Parliament’s backbench MPs will no longer be able to take recess weeks off.
A long-awaited report on Parliament’s standing orders produced by a Committee involving some of Parliament’s most senior MPs and chaired by the Speaker, David Carter, is proposing that Select Committees start sitting during recess weeks.
This year there have been 42 sitting days and 165 recess days.
It has become the norm for only the most urgent matters to be dealt with by Select Committees during a recess.
Last fortnight (when the House was in the mid-year long recess) only one Committee (Maori Affairs) met, and that was only for an hour and a half.
And Carter’s Committee has also proposed that MPs compete for positions on Select Committee.
Currently any MP can be on a Select Committee, and many arrive apparently unprepared and spend the public sessions checking their email or staring into space.
MPs come and go from the committees, often for short periods.
The Committee says it was concerned there appeared to be an increasing reluctance for committees to meet outside sitting weeks “curtailing the overall time available for committees to effectively discharge all of their responsibilities.”
Submitting on behalf of the Law Society, the former Prime Minister, Sir Geoffrey Palmer complained that submitters got too little time at most committees.
Often submitters will get only five or ten minutes; rarely do they get more than half an hour.
Labour MP and Associate Speaker Trevor Mallard said that the longer sitting periods would meant that Committees properly scrutinised business “not at five minutes at a time”.
“One of the main reasons why the House’s all-year sitting pattern was adopted was so select committees had regular non-sitting weeks in which to meet to discharge their functions,” the report says.
“To compensate for members having to devote much of their time in adjournment weeks to select committee meetings, Fridays ceased to be regular sitting days.
“They continue to be protected from select committee work to this day, as part of this trade-off. We strongly encourage committees to meet during adjournment weeks to carry out their business effectively.
“The alternative would be to remove the barrier to holding Friday meetings in sitting weeks, and the Standing Orders Committee may wish to consider this the current aversion to meetings in adjournment weeks persists during the next Parliament.”
The Committee has also proposed reducing the number of Select Committees – effectively by merging the Law and order and justice and Law Reform committees and reshuffling some responsibilities but the intention of this move appears to be to reduce the number of Committee positions available and thus – though they don’t say so – to induce some competition for positions on the Committees.
“Committees are generally larger than is necessary for them to be effective, and some members have too many committee commitments,” they say.
“ With a decrease in the number of subject committees from 13 to 12, committees would become even larger if the overall membership remained around 120.
“A decrease in committee seats would provide more flexibility for parties to manage committee attendance and absences.
“This flexibility would also allow members to attend committee meetings according to their interests, expertise, and availability.
“Government backbench members would not be expected to be on more than two committees each, allowing them to be more focused on their committee work.”
However, the Committee rejected another Palmer proposal which was to establish a Committee of the House which would be open to any MP and which would run in parallel to the main debating Chamber but would undertake highly detailed scrutiny of legislation.
That caution is also evident in the Committee rejecting a proposal that the official TV coverage of the House could include shots other than the Member actually speaking or the Speaker himself.
But the Committee has formally approved the proposal that the ban on TV footage of the House being used for “satire, ridicule, or denigration” be relaxed.
The footage cannot, however, be used for “political advertising or election campaigning (except with the permission of all members shown), or commercial sponsorship or commercial advertising.”
And the Committee kicked for touch on a proposal to change the Christian prayer at the start of each session when many New Zealanders were of other faiths or not religious at all.
The current Speaker has already attempted to change this but failed, and the Committee has suggested that “change in practice should follow the process of the Speaker consulting members about the matter.
“We note that the Speaker has indicated it would be appropriate for the Speaker of the next Parliament to undertake further consultation on the matter.”
The report contains a number of technical proposals intended to make the debating process more transparent.
But these are not radical reforms of the way Parliament operates.