Commons reform: are legislation committees the next frontier?

4th June 2013

With this week’s lobbying allegations, attention is again turning to parliamentary reform. As Barry Winetrobe noted in this blog yesterday, politicians are inclined to reach for easy solutions, not all of which may deal with the problem at hand. But the more that can be done to improve both the effectiveness and the image of parliament, the better.

As I noted in an article in Parliamentary Affairs two years ago, Rahm Emanuel’s dictum of ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ fitted the MPs’ expenses crisis nicely. While the crisis did terrible damage to parliament’s reputation, something good did come out of the ashes. Realising that ‘something must be done’, Gordon Brown set up the ‘Wright Committee’ (formally Reform of the House of Commons Selection committee) to bring forward proposals for reform. This led to the election of select committee chairs and members, and creation of the Backbench Business Committee – both very important and welcome developments.

Since then, progress has slowed. The House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is currently conducting an inquiry assessing the impact of the Wright reforms, and areas of unfinished business. Two weeks ago Leader of the House of Commons Andrew Lansley announced to the committee that the coalition’s promised establishment of a House Business Committee is on hold until further notice. Although I personally always had doubts that this reform would a) happen and b) be effective if it did, this news will disappoint many reformers.

So perhaps the Constitution Unit’s publication of a new report next week on reform of Commons legislation committees is timely. Reformers have double reason to be looking for proposals to strengthen parliament that they can rally around. Ministers may also see the benefits of a new set of moderate and sensible reform proposals that can help enhance parliament’s reputation. This report – Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation Committees into Line with Best Practice – suggests that reform of public bill committees is the next urgent priority. With reform having been achieved in other areas, they could be seen as the Commons’ weakest link.

The report reviews complaints about Commons legislation committees, and previous calls for reform. While a major change took place in 2007 (when Jack Straw was Leader of the House), to introduce evidence taking on bills, this only partly dealt with the committees’ weaknesses. They remain temporary, nonspecialist, and selected by the whips. The report also reviews practice in other parliaments, showing that the public bill committees are out of step with international best practice, as well as with the Commons’ own select committees. Indeed, reforming these committees’ membership is a genuine piece of ‘unfinished business’ from the Wright Committee, which recommended (paragraph 60) that the way public bill committee members are chosen should be reviewed. It hasn’t been yet.

The report will be launched next Monday 10 June in the House of Commons (Wilson Room, Portcullis House) at 5pm, when the former Commons leader Jack Straw (Labour) and Chair of the Procedure Committee Charles Walker (Conservative) will give their responses. Free copies will be available, and it will also be published on our website soon.

If you would like to book a place at the launch, contact the Constitution Unit administrator Ben Webb.

One thought on “Commons reform: are legislation committees the next frontier?

  1. If I may focus on the first part of Meg’s post, rather than the legislation committees issue (important as that is), I take issue with the whole concept of Executive-initiated parliamentary reform, such as the recent round of Commons procedural reforms via the Wright Committee (which, as Meg says, “Realising that ‘something must be done’, Gordon Brown set up”) following the 2009 expenses crisis.

    I deal with this in my brief written evidence to the PCRC Inquiry into the Wright Report: (, inc the following:

    “The 2009 expenses scandal provided a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the UK Parliament, especially the House of Commons, to reform itself and make it ‘fit for purpose’ as a 21st century democratic and accountable representative assembly. It blew it. Instead, as usual, what happened was yet another round of incremental, worthy procedural reform, largely orchestrated by the Government, and accompanied by the usual bouts of self-congratulation. The fundamental reality of a Parliament dominated by its Executive, procedurally and operationally, remains virtually untouched, with these most recent reforms, like most before them, absorbed by the Government or appropriated for its own purposes.”

    I explore this a little more in a reply I posted yesterday to a comment made to my 3 June post which Meg cites.

    When the PCRC reports on its Wright Committee inquiry, I hope it will be more than another ’bout of self-congratulation’ at having smuggled through a little more incremental procedural change, with the usual calls for the further recommended changes (like a Business Committee) to be completed by the Government. Its chair, Graham Allen, has written and talked much of more fundamental, even revolutionary, change to how Westminster, especially the Commons, operates. This is his big chance to bang the drum for a ‘parliamentary spring’ where Parliament grows out of being a supplicant to Government, and deals with its own vital reform agenda.

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