Legislative Committees (the committee stage)

A Public or Private Bill Committee is appointed for each Bill that goes through Parliament. Depending on its complexity, the consideration of a Bill can take a few minutes to a few months.

The Lords meet as a whole House in this function (in the debating chamber) or as a Grand Committee away from the chamber. Proceedings in a Grand Committees are the same as Committees of the whole House with an important exception: motions must be passed unanimously, so a dissenting voice from one Member could block an amendment to a Bill.

Naming Public Bill Committees

Each Public Bill Committee is named after the Bill it considers. For example, a committee considering a Bill titled the Climate Bill would be called the Climate Bill Committee.

How they work

Each committee is assigned a chairman and debate Bills as they would do in the Commons chamber, with broadly the same rules of debate applying. Public Bill Committees, unlike the Standing Committees they replace, have the power to take written and oral evidence from officials and experts outside of Parliament. This is intended to give Committee members more information on which to make their decisions.

The minimum number of Members in a committee is 16 and the maximum is about 50. The proportion of Members in a Public Bill Committee mirrors the political parties' strengths in the Commons, so there is always a government majority.

Reports

Public Bill Committees examine each Bill line by line. Once a committee has finished looking at a Bill, it reports its conclusions and any amendments made to the Commons, where Members debate the Bill further.

Public Bill Committees have been strengthened, improving the scrutiny of legislation.

Public Bill Committees are temporary committees formed to scrutinise a particular bill after it has successfully completed its second reading. Until 2007, they were known as ‘standing committees’, however, the committees were given their new title after reforms were passed to allow them to begin taking oral and written evidence from outside experts while scrutinising bills. This arguably leads to more informed scrutiny and improved legislation. However… Public Bill Committees remain far less independent than select committees. Whereas Select Committees are now elected, the membership of Public Bill Committees is still decided by the Committee of Selection, which is dominated by party whips. Backbench MPs have no control over the membership of Public Bill Committees and this can often mean that less rebellious MPs are selected. The Higher Education Bill (2004) provoked rebellions from 72 Labour MPs (17% of the party), yet only one of these MPs was included on the Higher Education Bill Committee. From 2000-2010, only 88 non-government amendments were successfully made in Public Bill Committees, despite opposition MPs proposing 17,468 amendments (just 0.5%).

Criticism

Report HOW TO RUN A COUNTRY. A PARLIAMENT OF LAWMAKERS 2013


A 2013 report by the UCL Constitution Unit claimed that “Parliamentary scrutiny of bills is arguably where the House of Commons is at its weakest – and the committee stage is central to that weakness.”

Inadequate parliamentary scrutiny of government bills threatens the quality of legislation, and may therefore contribute to implementation problems and ultimately poor and unintended outcomes. Wholesale reform of the House of Commons’ procedures for bill scrutiny is therefore essential.

Public Bill Committees are temporary committees formed to scrutinise a particular bill after it has successfully completed its second reading. Until 2007, they were known as ‘standing committees’, however, the committees were given their new title after reforms were introduced that allowed them to begin taking oral and written evidence from outside experts while scrutinising bills

Bill committees lack expertise because their ad hoc nature disallows members to build up knowledge of a policy area. Moreover, the cross-over between membership of bill committees and relevant departmental select committees, which embody the policy expertise, is tiny. In a recent report by the independent think tank Reform we found that a mere eight per cent of seats on public bill committees are allocated to MPs who sat on the relevant departmental select committee. The deficit of expertise is further exacerbated by transient staffing.

The ad hoc nature also prevents the development of collaborative working relationships between committee members which could ensure a constructive approach aimed at improving the bill. Indeed, the partisan approach taken encourages the exact opposite to the deliberative and constructive approach seen in other Western parliaments. In 1997 the Modernisation Committee reported that “[t]he Committee stage of a Bill…has often tended to be devoted to politically partisan debate rather than constructive and systematic scrutiny.”

A deficit of expertise

Particular criticisms of the legislative scrutiny process include the lack of continuity due to the ad hoc nature of public bill committees (see textbox above) and the concurrent deficit of expertise; the latter compounded by the temporary staffing of such committees. Indeed, legislative scrutiny in the UK is an outlier in international comparison as most parliaments have permanent specialist committees scrutinising legislation.23 Calls for reform have therefore included proposals for a stronger use of select committee expertise in the scrutiny of legislation, for instance by the Hansard Society’s Newton Commission in 2001 and a cross-party group of MPs in 2003.24

However, the cross-over between membership of select committees and public bill committees remains minimal. In the 2010-12, 2012-13, and 2013-14 sessions only around eight per cent of the places on public bill committees were taken by Members who also sat on the relevant departmental select committee.25 Those with the greatest subject expertise were not the people scrutinising the bills

The obstructionist, party-political approach to lawmaking in the House of Commons arises from the excessive control over bill committees enjoyed by the whips which extends to both the selection of members and timetabling of committee sittings. Government and opposition MPs are equally expected to toe party lines, rather than improve the quality of the bill in the national interest. Paul Flynn, in his book ‘How to be an MP’ suggested that:

“Opposition MPs are lectured that their only influence is the ability to delay Government bills. They are urged to fill time spaces with words whose main purpose is to gum up the works”.

For government bills, Public Bill Committees include the responsible government minister, the equivalent shadow minister, party whips, relevant Parliament Private Secretaries, and then additional backbench members. Membership of Public Bill Committees can vary from a minimum of 16 members, to a maximum of 50, but are generally around 20 members. Members of Public Bill Committees are chosen by the Committee of Selection, which the report claims is dominated by party whips, and has its membership agreed privately, “between the ‘usual channels’ at the start of each parliament”. This means that backbench MPs have no control over the membership of Public Bill Committees. One of the issues highlighted by the report is that, according to Standing Order 86(2), the Committee of Selection is required to “to have regard to the qualifications of those Members nominated and to the composition of the House”. Therefore, the membership must reflect the strength of each party in the House; so if the Conservatives hold the most seats in the House, they must hold the most seats on the Committees.

However, the report criticises the fact that while the Committee of Selection must consider the composition of the House, there is no requirement “to respect the balance of opinion in the House on any particular Bill”. The report cites the Higher Education Bill 2004, which provoked rebellions from 72 Labour MPs (17% of the party), yet only one of these MPs was included on the Higher Education Bill Committee. The report also argues that although Standing Order 86(2) states that the Committee of Selection is required to consider the “qualifications” of the members it appoints, in practice the whips often avoid MPs who have direct experience and a clear interest in the Bills being scrutinised. As an example, it cites the controversial exclusion of the MP Sarah Wollaston from the Health and Social Care Bill Committee. Wollaston had applied to be on the Committee as she had relevant experience from working as a GP, and yet, despite being a qualified doctor, she argued she was excluded because she was not prepared to promise the party whips that she would support the Bill. Wollaston later told the Guardian newspaper "It is made very clear to you that if you are on a Bill committee you support the government. I was not prepared to accept that."

By their nature as temporary committees, it is argued that Members do not gain the experience and expertise that members of Select Committees do; they are also unable to build strong working relationships, which can be particularly important when trying to reach agreements across party lines. Equally, with the selection process dominated by party whips, it seems inevitable that Public Bill Committees will not feature many independent minded MPs, who might have valid criticisms about the Bill, but will instead feature an abundance of loyal backbenchers, or frontbenchers who will stick to the party line. This is in stark contrast to the newly elected Select Committees, who tend to be led by very independently minded MPs, who are willing to challenge the government, even when they are in the government’s party.