Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report


Memorandum submitted by Mrs Angela Browning MP and Mr Richard Shepherd MP

The Majority Report reflects the opinion of the Modernisation Select Committee that the Sessional Order of 7 November 2000 is not working.

As a general observation it has not secured the proper consideration of bills and it now ensures, because of the principled opposition of the Opposition, that the House consistently rises later than it has hitherto in this Parliament.

As many feared, the Sessional Order has increased the power of the Executive over the timetable of bills in Standing Committee and denied the House the ability to cover shortfalls on consideration.

Every bill this session has been guillotined. Few enquiries if any are made of the Official Opposition or opposition parties as to what time may be necessary to properly discharge the duty of scrutiny. This may perhaps best be illustrated by reference to the Criminal Justice and Police Bill. The out time from Standing Committee, which had been set immediately after Second Reading and without any reference to the weight of issues raised at Second Reading, simply proved inadequate. When the guillotine fell at 7 pm in Standing Committee the Committee had only reached Clause 90 out of 132. There were amendments yet to be considered, including Government amendments. Those experienced members who chaired the Committee were clear that there had been no filibustering. The whole of Part III, from Clause 49 to Clause 69, had also not been considered. The Guillotine arrangements for Report Stage were also so tight that clauses and amendments which had not been considered in Standing Committee were not considered at Report.

As Mr Simon Hughes said on the floor of the House:

    'Debate on the early parts of the Bill was often guillotined and we did not fully consider the rest, so it is true to say that we had not properly considered many measures, including significant clauses.' (Hansard col 750)

As the House knows, the Government tabled a Motion stating that:

    'the Bill shall be deemed to have been reported to the House, as amended by the Committee and as if those Clauses and Schedules the consideration of which has not been completed by the Committee has been ordered to stand part of the Bill with the outstanding Amendments which stood on the Order Paper in the name of Mr Charles Clarke.'

The Speaker advised the House that there is no precedent for such a Motion (Hansard col 728).

The Shadow Leader of the House said at col 738:

    'If we are to accept tonight that a Committee and all its outstanding business, which I shall mention in a moment, are deemed to have been considered and concluded, why do we not deem Second Reading debates to have been completed? Why do we not deem Report stages to have been completed? Why do we not deem ourselves to be elsewhere, and allow some robots to sit on these Benches and legislate on behalf of the people of this country?'

We do not believe that it is in the interest of the House and of its standing among those whom we are elected by to pass a motion that is an untruth. Nor is it proper to consign to the Lords an unconsidered bill.

The Select Committee in writing its Report would permit no analysis of what has actually happened to consideration of bills under the Sessional Order of 7 November 2000. We believe this would have been a helpful exercise to the Select Committee and the House in assessing whether the Sessional Order has achieved the aim of properly scrutinising bills.

Of the 'beliefs' expressed in the Select Committee Majority Report, in paragraph 7:

'We believe that if these procedural approaches are supported by all we will have improved the legislative 'terms of trade' to the benefit of everyone: et seq.'

We reject the view that it improves the 'terms of trade' for everyone. It is clearly to the disadvantage of the Official Opposition, to the expressed disadvantage of backbenchers and minorities and to the balance between the majority and the minority within the House. It has strengthened the Government's control over procedures with no discernible concession to the Opposition. It is true that the Government will get greater certainty for this legislative timetable. The proposition that Opposition parties and backbenchers will get greater opportunities to debate and vote on the issues of most concern to them simply has not been borne out by experience in this Session of the experiment of systematic guillotining of all bills. Similarly the evidence of this Session is that the House has not scrutinised legislation better and we would refer back to the Government Motion of 12 March, to which we have previously made reference, as indicative of this failure.

In April 1985 the Select Committee on Procedure published a report (HC 49 1984-85) recommending that timetables should be set up at the start of Standing Committee debates on all controversial bills. This report was debated on 27 February 1986, but rejected by the House by a majority of 65. John Biffen (the then Leader of the House) maintained that on balance Governments would be advantaged by the Procedure Committee's proposals and stressed, 'Every Government is tomorrow's possible Opposition'.

The efficient working of the House is dependent on a degree of tolerance and forbearance by the majority towards Opposition and minority opinion. The present Sessional Order, brought in contrary to the expressed principled opposition of the Opposition and minorities, has denied the House its central role of properly examining Government legislation. We are concerned that if the majority does not permit proper scrutiny of its bills the relevance of Parliament to the citizen will continue to decline.

We regret that in seeking to amend the procedures of the Programming of Bills, the Modernisation Committee has not taken evidence from Members of Parliament, the Clerk of the House, nor apparently consulted the Speaker with regard to Speaker's Rulings that relate to these procedures. Neither has there been any structured analysis of the obvious defects in the proceedings set out in the Sessional Order made by the House on 7 November 2000, relating to Programming.

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