House of Commons Commission (Annual Report)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:23 pm on 3rd November 2005.

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Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 4:23 pm, 3rd November 2005

I am delighted that the debate has assumed the status of an annual debate. Indeed, in his introduction to the report, Mr. Speaker commented that this annual event would be enshrined in the cycle of events in the House. I was also impressed on the way in this afternoon by the superb exhibition that, as Nick Harvey mentioned, has been mounted by the House authorities. It is alleged by those in my family who conduct genealogy that we are directly descended from Guy Fawkes. I do not know whether that is substantially true, but the frisson as I passed the exhibition perhaps says something about it.

The debate this afternoon, among many other things, reflects on the findings of the Braithwaite report. It was stated in that report that there should be a review at about the five-year point. I was pleased to hear the remarks made in that respect by the hon. Member for North Devon. The difficulty is that one would have to do quite a lot of the work of a review in order to make a case that there might be one. I agree that it would be proper to conduct a review in the next two years or so, if perhaps one of a less than fundamental nature, and I hope that that is the way in which matters will proceed. Indeed, regardless of whether one goes into the fundamentals of how the House is organised, I hope that several issues that have already been raised will form part of that process.

I also welcome the news that the new voter pack will be distributed shortly. The pack is important to the well-being of the House in its efforts to ensure that it remains legitimate and that a new generation is able to understand what it is doing when it participates in the process of voting. In addition to distributing packs to young people, it might be an idea to supply individual Members of Parliament with them. They could be given out at MPs' surgeries and at their other local activities.

The Table Office does an excellent job of fielding, making sense of and processing questions. Hon. Members have put on record their appreciation of the hard work of the staff of the House. The Table Office is of particular note. It does an excellent job of processing early-day motions, as well as processing questions, and so on. I see from page 18 of the report that the Table Office processed more than 100,000 names this year, along with 2,000 early-day motions. I shall share a few thoughts on the House authorities' administration of early-day motions and on the existence of early-day motions themselves.

Early-day motions are not a recent phenomenon; indeed,

"Notices of Motions for which no days have been fixed" first appeared on the Order Paper in 1865. Early-day motions codified an earlier practice of putting motions on the Order Paper, some of which would gain a day for debate by the House and some of which would not. The practice in 1865 was not to have "no day fixed" permanently but to hold such motions in abeyance. Several of the early-day motions that were tabled on that basis gained a day for debate in the course of a Session. The term "early-day" was first appended at the head of such motions in the 1940s. The current practice of early-day motions stems from that time. There has been little practical change in the way in which they work, save some further definition about how the title should be arranged and who the sponsor should be.

There has however been a significant change, especially in the past seven or eight years, in the number of early-day motions tabled and the number of signatures attached to them. In order to process all that material, either in written or in electronic form, the Table Office's work load has increased. In the 1939–40 Session, 21 early-day motions were tabled. That rose to about 100 or so per Session in the 1950s, to 400 or 500 in the 1960s, and to 700 or 800 in the 1970s. Just over 1,000 early-day motions were tabled in the '80s and '90s. In the first years of the new century, early-day motions have really taken off—about 2,000 per Session are tabled. Moreover, as I have already mentioned, more people are signing each early-day motion.

As a slightly different way to look at it, the Commission helpfully provides a note in annexe 1 to the report of financial year 2004–05. Records show that from 2000–01 there is a 60 per cent. increase in the number of motions tabled each year up until 2004–05. Similarly, the number of signatories has increased each year from just under 2,000 to more than 3,000. As I have said, that increases the Table Office Clerks' work load. The cost of filing, processing and publishing early-day motions in all forms also increases. No estimate is provided in this year's report of the cost of that entire process, but in 2001 it was estimated that it cost the House authorities £443,000. As the numbers of signatures and motions have increased substantially since then, I imagine that the cost has increased considerably too. It is a demand-led practice. Whatever the volume of early-day motions and signatures stands at, the House authorities are required to administer them, and they do so admirably, as the report outlines.

There are two ways of considering the phenomenon. It could be said that increasing numbers of early-day motions and signatures represent a flowering of an institution of the House. Alternatively, it could be suggested that it represents the industrialisation of the early-day motion process. The coming of age of IT, among other things, has elevated the early-day motion to the status of a must-have campaign tool for whoever is lobbying for whatever it is. A campaign will find a friendly MP to table an early-day motion and will then campaign among its supporters to get as many other MPs as possible to sign it. The early-day motion has changed significantly from being a tool that hon. Members would use to a tool that involves most hon. Members passively. A not untypical response to a postcard campaign by a pressure group is simply to say, "Yes, I've signed the early-day motion", and to take the opportunity to sign a page of the blue sheets, deposit it in the Table Office and add one's name.

We have all seen hon. Members in the Chamber periodically catching up on early-day motions by flicking through the Order Paper with the blue sheets at the back, and signing the motions. As the House authorities' guide to early-day motions cryptically says,

"Members themselves sometimes accidentally sign early-day motions which they have already signed. Any such duplication is filtered out by the Table Office computer system, and only the original signature is printed or counted towards the total number of signatures."

Judging from that comment, that is a more common occurrence than one might suspect.

It is not the only increasingly common practice. Rather like the story about how Trappist monks tell one another jokes, some hon. Members will even write periodically with a list of numbers and the line, "Please add my name to the motions" with the numbers adumbrated in the letter. Some hon. Members will sign perhaps 600 or 700 early-day motions in that fashion in each Session.