The recent spat over whether a Bill should be taken in Grand Committee or on the floor of the House rather masks the more important limitation of committee scrutiny. Whether a Bill is taken for committee stage in Grand Committee or on the floor is not a major issue. Grand Committee is not a committee in the sense in which the term is usually employed, that is, as an agency of the House. A Grand Committee is, in effect, a parallel chamber. Every member is entitled to attend and proceedings are covered and reported as in the chamber. The only significant difference is that no votes can take place, but it is not the usual practice to vote in committee in the House. (If you lose a vote in committee, you lose the option of returning to the issue at Report stage.) Committee stage, whether on the floor or in Grand Committee, enables members with a particular interest in and knowledge of the Bill to participate and to engage with the minister or ministers responsible for it. Any issues unresolved are then pursued, on the floor, at Report stage, and can if necessary be divided upon, though the House proceeds normally by agreement.
What this misses out is the fact that we now lag behind the Commons in terms of our capacity formally to take evidence. Bills introduced in the Commons now go to Public Bill Committees, which have superseded Standing Committees. Public Bill Committees, unlike their predecessors, can take oral and written evidence. In practice, there are severe limitations with evidence-taking in the Commons (time, partisanship), but having an evidence-taking stage for Bills in the Lords would enhance considerably our capacity to scrutinise and influence. The House of Lords already does a notably good job in its scrutiny of Bills – for which there is empirical evidence – but I think we could do it even better. Injecting an evidence-taking stage, so that we could receive written and oral evidence from those outside the House with a particular interest in the Bill, would add considerably to our work. It would ensure that the submissions were on the record (as distinct from those mailed to us) and it would enable peers who are experts or have experience in the field to engage with others with a particular knowledge of the Bill’s provisions.
The House has the power to refer Bills to Select Committee prior to the normal committee stage. This has been done occasionally on Private Members’ Bills, though it was also done with the Constitutional Reform Bill. The Leader’s Group on Working Practices has recommended that a Legislative Standards Committee decide whether a Bill should have an evidence-taking session and, if so, íf this should be a one-day session with the Government or a full evidence-taking committee. I favour referring Bills, certainly those that start life in the Lords, to an evidence-taking committee as a matter of course. It will add time to the process, but the benefits will be enormous.