Scrutiny by debate and amendment: how useful is it?

Richard Crossman, Labour Leader of the House in the 1960s, wrote ‘The whole procedure of standing committees is insane . . . under the present system there is no genuine committee work, just formal speech-making, mostly from written briefs’. Consideration in what are now public bill committees occupies a great deal of time: in the sessions 2010-12 to 2013-14, public bill committees held a total of 690 sittings, and it is reasonable to ask how good a use of the time of the MPs involved this was, and how effectively the legislation was scrutinised.

Unlike select committees, public bill committees have no research or staff resources of their own (the main concern of the clerk of a public bill committee is the conduct of the proceedings, not the merits of the bill - though, alongside departmental select committee staff and the Scrutiny Unit, they prepare a brief for oral evidence sessions). Other than this, MPs have to rely on input from outside pressure groups (which are naturally often advocacy for a particular point of view). However, the minister taking a bill through public bill committee has the support of the ‘bill team’ of civil servants, and behind them the substantial resources of his or her own department.

It is rare for the government to accept opposition (or individual backbench) amendments in public bill committee, although a 2013 study by the Constitution Unit concluded that many ideas raised at this stage go on to be debated at later stages in both Commons and Lords, and often result in government concessionary amendments. But however attractive measured, non-partisan scrutiny may be, one should not lose sight of the role of the Commons as a place where political ideologies clash and where deep divisions between parties (often reflecting different views in the country at large) are played out in an adversarial way.

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