Committees of the whole House

At one time, almost all bills were considered in Committee of the whole House. As its name suggests, it consists of all MPs (although only a relatively small proportion of those will be present during its proceedings) and takes place in the Chamber during part of a normal sitting of the House. The only evident differences are that it is presided over by the Chairman of Ways and Means and his deputies and not by the Speaker, that the Chairman sits not in the upper Chair but at the Table in the place of the Clerk of the House (who is absent when the House is in Committee), alongside the Clerk at the Table, and that the Mace is placed on brackets below the Table rather than on it. Votes are taken in the same way as in the House.

The manner of going through a bill is similar to that in public bill committee; and, as in committee, an MP may speak more than once in any debate. Selection and grouping of amendments is the responsibility of the Chairman of Ways and Means.

In recent years, Committees of the whole House have been confined to three types of bill. For convenience, uncontroversial bills (for which there would be no point in setting up a separate sitting of a public bill committee) are considered in this way to save time. Also taken in Committee of the whole House are bills of great urgency that need to become law quickly, such as, in April 2006, the Northern Ireland Bill to pave the way for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

The third category is of major bills of first-class constitutional importance. Since 1945, governments have been committed to having such bills dealt with in this way, but there is no formal definition, and whether a bill does or does not fall into this category can be a matter of political argument. Legislation to incorporate EU treaties into domestic law, to devolve powers to Scotland and Wales, or to reform the House of Lords clearly qualifies. In the 2013-14 session, the Transparency of Lobbying Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Bill, the Wales Bill, parts of the Finance (No. 2) Bill and two other bills were taken in Committee of the whole House at a total of nine sittings.

It may thus be a matter of argument (or negotiation) as to what measures are treated in this way. The opposition will want time on the floor of the House and the higher profile of Committee of the whole House, but the government business managers will generally be reluctant, not only to take floor time on a bill they feel could be dealt with in public bill committee, but also to have the burden of votes taking place in a forum of 650 MPs when they would otherwise take place in a committee of 20 members upstairs. And, historically, Committees of the whole House have presented problems for government business managers: the Parliament (No. 2) Bill to reform the House of Lords was considered for 12 days before it was dropped; and devolution to Scotland and Wales took up 34 days in Committee of the whole House in the 1976-77 and 1977-78 sessions. Nowadays, the prospect of being able to programme proceedings and so make them much more predictable and controllable may make government business managers slightly less reluctant to take committee stages on the floor of the House.

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