Amendments, selection and grouping

Once any oral evidence sessions have been concluded, the committee deals with the clauses of the bill one by one. Any MP may put down an amendment to a bill in public bill committee (or an entire new clause or schedule), but only a member of the committee may actually move it. MPs may supply brief factual explanatory notes for publication with their amendments (and this may also be done at report stage).

Amendments can serve a variety of purposes. If the bill is highly contentious in party political terms, many amendments will be pegs for debate to give publicity to government and opposition viewpoints - although this is more the case in Committee of the whole House (see page 196) as public bill committees get little media coverage. So-called ‘probing amendments’ are used to get the minister to clarify provisions of the bill and outline the thinking behind them. However, for the reasons we have seen, it is extremely unlikely that the opposition will table an amendment, convince the government of its merits and have it agreed to.

The chair of a public bill committee, like the Speaker in the House or the Chairman of Ways and Means in Committee of the whole House, has the power of selection and grouping (which does not exist in the House of Lords). This is crucial in allowing an orderly and logical debate on amendments, and it also prevents the proceedings of the committee being clogged up by hosts of amendments being tabled for their own sake.

Amendments are tabled on the days before the committee first meets (usually, at this stage by the opposition parties and possibly government backbenchers but, as we have seen, the government may even at this stage want to modify its own bill, and amendments may go down in the name of the minister in charge of the bill).

The day after they are tabled, amendments will appear on blue paper in the Vote bundle (see page 151); but, on the day the committee first meets, it will have before it a marshalled list, printed on white paper, of all the amendments that have been put down up to and including the previous day. This list of amendments is the committee’s order paper.

The marshalled list sets amendments down by reference to where they apply to the bill. As each amendment is tabled, it is given its own unique reference number, so the numbering will jump about: for example, if the very first amendment tabled was to the last schedule, it will still be 1; and if, after 500 amendments have been tabled, an amendment is put down to the first line of the bill, it will be 501.

The process of selection and grouping, in which the chair is advised by the clerk of the committee, begins with weeding out amendments that are out of order. Disorderly amendments include those that are irrelevant or outside the scope of the bill (or of the clause to which they are tabled); inconsistent with a decision that the committee has already taken (or that the House has taken in approving second reading - so-called ‘wrecking’ amendments); ineffective or incomplete; tabled to the wrong place in the bill, or to a part of the bill that the committee has already considered; ‘vague, trifling or tendered in a spirit of mockery’; or that would impose charges outside the scope of any money or ways and means resolutions agreed to by the House. These rules are sometimes quite complex in their application, but they are a common-sense way of clearing out amendments that are irrelevant or ineffective (although an MP whose pet amendment is ruled out of order may not always see it in that way).

Then begins the process of selecting from among the remaining amendments those that will be debated. Selection in public bill committee is fairly generous (at report stage, it is less so), and unless an amendment is fairly trivial, or one of a multiplicity on the same point, it is likely to be selected. Amendments proposed by the member in charge of a bill, whether a minister or a private member, are normally selected automatically provided they are in order. An amendment that has been tabled the previous day or the day before that, rather than the minimum three days in advance, will usually not be selected, although the chair has power even to select a ‘manuscript’ amendment put forward within the previous few minutes if the circumstances warrant it.

At the same time, the chair and clerk will be looking for themes that will help to group amendments. There are three main ways of doing this: the first is to group amendments that offer alternative proposals on the same point. An example might be where the bill proposes that a search can be authorised by any police officer. The opposition think that this is not stringent enough and so have put down an amendment that would require the authorising officer to be of the rank of inspector. Backbenchers on the committee (on both sides) would prefer to go further, and amendments are down variously specifying a superintendent, a magistrate and a High Court judge. If the ‘inspector’ amendment were selected on its own, the debate would take place only on the issue of whether the minimum authority should be constable or inspector. Separate debates would have to take place on the other proposals - and

Layout of a Public Bill Committee room

Source: Copyright House of Commons, 2014

if the ‘inspector’ amendment were to be agreed to, then that would rule out debate on any alternative as being inconsistent with the decision the committee had reached. So all the amendments about the level of authorisation are grouped.

The second method is to group interdependent amendments. An example here might be where the opposition has an amendment early in the bill to appoint a statutory investigator of complaints. It has a raft of other amendments throughout the bill that specify how different types of case will come to this investigator. If the principle of appointing an investigator is defeated early on, all the later amendments will fall, so it is sensible to debate them together.

The third method is to group amendments on a theme. For example, there might be a number of amendments designed to require the secretary of state to make a regulatory impact assessment before using any of a number of powers that the bill would confer. Grouping these together allows a debate on the principle of requiring such an assessment. If the amendments were not so grouped, the result would be a series of very similar debates as the committee got to each of the clauses that would give the secretary of state each of those powers.

The result of this is a selection list, a new edition of which appears for each sitting day. The chair gives no reasons for his or her decisions on selection, and there is no appeal to the Speaker. Two examples of selection lists appear on pages 194 and 195: one for the first day of a public bill committee’s consideration of a bill; and one for part of the report stage of a bill in the House. Both of these proceedings were programmed.

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