For those unfamiliar with the layout of the Parliamentary estate, Westminster Hall is commonly used to refer to two separate rooms. Firstly, there is the huge hall that is now normally filled by tourists and people waiting to meet MPs, which was initially designed to be the largest banqueting hall in Europe. Since that it has also been used as a real tennis court, served as the venue for Guy Fawkes’ trial, hosted speeches by the likes of Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, and is now the site of one of the Parliamentary gift shops.
Westminster Hall debates
The second Westminster Hall is less well known, but now has much more significance when it comes to actual Parliamentary process. As demand for debates in Parliament grew, there became a need for the creation of a third debating chamber – an alternative to the House of Commons and the House of Lords. To meet this need, the Westminster Hall chamber was created and hosted its’ first debate in November 1999. Since then, there has been an increase in the use of this additional chamber, which provides a different dynamic to that present in the more partisan House of Commons.
Westminster Hall is only allowed to host adjournment debates – in other words a debate that will not lead to a vote. Whilst this means that legislative business per se is not discussed in the chamber, it provides an invaluable opportunity for backbenchers to raise issues of importance that would not otherwise be given Parliamentary attention. Many backbenchers use Westminster Hall to raise awareness of issues that are particularly pertinent to their constituency, but they can also be used to discuss and debate issues of national and even international importance. Debates tend to be less partisan than in the Commons, and the tone of the debate is also often more mellow.
Chris White’s speech opening the debate focused on the growth and the success of the social enterprise model, and he cited statistics showing that more social enterprises have seen a growth in turnover over the past year compared to SMEs. Continuing on that trend, social enterprises are more likely to expect to take on additional employees in the next twelve months, which shows that the social enterprise model is strengthening and proving to be successful.
Whilst there is no uniformly accepted definition of a social enterprise, Mr White defined the model as “a way of reforming our economy so that we combine competitiveness and profitability with social justice and fairness; a way of spreading growth across the country, so that all communities can benefit; and a way of engaging with parts of our society that have found it difficult to get involved in our economy, and allowing their talents to shine.”
Mr White argued that social enterprises are a new model of business which will ensure growth does not lead merely to higher profits, but reinvests profits into communities and back into the pockets of ordinary people. He argued that the Government should collate more statistics pertinent to the social enterprise sector so help provide a better picture of the strength of the sector, and allow progress to be tracked.
Responding for the Government Jo Swinson MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, explained that the Government is supporting the social enterprise sector through the regional growth fund, the European regional development fund, and community interest companies. This, she argued, has helped see the size of the social investment market increase passed £200 million, up more than £50 million over the past three years.
The debate is an interesting read for those involved with the social enterprise sector, and it is encouraging to see that the Government is taking the development of the sector so seriously. Towards the end of the debate Ms Swinson suggested that the Government is considering further action to support social enterprises, and this is something we will keep a close eye on during the next budget. In the meantime, political observers should continue to keep an eye on the order paper to see what business is coming up in Westminster Hall, as you never know what topics of interest will appear on the agenda.