Memorandum from Mr Mark Fisher MP
1. THE DIVISION
1.1 The Government and Parliament have distinct
roles and responsibilities. The role of Government is to initiate
and revise legislation, to tax and spend, to administer the Departments
of Government, to maintain the security of the nation, to represent
the nation abroad and to respond to events. Having received a
mandate from the electorate at a General Election on the basis
of an election manifesto, the Government has the right to implement
that mandate (subject to amendment) and to have the time to do
1.2 The role of Parliament is to scrutinise
and monitor the work of Government, its Departments and its actions;
to hold Government to account; to raise grievances; to defend
the Constitution and the public interest where that diverges from
the interests of Government; to be responsible for the administration
of the Houses of Parliament; and for all matters which fall outside
the direct responsibilities of Government (above).
1.3 Over the past 125 years, since the debates
over Irish Home Rule, Government has taken to itself many responsibilities
which are properly those of Parliament. As a result many people,
within and without Parliament, find it difficult to distinguish
between Government and Parliament and to see their distinct roles
1.4 Among MPs this confusion of identities
is particularly prevalent. MPs have three loyalties; to their
constituents; to their party (and hence to the Government, if
their party forms the Government); and to Parliament. The first
two conflict only occasionally. However, tensions between their
duties as Parliamentarians and their loyalty to their Government
can arise. This makes the job of reforming the commons challenging,
within a wider reform of Parliament, when MPs' role as scrutineers
of Government encounter the disciplines of party loyalties, difficult.
1.5 The reforms necessary to modernise the
procedures and practices of Parliament are neither uncontentious
nor easy to achieve but they seem child's play compared to the
different, and politically more important, task of reforming the
Commons and reasserting its political role, distinct from that
of Government, in a way which creates a more balanced relationship
between the two bodies; the agenda identified in the Liaison Committee
report, Shifting the Balance.
1.6 Progress on that agenda becomes somewhat
easier once the separation of responsibilities between Government
and Parliament is accepted.
1.7 For the Commons to fulfil those responsibilities,
it would be desirable that a Commons Executive Committee (CEC)
be elected, responsible for all those functions of the Commons
which are not the preserve of Government (above). Alongside it
there should be a Joint Parliamentary Committee of both Houses
to undertake those responsibilities which are Common to both Houses
1.8 Ministers and PPSs should not be eligible
to stand for election to the CEC although all Members should have
2. THE COMMONS
2.1 The CEC should be responsible for:
(a) allocating all Commons (non Governmental)
business (see below)
(b) determining the membership of the Departmental
(c) administering the Offices of the Commons
(the Clerks' Department, the Library and Research Staff, the Select
Committee Financial Office) (see below)
(d) the ongoing modernisation and reform
of the Commons
2.2 The timing of recesses, and the length
of the Parliamentary year, should be determined jointly by the
CEC and the Government.
2.3 The CEC should appoint the Commons members
of a Joint (Commons and Second Chamber) Administration Committee.
The Joint Committee should appoint a Chief Executive (with office
and budget) who should be responsible for catering, public building
and maintenance, the Serjeant at Arms Office etc.
2.4 The Select Committees that currently
undertake those responsibilities should be abolished.
3.1 The breadth and quality of Parliamentary
scrutiny must improve.
3.2 Parliament should be at the apex of
a network of regulatory bodies and Ombudsmen.
3.3 Where appropriate these should be monitored
by the relevant Departmental Select Committees who should produce
an annual report of their work. However, new Committees (a Regulatory
Select Committee, and Ombudsman Select Committee) and additional
resources may be needed to ensure that their work is accessible
and can contribute to Parliament's role in holding to account
the Government and public bodies.
3.4 As Government devolves more of its functions
to arm's length bodies (Agencies, Quangos, Commissions, partnerships
with the private sector) the difficulty of monitoring and holding
these bodies to account becomes more urgent.
3.5 In particular, Financial Scrutiny needs
to be improved.
3.6 MPs in general, and Members of Select
Committees in particular, would benefit from greater assistance
in scrutinising Departmental Estimates (which should be produced
in a more user-friendly format).
3.7 Departmental Estimates should be debated
and the House should have the right to amend them within overall
3.8 A Parliamentary Financial Office should
be created to advise Select Committees and individual MPs.
3.9 A new Select Committee should be established
to which the Audit Commission should relate, as the National Audit
Office relates to the Public Accounts Committee. The Audit Commission
is responsible for overseeing and auditing huge areas of public
expenditure (health, police, the emergency services etc) at present,
in effect, outside the direct scrutiny of Parliament.
4. SELECT COMMITTEES
4.1 The Departmental Select Committees have
the key role in scrutinising Government Departments. However,
the quality and form of their "scrutiny is variable and unsystematic"
in the view of the Hansard Society Commission (3.3, p 29) and
of the Liaison Committee Report Shifting the Balance (para
4.2 Their work needs to be more targeted
at matters of political significance and their relationship with
external scrutiny bodies formalised, leaving the task of technical
and statistical analysis to those external bodies, by means of
annual reports (above).
4.3 Each Select Committee should publish
an annual report setting out its achievements in scrutinising
(a) expenditure (Departmental Estimates and
(c) policy, scrutinising major initiatives
and taking evidence from all Departmental Ministers.
4.4 The Chairs of Select Committees (and,
where relevant other key posts such as the Chairs of major sub-committees)
should be paid in line with Ministers of State. This would raise
the status of Select Committees and would help establish a career
path that was an alternative to Ministerial or Shadow Ministerial
4.5 The resources available to Select Committees
should be increased, subject to the approval of the CEC.
4.6 Select Committee reports should be redesigned
and made more readable. A Select Committee Press and Information
Office should be established, under the aegis of the CEC, with
responsibility for publications and publicity.
5.1 All legislation should be subject to
pre-legislative scrutiny during which those institutions, committees
or individuals potentially affected by the legislation should
be able to give written, or oral, evidence to the Committee concerned.
5.2 All legislation should be subject to
programme motions to be agreed in advance by the Government, the
Chief Opposition Parties and the CEC. This removes the one level
in any Opposition's armoury when negotiating with the Government:
time. Once removed, parties in Opposition would need undertakings
that agreed debate on legislation would not be curtailed. The
several occasions in recent years when legislation has been passed
with significant sections undebated and unamended shows Parliament
at its worst and runs the risk of enacted flawed and inadequate
5.3 Legislation not completed in a session
should be rolled over into the following session, but the timetable
for such "extra-time" should become the responsibility
of the CEC rather than the Government.
6. THE CHAMBER
6.1 The role of the Chamber as the national
forum for debating public issues needs to be re-established.
6.2 On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays,
business should start at 9.30 am and Government Statements should
be taken at the start of business.
6.3 Question Time should deal with fewer
questions, in greater detail. Five rather than ten days notice
should be given for Oral Questions.
6.4 Debates on matters of public interest,
rather than legislation, should be shorter.
7.1 The non-Governmental business of the
House should once again be the responsibility of the House, through
the CEC, in line with recommendations by the Hansard Society Commission
(2-45, p 25) and the Norton Report.
7.2 The Government has the right to sufficient
time to introduce and implement the legislation for which it has
received a mandate at the most recent General Election, and should
be able to dispose of that time as it wishes.
7.3 However, much Parliamentary time is
not concerned with the Executive's fulfilling its mandate or the
implementation of its policies, by means of legislation, statements,
7.4 This non-governmental time includes
the time devoted to non-legislative scrutiny; Question Time, Private
Notice Questions, Adjournment Debates, Ten Minute Rule Bills,
Opposition Supply Days, Private Members' Bills, Westminster Hall
debates etc. These are not the responsibility of the Government.
7.5 In an average Parliamentary week, the
division of Government and non-Governmental business is approximately
7.6 The CEC should have the right to table
motions for the House's consideration on any subject, except money.
8. THE PUBLIC
8.1 The Commons needs to explore new ways
to communicate with the General Public, including by the use of
8.2 A new Select Committee on Petitions
should be created to receive public petitions which should, when
of sufficient public interest, be debated.
31 January 2002