Charles Walker moves motions to reform Parliamentary procedures
In his role as Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, Charles Walker moves a series of motions to reform Parliamentary procedures in relation to the House of Commons’ second debating chamber - Westminster Hall, improving transparency when a Bill needs Royal assent and Parliament's handling of petitions and e-petitions.
Sittings in Westminster Hall
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move,
(1) this House approves the following recommendations of the Procedure Committee in its First Report of Session 2014-15, Business in Westminster Hall (HC 236), and Fifth Report, Business in Westminster Hall: Government response and revised Standing Order No.10 (HC 1035):
(a) that the final debate on Tuesdays and Wednesdays in Westminster Hall be extended from half an hour to an hour (First Report, paragraphs 5 to 11);
(b) that debate in Westminster Hall take place on ‘general debate’ motions (“That this House has considered [a specified matter]”), rather than motions for the adjournment of the sitting, provided that such motions are expressed in neutral terms (First Report, paragraphs 17 to 22 and 26, and Fifth Report, paragraph 6);
(c) that the Chairman of Ways and Means should be given overall responsibility for the business at all sittings in Westminster Hall, subject to the ability of the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee to nominate subjects for debate on Thursday afternoons (First Report, paragraphs 27 to 29);
(d) that the Chair in Westminster Hall should have the power to order a disorderly Member to withdraw from the sitting, and that if a disorderly Member refuses to withdraw when ordered by the Chair, the Chair should have the power to suspend the sitting and to report the conduct of the Member to the House (First Report, paragraphs 30 and 31); and
(e) that the provision of the existing Standing Order No. 10 enabling the House to appoint not more than four members of the Panel of Chairs to sit in Westminster Hall as Deputy Speaker be repealed (First Report, paragraph 34); and
(2) with effect from the start of the next Parliament, Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall) accordingly be repealed and replaced with the following revised standing order:
“Sittings in Westminster Hall
(1) On days on which the House sits there shall also be a sitting in Westminster Hall–
(a) on Mondays beginning at 4.30pm and continuing for up to three hours, if the Backbench Business Committee has reported its determination that a sitting in Westminster Hall to consider an e-petition or e-petitions should take place on that day;
(b) on Tuesdays and Wednesdays beginning at 9.30am, which shall be suspended from 11.30am till 2.30pm and may then continue for up to a further three hours; and
(c) on Thursdays beginning at 1.30pm and continuing for up to three hours.
(2) The exceptions are as follows.
(a) That there will be no sittings in Westminster Hall until the House has concluded its debate on the Queen's Speech at the commencement of each Session.
(b) That if the sitting occurs on a Tuesday or Wednesday which is the first day on which the House sits immediately following a periodic adjournment of the House of more than two days, the sitting shall be between 9.30am and 2.30pm.
(3) When a sitting (including the time when a sitting is due to commence or resume), or any part of a sitting, in Westminster Hall coincides with a sitting of the House, the Chair shall suspend the sitting to allow Members to participate in any division called in the House or a committee of the whole House, and the time taken for any such suspensions shall be added to the duration of the sitting in Westminster Hall specified in paragraph (1) of this order and to any time specified by the Chairman of Ways and Means under paragraph (6) of this order.
(4) Any Member of the House may take part in a sitting in Westminster Hall.
(5) The quorum at a sitting in Westminster Hall shall be three.
(6) The business taken at any sitting in Westminster Hall shall be such as the Chairman of Ways and Means shall appoint, and may include oral questions. The Chairman of Ways and Means may specify the finishing time of any business taken at a sitting in Westminster Hall; and the motion under consideration shall lapse at that time if not previously disposed of.
(7) Notwithstanding paragraph (6), the business taken at any Thursday sitting in Westminster Hall shall be such as the Backbench Business Committee or the Liaison Committee shall determine; and so far as possible the time available at such sittings during a Session shall be divided as nearly as practical equally between those committees, subject to the agreement of the Chairs of those committees.
(8) If a motion is made by a Minister of the Crown that an order of the day be proceeded with at a sitting in Westminster Hall, the question on it shall be put forthwith, but such motion may be made only with the leave of the House and may not be made on a Friday.
(9) If any business other than a motion for adjournment or a motion to which Standing Order No. 24B (Amendments to motions to consider specified matters) applies is under consideration at a sitting in Westminster Hall, and not fewer than six Members rise in their places and signify their objection to further proceedings, that business shall not be further proceeded with in Westminster Hall, and the Chair shall report to the House accordingly, and any order under paragraph (8) above relating thereto shall be discharged.
(10) The Chairman of Ways and Means or a Deputy Chairman may take the chair in Westminster Hall as Deputy Speaker; and any member of the Panel of Chairs may also take the chair at a sitting in Westminster Hall when so requested by the Chairman of Ways and Means.
(11) If any Member persistently defies the authority of the Chair at a sitting in Westminster Hall, the Chair of that sitting may order the Member to withdraw from that sitting; and if the Member does not do so, the Chair may suspend the sitting and report the conduct of the Member to the House.
(12) Any resolution come to at a sitting in Westminster Hall (other than a resolution to adjourn) shall be reported to the House by the Deputy Speaker and shall be a resolution of the House.
(13) If at a sitting in Westminster Hall the opinion of the Chair as to the decision of a question (other than a question for adjournment) is challenged, that question shall not be decided, and the Chair shall report to the House accordingly; and any such question shall be put forthwith upon a motion being made in the House.
(14) At the end of each sitting in Westminster Hall, unless a question for adjournment has previously been agreed to, the Chair shall adjourn the sitting without putting any question; and proceedings on any business which has been started but not disposed of shall lapse.
(15) The provisions of Standing Orders No. 29 (Powers of chair to propose question), No. 36 (Closure of debate), No. 37 (Majority for closure or for proposal of question), No. 38 (Procedure on divisions), No. 39 (Voting), No. 40 (Division unnecessarily claimed), No. 41(Quorum), No. 43 (Disorderly conduct), No. 44 (Order in debate), No. 45 (Members suspended, &c., to withdraw from precincts), No. 45A (Suspension of salary of Members suspended) and No. 163 (Motions to sit in private) shall not apply to sittings in Westminster Hall.”
Sittings in Westminster Hall have become an established feature of House of Commons life. However, the Committee felt that there was room to make some small improvements to the second Chamber, which has remained largely unchanged since it came into use in November 1999. Although not welcoming all our proposals, the Government have supported many of the Committee’s recommendations in its report of 10 September 2014. I shall focus on those in this brief speech.
First, we recommend the introduction of two one-hour debating slots to take place at the end of Tuesday and Wednesday sittings. These hour-long debates will replace the half-hour debates at the ends of those two days and extend the sitting in Westminster Hall by half an hour. It is hoped that the hour-long debates will provide some additional flexibility for Members. This change, if approved by the House, will allow more colleagues to intervene or take part in a debate and provide the opportunity for the Opposition Front Bencher to make a short contribution. I stress that the emphasis really is on “short”—just a few brief observations. Additional tidying-up measures will see the Backbench Business Committee assume responsibility for allocating one 90-minute debate per week in Westminster Hall. As you will be aware, Madam Deputy Speaker, this has been trialled over the past year and has proved to be a success, so we wish to make it a permanent part of the House’s procedures.
We recommend that overall responsibility for the business of all sittings in Westminster Hall should be given to the Chairman of Ways and Means. Such a move would provide a single point of authority for all sittings and remove uncertainty about the oversight of Thursday sittings. The appointment of business for each day will continue to reflect the requirements set out in Standing Orders, protecting the nomination of debates by the Liaison Committee and the Backbench Business Committee. An advantage of transferring responsibility for Thursdays to the Chairman of Ways and Means is that on the rare occasions that neither the Backbench Business Committee nor the Liaison Committee have nominated a subject for debate, the Chairman could nominate a replacement subject.
The Committee recommends that those chairing Westminster Hall debates should have the power to order, as opposed to ask, a disorderly Member to leave the second Chamber. If the Member does not comply with that request, the Chair has the power to suspend the sitting and report the conduct of the Member to the House. Let me be clear: the purpose of giving the Chair such a power of last resort would be to make it more likely that it need never be used.
Finally, in a continued drive to make the procedures of the House more relevant and accessible to the public and its Members, we recommend that debates taken in Westminster Hall be termed “general debates” as opposed to “Adjournment debates”. The title of such debates must remain genuinely neutral and free from argument or implied opinion.
I hope that the recommendations that I have briefly outlined will find favour with the House.
Queen’s and Prince of Wales’s Consent
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move,
That this House approves the recommendations of the Procedure Committee in its Fourth Report of Session 2014-15, on Queen’s and Prince of Wales’s consent (HC 871), and accordingly:
(a) endorses the practice of not requiring consent to be re-signified when a bill has been carried over from one session to the next;
(b) orders that, where it is required, Queen’s and/or Prince of Wales’s consent be signified at third reading, whatever the nature and extent of the prerogatives or interests engaged; and
(c) endorses the practice of noting the need for consent in relation to a particular bill by including a note on the Future Business section of the order paper that consent is to be signified on third reading as soon as this requirement is known.
In its report on “The impact of Queen’s and Prince’s Consent on the legislative process”, published in March 2014, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee made several proposals to change the process for obtaining and signifying consent to Bills before Parliament. The Procedure Committee agrees that consent should not be re-signified when a Bill has been carried over from one Session to the next, and we recommend that the House should formally endorse that practice.
In a departure from the recommendations made by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, the Procedure Committee suggests that consent should continue to be given by a Privy Counsellor, as we have seen no evidence that any Bill has been delayed by the fact that a Privy Counsellor was not present. The Committee’s view is that continuing the current signification process is more open and transparent.
Currently, consent can be signified either on Second Reading or on Third Reading, depending on the extent or nature of the way in which the prerogatives or interests of the Queen or Prince of Wales are affected. However, even when consent has been signified on Second Reading, amendments at subsequent stages can require consent to be re-sought and re-signified on Third Reading. We therefore share the concerns of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that the signifying of consent at different legislative stages can add confusion to the legislative process.
On 30 October, the other place agreed that, where necessary, whatever the nature or extent of the interests or prerogatives engaged, consent by the Queen or Prince of Wales should be signified in that House on Third Reading. Following the decision of the other place and the recommendations of our colleagues on the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, we recommend that, where it is required, consent should be signified on Third Reading, whatever the nature and extent of the prerogatives or interests engaged.
We recommend that the House should formally endorse the practice of noting the need for consent in relation to a Bill by including a note in the future business section of the Order Paper that consent is to be signified on Third Reading, as soon as this requirement is known.
Petitions and e-petitions
Mr Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con): I beg to move,
(1) this House approves the recommendations contained in the Third Report of the Procedure Committee, E-petitions: a collaborative system (HC 235), concerning the establishment of an e-petition system jointly owned by the House and the Government, and of a Petitions Committee with responsibility for overseeing both the e-petition and the existing paper petitioning system;
(2) the following new standing order accordingly be made, with effect from the start of the next Parliament—
(1) There shall be a select committee, called the Petitions Committee, to consider public petitions presented to the House and e-petitions submitted through the House of Commons and Government e-petitions site.
(2) The committee shall consist of not more than eleven members.
(3) The committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to adjourn from place to place, and to report from time to time.
(4) The committee shall have power to appoint a sub-committee, which shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to adjourn from place to place, and to report to the committee from time to time.
(5) The committee shall have power to report from time to time the evidence taken before the sub-committee.
(6) The quorum of the sub-committee shall be three.
(7) The committee shall be responsible for determining whether a sitting should take place in Westminster Hall under paragraph (1)(a) of Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall) to consider one or more petitions or e-petitions, and shall report any such determination to the House.”; and
(3) the following amendments to standing orders be made, with effect from the start of the next Parliament—
Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall)
In paragraph (1)(a), leave out “Backbench Business Committee” and insert “Petitions Committee”.
In paragraph (1)(a), leave out “e-petition or e-petitions” and insert “one or more petitions or e-petitions”.
Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business)
Leave out paragraph (5).
Standing Order No. 122B (Election of select committee chairs)
Add the following new sub-paragraph to paragraph (1):
“() the Petitions Committee.”
Standing Order No. 152J (Backbench Business Committee)
In paragraph (8)(b), leave out “paragraphs (4) and (5) of Standing Order No. 10” and insert “paragraph (7) of Standing Order No. 10”.
Of the Procedure Committee’s three debates this afternoon, this is the big enchilada: the one that the House—or at least those in the Chamber—has been waiting for with bated breath.
On 8 May, the House agreed to establish a collaborative e-petitions system. In the intervening time, the Procedure Committee has worked hard to come up with a workable and robust set of proposals. In brief, we are proposing the following system. A petition will need to attract the support of six people before going live, and it will remain live for six months. Oversight of the joint e-petition system will be undertaken by a House of Commons Petitions Committee, which will have an elected Chair and elected Members. The Committee will be able to correspond with petitioners on their petition, and to call them for oral evidence. It will be able to refer a petition to the relevant Select Committee, and to seek further information, either written or oral, from the Government. May I say that oral evidence will be requested only in exceptional circumstances? The Committee will obviously be allowed to put forward petitions for debate. It will be supported by excellent House of Commons staff.
May I remind hon. Members, who may be drawing breath at the thought of the creation of another Committee, that the House had a Petitions Committee from the early 19th century up until 1974? It is not the Procedure Committee’s intention to create an additional Committee, but for the new Petitions Committee to replace an existing Committee. However, that is for the business managers to decide.
In his evidence to us, the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), said:
“I think it is important to have a committee in some form to highlight to the public that Parliament treats this seriously, to make sure that Government departments respond properly and fully, and to be able to recommend debates where necessary.”
The Petitions Committee will decide which petitions merit further action. It will take the existing threshold of 100,000 signatures as the established starting point for considering whether there should be a debate in the House. However—this “however” is very important—in this age of mass campaigning, the Committee will also be mindful of smaller petitions that although not benefiting from the support of well-funded and organised pressure groups are nevertheless deemed to be of great importance to a community and it will perhaps be mindful, in extreme cases, even of a petition from an individual.
The Petitions Committee will seek to improve engagement with petitioners. Often, those submitting and supporting a petition will not get the exact outcome they want, but they will hopefully feel that their concerns have been appreciated and heard through constructive engagement with the Committee, and through receiving responses from the Government and—on occasion—the relevant Select Committee. Moderation of the site will be carried out by e-petition staff.
It is also our intention for the e-petition system to contain a facility that allows our constituents to alert us when they have signed a petition—after all, we all greatly enjoy and love hearing from our constituents. That facility would be provided through the provision of an e-mail address, and a strong suggestion that when our constituents provide us with an e-mail address they also provide us with their home address so that we can verify that they are our constituents.
The threshold of six signatures has been identified because it requires the lead petitioner to seek support for his or her position, but ensures that in seeking that support the demands on the individual are not too onerous. Within the current system, around one in five e-petitions that have been submitted have attracted fewer than three signatures, and 42% have attracted fewer than six. This is a petition system; it should not be for individual representations as those are best made to the relevant Member of Parliament. To emphasise the parliamentary oversight of the system, and in line with the House’s historic role as the principal recipient of public petitions, we have recommended that the site’s URL be e-petitions.parliament.uk, with a clear link from the Parliament website to the e-petition site.
On the important matter of privilege, a petition should not be privileged simply by virtue of having been approved by staff of the Petitions Committee. The House publishes much material on its website that is not a proceeding in Parliament and is therefore not privileged. The point at which an e-petition becomes a proceeding in Parliament will be when it is considered by the Petitions Committee. Only when the Committee has considered the petition and considered it fit for presentation to the House will it constitute a proceeding in Parliament. Notwithstanding the issue of privilege, it is possible that a petition published on an e-petition site, and endorsed and established by the House, could attract the more limited protection of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840. Therefore, the Petitions Committee staff drawn from the House will need to exercise their usual great care in the moderation of petitions, to ensure that no potentially actionable material is published in an e-petition without the explicit authority of the Petitions Committee.
A petition will be open for signature for six months. After that, the title of each e-petition will be recorded in a list in the Votes and Proceedings of the House, together with the number of signatures it has attracted. Should a Member wish to pursue it, the paper petition system will enable the formal presentation of the subject of an e-petition on the Floor of the House.
In bringing forward debates we recommend that the Petitions Committee assume responsibility from the Backbench Business Committee for determining debates on e-petitions in Westminster Hall. Importantly, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), is supportive of that change. If the Petitions Committee decided that a petition warranted debate in the main Chamber, it could approach the Backbench Business Committee and ask for that time to be provided. However, the Backbench Business Committee is under no obligation to grant that time—there will be no land grab.
For paper petitions, we have concluded that the rules and procedures should remain as they are, with one exception, which is to provide the Petitions Committee with the power to consider paper petitions and take appropriate action, alongside petitions coming through the electronic system. I believe that change will strengthen the paper petition process.
Let me return to the vexed issue of cost. The cost of the new system we are proposing is set out at the back of our report, but we estimate the one-off start-up cost at £188,000, with an annual running cost of around £115,000. Those costs will be shared between the House and the Government. There could also be an additional cost of £39,000 to enable data from the site to be made available through data.parliament.uk. That cost will be borne by the House, if approved by the Finance and Services Committee.
In addition to the cost of setting up and maintaining an electronic petition system, we estimate that the staffing cost will be about £200,000 per year, equating to a team of four full-time equivalent people—Officers of the
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House. The cost of those House staff will be borne entirely by the House. Finally, the running cost of the Petitions Committee, depending on its practices, is expected to be around £50,000 per annum. If anybody is doing a running total, I believe that those numbers add up to about £395,000—if they do not, any hon. Lady or Gentleman who discovers that my maths is wrong can approach me later. For further details of costs, I refer colleagues to the recently published memorandum from the accounting officer that is available in the Vote Office.
To conclude my rather lengthy remarks, I thank my excellent Committee Clerks. They are heroic in every way—patient, intelligent, insightful and rather brilliant, and I thank them for the huge amount of effort that they have put into this report. I also thank the Government digital service and the former Leader of the House, who is sitting next to me, for his efforts in bringing this Committee to life. A joint Petitions Committee overseen by a Committee of the House is one of the most amazing things that has happened in this place for some time, and he is to be congratulated on his foresight in allowing it to become possible. I also thank the current Leader of the House for the support he has given our Committee in bringing forward these proposals.