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

3  Explanatory statements on amendments to bills

The Committee's report

22. The House of Commons has conducted a series of experiments with explanatory statements on amendments to bills since the Modernisation Committee first recommended in September 2006 that the Procedure Committee "draw up a set of rules governing the tabling and publishing of explanatory statements to amendments in standing committee".[13] The aim was to assist Members in preparing for debate in committee by providing a brief explanation of the intended effect of a proposed amendment. The first trial took place during the committee stage of the Legal Services Bill [Lords] in June 2007. A second trial in session 2007-08 covered three bills, also in public bill committee. There was then a third trial which ran from February 2009 until the end of session 2008-09 and which extended the facility to include all bills before a public bill committee, except the Finance Bill.[14]

23. In March 2010 our predecessor Committee published a report which brought together the evidence gathered from these trials and considered what further steps should be taken.[15] The Committee regarded the outcome of the experiments as "inconclusive" and found the take-up of the facility by non-Government frontbenchers and by backbenchers more generally "disappointing". On the other hand, the Committee recognised that there had been positive feedback from Members and that the benefits of explanatory statements might be greater in a new Parliament where some Members were less familiar with the process of scrutinising legislation. The Committee therefore recommended that:

the trial with explanatory statements to amendments to bills continue in the first year of the new Parliament; that it be extended to bills in Committee of the whole House and on report, and to Private Member's Bills; that the opposition frontbenchers and all backbenchers be strongly encouraged to table explanatory statements with their amendments; and that the guidelines be changed to allow explanatory statements of "around 50 words" and to lift the requirement for such a statement when the amendment itself is self-explanatory. We hope in this way to increase the use and therefore the usefulness of this facility without imposing an undue burden on the House, Government departments or others. To ensure that the House has a better idea of the value that Members place on explanatory statements and their contribution to increasing the scrutiny of Bills, we recommend that at the end of the next stage of the experiment a full survey be carried out by the House authorities of all Members and the results analysed by a committee of the House.[16]

Developments in this Parliament

24. There was little time for the Government to respond to our predecessor's report before the dissolution of the House and the General Election. Soon after the nomination of this Committee in July 2010, we decided to take this up again with the new Government. In Opposition, the then Shadow Leader of the House, Rt Hon Sir George Young MP, had told us that his view was that "the facility should be extended to the floor of the House for the benefit of those Members who haven't served on the Public Bill stage".[17] Some months later, now Leader of the House, he had modified his view a little. He told us:

I said I would let you have my views on explanatory statements on amendments. Though some Members say they have been useful, the arrangements have not been a resounding success.

The original intention behind the Modernisation Committee's recommendation was that backbench Members could use the facility to indicate the purpose of their amendments, allowing Ministers to prepare to address the substance of the points that Members were seeking to make, rather than the technical drafting of the amendment. The low uptake by backbench Members means that they have not really fulfilled this purpose.

The Government wants to provide information for Members in the most effective way, but also in a cost-effective way. I am not convinced that explanatory statements will generally be the best way of communicating with Members. Alternatives, such as writing to the members of a public bill committee or issuing written statements, will generally offer a better opportunity to explain the Government's intentions, without placing an undue burden on bill teams and Parliamentary Counsel, when they are under pressure to get amendments drafted and tabled.

I would certainly not oppose the continuation of explanatory statements—though the support from Members in the Committee's evaluations of the process has been somewhat lukewarm—but Ministers will only table statements where they believe that it is the most effective way of communicating their intentions to the House.[18]

25. In recent weeks the issue has risen up the agenda again as a result of interest expressed by a number of Members. In a debate in Westminster Hall on 3 February 2011 there was complete consensus amongst those who spoke that it would be of benefit not just to Members but to those outside the House to have an accompanying explanation of what a proposed amendment is designed to do. The Deputy Leader of the House has now also offered Government support:

Regarding explanations for amendments, we had the experiment in Committee and I am certainly happy, as far as the Government are concerned, for that experiment to proceed. Perhaps we ought to look at having such explanations on Report, too.[19]

Our recommendations

26. We have looked again at our predecessor's recommendation for extending the trial with explanatory statements to proposed amendments to bills in Committee of the whole House and on report, and to private Members' bills. We agree that this is the best way forward. We have also cast a fresh eye over the guidelines used in the past experiments and again concur with our predecessors that a few minor changes (to the phrasing of the word limit and to the need for no explanations where the amendment is self-explanatory) might be helpful.

27. Previous attempts at embedding this facility in the culture of the House have failed because of lack of take-up from Members. We note that the use made by Members declined during the three phases of the previous experiments. Our predecessors concluded that this might derive from a lack of awareness of the existence of the facility, based on the fact that the publicity drive for the latter two stages of the experiment was much less intensive than for the first which saw the highest levels of participation. One way of overcoming this would be to make the tabling of explanatory statements mandatory. We consider that it would be a mistake to do so because it could result in perfectly orderly amendments being disallowed because of a difficulty with an explanatory statement. Instead, we would support a greater attempt to publicise to backbenchers the facility to provide such statements. We would also encourage the Opposition frontbench to make a commitment to provide them whenever possible.

28. In previous experiments the Government has undertaken to provide statements to all amendments to relevant bills in committee. We appreciate that this is a significant burden on the Government and recognise the concerns expressed earlier through Sir George Young that there may be other, more effective ways of providing such information to Members in bill committees. We note, however, that one of the advantages of explanatory statements printed on the amendment paper is that they are available to all, and we expect the Government to ensure that background information about the purpose of amendments tabled in bill committees is published and accessible. For amendments offered to bills in Committee of the whole House, we suggest that explanatory statements might often be the simplest and most effective way of communicating such information to all Members and the public.

29. We believe that the position is different with bills at report stage. In his recent speech to the Institute for Government the Speaker suggested that it would be "worth exploring [...] whether reasons for all report amendments should be provided so it becomes clearer whether legislation is being altered at that stage in response to constructive criticism or because of changing Ministerial minds."[20] Such information is not provided at the moment prior to the debate and we agree that it would be of value to the House if the Government were required to provide statements where they present amendments to bills at report stage in order to clarify the origin of those amendments (for example, whether they arise from commitments made in committee, are consequential or represent a change of policy).

30. Finally, we recognise that the experimental basis on which explanatory statements have been permitted in the past has led to some uncertainty at times and has not enabled the facility to become part of the culture of the Commons. For this reason, we consider that it would now be appropriate to allow explanatory statements throughout the current Parliament. It will then be up to the House to decide whether to make the facility permanent after the next Election.

31. We recommend that during this Parliament Members be permitted to table explanatory statements to amendments to all bills in public bill committee (except the Finance Bill), in Committee of the whole House or on Report, and that such statements be printed on the amendment paper. We strongly encourage Opposition frontbenchers and all backbenchers to table such statements with their amendments and we recommend that staff of the House take active measures to publicise the facility whenever a Member tables an amendment. We accept that the Government may have other means to communicate this type of information but we expect the Government also to use this facility to communicate the intention behind amendments because it is accessible to all Members and to the public. Where a bill is taken in a Committee of the whole House, we consider that explanatory statements will certainly be the best option. We further recommend that the Government provide explanatory statements on all amendments proposed on Report, outlining the reasons for bringing forward those amendments at that stage.

32. We recommend that the House adopt the following guidelines for the tabling of explanatory statements in this Parliament:

1. Any Member tabling an amendment to a bill in a Public Bill Committee, in Committee of the whole House or on Report, including private Member's bills, may at the time of tabling accompany that amendment with an explanatory statement of around 50 words.

2. The explanatory statement must describe the intended effect of the amendment but may not be phrased as an argument for its adoption or against the existing text of, or any other proposed amendment to, the bill.

3. An explanatory statement is not required where the amendment is self-explanatory, except that an explanatory statement should be provided for all Government amendments on Report stage giving the reasons for tabling in each case.

4. Questions as to the implementation of these rules shall be decided by the Chair of the Public Bill Committee, the Chairman of Ways and Means in the case of bills in Committee of the whole House or the Speaker in the case of bills on Report.

5. Explanatory statements will be printed in italics immediately following the amendment to which they relate. Where several amendments are tabled which are introductory to, consequential upon or closely linked to another amendment, the explanatory statement should state that fact and shall only be printed with the first amendment in the sequence.

13   First Report from the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, The Legislative Process, Session 2005-06 (HC 1097) Back

14   The Finance Bill was excluded because of a longstanding practice whereby the Government supply lengthy explanations of detailed changes to the law proposed by amendments. Back

15   Second Report from the Procedure Committee, Explanatory statements on amendments to bills, Session 2009-10 (HC 410) Back

16   HC 410, Session 2009-10, para 16 Back

17   HC 410, Session 2009-10,  Back

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

19   HC Deb, 3 February 2011, 384WH Back

20   Mr Speaker's Address to the Institute of Government, 18 January 2011, What does scrutiny mean in 2011? Back

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