The problem with committees

Lord Norton

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  Bills introduced in the Commons now go to Public Bill Committees, which have superseded Standing Committees.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.

21 comments for “The problem with committees

  1. MilesJSD
    23/09/2011 at 2:03 pm

    The relevance of the following question and submission may not be immediately obvious

    In the construction of bills especially, one supposes, throughout various takings of evidence, what is done or possible to be done to ensure win-win-win all-round inclusion of the Needs of The People and of each individual citizen therein ?

    To be worthy of being called a thoroughgoing-democracy, Britain’s GO and NGO Committees need to have constituted Method III Needs (& affordable-hows) cooperative problem-solving methodology;
    otherwise, imbalances will go on prevailing such that the Earth’s Lifesupports themselves eventually fail and, as some expert voice said on a recent “state of the planet” TV documentary
    “When the Titanic sank the First class passengers went down the same as did those in the Steerage”.
    In short, how all-round and win-win-win thorough and sustainworthy are Britain’s Scrutiny and Bill-Writing committees, and how much more thorough could they be made under existing Constitutions and Laws ?

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      23/09/2011 at 2:27 pm

      milesjsd: You raise a separate issue, on which I have pursued the case for change, and that is in respect of the formulation and consideration of Bills before they are ever formally introduced into Parliament. There needs to be consistent public consultation as well as Bills being subject to pre-legislative scrutiny as the norm and not, as now, the exception.

      • MilesJSD
        23/09/2011 at 2:45 pm

        Appreciated – cetera paribus

        • Princeps Senatus
          26/09/2011 at 11:17 am

          Hi Miles,
          Do you mean “Ceteris paribus”?

  2. Dave H
    23/09/2011 at 2:34 pm

    There should definitely be a chance for the public to put their thoughts formally on record. As you say, this already happens in the Commons, but it would be useful for the Lords to also get a feel for public opinion in the same way. If anything, the Lords are more likely to take action based on comments from the public, whereas my impression of the Commons side is that even if they note the comments, voting is almost invariably along party lines.

    • MilesJSD
      23/09/2011 at 2:58 pm

      I think we need to be rather stronger with our wording, Dave:
      e.g. “Additional channels and chances for the public to put their needs formally on record”

      (and carry through such a past-usual-wording strengthening-amendment into “the Lords..get a feel for public needs… (and)are more likely to take action based on needs stated by the public (and similarly seriously stated by any individual ‘member’ of the public or of The People)

  3. Lord Blagger
    23/09/2011 at 3:01 pm

    You raise a separate issue, on which I have pursued the case for change, and that is in respect of the formulation and consideration of Bills before they are ever formally introduced into Parliament


    Evidence for dictatorship, rather than democracy. The public aren’t consulted. Peers order other people as to what they have to do.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      23/09/2011 at 3:16 pm

      Lord Blagger: Er, no, there is consultation on some Bills, with Green and White Papers. Peers don’t have the capacity to order anyone to do anything.

      You really do need to invest in a dictionary.

      • Dave H
        23/09/2011 at 3:22 pm

        Governments convinced that they are right have a knack of ignoring consultations, even to the point of publishing a bill before the consultation period has ended, and then only publishing the (unfavourable) results of that consultation the day before Second Reading. It has to be a true consultation, not just a box-ticking exercise.

        • Lord Norton
          Lord Norton
          23/09/2011 at 3:58 pm

          Dave H: I agree. It must be a proper consultation, with transparency in terms of the results. At the moment, there is too much of a box-ticking exercise, with little given away in terms of who said what.

          • MilesJSD
            23/09/2011 at 8:49 pm

            A common point being made above is that peoples’ Needs are not being sufficiently recognised and met by the written legislation;

            which is the same as a citizen experiencing the Parliaments as having ignored his/her needs, and instead having ‘dictated’, or put into a fait accompli bill, commands that do not in some significant measure recognise and meet the citizen’s need;
            which experientially (and if you will ‘existentially’) is little different from being given a one-way top-down “order” (isn’t it ?)

        • maude elwes
          23/09/2011 at 6:24 pm

          @Dave H:

          They ignore more than consultations. Take the demonstration against the Iraq war for example. Not as much as an acknowledgment of the event!

    • MilesJSD
      23/09/2011 at 8:21 pm

      Surelym it is the duty of the two Parliaments, and it should be already written into the Democratic Constitution, to enable every citizen to table their Needs through ever-open channels thereto

      and the duty of every citizen to use those enablements and channels to table their needs ?

  4. 23/09/2011 at 6:44 pm

    Lord Norton,
    When a bill goes to Grand Committee does it always exclude other committees? Is this a matter of custom or rule?

    The fact that this seems often to be the case was unknown to me when I read Baroness Murphy’s post on the Moses Room etc. I would think the Floor or Grand COmmittee might sometimes by need replace a committee but could never duplicate it. Of course as an American I see committees as very vital. It is a truism that for good or ill the USA is where federalized governed by “iron triangles” in fact. These are made up of Congressional Committees, Administrative(or MIlitary) Agencies and the private sector or industry associations….

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      26/09/2011 at 1:09 pm

      Frank Wynerth Summers III: It is possible for a Bill to be referred to a Select Committee prior to having its normal committee stage in the chamber or Grand Committee. It is technically possible for part of a Bill to be taken in committee of the whole House and the rest in Grand Committee.

  5. Gareth Howell
    24/09/2011 at 9:31 am

    Some Bills start in the Bill committee and then resolve in to the main chamber as Bills for consideration by the whole house, don’t they?

    Can they not be amended in some detail before they get to the main chamber?

    Blagger can surely not object to the wording of Bills starting….. somewhere.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      24/09/2011 at 10:33 am

      Gareth Howell: Bills are indeed amended in detail in committee, before going to the chamber for Report stage. Most of the hard work is done in committee. Report stage is intended as a tidying-up stage for matters unresolved in committee.

  6. Gar Howell
    24/09/2011 at 9:32 am

    Some Bills start in the Bill committee and then resolve in to the main chamber as Bills for consideration by the whole house, don’t they?

    Can they not be amended in some detail before they get to the main chamber?

    Blagger can surely not object to the wording of Bills starting….. somewhere.

  7. Baronessmurphy
    24/09/2011 at 9:54 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with Lord Norton here. Our scrutiny of bills would be so much better if we took evidence. On those occasions when we have a pre-legislative scrutiny committee the quality of evidence, using external witnesses to come and talk directly to the Committee is much better. Moving from Bills to policy scrutiny I would also like to see a wider range of standing policy scrutiny committees, that is Select Committees on the big policy areas of criminal Justice, policing and crime; health and social care, education, employment and workforce development and so on. We have various committees scrutinising European activity, economics and Science in general but their briefs are limited. Whole areas of policy which regularly crop up in bills are ignored; again the Commons does that rather better.

  8. Gareth Howell
    25/09/2011 at 8:21 am

    So whereas Commons Bill committees do not take evidence or hear witnesses, you are proposing that their Lordships committees shall do?

    So the noble Baroness would like to take evidence where none has been taken before by commons bill committees, calling it scrutiny?

    But the public bill committee does that! That seems to be a recent development of (standing) bill committees.

    • Lord Norton
      Lord Norton
      25/09/2011 at 2:36 pm

      Gareth Howell: As I mention in my post, Commnons Bill Committees do take evidence. Public Bill Committees superseded Standing Committees in 2006.

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