Select Committee on Procedure of the House Third Report



1.  In July 2002[1] the House agreed to a package of procedural changes, to be implemented for a period of two sessions. That experimental period will end with the current session, so the House needs to decide how to proceed thereafter.

2.  The experiment has been reviewed by a Leader's Group, which reported in September.[2] We have now considered that report, and make our present recommendations to the House on the basis of it.

3.  In this report we set out each of the conclusions and recommendations of the Leader's Group in turn (printed in italics) followed by our own comments and recommendations (printed in bold). Broadly speaking we recommend that the experimental package should be adopted permanently, with the exception of arrangements for starred questions where we recommend a variation.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

  Leader's Group paragraph 7: We welcome the growth in pre-legislative scrutiny, which is a significant innovation and has notably altered the way in which the legislative programme is structured. We recommend that this approach should continue. However, we conclude that the aspiration that "virtually all major Government bills" should receive such scrutiny is unrealistic. A variety of constraints - business management requirements, political considerations, resource implications - lead us not to stipulate a target for continued growth in pre-legislative scrutiny, though we expect that it will become an increasingly useful part of the parliamentary cycle. We support the continued consideration on a case-by-case basis of the appropriate forum for pre-legislative scrutiny, but would favour greater use of joint committees and of Lords' committees where appropriate.

4.  We endorse these conclusions and recommendations.


  Leader's Group paragraph 9: We recommend that the existing arrangements for carry-over, as described above, should be continued. Eligibility of individual bills is settled by discussion through the usual channels, and a bill is then carried over by an ad hoc motion in the House. We also note the example of the Constitutional Reform Bill [HL], as demonstrating the flexibility which exists where there is general agreement about the desirability of a bill being carried over.

5.  We endorse this recommendation.

Scrutiny of the Finance Bill

  Leader's Group paragraph 11: We endorse the recommendations previously agreed to by the House. We recommend that the Sub-Committee should continue to conduct its activities with full regard to the sensitivities involved and in particular to the traditional boundary between the two Houses on fiscal policy.

6.  We endorse this recommendation.

Starred questions

  Leader's Group paragraph 13: We therefore recommend that the House should return to 4 starred questions each day, with a limit of 30 minutes. We recommend that the number of topical questions be reduced to 3, one each on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. This would allow 2 of each week's topical questions to be tabled in the week that they would be asked, which might encourage greater topicality. We recommend that the clerks should discourage members from tabling questions which are clearly not topical and should indicate to members which questions have already been submitted for ballot. We endorse the existing limit of 4 topical questions per member per session.

7.  We endorse these conclusions and recommendations. We recommend that the clerks should not accept more than one question on a subject for inclusion in the ballot for topical questions, and that priority should be given to the first which is tabled. We also take this opportunity to remind the House of the following guidance on questions: "supplementary questions may be asked but they should be short and confined to not more than two points … The essential purpose of supplementaries is to elicit information, and they should not incorporate statements of opinion. They should not be read".[3]

Ministerial "free days"

  Leader's Group paragraph 15: We do not recommend that that issue should be re-opened, but the House must then accept that ministers cannot always be present to answer questions. We draw to the attention of the House the recommendation of the Procedure Committee that "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".

8.  We endorse this conclusion.

Grand Committees

  Leader's Group paragraph 19: We concluded that arrangements for bills going to Grand Committees are broadly acceptable and we recommend that the present arrangements, whereby decisions about commitment of a bill are made after discussion in the usual channels and a motion is moved after second reading of each bill, should be continued.

  Leader's Group paragraph 20: We recommend that Grand Committees should continue to sit for the times agreed in advance, irrespective of the rising of the House.

  Leader's Group paragraph 21: We recommend that consideration should be given to altering the layout to make it more accessible to members who might wish to attend a Grand Committee briefly or intermittently.

  Leader's Group paragraph 22: We considered the potential for televising Grand Committees from the Moses Room, but concluded that the costs would be very high and hard to justify. The Director of Parliamentary Broadcasting advised that a more cost-effective way forward would be to link the Moses Room microphone system to the broadcasting network so that automated sound coverage of Grand Committees could be carried on the internet as part of Parliament's own webcasting service. We recommend that this course should be further pursued.

9.  We endorse these conclusions and recommendations.

  Leader's Group paragraph 23: Building on the success of the Grand Committee on Northern Ireland orders, we recommend that other types of business could be taken in the Moses Room, including some other delegated legislation and debates on some select committee reports. The Procedure Committee may also wish to consider whether unstarred questions could also be taken in the Moses Room from time to time, given the pressures on the Floor of the House and the evident demand for additional opportunities for unstarred questions.

10.  In considering this issue we had before us a letter from Lord Grenfell, chairman of the Select Committee on the European Union, which is printed as an annex to this report. Lord Grenfell set out in his letter, and in discussion in our Committee, his reasons for opposing the proposal that debates on select committee reports could take place in the Moses Room. We had some sympathy with his points but concluded that the recommendation would not curtail members' rights but would instead widen the range of options open to those seeking business in the House, in view of the pressure on time in the Chamber. We therefore endorse this recommendation of the Leader's Group, and further recommend that unstarred questions may also be taken in the Moses Room. However, we make these recommendations on the understanding that additional business in the Moses Room would only be arranged with the concurrence of those concerned. We note that any delegated legislation debated in a Grand Committee would have to return to the floor of the House for a formal decision.

Target rising time

  Leader's Group paragraph 25: We conclude that the increased use of Grand Committees has greatly contributed to increased success in meeting the target rising time, as has the greater experience of the usual channels in working to a specific target.

  Leader's Group paragraph 26: … we conclude that the House would no longer find it acceptable routinely to sit late into the night. … We recommend that the current arrangements for the 10pm target rising time should continue, because they are flexible enough to allow the House to sit later by agreement in cases where that is desirable. Responsibility for meeting that target rests not only with the business managers, but with all members of the House through self-regulation. A target rising time can only be achieved in practice if, for example, members refrain from making "second reading" type speeches at other stages of bills, and from repeating at length arguments which have already been fully stated.

11.  We endorse these conclusions and recommendations.

Time for debates

  Leader's Group paragraph 29: We also recommend that committee chairmen should be rigorous in recommending reports either for debate or information. We hope that recommendations for debate could be confined to those subjects which are likely to attract interest and participation from the wider House, and those instances where it is desirable that a Government response should be given in debate rather than in writing. Recommending more specialised select committee reports for debate has an impact on the time available to debate matters of more general interest.

12.  We endorse these conclusions and recommendation. We further recommend that, whether select committee reports are debated on the floor of the House or in Grand Committee, it should be possible to time limit the debate. This would be subject to an order of the House in the usual way for Wednesday debates.

Thursday sittings

  Leader's Group paragraph 32: We acknowledge the chequered history of this issue, and the fact that some members are still strongly averse to the morning sitting on Thursday. But that body of opinion is not generally representative of feelings in the House, and we take the view that the present pattern of Thursday sittings is now fairly widely accepted. This is an issue on which interests differ, and no solution would meet all the demands of members' varying personal circumstances. On the whole, we conclude that the current arrangements for Thursday sittings are successful. We recommend that the House should continue to sit at 11am on Thursdays with starred questions as first business, and aim to rise at around 7 pm.

  Leader's Group paragraph 33: … but we acknowledge that the House may wish to revisit the issue of swapping Wednesday and Thursday business in future.

  Leader's Group paragraph 34: We recommend that Grand Committees should not normally sit on a Thursday morning, except by agreement where exceptional circumstances make it desirable.

  Leader's Group paragraph 35: … Whilst publication of the marshalled list on the previous day would be of little practical advantage if further amendments are tabled at the last minute, we recommend that earlier publication of the marshalled list should be explored.

13.  We endorse these conclusions and recommendations. We propose to consider further the issue of swapping Wednesday and Thursday business in future, and will report to the House on that matter in due course.

September sittings

  Leader's Group paragraph 37: We recognise the strong feelings in the House on this issue, and also the arguments on practical and cost grounds. We endorse the original recommendation that the House should be willing to sit in September, but this should be reconsidered if the House of Commons discontinues September sittings in due course.

14.  We endorse this conclusion, and note that it is not proposed that either House should sit in September in 2005.

1   HL Deb, 24 July 2002, col. 371. Back

2   Report of the Leader's Group - Review of Working Practices, (2003-04) HL Paper 162. Back

3   Companion to the Standing Orders, page 76. Back

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