Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report



The current time constraints

84. The changes we have recommended for immediate implementation on an experimental basis are relatively minor. In essence they merely rejig certain parts of the Parliamentary calendar without fundamentally altering the basic pattern. Although they will in our view go some way to meeting one of the two essential purposes of reform, which is to enable Members properly to perform their Parliamentary and constituency duties, they will have little effect one way or the other on the overall effectiveness of the House in legislating, debating the major issues and holding the Executive to account.

85. So far as legislation is concerned, successive Governments have complained that there is simply not enough time in the legislative programme for a number of worthy, essentially non party-political and basically uncontroversial, measures, which are thereby condemned to languish on departmental shelves. Understandably priority is given to fulfilling manifesto commitments. We have received submissions from the Law Commission urging that time be provided for bills drafted by them. This is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other cases where legislation is desirable if only time could be found.

86. The same is true of debate. The House of Commons has been described as "the grand forum of the nation", when the great issues of the day can be discussed. Yet week after week at Thursday business questions successive Leaders of the House have been compelled to answer calls from all sides of the House for debates on such issues with versions of the traditional response "Not next week", which in many cases is a euphemism for "Never". The traditional pattern of the Parliamentary year is so set in concrete that the chances to debate topical issues of burning importance are far too severely limited. This applies equally to international, national and local constituency issues.

87. One of the most effective means of scrutinising the Executive is the select committee system. Much has been done to improve the effectiveness of select committees in recent years, yet there remains much more that could be done, above all in the link between committees and the House. The Report from the Liaison Committee in the last Parliament (HC 323 (1996-97)) indicates that fewer than 10 per cent of all select committee reports were fully debated in the House, and over two-thirds were not even given an incidental mention as relevant to a debate. The current Liaison Committee has submitted a paper to us (attached as an Appendix to this Report) which makes the case for almost every select committee report to be noted by the House in some way or another, though not necessarily by means of a traditional debate on the adjournment.

88. The Procedure Committee is currently carrying out an inquiry into the House's financial procedures. The outcome of this is not yet known, but it is almost inevitable that any changes designed to bring about more effective scrutiny will involve select committees and time in the House. As the Liaison Committee Report makes clear, one of the reasons why the current Estimates days have in practice become simply debates on select committee reports is the lack of other time available for such debates. If that were provided by other means, there would be more scope for detailed financial scrutiny of the Government's spending programme based on studies and reports from select committees.

89. One of our major tasks has, therefore, been to see if a sensible and practical way can be devised of easing the constraints we have described in such a way that the collective effectiveness of the House as a whole can be strengthened without weakening the constituency role of individual Members.

The Australian model

90. During our preliminary discussions on the Parliamentary calendar our attention was drawn to an article in The Table (the Journal of the Society of Clerks-At-The-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments) about the operation in the Australian House of Representatives of what is called there "The Main Committee". In the light of this we invited the Clerk of the House of Representatives in Canberra to submit a paper to us on the Main Committee; this is appended to this Report. We are extremely grateful to our Australian colleagues for their help.

91. Although designated as "The Main Committee", this new body which was first established in 1994 is in effect a second or parallel Chamber, and is often referred to as such. It was originally established as a means of enabling the House to deal more effectively with legislation, by enabling non-controversial legislation to be discussed at greater length while freeing the Chamber for longer debates on more controversial issues. Its remit was subsequently expanded to include debates on committee reports and Government papers. At the end of last year a further provision was made to permit short adjournment debates and statements by Members. (In Australian terms these procedures are very roughly akin to the weekly business questions at Westminster and the three hour Wednesday morning adjournment debate immediately prior to a recess.)

92. The Main Committee follows very largely the same procedures as the House itself, and is presided over by the Deputy Speaker, with the Deputy Clerk as Clerk. There is, however, one essential difference. As the paper makes clear, the guiding principle for its successful operation is co-operation. It can only consider business referred to it by the House, and it can only make decisions on any question by unanimity. If there is one dissenting voice, the question is recorded as unresolved, and has to be reported to the House for decision there. Even unanimous decisions have to be confirmed by the House. The Chair has no power to name or suspend any Member; in the event of disorder the Committee is suspended and the matter reported to the House. The Main Committee can only sit when the House itself is sitting, and thus has to be adjourned immediately if the House itself adjourns.

93. As the paper from Canberra makes clear, there were Australian Members who felt when the Main Committee was first mooted that debate in the House itself would be devalued, and that matters considered in the Main Committee would be seen as less important. After some 3½ years' experience, comments are now overwhelmingly positive, even from those Members who had expressed initial reservations. "There are encouraging signs of more responsive debate, and although it deals with supposedly "uncontroversial" matters, debate at times can be very spirited".

94. There is therefore a recent precedent for some form of parallel chamber being established in a Commonwealth Parliament which has much in common with the Westminster model. Australia of course has its own particular needs and traditions and rightly has adapted its procedures to meet these without slavishly following Westminster practice. The reverse is equally true, and the House would not expect any "Main Committee", if it were to be established at Westminster, to follow the Australian practice in every instance. In the following paragraphs we put forward some ideas for the House's consideration on how a "Main Committee" here might work in practice should the House favour such a proposal in principle.


95. There would be a strong case that all proceedings in the forum should take place only with consensus. There should be unanimous agreement as to the business to be transacted, and there should be no formal votes. Any matter discussed on which there is not complete agreement should be referred back to the House for decision. It is perhaps more open to discussion whether, if the new body were to be unanimous on a decision, for example to give a second reading to a non-controversial bill, it would be necessary, as in Australia, for the decision to be ratified by the House without debate. Initially it might be wise to do so to gain confidence for the system. There should be a totally different atmosphere and style of debate, as has been the case in Australia, and the concept of a "Main Committee" would not be out of line with what we said in our First Report of last Session about the way in which more legislation could be better considered.


96. It would probably be right that the Chairman of Ways and Means as Deputy Speaker should take the Chair, supported by the Clerk Assistant at any rate for initial proceedings. In Australia the creation of the Main Committee resulted in the appointment of a Second Deputy Speaker. It would be for those responsible to consider whether a similar additional appointment should be made here, the holder of which would be able to assist in the House as well, or whether the existing Deputy Speakers should be supported by senior members of the Chairmen's Panel.

General procedures

97. Procedures in the new body should largely follow the practice of the House, apart from the need to have complete consensus for taking any decision. We would not advocate a relaxation of the House's rule against speaking more than once on any question, although on occasion (by agreement) a certain latitude might be permissible.

Name of new body

98. As we indicated in our Seventh Report of last Session in relation to a new title for what is now the European Scrutiny Committee, "Nomenclature is something which always gives rise to fierce argument, and, no solution ever pleases everyone." There would be difficulties in adopting the title "Main Committee" or any other title containing the word "Committee" since the whole purpose of the new body would be to be the House itself meeting under an alternative guise and on a different basis, and not just a committee with all the connotations of that word. On the other hand there are difficulties in referring to "the Second Chamber" or variations of that in a Westminster context. For the moment we use the phrase "Main Committee" without prejudice to any final decision the House might take.

Place and times of meeting

99. In the short term at any rate, there would be only two practical choices for a venue for the "Main Committee", Committee Room 14 and the Grand Committee Room, Westminster Hall. On balance we prefer the latter. It is removed from the main Committee Corridor, and it would thus be much easier for Members and others to get away from any concept that it is just a glorified committee by another name. It would also be more easily accessible for the general public; it would be extremely important that as many members of the public as possible should be enabled to see proceedings. Clearly the responsible authorities would need to redesign the current layout of the Grand Committee Room to make it suitable for a "Main Committee". This could initially be done without great expense. There would be a case for the seating for Members to be arranged in a horseshoe style rather than as in the present Chamber in order to emphasise the new consensual style of debates which should characterise the "Main Committee", although such a change would not be favoured by all Members.

100. So far as times of meeting are concerned there could be benefit in adopting a slightly more flexible approach to possible times of meeting for the "Main Committee" than is permissible in Australia, where the Main Committee can only meet while the House itself is sitting. It might be right, initially at any rate, to allow the "Main Committee" to sit only on days when the House is sitting, but a rather greater flexibility over hours would be desirable. The exact hours would clearly depend on the hours the House itself sits. It would seem sensible to provide that, as in Australia, the "Main Committee" should not sit during Question Time and Ministerial statements.

101. If the "Main Committee" were only to meet when the House itself was not sitting, it would of course be theoretically possible for meetings to be held in the Chamber. There would, however, be practical problems over this, as well as a major issue of perception. Some of the objections to which we have referred in a previous section about limitations on the line of route would be much stronger if such a course were to be adopted. More importantly there would be total confusion in the minds of Members, let alone the public at large, as to what body was actually meeting. If it was in the Chamber, in what way would it not be the Chamber itself? Would it not be far simpler to propose that the Chamber itself sat for longer hours? These are the sort of points that the House would doubtless bear in mind in considering this matter.

Media coverage

102. In principle any "Main Committee" which might be created should be treated in exactly the same way as the House itself so far as television coverage is concerned, in other words its proceedings should be televised throughout. In the short term this would simply not be possible. There would be a number of practical and technical difficulties, and there would of course be considerable financial implications. The appropriate authorities would need to give urgent consideration to ways of ensuring that as extensive as possible a television coverage of the proceedings of the "Main Committee" from its inception could be provided, if the House decided to have such a body.

103. So far as the press is concerned, the shape and layout of the Grand Committee Room (and of Committee Room 14) clearly impose far greater restrictions on press access than are necessary in the Press Gallery of the Chamber. Many of the debates in the "Main Committee" would be of far more interest to specialist journalists than to members of the Lobby and "political" journalists. Serious consideration would need to be given by those responsible, and in particular by the Administration Committee, to the provision of appropriate facilities for the media.

Referral of business

104. The business to be transacted in the "Main Committee" could be announced by the Leader of the House on a Thursday afternoon in exactly the same way as the House's business is. There would of course have been extensive discussions between the usual channels (and perhaps with other Members particularly concerned) before any announcement. The current practice of announcing two weeks' business in advance, with the second week provisional, should ensure that any possible difficulties unforseen by the usual channels would emerge in questioning to the Leader of the House; if it transpired that there were such difficulties, the business could be changed. Alternatively, it would of course be possible for the House to follow the Australian model by which all business transacted in the Main Committee is specifically referred on a motion in the House.

Type of business to be considered

105. We have already indicated in earlier paragraphs of this Report that there could be a role for the "Main Committee" in three of the principal functions of the House, namely legislation, debate on important issues and scrutiny. In an Annex to the Report we have analysed a fairly typical session of the last Parliament with a view to seeing which items of business, which could be described as non-controversial, might have been taken in a "Main Committee", had one existed. The list is quite lengthy, and the time spent on this business, amounting to almost 400 hours in all, accounted for some 30% of the overall hours for which the House sat in the session.

106. The exact balance of business which might be considered would need careful consideration. Initially nothing too ambitious should be attempted. As a general principle emphasis should be placed on non-controversial legislation, on select committee reports and on private Members' time, and as well as on Government adjournment motions. There might be scope also for consideration of European legislation (on which we reported last Session) in the medium term, and perhaps also secondary legislation, on which we may report later. In considering items of business proper attention would have to be given to the demands on Ministers' time. Not all items of business to be considered would have to be motions for the adjournment.

Potential impact on the House's business and on the Parliamentary calendar

107. In any decision that the House may come to on the possible establishment of a "Main Committee" Members will need to be aware of the potential impact such a reform, if successful and fully operational, could have both on the way that the House conducts its business and on the structure of the Parliamentary calendar. In the next few paragraphs we instance just a few of the possible areas for which there could be implications.

Allocation of time among Government, Opposition and Private Members

108. At present there are 20 Opposition days. 13 Fridays are allocated for private Members' bills. Every Wednesday morning from 9.30 am to 2.00 pm is also essentially private Members' time, as is the half-hour adjournment at the end of each sitting. Three Estimates days are at the disposal of the Liaison Committee. The remainder of the time is at the disposal of the Government, although as the memorandum from the then President of the Council makes clear, by convention a number of days are set aside for particular matters.

109. If there were to be extra time available as a result of a "Main Committee" full discussions would need to take place among all interested parties as to how this time might be used and what sort of business should have priority.

Questions and Statements

110. There is little doubt that the House is at its fullest, and there is the greatest attendance by Members, the media and the public, for Question Time and statements. Both are currently subject to great time pressures. The time for oral questions is limited, and it is never possible to complete the list of questions set down (which is often only a small proportion of those submitted for tabling) nor to call all supplementary questions. Although there is no fixed time limit for statements, the Speaker is often forced to cut them short to protect other business, and the Government, for the same reason, may have to announce a policy by written answer rather than by oral statement. With extra time available, consideration could be given both to extending Question Time, and perhaps having a fixed (and reasonably generous) time for statements. There is no doubt that if this were possible there would be greater accountability of Ministers.


111. The potential extra time created as a result of a "Main Committee" would provide a possibility for Fridays to be non-sitting or constituency days.

Fixed calendar

112. The House of Commons in Ottawa operates on a fixed calendar. A memorandum from the Clerk of the House of Commons in Canada which we have received includes the Parliamentary calendar up to and including the year 2001.[1]It can of course be adjusted in an emergency, and has been on occasions, but it is regarded as having an integral role in the functioning of the House. As we have already stated, uncertainty over the dates of the summer recess in particular is one of the prime causes of dissatisfaction here. We recognise the constraints imposed by the present pattern of business here, not least in the current session, but the creation of a "Main Committee" would allow this issue to be re-examined.

A more even pattern of sitting

113. Another cause of dissatisfaction, particularly but by no means exclusively felt by Scottish Members, is the late rising for the summer recess. A majority of Members would like to be able to rise by the middle of July at the latest, and indeed the Jopling Report recommended this. The Government paper submitted to us foresees little prospect in the medium term of it being possible to achieve a rising before late July. Again we recognise the constraints, but the advent of a "Main Committee" could make it more feasible.

114. As a corollary to a earlier rising, and in order to ensure greater accountability to the House throughout the year, there could be a case for the House to sit for at any rate the major part of September, and many Members have advocated this, although it is not universally popular. The introduction of "Committee weeks" could be perhaps the starting point; this could be followed by meetings of the "Main Committee" as well during that period, if not the House itself, and perhaps the opportunity for at any rate written questions

to be tabled and answered.

Disadvantages of a "Main Committee"

115. The principal anxiety which has emerged in our discussions of a "Main Committee" is that which was expressed in Canberra when the idea was mooted there, that it will devalue the Chamber itself as the focus of the House's activities. There is also a feeling that Members might face a conflict of interests in determining which debate to attend. The House will need to take these anxieties into account in deciding whether or not some form of "Main Committee" is introduced.

The next stage

116. We are not at this stage advocating the introduction of a "Main Committee" even on an experimental basis. It is a radical innovation which all Members will wish to consider with care, not only as to the principle but as to how it might work in practice. We have thought it right to set the idea out in some detail so that Members can let us have their views on the basis of as much information as possible. We invite all Members to send us their comments both on the concept of a "Main Committee" and on how it might work in practice by the time the House returns from the Christmas recess. In the light of the views expressed, we will then decide whether or not to undertake further work on how such a proposal might be implemented.

1   In 2001 the Canadian House of Commons will sit on the following days:

5 February - 2 March

12 March - 6 April

23 April - 18 May

28 May - 8 June

(possibly) 11-22 June

17 September - 5 October

15 October - 9 November

19 November - 14 December Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1998
Prepared 7 December 1998