Evidence on Times of Sittings, 1966 (oral)

The following oral evidence was taken by the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure and published with its First Report, Session 1966-67, HC 153, The times of sittings of the House, with the Minutes of Evidence of 6 July 1966, pp 50-65. See also the written evidence.


Morning Sitting

Members present:

Mr. Donald Chapman, in the Chair.

Mr. H. P. G. Channon. Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth.
Mr. Denis Coe. Mr. David Steel.
Mr. James A. Dunn. Mr. R. H. Turton.
Mr. Selwyn Lloyd. Dame Irene Ward.
Mr. John P. Mackintosh. :  Mr. A. Woodburn.

Letter from Sir Edward Fellowes, K.C.B., C.M.G., M.C., to the Clerk of the Committee.

Examination of Witnesses

Sir EDWARD FELLOWES, K.C.B., C.M.G., M.C., formerly Clerk of the House of Commons, and Professor BERNARD CRICK, Professor of Political Theory and Institutions in the University of Sheffield, called in and examined.


222. Sir Edward and Professor Crick, thank you very much indeed for coming this morning. We should like to say at the outset how much we value the comments and help that the Study of Parliament Group give to us on the various subjects we tackle from time to time and we are grateful to your Group for being so interested in all that we are doing. I understand that you are here more as individuals this morning because the Group has presented some evidence to the Procedure Committee in a previous Session more or less covering this issue. Would you make clear the capacity in which you are here this morning?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) Perhaps I may say that the Group presented its ideas on what business should be transacted at morning sittings in the context of a considered scheme of reform of Parliamentary procedure and in that context we still adhere to the views expressed by the Group but in the existing context, in the context of things as they are, we would, if we may, give our views as individuals and not on behalf of the Study Group.

223. Following what you have just said, in its original evidence the Group suggested quite far-reaching reforms in the sending of report stages to committees and it was as a result of this far-reaching reform, really, that you were recommending two morning sittings a week for other purposes. As I understand it, and perhaps you will correct me if I am wrong, your letter of 23rd June is now suggesting, if we take the more limited objective of making some changes within the present system of Parliament’s method of working and functioning, that we might try, say, a Wednesday morning sitting. Under the suggestions that you make, looking at the paragraphs that are quoted from your earlier report, it seems to me that the chief beneficiary of your suggestion would be back bench Members who would have 50 hours a year, that is half of the total given in paragraph 23, of extra adjournment debate time, and the chief loser under your scheme would be the Government who would lose their Wednesday afternoon sitting. Have I put the position correctly?—-Not absolutely, Sir, because I think my recommendation would be that the House should use the Standing Order for adjourning after Questions on Wednesdays during the busy committee time of the year. It would still be possible to have a morning sitting on Wednesday and for the Government to refuse to adjourn the House because they had other business before it for the afternoon. I would prefer to see the House adjourn because I think it is so much better for other purposes but my scheme for Wednesday mornings would still hold good even if the House had to sit in the afternoon for Government business, so I do not think the Government would necessarily be the loser.

224. But the other half of what I put is correct, is it, that the main beneficiary would be the back benchers who would have extra adjournment time?—-Yes, and have rather better time for some other business.

225. Now, would you comment on the proposition that instead of the back benchers being the chief beneficiaries the balance of the morning time (which you show will be available from the figures you have given) should be taken for other things such as the report stages of non-controversial Bills which are tending increasingly to come on after 10 o’clock at night, with the aim of getting the House up earlier in the evening?—-My first reaction to that, Sir, is that non-controversial Bills are very difficult of precise definition and you might well find that a Bill which you put down for a morning sitting as non-controversial turned out subsequently to be more controversial than you expected. Alternatively, if you are only to put down non-controversial business, would you get the attendance of Members at a time when they might be very much looked at by the general public?

226. If we had the aim of getting the House up earlier at night, is there any amendment or change in your scheme that you can think of which would help to achieve that aim?—-Well, Sir, I am certain you will not really succeed in getting the House up at a regular time until it ceases discussing the details of legislation on the floor of the House because it is those stages which are incapable of being ended by a single closure. On a Second or Third Reading motion it is understood that there is a certain time given for it and the thing can be finished with the closure.

227. You suggest postponing voting until the evening on any business taken in the morning. You suggest that any vote required should be held over until the end of the day’s debates. Please correct me from your experience if I wrong but is it not rather a bad principle to divorce decisions from debates in this way? Let us take one example, the example of private business. Would it not be rather a strange situation for the House at 7 o’clock, or 9 or 10 o’clock at night to be voting on some matter referring, say, to the Liverpool Corporation Bill if Members who had come in during the day had not been present at the debate and knew nothing about that matter?—-I agree that this is a device, really, intended to get away from the difficulty of non-controversial business which, after all, rests in no-one’s hands except those of one cantankerous Member at any given time. Of course, I do not wholly like it but nevertheless I do make a provision by which the House would be informed by one speech on each side being allowed on each item of business on which there was to be a division so that the House would have a summary of the arguments.

Mr. Woodburn.

228. A sort of rapporteur?—-Yes.


229. You advocate time limits for speeches in the mornings. Would you say whether you would recommend time limits for items of business, for example, 1½ to 2 hours for an affirmative resolution in the way in which we now have limited time taken for Prayers at the end of business?—-I think there might be a case for that, Sir, at whatever time they come on–whether at a morning sitting or an evening sitting.

230. Now may I address some questions to Professor Crick. Would you start by giving your own point of view on all the matters we are discussing?—-(Professor Crick.) I think the time of session is almost solely a matter for the convenience of the Members themselves and I cannot see any public interest in whatever set of hours the House chooses to sit as distinct from how it uses any extra sitting time Members may find themselves. I am slightly worried by the assumption being made that Sir Edwards’ proposals and the proposals put before you by the Lord President of the Council are simply, if this is not too crude a way of putting it, rival schemes for jacking forward the sitting time so that Members can go home earlier. That may be very admirable but I am rather frightened that by making that kind of use of a morning sitting–let us assume that there will be morning sittings three days a week–one may be pre-empting future decisions which will come before this Committee in a way which will be rather hard to go back on. The original evidence now looks more than slightly unrealistic in that I do not think that debates on reports of Royal Commissions and Select Committees alone would be enough to fill the morning. Other categories of business can be introduced but there are certain things that do not get debated enough. I do see that there is some possibility of further use being made of committees and in both these cases, whether these are reformed legislative committees or whether there is greater use made of committees of the kind that the Prime Minister indicated earlier in the Session, the natural time would be in the morning. But I am frightened that if you jack the sitting forward attendance at committees would suffer very greatly or, if the decision is simply to jack back the time-table into the morning, something very important must be put there, perhaps Question time itself. Attendance in the mornings is a fairly weak thing on Standing Committees, anyway. Perhaps I can put one figure to you and supply the Committee with a table afterwards. I have put a table on page 84 of my book giving the frequency of attendances. In the Session 1961-62 one finds that about 433 people were summoned and 368 attended at least once. Looking at the Session 1964-65, a new Parliament with a new majority, and the Labour Party is supposed to care more for these things, one got more Members summoned and attending at least once, 478, but if one looks at the frequency of attendance, one sees that there has been a startling decline. Whereas in the 1961-62 Session 112 Members attended more than 20 times, and perhaps this is something approaching regularity, in the Session 1964-65 it was only 79 Members. Taking the weekly attendances as more than 30, allowing a week off, in the 1961-62 Session it was 70 Members and in the 1964-65 Session it was 38 Members. I must admit to a worry that if the morning is used to save Government time I do not see how it can be done effectively without looking at the whole context of the business before you. If you simply move it forward you will find no time left or people to fulfil the other functions before you.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd.

231. Have you those figures in percentages–percentages of times summoned?—-I can provide them and put them before the Committee.


232. I see your worry about the proposition made by the Lord President but can you just say to what extent you think that any experiment on the times he indicated would prejudice the sort of reforms that the Study of Parliament Group was advocating in its main paper to the last Committee?—-Although this may be a weak fear and possibly a reflection on the common sense of Members, I would have a fear that once you have done something so fundamental as moving into the morning there would be an attitude of letting it all go for three or four years. I would have thought that if you were going to bite the apple it would be better to take a large bite in one place and, if you move to the morning, find some time, if only an hour, when the Chamber would regularly adjourn for committee work or for those kinds of matters which do not get debated enough on which the other House so often steals your thunder–on an advisory committee report, for instance. I think it would have considerable public value that these things would be done. If the objection then is that it is adding to the time-table, we have to go round in a circle and it depends what you have to say about legislation. If you can save time on legislation you answer both questions at once.

233. Then in the present context you would not recommend any experiment at all without considerable procedural reforms on the broader lines advocated by the Study of Parliament Group?—-I think that procedure should be the master of time and not time the master of procedure. It is for you to make up your minds what you want to do and then say that you propose to do it. I suspect that the objectives for morning sittings are purely political and that is rather beyond the competence of an outside witness. If the object is not political then I have grave fears that you will be prejudicing any future recommendations you might make if you do this now.

234. I have one final question. A number of Members who have written in to us have selected the desirability of getting home earlier at night on at least some days in the week as an important objective. Have either of you any suggestions that might help us to reach this objective within the House’s present system of working and functioning?—-It seems to me that this does take us to the question of legislation. It seems to me that it is the unpredictability of the committee stage which is the key to getting home at night and if that went upstairs the business would be easier. But, of course, it all depends on the Government. You may be asking for something you cannot be given. The Lord President of the Council had to say realistically that the Government might occasionally have to go beyond 8.30 or 9 o’clock and that a 1 o’clock adjournment might occasionally have to be moved. In worrying too much about the time of the working day you are asking, perhaps, for something you cannot have unless the whole House weighs on the Government that this is highly unpopular. This is beyond procedural control. As soon as you have procedural control you have to have exceptions for urgent business. May I make a general and possibly improper comment and say that the actual burden of working hours of Members of Parliament is exaggerated? It is rather odd to the universities, for instance, that those on a 30-week term seem more aggrieved about not having a normal working day during those 30 weeks than those working on a longer term basis. It is almost in the nature of the job that the length of day proves unpredictable for a rather, perhaps, over-predictable period of the year. This is getting in to rather strange waters but it is rather strange that the Session has to be of a limited period rather than that the House should re-convene for a few weeks in the summer, if the business requires it or attach a week here or a week there. (Sir Edward Fellowes.) On the hours of rising, the fact is that the House originally sat for unlimited hours, then a midnight limitation was imposed by which there was supposed to be an end of business at midnight, then it was moved back to 11 o’clock, which it was when I first came into the service of the House, and then it was moved to 10.30 but I think the upshot has always been the same. The House sits very nearly the same number of hours with the time fixed at 10.30 as it did when it was midnight. (Professor Crick.) I think possibly the more real grievance is of the distribution of work among Members rather than the absolute hours sometimes involved and it is in some ways a sad thing that when I hear Members of Parliament protesting informally about the unnaturally long hours I find that in two times out of three these protests come from Members who are fairly regular in morning attendance.

Mr. Turton.

235. You said you had given consideration to the question of whether there might not be an adequate attendance of Members at a time which would be very much looked at by the general public. From your long experience of the House, Sir Edward, if in the morning the House was considering the matters (a) to (g) in paragraph 16 of your Memorandum, do you think you would get a very full attendance of Members?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) I think it would vary from time to time but Prayers, for instance, and sometimes opposed private business, does attract a fair number or a reasonable number of Members. It might well be that private Members’ adjournments coming on at a time when far more publicity would be obtainable would attract a reasonable number. The time spent on items (a) to (f) would vary very considerably and there might be times when the adjournment would be reached quite early in the proceedings and it might well be that a number of Members would want to speak on that.

236. You would be satisfied, therefore, that on occasions you would get a crowded House on those items?—-Not a crowded House, no, but a reasonable attendance.

237. It would be very unfortunate from the point of view of the respect in which this House is held in the country if the Chamber was empty on this morning?—-Yes, I think it would be a little.

238. You were asked by the Chairman whether you advocated time limits for statutory instruments on the analogy of Prayers. There is no time limit for Prayers, is there?—-Yes, surely, is there not? What I was referring to was that they had to be finished by a certain hour.

239. Surely the rule about Prayers in any one day is that they cannot go on for longer than 1½ hours; if they do, or someone wishes to go on with them, they are automatically adjourned until another day. Is that so?—-Is it not at the Speaker’s discretion?


240. Is it not if the Speaker thinks the matter requires further debate?—-I thought it was at the discretion of the Speaker.

Mr. Turton.

241. If the Prayer is not concluded by a division it cannot go on on another day?—-No, if the Speaker thinks that it should it can go over. I think I do remember the Speaker twice adjourning Prayers when they were second on the list because he thought they had not been given sufficient time.

Chairman.] May I just give the Standing Order on Prayers. It is that if the motion is under consideration at 11.30 Mr. Speaker shall forthwith put any question which may be requisite to bring it to a decision, provided that he shall not do so if he is of the opinion that it has not been adequately debated or the subject is too big for the time it has had. That is the position, I think.

242. My third question is, what do you think should be our object when we are considering times of sitting of the House? Is it so that Members can get home early, or is it to make time for the more important matters not discussed which Professor Crick was talking about, or what is the object?—-The primary object should not be to enable Members to go home earlier. The business of the House is the criterion and Members’ convenience is subject to the efficient performance of the business of the House. I would have thought that the object of extending sitting to the morning would have been to do some sort of business which would have been got rid of by the afternoon, thereby making more time available for the afternoon’s business.

243. It would be taken in the evening. If you are removing what is normally taken after 10, is that in fact carrying out your purpose?—-Yes, partly because I think that business taken after 10 tends perhaps, theoretically, to be less efficiently performed than business taken at more reasonable hours.

244. On the question of the Finance Bill in Committee, can you state what your views are as to how we are to get over the difficulty of the interminable all-night sitting?—-I have always recommended that the Finance Bill should go upstairs.

Mr. Woodburn.

245. The phrase “jacking back” the proceedings has been suggested; it has been suggested that we are moving en bloc two hours earlier. On the Finance Bill that means moving from 5 o’clock in the morning to 3 o’clock in the morning. Do either of you think that changing the whole procedure of the House of Commons would be justified by this particular manoeuvre of jacking back for two hours from 5 o’clock to 3 o’clock in the morning?—-My proposals, as far as I can see, or the alternative, would not give that relief because no contentious business would be taken in the morning.

246. Is it not the case that it is nothing to do with the amount of business that takes us on to 5 or 6 in the morning; it is the contentiousness of the House, who want to discuss details, or they can prolong it by filibustering or the Government can put forward more business than can be got through. Would it not be true to say, in your opinion, that it is not so much a matter of arranging the time-table or arranging the business between the Government and the Opposition but that the time-table is not controllable by any kind of recommendations made by us or anything else?—-From my experience I rather doubt whether the time-table is controllable at all because the Opposition have certain rights. They have the right to force the Government to stay late if they want to get business through within what the Government considers be a reasonable time and, ultimately, of course, to force them to use the guillotine if they cannot get their business through in reasonable time without it. Therefore I think that the moment you get a Bill which is hotly disputed between the two sides of the House and you are content to discuss the details of that Bill on the floor of the House, there is no hope of ever ending the sittings of the House at a regular time.

247. So there is no possibility of this being done by any kind of flexible arrangement. How would you view the proposition, Sir Edward, that at midnight the House shall stand automatically adjourned until 10 o’clock the next morning? That is to say, if the business is not concluded at 12 o’clock it automatically is adjourned until 10 o’clock the next morning, which would give morning sittings, and would do away with what seems an inefficient conduct of business both to Members and the general public. If there was a definite adjournment then the procedure would not be open to all these flexible methods of the Opposition?—-But, Sir, the result of that would be to put into the hands of the minority the control of business. Mind you, minorities feel very deeply about matters which the majority may think ought to go through very much more quickly, but minorities have their rights and one of their rights is to debate any matter before the House as thoroughly as the rules of the House allow them to. Therefore, in my view, if you had an automatic adjournment at 12 o’clock on a contentious Bill you would be putting the control of the length of time that Bill was going to take into the hands of the minority.

248. If you adjourned the House until 6 o’clock, which would remove six hours from the Opposition, you would have 6 to 12, exactly the same time, but removed to the morning rather than the middle of the night. In that way there would be an opportunity of at least six hours sleep for Members?—-I think from the practical point of view it might very difficult to get the House back at 6 o’clock in the morning because there are questions of transport and so on. From the point of view of pure convenience I do not really think there is much difference between rising at 6 o’clock in the morning or bringing Members back at 6 o’clock in the morning.


249. Would this not also have the disadvantage that you would have fresh contributors brought together in the morning and the debates would be more likely to become full-blooded affairs equivalent to a 2.30 sitting with full attendance?—-I think that is what was meant. It would be a continuation of the debate but Members would have had an interval of six hours and would have had some sleep. That would be to the benefit of the minority.

250. Would Professor Crick comment on the use of time by the Opposition as a weapon against the Government?—-(Professor Crick.) I think this is inevitable in any Parliamentary procedure and the Committee, in a gentle and more domestic way may be butting its head against the same wall as some European Republics did in the 1930s. You cannot make rules for emergencies. You cannot do it. I think that really is the answer. There is also the famous thing you hear about, which is so true, namely, the whole atmosphere and the feeling of the House. I think one does begin to think it is a preposterous way to conduct business in modern times and that this will change but I do not think, with respect, that this has all that much relevance with regard to whether to use the morning. If there is a matter of principle this does not seem to have been raised. I do not feel that this is a matter of principle at all but a matter of probability that on a normal occasion you would all get home earlier if you did start earlier but I do not think that you can, as it were, sew up the arrangement.

Mr. Woodburn.

251. Sir Edward did point out that the Finance Bill might be taken upstairs. Many things which now appear in statutory instruments were formerly discussed in detail by the House. By removing that detail to statutory instrument a great deal of detailed discussion has been removed from the House. Is it his opinion that the real way to solve the problem is to lift a great deal more detail either into committees or statutory orders, which do not require discussion on the floor of the House?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) Yes, provided of course that the House had adequate opportunities of looking at the statutory instruments. You cannot remove the responsibility from the House. I am not in favour of handing over large chunks of law to Ministers and giving them carte blanche. I think it would be valuable to increase the area over which statutory instruments work but if you do that, then as a consequence you must increase the powers of the House over the supervision of those instruments.

252. Does Sir Edward agree that in a Parliamentary Session the Government, or someone, must plan the amount of business that is to be got through? The time is limited in any case; there is not unlimited time for discussion and all sorts of rules have been introduced to curtail discussion when it is too extended. If it is not possible to curtail a great deal of business within the present Session, cannot the business be so arranged that the discussion is curtailed to a reasonable time within that Session?—-Sir, I do not think that is a question I should answer; it rests on those who are responsible for the business of the House.

Dame Irene Ward.

253. May I just deal with this business of the committee stage of the Finance Bill going upstairs. Does it not depend on the content of the Finance Bill? Would Sir Edward agree that in the case of a very controversial Finance Bill in the sense that some of its provisions relate to a wide variety of interests, such as the selective employment tax, it would be against the interests of discussion in detail over a very wide range of interest if, on this particular kind of issue, the committee stage was upstairs? Would it not then really depend on solving the tremendous problem of selecting the people to sit on the committees upstairs. Having regard to the fact that there are interests of all kinds involved, agriculture, industry and so on, might it not be quite impossible to arrange for all the interests to be properly discussed for the protection of the country as a whole?—-I still think that the business on the floor of the House should be the settling of major principles and that the detail would be much better left to committees upstairs, if necessary reasonably large committees. Perhaps I might just say this although it is perhaps irrelevant to what we have come here for this morning; I did in my proposals suggest that Members might have the right of audience before a committee although they would not have the right to vote and I think that that would meet Dame Irene’s point to some extent.

254. In the context of everybody saying that there are so many important things to discuss, which I would certainly agree with, is this not really a lot of “hooey” because in the period of time during which I have been in the House Members have said that the House must discuss this and discuss that because it is very important and then, after a great deal of effort, you get the Government of the day to make time available and when the day comes everyone is there except the Members. Would not Sir Edward agree, because in the time he has been in the House of Commons he must have been in touch with the grape-vine–this has been the case with all the committees I have sat on–that when a committee has produced what appears to be a detailed and interesting report the House of Commons never really reacts to that report? Once they have set up something for a committee to investigate, when the report comes out unless it is a very controversial issue everybody says “This is marvellous; of course we must discuss it” and if we do get a discussion no one bothers to turn up?—-I would not quite agree. I think not enough reports of committees are in fact debated but I would not have thought that always when they do get debated there was a poor attendance. (Professor Crick.) I think this is precisely why the Study of Parliament Group’s evidence has been that a time in the morning can be regularly set aside for the debate of reports of committees which are scandalously ignored by the House. This is where the Lords in the Upper House steal your thunder.

255. I agree; but that does not make the Members turn up?—-I wonder whether, with respect, Dame Irene’s first question does not slightly confuse the situation, the principle of the free and general discussion by all Members with the equally great principle of the publicity of the proceedings. Obviously you can discuss too much from the point of view of publicity but, at the other extreme, if one followed some of the television maniacs’ suggestions, discussion might be so geared to publicity that the quality of discussion would suffer. If the Finance Bill goes upstairs it is a question of what arrangements are made for the publicity of the proceedings and of educating journalists to cover Standing Committees rather than any great suffering in the constitutional principle. Also, if it was possible to take this in the mornings, and this is an important point, it would give the evening papers a better chance of commenting on it.

256. Is that not concentrating too much on London. We always concentrate on London. What about the provincial evening papers?—-They take it from the Agency reports at the same time. My local paper in Sheffield does much the same.


257. Do we not make too much fuss about this question of Members in the Chamber? On Friday there is practically no one there and I think one grumbles too much about it. For two days there are between 70 and 100 Members present for Questions and after 10 o’clock you have 20, 30, 40 or 50 for some items of business. We are perhaps in danger of emphasising that every sitting must be packed to the doors?—-I think that is absolutely right. This is the fault of teachers of politics and you get this silly and unrealistic view of the work of a Member of Parliament taught in schools. It is something on which I feel very strongly. It is very irrelevant and takes no account of the working of parties or committees but concentrates on the individual Member and you get an atmosphere built up which some quite intelligent journalists suffer from. I think the Committee should disregard this and be annoyed that people outside the House are not more realistic. I do not think the attendance in the morning means as much as what is discussed.

Dame Irene Ward.

258. I agree with what Professor Crick in general about the country not knowing what the jobs of Members of Parliament are. Sometimes very important matters of detail at any rate are discussed with nobody there at all except about four people on one side. This is noticed, judging by the correspondence that comes through Members’ postbags. I was going to ask Sir Edward whether he has had a look in Parliament since the last election. The effect on the public could not be other than disadvantageous to Parliament when absolutely no one is there. Would he not agree that the effect when really human problems are being discussed in the presence of people in the gallery who see that there is hardly anybody there, at any rate on one side of the House and sometimes on the other, is to make people very unhappy?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) I have not seen the House since the last general election but, of course, as regards the human problems, the human problems more often than not come up on the nightly adjournment when very human problems are discussed, and those are discussed with the Member concerned, the Minister and perhaps one Whip on the Opposition side of the House. Very often the officials who have been present out-number the Members. Of course, Members get very little publicity at that time of night but the debate is nevertheless a good one.

259. I am not talking about adjournment debates because you cannot raise matters of legislation then. I am talking about when we bring forward, as has been done, all sorts of very important issues and there is practically nobody present except the people who have to reply and move the amendments, at any rate on one side of the House. I think that before long Parliament is going to disintegrate unless we are jolly careful. Would Sir Edward agree?—-I do not think I can because I have no experience other than five years ago.

Dame Irene Ward.] Do come along and have a look!

Mr. Coe.

260. I take Professor Crick’s point about the fact that the Chamber, whether full or not, is not a true reflection of Parliamentary work, but I got the impression from the witnesses that they did seem to suggest to me that the contentiousness of the business will be in almost direct relationship to the number of Members who will turn up. Both the Lord President’s evidence and Sir Edward Fellowes’s evidence would suggest that in the morning there would be uncontentious business and therefore not very many people would turn up?—-May I say that I do not think that the Lord President’s and my evidence are the same on that subject. I do allow contentious business but suggest postponing the decision until later.

261. Yes, I accept the correction. I think I heard Professor Crick say that he would probably include Question time in the morning. I should like to ask this. Would they envisage really contentious business in the morning as a point of principle as opposed to the general gist of your own evidence and that of the Lord President?—-(Professor Crick.) I see three broad alternatives. The one which the Lord President has put forward does suffer from the defect that the business would not be contentious enough to draw Members because it will be regarded as a second-class occasion and that makes it more difficult to put in extra matters. The second way of dealing with the morning would be, which Mr. Wedgwood Benn talked about, to use it for more general debates and committee work. That is a very sensible and proper way to proceed and would save time otherwise. But if it is the determination of this Committee simply to meet in the morning I think it would be more sensible not to go the half-way of the Leader of the House’s proposals but simply to move the Session forward so that you get first-class business in the morning, starting with Questions and following with a substitute adjournment motion by private Members to take the place of the 10 o’clock adjournment so that real business is being discussed. Taking those two things together it would be 11.30 or 12 o’clock before there was any fear of anything arising on which there would be a vote. I should not think there is anyone even with work elsewhere who really could not get to the House at that time. I know that there are practical difficulties for the businessman and the lawyer; I know that I want two hours in my office in the morning in order to see what is on the table and clear it but then one can get to a 12 o’clock meeting. If the House is going to move into the morning it would be better to go the whole hog.

262. Following that, what would Professor Crick say about the general objection which is raised that since Ministers are brought in the moment contentious business arises they are prevented from attending to the business in their Departments. Thirdly, would either of our witnesses consider that one Session is long enough for any new experiment to be carried out on morning sittings? Would they consider one Session long enough to make a reasonable assessment?—-In answer to the first question I do not think it would. There would be the usual number of Ministers at Question time. If there was an adjournment debate on a private Member’s motion this would involve the attendance of one Minister or junior Minister normally or at most two depending on what you do about 12 o’clock but if, for instance, it was Government business it would be very plain and predictable. I do not think this is a real problem. On the second question my personal view is that once anything as fundamental as this is done it would not be changed in a hurry and “experiment” is a polite word for semi-permanent commitment. (Sir Edward Fellowes.) On the question of Ministers, I obviously cannot speak with any experience of the Ministerial end. All I can say is that when I ventured to put forward a tentative suggestion that Ministers and junior Ministers should be here in the morning the late Walter Elliot and Lord Chuter-Ede were very definitely against me on the ground that Ministers could not possibly attend here in the morning and do the work in their offices properly. As regards the one day, I do rather differ from Professor Crick on the usefulness of the experiment. I do not think that the House, when it tries an experiment, even for say one Parliament by Sessional Order, is then by any means wedded permanently to that change. At the end of that time, after three or four years, during which a Sessional Order is passed and the time comes for considering whether it should be made a Standing Order or not I think the House is guided by its experience of what has happened and is not necessarily bound for ever by the first tentative step.

Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth.

263. I think it would be fair to say on the evidence of both our witnesses that they are concerned not so much with the convenience of Members as with getting greater efficiency in the conduct of business. Am I right?—-(Professor Crick.) It is an ungrateful way of putting it but, yes, Sir.

264. I think, however, that Professor Crick did make the remark that some of our proceedings were a preposterous way of going on. I should like to ask this question. When a sharp controversy arises is it not the experience of all human organisations that they tend to conduct their affairs somewhat preposterously?—-That was the point I myself made, yes.

265. Would you not agree, then, that in fact as long as the House of Commons discusses sharply controversial matters some of their proceedings will be somewhat preposterous?—-Yes, indeed, Sir. I simply suggest that this is in fact the control that would be exercised by the common sense of members of both front benches themselves upon how far one can go waging Parliamentary warfare without discrediting the institution in the public eyes. I agree with you fully because I think the very preposterousness of the political situation, when tempers are high or an issue is to be made very fiercely by the Opposition, is in itself a control more valuable than any procedural device whereby, if you met in the morning, it could be policed so that the House could go home earlier.

266. Would you agree, then, that any attempt designed merely to avoid late night sittings is almost doomed to failure?—-If it is an attempt merely to avoid late sittings, yes.

267. Would you go further aud say that in fact probably the House of Commons has to suffer from either late night sittings or from grave inconvenience inevitably?—-I am not quite so sure of that. I think if it started three hours earlier the probability would be that when the heat was on the House would rise three hours earlier but I do not think it would be predictable; it would be reasonable to start work in the morning, especially as it does not call for a full House.


268. But you said you saw this as a means of so ordering the business that the House would not need to sit late?—-Yes; I think this is why the Committee must look at morning sessions and the time of sessions in the light of any changes or reforms they may have in mind about the basic business of Government legislation. If I may labour the point a little, the thing that does impress some of us on the outside very strongly is this business of how much time the House spends on the relatively detailed business of legislation compared with scrutiny and investigation and general debate. I think you have ample economies of time possible in the process of legislation that would leave more time for matters of general debate. Obviously the Opposition will still be in a position to extend the hours of the House if it sees fit, and I think it should he. The ultimate control is public opinion and not the Government Chief Whip.

Sir Hugh Munro-Lucas-Tooth.

269. Do you really think it would be an argument that would commend itself to Members who were strongly opposing some particular measure that time had been provided on some other day for discussion of some more or less non-controversial matter? I think this is really what you are suggesting?—-No, not necessarily because this will be a perennial difficulty with any procedural system. Some things are important and some are both important and urgent. It comes back on the Speaker in most of the cases–the kind of difficulty the House has been in over the Vietnam debate. This kind of thing occurs and no procedural system will be a stronger safeguard than the opinion of Members themselves, but I think the pressure on the Government to find time would be less if there was more opportunity in the morning for general debate because it is kept to a fairly flexible time-table compared with the legislative time-table.

270. As I understand it you are suggesting that all morning debate should be on not very controversial subjects?—-But, Sir, I do not think the fact that the vote is not to be taken is necessarily to say that the subject is not controversial. Suppose that capital punishment, homosexuality and things like this had come up in the form of Bills and had been debated on the floor of the House; this would be reported –Members’ opinions would be reported –and I would think that this would be an opportunity for the Opposition. I am not thinking of nice, non-political occasions. I do not believe that nice, non-political occasions exist very much, but I think that the publicity given to Party controversy would be a valuable thing and there would be an opportunity of being better informed by better timetables and there would be less pressure upon the Government for a day to debate these things.

271. This, of course, would not relieve the Government of any pressure at all, would it? These things that you have mentioned are not essentially Party political matters.—-I think once again, if I may put it this way, one goes round in a circle because the obvious relief on the Government is to send a large part of the matter of public Bills upstairs. Presumably the reason why successive Governments have not chosen to do this is because they are slightly worried about how the House as a whole would otherwise spend their time. If the defeat of the Government is not in question the public is very ready to demand that Members should have more opportunities to debate important and controversial matters.

272. This is merely a matter of surmise on your part?—-Surmise, yes.

Mr. Mackintosh.

273. In one of your answers you said that the object of your evidence was to increase the efficiency of Parliament but I think this conceals the question of the capacity of the Government to carry out business and the capacity of the House to criticise the Government and exercise control, and the two are sometimes in conflict. Which of the two are you thinking about generally?—-I think one has to think of both at the same time. The fundamental business of Parliament is supporting the Government but also criticising it. I find that the present process of legislation to be one which is rather inefficient in both terms. It gives them opportunities by long-windedness not to debate other things and cuts off opportunity for debate on big public issues –as was the late nineteenth century custom before the matter was put down as First and Second Reading of the Bill.

274. Might this not be rather a matter of the convenience of the Government in that if the House of Commons is fully occupied dealing with legislation they cannot take up a side issue?—-We are speaking of a fairly large number of people. It is a very large House of Commons compared with many legislatures in the world and we have this large, over-large Government, possibly, into which we have stumbled since the wars. I do not see that everybody is so occupied with one thing that they cannot have two important things going on one day. If there was a major issue in the afternoon, Vietnam could be debated in the morning, particularly if a vote is not taken.

275. The other point is that it seems to me that a great deal of this pressure brought to bear on all Whips to allow Members home earlier arises from the fact that keeping the House going means that a lot of Members have to be here who do not wish to participate in discussion on the floor of the House. If we had a system whereby only those interested need stay the need for morning sittings would evaporate. Would there be any loss if the sitting of the House meant the people on the floor of the House and did not involve the retention of 150 or 200 people in the precincts who are not particularly interested in the matter in hand?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) You mean that there could be proxy votes? I myself do not like that idea but that is a personal view. I feel that if a Member is going to vote on an issue he should at any rate not be entirely ignorant of what he is voting on. I admit that under the present system he need not be very well informed but he is at least informed of what the question is–at one time it was illegal to vote unless you heard what the question was. Not that that would always convey a lot but I still feel that a Member ought not to be allowed to absent himself, perhaps, for six months.

276. I was thinking of a proxy vote after, say, 9 o’clock at night for those not wishing to take part in the particular debate. What worries me, and it is a very important point, is that if we change the time of sitting to meet the pressure for people to get home earlier or to do other work we shall not be able to carry out the thorough overhaul which has been suggested. Would not a permission of this type be highly realistic after a certain hour at night?—-I can only say that I remember going to the French Chamber one occasion, where proxy voting is permitted on a large scale. They have urns there and I saw two men put their votes into them and that was all. I said to my friend, “Oh, only two votes?” and he replied, “No, one has 150 and the other has 250 votes”. That shocked me.


277. Alternatively, what about the proposition that after 10 o’clock, to meet Mr. Mackintosh’s point, the Government should be able to carry a closure with either less than 100 or a simple majority of those present on the ground that the Chair has accepted a motion for the closure it is a proper question to be put?—-I have not given that all the consideration that it ought to have but prima facie I would think that it was a more reasonable suggestion than proxy voting but I do not think my colleague would agree. (Professor Crick.) I tend to disagree. It is a terribly tempting thing in political circumstances but the circumstances are always political and this would in the long run be a serious infringement of the rights of the Opposition. I follow Mr. Mackintosh’s line of thought but I think there is possibly less harm in, and more to be said for, some reform of the pairing arrangements. That would be more comprehensible and sensible in the eyes of the public than proxy voting. As regards the other point, the dilemma of Members having to lie about at night waiting for votes, I think it is a pity that all these things are not being considered together because the objection to it would be less if the House was a more comfortable place where you could get some work done. This is beyond to-day’s considerations but I think that if the Bridge Street site is developed it may lead to some feeling that it is possible not just to kill time but to do some work at odd hours. Most people in public and educational life have to do that but this is a more difficult place to work in than most. (Sir Edward Fellowes.) May I say in relation to closure by simple majority that I maintain that one of the results of that would be that closure would not be so easily got. The Speaker would have to be less prepared to give a closure than he would if there was a fixed number who had to vote for it.

Mr. Channon.

278. Sir Edward, as you know, unfortunately we have been instructed by the House to report on the time of sittings without considering the more fundamental changes suggested in your memorandum of 1958 which were really a package deal. There were many changes included then. Do you think that your proposals now, without the fundamental changes, really do still stand up?—-I think they would, just. I think that although theoretically not essential, the adjournment of the House on a Wednesday would make them stand up rather better. My original suggestion was that there should be morning sittings on two days a week and I have now suggested, as an experiment, that there might only be one.

279. May I ask you, from your experience, if the House was not to change any of its other ways but adopted the proposal for morning sittings, what would happen to the preparatory work which would have to be done for the afternoon sitting?—-You mean the preparatory work by the Chair and the officers of the House? There are three possible occupants of the Chair and it is my experience that not all those three attend a conference. If the Speaker is going to be in the chair on the report stage both Chairmen need not attend a conference and the Speaker does not attend a conference if it is committee work in the afternoon. The same could apply to the clerks at the table, I think.

280. I think Professor Crick was moving towards having more first-class business in the mornings and was suggesting moving the whole proceedings forward. Has he changed his mind since he wrote his book because I have been refreshing my memory of his book and he said, referring to the 1958 Committee, that the Committee was to be supported in its view that full morning sessions would place an undesirable strain on Ministers?—-(Professor Crick.) I think there is the devil’s choice here and I do not like the current line of thinking developing from the Leader of the House; I like this least of all. There is the kind of thing I envisaged in my book; there is the simple moving of less important business to the morning; and there is the moving forward of everything to 10 or 10.30. I think the proposals of the Leader of the House, and to a lesser extent those of Sir Edward, fall between those two stools and I think there would be serious difficulties. Suppose it is the decision of someone to meet in the morning and the House follows that in its wisdom, I would rather run the kind of risk I argued against in my book than adopt the half-way house which will make genuine procedural reform more difficult.

281. The danger of having first-class business in the morning, would you not agree, is that the most important moment of every Parliamentary day is that moment after Questions when statements are made or private notice questions are put and that demands the attendance of a large number of Members and Ministers?—-Yes. This may be optimism or ignorance but I thought that on the whole the attendance of Ministers was fairly predictable by normal arrangements behind the Chair about what is likely to come up on those occasions.

282. It has been my experience that it is at 3.30 that the House is at its fullest?—-I think, with respect, that this is tradition and that everyone who has not come in earlier turns up then. I am not quite sure that the actual business demands the front benches to be as full as they are. It is one of the informal customs of the House. It would be a sad day when that did not happen but I do not see this in procedural terms. It might mean more arrangements behind the Chair but that I should think would be in the interests of both Front Benches because the Opposition Front Bench is going to suffer too. (Sir Edward Fellowes.) The attendance at 3.30 is still to some extent a hangover of the moving of the suspension at that time.

283. Would not Professor Crick agree that you would at least need the Prime Minister there, two Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition? How would you hold Cabinet meetings?—-(Professor Crick.) Do not hold them in those mornings. That is not an insuperable obstacle. All this really needs is some part of the day in which votes are not taken. This could come late afternoon quite as well as in the morning.

Dame Irene Ward.

284. A lot of Members do not turn up unless there are going to be votes, do they?—-That is why I wonder whether the present proposal of the Leader of the House is wise unless there is a carrot provided. There are very strong arguments for thinking that Question time would get more publicity in the afternoon editions of the papers and that this would be a great advantage in the reporting and public understanding of the House.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd.

285. First of all, Professor Crick, on the Leader of the House’s suggestions and Sir Edward’s you do not think either of those are worth while?—-I think Sir Edward’s is to be preferred.

286. But even so, on balance you are not in favour of accepting his experiment?—-On balance I think it is an unnecessary complication compared with the simple moving of the proceedings to an earlier time.

287. You are in favour of going the whole hog on two mornings a week?—-Yes, if at all.

288. That is what I want to get clear. Are you in favour of having any morning sittings?—-Yes, very strongly, but for a certain sort of business.

289. Involving Questions?—-It seems to me very much a matter for the Committee itself and the time one has. I personally think that if one had three hours in the morning one would give an hour to Question time and two hours on different days either for the House to deal with the new type of Standing Committee envisaged by the Prime Minister or for debates on general topics, above all debates on reports of Select Committees, Royal Commissions, advisory committees and so on.

290. First of all on this business of having Questions from 10 to 11, would you not accept that a great deal of preparation has to be done, not only by the Chair but by Ministers?—-Yes, indeed and this often takes weeks, does it not? I mean that it is very rarely last-minute work, is it?

291. I should think that so far as the Foreign Office and the Treasury are concerned a great deal of it is last-morning work, particularly in the case of the Foreign Office. You have to consider the situation as it is and I suggest that it really would be a grave inconvenience to have to come to the House at 10 o’clock in the morning?—-I am not sure; I think it would just be that your new deadline on Questions would be the previous evening rather than mid-day as at present. It is the kind of problem newspapers face. I doubt if six or seven hours would make all the difference in the control of the British Parliament over the affairs of the world.

292. But surely it is very important for the Foreign Secretary to read and digest the telegrams before he comes to answer Questions?—-He is always behind the clock.

293. There is a big catch-up during the night?—-Someone, somewhere, unfortunately, is always on his feet giving a Press conference under the midday sun and a large part of the work of his own civil servants is stopping people getting the Foreign Secretary so much up to date that he is confused when he speaks. There is a kind of cut-off period in which you no longer try to amend the answer. (Sir Edward Fellowes.) May I reinforce what has just been said, that in the 1920s on Fridays, Ministers used to be prepared to answer Questions although they were not compelled to answer. The House then sat at midday on Fridays. When the House moved back to 11, Ministers would never answer Questions, so it looks as if there was some disadvantage in answering Questions early in the morning.

294. Then there is another point on this question, the point about it being flexible and having a focal point in the day and I think it is only a matter of convenience, really, or a hangover from the moving of the suspension. It is convenient for Members to know that if anything is going to happen of an unexpected nature it will be at a certain time and that is why people come at 3.30. If that were 11 o’clock in the morning it would be very much more inconvenient?—-(Professor Crick.) Again I would give the same ungracious answer, namely, that I do not think the convenience of Members is the fundamental thing. Again, the numbers are so large that it really is a matter of public concern if it is felt that the House cannot operate effectively because there are not the requisite number of Members in the morning. Poor attendance at Standing Committees I have already mentioned, but I have said that it is not every Member’s cup of tea and they may be doing other useful things. But it is an index of the lack of concern to look at the number of people involved–especially when the new rates of pay were brought in following the Lawrence Report. I am not arguing, and never have, that as a matter of principle Members of Parliament should be full time. I think this is a practical matter. There are enough Members of Parliament to work a procedure which would be more efficient but at the moment it looks as if it is hardly possible without some attraction, within the habits of Members, to get a sufficient number in the morning to make it look respectable, unless the Whips encourage Members to attend or unless there is some first-class occasion.

295. If you put Questions, statements and private notice questions forward into the morning you are making it more difficult for the part-timers, are you not?—-Yes.

296. You are not in favour of eliminating the part-timer?—-No, making it more difficult but not eliminating them. The part-timer would turn up on the morning he put his Question down, which is extremely predictable–about a month ahead.

297. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the Prime Minister answers a great many people who did not put questions down. Twice a week when the head of the executive is being bombarded it is part of the duty of the ordinary Member to be there?—-I am very puzzled about the part-time Members. I should like to study this. It is difficult to see what kind of professions have time-tables which are so inflexible. It would affect the lawyers but they are in difficulty whatever hour Parliament chooses.

298. It would affect the businessman. Most companies have their board meetings at fixed times in the morning and if you are on a board which meets on a Tuesday or a Thursday and you cannot get it altered you cannot attend Parliament?—-I have the feeling that most Members of Parliament on boards of public companies are there in a fairly important and distinguished capacity–I am not talking about sleeping directorships. We all know these things. There are some meetings that are like the laws of the Medes and Persians but some are adjustable and some businesses would go far towards meeting the convenience of people of this calibre. These are too hypothetical questions to affect Parliament itself. I am not waving any flag. I think it is silly to say that businessmen Members of Parliament should be full-time Members, but the practical point is that their time-table is likely to be more flexible–and they cannot have their cake and eat it too; they will play a smaller part in the House, and why not?

299. It is almost impossible for the part-timer to function properly and adequately if he does not have his mornings free. You disagree. Now may I come back to Sir Edward Fellowes. On your proposal, Sir Edward, if the House is adjourned on Wednesday after Questions there will be no more Parliamentary time available?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) No more House time, no; there would be less but on the other hand, remembering that the House is adjourned for the purpose of Standing Committees, they would have from 3.30 until 10.30 and they could do more than a week’s work in a single afternoon and therefore the work of the House as a whole would benefit.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd.] The House would be giving up 6½ hours.


300. Sir Edward answered this at the beginning and said that the Government would not necessarily lose?—-They would not. After all, it is mainly Government legislation that is considered in Standing Committees and if the Government got a week’s work out of a Standing Committee–perhaps out of three Standing Committees–I do not think the Government would lose but would gain.

Dame Irene Ward.

301. But the wretched Member has to sit in a Standing Committee from 2 o’clock until 10?—-No, from 3.30.

Mr. Selwyn Lloyd.

302. Do you not think that if you moved these Prayers into the morning you would have far more of them?—-I think that would be a very good thing, Sir. I think that Prayers are one of the things that keep Government Departments on their toes.

303. So that in addition to the Government giving up 6½ hours they would have far more Prayers to deal with?—-That does not worry me.

Mr. Steel.

304. You have said that a morning sitting would be more difficult for the part-timer. Might I suggest that it would be very difficult for the full-time Members because one of the complications of this place is that the facilities for an ordinary Member to do his work as a Member of Parliament are virtually non-existent. In order for a full-time Member to do his work efficiently he must have some self-discipline on a daily pattern and at present the mornings are normally used by Members either in sitting on some committees or with their secretaries dealing with correspondence. In fact, on those occasions when they have to attend committee meetings it is disruptive of their normal working time. If there are morning meetings what part of the day can be set aside, in the present circumstances of the House and the lack of facilities, for doing the ordinary work that an individual Member has to do?—-(Professor Crick.) It may be that you cannot find a period. It is one of the difficulties of professional life that one is often interrupted at short intervals. I see the force of this but I do not think it outweighs the possible advantages of meeting in the morning. I think it is a pity that this is being looked at piecemeal and if the Committee could look at the facilities, and the work of the House of Commons (Services) sub-committees came under the purview of this Committee, there would be a chance of something basic happening.


305. It would very greatly help us if you would comment on the problem of the Speaker’s preparation during the morning for the day’s business. The Speaker himself told us a great deal about this but one question that arises is that if we accept the idea of bringing the whole of the business forward and inconvenience the Speaker by doing so, what proportion of his preparation in your experience can be done on the previous day? How much of the day’s proceedings needs preparation in the hour or so before the day starts?—-(Sir Edward Fellowes.) I think the main one would be the report stage of a Bill and during that amendments need not be handed in until late the previous night. The Speaker cannot do that the previous night, as indeed I know very well because in preparing my own brief for the occasion, however much I have tried to do the previous night I always found that there was something fresh to be done the next morning. That, I think, would be the main point, and the same applies to the Chairman of Ways and Means.

306. But Questions, you feel, can be prepared the day before?—-You have to give notice of questions and although you can withdraw a question that does not present much difficulty. I would have thought that the Speaker takes a general look; he is concerned with the order not the merit of the question. Although he may take a look at questions from the point of view of what supplementaries are likely, for the rest he has ample notice.

Mr. Turton.

307. Does not this vary from Speaker to Speaker? Some Speakers take more time and trouble over questions than others?—-I would not have thought so. Order is the only subject on which he would consult the Table. I do not know how much trouble he would take about seeing what sort of supplementaries would be likely to arise.

308. If the Speaker wants to concentrate on getting a large number of questions into an hour, has he not to do more preparation than one who might allow questions to ramble on?—-That is not my experience. Speaker Fitzroy was an expert in getting through a large number of questions.

Chairman.] Thank you very much, Sir Edward and Professor Crick. We have benefited enormously from this exchange and we shall benefit a great deal more when we study all this in print. What you have said this morning will help us a great deal in reaching a conclusion on this matter.

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 15 August 2001