Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from Michael Ryle, former Clerk of Committees, House of Commons and Secretary to the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, 1991-93


  1.  The desirability of enabling committees on bills to receive, when appropriate, evidence from the public, and especially from affected persons and bodies, has long been advocated by parliamentary reformers, both from inside the House of Commons (including several Procedure Committees) and by outside bodies (including the Study of Parliament Group—starting from its evidence to the Procedure Committee, 1964-65—the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, Making the Law, 1991-93, the Liberal Democrat Proposals to Reform the House of Commons, A Parliament for the People, 1996, and the Conservative Commission to Strengthen Parliament, 2000).

  2.  The case for hearing evidence on bills was significantly advanced by the Modernisation Committee in 1997 (following closely the recommendations in Making the Law) when it unanimously recommended the greater use of Special Standing Committees, with more flexibility than under the present Standing Order, and the committal of appropriate bills, or parts of bills, to select committees (para 95). The House without a division approved the Report of the Modernisation Committee.

  3.  In practice however, in the past four years, no action has been taken to hear evidence on bills after second reading, except for the use of Special Standing Committees on two bills. The package deal that was implicit in the Modernisation Committees report—programming to secure the timely passage of bills, matched by new procedures to improve their scrutiny—has been abandoned (see my letter to The Times, 12 December 2001).

  4.  The merits of taking evidence on bills should be reiterated—

    (a)  It would ensure that the House and its committees were as well informed as possible on not only the merits but also on the practical implications and consequences of the proposed legislation;

    (b)  This should result in more effective scrutiny leading to improvements in the contents and drafting of bills;

    (c)  Parliamentary deliberation would become more constructive and (especially on non-policy aspects) less confrontational;

    (d)  The public, and especially those most directly affected by the legislation, would have improved and greater opportunities to put their concerns before Parliament and to receive the reactions of Members to their evidence; and (most important)

    (e)  Such regular and formal contact between The House and the public should demonstrate the relevance and underline the effectiveness of parliamentary proceedings, and so do much to enhance the standing of Parliament in the public eye.

  5.  Many other major Parliaments within the Commonwealth (eg in Canada and Australia (Senate)) and in Europe use procedures for receiving evidence from the public, either by hearing evidence formally, or through private discussions or by use of rapporteurs) and this seems to work well and to be respected by the public. Similar practices have been adopted in the Scottish Parliament and have proved popular.

  6.  The hearing of evidence on legislation has also proved successful in respect of Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Orders; these procedures could well be extended to the detailed provisions of primary legislation.

  7.  It is therefore to be hoped that proposals for regular use of evidence on bills will be included in the proposed parliamentary reforms that it is understood that the Leader of the House will shortly table. If so, the time has come to give closer thought to how the processes for taking evidence on bills might actually operate. The remainder of this paper is a condensed outline of such a scheme.


Basic assumptions

  8.  This proposed scheme is based on three basic assumptions—

    (a)  All bills will be subject to some kind of programme order to be decided as soon as possible after the First Reading of each bill;

    (b)  After Second Reading, all bills (other than Consolidated Fund Bills and those committed to a Committee of the whole House) will be committed to a committee with powers to call (if it so wishes) for persons, papers and records; the decision on whether to receive evidence will therefore be taken by each committee and not by the House (Government) in a committal order; and

    (c)  The scheme only applies to Government bills.

Preliminary processes

  9.  To avoid undesirable delay and to secure time for proper hearing and consideration of evidence, it would be essential to start the processes quickly. As soon as possible after a bill has been read a first time and a Programme Order has been made, the Committee of Selection appoints a committee on the bill (obviously only to operate on the assumption that the bill will be read a second time).

  10.  The committee then meets, considers whether oral evidence is likely to be needed, issues a public statement inviting written evidence, and sets up a Business Sub-Committee.

  11.  Following the Programme Order, the Business Sub-Committee agrees a draft detailed programme of sittings and hearings (possibly providing for hearings, deliberation and debate on the bill by separate Parts) and calls for written evidence from selected bodies etc and for oral evidence from selected persons.

  12.  The Committee then meets again to confirm and publicise the committee programme, including scheduled oral evidence sessions.

After Second Reading

  13.  Changes may be made in the membership of the committee; amendments are tabled.

  14.  The Committee meets and may agree changes to its programme in the light of proposed amendments to the bill; dates for hearings if any (committees on minor or totally uncontroversial bills will often decide not to take oral evidence) are finalised and witnesses are summoned.

  15.  Hearings of oral evidence are as in any select committee. Evidence may be heard from civil servants on the details, practicalities and drafting of the bill, but not normally from the Minister on policy as the Minister in charge of the bill in committee is a member of the committee, can himself question witnesses and speak for the Government on policy issues. Evidence may also be heard from the chairman or other members of a departmental select committee which has conducted a pre-legislative inquiry into the bill. The Chairman of the committee at all stages will be a member of the Chairmen's Panel, but would not usually take the lead or an active part in questioning witnesses.

  16.  After any evidence has been heard on the bill (or separately on each Part of the bill) the committee may wish to deliberate, perhaps to identify those clauses on which there is general agreement and those on which more extensive debate will be needed. Such deliberation would be in private as in a select committee.

  17.  The committee then publicly debates amendments and clauses as in a standing committee.

  18.  At any time the House may agree an amended Programme Order, which may involve the alteration of the committee's own detailed programme.

  19.  Following the Programme Order, the committee then reports the bill in the usual way. Exceptionally the committee may wish to agree a Report or Special Report on the bill.

  20.  During the Consideration stage, the House may recommit the bill to the committee (again subject to a Programme Order) for consideration of some amendments (especially those related to Government undertakings given in the committee. A similar treatment may be used for Lords' Amendments.

Consultation on bills

  21.  A major chapter in Making the Law concerned the need to improve arrangements for consultation with interested parties during the preparation of bills. Happily, since that report, the processes of consultation carried out by departments have been reformed, the Cabinet Office has laid down clear guidelines and the quality of consultative documents prepared by some departments (perhaps most or all?) appears to have improved substantially. But consultation needs to be monitored. The Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee do this very effectively in respect of deregulation orders and it would be a valuable reform to extend this to primary legislation.

  22.  To this end, a report on the consultations that have been carried out should be published with nearly all bills (as is now done in the Scottish Parliament) and the committee on the bill should satisfy itself regarding the extent of consultation (including taking evidence from interested parties where necessary) and report to the House accordingly.


  23.  It is not expected that these proposals will be totally acceptable. Other experts will doubtless find defects. However, if it is proposed that committees on bills should be empowered to take evidence, careful thought is required on how this should be done, and perhaps this paper will be helpful in getting this started.

8 January 2002

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