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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Meg gives evidence to the Modernisation Committee of the House of Commons.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

On Wednesday 21st July Meg was part of a small panel invited to give evidence before the ‘Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons’. This Committee has been examining how the procedures of the House of Commons work with a view of  presenting proposals on how they could be adapted to make them work more efficiently. Meg’s contribution has been extracted from the full report of that session and is given below. The full uncorrected report of the session is 37 pages long, and is available at http://pubs1.tso.parliament.uk/pa/cm200304/cmselect/cmmodern/uc892-i/uc89202.htm

 

 

Question: I would just like to remind all of us that under the new sitting hours we have sat slightly longer than we sat under the old hours. If you had a blank sheet of paper and did not have to accept any of the conventions that we are used to, how would you reshape the parliamentary week, encompassing those hours but in a way that would make for the most effective parliamentary scrutiny which would also be likely to get the support of Members of Parliament?

Meg Munn: Thank you, and as the most recently elected member perhaps I can bring a different perspective as well. I think for me the issue is not just when we sit in the Chamber but the whole range of jobs that MPs do, both in the constituency and here. When you first arrive what strikes you is that when people say "We switch on the telly and there are very few people in the Chamber" there is a good reason for that because a lot of the time, if it is not your issue and if you are not involved in that debate and not following it, you are better spending time maybe meeting constituents down here, maybe on a Select Committee or on a Bill Committee - there is a whole range of work which does not just go on in the Chamber. The unfortunate thing about the (sitting) hour’s debate is we concentrate too much on what happens in the Chamber, and I know at times I feel, "Well, why are we having that debate in the Chamber? Why is that going on in that period? If is a One Line Whip, people are not going to stay", and I wonder whether some of it is about looking at whether we need to timetable everything in the Chamber at that time.

My second reflection was that, when we did change the hours, a really strange thing happened which was everybody tried to keep everything else the same and only to move the things they absolutely had to. Having worked in a number of local authorities - not private organisations admittedly - I knew that whenever there was a major change it was a major change so everybody had to look at what were all the other things that needed to change to fit with that, and there seemed to be a huge impatience here among people saying, "That is not quite working therefore the new hours are bad". So I really go back to the question which was "Blank sheet of paper. What is it that we are trying to do? Should we have more time that is protective of Select Committees?”

We have looked at that and it is unrealistic to expect that all Select Committees can meet when the Chamber is not sitting, there are always going to be clashes, but how do we create that time? We moved the finishing time so we moved the starting time by the same amount. Did that make sense? Should we perhaps look at Thursday, maybe starting a bit earlier, because again, as somebody who rushes for their train, leaving at six as opposed to seven makes a huge difference to the time I get home, get to bed, and to what I am able to do in my constituency on a Friday. So I think it is about re-drawing that, about saying that most members now, and I know Eric (Forth) does not particularly agree with this, do not want to be here on a Friday and do see being in their constituency as important in not just being able to represent their constituents but also being able to engage constituents about the parliamentary process.

So perhaps we should have Private Members' Bills on a Tuesday evening, and there are all sorts of other things. The other point I want to make is it is not about the times but about what we do here. Taking Andrew's (Mackay) point about the new intake coming in, I did a survey of a number of people on the Labour Party Parliamentary Panel, people who had thought about coming into Parliament, and had responses from 12 women and 19 men, saying "What do you think about this and how much has it influenced you in terms of standing for Parliament?" because the other aspect of this is not what we do when we are here but it is the kind of people we want to have here. Do we want people whose lives have become very disconnected from the people they have represented, or people who more accurately reflect the population out there, so people who do have problems with child care, with caring for elderly relatives? Those people need to be in here looking at how we manage that. This will never be a job like any other job and to expect it to be is unrealistic and the responses recognise that, but what happens at the moment is that if somebody does have those kind of particular difficulties in a family life the Whips - quite rightly in my view, certainly on our side - do their best to help them out. Would it not be better if we had a parliamentary life which made that easier so that people who are doing what is a very important job here actually continue to have similar experiences to the people we are supposed to be representing?

Question:  . . . . . .  Can I ask you to consider a couple of things? One of the problems is that we are trying to put too much into too short a time with all the Committees. If we look today, for instance, there are twelve Select Committees meeting today as well as a House meeting to discuss business. One of the things I have become more attracted to is the idea of having a Committee day when the floor of the House does not meet and we try and get through as many Select Committees during that day. It would also mean that those of us with northern constituencies can arrange for tours in the afternoon around the House. One of the sad parts about what has happened now is it is much more difficult to get a tour around the House for any of your constituents. Have you thought about anything like that? What would your impressions be?

Meg Munn: Certainly from my perspective that is exactly the kind of thinking I am talking about, that we do not have to think rigidly about it. I think it is worth having a discussion about a Committee day. I do not see that as a problem. In principle I know issues will arise about rooms and so on but I think we should have that kind of discussion. I do not, in principle, have a problem about sitting on a Friday if we know when we are going to sit. What most people I have spoken to want is that predictability of knowing, which is why the timetabling and knowing when the holidays are coming up, etc, is enormously important because if you have a family and caring responsibilities of any sort, or even just a partner, it is good for them to know that "That is the time when we can go on holiday". The planning and the knowing about that is important. So I think all those are issues that can be considered and should be considered, and we should come to a view about what is reasonable.

I do think that we have to take Jon's (Tricket) point seriously which is that there is an increasing expectation among our constituents that we will spend time in our constituencies, and that is important for the reasons I said earlier - that we need to be able to engage with constituents and to be able to involve them in greater understanding of what the parliamentary process is about and what MPs do.

Question: I would like to look at the issue of predictability which Meg brought up.  . . . In one of the Modernisation Committee's reports, there was a suggestion for an hour or so of Statement time before the main business so you would have a Statements hour from ten until eleven. I would like to know how people feel about that. Tacked on to that for predictability is how they feel about the September two weeks.

Meg Munn: I am finding myself in the strange position here of agreeing with Eric Forth on the September issue and I think the issue about conferences is well looking at. I was not here last September because I was away on a visit so I did not have the experience, but it does seem to me that two weeks is an odd and very short period to be here for, so I think that is well worth exploring. Also, rather than having more time here, my experience in terms of the Chamber is that we seem to have sometimes things on which nobody wants to talk or be there for and Whips are running around to get people to talk about and we could have maybe weeks at other times of the year which are not the traditional holidays.

What I find very difficult is it is difficult to get into schools and so on if you are only ever on recess when the schools are on recess, so I think we could perhaps look at an odd week off at another period when Parliament does not sit, and that would help with things like visits. Even under the old system when Parliament did not sit until 2.30 pm it was still enormously difficult without getting up at the crack of dawn for people from my constituency to get here and have a full tour of the House before Parliament sat. I think those kinds of things are well worth looking at.

Question: Meg Munn has talked about the fact that she was not here last September. She said she was on a visit. Was that a visit under the auspices of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the International Parliamentary Union?

Meg Munn: It was the British American Parliamentary Group.

Question:  . . . it raises a further point which is that there is a tension between predictability and accountability, and in fact if we want to have September meaningful and we are now saying we do want Government business to be in it - we are saying "Please could the Government structure things more rather than less" - and looking at the point about school visits and things like that, there is a tension between what members want as individual constituency members and what maybe the system needs in terms of accountability and predictability. Will you comment, not just in relation to September but elsewhere, where you want to strike that line?

Meg Munn: I think I would have a lot more sympathy with the issues about accountability if I did not see so many opportunities where people could be held to accountability wasted, and where people are talking about things which do not matter or wasting time. It is as much about what people do with the time available, and I think you can do that within predictable time by being concise. I do not think it is unpredictability that delivers accountability; it is what we do with the time we have, and I know there are reasons why this happens. Not in the Chamber but particularly on Bill Committees, that is something which I think is very unknown outside Parliament and even as somebody who had been interested in politics for many years I had no concept of the scrutiny of legislation.

I think we could improve enormously on the way we do that, not in terms of how long we do it for but the way we do it. Pre legislative scrutiny is enormously important, and I think the input from people outside can be helpful on that, whether that is done as part of the Bill Committee or pre legislative scrutiny. But also I think people complaining that there is a knife at the point when they get up and talk nonsense on various issues does not go down well.

Question:  . . . (Moving Private Members Bills from Friday to Tuesday evenings) So how would you view this?

Chairman: Can I say that a number of ministers have raised exactly that point with me, of keeping a Friday free to reach a Bill which then does not come up, so it is a complete waste of everybody's time. Can I just have quick responses to Private Members' Bills being moved?

Meg Munn: I think it would be good. I know there is a view that the Whips would be nervous about it but if there is an issue, and they are often issues which would not get parliamentary time otherwise or would have to wait for a relevant Bill to come up, that a lot of members feel strongly about, then why should that not happen? After all, the opportunities for backbenchers to make law and to influence what goes on are very limited, and I think increasing the likelihood of that happening cannot be a bad thing.

Question: If I can just add another part to it, at the moment we seem to have got into a practice of sitting on Standing Committees at 9.30 in the morning and going through to 11.25, they should sit at five-to-nine in order to give us the time which we used to have, the full two-and-a-half hours. What do colleagues think about that, and is there some way of restoring that extra time or, at least, making the Standing Committees have the time they need to really scrutinise the legislation?

Meg Munn: I have just sat on the Domestic Violence Bill and there was a kind of compromise situation where actually we started at ten-past-nine, which seemed to suit people, because I know that people who do have families in London sometimes have the opportunity to take kids to school in the morning. That seemed a reasonable compromise, and the compromise we had was that we went later in the afternoon because there does not seem to be a reason why there has to be that fixed time in the afternoon, particularly as business in the Chamber is going on till seven, as to why those Committees cannot go later. There was actually quite a relaxed approach taken, there were not any knives put in and the time of sessions seemed to work. To some extent, my view is that it seems when you get over-programmed and over-tight on that kind of finishing it leads to people doing more time-wasting and less relevant talking, whereas if you say, "The time is there" people focus on the real issue. I would just go later in the afternoon session.

Question: So were you doing 2.30 to 4.00 and then having a break and doing, say, 5.00 till some later time, or just running it for longer?

Meg Munn: We were just going from 2.30 until an agreed time by the Whips on the Committee, on each day, as it made sense. That, actually, was much more sensible because it was not only flexible in terms of what we were discussing, it actually allowed for the fact that, particularly, the minority parties had some difficulties about always having people there and actually rather than being very rigid about the whole process I felt it was the best Committee I had been on in terms of using time effectively and having the time you need to discuss it.

Question: What is often said as a reason for not doing more of that is that there are all these all-party groups and party groups which are clogging up our rooms the whole time, and it makes it very difficult to actually achieve those extra afternoon sittings, or longer afternoon sittings. Would you be happy with the idea that we should give precedence to the Standing Committees and just move these all-party groups out of the way so that this can happen?

Meg Munn: Yes. I think they do take priority. When you sit on a Bill Committee you are usually there because you want to be on there or because it is your turn to actually spend some time on a Bill Committee, which is an important aspect of what we do. I think when you are on a Bill Committee, yes, you do give priority to that, and the reality is, as someone who is involved in all-party groups, those are always getting moved from rooms anyway, so I do not think that is a big issue. For that period you give priority to that issue.

Question: An Early Day Motion has made  suggestions about sitting hours which a number of Labour women MPs supported - and Meg you seem to be putting forward a different viewpoint - but just what is the inter-relationship between the Labour Women's Group and the EDM group?

Meg Munn: We do not talk to each other! No. I take it you have that letter I submitted, which took a certain view. Obviously, I think - and this came back in the responses from the people who were thinking about whether they would want to be MPs because they put themselves on the Parliamentary panel - there is a recognition that it is impossible to suit everybody; you cannot have an arrangement here which suits everybody's lifestyle. If you are a London MP or you have got your family in London then what you want is going to be different to if you are an MP, like I am who lives in Yorkshire and wants to be back there.

However, what I think unites everybody who responded to my survey, both men and women, is that they want to be efficient and effective and they want to be representative, and working more like - and I am much in agreement with Andrew (Mackay) on this - people outside do and working efficiently are the things that drive it. Some people will think it is more efficient or it will suit them personally, or - and I think this is a really important point - some people who have been here for ten years or - God forbid - 27 years ----

People who have been here for a long time will have adapted their lives to that time. It is back to the point that Sir Nicholas (Winterton) keeps raising on what I said; if we were starting again and looking at how to be efficient we would not start here, we would have a blank sheet of paper. If you arrange your life because that is what you did, then I am sure it is suddenly upset and people do not like change. That is true for any organisation and people here are no different.

Question: I wanted to ask another question on the subject of committees. I am sure most of you have served either on Select or Standing committees. What experience have you of problems not of the hours, which we have already touched on, but when there are, for example, Divisions in the House?

Meg Munn: I think there is an issue here which relates to the Parliamentary year. Again, I am relatively new at that in that I have only seen three years go through but it struck me, certainly when there was no carry-over of bills, that you had a period when there were a lot of second readings when committees did not get interrupted because they were always at the end of the day, and then you went into a period towards the end of the Parliamentary year when there were lots of running three-line Whips and, therefore, sort of votes in a period. One thing I do not think has happened enough - and I do not understand all the details of what was actually agreed and what is allowed to happen - is that it seemed to me that if you had a bill programme where any bill could go a full year it would help space it out, when you would not have this great period when there were lots of remaining stages of bills and third readings coming up all at once and, therefore, you could have a much better situation of that being spaced out. I think what happened was you would then find that for a period Select Committees were regularly interrupted on an, almost, daily basis and then you would have a period when there were a lot of second readings at the start of that, and I think balancing the Parliamentary year better helps,

Question: You do not think, Meg, that the availability now of carry-over undermines one of the few opportunities that Oppositions have to defeat the Government?

Meg Munn: I think we are getting into a huge area which, as I say, I am not an expert on as a relatively new Parliamentarian. It seems to me that that will only every happen to specific bills which come at that point. I do think there has to be a time limit within which bills can be considered, but I am quite in favour of the idea that they have got a year to get through the process ----

Question: Whenever they are introduced?

Meg Munn: Yes, whenever they are introduced. That is what I think should happen. I do not see why we have the sessions as they are; it does not make sense to me.

Question: Obviously, as far as statements and urgent questions are concerned, we have a routine at the moment that is satisfactory to many. The point about possibly having urgent questions at 7 o'clock, if an issue develops during the day, is something that Standing Orders allow for but it never happens. Is that something that might make us more topical and give us the chance to pursue an issue more quickly?

Meg Munn: Yes.

Chairman:  Thanks very much for your time. It has been very valuable to us and I hope you feel it has been useful to you. Thanks.

ENDS


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