Revisiting Rebuilding the House – Select Committees

UKcommitteeThe UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee (PCRC) released its Third Report of Session 2013-14, Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms. The Wright reforms are those recommendations put forward by the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (aka the Wright Committee, after its chair, Dr Tony Wright). In the spring of 2010, the House of Commons voted to approve and give effect to many of those recommendations, which took effect at the start of the new Parliament following the May 2010 general election.

The PCRC launched its inquiry in order to assess to what extend the Wright reforms have succeeded in making the Commons matter more, in particular vis-à-vis the Executive, in giving the public a greater voice in parliamentary proceedings, and to identify which proposed reforms have not yet been implemented and why.

It is a very comprehensive report, and anyone interested in parliamentary reform would do well to read it in its entirety. I will provide a brief overview across a number of posts of the report’s main findings, beginning with the section on Select Committees.

The Wright report recommended many changes to the the UK House of Commons select committee system. These included changing the way committee members and chairs were selected – namely, departmental and similar select committee chairs are now elected by secret ballot by the whole House, while members of those committees are elected by their respective caucuses using transparent and democratic means. Those unfamiliar with this process can read more about it in this earlier post. Another recommendation was the creation of a Backbench Business Committee.

These changes to the select committee system have been examined in greater detail by the Liaison Committee in their report Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers, while the Procedure Committee has reviewed the Backbench Business Committee. During the course of its own evidence hearings, the PCRC found broad agreement that the changes brought about have had a positive impact. The election of committee chairs and members was singled out for reinforcing the select committees’ credibility and authority, making the committees more self-confident, which in turn has led to select committees having a larger media impact. There is now “a greater willingness on the part of some select committees” to undertake forensic inquiries (p. 9) which in the past might have been assigned to a judge or independent inquiry.

One important area which requires further work is that of building better links between the Chamber and committees. Traditionally, there haven’t been specific opportunities for committee reports to be debated in the House. The Backbench Business Committee has attempted to rectify this by providing more outlets for the work of select committees, but “the idea of statements by chairs on the publication of select committee reports is taking time to find its feet.” (p. 10) The report suggests that more Chamber statements by committee chairs on the publication of their reports should be encouraged and that the discussions taking place between the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee aimed at improving this procedure are welcomed.

The report identifies a number of continuing challenges, namely:

  1. lack of diversity of committee membership;
  2. problems with maintaining quorums;
  3. minority party representation.

Despite committee members being “elected” in some way by their respective caucuses, some witnesses testified that “it had not done anything to promote the election of ‘Members who are prepared to challenge the mainstream view and raise issues that do not have widespread support across all the main parties, for example in relation to climate change or international development.'” There was also the problem of finding people to serve on committees when vacancies occurred: “Instead of organising contested elections for committee places, Whips increasingly spend their time ‘trying to find somebody who might be willing to go on a Committee where there is a vacancy.'” (p. 11) Even at full membership, there are so many demands on an MP’s time now that it has become increasingly difficult to maintain a quorum.

The issue of minority party representation is a particularly difficult one. The Wright report had recommended smaller select committees; however, if minority parties are to be incorporated, then the larger parties wanted more members. As MP Pete Wishart of the Scottish Nationalist Party explained, the committee reforms were:

an absolute disaster for the minority parties. What we have effectively got now with the Wright reforms is two constituencies: the Government and the Labour Opposition. There is no place for us at all practically in any of the structures of the new Committee procedures in the House of Commons … We represent a huge constituency throughout the rest of the country and our voice is not heard in the Committees of the House. (p. 11)

The options to address this problem are either make the committees larger, or partly suspending the rules on party balance on select committees. The PCRC prefers the latter option. It also suggests that a process could be put in place to fill vacancies on committees with minority party Members.

The last part of this section of the report focuses on the role of select committees and the legislative process. Bills, after second reading, go to public bills committees, but the PCRC found many witnesses who supported a greater role for select committees in pre-legislative scrutiny and made the following recommendation:

35.  We believe that pre-legislative scrutiny must in future be an integral and mandatory part of the process of consideration for every public bill. The only exceptions should be cases in which there is an accepted and pressing need for immediate legislation. This principle should be reflected in an amended or new Standing Order which should contains words similar to these: “No public bill shall be presented unless a) a draft of the bill has received pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of the House or a joint committee of both Houses, or b) it has been certified by the Speaker as a bill that requires immediate scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny would be inexpedient.” (p. 14)

The PCRC also looked at the situation in respect of the public bills committees mentioned above, as well as the ad hoc committees on draft bills. Membership of these committees is appointed the “old” way – by the Committee of Selection – and many witnesses testified that this should be reviewed and modernised. The report recommends:

36.  It is unacceptable that appointments to public bill committees and ad hoc committees on draft bills are not even approved by the House, and often ignore the claims of Members with specialised knowledge. As a minimum the House should be asked to endorse, and where it so wishes amend, the proposed membership of public bill committees. An amendment would be required to Standing Order No. 86. Ideally the membership should be elected for such committees on the same basis as for select committees. We welcome some of the ideas recently put forward by the Hansard Society, and await with interest the results of the Procedure Committee’s current inquiry into public bill committees.

37.   Similar considerations apply to the Commons membership of joint committees on draft bills; we see no reason why elections should not be held for membership of these committees.(p. 15)

As noted at the end of point #36 above, the Procedure Committee has just launched a new inquiry into into the Committee of Selection and membership of General Committees.

My next post on this report will look at the Backbench Business Committee.

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