Select Committee on Procedure of the House Fifth Report

Fifth Report from the Select Committee on Procedure of the House





  1.  On 21 May 2002 the House debated a report by the Group appointed "to consider how the working practices of the House can be improved, and to make recommendations".[1] The House remitted the Group's report to the Procedure Committee with an instruction to make by 8 July recommendations, to be approved by the House, to implement the report. In our 4th report to the House on 8 July we explained why we were not able to meet this deadline.[2]

  2.  Before turning to the Group's recommendations, we remind the House that the recommendations would be subject to a trial period of two parliamentary sessions and the House itself would have to approve any continuation thereafter. At the end of the trial period the House should review how the new practices have worked and decide whether they should be continued.

  3.  Many of the Group's recommendations would require extra resources: more clerks, more Hansard reporters, more committee rooms. They would also increase the workload of Members of the House, for example, in sitting on pre-legislative scrutiny and other committees. We have not been able in the time available to us to assess the full implications of these extra requirements. In some cases, it is for the Offices Committee and its sub-committees to do so. It seems to us unlikely that all the Group's recommendations can be implemented immediately. We recommend that with effect from next session (2002-03) implementation should be phased, as resources become available.

  4.  In this report the Group's recommendations are printed in italics. The recommendations of the Procedure Committee are printed in bold.

  5.  We now turn to each of the Group's recommendations.

Group recommendation (a): virtually all major government bills should as a matter of course be subject in draft to pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament (paragraph 7 of the Group's report)

  6.  This is not a procedural issue. We support Group recommendation (a), provided that the quality of pre-legislative scrutiny is maintained at a high level and also that pre-legislative scrutiny committees are not required to work to unreasonably tight timetables or to consider draft bills that are incomplete. We draw attention to the resource implications, especially the number of members of the House needed to undertake additional regular pre-legislative scrutiny.

Group recommendation (b): subject to the right of the House of Commons to determine its own procedures, bills that have received pre-legislative scrutiny in either House should, on a motion moved in the House in possession of the bill at the end of the session, be allowed to be carried-over into the next session; but if a bill that has been carried over does not reach the statute book by the end of the session following carry-over it should fall, as now (paragraph 10)

  7.  The Procedure Committee endorsed the principle of carry-over in 1998.[3] We recommend that the House should now take this endorsement a stage further and agree to Group recommendation (b), but only for Government bills and subject to the provisos on pre-legislative scrutiny in paragraph 6 above. At present, carry-over is restricted to bills that have not yet left the House in which they originated; eligibility of bills for carry-over is settled by informal discussion in the usual channels; and bills are carried-over by ad hoc motions. If Group recommendation (b) is implemented, as we propose, carry-over would no longer be restricted to bills that had not yet left the House in which they originated: any bill that had been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny in either House would be eligible for carry-over. Carry-over would be achieved, after discussion in the usual channels, by a motion agreed by one or both Houses, depending on where the bill had been introduced. We would expect the fact that a bill had been subject to pre-legislative scrutiny would influence significantly the judgment by the usual channels in this House on whether the bill should be carried-over.

  8.  The question of the application of the Parliament Acts to a bill that is to be carried over was raised in the House's debate of 21 May 2002. In theory, the Parliament Acts could be applied to a bill which, having been received by the Lords at least one month before the end of a session, was carried-over but not passed by the end of the next session. In the case of the Lords carrying-over a Commons bill, in order to avoid the Parliament Acts being implemented, the Commons should be invited to agree, before the Lords agrees to the carry-over, to a formal direction that section 2 of the Parliament Act 1911 should not apply to the bill in the ensuing session.

Group recommendation (c): while we do not intend in any way to encroach upon the financial privileges of the Commons, a procedure should be established to enable the House to deal more effectively with Finance Bills (paragraph 12)

  9.  We accept Group recommendation (c) and propose that the Committee on Economic Affairs should be given the power to establish a sub-committee to undertake the task of considering the Finance Bill and a power to co-opt additional members to the sub-committee exclusively for its consideration of the Finance Bill. The terms of reference of the Economic Affairs Committee are wide enough to encompass this additional scrutiny work but, in relation to scrutiny of the Finance Bill, they should be amended specifically to prohibit the sub-committee from investigating the incidence or rates of tax, and to allow it only to address technical issues of tax administration, clarification and simplification. As the Group's report makes clear, there is no intention to challenge Commons financial privilege.

Group recommendation (d): a new Lords select committee should be established to examine the merits of every statutory instrument subject to parliamentary scrutiny (paragraph 16)

  10.  There is a large body of support for a new select committee of the Lords to examine the substance of statutory instruments and determine whether they merit debate.[4] The creation of any new committee is a matter for the Liaison Committee. However, we endorse Group recommendation (d), as elaborated in the first sentence of this paragraph and invite the Liaison Committee to give it early and sympathetic consideration. We would point out that the present right of any member of the House to table motions on statutory instruments for debate on the floor of the House would continue unfettered after the appointment of the new committee.

Group recommendation (e): on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, the time for starred questions should be extended to 40 minutes; the number of starred questions on these two days should be increased from four to five; and the additional questions on these two days should be topical questions (paragraph 18)

  11.  The number of Starred Questions has been increased over the years in response to the wishes of the House. No Standing Order is involved. Topical questions have become an important feature of the House's procedures. So the Procedure Committee endorses Group recommendation (e). We would however remind the House that topical questions should be topical.

  12.  We have noted that the number of supplementary questions at Question Time has fallen over the years, due not only to longer questions being asked but also to longer ministerial replies. Front-bench interventions reduce the opportunities for back-benchers to ask supplementary questions. We therefore draw to the attention of all Members of the House the need for both shorter questions and shorter answers.

  13.  We recommend:

    —  the new topical question on Tuesday should be tabled by 2pm on the previous Friday, for selection by ballot;

    —  for the additional topical question on Wednesday, members of the House should be restricted, as now, to one question only for the ballot that day; and

    —  the present limitation of two topical questions per member per session be increased to four to take account of the extra two questions a week.

Group recommendation (f): the House authorities, in consultation with the Government, should draw up and make available to the House a timetable that would allow each Minister one sitting day a week free of starred questions (paragraph 18)

  14.  We do not endorse Group recommendation (f). It should be left to ministers to decide whether to answer questions themselves or leave them to be answered by a Whip if, for example, they are absent from the House on official duties.

Group recommendation (g): as a package of measures (a) the House should normally rise not later than 10pm; (b) this should be coupled with greater use of Grand Committees for the kind of bills considered suitable by the Rippon Group; and (c) after second reading there should be a motion in the House to commit each bill to the appropriate committee, usually a Grand Committee or a Committee of the Whole House (paragraph 23)

Group recommendation (h): a new standing order should be adopted to provide that no new item of business (which would include a new Group of amendments) could begin after 10pm (paragraph 24)

Group recommendation (k): on Thursdays the House should sit at 11.00am and adjourn not later than about 7pm and this recommendation should be incorporated in a standing order (paragraph 27)

  15.  The House of Lords can sit (and has sat) at any convenient time. Sitting times do not need the express approval of the House. So there is no procedural issue in the sitting and rising times of the House. It is a matter of convenience and practice. The Procedure Committee endorses Group recommendation (g)(a) that the House should normally rise by 10pm on Mondays to Wednesdays. Group recommendation (g)(b) on Grand Committees follows from recommendation (g)(a) and we endorse it also.

  16.  We recommend however that only one Grand Committee to consider a bill should sit on any one day.

  17.  The Procedure Committee endorses Group recommendation (g)(c) that after the second reading of a bill a separate motion should be moved by the Lord in charge to commit the bill to the appropriate committee. Accordingly, we set out below a revision of Standing Order 47 (committal of bills) to give effect to this recommendation:

      Standing Order 47, leave out paragraph (1) and insert—

      (1)  After second reading, bills are committed to a committee on a motion in the name of the Lord in charge of the bill (except that in case of a Bill of Supply or a bill certified by the Speaker as a Money Bill the House may order that the bill be not committed.)

  18.  It will be important to ensure that Bills which do not attract amendments and which would have their committee stage discharged on the day of the committee stage are not committed to Grand Committees. It would be undesirable from a procedural and administrative point of view to discharge the Grand Committee stage on the day it was to take place (although it would be possible on the day before to vacate the order of commitment to a Grand Committee and commit the Bill to a Committee of the Whole House which could then be discharged in the normal way). The waste of resources incurred in setting up a Grand Committee for a non-controversial bill and then cancelling it for want of amendments, or having it meet but only briefly, would be considerable.

  19.  For these reasons we recommend also that any member of the House in charge of a private member's bill should not table the motion to commit the bill without consulting the clerks. This would help to ensure that only suitable bills of the type recommended by the Rippon Group were referred to Grand Committees.

  20.  In the debate on 21 May 2002 Lord Jenkin of Roding asked the Procedure Committee to consider the possibility of splitting a bill between a Committee of the Whole House and a Grand Committee. House of Lords procedures are flexible, and there is no procedural reason why a motion to commit a bill should not do as Lord Jenkin has proposed. However, Lord Jenkin based his suggestion on the Commons practice of dividing the Finance Bill in such a way, and it seems to us that few other bills lend themselves to being split in this way.

  21.  Group recommendation (h) proposed that a Standing Order should be drafted to ensure that the House should not begin new business after 10pm on Mondays to Wednesdays or after 7pm on Thursdays (and presumably Fridays). The Procedure Committee does not endorse this recommendation because a Standing Order would not allow enough flexibility. We recommend instead that it should become a firm convention of the House, underpinned by guidance inserted into the Companion to Standing Orders, that the House normally rises by about 10pm on Mondays to Wednesdays.

  22.  The Procedure Committee considered Group recommendation (k) that on Thursdays the House should sit at 11am and rise by 7pm. In discussion it emerged that the Group's proposal did not take into account the desire of the parties and groups to break from business in the middle of the day for party meetings. If there were to be such a break, the lost sitting time would have to be added at the end of the day. The Procedure Committee also considered the timing of Starred Questions if the House were to decide to sit on Thursdays at 11am. Taking these two issues into account, we invite the House to consider whether to accept the following timetable for Thursday sittings:

11am-1.30pm House sits for public business
1.30pm-3pmHouse adjourns during pleasure
3pm-7.30pm at the latestHouse resumes, starting with
Starred Questions
7.30pm (or earlier depending
on business) for 1½ hrs
Unstarred question (if desired)

Group recommendation (i): urgent steps should be taken to correct the Moses Room shortcomings and consideration should be given to holding Grand Committees and other business in the Robing Room where the House has sat in the past (paragraph 25)

  23.  We strongly support the first part of this recommendation because the Moses Room is at present unsuitable for holding Grand Committees. The second part concerning the Robing Room raises a number of difficult issues, including public access and the installation of a suitable sound system and recording and broadcasting facilities. We recommend that the suitability of the Robing Room for Grand Committees should be considered by those responsible for the Robing Room.

Group recommendation (j): three additional Wednesdays should be allotted for backbench debates in each session, and more debates on select committee reports and on general topics should be held in prime time on the floor of the House (paragraph 26)

  24.  The Standing Orders of the House already state that general debates have priority on the Order Paper on Wednesdays[5]; but it has become increasingly the case that Wednesdays in June have been used for Government business. The Procedure Committee therefore supports recommendation (j). To give effect to it we recommend that in a normal full session every Wednesday from the beginning of the session until the end of June should be set aside for general debates. This should be stated in the Companion to the Standing Orders.

  25.  Under Standing Order 40, debates on select committee reports already have the same priority on the Order Paper as proceedings on public bills. We recommend that the Companion to the Standing Orders should also state the desirability of regular debates on select committee reports and general topics in prime time. This would encourage the usual channels to give prime time for at least some reports to be debated. We recognise that other reports, in particular European Union Committee reports on documents subject to a scrutiny reserve, might still have to be debated outside prime time because they might need to take place urgently at short notice in order that the reserve can be lifted.

  26.  Paragraph 19 of the Group's report raises the possibility of extending the scope of Grand Committees from consideration of legislation to the holding of debates on general subjects. Nothing in our present report should be taken as ruling out such a possibility and a procedure could be established at a future date to give effect to it.

Group recommendation (l): the House of Lords should be willing to sit in September, and in return the House should have longer recesses at Christmas, Easter or Whitsun, or rise earlier for the summer recess (paragraph 28)

  27.  This is not strictly a matter of procedure. However, we support the Group's aim of a more balanced parliamentary year. We are conscious that from 2003 the House of Commons is likely to rise in mid-July and to sit from the beginning of September with a break during the main party conferences. We do not believe that it would be desirable for this House to rule out the possibility of also sitting regularly in September. The Group made it clear that in return for sitting in September the House should have longer recesses at other times. We believe that the House will wish to express an opinion on this possibility before a change with such important effects on the lives of members of the House and their families is implemented. We therefore recommend that any proposal for the House to meet in part of the following September, rather than at other times of the year, should be put to the House with clear guidelines early in the session.

Group recommendation (m): Grand Committees may sit in September, whether or not the House is sitting (paragraph 29)

  28.  This is largely a matter of business management and raises similar issues to September sittings of the House. It is desirable that more Law Commission Bills should be introduced. A procedure already exists for the scrutiny of Law Commission Bills, namely Special Public Bill Committees. But this has not been used since 1995 because no Law Commission Bill has been introduced. The aim of recommendation (m) is to encourage Governments to introduce more Law Commission Bills, and we endorse it for that reason. However, it is essential that the Government business managers give reasonable notice when Grand Committees will be meeting in September so that members of the House can arrange their other commitments accordingly.

  29.  We must point out to the House however that a number of procedural issues would arise if Grand Committees were to sit in September without the House sitting at the same time. These include authority to print the bill as amended, the implications for minimum intervals between stages, the status of the Hansard report of the proceedings in Grand Committee, and the impact on praying time for statutory instruments. We invite the Clerk of the Parliaments to consider these and any other issues which may arise in connection with Grand Committee sittings when the House itself is not sitting and to propose for our consideration any necessary amendments to the Standing Orders and to the Companion to the Standing Orders. These various issues would need to be resolved before Grand Committees could begin to sit in September.

Group recommendation (n): there should be a review of the House's scrutiny of European legislation, including the appropriate balance between the scrutiny of general policy and that of specific legislative proposals, and the desirability of a greater number of shorter and more focussed reports (paragraph 30).

  30.  We believe that this is a matter for the European Union Committee and it is already conducting such a review. It would be desirable for the results of the review to be reported to the Liaison Committee in due course.


  31.  Implementation of the Group's recommendations is likely to lead to a significant increase in the House's committee work. It is likely that there will be some days when a pre-legislative scrutiny committee is sitting at the same time as bills are being considered in a Grand Committee and also in Committee of the Whole House. It will therefore be essential for the business managers to plan the legislative timetable in order to ensure that ministers, Opposition spokesmen and other members of the House are not faced with conflicting demands for their time and presence. Certain administrative and resource problems will arise in the short term and ways will have to be found to overcome them.

1   HL Paper 111. Back

2   4th Report (2001-02), HL Paper 144. Back

3   See Companion to the Standing Orders, paragraphs 6.06-08. Back

4   See for example the report of the Royal Commission on House of Lords Reform, Chairman Lord Wakeham, Cm 4534, recommendations 37 and 38. Back

5   SO 40 (arrangement of the order paper). Back

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