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Why are MPs speaking more often but for less time? Five possible reasons

16 Jan 2024
Marsha De Cordova MP giving a speech in the House of Commons Chamber, December 2023. ©UK Parliament/Maria Unger
Marsha De Cordova MP giving a speech in the House of Commons Chamber, December 2023. ©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

How often do MPs speak in the House of Commons and for how long? New data shows that MPs are speaking more frequently, but for less time. We identify five possible reasons that may explain this recent trend and discuss the effect this could be having on the quality of debate.

Caroline Bhattacharya, Doctoral student, University of Helsinki
Stephen Holden Bates, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham
,
Doctoral student, University of Helsinki

Caroline Bhattacharya

Caroline Bhattacharya
Doctoral student, University of Helsinki

Caroline Bhattacharya is a doctoral student at the University of Helsinki and a co-convenor of the Parliaments Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association.

,
Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham

Stephen Holden Bates

Stephen Holden Bates
Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham

Stephen Holden Bates is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Birmingham. In 2022 he completed a Parliamentary Academic Fellowship which examined Select Committee membership patterns and the impact of those patterns on committee work.

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The average number of oral contributions in the House of Commons per backbencher, per sitting day, rose steadily until the end of the 2017-19 Parliament, prior to which it remained relatively flat until around the millenium (as can be seen in Figure 1).

Figure 1 • Average number of oral contributions per backbencher per sitting day, Chamber and Westminster Hall combined, 1979-2019

This trend is not entirely due to the introduction of Westminster Hall debates in December 1999 (although, as we explain below, it does have something to do with it). MPs have, in fact, been contributing more often both in Westminster Hall and on the floor of the House over time.

  • any lengthening of the average sitting day – the trends per sitting hour mirror, albeit not exactly, those per sitting day (Figure 2);

  • MPs speaking more quickly – the total number of words per sitting hour has remained relatively stable, except for some outliers during the short 2019 parliamentary Session, and when Westminster Hall debates started (Figure 3);

  • an increase in (very) short contributions – these have tended to decline in both forums (Figures 4 and 5); or

  • the sudden emergence of a small group of highly active MPs who have shifted the overall distribution of oral contributions per sitting day – the distribution of the number of oral contributions made by backbench MPs has remained relatively stable (Figure 6).

Figure 2 • Average number of oral contributions per backbencher per sitting hour in the Chamber and Westminster Hall

Figure 3 • Total words per sitting hour spoken in the Chamber and Westminster Hall by backbenchers

Figure 4 • Share of (very) short contributions in the Chamber

Figure 5 • Share of (very) short contributions in Westminster Hall

Oral contributions have tended to get shorter in both the Chamber and Westminster Hall, as can be seen in Figure 7.

In the Chamber, the average contribution length remained relatively flat until the 1997 General Election. It then declined until the 2010 General Election, thereafter plateauing. In Westminster Hall, if we ignore the inaugural Session when it appears everyone was 'finding their feet', we see a similar pattern, albeit at a higher level: a decline until the 2010 General Election and then a plateau.

Figure 7 • Average word length of contributions in the Chamber and Westminster Hall

Overall, MPs therefore appear to be making more oral contributions of shorter length. To explore the reasons behind this trend, we consulted some experts – Paul Evans, Elise Uberoi and Brigid Fowler (as well as doing some thinking ourselves).

To explain this trend of MPs speaking more often and for a shorter amount of time, we can perhaps point towards several non-exclusive contributing factors, which we set out below – not necessarily in any order of importance (or plausibility).

Both formal and informal institutional changes, related to the length of backbench speeches, almost certainly help us explain the change.

When Standing Order No. 47, which gives the Speaker the power to impose time limits on backbench speeches, was introduced in 1988, the minimum time limit was set at eight minutes, with interventions not counting. As a consequence, the Speaker used the power sparingly. Over time, the Standing Order was amended a number of times until, in 2007, the minimum time limit was abolished and left to the discretion of the Speaker.

In addition to these formal institutional changes, John Bercow was elected as Speaker in 2009 on a platform, among other things, of championing backbenchers. As Paul Evans explained to us, as part of this championing platform:

“[Bercow] began to discard the deference shown to ‘senior’ MPs who had traditionally been given priority earlier in debate, to impose time limits earlier (sometimes straight after frontbench openers), and to try and reach the bottom of the list of all those MPs who had given notice of their wish to participate in a debate.”

This culture spread to his Deputies and appears to have persisted – to a greater or lesser extent – since his departure, with the default time limit falling from between six and eight minutes to between four and five minutes, and increasingly, towards the end of backbench debating time, to three or sometimes even two minutes. Therefore, over the last 15 or so years, more backbench MPs have been given the opportunity to speak in debates, but for a shorter time than previously.

The establishment of debates in Westminster Hall has clearly increased the number of opportunities for MPs to speak. And this, as we’ve seen, explains some – but by no means all – of the increase over time in the number of oral contributions. The number of opportunities to speak in Westminster Hall has also grown over time.

At the end of the 2010-15 Parliament, the House of Commons voted to establish the Petitions Committee from the start of the following Parliament and to give it powers to convene, if it wanted to, an additional three-hour sitting on Monday afternoons in Westminster Hall to debate e-petitions.

Since the 2015 General Election – if we ignore the unusually short 2019 Session – the number of Westminster Hall sitting days has accounted for over 70% of the number of House of Commons sitting days (as can be seen in Figure 8). This is the highest it has been. Again, as Paul Evans explained to us:

“To start with, the system cranked up fairly slowly and debates were relatively infrequent. Quite rapidly, however, the [Petitions] Committee started using almost all its Monday slots.”

Figure 8 • Westminster Hall sitting days as a proportion of House of Commons sitting days

One of the more obvious recent changes in the House of Commons is the increased frequency of Urgent Questions (UQs). The number of UQs per sitting day has increased significantly since the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, as can be seen in Figure 9.

Urgent Questions do not necessarily lend themselves to lengthy interventions and may also encourage the involvement of more MPs in comparison to other parliamentary occasions.

Figure 9 • The number of Urgent Questions per sitting day (Priddy 2023 and authors’ own calculations)

There have been some complaints recently about how social media incentivises MPs, especially newer ones, to score political points during contributions – rather than probe for information or weakness – which are then promoted on Twitter/X or Facebook. Social media has, of course, not been around for long enough to explain at least the start of the trend towards shorter contributions. However, these concerns are nothing new.

In 2006, there were complaints that new MPs had made numerous, very short interventions, in order to boost mentions in lists produced by organisations like TheyWorkForYou and become ‘Britain’s most assiduous MP’. A leader in The Times stated:

“Parliamentary debate is being reduced to token noises about nothing… 'speaking' [in a debate] can mean uttering no more than a few platitudinous syllables.”

We know the presence of television cameras in parliaments incentivises electorally-driven and reputation-building behaviour among MPs, especially newer ones and/or those who are electorally unsafe, particularly in relation to constituency concerns. We can perhaps view the impact of monitoring websites and social media in a similar way, and see associated changes in MPs’ behaviour as part of a wider trend concerning the way in which MPs engage and communicate with constituents.

Expectations have also changed regarding the behaviour of MPs. In our ongoing work on MPs' activity, we uncovered an instance during the 1979-83 Parliament where one MP made only eight interventions in total (and this included Written Questions, Oral Questions and interventions in debates). It is unlikely that such behaviour would be tolerated now, as the recent controversy about Nadine Dorries perhaps attests. Thus, MPs now face various incentives and pressures regarding their behaviour, which may lead to shorter, more frequent, oral contributions.

We recommend you read Nelson Polsby’s chapter on legislatures to gain an understanding of the paucity of resources and support offered to MPs in the 1970s. We also take this opportunity to repeat one of our favourite quotes from Donald Searing’s Westminster World, made by an MP who Searing classified as a “Knight of the Shire”:

“I hunt three days a week, always. Probably hunt four days a week. I don’t get any letters anyhow. I only have a secretary part-time. I have one woman, at home, who deals with Parliamentary letters on a Monday and that’s it” (1994, 181).

MPs are much better-resourced nowadays and most, if not all, will have a sizeable staff to support their work by, for example, doing more research and gathering knowledge on various issues. As a consequence, MPs have the capacity to make more contributions. Moreover, as indicated by our recent survey, MPs consider speeches to be one of the most important parts of their work, which is why at least some, and perhaps most, might invest a significant amount of their increasing resources in preparing and delivering speeches.

There is a trade-off between maximising the number of MPs who participate on the floor of the House, on the one hand, and speech length, on the other (as well as possibly a tension between the quantity and quality of speeches). This has been recognised by the Procedure Committee, which in a 2018 report discussed the effectiveness of time limits in managing debates and maintaining the balance between frontbench and backbench speeches. In the report, the Deputy Speakers describe the challenge:

"[W]e strive to provide time enough for colleagues to deliver considered speeches, opportunity for challenge or support through interventions and the chance for as many colleagues as possible to participate in each debate".

The Committee advised against time limits below five minutes on the grounds that, "[O]ver-regulation of speaking time is counterproductive and does not necessarily lead to spontaneous debate." Instead, "Members ought to respect the Chair's desire to call as many speakers as possible and plan to adjust their remarks accordingly."

There is also a valid concern that shorter speeches may hamper the depth of deliberation and scrutiny. Scholars concerned with (measuring) the quality of political deliberation – for example, Steenbergen and colleagues who designed the Discourse Quality Index – have argued that political debate is better when participants give sophisticated justification and causal reasoning for their positions, engage with counterarguments and seek to build consensus or find a compromise.

Although this literature does not explicitly address the issue of time, it is hard to imagine that a two- or three-minute contribution could come close to meeting these criteria.

The jury is still out on the optimal length of a parliamentary speech. While we may not want to return to a time in which new(er) MPs could perhaps not contribute as much, for no other reason than the shortness of their tenure, we may need to reconsider whether the trend of shorter and more frequent speeches in the House of Commons benefits the overall quality of debate, by facilitating wider participation and representation, or rather hinders the effectiveness and quality of scrutiny.

  • Unless otherwise stated, all data in this post have been generated by the authors from official parliamentary records and from Jack Blumenau’s (2021) speech dataset: House of Commons Parliamentary Debates, 1979-2019. [Data Collection]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Service. 10.5255/UKDA-SN-854292.

  • We define an oral contribution as any utterance made by a backbench MP which, when recorded in Hansard, is preceded by their name. So, for example, a speech made or a question posed by an MP during which Hansard records an interruption or intervention of some kind would count as two contributions (as can be seen in this recent exchange between Andrew Jones and Nusrat Ghani).

  • Priddy, S. (14 November 2023), House of Commons Library, Number of urgent questions in the House of Commons since 1997

Bhattacharya, C. and Holden Bates, S. (16 January 2024), Why are MPs speaking more often but for less time? Five possible reasons (Hansard Society blog)

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