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Whips’ control over scrutiny of parliamentary bills badly needs reform

One of the key problems in Parliament which is little understood, but which hugely undermines its effectiveness, is the Whips’ stranglehold over the scrutiny of Government bills. At present Members of these Bill committees are chosen by the House Committee of Selection, itself composed of Whips from the main parties with a chair chosen by the Executive. It has long been clear that this mechanism has serious disadvantages.

First, by putting the power to select Bill committee Members into the hands of Whips representing the interests of their political leaders, their choice will invariably reflect the wish of the Executive who command a majority to get their legislation through as quickly and painlessly as possible. It will not represent a balanced range of Members with the necessary expertise to scrutinise the Bill in detail as rigorously and thoroughly as possible, which ought to be the whole object of the Bill committee stage. The onus will be on selecting Members with ‘sound’ views who can be relied on to be loyal and supportive of the Government’s position at controversial points of the legislation.

Second, the electorate expects Bills which will become the law of this country to be examined critically by Parliament – that is indeed one of the central raisons d’etre of Parliament itself – and it sends to the House as Parliamentarians many M.Ps who have a wealth of experience and knowledge across almost the whole range of the nation’s activities. To block that repository of skills and intelligence in the interests of the Government’s convenience is a public scandal. Though there are repeated instances of this happening, it is perhaps best symbolised by the example of Dr. Woollaston who entered the House as a GP with 25 years experience of the NHS, but was denied a place by the Whips on the Health Service Bill committee for which she was pre-eminently suited on the grounds that she wanted to move amendments which she believed would improve the Bill, but which didn’t coincide with Government thinking.

Third, a Bill on which the Government side has a ‘loyalist’ majority (sometimes with a dissident Member to give an impression of balance, though not enough to threaten the majority) may sometimes emerge at the end virtually unamended, despite dozens of hours of debate. The Government Whip, under instructions to see through the Bill unchanged at least in all its broad essentials, has the power to block every amendment however justified or well argued for – unless there is a revolt on the government side which, sadly, is much rarer than the case often warrants.

There are two ways in which the defects of the current system could be amended:

1 Instead of the Committee of Selection being dominated by the Whips, it could be elected by the whole House on a similar basis to the method of election of Select Committees, i.e. places are allotted to each party according to their proportion in the House, Members of each party then vote for their own representatives on the committee, and the Government has the right to choose the chair. It would then be for Members of the House who wished to serve on a particular Bill committee to make representations to the elected Committee of Selection, and the latter would be free to interview such applicants if they so wished.

The advantage of this alternative system is that it is much more open and democratic and would eliminate the drawbacks and deficiencies of the current system. The Members of Bill committees would no longer be largely guaranteed Government loyalists, so the scrutiny of Bills is likely to be more genuine and thorough. The full range of knowledge and expertise on the Back Benches is likely to be much more efficiently deployed. And the public would be much more satisfied that the laws they are expected to obey in future had been fully and properly scrutinised in the legislative process.

2 There is however a more radical alternative which has already been tried and proven to work more effectively in the Scottish Parliament. Instead of Bill committees on the present model, the membership of Select Committees could be modestly extended and their coverage of the Department they shadow could be divided into a few central categories, each with its own specialist sub-committee. When a Government Bill was published, it could then be allocated for scrutiny to the appropriate sub-committee of that particular Select Committee. Where the substance of the Government Bill stretched beyond the remit of any one sub-committee, a new sub-committee could be established by the Select Committee for the purposes of this particular Bill which combined Members with relevant expertise from two or more sub-committees. Where the Bill was of the very highest importance, it could be scrutinised by the Select Committee as a whole.

There are several advantages to be drawn from this format, as the Scottish example shows. Members would be chosen from those democratically elected by the whole House so that the Executive would no longer wield undue influence over who should exercise scrutiny over its own Bills. Moreover the sub-committee Members, who were probably elected in the first instance as having particular knowledge in this policy area, would rapidly deepen that expertise as they continued to concentrate in their specialist area. The capabilities of Back Bench Members with interest in and commitment to particular policy areas would be much more valuably deployed.

This model would also enable the scrutiny process to be undertaken in a more open and transparent manner. The sub-committee could co-opt experts in their policy area as regular advisers where their expertise warranted it. There could be several sessions with experienced witnesses drawn from both (or all) sides on controversial questions, to enable the most important issues in the Bill to get a full airing, so that later detailed scrutiny of the Bill was properly focused on these central matters. The wider public could be enabled to participate in these proceedings, both at the witness stage and the detailed Bill examination that follows, by televising the proceedings and allowing members of the public to send in comments or suggestions which would be filtered by the clerks and forwarded to Members of the sub-committee as deemed appropriate.

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