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Topical Debates

Volume 477: debated on Thursday 19 June 2008

19. When she expects to complete the review of the procedures for selection of the subject matter for topical debates. (212155)

The results of the review on topical debates will be published to the House before the summer recess. That will help to inform any decision of the House on whether to make permanent the Standing Orders that introduced topical debates on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session, and whether any changes to the Standing Orders may be necessary.

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Lady for that helpful and informative reply. Does she not believe that the House as a whole should have more of a say, in a transparent way, in the selection of the subject for the topical debate? At the moment, the decision lies exclusively with her and the Government. Should it not involve a small committee representing parties across the House, so that the debates are genuinely topical and supported by a majority of the House?

The decision on the choice for the topical debate rests with me, as Leader of the House, because that is what the House decided, by way of resolution, should be the system for picking the topical debate. That arrangement is subject to review, because, as I have said, it was introduced on an experimental basis. In order to increase transparency and at the request of a number of hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman, we have introduced greater transparency even ahead of the review’s findings, publishing a list of the requests that have been made to me as Leader of the House. I remind the House that I am at pains to ensure that I approach this as business of the House, even though it is Government time. For example, a request was made to me at last week’s business questions for a debate on eco-towns, and that is exactly what we will be debating as the subject of this afternoon’s topical debate.

Debating time in the House’s two Chambers is in short supply, and the initiative of topical debates has been a useful way of widening the range of debates and increasing the number of people who contribute. On the related area of the 90-minute debates in Westminster Hall, could we examine ways of making those a more effective weapon in this place? Far too often, people who have bid for debates, which are granted by Mr. Speaker in good faith, come along with no one else to speak to the matter in hand, and that cannot be the most effective use of Westminster Hall time.

Westminster Hall debates, be they on Select Committee matters, at the initiative of private Members or Government-sponsored debates, have proved a useful additional debating forum for hon. Members to raise issues of concern, but I think that we could further consider the use of Westminster Hall—for example, it is not used on Mondays. I shall take my hon. Friend’s question as a prompt for further consideration and report back to the House on how that might be undertaken.

The Leader of the House said that she would treat this as a House matter, but can she tell us how many times the subject for the topical debate has happened to be the subject about which the Prime Minister has made a speech earlier in the week?

Well, I have not got the actual list, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I follow the Standing Orders, and the letter and spirit of the resolution, and consider whether the debate is topical; whether it is an issue of concern or national importance; and whether there have been other opportunities to debate the issue in the House. The questions that have been the subject of topical debates come from both sides of the House. Sometimes they coincide with an issue on which the Prime Minister has put forward a proposal, but they often do not.

On what basis does the Leader of the House, under the current procedures, decide on some Mondays that life is so uneventful that we do not need a topical debate at all?

I do not decide not to have a topical debate because life is uneventful. It is a question of what other business we might have that the House wants to debate. For example, on 3 July, the Foreign Secretary will lead a debate on Zimbabwe and we will also debate Members’ allowances. Sometimes I take the view that issues of concern need a full day for debate, and that should be the priority for the House. It is not that there is no issue of topicality that the House might want to debate, but that on that day there is another issue that we will want to spend the whole day debating. If there is any particular Thursday that the right hon. Gentleman wishes to raise, because he thinks that we should have had a topical debate but did not, he should do so.

I should point out that there is a dearth of proposals for topical debates. I would not want anyone to get the impression that there is a vast number of topical debate requests that I ignore in favour of a topic chosen by the Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Well, that is absolutely not the case. Hon. Members are being cynical, but instead of their snorting cynicism, they should make some proposals for topical debates.