Government warned to expect rough ride from new committees

Conservative minority government’s Westminster woes will extend beyond the division lobbies, says think tank

Houses of Parliament Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

26 Jun 2017

Theresa May's new minority government is likely to face tougher scrutiny from parliamentary select committees after losing seats in the general election, the Institute for Government has predicted.

The think tank said that in addition to lacking enough MPs to win House of Commons votes without the support of other parties, the Conservative Party would also struggle to get amendments added to its own legislation because of reduced representation on bill committees.

Director of research Hannah White said that if the new parliament followed the example of the last one, there would be 27 select committees, of which the Conservative Party may expect to chair 13, with the remainder mainly going to Labour.


She said that while the political hue of committee chairs did not dictate how constructive or troublesome their panels would be to the government of the day, the balance of members was “more significant” and would be tipped away from the government following June 8’s result.

“Committees tend to agree reports by consensus wherever possible, but if it comes to a vote, the Conservatives will no longer have a majority on scrutiny committees, whatever the affiliation of the chair,” she said.

“Looking at precedents, it is likely that a typical 11-member committee will have either five Conservative, five Labour and one other member – depending on the subject these will be divided between the minority parties – or five Conservative, four Labour and two others. 

“This may make it more likely that committees will produce reports that are critical of the government.”

White said that in addition to reduced representation on select committees, the Conservative Party would also not be able to expect a majority on legislative committees, known as public bill committees. 

She said that while Conservative whips would be able to get bills through the committee stage if they managed to ensure MPs attended every meeting without fail, the government could still struggle to get amendments to its own legislation through the committee stage.

“On PBCs, the way the chair must vote when a vote is tied is bound by convention,” she said.

“He or she must vote to leave the bill as it was and ensure any change is only made by a majority of the committee. 

“If any vote on whether a clause or schedule should ‘stand part’ of a bill is tied, the chair will be bound to vote in favour of the question – ensuring that all the government’s proposed clauses and schedules are agreed to. This means that the government can expect to get its bills through committees without any changes.”

However, White highlighted that the same presumption in favour of the original wording of legislation could hamper government attempts to refine bills.

“Normally, almost all changes to bills in committees that are actually made are proposed by the government itself, to correct drafting errors or reflect developments in thinking,” she said.

“If a vote on whether to make an amendment is tied, the chair must vote against it in order to leave the bill as it was.

“It will be a pain for the government not to be confident of being able to make its own amendments to bills during the committee stage. 

“However, when the bill returns to the whole House at report stage, it will have the chance to make any changes it needs by drawing on the support of the DUP or other parties.”

The Conservatives currently have 318 seats at Westminster, eight short of a majority, with negotiations ongoing about a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP.


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