Weak parliamentary scrutiny of government bills threatens the quality of legislation, thereby leading to poor and unintended outcomes. Moreover, scrutiny of legislation is an integral element of holding the executive to account. Parliament must therefore have the structures and processes in place to effectively perform legislative scrutiny.
The scope of this report is limited to the process of legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons, which has long been criticised. Particularly the committee stage of scrutiny, which is intended to prepare the plenary for debate. Committee systems enable parliaments to economise time and resource through specialisation and preparation of the full chamber for deliberation and debate. Committees are typically considered effective when they are permanent and specialised, have a high degree of independence, are small in size and can draw on expert support staff.
Contrary to this House of Commons public bill committees, which scrutinise bills before Parliament, are ad hoc. This means that their members often lack subject specific expertise, which limits their ability to effectively scrutinise legislation and undermines Parliament’s ability to carry out one of its core functions. Furthermore, the temporary nature of these committees hinders relationship building between committee members, hampering the development of a collaborative and deliberative approach to scrutiny.
Public bill committees also lack independence. They are criticised for being excessively partisan, leading to an adversarial culture aimed at party political point scoring rather than improvement of the bill at hand. The partisan obstructionism results from the strong control exercised by the whips and the executive over membership and timetabling. Such executive power over legislative scrutiny makes a farce of Parliament’s independence. As the Liaison Committee (2000) put it: “[t]hose being scrutinised should not have a say in the selection of the scrutineers. We believe the present system does not, and should not, have the confidence of the House and the public”. Thus, despite positive innovations such as evidence taking by public bill committees, the committee stage of legislative scrutiny remains woefully inadequate. The recommendations in this report are aimed at addressing this, ensuring the process of legislative scrutiny enables Parliament to enact the best possible legislation to meet the government’s policy intent.
This report recommends that departmental select committees, which since 2010 have gained a reputation for independence and effective scrutiny, be entrusted with legislative scrutiny functions and thereby become dual-purpose committees. Not only would legislative scrutiny benefit from the independence and subject expertise of select committees, dual-purpose committees would ensure that legislative scrutiny benefits from the expertise gained by select committees through inquiries, and that general oversight by select committees gains from insights gathered during legislative scrutiny.