Written evidence on programming submitted by Parliament First APPG (P 98, 2012-13)

We take programming to refer to all the measures that the Government takes in order to ensure that its business is passed quickly and efficiently through the Commons. We accept the principle of programming on two grounds. It quite properly focuses attention on the best use of the limited time available, avoiding an unjustified expenditure of time on the early sections of a bill at committee and report stages and the squeezing out (whether deliberately or consequentially) of more important issues towards the end. We also believe that the alternative of filibustering, by extended time-wasting often into the late hours of the night, is not a rational or defensible way of trying to defeat a Government bill. This certainly does not imply surrendering to contested Government legislation tout court, but rather finding more sensible and more effective ways of calling to account Government’s handling of bills. The rest of this paper is designed to show how this might best be done.

1 Legislative standards

Parliament should establish a Legislative Standards Committee, involving representatives from both the Commons and the Lords, to assess the necessity of legislation and whether the technical quality of a bill has met an agreed minimum set of standards and criteria. At present there are sometimes major controversial bills which reach the Commons in an ill-digested state, leading to dozens of Government amendments tabled at very short notice both at committee and report stages. Another unacceptable aspect is that too many bills have in recent years been drafted in a manner that gives the Secretary of State wide-ranging untrammelled powers to act in a way that destroys the principle of accountability. Such sloppy (or deliberately power-seeking) drafting should be excluded from bills or at least drastically narrowed down.

2 The ordering, purpose and effect of bills

The Thursday Business Questions to the Leader of the House should be replaced by an amendable motion subject a vote, as recommended by the Wright Committee. In addition a new Legislative Impact Assessment should be required to provide Members with a detailed statement of the purpose and contents both of the bill as a whole and each main section of it. At present the innocuous title of bills, reproduced on party Whips without further explanation, can often conceal issues about which Members should be fully and properly forewarned so that they have time to respond in any way they may think appropriate.

3 Pre-legislative scrutiny

Pre-legislative scrutiny by a parliamentary committee should be the norm for all the more important bills. At these sessions which might take several weeks, relevant experts, lawyers and where appropriate public officials should be invited to give evidence. Members undertaking this scrutiny should be selected in either of two ways. One is that Members should be chosen by a cross-party elected House committee in accordance with party strengths in the House, not by the present Committee of Selection which is dominated by the Whips and which notoriously has led to Members being excluded from a bill who have substantial experience in that field but whose views may not coincide with the Government’s or Opposition’s official views.

The other, which we would prefer, is based on the precedent set by the Scottish Parliament whereby the Select Committees are expanded in size and then divided into specialist sub-committees to which bills would be sent for scrutiny. They would over time acquire deep experience and knowledge of their subject and an expertise that would be more likely to resist automatic and mindless party whipping which is currently so often a feature of bill committees and which is so destructive of the whole democratic principle of the serious and thoughtful scrutiny of bills which the public expects.

4 Bill committee scrutiny

There should be more time allotted between the evidence-gathering phase of a public bill committee and the line-by-line consideration of the bill in order for the lessons of the evidence-taking sessions to be absorbed and properly taken on board. Members who undertook the pre-legislative scrutiny should continue to serve as members of the public bill committee. There should at the outset be informal agreement between the parties over the time management of the bill so that all sections of the bill are reached and debated, and in particular that the most important issues are allotted adequate time for full and proper debate and decision.

5 Report stage scrutiny

All amendments tabled, whether by Government, Opposition, smaller parties or individual Members, should be accompanied by a brief but clear explanation of the purpose and nature of the amendment, comprising no more than 50 words. More time should be allotted to the most important bills (i.e. another half day or another whole day) since this is the sole opportunity for the House as a whole to modify the bill and some of the issues are of first-rank public resonance and currently get squeezed into omnibus groupings of amendments where their significance is blunted. If Government tables a large number of amendments that substantially alter the nature of a bill, or if so many significant amendments are tabled by Opposition parties or individual Members that were not adequately covered at the committee stage, then the House Business Committee (once this is formed as agreed within 3 years from May 2010) should be able to return it to Committee stage. The timetabling arrangement should be agreed between the parties in such a manner as to ensure that each block of amendments is reached and adequately debated, not as a present squeezed out by excessive time spent on earlier amendments before the knife falls.

6 Post-legislative review

All Acts eligible for post-legislative review between 3-5 years after enactment should be considered by the relevant departmental Select Committee, or possibly by a new Joint Committee for Post-Legislative Review.

7 House of Lords procedures

The House of Lords should adopt a public evidence hearing committee for all bills that originate in the Lords. Grand Committee should be the default mechanism for consideration of all bills in the Lords unless otherwise required by the House. Members of the temporary Select Committee that hear the public evidence session should also consider the bill at Grand Committee stage. When a bill passes from the Commons to the Lords, any clauses that have not been debated should be ‘flagged’ on the order paper or the bill.

8 Delegated legislation

To harness the value of extra-parliamentary scrutiny to handle both the range and detail of delegated legislation, a small number of independent bodies, similar in form to the Social Security Advisory Committee, should be established. The House of Commons should establish its own sifting committee for delegate legislation. Statutory Instruments to be approved through the affirmative resolution procedure should be amendable.

9 Public engagement with the legislative process

Public awareness of and engagement in the parliamentary process has been promoted by the convention that petitions gathering more than 100,000 signatures should be debated in the House, and will be promoted further by explanatory statements set out for public viewing on the dedicated TV channel. In addition a new petitions and ePetitions system should be implemented through a new Petitions Committee which, on the Scottish model, could from time to time make visits round the country to meet, listen to and respond to the public’s concerns and complaints and then report back to the House.

23 January 2013

Prepared 12th February 2013