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Sittings in Westminster Hall

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

I beg to move,

That–

(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the House to appoint not more than four members of the Panel of Chairs to sit in Westminster Hall as Deputy Speaker be repealed (First Report, paragraph 34); and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with effect from the start of the next Parliament, Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall) accordingly be repealed and replaced with the following revised standing order: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.

I will follow the example set by the Chair of the Procedure Committee by being equally brief. We welcome the fact that the Government have found time to debate not just this but two other reports. We are disappointed, however, that time has not been found to debate the report on private Members’ Bills. I hope the Minister will tell us when we will debate the report, which suggests sensible, modernising steps that were agreed unanimously by the Committee, which also entered into a negotiation on them with the Government over an extended period.

I pay tribute to the Chair of the Committee, of which I am also a member. I am disappointed that the Government have not accepted the recommendation to switch Monday and Thursday sittings. I have always found the Leader of the House to be incredibly humorous, none more so than when he told the Committee that the Government were keen to preserve Thursday as a full day of business. Having attended many Thursday sittings, I am not sure that they are a fair reflection of all the business timetabled and I still believe it would be more helpful to colleagues for important Select Committee debates to take place on Monday afternoons and for e-petitions to be discussed on Thursdays.

In the spirit of going forward, however, we welcome the fact that the Government have accepted the other changes, particularly the useful innovation of one-hour debates. My recollection is that the proposal was for Opposition Front-Bench contributions to be very brief, but our position is that such debates would operate in the same way as a one-and-a-half-hour debate. Oppositions tend to have substantive policy—we certainly do—and it would be unfair to try to cram that into a few brief remarks.

I thank the Chair of the Committee for the way in which he set out the report and the Government for finding the time for the debate. I hope the motion can be agreed without dissent.

I support the motion in the name of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and that of the Chair of the Procedure Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker), relating to business in Westminster Hall.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on receiving his OBE at the Palace today, and I am grateful to him for returning to the Chamber. I know he has been keen for the House to consider and decide on the outstanding work of his Committee before Dissolution. I am pleased that we have been able to facilitate that this afternoon.

We will consider three of the outstanding reports of the Procedure Committee today, but there is further House business to attend to, including reports by the Procedure and the Standards and Privileges Committees, the Standing Order changes necessary to bring into effect the recommendations of the House of Commons Governance Committee report, and the House of Commons Commission Bill that we have just considered. I expect there to be further opportunities for the House to consider those issues before 30 March, and it is the Government’s intention to provide time for those outstanding reports—including the report on private Members’ Bills—that have been agreed, so that those issues on which there is a wide consensus can be resolved before the end of the Parliament. I stress the importance of there being a wide consensus.

I have listened carefully to the Deputy Leader of the House’s choice of words. It is our view, with the best will in the world, that a wide consensus is not the same as a Government veto. If the Government do not like a substantive part of the report on private Members’ Bills, they should say so publicly, which, ironically enough, is one of the things that the report seeks to get them to do in relation to private Members’ Bills. The Government simply not wanting to table a motion is not an excuse for not debating the issue in the House. The House is supreme and it should decide, not the Government.

I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has had to say. He has now made two forceful bids for that report to be debated. It is worth underlining, however, that the hon. Gentleman will be as aware as anyone of the range of views on the issue of private Members’ Bills and how the process could be improved, ameliorated or changed.

Given that we have strayed into the area of private Members’ Bills, I shall be brief, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I know this is slightly naughty. The Government’s opposition to so much of that report seems implacable, so it is probably best that it is not debated in this Session, unless that opposition relents.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification and apparent counter-bid to block any proposal to debate that particular report.

I would now like to move on to the motion and thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he set it out. The motion is the result of the Procedure Committee’s “Business in Westminster Hall” report, published in October 2014, and the follow-up report, which included the Government response and a revised Standing Order No. 10, published in January.

I am grateful to the Chair of the Committee for the comprehensive way in which he set out the implications for the House of agreeing the motion. I am also grateful for the work of the Committee and pleased that the report recognises that the Government accepted the majority of the recommendations in the original report.

The changes that will be introduced if the House approves the motion represent a sensible package of evolutionary changes to the work conducted in the second Chamber. Westminster Hall has proved itself as a valued resource since its introduction in 1999. Indeed, I can confirm that I used to make extensive use of Westminster Hall, usually for debates on the future of my local hospital, St Helier, on which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) and I continue to campaign to this day, although that is not the purpose of this debate. The changes will, I hope, add further to the status of Westminster Hall. We have already seen some of the changes during this Parliament. For example, the use of additional time on Mondays for the consideration of e-petitions by the Backbench Business Committee is testament to the sort of valuable work that is conducted in Westminster Hall.

The Procedure Committee’s recommendation for the provision of one-hour debates on Tuesdays and Wednesdays—by extending sittings for half an hour—will provide useful additional flexibility and is a welcome recognition of anecdotal evidence that many Members who wish to raise issues feel constrained by the limits of a 30-minute debate, but would not necessarily wish to apply for a 90-minute debate. That change will be welcomed by Members, without placing additional onerous requirements on Ministers and Opposition spokespeople. The arrangements set out in chapter 2 of the Committee’s original report, to provide an opportunity for Opposition spokespeople to participate in such debates, are sensible, although my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne will have heard a request from the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) for clarification on the precise role that Opposition spokespeople will play. I and others would certainly appreciate clarity from the Procedure Committee on whether the proposal is optional or the Member who has initiated the debate will have to request it.

Similarly, the changes that mean that debates in Westminster Hall will be considered on neutral general motions, not Adjournment motions, is entirely sensible. Clearly, there are people among the wider public who understand what an Adjournment motion is, but I suspect the overwhelming majority of members of the public, and perhaps Members of Parliament, would be more comfortable with “general motions” as a clear description of what is being debated.

On speeches by Opposition Front Benchers, the report says that

“so long as they are brief we recommend that Opposition spokespeople be able to participate in hour-long debates in Westminster Hall. We trust that Chairs in Westminster Hall, backed by the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Panel of Chairs, will offer robust guidance to Opposition spokespeople on the appropriate length of their speeches.”

It is not the Committee’s intention that Opposition spokespeople get the same amount of time as a Minister.

I thank my hon. Friend for that clarification, although it still leaves slightly open the question of whether it is optional. The Chair could choose not to allow the Opposition spokesman or woman to speak. I am sure that can be clarified in the future.

Many in the House are keen that our work is as open and transparent to members of the public as possible, and this is a small step in the direction of giving the House’s procedures greater clarity and consistency.

The Government did not agree with three issues in the original report. Those issues are set out in the Government response and the subsequent report containing the revised recommendations. I am grateful to the Committee for being willing to accept the Government’s view on those issues, and for bringing before the House a set of proposals that should have widespread support from across the House.

With regard to the use of substantive motions in Westminster Hall, the Government agree that the main Chamber is the proper place for debates on amendable business, not least in view of the practical difficulties surrounding voting in Westminster Hall. The Government do not wish to rule out the possibility of taking some substantive business in Westminster Hall at some point—for example, to remove pressure on the Chamber—but much more work would need to be undertaken on the practical and procedural implications. For that reason, the Government did not support the recommendations of the Committee for the repeal of paragraphs (9) and (12) of Standing Order No. 10, although we accept that those provisions have not been used.

The Committee recommended that the current sittings on Mondays and Thursdays be swapped so that Select Committee debates chosen by the Liaison Committee and Back-Bench debates would be taken on a Monday, and any debates on e-petitions would be scheduled on a Thursday. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife said, the Government are committed to maintaining the integrity of Thursday as a full parliamentary day, which I hope all Members of the House will respect. The Committee’s proposals, which the Government could not support, would send a contrary signal, particularly given that there would be no business in Westminster Hall on many Thursdays.

The Committee proposed an earlier start and finish time in Westminster Hall on Thursdays. Without evidence of widespread support for this measure, the Government opposed it. I am grateful to the Committee for deciding not to press that proposal.

I again thank the Committee for its work. I ask the House to support the motion. If approved, the new Standing Order would be introduced at the start of the next Parliament.