As John Lehal (@JohnLehal) points out in this piece for PR Week, bit.ly/fhynQe, the influx of new MPs in the 2010 Parliament are far more active in the Chamber than their predecessors. This is partly because they’re eager young pups, and want to show their constituents and the party whips (probably not in that order) that they’re up for it. It’s also partly the case that their predecessors had become jaded, particulaly after the expenses scandal when many MPs felt that all their work counted for nothing in the public eye, or had settled into a routine of focusing on select committee work or leading an All-Party Group. (As John says in his article, specialising on a topic you know something about and, importantly, can do something about, is the way to succeed in a modest way. Might not get you round that Cabinet table, but it’s useful and important work.) Also, many MPs in marginal seats were off nursing their constituencies rather than speaking in the Chamber.
So what you have now, rather than an almost empty Chamber, is loads of MPs submitting to speak in debates. You do this by dropping a note to the Speaker, or just taking a chance on the day. The Speaker decides the order in which MPs will be called. Seniority obviously counts; Alistair Darling is never going to be kept hanging around for long to speak in a Finance Bill debate. In theory those MPs who have spoken a lot recently tend to be put lower down the list, although many MPs who are kept waiting for hours and hours before being called will grumble that this never seems to apply in practice!
The problem now is that debates are over-subscribed. It’s common for a speaking limit to be imposed on backbenchers, of as little as 6 minutes. MPs will get extra time added on if they take interventions – but only for the first two they take, which give them an extra minute each; after that it cuts into their own speaking time. What this tends to mean is that rather than there being a proper debate with lots of to-ing and fro-ing and interventions and challenges, you just get MPs rushing in a garbled fashion through a speech which was designed to take 10 minutes but has to be got through in 6. It becomes all about getting it ‘on the record’ for Hansard, particularly the constituency references that will guarantee you a mention in the local paper, rather than genuinely trying to engage in political debate. It becomes a broadcast, to a Chamber that is no longer listening, not a dialogue. (There’s little point in MPs who are waiting to be called to pay much attention, because they won’t have time in their 6 minutes to pick up on any points the previous speaker made).
Although I’m not a fan of allowing people to drone on at length, I do think this is affecting the quality of debate, which should after all be about interaction between the two sides of the Chamber. I think it would be better if the Speaker allowed 10 minutes for speeches and simply told some backbenchers that they wouldn’t get called due to lack of time. They’d still be able to intervene on the speakers, which might make their contributions more thoughtful (although not necessarily – a lot of Government backbench interventions are pretty limp specimens circulated in advance by their whips’ office, or are just of the “but will my Hon. Friend agree with me that it was all Labour’s fault” variety.)
I’m glad we’ve seen something of a revival of the Chamber in this Pariament, but it’s
not there to be used as an X-Factor style audition in front of the party whips, which is what it’s in danger of becoming. We need to think about how we can make it more valid, more relevant as a genuine forum for debate.