Published by Tom Brake on 20 March 2015
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The British system of governance is in need of reform. Weak parliamentary scrutiny of government bills threatens the quality of legislation, thereby leading to poor and unintended outcomes. Moreover, scrutiny of legislation is an integral element of holding the executive to account. Parliament must therefore have the structures and processes in place to effectively perform legislative scrutiny.
The scope of this report is limited to the process of legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons, which has long been criticised. Particularly the committee stage of scrutiny, which is intended to prepare the plenary for debate. Committee systems enable parliaments to economise time and resource through specialisation and preparation of the full chamber for deliberation and debate. Committees are typically considered effective when they are permanent and specialised, have a high degree of independence, are small in size and can draw on expert support staff.
Contrary to this House of Commons public bill committees, which scrutinise bills before Parliament, are ad hoc. This means that their members often lack subject specific expertise, which limits their ability to effectively scrutinise legislation and undermines Parliament’s ability to carry out one of its core functions. Furthermore, the temporary nature of these committees hinders relationship building between committee members, hampering the development of a collaborative and deliberative approach to scrutiny.
Public bill committees also lack independence. They are criticised for being excessively partisan, leading to an adversarial culture aimed at party political point scoring rather than improvement of the bill at hand. The partisan obstructionism results from the strong control exercised by the whips and the executive over membership and timetabling. Such executive power over legislative scrutiny makes a farce of Parliament’s independence. As the Liaison Committee (2000) put it: “[t]hose being scrutinised should not have a say in the selection of the scrutineers. We believe the present system does not, and should not, have the confidence of the House and the public”. Thus, despite positive innovations such as evidence taking by public bill committees, the committee stage of legislative scrutiny remains woefully inadequate. The recommendations in this report are aimed at addressing this, ensuring the process of legislative scrutiny enables Parliament to enact the best possible legislation to meet the government’s policy intent.
This report recommends that departmental select committees, which since 2010 have gained a reputation for independence and effective scrutiny, be entrusted with legislative scrutiny functions and thereby become dual-purpose committees. Not only would legislative scrutiny benefit from the independence and subject expertise of select committees, dual-purpose committees would ensure that legislative scrutiny benefits from the expertise gained by select committees through inquiries, and that general oversight by select committees gains from insights gathered during legislative scrutiny.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the use of delegated legislation, which largely escapes parliamentary scrutiny. This report therefore recommends that select committees are given powers to call hearings and propose amendments to statutory instruments laid before Parliament. This would provide the House of Commons more potent powers of oversight.
The workload of departmental select committees varies across committees as well as between Parliaments. As such, there is little reason for them to have parity of size, nor for individual committees to remain a certain size from Parliament to Parliament. Reform recommends that departmental select committees are sized at the beginning of each Parliament to reflect the expected workload of the committee on the basis of the government’s programme of work.
Evidence suggests that group decision-making is most effective in groups of around five to eight members. To accommodate the need for a parliamentary committee system that ensures representativeness as well as efficiency, Reform recommends that departmental select committees are sized between seven and 15 members depending on workload; and that committees are given the powers to appoint subcommittees from their own ranks to scrutinise legislation. The use of subcommittees may help select committees manage and spread the workload arising from both general oversight functions and legislative scrutiny responsibilities.
While select committees, generally, are lauded for their work, they are inhibited by high turnover and sporadic attendance, which limits the potential benefits of permanent, specialist parliamentary committees. This report therefore recommends that Parliament introduces non-consolidated salary increments to incentivise select committee work (including legislative scrutiny). Such a salary increment should be subject to an attendance-based clawback to signal that select committee duties are considered integral to the role of MPs, not an optional extra. Similarly, the current salary increment paid to select committee chairs should be increased to the level of a Parliamentary Undersecretary of State to reflect the importance of the role. Recognising the value of parliamentary scrutiny through remuneration would create an alternative career path for parliamentarians, lessening the power of patronage currently enjoyed by party leaders which is undermining Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account.
The recommended reforms should be made cost neutral, or indeed achieve an overall reduction in the cost of Parliament, through a complementary reduction in the size of Parliament. The 2013 Boundary Commission proposed a reduction of the House of Commons to 600 MPs, reflecting wider calls for a reduction in the size of Parliament. Reform recommends a reduction in the number of MPs to 600 or less, which would bring the UK better in line with other lower chambers of bicameral parliaments as regards the ratio of constituents to MPs. A share of the savings from such a reduction should be reinvested in improved staffing levels for select committees to further strengthen the quality of their work in scrutinising government legislation and policy implementation.
Reducing the size of Parliament may affect the balance of power in Parliament in favour of the executive if the so-called ‘payroll vote’, which include ministers and other appointed roles and requires an MP to vote with the government, is left unchanged. The report therefore recommends that the payroll vote, including unsalaried positions, be limited by statute to a maximum of 15 per cent of the House.
The report’s recommendations may impact the time available for constituency work. Recent decades have seen constituency casework increase significantly as a proportion of an MPs time (from 40 per cent a week in 1996 to over 60 per cent a week in 2006). However, evidence suggests that MPs are ill-equipped to deal with a significant share of the constituent correspondence they receive. Regardless of this report’s recommendations this is clearly an issue that should be addressed so that individual constituent concerns are met by the most appropriate person (often not their local MP).
 Liaison Select Committee, Independence or Control? The Government’s Reply to the Committee’s First Report of Session 1999-2000 – Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive.