Procedure Committee Reports
Backbench Business — [32nd( )Allotted Day]
Roger Gale (North Thanet, Conservative)
I shall be very brief, Mr Deputy Speaker. I rise to support the amendment standing in the name of my hon. Friend Mr Gray. I am particularly concerned, as a member of the Speaker’s Panel of Chairs, at the impact of the proposals before the House on behaviour in Committee. I fear that if the report goes through, as it is suggested it will, and if that impact is felt on the Floor of the House, it is almost inevitable that those of us who find ourselves in the business of having to chair legislative Committees upstairs will be under similar pressures to allow similar devices in Committee.
What we have experienced in the House over the past few years is, first, a definite shift away from the use of notes and the participation in genuine parliamentary debate, of which this country has historically been very proud, and towards the preparation and reading of speeches. The preparation has been carried out either by the Member concerned or by other people who then persuade the Member to read the speeches for them. That has become particularly prevalent in Public Bill Committees. It is no great secret that hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken to reading into the record vast tracts of brief prepared by lobbyists for the sole purpose of putting something on the record. That is not debate: it is a misuse and an abuse of the processes of this House. If we are now to suggest that hon. Members on both sides of the House are going to be allowed to twitter and tweet and receive comment in the course of these debates, it is inevitable that we will have people sitting in the Public Gallery sending messages, saying, “Ask him this,” “Tell her that,” or “Read this.” That is not what this place is about. If hon. Members come into this Chamber, they can and should be expected to sit down, listen to the debate, hear what other Members are saying and agree, disagree and comment accordingly, rather than simply reading out prepared speeches.
As the Chairman of Ways and Means, Mr Deputy Speaker, you, like your predecessor, have been extremely understanding in giving leeway to those of us who chair legislative Committees, allowing us to manage the business on the Floor of the House, when there is a Committee
of the Whole House, or in Committee in our own way and in the interests of the Members and the business they are trying to get through. It works. Any man or woman sitting in the Chair, whether that is the big Chair in which you sit, Mr Deputy Speaker, or the slightly smaller Chair in one of the Committee rooms, has to exercise the Nelson touch and we do so constantly. We know what is going on; we know that on occasion the processes of the House are being abused.
We know that hon. Members are busy people and that within the next six weeks, before Christmas, Committee tables will suddenly be piled with Christmas cards being signed while Members are also participating in Committee business. That is inevitable. It is multi-tasking and a dual use of time, but as a Chairman I object to the kind of situation that occurred fairly recently in a Committee over which I was presiding. A Front-Bench spokesman—I will not name the party—was so obsessed with an electronic device and the manipulation of that machine that they missed the amendment they were supposed to be moving, in spite of my best efforts to get their attention from the Chair and draw them back to the business in which they were supposed to be participating. That is nonsense.