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Is the House of Commons losing the art of debate?

4 min read

The Commons chamber is about exchange, back and forth, argument and counter-argument. But ever stricter time-limits, and speeches read from scripts are putting that tradition at risk, Tony Grew

"Too much of our Parliament isn’t debate, it’s speeches,” Tom Tugendhat observed recently. “It’s like line dancing. You may be with others in the same room but fundamentally you are dancing alone.”

In December and January, we had long debates on the withdrawal agreement. Speaker Bercow is keen to accommodate colleagues and likes to fit everyone in. This leads to MPs being put on a three-minute time limit, or in some cases a two- or one-minute limit. Is that really long enough to develop your point or to make a substantive argument?

The balance between hearing from as many MPs as possible or disappointing some to allow others a meaningful amount of time to speak, is a difficult one, but it goes to the heart of what debate is for.

The concept of limiting speaking times is relatively new. The first experiments happened in the 1980s and the first standing order providing for limits was made permanent in 1988. In 1995 some MPs thought a ten-minute limit was a bridge too far, but the standing orders were changed to give the Speaker that power.

Long serving MPs have been known to lament the loss of oratorical skill in the Commons. Until recently only MPs at the despatch box were allowed to read out speeches, and MPs would shout “reading!” at colleagues who relied too heavily on notes. Today it is not uncommon to see MPs read out not just speeches but questions and even interventions.

It is an unfortunate indication of a decline in the art of debating. How is it possible that someone cannot make a brief point on an intervention without writing it down first? A mix of unhelpfully short time limits and changes to the amount of injury time MPs get for allowing interventions has led to Mr Tugendhat’s dance-based critique.

Allowing injury time for multiple interventions was designed to encourage spontaneous debate. In September the procedure committee declared that to be “too generous” and recommended changes for speeches of more than five minutes, to reduce injury time to one minute for the first intervention. These changes were approved by the House.

Where a time limit of five minutes or lower is imposed the clock will not be stopped for any intervention and no injury time added. This seems contradictory. MPs are being encouraged not to take interventions, which is the point of a debate, a free flow of ideas.

At the same time as many speakers as possible are being crammed into the debate, so they can read out their points, which have often been made repeatedly by other MPs.

There is a balance to be struck between the ‘all must speak’ approach favoured by the Speaker or an alternative where only some MPs get in but have longer to expand their points and to take multiple interventions. Debate is not a demonstration of the ability to read out a prepared text. That is the practice in other parliaments and it’s one of the reasons they are dull as ditchwater.

The Commons is about exchange, back and forth, argument and counter argument. We see this is alive and well when it comes to frontbenchers when they open a debate. They are unrestrained by limits on time or on the number of interventions they can take, and a confident minister or shadow minister will revel in the challenge.

Last week’s Brexit debate was a masterclass in intervention. Yvette Cooper scored three in a row from the prime minister. “I am simply trying to understand what she is saying,” she explained. Jeremy Corbyn showed us how not taking an intervention can overshadow your speech to such an extent that cabinet ministers are intervening to mock you for not taking an intervention.

The prime minister took 29 interventions in a 48-minute speech, from opponents on both sides of the House. Labour, SNP, DUP and Green MPs were able to engage her in debate. Lady Hermon, whose interventions are the weapon of choice of an excessively polite assassin, also got a chance to put her point forcefully on the record.

This makes for invigorating debate, it makes it easier for people watching to understand the issues at hand. People notice when questions aren’t answered.

Nobody wants to return to the days when MPs could speak as long as they liked. Time limits are vital in order to regulate debate, as anyone who has had the misfortune to attend to Friday business will know.

But the procedure committee’s recommendation that there should not be anything below a five-minute limit should be implemented. It may mean fewer MPs get to make a speech, but it might mean more interventions, which are surely effective than Members demonstrating that they can read aloud.  

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Read the most recent article written by Tony Grew - Parliamentary Possibilities


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