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Louise Mensch's debate on local papers encapsulated what's gone wrong with the Commons

By Paul Goodman
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First, some necessary preliminaries.  The debate took place on Wednesday afternoon in Westminster Hall.  Its premis was that such papers are a good thing and that their endangered future is a bad thing - which is incontestable.  The Corby MP made a good speech, and here is the sum of her argument:

"I ask the Minister to give every hon. Friend and hon. Member in the Chamber some hope that the Government will look again at the plight of the local press, at the creation of a fair level playing field and at the indirect subsidies proposed for local television stations, which will be a further competitor for local newspapers, with the BBC required to buy their content."

She ended by urging Government Departments to continue advertising in local papers and Eric Pickles to continue stamping down on council free sheets.  Edward Vaizey, the Culture Minister, set out in his reply what the Government is doing to help ensure a future for local papers - or did so as fully as he could, given the constraint he was under.

Namely, to set out his Department's policy and respond to the points raised in the debate in only 13 minutes.  The brief nature of this response indicates that the debate itself was short.  Indeed so: Hansard records that it began at 4.00 and ended at 4.30.  I count 24 MPs as having spoken in that half hour, which gave Mr Vaizey under two minutes to respond to each MP.

You may by now have done another mental calculation.  24 speeches in half an hour - that must mean that each MP spoke for scarcely over a minute.  Not exactly: there were only two speeches in the debate - Mrs Mensch's and the Minister's.  The other 22 MPs all intervened on the two speakers, and these interventions were duly recorded in Hansard.  Here is a flavour of them:

Karen Lumley (Redditch) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does she agree that papers such as the Redditch Standard help our elderly people, who do not have e-mail or access to local news?

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Although I agree that it is always sad when a local newspaper goes from daily to weekly, as the Exeter Express and Echo in my constituency has recently, does the hon. Lady also accept that sometimes the economic reality means that if that does not happen, there will be no quality print journalism sustained in that community?

Mr Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): I am not deviating from what the hon. Lady and other hon. Members have been saying about the need for advertisements —my local paper, the Cambrian News, will be very glad to hear about that—but will she not leave the issue of subsidies completely? We have a system of...local Welsh language newspapers that have been in receipt of funds from our National Assembly Government, so there is a precedent in Wales.

Now these are perfectly solid points from my cross-party selection of MPs - no better and no worse than those made by their colleagues, and I single them out only by way of illustration.  But there is something else going on here, which you will doubtless have spotted: each intervention can be counted as a speech, thus raising the number for the MPs concerned.

And there are more debates to provide opportunities for such interventions to be made.  I remind readers that Mrs Mensch's debate took place in Westminster Hall.  Such debates are a relatively recent invention: New Labour introduced the forum after 1997.  And the time frame is not untypical: debates are often of half an hour's duration.

You grasp the pattern: more and shorter debates, more interventions - all showing up nicely on TheyWorkForYou.  And the one that I have singled out is not, I think, untypical: MPs turn up, intervene rather than speak (sometimes leaving shortly afterwards), agree with each other more often than you might think, and tick their statistics up a bit: job done.

I claim no virtue.  Were I still a member of the Commons, I might well have turned up to Mrs Mensch's debate to say a few words in praise of our local paper, the Bucks Free Press.  But this is not how the Commons should be.  It should consider legislation, hold the Executive to account - and debate.

You could argue that this is what the half hour in question was doing.  But a heap of interventions is no more a debate than a mass of interruptions is a conversation.  Debates such as Mrs Mensch's are the Commons equivalent of fast food - they may meet the need of the moment, but they don't provide a nutritious diet.

Rather, they are feeding legislative obesity - more interventions, more speeches, more debates, more legislation, more Early Day Motions.  But is Parliament really any more fit as a result?  The elections that record a decline in the vote of the Big Three, the surveys that show record disillusion, and the rise of the protest parties show that voters don't think so.

There are no simple solutions.  If MPs are determined to intervene on each other to help boost their showing in the league tables, or Governments to try to legislate problems out of existence or proclaim their own virtue (the Dangerous Dogs Act; the Child Poverty Act; the Firearms (Amendment (No. 2) Act, and so on), there is no way of stopping them.

But the following action would offer a chance of changing the culture:

  • The Backbench Business Committee should take control of the weekly legislative timetable.  The new committee has been a success (due credit to the Government here) but it has charge of only a sliver of Parliamentary time.  With power over more, it would be able to find a better balance between question sessions, legislation, time given to "opposition days" (of which there are too many) - and opportunities for backbenchers to table debates.
  • Scrap Westminster Hall.  Combined with timetable control by the business committee, ending the Westminster Hall diversion would help to return MPs to the main chamber.  The business committee should lengthen debates, which would enable the Executive to be held to account more exhaustively.  This would have the effect of squeezing out brief debates in which the participants are essentially agreed - and thus reduce opportunities to grandstand.
  • End the present time limits on speeches.  The Speaker has the power at present to restrict speeches to ten minutes or under.  MPs shouldn't simply be allowed to maunder on for as long as they like, but ten minutes is not sufficient to develop a case and back it up with detail, or to probe the faults of a Department.  A lack of time is the enemy of the backbencher and the friend of the Executive.
  • Consider copying the Lords.  There's a practice in the Upper House whereby a list of speakers is published in advance of debate.  Since scrapping the present time limits in the Commons would have the effect of lengthening MPs' speeches - and thus pushing relatively junior MPs to the back of the queue - consideration should be given to mirroring the Lords list system, thus allowing a fair distribution of speaking opportunities over time.

Who would dislike such reforms?  The Executive, because it would lose control of time.  The Opposition, because it would probably lose time to backbenchers.  Senior MPs, because they wouldn't automatically get called earlier in debates than those who have recently arrived.  Lobbyists who want to engineer Westminster Hall debates.  MPs who like to throw out a few remarks, up their speaking statistics - and then leave the Chamber altogether.  (The Speaker should penalise those who do by reducing their future speaking opportunities.)

Who would like such changes?  I suspect...the ordinary backbencher who wants to get stuck into the Executive on behalf of his constituents.  (Footnote: there would have to protection for the half hour debate in which MPs raise constituents' individual cases.)

Last question.  What would become of debates such as Mrs Mensch's?  What about opportunities for MPs to show that they are united behind some important cause - such as the future of local newspapers?  Shouldn't they exist?  There is a simple answer.  Take, say, the top 20 Early Day Motions in any year.  And ensure that they're debated in adequate time on the floor of the House.  If the future of local newspapers matters enough to MPs (which I suspect it does), enough signatures will find their way on to an EDM.


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