had been elected before, but they always refused to have anything
to do with the Westminster Parliament. However, the 1997 election took
place after the Belfast Agreement on power sharing in Northern Ireland,
and in this new political climate both Sinn Fein Members wished to represent
their electorate. Neither, however, was prepared to be faithful and bear
true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, her heirs and successors,
as required by the Oaths Act.
A solution of sorts was found, which probably none of those involved was
entirely happy with. Messrs Adams and McGuinness were provided with offices
and facilities at Westminster, to enable them to work on behalf of their
constituents, but they were denied any procedural services until such time
as they swear the oath or make the affirmation required by law. They may
not speak in a debate; they may not table a question to a Minister or an
amendment to a Bill; and they do not sit on committees.
However, the oath is not entirely unreformed. In 1974, the Speaker ruled
privately that Members in the monoglot House of Commons could, on application,
recite the oath or affirmation in the Welsh language, or in Scots Gaelic.
Following the general election in 2005, this ruling was further amended,
to allow the Cornish language to be used, notwithstanding the fact that
the last native speaker of that language had been dead for more than 100
Along with the remoter parts of Wales, Cornwall is, of course, Englands
First Nation. The people of Cornwall are among the last remnants of the
ancient Britons who were pushed westward by succeeding invaders from Rome,
Saxony and Normandy. Proud of his heritage, a Cornish Member duly took
advantage of this provision, which of course he had requested.
Evolution of Question Period
Probably no body of parliamentarians is entirely content with the procedures
available to it to exercise effective scrutiny of the executive. Nor in
their more honest moments would many politicians I have known claim that
such procedures as are available are always used to best effect. Certainly
in Westminster, backbenchers have long felt question time in the House
of Commons to be an imperfect means of holding Ministers to account. In
2002, therefore, the Houses Procedure Committee inquired into parliamentary
questions and produced a number of proposals for reform.
Canadian Members of Parliament who have yet to visit Westminster may be
surprised to learn that, although question time in the British House of
Commons takes place for one hour each sitting Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday
and Thursday, the Prime Minister attends only on Wednesdaysand then for
just 30 minutesand other Ministers attend on a rota which brings most
of them to the House on just one day in each four-week period. Some attend
even less frequently.
Not only does this rota excuse most British Ministers from all but occasional
duty at the despatch box, but advance notice must be given of all questionsso
the Ministers know what is coming. Only the Prime Minister answers questions
without notice. Back in 2002, notice of oral questions had to be given
in person on a specified day, ten sitting days in advance, which is of
course a full two weeks (either side of a long recess, it could be months).
The burning issue of the day when a question was tabled had often become
old hat by the time the day for asking it in the Chamber arrived; and the
hot topic of that day was oftento the frustration of backbenchers and
Ministers alikeoutside the scope of the questions of which notice had
been given and it could not, therefore, be raised on the floor of the House.
Small wonder, then, that British MPs wanted a change.
In 2003, they got a change
a small change. The notice period was reduced
to three sitting days, and e-tabling was introduced. This addressed, to
a large degree, the issue of topicality; and it considerably eased for
Members the inconvenience of giving notice. But the rota remains in place,
and Ministers other than the Prime Minister still know in advance what
questions they will be asked, and are of course able to prepare their replies.
The strength of the British system lies not so much in the rules, as in
the conduct of question time. The Speaker (who, as in Canada, always presides
in person over oral questions) calls the Minister to answer the first question
listed on the Order Paper. The answer having been given, the Speaker calls
the Member in whose name the question was tabled to ask a supplementary
question, of which of course no notice has been given (unless privately
by the Member concerned). Once the Minister has responded, the Speaker
calls a Member from the opposite side to ask another supplementary. He
continues to call further supplementaries in this way, always alternating
between the parties, until he judges it is time to call the next question
on the Order Paper.
If a Member fails to cast his question in a suitably interrogative form,
or if he fails to relate his supplementary question closely to the original,
or if he seeks to ask more than one question or he simply goes on for too
long, the Speaker intervenes and sits the Member down. In doing so, he
exercises his judgment, on which he may not be challenged. Similarly, if
a Minister answers at excessive length, or comments on the policies of
the opposition rather than accounting for his own policies, he will be
pulled up by the Chair.
Members are also required to listen. There is certainly at times a noticeable
background noise at Westminster, but it is markedly less than the constant
hubbub on the Hill. If the Speaker hears, or even sees, two Members having
a private conversation instead of listening to proceedings, he will invite
them to conduct that conversation outside the Chamber. And woe betide the
Member who uses his cell phone or other electronic device in the Chamber,
for opprobrium will be heaped upon him and he may become invisible to the
Chair for days afterward. As for applause, it is simply not the Westminster
way; neither are there desks to bang. But British Members do murmur hear,
hear whenever they hear anything they like, and this murmur can rise to
quite a crescendo if they feel a colleague is in need of support. Again,
the Speaker uses his judgment, intervening when he considers the racket
has become too much, but accepting a certain level of background noise
as being consistent with a healthy democracy.
The challenge facing the Chair is how to achieve that balance between the
maintenance of good order and the stifling of legitimate expressions of
support or dissent. Such a balance can only be achieved with the support
of the House at large.
Canadas Question Period has many qualities Westminster MPs would covet:
no notice of questions; no rota; the Prime Minister required to be there
every day. But to an observer from Westminster, its impact is diminished
by excessive noise, and by the extremely partisan nature of proceedings.
The Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs has surely identified
the issue: it is one for each Member of the House, and such issues are
always among the most difficult to resolve.
Putting the PM on the Spot
In addition to the weekly half-hour, one-act drama that is Prime Ministers
question time, Mr Blair has been the first Prime Minister in modern memory
to submit himself to more extended questioning by a select committee. Twice
each year since July 2002, Tony Blair has voluntarily presented himself
for a 3-hour grilling by the Liaison Committee of the House of Commons,
which, like the Canadian committee of the same name, is comprised of the
chairmen of all the other permanent committees.
These occasions, generally held in January and July, tend to be less partisan
than question time in the chamber. The thirty chairmen devote considerable
time to preparing their lines of questioning. Weeks before the big day,
they meet in small, cross-party groups on foreign affairs, economic policy,
crime and justice issues, etc, to plan their conduct of the meeting. The
analysts employed by the various subject committees then get to work providing
briefing for these groups, and at a series of further meetings the strategy
for the evidence session is developed.
Then, on a Thursday morning, the Prime Minister faces the chairmen entirely
alone. Doubtless, he has been preparing just as hard as they. Without fail,
he appears to get the better of the exchanges, but in doing so he has to
explain himself at length and in detail. The soundbite exchanges of the
chamber are replaced by a more extended interview. As an exercise in accountability
of the executive to Parliament, this is about as good as it gets, or is
likely to get, anywhere in the world.
And of course, it will be difficult for any future Prime Minister to alter
this practice. One wonders how a Prime Minister who is not Tony Blair will
cope. We will not have to wait too long to find out.