Select Committee Amendments in the British House of Commons

I’m a bit late on this one, but the British House of Commons Procedure Committee published a report which, among other things, talked about Select Committee amendments (Improving the Effectiveness of Parliamentary Scrutiny) last March which has just been debated and voted on in the Commons last week. I won’t spoil you with the conclusion now, of course!

How does it work now?

Select Committees in the House of Commons have no power to propose amendments as a committee, though any member may propose an amendment on behalf of the committee if they so choose. It’s not easy to tell if an amendment is by a committee or on individual members own initiative however because only three names are allowed on the order paper.

What’s the history?

Amendments in the House of Commons (and Lords) are allowed only by members, and have always only been allowed by members. The Speaker selects which amendments are to be allowed. It’s only with the advent of timetabling – where debate on a bill is limited to a certain amount of time – that ministers’ amendments were given a much higher priority than backbench amendments, and this has been made worse in recent years as the incidence of timetabling has increased from being used on only 2% of government bills in the 1996-7 session to nearly 83% of government bills in the 2009-10 session.

What do they do elsewhere?

I’m not going to do a comprehensive survey, but it should be noted that not many countries have given committees the power to put down amendments in the chamber, but that’s because of the unusual way the Commons committees are organised. Because our legislative committees are relatively weak (whipped, temporary, government majority public bill committees debate the bill in a partisan fashion and little is ever changed), our stronger scrutiny committees want to muscle in on the legislating. Because most countries use a unified (legislative and scrutiny) system of committees, such powers are not necessary. Countries with typically powerful committee systems have them go through the bill line-by-line on a relatively consensual basis, potentially rewriting it, before the house has had the chance to vote on the principles of the bill. This means the committee is much less constrained in what it can do and can have a big effect. In some countries, committees also have the right to initiate, split and consolidate legislation.

Typically, Commonwealth parliaments have weak legislative committees (New Zealand and to an extent the Australian Senate are honourable exceptions). Continental Europe, especially Germany, Italy and the Nordic nations, are on the whole more powerful, as is the United States. As ever, it is a mixed picture, though undoubtedly the British legislative committee system remains one of the weakest in the democratic world.

What do they propose?

Select Committees would give notice of the intention to vote on making an amendment in the name of the Chair on behalf of the whole committee and the motion would have to be unanimous. A committee amendment would have, on the order paper, a note next to it explaining that it was endorsed by the committee and the Speaker would be encouraged to look favourably on it when a bill has been timetabled.

What’s the government think?

The government, like the opposition front bench, is opposed. They say that the procedure could be abused by any two MPs on a committee since the quorum is three and the chair has the casting vote, but the committee says that is unlikely bordering on the impossible given the fact that notice has to be given to all members before it can be done. Some MPs have accused the front benches of conspiring against the backbenches.

How would it be done?

It only needs changes to standing orders of the House.

And the result…

An admittedly underwhelming ‘not moved’. Given that this has been considered by at least three different committees in the past, I’m sure it will come up again when the procedure committee wants to push the government.

I’m going to be looking at the Irish committee system soon, but the post is proving to be a bit of a monster. I’m hopeful, but not certain, whether it will be ready for the Irish referendum on committee powers.

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