Rebuilding the House - House of Commons Reform Committee Contents


1.(a) We should seek to enhance the House of Commons' control over its own agenda, timetable and procedures, in consultation with Government and Opposition, whilst doing nothing to reduce or compromise such powers where they already exist;
(b) We should seek to enhance the collective power of the Chamber as a whole, and to promote non-adversarial ways of working, without impeding the ability of the parties to debate key issues of their choosing; and to give individual Members greater opportunities;
(c) We should seek to enhance the transparency of the House's decision making to Members and to the public, and to increase the ability of the public to influence and understand parliamentary proceedings;
(d) We should recognise that the Government is entitled to a guarantee of having its own business, and in particular Ministerial legislation, considered at a time of its own choosing, and concluded by a set date;
(e) We should recognise that time in the Chamber, Westminster Hall and committees is necessarily limited, and therefore should work broadly within the existing framework of sitting days and sitting hours;
(f) Changes should be devised with sensitivity to real-world political constraints, and in a way which maximises the likelihood of achieving majority support in the House.
These principles have informed our deliberations and are reflected in our approach to the specific matters on which we have been asked to report. We aim to make the Commons matter more, increase its vitality, and rebalance its relationship with the executive. (Paragraphs 22 to 35)
2.It must in our view be right that a transparent means be found for the House as a whole to elect the House's three principal office-holders below the Speaker. As we have discovered in our examination of the appointment of members and Chairs of select committees it is not easy to find a generally acceptable and fair procedure. It is now for the House to consider the Procedure Committee's Report. (Paragraph 40)
3.In this report we will wherever possible use the term "Chair" to denote the individual chairing a committee, and "chair" to denote the office held, save where a particular officer is meant, such as the Chairman of Ways and Means. We hope that the House will soon follow this practice. (Paragraph 37)
4.(a) It should be for the House and not for the Executive to choose which of its Members should scrutinise the Executive: the House should also have a strong if not decisive influence on the identity of the Chair.
(b) The system by which parties select names to put forward to the Committee of Selection, and by which the whips divide up chairmanships between the parties, is very far from transparent.
(c) The credibility of select committees could be enhanced by a greater and more visible element of democracy in the election of members and Chairs. (Paragraphs 72-74)
5.We recommend an initial system of election by the whole House of Chairs of departmental and similar select committees, and thereafter the election by secret ballot of members of those committees by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House, and using transparent and democratic means. The committees within this system should be those appointed under SO No 152 [ the departmental select committees] together with the Environmental Audit Committee, the Public Administration Committee and the Committee of Public Accounts. We have concluded that of the four options we considered this is the system most likely to demonstrate the determination of the House more effectively to hold the executive to account, to give more authority to the scrutiny function of Parliament and at the same time to preserve the effective functioning of select committees. (Paragraph 80)
Election of members
6.We propose that in the new Parliament members of departmental and similar select committees should be elected by secret ballot within party groups, by transparent and democratic processes, with the outcome reported to and endorsed by the House. Party groups would in effect be acting on behalf of the House as electoral colleges. They would therefore expect to act under some constraints as to the methods used to elect committee members. We do not think it necessary that the House should interfere so far as to lay down one particular method of election rather than another. But the method chosen should be one approved by the Speaker, following independent advice, as transparent and democratic: "kite-marked" as legitimate in effect. Officers nominated by the Speaker would be obliged to assure themselves that the processes followed by each party, as notified by its Leader, were indeed in accordance with these norms. And each party would be obliged to publish the method it had adopted. (Paragraphs 87-88)
Distribution of chairs
7.For the first running of a new system we recognise that the House may prefer to rely, as it has for many years, on the party managers coming to an agreement on distribution of chairs on the basis of established conventions. But we do recommend a greater degree of transparency. We recommend that the House return to examination of this and other options for distribution of the chairs when the rest of our recommendations and conclusions are reviewed two years into a new Parliament. (Paragraphs 82-83)
8.We consider that under any system the principal select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen's Speech and that this should be laid down in Standing Orders and capable of being enforced by the Speaker. (Paragraph 56)
Size, number and attendance
9.We propose that the new House of Commons reduce the size of its standard departmental committees to not more than 11; Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties. We also recommend that the practice of appointing parliamentary private secretaries and front bench Official Opposition spokesmen should cease. We believe there should be clear consequences for unreasonable absence from select committees. The House must also seek to reduce the numbers of committees, ending overlapping or duplicate remits and rationing the scarce resource of Members time and commitment. (Paragraph 55)
Intelligence and Security Committee
10.It is unsatisfactory that any reforms we recommend to the system of election of members and Chairs of the House's select committees cannot be applied at the same time to the Intelligence and Security Committee. We recommend that the Committee be regarded as one whose chair is held by convention by a Member from the majority party; that candidates wishing to stand for election by the House to the chair of the Committee should be obliged to seek in advance of the ballot the formal consent of the Prime Minister for their candidature, to be notified in writing; and that thereafter the procedure should be as for other departmental and similar select committee chairs. (Paragraph 59)
Role, resources and tasks of select committees
11.We consider that the Liaison Committee should re-examine the current role of select committees, their resources and their tasks, and in particular how to deal with the increasing demands of time made of Members as their role grows. (Paragraph 93)
12.The default position is that time "belongs" to the Government, subject to a number of exceptions and practices which allow others to influence and even determine the agenda. Put crudely, and subject to maintaining a majority, the Government enjoys not merely precedence but exclusive domination of much of the House's agenda, and can stop others seeking similar control. (Paragraph 126)
13.Ownership of the time of the House is to be distinguished from responsibility for sponsoring or promoting the business before it. There is a strong case for regarding all time as the House's time. It is not the Government that seeks debate but the House: what the Government needs are the decisions which enable it to carry out its programme. (Paragraph 129)
14.The agenda should fall to be decided by the House, if need be by a majority. The straightforward way of doing that is by putting a motion to the House on a set day and time each week. A draft agenda for the second week should also be announced to the House at the same time as the formal agenda Motion, and on broadly the same provisional basis as at present. (Paragraphs 169-170)
15.A votable motion on the agenda provides a traditional accountability mechanism for such decisions, and ultimately a sanction were the wishes of a majority of the House to be misjudged or ignored. Any programme which requires the positive approval of the House will necessarily be drawn up—and we deal below with how and by whom it is to be drawn up—with the intention of satisfying a clear majority of members and delivering to the Government sufficient time to get the business it initiates through the House. (Paragraph 174)
16.There is no reason why there should as a rule be a vote on the agenda, all the more once it has been the subject of wider discussion than at present and will have been exposed in draft the previous week. The Speaker's power of selection of amendments would be required to ensure that merely destructive amendments were not selected and that a proposition coming from the House Business Committee (described below) was treated with respect. (Paragraph 171-172)
Backbench business
17.Backbenchers should schedule backbench business. On some business there needs to be an explicit partnership between Ministerial and backbench scheduling. But it is in our view time for members of the House, through a committee of their elected colleagues, to take some responsibility for what the House debates, when and for how long; and also for what it does not wish to debate, either at all or at its current length. (Paragraph 176-178)
18.We therefore recommend that a Backbench Business Committee be created. It should be comprised of between seven and nine members elected by secret ballot of the House as a whole, with safeguards to ensure a due reflection of party proportionality in the House as a whole. The Chair would also be elected by ballot of the whole House. Frontbench members of all parties and PPSs would be ineligible for membership of the committee. The committee would have its own secretariat, provided by the Clerk of the House. To ensure that it was fully informed on a range of considerations affecting the scheduling of debates, such as the availability of Ministers, it might wish to invite the attendance of the Government's business managers for part of the meeting. The committee would meet weekly to consider the competing claims for time made by select committees and backbenchers in groups or as individuals for the protected days and/or time-slots available in the two weeks ahead, and then to come to a firm view on the backbench business in the week immediately ahead. (Paragraph 180)
Ministerial business
19.Ministers should continue to have the first call on House time for Ministerial business, meaning Ministerial-sponsored primary and secondary legislation and associated motions, substantive non-legislative motions required in support of their policies and Ministerial statements on major policy changes. (Paragraph 182)
20.The Government's right to have the opportunity to put its legislative and other propositions to the House, at a day of its choosing, should not however extend to deciding without any reference to the House for how long these are to be debated by the House. (Paragraph 184)
Opposition business
21.The Official Opposition and other Opposition parties should continue to have a pre-emptive right to their fixed number of days, to be spread evenly through a session. There is a case for the Opposition parties to be given more say on when they can take such a day or half day. A wider range of business could be taken rather than what has now become the standard fare on Opposition Days of two debates of three hours each, dominated by the front-benches We also consider that the subjects of Opposition Day motions should normally be laid down with at least two days' notice. (Paragraphs 188-190)
Select Committees
22.Select committees, including those concerned with the House's own affairs, deserve greater access to the agenda, so that they can have their reports debated and decided upon a substantive motion, at a time which best suits them and the House. (Paragraph 191)
23.Individual backbenchers must continue to be able to raise subjects as adjournment debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall, and to press legislation through Private Members' Bills, as well as participating in debate and questioning. In addition, any revised system must respond to the widespread sense that the right should be restored to Members to get a substantive motion put to the House and decided. (Paragraph 192)
Overall system
24.In summary, we envisage a system whereby Ministers indicate as now the business they intend to bring forward, principally legislation and related motions. It would not be realistic, or indeed reasonable, to expect Government to surrender control over these decisions to a committee of backbench Members. Ministers quite rightly want to determine the broad timing of the legislation they sponsor. At the same time, a committee of backbenchers should be set up to bring forward proposals to the House for backbench business. The Opposition should have some greater say than at present in when it uses its Opposition Days. Select committees and backbench Members deserve enhanced access to the House agenda. By giving Members greater control of the agenda, we are confident that the House of Commons will be strengthened. (Paragraph 195)
House Business Committee
25.Our preferred solution is to have two committees. The task of assembling a draft agenda to put to the House should be undertaken by a unified House Business Committee, comprised of representatives of all parts of the House with a direct interest: backbenchers, Government and Opposition. The House Business Committee should be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker), whose would have been elected by the House as a whole to that office with this function partly in mind. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels. (Paragraph 200)
Notice and flexibility
26.We would expect a greater discipline to be applied in giving advance notice of motions, to the extent of allowing the Speaker to refuse to put a Motion to the House of which sufficient notice had not been given. But tying the agenda down in a Resolution of the House should not be allowed to impose excessive rigidity on the House's business. (Paragraphs 207-208)
27.Some advance timetabling is fairer to the House and ensures that debate cannot be used to talk out a specific proposition where it is reasonable to expect the House to express a view. But we would expect such a power to be used sparingly. (Paragraph 209)
Substantive Motions
28.In general terms we favour more use of substantive motions so that the House can come to a recorded conclusion which will then carry weight. (Paragraph 210)
Protected time for backbench business
29.Ideally, if a particular day is to be protected, we would like backbench business to be scheduled on Wednesdays, with Thursdays once again becoming a "main" day for debate on Government legislation and other matters. We ask the Chief Whips to pursue the suggestion that Prime Minister's Question Time be timetabled for Thursday afternoon. (Paragraph 213)
30.Whichever option emerges from the debate and discussion which we expect to follow this Report, some time must be identified and protected for backbench business, not less than the equivalent of one day a week. We propose that Standing Orders should be sufficiently tightly drawn to guarantee this, but with some flexibility, so that the Backbench Business Committee can take matters forward. (Paragraph 218)
31.We recommend that the House in the new Parliament should be asked to decide on the issue of September sittings, along with other sittings issues, sufficiently early in its life to be able to decide whether to sit in September 2010. We do recommend that the House should at least decide for itself when it sits and does not sit. (Paragraphs 100-101, 175)
Sessions and carry-over
32.It may be time to re-examine the need for annual sessions overall, drawing on the varying practice of parliaments around the world who face similar issues. Greater use of carry-over of Bills from one session to the next could have a significant effect on scheduling business in the House. (Paragraphs 102-103)
Report stage
33.The single greatest cause of dissatisfaction which we have detected with current scheduling of legislative business in the House arises from the handling of the report stage of government bills—technically the "consideration" stage when a Bill has been reported back to the House from a public bill committee.[…] Effective scheduling of business at report stage of many bills would often require nothing more than the allocation of a sufficient total time. It is too often insufficient at present. The House Business Committee which we recommend will be a forum for agreeing the length of time to be devoted to a report stage in order to fulfil the scrutiny function adequately. But that is not enough in itself. Because effective scrutiny of legislation is of fundamental importance to the role of the House, the detailed use of that time must be a matter of concern. We believe that the time should be set so that the House should if it wishes be able to vote on new Clauses and amendments in every group, if and when they are selected for separate division by the Chair; and that there should be a presumption that no major group should go undebated. The House of Commons would then be able to exercise the same rights as the House of Lords. […] the House Business Committee will decide where, if at all, knives should fall bringing debate to an end on each group of selected new Clauses and amendments. As now, priority would be given to Government new Clauses and amendments. It is not for us to second-guess the minutiae of House Business Committee business. We are confident that it will deal with these and other such issues and that as trust and experience grow it will operate ever more consensually and effectively.
In order to ensure that this system can work, without using up too much time and to avoid attempts to "talk out" full debate, we recommend the introduction of a regime of speaking time restrictions at report stage. We have gone beyond the issue of scheduling total time for report stage because we recognise that unless the current problems in this area are resolved then there will continue to be dissatisfaction and a sense that the House is failing to perform one of its core duties. In those circumstances, we will have failed in one of the primary parts of our mission. Our recommendations outlined above as part of the general reform which we propose of the scheduling of business are intended to ensure that the House itself decides what matters are debated and decided at report stage of a Ministerial or a Private Member's Bill. (Paragraphs 109-118)
Lords Amendments
34.We recommend the introduction of a scheme similar to that described above for report stage for consideration of Lords amendments, including restrictions on speech lengths. (Paragraph 119)
Ministerial statements
35.There is plainly room for different procedures designed to give an opportunity for a more thorough form of parliamentary scrutiny, without undermining a Minister's right to make a statement and respond to questions on it; and statements could well be taken at a different point in the parliamentary day. (Paragraph 187)
General Committees
36.It should be open to others than Ministers to schedule business in Grand Committees, by relaxing Ministerial control of what Motions can be put to the House and decided. There will [also] have to be relaxation of Ministerial control of motions to refer negative instruments for debate in committee. The European scrutiny system offers an admirable if still imperfect model of responsible backbench committee control of business, in partnership with the Government, on an important part of the House's work. (Paragraphs 106-108)
Public bill committees
37.We conclude that a review would be desirable of the means of selection of public bill committee members, so that it was subject to a similar level of accountability to that long applied to select committee membership. (Paragraph 60)
38.We hope that a more open approach to the scheduling of public bill committee evidence sessions can be piloted in the short 2009-10 session without the need for changes to Standing Orders, and request that the relevant authorities produce a report for an appropriate successor Committee in the new Parliament to consider. (Paragraph 105)
Estimates Days
39.We broadly endorse the Liaison Committee's proposals for increasing from 3 to 5 the number of Estimates Days and in particular its suggestion that the type of debate on such days be widened to allow substantive opinion motions on expenditure plans for future years. In view of our desire to enhance the relevance of select committee work to the work of the Chamber we consider that these debates on Estimates Days could also usefully cover substantive motions on departmental annual reports, and recommendations in select committee reports which in the view of the Liaison Committee have not been adequately addressed by the Government's response. (Paragraphs 137-138)
Private Members' Bills
40.The House should be responsible for ensuring that merely procedural devices cannot obstruct Private Members' Bills, and that they are brought to a decision. (Paragraph 194)
Public Participation
41.There are varying views about the prospects for greater public participation. But none of these doubts should rule out making further and better opportunities available for public participation and engagement. The primary focus of the House's overall agenda for engagement with the public must now be shifted beyond the giving of information towards actively assisting the achievement of a greater degree of public participation. (Paragraph 230-232)
42.Opening up the process of legislation and giving a real opportunity to the public to influence the content of draft laws should be a priority for consideration in the next Parliament. That is an issue for the House and not for Government. (Paragraph 276)
Agenda initiative
43.We recommend that the House commission an investigation of the practicalities of applying at a national level the procedures applied to local authorities for "petitions requiring debate", drawing on local and international experience, including the appropriate thresholds to be applied. (Paragraph 286)
44.We recommend urgent discussions among all those involved in the e-petitions scheme, with a view to bringing to the House in the early part of 2010 a costed scheme which enjoys the support of the Member bodies engaged: that is, the Finance and Services and Procedure Committees, and the House of Commons Commission. (Paragraph 254)
45.It is important that the focus on an e-petitions scheme does not displace concern with "standard" petitions, which are of equal validity. (Paragraph 259)
Petitions committee role
46.The House cannot be satisfied with its current procedures for petitions. We are cautious about recommending a full-scale free-standing Petitions Committee at this time. We recommend that the Procedure Committee's terms of reference be broadened, and its title changed to Procedure and Petitions Committee, so as to enable it to exercise scrutiny of the petitions process, on an experimental basis from January 2010 until the end of the Parliament; and that it make a report of its experience before the end of the Parliament so that this can be available to a new Parliament. (Paragraphs 260-263)
47.We recommend a trial in 2009-10 in advance of e-petitions of debates on petitions, subject to the presentation of petitions of sufficient significance. (Paragraph 264)
Information for petitioners
48.We recommend that the House authorities ensure that petitioners are informed of recent relevant House proceedings. (Paragraph 265)
Proceedings in House
49.It would give petitions a slightly enhanced status if notice was required and when given if it appeared on the House's Order Paper at the appropriate place. We consider that it would be more dignified if, as is the case with Bills presented to the House by backbench Members, the front sheet of the petition was taken to the Table, and an appropriate announcement read by the Clerk. (Paragraphs 266-267)
Motion for House debate
50.  We recommend that a scheme to this effect [Motions for House debate] be worked up by the House authorities for piloting in the new Parliament. (Paragraph 272)

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