Procedure Committee Reports
Backbench Business — [32nd( )Allotted Day]
David Heath (Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, House of Commons; Somerton and Frome, Liberal Democrat)
The lukewarm response was not from the Government—this Government and previous Governments have been happy to table explanatory amendments—but from other Members who showed not the slightest inclination to do so. That is the concern.
Let us go back to the origins. The experiment with explanatory statements on amendments was first proposed by the Modernisation Committee, under the chairmanship of Mr Straw, in its 2006 report on the legislative process. The Committee envisaged that the main benefit would be helping Ministers and civil servants to understand the intention behind Back-Bench and Opposition amendments, so that the Minister was prepared to address the issues that the Member wanted to debate and to respond to the queries or concerns being raised. They were envisaged as a vehicle for Back Benchers to explain their amendments, rather than for the Government to explain their amendments, for which there are many other mechanisms. Despite that, and although the Government have participated fully in each pilot, the take-up by Back Benchers has been low and has declined since the first pilot.
We have to acknowledge the resource implications. The Procedure Committee was told in the previous Parliament that the general application of explanatory notes to all Committee papers would cost the House services alone more than £100,000, and the costs would be greater still if applied on Report. That takes no account of the staff resource implications for the House services and the Government. The Government agreed to provide explanatory notes to all amendments in previous pilot schemes, and the Procedure Committee envisaged a mandatory requirement for Government amendments on Report. At the same time, however, the Committee rejected imposing such a requirement on others. I take it from what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion said that she would like that to apply mandatorily to others. There is some justification for that, but there is little justification for the current asymmetrical approach.
If the motion is agreed to, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will write to the Procedure Committee with proposals for the pilot. This is the last chance to show that the voluntary approach for everyone other than the Government could work as originally envisaged by the Modernisation Committee. We will want the experiment to demonstrate clear value-for-money benefits to the House, and if it does not, we might decline to support any further proposals along the same lines.
I support the final motion on written parliamentary questions. Again, the proposal is for a pilot scheme involving an earlier cut-off point for electronically tabled questions and a daily quota of five written questions that could be so tabled for an experimental period of three months. The right to table questions belongs to hon. Members and hon. Members alone. If the experiment encourages Members to take a closer interest in questions prepared by their staff, that would surely be a good thing. The average cost to the taxpayer of tabling a question is £239. Although overall quotas are not proposed, I am sure that hon. Members will wish to be mindful of the costs of what they do. We are keen to ensure that all written questions receive timely, substantive answers. If the pilot leads to “fewer, better questions”, as the Procedure Committee hopes, I would hope also to see quicker, better answers. We will provide the statistics on the timeliness of answers in the current Session on the timetable requested by the Procedure Committee.
To end where I began—on the theme of technological change—I can confirm that the Government are keen to work closely with the House authorities to take forward proposals for the electronic distribution of answers, which would benefit all Members.