26.The Committee published its technical evaluation of the first year of operation of the ‘English votes for English laws’ procedures in December 2016. In that report, we made practical suggestions to improve the operation of the procedure, including means to eliminate the frequently otiose legislative grand committee stage from the procedure unless there was a demand for debate in such a committee. We also expressed concern at the overall drafting of the standing orders implementing the new procedure, and drew attention to the lack of support for the new procedures in the House from every party except the party of government.
27.The Government issued its response to its technical review of the procedures on 30 March 2017, and addressed our conclusions and recommendations in its response. We found the response disappointing: it missed several opportunities to make practical improvements to the operation of the present procedures, and failed to acknowledge the widespread dissatisfaction with them which we have observed in the House.
28.We recommend that the Committee in the 2017 Parliament continue to keep the operation of ‘English votes for English laws’ procedures, insofar as they are continued by the present or any future administration, under regular review.
29.In the summer of 2016 the Committee undertook a survey of Members on their preferences for the sitting hours of the House and their views on the effect of sitting hours on their personal lives, their effectiveness as Members and the effectiveness of the House. The outcome of the survey would have informed a debate on the sitting hours of the House which we intended to sponsor before the summer recess: this would have given the House, as a whole, the chance to vote on the existing sitting hours of the House and for support for alternative sitting hours to be tested.
30.We have not of course proceeded with the planned debate. The report on the 2016 survey has been published as our Sixth Report of this Session. In that report we recommend that the successor committee undertake a similar exercise twelve months into the new Parliament, with a view to sponsoring a debate on sitting hours in the autumn of 2018.
31.The 2015 Parliament will have lasted for just under two years, following the 2010 Parliament which lasted the full fixed term provided for in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act. The brevity of this Parliament was largely unanticipated—the establishment of fixed-term parliaments has given select committees a reasonable expectation of being able to plan for a five year work programme. It also encouraged a reasonable expectation in select committee chairs that, following their election at the start of a Parliament, they would be able to serve out a Parliament of five years.
32.Term limits for select committee chairs were introduced in Standing Orders in 2002. At the time it was decided that the House should begin to remunerate chairs to encourage Members to consider committee work as part of an alternative career structure to Ministerial office. Until the end of the 2005 Parliament, Members were nominated to committees by the Committee of Selection on the recommendation of the whips who sat on that committee, and the committee chair was chosen by the committee from among its number. There was a perception—which in some cases may have been justified—of potential patronage by the whips in arranging for certain Members to be chosen as committee chairs. The introduction of term limits for chairs was intended to limit the overall power of patronage to salaried posts and to provide for a degree of turnover. Standing Order No. 122A provided that, unless the House otherwise ordered, “no select committee may choose as its chairman any Member who has served as chairman of that committee for the two previous Parliaments, or a continuous period of 8 years, whichever is the greater period.”.
33.Shortly after the General Election of 2005, the standing order was amended to provide that no committee should have as its chair any Member who had served for the greater period of two Parliaments or for a continuous period of eight years. This amendment was intended to cater for a circumstance where there were parliaments rather shorter than the expected term of four or five years. As the then Leader of the House explained when proposing the amendment,
[…] a Chairman who has served for two full Parliaments could be re-elected for a third if the date of his re-election fell just within eight years of his first election. The proposed change would mean that if a Chairman were elected for a third term, the chairmanship would cease at the expiry of eight years from first election.
We understand that the standing order has been interpreted to provide that a Member who takes a committee chair part way through a parliament, in succession to a departing chair, does not have service in that parliament reckoned as part of the two terms provision: that is to say, “two Parliaments” has been taken to mean service throughout two Parliaments.
34.The majority of select committee chair posts were opened to election in 2010 under the provisions of Standing Order No. 122B. The operation of Standing Order No. 122A, as presently interpreted, means that those chairs who were elected to their posts at the start of the 2010 Parliament, and were elected again at the start of the 2015 Parliament, will be eligible to stand for election again, should they be returned at the forthcoming General Election and should the chairing of their committee be assigned to their party. Should those chairs be elected by the 2017 House, under Standing Order No. 122A any chairs elected at the start of the 2010, 2015 and 2017 Parliaments would be ineligible to continue as chairs beyond the date of 12 July 2018.
35.This situation throws up a number of potential anomalies which we consider that our successor committee ought to address as a matter of urgency:
a)A system designed to ensure a turnover of chairs, in the period when chairs were chosen by their committees, does not necessarily translate well to the era of chairs elected by the House. There is no explicit mechanism under present Standing Orders to enforce an orderly removal of an elected, but time-expired, chair in mid-Parliament.
b)It may appear anomalous that, while there are term limits for elected chairs which can curtail a term of office in the middle of a Parliament, there are no similar limits applied to other members of select committees, who are elected to their posts by their parties before their nomination is confirmed by the House—albeit that committee membership alone is not remunerated.
c)In the era of fixed-term parliaments, where committees expect to be able to plan a work programme to last for up to five years, it seems counterintuitive to provide that former chairs may stand for election—doubtless with a plan to continue the work of the committee from the previous Parliament—but may consequently, if elected, be required to stand aside after barely 12 months.
d)Following the enactment of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, the length of a Parliament is now set at five years. In 2005 it was a reasonable assumption that two Parliaments would last on average eight years: that figure is now ten years.
36.The elections of committee chairs in the early weeks of the 2017 Parliament will therefore be subject to a degree of uncertainty, depending on the outcome of the General Election and the determination by the House of the parties from which each committee chair should be drawn. This uncertainty is unavoidable: it cannot be resolved before the elections take place.
37.The Leader of the House made some helpful comments during the course of Business Questions on Thursday 20 April:
I concede that the Standing Orders relating to the election of Select Committee Chairs are capable of being construed in a number of different ways. It seems to me that the way forward is for the Procedure Committee in the new House of Commons, when it is constituted, to take the issue away, to examine the current Standing Orders, to consult across the parties in the House and to come back with recommendations in due course.
38.We recommend that the Procedure Committee established in the 2017 Parliament consider, as a matter of urgency, the present operation of Standing Order No. 122A, on term limits for chairs of select committees, and make recommendations for change which are compatible with the expectations of the House and the present arrangements for election of chairs of select committees. We recognise that it will not be practicable to report on this matter before select committee chairs are elected at the start of the next Parliament. The next Committee should therefore aim to report its recommendations to the House in order for the House to take a decision on any proposed changes as soon as possible before the end of the calendar year 2017.
16 Procedure Committee, English votes for English laws Standing Orders: report of the Committee’s technical evaluation, Third Report of Session 2016–17, HC 189
17 Cabinet Office, , Cm 9430, March 2017
18 Procedure Committee, Sitting hours of the House; response to a survey of Members, Sixth Report of Session 2016–17. HC 1144
19 : the change accompanies a package of proposals on reform of select committees proposed by the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons in its First Report of Session 2001–02, , HC 224: the issue of term limits is addressed at paragraph 43. The report was broadly endorsed by the Liaison Committee in its Second Report of Session 2001–02, Select Committees: Modernisation Proposals, HC 692.
21 Under the present interpretation of the Standing Order their successors would, of course, be eligible to stand for election at the start of the next two parliaments—which, if the parliaments from 2017 all ran their full five-year course, would deliver a potential maximum term of 14 years.
28 April 2017