Last month I wrote about campaign emails on particular issues and the different ways in which I try to deal with them. Another type of circular I often receive are those asking me to attend a particular debate or meeting. Whether or not I can may depend as much on my other diary commitments as anything and sometimes it is just not possible. This month I thought it might be helpful if I set out the different demands on an MPs time within the House. It may also help to explain some emails that do the rounds suggesting that the attendance of MPs in the Chamber of the House is only high when debating issues relating to MPs themselves. Pictures are circulated which show an empty chamber when important topics such as welfare reforms or the child sex abuse enquiry are debated but a full chamber when MPs expenses are being discussed! These emails are clearly put together to discredit MPs so perhaps the approach taken is no surprise but they do beg a question as to why the Chamber may be full or empty at different times. Every picture tells a story but not necessarily the whole story or the right one! Let me explain how it all works.
Firstly there are two main debating chambers in the House of Commons – the main Chamber which is most often shown on television and Westminster Hall. Debates in these two chambers take place at the same time so an MP cannot be at both. The main Chamber is where Government, back bench and opposition business is debated. In Westminster Hall there is a series of debates each day on issues put forward by individual MPs. These raise issues of special interest to an MP or a group of MPs. I try to speak in debates where I am able and feel that I have a contribution to make. Analysis assessing the contribution to debates by individual MPs indicate that I have spoken in around 100 debates in the last year which, it says, is above average.
So immediately you can see that an MP cannot be in all debates. Most debates last for several hours and the Chamber will be full at times and empty at times. People often come in at the start to hear the Minister’s opening speech and then leave to attend other meetings whilst the debate continues. If an MP wishes to speak they have to be there for the opening remarks and must stay for at least the speech following their own. When a debate is drawing to an end MPs are required to stop what they are doing elsewhere and go to the main Chamber to vote. When a vote is near, the Chamber will fill again as the MPs have to come from across the Estate to be in the lobby at the right time. The Chamber will also be full when there are multiple votes on separate issues in a particular debate as there is often insufficient time to return to other business between votes. So in just about any debate it will be possible to show pictures of times when the Chamber is full and times when the Chamber is emptier. It depends on what time in the duration of the debate that the photo is taken.
However these debating Chambers are but a part of the other business going on in the Palace of Westminster at any one time. There will also be a series of committee meetings. There are Select Committees – one to scrutinise the work of every Government Department. There are Bill Committees – one to go line by line through every Bill before Parliament to review the detail. I am a member of the Justice Select Committee and take my turn as called on Bill Committees or committees to introduce Statutory Instruments.
There are also All Party Parliamentary Groups which are more informal, cross-party groups formed by MPs and Members of the House of Lords who share a common interest in a particular policy area, region or country. These can be helpful due to their cross-Party nature and the fact that they involve Members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords. These groups focus on quite specific issues and there are well over 600 of them. I chair the APPGs for Nuclear Fusion, the River Thames, Alternative Dispute Resolution, Design and Innovation and Digital Currencies.
There are many other meetings and events that take place and I cannot list them all here but I hope this gives you a flavour of the range of activities going on and why it is not always possible for an MP to attend a particular debate or meeting. The inability to do so does not reflect a lack of interest, simply conflicting demands on time. If you would like to know more about my work in Westminster, on behalf of the Government and the Constituency please do look at my website which is regularly updated. The address is www.johnhowellmp.com. Further details of the work of Parliament is available on the parliament website at www.parliament.uk. As always, I am interested to hear constituent’s views on the proposals before the House. If you would like to share your thoughts on an issue with me you can email me at email@example.com or write to me at the House of Commons.