First reading committees

The Canadian Minister for Public Safety, Vic Toews, has announced that his bill C-30 will be sent to committee before second reading. This procedure, occasionally used in Canada, allows MPs to make broader changes to legislation than normally would be the case because they are not as constrained by the principles of the bill as voted on by the chamber. This is, in theory, a very powerful tool in MPs’ collective arsenal but it all depends on how determined they are to use it and how willing the government is to let their amendments stand.

Of course, such a thing is unheard of in the UK, where the closest we have are pre-legislative scrutiny committees which only advise rather than amend though normal public bill committees do amend legislation after second reading. It’s even more so in Australia, where MPs rarely send bills to advisory committees (though when they do, it’s generally during second reading; it’s possible to refer before this, but it’s just not done these days), and where Senate committees only ever advise on bills after second reading. It’s much more common in New Zealand and the United States where all bills (barring urgent ones in New Zealand, which can be a surprising number) are sent to committee before any ‘second reading’ vote. It’s also the norm in Europe, where only the UK constrains their committees in this way.

We’re still waiting for the Constitution Unit’s report on the case for reform of legislative committees at Westminster, but it would be strange if it didn’t touch upon this issue when the report is released (ETA: sometime this Spring). First reading committees, as the UK Commons Modernisation Committee called them in 1998, were proposed as part of an option into how the legislative process could be improved but pre-legislative scrutiny was favoured instead. Cynics would say it was chosen because ministers preferred the option with fewer formal powers…

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