Parliamentary procedure

22 Jan 2012 12:58:33

Should the Commons be sold off as it risks sinking into the Thames?

By Joseph Willits 
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WestminsterBoth the Sunday Times and the Mail on Sunday have reported today on the deterioration of the Palace of Westminster prompting Big Ben to lean by 0.26 degrees, 18 inches at the top. Tomorrow, MPs will hold a House of Commons commission meeting chaired by Speaker John Bercow to air various possibilities on how to tackle the increasing problem in the building's fabric.

One of the more controversial and divisive proposals (and perhaps least likely) would be to sell off the Houses of Parliament, and relocate MPs to a new site elsewhere. Selling the current site could raise £1billion, and the construction of a new Parliament is estimated to cost around £500 million. The Mail on Sunday suggested that the very fact that this idea has been raised is indicative of the seriousness of the problem.

If the building was to be repaired, beginning at the end of the decade, it would be expected to take at least five years to complete. During this time, the Commons may have to relocate to a secure location (already ready if a terrorist attack was to occur), or use the Lords Chamber. This would not be the first time that the Lords Chamber has been used temporarily by MPs. The Commons chamber was destroyed in the Second World War, forcing MPs into the Lords.

The House of Commons commission will be shown the results of a surveyor's report which warns of a risk of the Commons falling into the Thames due to subsidence. The report also details electrical problems, health and safety hazards, fire risks, and outdated boilers. Surveyors have advised closing off different sections of the building over a period of years to support the building's foundations. Two of the key factors in the present state of the Palace of Westminster are believed to be the Jubilee Line extension in the 1990s, and construction work on the House of Commons' underground car park. 

6 Dec 2011 15:29:57

A motion seeking to prevent ministers leaking policy before addressing Parliament is defeated

By Joseph Willits 
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HolloboneProposals to give Parliament the power to take action on ministers who leak announcements to the media, before informing the Commons, have failed. The motion tabled by Phillip Hollobone MP (Kettering), aimed to be as "non-partisan as possible", was defeated by 228 votes to 119. Hollobone accused all three major parties of mistreating the House of Commons:

"All Governments, whether this Government, the previous Government or the one before that, have leaked information, and that is not how our great House of Commons ought to be treated".

On Sunday, Tim outlined the Speaker's exasperation, after last week's Autumn Statement was the latest example of policy being leaked to the press beforehand. Naturally, Hollobone expressed the same sentiment as the Speaker, saying that Parliament "should be the first place to hear of major new Government policy initiatives". He continued: 

"Should it be “The Andrew Marr Show” on Sunday, the “Today” programme on Radio 4 in the morning or ITV’s “Daybreak”; or should it be the Chamber of the House of Commons?" 

Continue reading "A motion seeking to prevent ministers leaking policy before addressing Parliament is defeated" »

4 Apr 2011 13:46:44

What chance a recall of Parliament during the Easter recess?

By Jonathan Isaby

This afternoon, after the usual hour of departmental questions in the Commons, there will be an Urgent Question at 3.30pm on armed forces redundancies, followed by no fewer than four oral statements by ministers: William Hague on the situation in Libya and the Ivory Coast; Andrew Lansley on NHS Reforms; Owen Paterson on the Omagh bomb; and Steve Webb on pensions. I think this must be a record in one day, certainly in the time I have professionally been covering Parliament.

All of which means that some hours allocated toay for Opposition Day debates will be lost. As a result, I gather that Labour will use the time remaining for their motion on policing and not move their second tabled motion on Green policy, and that the Government will find another half day of debate for Labour on another day by means of compensation.

Events out of politicans' control accout for two of today's statements, whilst the other two needed to be made before the Commons rises for its Easter recess at the end of business tomorrow - with MPs not due to return to Westminster until Tuesday 26th April, after Easter.

But the business of government will continue over these coming three weeks - just without the opportunity for ministers to be held account for what they are doing by MPs in the Commons.

Continue reading "What chance a recall of Parliament during the Easter recess?" »

14 Nov 2009 06:40:48

The Tories "are planning to move PMQs to Thursdays"

David Cameron Commons Today's Daily Mail suggests that if David Cameron is elected Prime Minister next year, he would seek to move Prime Minister's Questions to Thursdays instead of Wednesdays, where it has been a fixture since 1997. Before then, of course, there had for decades  been two 15-minute sessions on Tuesday and Thursdays, but Tony Blair rolled them into the one half-hour session on Wednesdays as soon as he became Prime Minister.

The report suggests that the move would be to ensure more MPs were in Westminster for more of the week. A "senior Commons official" is quoted by the Mail, who says that Shadow Leader of the House Sir George Young has already discussed the matter with Speaker Bercow:

"Sir George Young has made it clear that he is keen to move PMQs to Thursdays. He thinks it's necessary to lengthen the working week and make sure MPs don't knock off quite so early on a Thursday. He thinks the best way to do that would be to move PMQs since most MPs would want to stay around."

Jonathan Isaby

24 Sep 2009 19:01:00

Speaker Bercow sets out a "Backbencher's Bill of Rights" to enhance the power of backbench MPs

Speaker Bercow

When I endorsed John Bercow for the Commons Speakership, one of the reasons for my support was that I believed that as a committed parliamentarian he would work to enhance the power of backbench MPs.

So it was interesting to hear how he has developed that principle as he delivered a lecture to the Hansard Society, which I have just attended.

He proceeded to set out what he called a "backbencher's Bill of Rights" relating to enhancing the role of backbenchers in parliamentary inquisition and legislation. Most of the proposals are subject to agreement by various other parties before they can take effect, but they can be summarised as follows:

  1. Introduce cross-cutting questions to ministers from several departments at once in Westminster Hall on subjects which cover the responsibilities of two or more departments.
  2. Give one of the two weekly Ten-Minute Rule Bill slots to another type of back-bench opportunity, for example asking a question of a minister which doesn't meet the criteria for an Urgent Question.
  3. Further reform in the process of scrutinising delegated legislation and European business to allow backbenchers a louder voice, including the possibility of more debates in the Commons chamber on certain EU documents.
  4. Introduce Private Members’ Motions so that individual MPs can put a proposition to the House and have it voted on.
  5. Make Cabinet Ministers in the House of Lords more accountable to MPs. The Speaker (who described Lord Mandelson''s empire as being "of a scale not seen since the death of Alexander the Great") suggested the option of having them answer questions in Westminster Hall and said he would consult further on it. In questions afterwards, I reiterated my proposal (alas already rejected by Ken Clarke) that they should have to come to the Despatch Box in the Commons like ministers who are MPs.  The Speaker said that this was "a possibility" and that just because something has never been done before should not rule it out, but reiterated that he would consult further on the issue.
  6. Supplement the resources of the Public Bill Office to offer additional support to Members who are successful in the Private Members’ Bill Ballot.
  7. Remove the Government's present monopoly of decision as to whether a Private Members Bill can go into a Public Bill Committee.
  8. Find a far better balance between cutting a debate improperly and extending a debate artificially on Private Members Bills.
  9. Consider the option of a Report Committee for Private Members’ Bills.
  10. Look at moving Private Members' Bills from Fridays to, perhaps, Wednesdays, putting them more squarely in the heart of a sitting week.
Several of the proposals are somewhat arcane, but I think all are to welcomed and I hope that the Speaker's detractors will admit that these are sensible ideas which it is good to see being taken forward.

Jonathan Isaby

6 Jan 2009 15:45:22

Should Parliament be in recess for so long over Christmas?

ParlliamentBoth Houses of Parliament will next sit on 12 January.

With fighting in Gaza and elsewhere, an economic crisis showing no signs of abating and all manner of other important issues going on - as always - should peers and MPs have such a long break from their parliamentary duties?

Or are they busy working in other vital ways, or even getting a well-earned rest?

18 Dec 2008 17:50:50

Tory MPs join Speaker's Conference on minority representation in Commons

A few days ago we reported that the special Speaker's Conference would, under the chairmanship of Speaker Michael Martin:

"Consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large". 

We now have details of its membership:

Anne Begg (Vice-Chairman, Labour), Diane Abbott (Labour), John Bercow (Conservative), David Blunkett (Labour), Angela Browning (Conservative), Ronnie Campbell (Labour), Ann Cryer (Labour), Parmjit Dhanda (Labour), Andrew George (Liberal Democrat), Julie Kirkbride (Conservative), William McCrea (DUP), David Maclean (Conservative), Fiona Mactaggart (Labour), Anne Main (Conservative), Jo Swinson (Liberal Democrat) and Betty Williams (Labour).

18 Dec 2008 13:56:09

Michael Howard asks the Speaker to explain himself over Damian Green case

Michael_howardYesterday Michael Howard made a point of order in the Commons:

"On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You responded yesterday to the letter written to you last week, signed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and me. In that letter, we asked you to give precedence to our complaint of breach of privilege in respect of the arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). You have declined that request, which means the House does not have the opportunity to consider whether the matter should be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I wonder, Mr. Speaker, whether you will be prepared to give the House this afternoon your reasons for declining that request?

Mr. Speaker: No. The right hon. and learned Gentleman knows well that I do not give my reasons. I have declined the invitation from him and his parliamentary colleagues, but I do not give reasons."

It is right that MPs treat the Speaker with respect in the House of Commons. He holds a great office, and it is vital that MPs defer to that office. It is one of Mr Howard's many qualities that he has considerable reverence for Parliament. But Michael Martin should not expect to be free from criticism elsewhere. And he can afford to show a little more humility without losing face.

Sadly, he has never looked like he is up to his job. His predecessor Betty Boothroyd was superb. Contrastingly, Speaker Martin has frequently given the impression that he doesn't understand procedure and is unwilling to set aside partisan feelings. He won't fool anyone that is on top of things by trying to belittle a senior MP like Michael Howard.

We can also dismiss the notion that all of Michael Martin's critics are snobs. He has demonstrably failed to perform adequately - and that has precisely nothing to do with being Glaswegian.

Tom Greeves

15 Dec 2008 16:32:39

Eric Pickles asks the most written questions in 2007-08


Update: Some more examples of Mr Pickles's written questions have been added, to give a fuller flavour.

Eric Pickles, Shadow Communities and Local Government Secretary and MP for Brentwood & Ongar, has come top of a league table. He was followed closely by Mark Hoban, MP for Fareham and a Shadow Treasury Minister. In 2007-08 Mr Pickles asked 2,190 written questions. Mr Hoban asked 2,097.

This story comes courtesy of the Yeovil Express, as local Lib Dem MP David Laws came a distant third.

Written questions certainly tie up civil servants and cost money. But these MPs are assiduous, and should therefore be congratulated for their efforts. Admittedly this is just one measure, but they are clearly working very hard.

The following written question represents one of Mr Pickles's greatest hits. When John Prescott left his grace and favour Whitehall pad, he left a hell of a mess:

"To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs pursuant to the answer of 6 February 2008, Official Report, columns 1158-9W, on Admiralty House, (1) what minor works were undertaken; [189572]

(2) what the cost was to the public purse of the minor works. [189588]

Meg Munn: In line with normal procedure a one-off deep clean of the property was undertaken at change over of tenants. This included cleaning of lights, curtains, nets and windows, at a cost of £3,319.67, including value added tax (VAT).

A pelmet, tracking and curtains for one window was supplied and installed at a cost of £1,030.16, including VAT.

Two bedrooms, an adjacent corridor and one bathroom were repainted and a washer dryer, a tumble dryer, fridge freezer and mixer taps were supplied and installed. The cost of these works and equipment was £9,322.92, including VAT."

Mr Pickles exposed the fact that flytippers - who dump rubbish and run - are not being held to account.

"To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how many prosecutions were (a) undertaken and (b) successful in relation to fly-tipping incidents in 2006-07 in (i) absolute terms and (ii) as a percentage of the total number of fly-tipping incidents. [176541]

Joan Ruddock: Prosecution data are taken from Flycapture, the national fly-tipping database. In 2006-07, local authorities and the Environment Agency submitted the data in the following table.

Prosecutions figures are only cases taken through the court system and do not include wider enforcement action.

In 2006-07, local authorities recorded an additional 378,974 enforcement actions, consisting of warning letters, statutory notices, fixed penalty notices, duty of care inspections, vehicle seizures and formal cautions. Excluding Liverpool city council, this figure was 172,042.



Local authorities Environment Agency

Total incidents



Total incidents (excluding Liverpool city council)



Total prosecutions undertaken



Successful prosecutions



Total prosecutions as percentage of total incidents



Total prosecutions as percentage of total (excluding Liverpool city council)



Successful prosecutions as percentage of total incidents



Successful prosecutions as percentage of total incidents (excluding Liverpool city council)



Continue reading "Eric Pickles asks the most written questions in 2007-08" »

8 Dec 2008 10:51:41

How will modern technology further change politics?

Hitech_commons In conjunction with Orange, an organisation called Future Technology has brought out a report entitled Future of Politics. Having spoken to MPs, think tanks, academics and bloggers, the report makes a number of conclusions:

  • UK politicians will need to "keep up with a new generation of 'digital natives' who expect MPs to get up to date with 21st century technology so they can have two-way meaningful conversations with the public and not just a one way online presence through a static website." 
  • Prime Minister's Questions could allow a regular slot where the public can ask questions. The report refers to "citizen politicians".
  • "Wikilaws" will let the public follow the debate and scrutinise legislation in real time.
  • MPs can be boosted by leading online campaigns and holding surgeries through digital technology.
  • Following US President-elect Barack Obama's success in raising $280 million from donations under $200, politicians here need to rely on mass participation, "not a few small donors".

This is an interesting report. Of course none of us can know exactly what the future holds (even if the future is orange), and it is debatable whether there really is demand for all this new technology among the public. Most blogs are nothing like as popular or important as some of their creators would have us believe. Moreover, it is worth considering whether it would be healthy for politicians to turn up to events (and the electorate to vote) online rather than in person.

More convincing is the argument that modern technology creates new opportunities to reach voters, raise money and boost a politician's profile.

What do you think?

Tom Greeves

Update: The report can be downloaded here.

4 Dec 2008 11:32:46

The Speaker's statement on Damian Green

Damian_greenHansard has the full report of the Speaker's statement on Shadow Immigration Minister Damian Green and subsequent contributions from MPs here. There will be a debate on the issue on Monday.

Some highlights from yesterday are reproduced below.

The Speaker is to be commended for one thing: offering no public comment before addressing Parliament:

"In the past few days there has been much pressure on me to make public comment about these matters, but I felt that it was right and fitting that I should make no comment until Parliament reconvenes, because it is this House and this House alone that I serve, as well as being accountable for the actions of its Officers. I should emphasise from the start that it is not for me to comment on the allegations that have been made against the hon. Member or on the disposal of those allegations in the judicial process."

After making the point that Parliament is not a "haven from the law", Speaker Martin gave an outline of events:

"On Wednesday last, the Metropolitan police informed the Serjeant at Arms that an arrest was contemplated, but did not disclose the identity of the Member. I was told in the strictest confidence by her that a Member might be arrested and charged, but no further details were given to me. I was told that they might be forthcoming the next morning.

At 7 am on Thursday, police called upon the Serjeant at Arms and explained the background to the case, and disclosed to the Serjeant the identity of the Member. The Serjeant at Arms called me, told me the Member’s name and said that a search might take place of his offices in the House. I was not told that the police did not have a warrant. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Order. I have been told that the police did not explain, as they are required to do, that the Serjeant was not obliged to consent, or that a warrant could have been insisted upon. [ Interruption. ] Order. Let me make the statement. I regret that a consent form was then signed by the Serjeant at Arms, without consulting the Clerk of the House.

I must make it clear to the House— [ Interruption. ] Order. I must make it clear to the House that I was not asked the question of whether consent should be given, or whether a warrant should have been insisted on. I did not personally authorise the search. It was later that evening that I was told that the search had gone ahead only on the basis of a consent form. I further regret that I was formally told by the police only yesterday, by letter from Assistant Commissioner Robert Quick, that the hon. Member was arrested on 27 November on suspicion of conspiring to commit misconduct in public office and on suspicion of aiding and abetting misconduct in public office."

Continue reading "The Speaker's statement on Damian Green" »

2 Dec 2008 09:03:16

Do you have a Conservative story?

On ConservativeHome's Parliament page we aim to provide comprehensive reportage and analysis of Conservative Party activity in Westminster, the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. (On the local government page, Councillor Harry Phibbs does similar, sterling work in relation to local councils.)

In particular, we're interested in things that other media may have missed; an example would be a good speech by a backbench MP. We're also keen on how Parliamentary procedure might impact on the Opposition, and on Ten Minute Rule Bills and Early Day Motions. Basically if it affects the Conservative Party, we're eager to hear about it.

So this is a plea to Conservative MPs, MEPs, MSPs, AMs, their staff and anyone else who has such an item of interest. ConservativeHome enjoys a massive readership, and this is a great place to draw attention to something.

Please send all such parliamentary / assembly missives to Tom Greeves via [email protected].


28 Nov 2008 12:13:53

Should we do more to make Parliament more representative?

On 12 November the House of Commons agreed to establish a new committee, which will be chaired by the Speaker. According to the Parliament website, the Speaker's Conference - which will be comprised of him and seventeen other members - has been asked to:

"Consider, and make recommendations for rectifying, the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large". 


How should the Conservatives respond to this? Is it a good idea? Is it necessary? Why focus on those areas and not others - are those groups any more egregiously under-represented than, say, people who didn't go to university, or people from a low-income background?

Is a balance that better reflects society as a whole anything like as important as having the best individual for every constituency?

There is reason to suppose that some people might be at an unfair disadvantage. It is absolutely clear, for example, that many women have suffered discrimination at Conservative candidate selection meetings in the past. Where there is discrimination against anyone within politicial parties, the parties should root it out. But it's not so easy to make voters change their ways. Ultimately, it is for the electorate in each constituency to determine whom they want to represent them. In a secret ballot, they can make their decision for any reason they please.

Perhaps that mitigates against people from a minority background, as they are not only likely to be in a minority nationally but also locally. Yet that doesn't mean that people won't vote for them! And we should also dismiss the notion that you have to be from a particular background to represent adequately the interests of others from that background.

Moreover, this incessant focus on people's backgrounds risks reducing people to being thought of as no more than a woman, or an Asian, or a person with a disability.  

That said, it is certainly to be hoped that Parliament will be fairly representative of society. Perhaps there is more that could usefully be done to effect that.

Thoughts, good readers?

17 Nov 2008 16:24:38

How important is the House of Commons?

Commons_chamberIt's a light programme in the House of Commons today. This is the order of business:

"The House will sit at 2.30pm

Oral Questions - Children, Schools and Families; including Topical Questions

Motion - Ways and Means resolution on the Education and Skills Bill

Legislation - Education and Skills Bill - Lords amendments

Adjournment - Healthcare in Sutton - Mr Paul Burstow"

MPs usually have a long weekend away from Parliament - off on Friday and not due back until Monday afternoon. That is not to say that they have no other work to do during that period. Fridays are often given over to surgeries, there are typically events scheduled for Saturdays and sometimes Sundays ... and of course a member may have ministerial responsibilities too.

Moreover, with such a heavy workload during the week - certainly in terms of hours spent "on call" - (most!) MPs must welcome the chance to spend time with their families. One of the most disgusting things I have ever heard a Tory MP say was that he and colleagues had often deliberately made the House sit late purely in order to inconvenience Labour MPs. Hard graft to ensure effective legislation is one thing - adolescent games are another.

What do you think about all this - how important is the House of Commons?

Do MPs spend the right amount of time in the chamber? Do you think it's a talking shop, that everyone knows how they're going to vote and that MPs are better employed getting on with other things? Or is the Commons all too often bypassed, for example on Government announcements?

Should fewer decisions be made by executive fiat?

Shouldn't MPs have to fit all outside interests in around their Parliamentary responsibilities, and if that makes it hard for them to make morning board meetings, isn't that just tough?

Should a constituency hope that their MP becomes a senior minister because of the influence it gives them, or might we be better served as a nation if more ministers did not have constituencies?

Is it vital that the Prime Minister is an MP, or (if they were willing regularly to take questions from the lower chamber) could they come from the House of Lords?

Should recesses be quite so long?

27 Oct 2008 16:16:42

What is a Ten Minute Rule Bill?

In a fortnight's time Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich & Clacton, is introducing a Ten Minute Rule Bill to make the criminal justice system more accountable, and he has announced that he plans to bring in several more. So what is a Ten Minute Rule Bill?

Well, they tend NOT to be an earnest effort to introduce legislation - in the short-term at least. Normally the preserve of backbenchers, these bills give an MP the chance to draw attention in the House of Commons (and, through the media, elsewhere) to a particular issue.

Continue reading "What is a Ten Minute Rule Bill?" »