Urgent Questions: We answer your questions about how Parliament works (Parliament Matters: Episode 20)

15 Feb 2024
The Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, at Prime Minister's Questions, 25 October 2023. ©UK Parliament/Maria Unger [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED]
The Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon Sir Lindsay Hoyle MP, at Prime Minister's Questions, 25 October 2023. ©UK Parliament/Maria Unger [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED]

This week we have a special ‘Urgent Questions’ episode to answer your questions about how Parliament works. Topics include e-petitions, Prime Ministers' Questions, the powers of the Speaker, whipping, office support provided to Sinn Fein MPs, access to the Palace of Westminster, hospitality venues in Parliament, and the value of Written Questions.

With the House of Commons in recess this week we are catching up with listener's questions.

  • A e-petition for an immediate general election was debated in the House of Commons: What impact did it have?

  • PMQs is increasingly vexatious: was there ever a time when the Prime Minister of the day actually gave a proper answer? Why don't the questioners object to not receiving an answer, and why doesn't the Speaker appear to have any power or influence in this charade or call them out and apply sanctions?

  • If the Speaker were to throw an MP out of the House of Commons Chamber for bad behaviour, how would he do it?

  • Is the practice of parliamentary whipping in the best interests of democratic government?

  • Sinn Fein MPs don't take their seats in Parliament. However, they are able to have offices in Westminster. What are the differences in the way in which their office operation is funded compared to other MPs?

  • Do all ex Members of Parliament have access to the parliamentary estate? Why are so many allowed back with a security pass?

  • What are the hospitality facilities in Parliament like and what are they for?

  • What is the capacity of Parliament that would need to be supported if they were to vacate the Palace of Westminster for repairs? Things like offices, staff, dining rooms, bars, press galleries, meeting rooms, committee rooms etc?

  • The Wright Report: What were the recommendations? How much has been carried out? Are any political parties suggesting fuller implementation?

  • To what extent are Written Parliamentary Questions performative? The answers are often so cursory, following edits by Spads, that it seems that their only purpose is to raise a flag with constituents and ministers that an MP is taking an interest in a topic. There seems to be little scope in obtaining substantive answers with such perfunctory replies.

Mark and Ruth answer all these questions and more in this week's Urgent Questions.

Please note, this transcript is automatically generated. There are consequently minor errors and the text is not formatted according to our style guide. If you wish to reference or cite the transcript copy below, please first check against the audio version above. Timestamps are provided above each paragraph.

00:00:00:00 - 00:00:16:12 You are listening to Parliament Matters. A Hansard Society production supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Learn more at 00:00:16:14 - 00:00:36:02 Hello and welcome to Urgent Questions. The special edition of the Parliament Matters podcast, where we try and answer your questions about the inner workings, the inner mysteries of the Commons, the Lords and Westminster itself. I'm Mark D'Arcy. And I’m Ruth Fox. So, Ruth, what have we got? So our first question Mark, is from - he doesn't give his or her name. 00:00:36:02 - 00:01:05:19 It's "disappointed, but not surprised of Sheffield". And "I'm disappointed, but not surprised" says at the end of January there was an e-petition that was debated, calling for an early general election, it got over 100,000 signatures in order to get a debate. But there were very few people in the chamber, it ended in less than an hour. And basically our questioner is asking, in the words of Homer Simpson, "doh", what exactly has that petition achieved? 00:01:05:21 - 00:01:27:07 So I think the least likely outcome of all this was going to be that the minister would get up at the end of the debate and say, yeah, it's a fair cop. The Prime Minister is on his way to the Palace to get an election called right now. That was never going to happen. I think the Petitions Committee and the whole petitions process is at its most effective when it's raising an issue where something is actually possible to be done. 00:01:27:09 - 00:02:00:04 In this case, the government is going to call an election at what it considers to be the most advantageous moment for it. But when you're talking about other things, when you're talking about the cost of parking at hospitals, which are a huge issue for repeat visitors who often face quite significant bills for their visits, when you're talking about things like the infected blood scandal, when you're trying to galvanise some cause into a bit more action, that's when the petitions process really comes into play. 00:02:00:06 - 00:02:20:10 Pretty much the most watched parliamentary event online, often driven by sort of hashtag media campaigns. And they know that there's some glory to be had. I can imagine that the chamber was empty on this occasion because there wasn't any glory to be had, because this was a very sort of symbolic debate that they kind of had to do because the number of signatures had passed the threshold of a hundred thousand. 00:02:20:10 - 00:02:39:15 Yeah, they knew what the answer from the minister was going to be "no, you're not having an election". The Prime Minister will decide when he's good and ready and so on. Next question - that's also from anonymous. But we've got two questions here that are related. So we've discussed Prime Minister's Questions recently in the last couple of episodes. 00:02:39:15 - 00:03:01:19 So the first question is, was there ever a time when the Prime Minister of the day actually gave a proper answer? It has deviated from an actual Q&A. And why don't the questioners object to not receiving an answer and why doesn't the Speaker have any power or influence in this charade? Gosh. Well, there are quite a lot of answers to that. 00:03:01:19 - 00:03:36:05 The first is last year, some time I listened to a very rare recording of a prime minister's Question Time with Harold Wilson, and it was done during a brief experiment with broadcasting live the proceedings of the Commons in the mid seventies. And it was a much more staid, much more formal mannered affair than Prime Minister's Questions has subsequently become. It's evolved since then into this kind of gladiatorial combat where, you know, the Prime Minister is fending off the opposition leader and it's all very high temperature and the baying and roaring is always there. 00:03:36:05 - 00:03:56:02 And maybe that's partly a product of when Prime Minister's Question Time stop being a quarter of an hour on a Tuesday and a quarter of an hour on a Thursday and became half an hour on a Wednesday, it became the kind of peak moment of the week and maybe that stoked up the temperature in it. So that's the kind of course of over which it's evolved in the last couple of decades. 00:03:56:04 - 00:04:21:18 Powers of the Speaker. The Speaker can't be the arbiter of fact. The Speaker can't be there suddenly getting up and saying, no, that answer is wrong, because no one's infallible. He's just as likely as anybody else to get stuff wrong. If that happens the Speaker can only really call out misbehavior in the chamber. So people who are shouting or gesturing or being rude or disrupting proceedings in some way, the Speaker can deal with that. 00:04:21:20 - 00:04:56:00 But he's never going to be a sort of quizmaster giving marks out of ten for the correctness of the answers. That would be a very dangerous thing for him to become. I always thought if I were the Leader of the Opposition, an unlikely proposition I grant you. But if I was getting sort of the answers that you get from the Prime Minister, I've often thought what I'd quite like to do is sort of slam my papers down on the dispatch box, walk out of the chamber, tell the Speaker I've had enough of this and walk out outside on the Palace estate into a media press conference, and 00:04:56:03 - 00:05:13:23 basically say, I'm not doing this anymore because it's a waste of everybody's time. See what kind of reaction you'd get. Well, it is a charade. I said a couple of months ago that, you know, every time I watch PMQs, a little part of my soul seems to wither and die. Well, I'd love to know what the Clerks sat at the table are thinking. 00:05:13:23 - 00:05:34:15 When they have to endure this every week and they have to be, you know, completely straight faced, they never, they never give anything away. But I often do wonder what are they thinking? Well, the thing that does slightly surprise me that it doesn't happen more often. I mean, there have to be half the questions from the opposition and half the questions from the government side. 00:05:34:17 - 00:06:01:12 So why aren't more opposition MPs lined up with the option of being able to say when my honorable friend, the Leader of the Opposition, asked this question, the Prime Minister didn't reply. I would like to give him another chance to actually, you know, properly answer this very important question. You know, if you get that happening two or three times, it kind of hammers home the point that an issue has been dodged or answered with some form of words that so vague that doesn't really take you anywhere. 00:06:01:14 - 00:06:22:02 So there is that option for follow up. But again, that turns the thing into something that's even more orchestrated than it already is. Yeah. Yeah. And our second, related question is around the power of the Speaker. If he actually did send somebody out for his much vaunted "cup of tea", threw them out of the chamber, I mean, how does it work? 00:06:22:02 - 00:06:55:20 What's, what's the process? Well, there's there's the formal process of naming where someone's behaved particularly badly, where the Speaker says, I'm naming Mr. Such and such, such and such, and then the Chief Whip is supposed to get up and immediately move a motion that they be excluded from the chamber. Sometimes the Speaker would just order someone out and they go. Of they refuse to go, then you get the process of naming, at which point if necessary, they'd be frog marched out by the, by the ushers, I suppose the Sergeant at Arms with his sword at the side. 00:06:55:22 - 00:07:13:24 And you know, in if things were to deteriorate considerably, the Speaker can also of course suspend or adjourn the sitting. Grave disorder having broken out I think is the phrase. And then and he just suspends the thing and do and you sometimes wonder if it gets particularly silly whether that might be quite a salutary lesson. I've had enough of this. 00:07:14:01 - 00:07:37:19 Yeah. If they can't grow up, I'm going to stop the proceeding altogether. Yeah, it would be quite a thing for Speaker to do. So our next question is from Don Frampton. Is the practice of parliamentary whips - so this concept of one, two or even three line whips resulting in MPs being known as no more than lobby fodder - is it in the best interests of democratic government? 00:07:37:21 - 00:07:57:06 We should probably explain the nature of one, two and three line whips. A one line whip is there's going to be a vote. It's probably a pretty formal rubber stamping of something that no one really disagrees on very much. And if you fancy voting for it, fair enough. The two line whip is when the government just wants to make sure it's got enough warm bodies to get it to win the vote. 00:07:57:06 - 00:08:18:00 Three line whip. There's no pairing. There's no sort of arrangements you can make with the other side that someone else isn't there because you're not going to be there to sort of balance out your absence. Three line whip is the full array of parliamentary forces aligned against each other, no exceptions. Pretty much. 00:08:18:00 - 00:08:34:07 You must be there. Your presence is required or some such phrase is used on the document. MP are given telling them what votes are expected. And of course these days that's backed up with text messages and things. There's going to be a vote suddenly and people whistle them up every now and then. 00:08:34:09 - 00:08:53:05 The government is caught on the hop and has to sort of rather scramble around to make sure it's got the people in place to win a particular vote. And when it's a three line whip, you sometimes see them calling back ministers from overseas visits, select committees from overseas visits to make sure that they've they've got everybody in the precincts of the palace that they've got. 00:08:53:05 - 00:09:16:18 is it seven or eight minutes to vote? Yeah. And there's a process of nodding through where someone, if they're on the precincts of the Palace on a stretcher can even be considered to have voted. And there's a very famous occasion in I think the 1970s when there was a question about whether someone was really there or not, or whether the government whips at the time had pulled a fast one and pretended they were present when they weren't in order to avoid a defeat of the government. 00:09:16:20 - 00:09:35:13 But in general, the whips try not to gain these votes because if they do go that way, madness lines, the whole system can grind to a halt. And indeed in the seventies it did for a while because the opposition stopped cooperating in the conduct of votes and everyone had to be there all the time for every vote. 00:09:35:13 - 00:10:01:15 And that caused some pretty chaotic results. But there's this question about whether it's in the best interests of democratic government. I mean, in the 1950s, you know, you would have sessions where you wouldn't get, for example, backbench rebellions on any votes. You don't see that now. It is a more rebellious legislature than it was in decades past. 00:10:01:17 - 00:10:37:11 But nonetheless, you know, it's it's important, I think, to be able to govern that there's some coherence and some consistency. And if all your MPs can do whatever they like, when they like that, chaos lies in that direction, absolutely. Then a coherent party system is necessary for the process of a orderly government. And this is where you get to the difficulty of MPs deciding that they're going to just make up their own mind completely independently on every question, it suddenly starts to look a bit more like the US Congress. 00:10:37:15 - 00:11:02:14 You know, the process of pork barrel politics and the Congresspersons having to be in effect, sort of bribed with goodies for their constituency in order to vote for a certain proposition. That kind of thing can happen. I mean, it did happen to an extent here. I have a theory that during the latter days of Theresa May, when she didn't have a majority, every time there was a tight vote in the House of Commons, she needed the support of the Northern Ireland DUP. 00:11:02:14 - 00:11:19:20 So every time things got difficult, another small town in Northern Ireland got a bypass or something. So it does happen a bit in this country and maybe a slightly more open system where people were a bit more willing to go off piste might mean that they were able to get more goodies for their constituency from time to time, which I think happens informally a bit at the moment. 00:11:19:20 - 00:11:51:04 Yeah, but at the same time, the government would become tremendously incoherent if every vote was an open vote where almost anything could happen. It's also important to remember on things like legislation, you can have, you know, a run of multiple votes each evening and on very, very technical amendments. And for example, if you're a minister or you've been on a select committee and you're suddenly sort of pulled into the chamber, you've got to vote. 00:11:51:06 - 00:12:13:04 Are you on top of every dot and comma of every amendment, almost? No, no. And that's where the whip is the guidance. This is the agreed party line and you should be supporting it, you should be supporting this. And when you buy in to a political party, it's very likely that you don't believe in every dot and comma of their policy platform. 00:12:13:04 - 00:12:28:19 You're buying a package deal just as if you go on a holiday you may not want to go on on the guided tour part of the trip, and you may prefer to stay in the bar at the hotel or whatever. You know, sometimes there are things that you don't necessarily buy into, but you're kind of stuck with because it's part of the package. 00:12:28:21 - 00:12:52:00 And if you start rejecting large chunks of the package, maybe people start concluding you shouldn't go on the holiday at all. That's the essence of parliamentary democracy, isn't it, that ultimately there has to be compromise because not everybody can have everything they want all the time. Although some of them would really like to. Well, indeed. Well, we've got a question here from Ollie Day about Sinn Fein MPs. 00:12:52:00 - 00:13:10:20 So they of course, don't take their seats in Parliament. However, they are able to have offices in Westminster. Would you be able to provide an explanation of any of the differences in the way in which their office operation is funded compared to those of other MPs? Yes. So I owe Ollie an apology because this has been hanging around for a few weeks, it took a bit of research. 00:13:10:23 - 00:13:41:03 So we've had to look into this one. So as many of our listeners will know, Sinn Fein MPs don't take their seats in the House of Commons. They have a policy that they call abstensionism. hey don't take their seats, they don't vote. MPs are required by law after the election to take an oath of allegiance or to solemnly affirm their allegiance to the monarch in order to take their seats, in order to vote, in order to get their salary. 00:13:41:05 - 00:14:13:23 Sinn Fein, of course, refuse to do this, so they don't receive parliamentary salaries. It's said that Sinn Fein, the party, pays them a salary believed to be, they refer to it as the annual industrial average wage. They do, however, receive money for expenses, so they get office costs and travel costs. They have to maintain a register of interests in relation to those forms of expenditure, but not in relation to the salaries because that's been paid by by the party. 00:14:13:23 - 00:14:33:15 So there's some criticism that there's a lack of transparency there. So what they can do is the MP role of raising issues with ministers on behalf of their constituents, keep up the correspondence. They do the constituency element, but not the Westminster Parliament element. But they do travel to Westminster for meetings these days and we see them about the place from time to time. 00:14:33:15 - 00:15:03:07 Yes, there was a point during the Brexit fandango after the hung parliament of the 2017 election where people kept suggesting, well, if the Sinn Feiners came into Westminster, they could tip the balance, but they never did that. And the taboo here of not taking part in the institutions of the British state is so great that it's very hard to imagine that Sinn Fein would ever do so, however big the sort of potential political results might be in Britain and the party also. 00:15:03:07 - 00:15:28:10 So Sinn Fein also receive some public money for party business. So parties in Parliament get what's called "Short Money" in opposition to support their activities. Named after Ted Short, Labour deputy leader in the early 70. There you go. Well, they don't get that. They get what's called representative money. So Short Money is not available to MPs who haven't sworn the oath and don't take part in proceedings. 00:15:28:10 - 00:15:55:11 So apparently in 2006, the House of Commons agreed to a similar scheme for an opposition party represented by members who have chosen not to take their seats, which basically was Sinn Fein. So they can claim costs for expenses incurred in relation to employment of staff related support for the members, you know, support for party spokespersons and so on. 00:15:55:13 - 00:16:14:12 The argument is that they're elected on a mandate not to take their seats, that they are very clear to the electorate that "we're not going to take our seats". The electorate know that, and they go ahead and vote for them. So they're still providing sort of active support for their constituents. They're still, you know, doing other forms of party in parliamentary business. 00:16:14:14 - 00:16:38:06 Sinn Fein, I think, got in the last financial year, no in this financial year, I think it's £189,000 for the main costs and about just under £5,000 for travel costs. So comparatively not huge, but still, you know, it's a reasonable sum. There's calls for this to be reviewed. I mean, the Democratic Unionist Party don't like it. In a shock discovery. 00:16:38:08 - 00:17:00:03 They, they are often calling for it to be reviewed. But at the moment, that's the situation. Okay, here's another one. Do all ex-members of parliament have access to the parliamentary estate? Why are so many allowed back with a pass. It's an anonymous questioner again. So this one we've also held over a bit because we had to look it up. 00:17:00:04 - 00:17:30:02 It's not all of them for a start. No, not, not all. And there's been a bit of a crackdown on security passes in recent years. So fewer than was was the case in the past. So an MP can sponsor four staff members and a family member. So that's the number of passes that they can have. And for former MPs, if you have served a minimum of six years or two full parliamentary terms, whichever is the longer you're entitled to a former MP's pass. 00:17:30:04 - 00:17:52:17 So an MP who is in there from 2017 to 2019 wouldn't automatically qualify. No. And the Standards and the Privileges Committee can recommend that an MP who's left the House can lose their pass as a sanction. Yes. And John Bercow is the most prominent example of someone who's had to sort of never darken our door again. 00:17:52:18 - 00:18:13:03 I can't remember whether Boris Johnson, whether he's he's going to be stripped of his pass, I think. I think he has, I think he has been. But there is the difficulty there if he were to get reelected? Yes. In the knowledge that this was the case, the electorate would have spoken. So if he had, for example, stood in the Uxbridge by election after the recall petition and been reelected? 00:18:13:05 - 00:18:32:20 Yes, I think the parliamentary authorities would just have to sort of swallow that particular wasp and let him back in because the voters would have spoken. Yeah, but he qualifies as a former MP. He's served a minimum of six years or two full parliamentary terms. He qualifies on that. But I think he may have, I think, lost his right to a pass. 00:18:32:22 - 00:18:51:04 There's a lot of concern about the number of former MPs using the pass. The big issue is how many of them are using it for lobbying because a lot of them do sign up for lobbying companies. Some of them run their own consultancies and this gives them privileged access. So that's the big criticism. 00:18:51:06 - 00:19:21:04 And you could just be milling around in Portcullis House, talking to people at the coffee bar, drinking parliamentary lattes with the chaps and push whatever it is that you're lobbying for. Yeah, and you know, no doubt we're going to see this issue become a concern again after the next election when you're going to have a whole new set of MPs leaving, some of whom will qualify under this minimum of six years or to full parliamentary terms and can keep a pass. It will be another one to keep an eye on. 00:19:21:06 - 00:19:44:12 So another anonymous question here. What are the hospitality facilities in Parliament like and what are they for? Usually the info online is surrounded by furious opinions that cloud, the truth. Well, I don't really think much of the hospitality facilities, I have to say. I mean, I think they're sort of faded, faded glory. 00:19:44:14 - 00:20:07:08 I mean, you've got you've got coffee shops. In Portcullis House there's a coffee shop, there's a canteen, there's a full dress restaurant in Portcullis House, which are all fine. And then there's various other canteens about the estate. There are also a couple of restaurants, of varying degrees of grandeur, and there are also members only facilities where they can be 00:20:07:08 - 00:20:27:03 untroubled by journalists and staffers and so forth, because it's members only. Yeah, So there's a whole variety of them. And a lot of this goes back to the kind of 19th century gentlemen's club feel of it, you know, and not not least in the menu, which perhaps is a bit less traditional than it used to be. 00:20:27:03 - 00:20:56:14 But I kind of imagine it being at least sort of spiritually beef, beef, steak and then spotted dick for dessert. Yeah, I think it's a bit more modern than that now. It's got a bit more modern these days. Personally, one of the issues if you are booking an event so if you are booking one of the banqueting facilities as a private organization, it's is pretty expensive. 00:20:56:16 - 00:21:17:19 And frankly, I think the food and drink is not that great quality for the price in my view, but that's, that's quite a personal view. Well, you obviously have a different view. I'm a complete canapé hound, I'm afraid. You take me to one of these events and I will be perfectly happy for hours, eating my way around the room. 00:21:17:19 - 00:21:36:22 But, you know, part of this is that there is a sort of semi-social side to politics in that there are groups who hold receptions to publicise a cause. And you come there and there'll be, you know, glasses of Aussie chardonnay available and maybe some sort of vol-au-vents with a bit of stuff inside them. 00:21:36:24 - 00:21:54:20 And also there's the other side of it, when an MP is receiving a delegation of people from their constituency. The drill is that they probably take them in and buy them all a cup of coffee. Now you're doing this, you know, buying coffee for eight or nine people, four or five times a week, that sort of mounts up to quite a lot of money. 00:21:54:20 - 00:22:17:11 And that's one of the arguments behind, well, let's subsidise this a bit. And they are a bit subsidised. They're not nearly as subsidised as they used to be. And you go around Parliament, they used to be notices saying our prices have gone up because we're not subsidising it as much anymore. I mean, it's worth stressing that these for most of these facilities are used by not just employees and peers, but parliamentary staff, 00:22:17:13 - 00:22:49:14 the MPs own staff, journalists in the lobby, visitors like myself. They are open to people who are on the estate and they are feeding thousands of people, not just 650 MP. It's a massive, massive operation. So I don't know how many thousands per week are going through, but it's it's very big numbers. And there's no doubt if you get an opportunity to sit out on the terrace of the Commons or the Lords and look out over the Thames, particularly in the Summer. 00:22:49:14 - 00:23:26:10 On a nice day. On a nice day. It's fabulous. It's you know, they say it's the best view in London and it's tremendous. The other side of it, though, is linked to, we've had discussions in past episodes about restoration and renewal of the palace. Not that long ago I sat in a meeting in one of the tea rooms in the Commons and there were three mice running around my feet. Which takes the gloss off. I think certainly in the older part of the building in particular, you do occasionally see mice and you certainly see those little boxes of sort of poison 00:23:26:10 - 00:23:48:15 intended to eliminate them. And you do also see them in more modern areas like Portcullis House. I remember seeing the little brown blobs scuffling across the dining hall. Anywhere else and you just wouldn't get away with these health and safety issues. But of course Parliament is exempt. Yeah, but I was learning this week in one of the newspapers that increasingly the rodents are resistant to the rodenticides. 00:23:48:17 - 00:24:11:05 So it's going to be a growing problem. That's a political metaphor, struggling to get out of there. But one big problem the Palace has is that it hasn't got a really good conference facility. The biggest room on the estate really is the Attlee Suite in Portcullis House, which is the modern office building across from the Palace. And that only holds about 120 people, 150 people perhaps. 00:24:11:07 - 00:24:39:18 It's not vast and it's not that great as an event facility for external events. Just as an example, when the Parliamentary Partnership Assembly held its meeting - so this is the UK-EU body that was set up as part of the agreements with the EU and the Brexit process and it meets a couple of times a year, sometimes in Brussels, sometimes in London. When it meets in London, as it did just before Christmas 00:24:39:18 - 00:24:58:23 it met in one of the committee rooms and they were freezing. They were sat in their coats and hats because the heating wasn't on properly. The windows don't close properly. And that's the kind of thing where you think actually there ought to be better facilities for this kind of thing. It's internationally embarrassing. It's getting a bit embarrassing. 00:24:59:04 - 00:25:31:04 Onto the next one then. Another anonymous question What is the capacity of Parliament currently that would need to be supported if they were to vacate the Palace of Westminster for repairs? Stuff like offices, staff, dining rooms, bars, press galleries, meeting rooms, committee rooms, etc.? Very big. A very great deal of facilities would have to be recreated somewhere else to keep Parliament operating because there's a whole sort of flying circus around those two chambers with the actual legislators in them that would need to keep going to sort of sustain democracy and make sure it was still reported. 00:25:31:06 - 00:26:02:21 Yeah. Whether you quite need to replicate everything, and you certainly don't necessarily need to replicate it all in the same way. And there are ways of doing things creatively differently, you know, adapting procedures, using technology perhaps for some of these these things. But it would be a big operation. You need a big footprint. And that's been the big challenge with the restoration and renewal process, deciding where could you decant one or both houses to. I love this, I love this word decant. 00:26:02:21 - 00:26:27:01 The MPs and peers would be decanted from Westminster like a fine wine, you know, leaving a bit of a residue at the bottom of the bottle. So the two options that they came up with were Richmond House, which is the old Department of Health building on Whitehall, where the Commons would, the plan was for the Commons to go to, and the QEII Conference Center for the House of Lords. 00:26:27:03 - 00:26:54:10 Now Richmond House would have accommodated the Commons chamber, it would have accommodated, committee rooms, it would have accommodated the press. I'm not sure whether you'd need to accommodate so many tours, visits by schoolchildren. I can't imagine people would be quite as keen to visit what's essentially a bog standard 80's office block as they would be to see the gothic glories of the Victorian Palace of Westminster. 00:26:54:10 - 00:27:22:09 So I think you could probably bite the bullet and say fewer tours, even though the prime reason to go there, I think is to see democracy in action. And one of the reasons to have the locations close to the current palace is so that you could maintain the offices of quite a few of the MPs in Portcullis House in the neighboring Norman Shaw North building so that you didn't have to decant them somewhere else as well. 00:27:22:11 - 00:27:38:08 They wouldn't need to be fixed at the same time as the iconic gothic building. Yeah, so, you know, they could stay in situ, in the offices. You'd have to move some of the offices out that are in the main palace. The Peers could maintain their offices. Some of them are in the palace. 00:27:38:08 - 00:28:10:19 So they'd have to move. But some of them are in neighboring buildings across the road. But this is the problem with the solution that the Jacob Rees-Mogg's of this world have proposed. This idea that the MPs would stay on the estate while the work went on around them and you have this sort of polythene bubble that would protect them all from the sewage and asbestos and you know, all the work on the mechanical electrical engineering work, and the idea that this would be possible. We would lose somethings. 00:28:10:19 - 00:28:35:09 There are questions about whether the press could have access because the worked up proposals suggest that it wouldn't accommodate much, if anything, for the press. There'd be no public access. You'd be watching on television, essentially, you wouldn't be in the chamber anymore. And you miss a lot when you're not in the chamber. You know, the TV feed is not as revealing as being able to crane your neck over in the press gallery and see who's scuffling around in the background, who's talking to who. 00:28:35:11 - 00:29:09:11 And you know, you see the whites of their eyes. Essentially, you get a much better sense of the mood of the house, that elusive part of parliamentary reporting if you're actually in the room, far better than you do if you're relying on where the director is pointing the cameras at any given MP. Yeah, I was once invited in to watch PMQs in the parliamentary press gallery, and it was fascinating, particularly the different angles you get sat above the Speaker's chair than you get in the public gallery at the opposite end of the chamber, in terms of what you see and who's talking to who. It's a quite different experience. 00:29:09:12 - 00:29:36:22 That's absolutely clear and that's part of the reporting of Parliament. That may sound like I'm fussing here and this is just sort of privilege, but getting a sense of the mood, watching the background action is critical to reporting accurately what's actually happening in a legislature. And it can't be done just by watching it on telly. It really, really can't. I know that because I spent, you know, the whole period of the pandemic, watching Parliament down the line. I didn't go into the chamber for ages. 00:29:36:24 - 00:30:16:17 And it's a totally different, much more limiting experience. So, you know, that is a challenge. It is a, it is a huge operation. Thousands of people involved. You know, you've got this combination of parliamentarians, staff, catering staff, security staff, you've got the journalists, you've got the public, you've got the school visits. How do you accommodate all of that in a way that provides a decent level of access, transparency, accountability, whilst ensuring the proceedings can continue? 00:30:16:18 - 00:30:35:24 And the other critical point that you always need to remember is that it's really incredibly important that Parliament is immediately next door to government. Yes, so the ministers can be whistled up to appear in the House if there's a crisis in moments rather than having to hop on the underground or possibly the inter-city train in order to get to wherever Parliament happens to be sitting. 00:30:35:24 - 00:30:58:04 And this is for my mind, the great flaw in the idea that Parliament could be relocated somewhere entirely different outside London. Only if you're going to take the government with it, in my view, because otherwise you are taking Parliament and government apart and they need to be together. Yeah, government needs to be able to listen to Parliament. Parliament needs to be able to listen to government. 00:30:58:05 - 00:31:24:22 Yes, they are fused. The government exists if it commands the confidence of the House of Commons. Ministers have to be present. They have to be available when, MPs want them to answer questions, they have to be available at speed in the event of an emergency or a crisis. Absolutely. And so you don't want to sort of interpose a three hour journey on a train to take them up to York or wherever it might be. 00:31:24:24 - 00:31:44:21 And so that part of the debate, because you often get this, why can't we just move the whole thing somewhere else? You're not talking about just moving 600 people, which is a big enough undertaking on its own. There's a vast amount around it. And then if you're moving it and not all the civil servants and the ministries and the policy core of government alongside it, then you're making it far less effective. 00:31:44:21 - 00:32:21:22 And I go back to the sort of points I was making just now about the virtual parliament. If you break that umbilical cord between the two of them, you've got trouble. Yeah. And one of the things that people like Professor Philip Norton, for example, often talk about is the importance of the informal private spaces of Parliament and what goes on there, in terms of the discussions and the negotiations between ministers and backbenchers, between people within parties, across party lines. All the kind of interactions that we were hearing about from James Arbuthnot when he was talking about the Post Office Horizon scandal, the chances to have consultations and quick words with 00:32:21:22 - 00:32:38:20 ministers in the voting lobby, the chance to get groups of MPs and peers together to tackle the issue. Yes, you know, that goes on behind the scenes that we don't see. You might have seen some of it, Mark, when you were a journalist and stalking the corridors of the Palace. But but a lot of it's below the radar. 00:32:38:20 - 00:33:01:24 A lot of it's below the radar. But it is important. It's what - it's an uncomfortable phrase - but it's what greases the wheels of politics. And it's as vital often as the very public stuff that we see in the chamber and in committees. And if you separate the two - government and parliament - and put them in different locations, you lose that and our politics would change considerably. 00:33:02:03 - 00:33:32:00 Exactly. So. Well, here's another one. Please could you talk about the Wright report. What were the recommendations? How much has been carried out? Are any political parties suggesting fuller implementation? I suppose we better start really with what the Wright report actually was. The Wright report was one of the things that came out of the great parliamentary expenses scandal in the in the 2008-2009 period when all these terrifying abuses of the MP's expenses system came to light. 00:33:32:02 - 00:33:57:18 And it's called the Wright report, because it was to some extent the brainchild of Tony Wright, Labor MP, ex-minister political scientist, and he wrote to Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, saying that parliamentary reform was needed and Gordon Brown put him in charge of a committee to look at reforms that could re-energise Parliament, and rebuild its somewhat shattered credibility in the wake of the expenses scandal. 00:33:57:20 - 00:34:25:23 And he came up with a number of recommendations, some of which have been implemented and some of which haven't. Yes, so there were I suppose there were three core recommendations that emerged from it two of which concern the management of parliamentary, of House of Commons time, its agenda. So a big concern, something we've talked about on previous episodes is that the MPs don't control the agenda of the House of Commons. 00:34:25:23 - 00:34:53:07 The government does. Government business has precedence on the order paper and there was a view that in order for MPs to have credibility, in order for MPs to exert themselves against the Government, in order to hold the government effectively to account, they needed to control their own agenda and they needed to be able to say, we want more time on this bill or we want to debate this on this particular day, or no, we don't think that's important. 00:34:53:07 - 00:35:18:01 So there was a proposal to have a business committee, which was something that had been initially proposed by the Constitution unit at University College London. I think our colleague, Professor Meg Russell, who actually an adviser to the committee. So the Wright committee recommended this. 00:35:18:03 - 00:35:48:11 And it also had a parallel recommendation that there should be what was called a backbench business committee, that backbenchers should have an opportunity to make representations to this committee for how a certain of time reserved each session should be spent by backbenchers able to debate things that they wanted to, that they wanted to raise of concern. And the backbench business committee has had a quite an impact actually on the shape of the parliamentary week. 00:35:48:12 - 00:36:04:20 Most weeks now a Thursday afternoon is taken up with to debates that have been nominated by the Backbench Business Committee on subjects raised by MPs. So the way it works is that there's a kind of Dragon's Den session of the backbench business committee where a group of MPs will go along and it has to be a cross-party group. 00:36:04:20 - 00:36:30:15 It can't just be one particular party pushing its pet course, it has to be a cross-party alliance and they will go along, they'll say, "we think this is a terribly important issue and you should have a debate on it and we'd like primetime on the floor of the House". And for example, it might be on the Post Office Horizon system or it might be on some particular disease and the need to, you know, spend more money investigating a particular type of cancer or something like that. 00:36:30:15 - 00:36:45:24 It might be any anything under the sun really, that the parliamentarians could be concerned about. And so you get these debates and ministers have to give a response at the end of it. And that's the critical bit in a way, lots of MPs get together to say we're concerned about this. What's the government doing? The Minister gives an answer. 00:36:45:24 - 00:37:13:16 MPs may be happy with the answer. Nine times out of ten they're not entirely happy with the answer, but it gets something onto the parliamentary agenda. When this was first implemented in the 2010 Parliament, the then Labor MP Natasha Engel chaired it and as you say, it's sort of like a dragon's den type model where MPs come along and make their case. She invented that model. 00:37:13:16 - 00:37:37:16 It didn't have to be that way, but that was the way she decided it would be with open bidding rather than some sort of behind the scenes, some usual channels secretive arrangement. George Young used to call it Natasha's Salon where the MPs would turn up and make their case. I think in that first Parliament it had a big impact. 00:37:37:18 - 00:38:23:13 It was a big change. There was a lot of interest, some some big debates. My sense is after the 2015 election, the government nobbled the elections to that committee a little bit and and it was muted a little. It's settled down. I mean, it's very striking that the first backbench business committee was absolutely chock a block with hard core conservative Eurosceptics Peter Bone, Philip Hollobone, I think Christopher Chope off the top of my head. But a lot of people there who were very, very much on the Brexiteer wing of the Conservative Party and actually they occasionally used the leverage on the backbench business committee to get sort of Brexiteer points onto the floor of the House. 00:38:23:15 - 00:38:44:17 And it was one of the things that helped lead to the parliamentary maneuvers that pushed David Cameron into conceding that there should indeed be a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU with the consequences that we now see. So that change in structure was fantastically important. But as you say in subsequent parliaments, there's a sense that it's kind of quietened down a bit. 00:38:44:19 - 00:39:17:10 The faction that saw this as an opportunity basically taught the Government whips a bit of a lesson that they're better keep an eye on how this operation was working and make sure that they had a broad range of opinion on it. And so as you say, it's calmed down a little. So yeah, I think in successive parliaments since it's not really taken off and got the profile, the types of debates that perhaps the advocates for the committee back in 2009 anticipated. And they mostly don't lead to votes is the other thing. 00:39:17:10 - 00:39:37:07 I mean sometimes there are resolutions and sometimes those resolutions are a bit contentious and there is a vote, but most of the time it's more of an opportunity to air an issue. And when it holds debates in Westminster Hall, there are never votes in Westminster Hall. So those debates are purely there to get, to air the issue and to get an answer from the minister.

00:39:37:09 - 00:40:02:19 So those are two of the recommendations, the House Business Committee, which hasn't happened because I think the David Cameron's coalition government initially said it was committed to it, but somehow never got around to actually doing it and then eventually backed away from it. And the backbench business committee, which did happen. And the third big area that they dealt with was select committees, and they made some very big changes there. 00:40:02:24 - 00:40:30:16 Yes. So the big change was the decision that select committee chairs should be elected by the House and select committee members should be elected within the party groups. So I think that has changed both the profile and the approach to the job that select committee chairs have taken. They have to get support for their nomination not just from their own party, but on a cross-party basis. 00:40:30:16 - 00:41:03:21 So they are appealing to the House, not just to their own particular party colleagues, and that affects how they see their role and their accountability. And it has strengthened them as individual institutional actors. The most visible sign of that is that usually if there's a government statement on a particular issue, there'll be the government frontbencher will make the statement, the opposition will respond, the third party will get a word in and the next person called is usually the chair of the select committee. 00:41:03:21 - 00:41:23:04 It slightly depends where in the batting order they are. It depends on which party they're in. The chair of the select committee is always called fairly early on in those debates if they're present. The other dynamic that this brings in is the way that MPs choose chair of select committee. So what happens, first of all, is that the select committees are divvied up between the parties according to their strength in the Commons. 00:41:23:04 - 00:41:52:15 So if a government's got 50% of the MPs, then it will get 50% of the chairs. And they will be allocated particular committees. So you will know which party will supply the chair for, say, the Home Affairs Committee. If you have a Conservative chairing a particular committee and you have maybe four Conservative, four or five Conservative MPs all vying for that job, then actually the decisive factor is how the opposition parties vote. 00:41:52:17 - 00:42:15:12 And so what you tend to get is the opposition parties choosing the Conservative MP who they think is going to cause the government most trouble. And similarly, when you've got a Labour person or several Labour candidates, the Government MPs will then think, which is the most interesting, shall we say, Labour candidate to have chairing that particular committee. 00:42:15:14 - 00:42:34:07 And so there's quite a little dynamic there and it has been, if you like, the rise of the troublemakers to some extent, the people who are going to have the most interesting things to do. So when Boris Johnson was Prime Minister, I suspect that a lot of Labour MPs thought that Jeremy Hunt chairing the Health Select Committee would be real trouble for Boris Johnson. 00:42:34:07 - 00:43:04:00 So they voted for Jeremy Hunt. It's been a theme of the podcast, though, that select committees are struggling to to get some some of their seats filled - not chairs but members - and it's been a theme that attendance is not what it was. So again, I think the aspirations of the Wright committee back in 2009-10 in respect of committee chairs, have probably been largely met. 00:43:04:00 - 00:43:31:20 But I think in terms of the wider membership of committees, there's a sort of been a falling off in recent years. And that's a product of the pandemic Parliament, it's a product of several quick general elections. It's been a product of the level of ministerial turnover and so on. There are lots of factors. But I think there's a feeling that select committees are not quite as hot an operation as they were in the 2010 and 2015 Parliaments. 00:43:31:24 - 00:43:52:10 A sense of not firing on all cylinders. But they are still places where an effective MP can really make their name. You know, you get the viral clip of you as an MP questioning some villain about something they've done wrong and putting them really on the spot. Now this can turn into quite gratuitous grandstanding or just chucking around insults 00:43:52:10 - 00:44:08:20 if it becomes silly and if the chair lets it. Then sometimes chairs have to sort of calm things down a bit. But it can also be a moment where you really put someone on the spot and get a lot of attention for yourself as a Member of Parliament. And of course, attention is one of the currencies of Parliament. 00:44:08:22 - 00:44:37:01 Yes. And the other bit that the Wright committee came up with was the idea of having an e-petition system for Parliament, a way of getting concerns from outside of the parliamentary sphere altogether before MPs, get an answer from ministers. It was partly modeled, I think on the fact that the Scottish Parliament, when it was set up, created a quite effective petitions committee and MPs down in Westminster began to look rather enviously on its activities. 00:44:37:01 - 00:45:06:22 And now we have a Petitions Committee that's really quite a big part of the parliamentary ecosystem. At the time of course there was the Number Ten e-petition system, but those petitions didn't really go anywhere or nothing was achieved off the back of them. And initially what was proposed was bringing those in as a parliamentary petition system and linking them to parliamentary proceedings so that they could be considered, so that there could be a response. 00:45:06:24 - 00:45:53:21 And it took quite a while for it to be bedded in. Initially it was still effectively run, run by the government, but whilst being a parliamentary process. In fact the Hansard Society was involved with the Backbench Business Committee, with Natasha Engel's committee in trying to broker a deal with the then Leader of the House of Commons, the Government Digital Service and the Backbench Business Committee, because at the time a lot of these petitions that were breaking through the thresholds, the signature thresholds for debates, were not actually getting debated because the Government had got control of the timetable, of the agenda and it decided when debates would be scheduled. 00:45:53:21 - 00:46:15:07 And so the Backbench Business Committee hadn't got control over that process. And the other thing that was happening was that a lot of these petitions, because they were very popular, you know, they were by organized media campaigns, particularly from outlets like the Daily Mail that were driving some of these petitions. But the government had access to the data of who these petitioners were. 00:46:15:09 - 00:46:31:12 Parliament didn't. So there was a problem. How could the Backbench Business Committee and MPs communicate with the petitioners when they didn't have access to the data? So it was all a bit of a mess. And what I discovered to my shock was that Natasha Engel and George Young, the Leader of the House of Commons, had not sat down in a room together to discuss this at any point. 00:46:31:14 - 00:46:59:22 They had sort of been talking past each other and so I was asked if the Society could broker a discussion round the table and get everybody involved. And we were acting as a sort of convener, honest broker. We produced a paper out of this seminar that took place one lunchtime. And a lot of the proposals that emerged out of that discussion were subsequently implemented then by the Procedure Committee, recommended by the Procedure Committee in the House of Commons, and then emerged in the 2015 Parliament with the Petitions Committee. 00:46:59:23 - 00:47:27:12 So that's the model we've got now. So it did work, but it took some time to get there. So that's turned into quite an important part of the workings of Parliament. Very quick last question for you. To what extent are written parliamentary questions performative? This is from Martin Thomson. The answers are so often cursory, following edits by Spads, that's ministerial special advisers, that it seems their only purpose is to raise a flag with constituents and ministers that an MP is taking an interest in a certain topic. 00:47:27:18 - 00:47:49:09 There seems to be little scope in obtaining substantive answers with such perfunctory replies. Well, I agree with him on the point about them being perfunctory, they often are. I think actually the quality of the responses has been declining. You read some of them and you think, you know, really that's the best you can do? On the other hand, you sometimes look at the questions and you think actually that is something you could have Googled. 00:47:49:11 - 00:48:13:02 You know, there are an awful lot of MPs and MPs staff putting in lots of written questions and these have a cost attached to them. And they are putting in questions that are frankly pretty basic and that they could get the answers through other means, whether that's a House of Commons library or somewhere else. So I can understand to some extent that perhaps ministers in the civil service get a bit teed off with some of the questions. 00:48:13:04 - 00:48:28:08 But one of the issues with them is sometimes the length of time it takes to get a reply, even if it then turns out to be perfunctory. And sometimes you've got such a ministerial turnover that you can go through several ministers before one of them has the time to sign off an official answer. 00:48:28:08 - 00:48:46:02 But I suppose the thinking here is that is that the machine will be alerted when it's certain people are asking the questions. I mean, if you start getting a barrage of questions from someone like David Davis or Stella Creasy, then you start to think, well, what case are they trying to build here? What's going to come out? What are we going to be ambushed with later on? 00:48:46:02 - 00:49:15:21 So some people will attract a lot of attention when they ask questions. But as you say, a lot of them are performative. And the other thing is that this is an election year, and the opposition will be using this to try and get some data and some statistics that they can use in the in the campaign to come. Well, that's all from us for this week's episode of Parliament Matters, Please hit the follow or subscribe button in your podcast app to get the next episode as soon as it lands. And help us to make the podcast better 00:49:15:21 - 00:49:42:21 by leaving a rating or review on Apple or Spotify and sharing your feedback, our producer tells us it's important for the algorithm to give the show a boost. Oh Mark, tell us more about the algorithm. What do I know about algorithms. You know, I write my scripts with a quill pen on vellum and then send it in by carrier pigeon. Well, before we go, a quick reminder also that you can send us your questions on all things Parliament by visiting 00:49:42:23 - 00:50:14:00 We'll be discussing them in future episodes, including our special Urgent Questions editions dedicated to what you want to know about Parliament. And you can find us across social media @Hansard Society to get more content related to the show and the wider work of the Hansard Society. Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. 00:50:14:06 - 00:50:25:20 For more information, visit or find us on social media @HansardSociety. Parliament Matters is produced by the Hansard Society with the support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, a Quaker trust which engages in philanthropy and supports work on democratic accountability.

Subscribe to Parliament Matters

Use the links below to subscribe to the Hansard Society's Parliament Matters podcast on your preferred app, or search for 'Parliament Matters' on whichever podcasting service you use. If you are unable to find our podcast, please email us here.

Blog / How should Parliament handle the Seventh Carbon Budget - and why does it matter?

The Climate Change Act 2008 established a framework for setting carbon budgets every five years. But the role of Parliament in approving these budgets has been widely criticised, including by the Prime Minister. The Environmental Audit Committee has proposed improvements in the scrutiny process to ensure effective climate action, particularly in the context of the UK’s commitment to achieving 'Net Zero' emissions by 2050. These reforms will significantly alter the way Parliament handles the Seventh Carbon Budget in 2025.

18 Apr 2024
Read more

News / Tobacco and Vapes Bill: free vote blows smoke in Rishi Sunak's eyes - Parliament Matters podcast, Episode 30

Rishi Sunak offered his MPs a free vote on his flagship Tobacco and Vapes Bill and dozens concluded they could not support it. As well as exploring the politics of the Bill, Ruth and Mark discuss the concept of a free vote and how they have been deployed in previous parliamentary sessions.

19 Apr 2024
Read more

Guides / Private Members' Bills (PMBs)

Private Members' Bills (PMBs) are bills introduced by MPs and Peers who are not government ministers. The procedures, often a source of controversy, are different to those that apply for government bills. Below are 7 short guides that explain key aspects of the process, as well as data on the number of PMBs that are successful each Session, and our proposals for reform of the PMB system.

Read more

Blog / Two Houses go to war: the Safety of Rwanda Bill and the origins of the Parliament Act

The Parliament Act is being bandied about in the media again in connection with the Rwanda Bill. This blogpost explains why the Parliament Act cannot be used in relation to the Rwanda Bill and looks at the origins and key features of the Act to place the current debate about the role of the House of Lords in its historical context.

25 Mar 2024
Read more

Blog / Creeping ministerial powers: the example of the Tobacco and Vapes Bill

The Government’s flagship Tobacco and Vapes Bill will ban the sale of tobacco to anyone born after 2009. The genesis of the delegated powers in the Bill – dating back a decade - tells an important story about the way in which incomplete policy-making processes are used by Ministers to seek ‘holding’ powers in a Bill, only for that precedent to then be used to justify further, broader powers in subsequent Bills. This ‘creeping’ effect in the legislative process undermines parliamentary scrutiny of ministerial action.

15 Apr 2024
Read more