Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report


78. The Government paper proposes that certain weeks might be designated as "Committee weeks" when the House itself would not sit, but when both standing and select committees might specifically choose to meet. It instances in particular a period in September (paragraph 22) but not did rule out the Easter and late spring recesses.

79. So far as standing committees are concerned, the Government proposals simply reiterate what we have already recommended. In our First Report we specifically urged, as part of the process for improving the scrutiny of legislation, "removal of many of the constraints and conventions on the times during which a [standing] committee may meet and the number and timing of sittings, including the extension to standing committees of the facility available to select committees to meet during recesses". We envisage that any meetings of standing committees in a recess would be subject to agreement through the usual channels.

80. Our Report was agreed by the House, but the necessary changes to Standing Orders have not yet been made. It is now essential that appropriate sessional orders be made, not just to meet this proposal from the Government, but also, as we have already indicated, to cope with the changes to the timing of Thursday sittings.

81. As the Government paper indicates, in the immediate future, given the current pattern of legislation, September sittings for standing committees would be the exception rather than the rule. Should our proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny, programming and carry-over of bills develop further, and should other more radical reforms to the calendar take place, greater use of this power might prove invaluable. Equally invaluable would be the power, under an agreed programme and in certain circumstances, for standing committees to have meetings either immediately after the rising of the House for a recess or immediately before its return.

82. Select committees (with the exception of the Public Accounts Committee) already have power to sit when the House is not meeting. Increasing use is being made of this power, particularly in the current long summer recess. There are obvious advantages in this from the point of view of the committee. It can plan a concentrated period of evidence taking, formal or informal, at or away from Westminster, in the knowledge that it will not be disrupted by unexpected votes or debates in the House. We certainly have no intention of making it compulsory for any select committee to meet at all during a recess, or to hold any recess meeting in a designated "Committee week"; it is a fundamental principle of select committee practice that they are the masters of their own agenda. However, in planning their programmes the knowledge that certain times of the year would be recognised as working periods for them (as happens in some other Parliaments) could assist their planning process and could also assist them in getting proper recognition and publicity for their work, which is something which they have rightly sought. The period in September envisaged in the Government's memorandum could be particularly useful for select committees undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of draft bills, as recommended in our First Report; it was so used this year by the Social Security Committee.

83. We therefore reiterate our previous recommendation that standing committees be given power to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House and to sit at any time on a day when the House is meeting (subject to a proviso that this should not include the period of Question Time). We also recommend that a period in September be designated as "Committee weeks".

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Prepared 7 December 1998