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

Letter from Rt Hon Harriet Harman MP, former Leader of the House of Commons (P36, 2009-10)


I am writing in response to the Procedure Committee's Fifth Report of 2008-09 entitled Tabling of Amendments by Select Committees (HC 1104), published on 10 November 2009.

I am grateful to the Committee for its Report. However, there are two areas of the Committee's recommendation where I believe that further consideration of the detail of the proposal might assist the House in coming to a decision.

The Committee has rightly acknowledged the need to protect committee members from being seen to support amendments which they in fact oppose, by including a requirement that amendments may be tabled in the name of a committee only if they are agreed to unanimously at a quorate meeting. This is an issue that Chris Bryant as Deputy Leader of the House raised in his letter to the Committee of 2 June 2009.

However, this still places 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. This is of course equally true of recommendations contained in reports, but they are accompanied by formal minutes which record attendance and voting which go a long way to mitigating this problem.

As you know, a select committee of 11 can be quorate with only three Members present, including the chair who has only a casting vote. There is a risk that decisions could be reached which are contrary to the views of the majority of a committee's members. I think some additional safeguards are needed in this area. They might include, for example, a minimum notice period or some kind of qualified quorum. I would welcome the Committee's views.

Secondly, I believe that the Committee's recommendation that, where orderly, amendments on behalf of select committees should be accorded priority in terms of selection for decision under programming, does not give sufficient guidance to the Chair. 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. I am concerned that a maximal interpretation of the Committee's words might undermine the long-established practice of the House in this regard. There is also a risk 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.

I would be grateful if the Procedure Committee—or the Liaison Committee if you felt it were more appropriate—could give further consideration to these issues with a view to producing more detailed proposals to be put to the House early in the next Parliament.

I am copying this letter to the Chair of the Liaison Committee and to the clerks of the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee.

January 2010

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