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


APPENDIX 24

Memorandum from Mr Mark Fisher MP

1.  THE DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITIES BETWEEN GOVERNMENT AND PARLIAMENT

  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 so.

  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 and identities.

  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 (see below).

  1.8  Ministers and PPSs should not be eligible to stand for election to the CEC although all Members should have a vote.

2.  THE COMMONS EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE (CEC)

  2.1  The CEC should be responsible for:

    (a)  allocating all Commons (non Governmental) business (see below)

    (b)  determining the membership of the Departmental Select Committees

    (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.  SCRUTINY

  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 budgets.

  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 41).

  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 performance);

    (b)  administration;

    (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 office.

  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.  LEGISLATION AND PRE-LEGISLATIVE SCRUTINY

  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 statutes.

  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.  BUSINESS

  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, reports etc.

  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 equal.

  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 new technologies.

  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



 
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