Improving the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny: Various items - Procedure Committee Contents

2  Select Committee amendments

Previous Committee report

2. In session 2008-09 the then Procedure Committee was asked by the Liaison Committee to consider the tabling of amendments by select committees. Current practice is that amendments agreed by a select committee may be tabled only in the names of individual Members which makes it difficult to distinguish "committee" amendments from those tabled by the same Members acting as individuals. After consulting interested parties in the House, the Procedure Committee published a report recommending that the practice be changed to allow select committees to table amendments to bills and motions in the name of the Chair on behalf of the committee.[2]

3. The Committee saw the advantages of select committee amendments as being the clarity they offered to both the House and individual Members in enabling anyone reading the amendment paper to see that a particular amendment originated with a select committee. It was also felt that the change would enhance the role of select committees which would contribute towards more effective scrutiny of the executive.

4. The Committee also recognised that there were potential disadvantages where individual members of a select committee might disagree with the proposed amendment, either at the time of its adoption by the committee or afterwards. To counter this, the Committee recommended stringent safeguards be built into the process by which committees could agree amendments which carried the special status of select committee amendments. The Committee suggested that such amendments should be formally agreed without division by a quorate meeting of the committee. This is a more rigorous requirement than is the case for select committee reports, for example, which can be agreed by a simple majority.

5. Finally, our predecessor Committee recommended that while it was quite possible for select committee amendments to be tabled as such for identification purposes only, the special status ought perhaps to be recognised in a higher priority in terms of selection for debate or decision. The Committee rejected the idea that select committee amendments should be guaranteed debate because of the constraints of programming, but its report supported the adoption of a convention that the Chair should look favourably upon granting a decision on such amendments where they were orderly.

Government response

6. The then Leader of the House, Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, wrote to the Committee in January 2010, asking for further consideration to be given to two aspects of the report.[3] First, she was concerned that even with the safeguards advocated by the Committee the process could place "Members who were not present at the meeting in a potentially difficult position, as they will no doubt be assumed to support amendments tabled on behalf of the committee and the onus will be on them to explain the situation if they do not." She explained that the quorum for select committees was such that "There is a risk that decisions could be reached which are contrary to the views of the majority of a committee's members", and she called on the Committee to consider "additional safeguards": for example, "a minimum notice period or some kind of qualified quorum."

7. Secondly, Ms Harman raised the issue of according priority in terms of decisions under programming to select committee amendments. She pointed out that this "does not give sufficient guidance to the Chair", explaining that "It is not clear, for example, whether the Committee believes that such amendments should be selected for separate decision even if they were not reached for debate." A related concern was that "it could significantly increase the number of divisions when internal knives fall, taking up time that might more usefully be spent debating the next group of amendments."

8. When this Committee was established in July 2010 we decided to pursue the request from Ms Harman that more detailed proposals for select committee amendments be developed to put to the House in the new Parliament. As a preliminary step, we asked the new Leader of the House, Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, for his view. At the end of August he wrote to tell us that he could "see the clear merit in this proposal" but that he would have to consult with colleagues in Government before offering a definitive view.[4] Disappointingly, he then wrote to us in November to inform us that he did not think "that this is a proposal which the Government can support in its current form." This was because the Government had "reservations about the position of Members who are not present at the meeting at which the amendments are agreed to."[5]

9. We pressed the Leader of the House for an explanation of the Government reservations which we received in January of this year.[6] His response addressed the same two points made by his predecessor: protecting individual members of a committee from association with an amendment with which they disagree and according priority to select committee amendments under programming. On the former, he suggested a way forward in the form of permitting a symbol to be inserted on the amendment paper "where every member of the committee has signed the amendment". Sir George described this as "a proportionate solution to the problem of raising awareness of select committee work, and their support of certain amendments".[7] On the latter, in explaining his opposition to the question of giving priority status to select committee amendments under programming, Sir George argued that "a maximalist interpretation of this recommendation might undermine the long-established practice of the House, possibly increasing the number of divisions, at the expense of debate on other amendments, and moving from the principle that amendments should be chosen on their merits, to the detriment of other backbench Members."

Our view

10. Having re-examined the proposal that select committees should be able to table amendments in their own name, we are firmly of the view that it would raise the profile of select committees and encourage them in their valuable work in scrutinising legislation. The Liaison Committee of select committee chairs also remains of a similar opinion,[8] and we note that the latest response from the Government, despite concerns about the procedure, accepts the principle that there are benefits in providing greater clarity where it is obvious that a proposed amendment has the support of the entire committee.[9]

11. This leaves three points to be determined: how such amendments should be agreed in committee in order to qualify for the status of select committee amendments, how such amendments should be identified on the amendment paper and what priority should be given to them in terms of selection for debate or decision.


12. Our predecessor Committee recommended that select committee amendments should be agreed unanimously at a quorate meeting of the committee concerned and therefore recorded in the formal minutes of the committee. The Leader of the House has suggested that these conditions are not stringent enough and has instead put forward the proposal that all members of the Committee, not just those present at a meeting, should sign an amendment in order for it to qualify. We consider that this is an unusually onerous condition since nearly all select committees will have members who do not attend meetings, either because they have been given other responsibilities which are incompatible with participation in the select committee's work or because they are absent owing to illness or other commitments.

13. The stipulation proposed by our predecessors of unanimous support by a quorate committee is already far more rigorous than that required for agreeing a committee report or for any other committee decision. There is a partial precedent in the provision for the Regulatory Reform Committee to report whether or not its recommendations on draft orders were reached without a division but this too does not go as far as the proposal to block select committee amendments from being tabled if any opposition is recorded. We also recognise that a member of a committee who disagreed with an amendment could mitigate his or her embarrassment by pointing to the formal minutes of the committee which would indicate that he or she was not present when the amendment was agreed, and also by speaking or voting against it in the House.

14. We have considered an additional condition to those proposed by our predecessor Committee which would be to require notice to be given of any proposal that a select committee consider an amendment to be tabled under this procedure. This would prevent committees taking decisions on such amendments without the knowledge of members who might wish to object. We consider that this requirement would be proportionate in safeguarding the interests of those members who may be against a proposal for a select committee amendment whilst making it possible for a committee to use this procedure if a quorum were present at the relevant meeting.


15. The Leader of the House suggested that instead of amendments being tabled by the appropriate chair, "on behalf of the committee", they should be marked on the amendment paper by a symbol.[10] We do not believe that this would be sufficient to assist those within or outside the House to identify the relevant select committee behind an amendment. Nor would it serve the purpose of making select committee amendments stand out from other backbench amendments. Symbols are necessarily obscure except to those very familiar with a particular system, and there are also practical considerations since the Procedure Committee in the last Parliament was told that the software used to produce the amendment paper could cope more easily with the full name of the committee than with footnotes or symbols.[11]

16. Sir George Young further proposed that, in addition to the symbol, perhaps the signatures of supporters could be grouped "to help improve understanding".[12] We do not believe that grouping the names would in itself be any more helpful than the current system. We cannot expect all those interested in the proceedings of Parliament to be instantly familiar with the membership of all select committees and so able to make the connection without further assistance. We note that when the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee put forward amendments to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, these appeared in the names of several members of the Committee, headed by Eleanor Laing MP (in the absence of the Chair). The link between the Committee and the amendments would have been immediately clear to all reading the amendment paper if the amendments had been tabled in the name of the Committee which would have provided useful background information for those preparing for the debate.

17. There is also a precedent for the formula put forward by our predecessors in that motions to change the membership of select committees may be tabled by the Chair on behalf of the Committee of Selection and moved by any member of that Committee.


18. We have considered again the matter of whether select committee amendments should be given any priority in selection. From the outset, we make it clear that our predecessor Committee did not advocate any change to the established conventions on which selection is based. If a select committee amendment is disorderly for whatever reason or there are amendments on the paper which should be given higher priority, judged on whatever criteria the Chair chooses to apply, then the select committee amendment will not, and should not, be selected. Beyond this, there is already provision where bills under programme orders are concerned for the Chair to select an amendment that has already been debated for separate decision. For the Chair to take a favourable view, without a commitment, where a select committee seeks a separate decision on a particular amendment would not be a major change to current practice and would be unlikely to take substantial amounts of time away from other debates. We suggest that it might bolster a committee's case for a separate decision if it had previously published a report setting out the arguments which underpinned the proposed amendment.

19. We recognise of course that it is possible for amendments to be tabled and grouped in such a way that certain selected amendments are pushed so far down the selection list, possibly compounded by a motion from the Minister in charge to consider the bill in a certain order, that they are not reached for debate and so are rarely called for decision. We would deprecate any attempt by others to table amendments with the purpose of crowding out debates on issues which select committees feel are sufficiently important to warrant tabling their own amendments. This could well be another factor which the Chair might wish to take into consideration when deciding whether to grant a separate decision to select committee amendments.


20. This proposal is for a minor change to aid clarity and transparency to a practice which already exists and has proved useful to the House whereby members of select committees jointly support amendments to bills and motions. We believe that a change to formalise these arrangements is worth making because it would assist the effectiveness of select committees in scrutinising the Government and would enhance the accessibility of parliamentary proceedings to the public.

21. We recommend that select committees be permitted to table amendments to bills on the Floor and to motions in the House in the name of the Chair on behalf of his or her select committee. Amendments tabled in this way should be agreed formally without division at a quorate meeting of the committee or by a quorum of Commons members at a joint committee meeting, with notice having been given to all members of that committee that the use of this procedure was to be proposed. Whilst recognising and supporting the established conventions governing the selection of amendments for debate and decision, we hope that the Speaker or the Chairman of Ways and Means might look favourably on a select committee seeking a separate decision on its amendments where business is programmed.

2   Fifth Report from the Procedure Committee, Tabling of amendments by select committees, Session 2008-09 (HC 1104)  Back

3   Ev 4 Back

4   Letter from the Leader of the House, 31 August 2010, published on 7 February 2011  Back

5   Letter from the Leader of the House, 10 November 2010, published 7 February 2011  Back

6   Ev 5 Back

7   Ev 5 Back

8   Ev 4-5 Back

9   Ev 5 Back

10   Ev 5 Back

11   HC 1004, Session 2008-09, Ev 2 Back

12   Ev 5 Back

previous page contents next page

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

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 9 March 2011