Government is entitled to pass the legislation necessary to pursue its programme and policies. Parliament’s responsibility is to ensure that government bills put before it are passed in a form that enables the effective implementation of that policy. Sadly, the quality of legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons is woefully inadequate. Reform today publishes a report on how this can be addressed: A parliament of lawmakers.
Criticism of bill scrutiny conducted in the Commons is not new, particularly with regard to the committee stage of the process. In a damning assessment, the 1992 Rippon Commission found that “many Members appear to find committee work on bills to be largely a waste of time”. Whilst the unrelenting criticism has led to some reform – such as evidence taking – improvement has been limited. Legislative scrutiny remains excessively partisan and suffers from a deficit of expertise.
Public bill committees are appointed for a particular bill and dissolved following its consideration. This ad hoc nature inhibits the consistent application of expertise in the scrutiny of bills, which is compounded by the similarly temporary allocation of staff to the committees. It also prevents the development of durable working relationships between committee members which could ensure a deliberative and 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. The whips’ control over selection for bill committee membership and timetabling of committee work encourages the partisan approach. Government and opposition MPs are equally expected to toe party lines, rather than improve the quality of the bill in the national interest. In his book, How To Be An MP, Paul Flynn MP described the committees as “self-indulgent battlegrounds, not rational instruments for reform.”
The strength of the committee system is critical to the effectiveness of a parliament. The House of Commons select committees largely exemplify the characteristics associated with effective committees: permanence, specialisation, independence, smallness in size and the ability to draw on specialised support. Bill committees exhibit none. Wholesale reform of the House of Commons’ procedures for bill scrutiny is therefore essential.
Entrusting responsibility for legislative scrutiny to departmental select committees would ensure that this chief function of parliament benefits from their independence, permanence and specialism. However, while select committees are lauded for their cross-party approach to constructive scrutiny, they currently suffer from high turnover and sporadic attendance. Adding further responsibilities to the work of select committees would likely increase their status and therefore MP engagement, but we believe additional recognition of the importance of this role is needed.
Reform recommends the introduction of a function-related salary increment for select committee members to reflect their extra responsibilities, but that such a salary increment should be subject to an attendance-related clawback. This would signal that the work is considered integral to the role of an MP, not an optional extra. Similarly, boosting the current salary increment paid to select committee chairs would improve the attractiveness of the role vis-à-vis ministerial appointment. These changes could create an alternative career path to the ministerial ambitions of most MPs. We also recommend reducing the size of the payroll vote – further reducing the power of patronage currently enjoyed by Party leaders.
The reforms could be made cost-neutral by reducing the number of MPs. Calls for a reduction of the House of Commons have come from many quarters. Indeed, the UK lower chamber is comparably large in international perspective both in terms of the number of MPs and the number of constituents each MP represents. Our report shows that it would require a reduction by as much as 150 MPs for British parliamentarians to represent a number of constituents roughly similar to the Members of the German Bundestag. Reform recommends that the Commons is reduced by at least 50 MPs, which would leave ample resource to implement the recommended salary increments as well as increase staffing levels for select committees and still deliver savings.
This package of reforms would support MPs in fulfilling their duties to citizens and government: ensuring the passage of high quality legislation that will enable the successful implementation of government policy and, thus, the effective delivery of public services.