Creating a Parliament of lawmakers

20 March 2015

Parliament needs reform. Weak parliamentary scrutiny of government bills harms the quality of legislation, and has negative knock-on effects on the implementation. High quality parliamentary scrutiny is key to effective and efficient public service delivery. Therefore Parliament must have the structures and processes in place to effectively perform legislative scrutiny.

The House of Commons has over many years been criticised for the poor quality of its legislative scrutiny. The Common’s use of ad hoc committees and the temporary allocation of staff inhibits the application of subject specific expertise to the scrutiny of bills. In a new report, Reform found that during the current Parliament only around eight per cent of places on bill committees were allocated to Members, who also sat on the relevant departmental select committee, and could thus be expected to have the appropriate expertise.

The ad hoc nature of bill committees, moreover, hinders the development of strong working relationships between the scrutineers, which could facilitate more collaborative working aimed at improving the bill at hand. A cooperative, deliberative approach to legislative scrutiny is further undermined by the dominance of the whips over selection and timetabling of public bill committees. Consequently, the House of Commons is characterised by a confrontational approach to lawmaking aimed at party-political point-scoring. The Liaison Committee in 2000 issued a scathing verdict on the procedures, when it stated that “[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”.

Contrary to the ad hoc bill committees, select committees are permanent, specialised in a subject area, and enjoy a significant degree of independence from whips and the executive through the election of chairs and members by secret ballot. These are properties which could greatly enhance the quality of legislative scrutiny by the House of Commons. Liberation from the whips’ control is essential to ensuring that bill scrutiny is not merely a test of executive strength but designed to enact the best possible law to deliver government policy. As Graham Brady writes in a foreword to the report: “The domination of the legislature by the executive and the pervasive corruption of patronage, effect a collective lobotomy. Intelligent and independent-minded people are too often transformed into lobby-fodder living in hope of even the most ridiculous sign of favour or preferment.” Reform therefore advocates that departmental select committees are given responsibility for legislative scrutiny alongside their existing, and broadly praised, general oversight function.

While select committees are considered successful at building cross-party support for constructive reports scrutinising the work of government, they are hampered by high turnover and poor attendance. Entrusting legislative scrutiny to the departmental select committees makes it imperative that such issues are addressed. The potential for remuneration to encourage desirable behaviour on the part of MPs is generally overlooked. Just as there are function-related pay increments in other areas, so too this could be introduced for MPs. A salary increment linked to the extra responsibilities of select committee work would signal the importance of that work. Making the salary increment subject to an attendance-related clawback would further emphasise that the work is considered integral to the role of an MP, not an optional extra.

These are among the recommendations put forward in A Parliament of lawmakers published by Reform today. The report also looks at the need for better scrutiny of delegated legislation and for better staffing of select committees. In addition it highlights the need to apply statutory limits to the unpaid ‘payroll vote’ positions, which require ministers and other government appointed MPs to vote with the government or resign.

The report carries cross-party support with forewords by Graham Brady MP, Chair of the 1922 Committee; Tom Brake MP, Leader of the House spokesman for the Liberal Democrats; and Paul Flynn MP, member of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee. Paul Flynn argues that: “The initial agendas of the new legislative committees will be off to a flying start if they embrace these recommendations at their first meetings in May 2015.”

Alongside the report, we are launching an online calculator for you to experiment with awarding select committee members and chairs such salary increments, and reducing the size of Parliament.

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