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


Memorandum from Mr Paul Tyler CBE MP and Mr Andrew Stunell MP



  1.  The tension between Parliament's roles as legislature (where it is charged with making law, primarily at the behest of the executive) and scrutiniser (in which it becomes the focus for scrutiny of the Government's policies and the forum in which the concerns of the population at large are represented) has increased considerably as both the quantity of legislation and the power of the executive has increased.

  2.  The House of Commons is very unusual in mature parliamentary systems in that there is not even an informal mechanism for round table discussions of options for handling the Business. Rather, there are an unknown and undocumented series of bilateral discussions through the "Usual Channels" with no measure of their usefulness or effectiveness. Even within the United Kingdom, its three young, devolved legislatures—the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly—have some form of Business Committee in which discussions can be held over the parliamentary timetable.

  3.  We believe that a key challenge facing both the executive and the legislature is the need to develop a mechanism that strikes a balance between the prerogative of the Government in getting the legislation it is committed to implementing, and the right and duty of parliamentarians to scrutinise the policies and actions of the executive.

  4.  Time has traditionally been a blunt weapon wielded by Government and Opposition to achieve objectives that are either destructive of legislation or the process of scrutiny. We believe that a more sophisticated view is required that sees time and its management as a tool for the forensic examination and constructive amendment of legislation in the House of Commons.

  5.  To that end, we contend that a Legislative Business Committee is vital to satisfy the responsibilities and duties of parliamentarians, whether as members of the executive or the legislature.


  6.  We continue to accept the pre-eminence of the first three "essential requirements of a reformed system" for managing the scrutiny of legislation:

      (a) The Government of the day must be assured of getting its legislation through in reasonable time (provided that it obtains the approval of the House).

      (b) The Opposition in particular and Members in general must have a full opportunity to discuss and seek to change provisions to which they attach importance.

      (c) All parts of a Bill must be properly considered.[15]

  7.  We have also seen some very positive developments since the Procedure Committee recommended in 1985 the setting up of a Legislative Business Committee to timetable individual Bills likely to last over 25 hours in length. For instance, the Government have more or less implemented the Jopling recommendation related to what the House knows as programming through a hybrid of the two options suggested:

We recommend that the House should take steps to apply timetable provisions to all stages of Government bills after second reading either by setting up a new committee to deal with the allocation of time to all bills when they are committed to a standing committee or by making arrangements for the standing committee to which each bill is committed to allot the time for its further consideration by the committee and for its remaining stages.[16]

  8.  This arrangement, whilst still in need of improvement, is a welcome improvement over the haphazard and relatively opaque nature of negotiations that operated previously.

  9.  However, the continued engagement of the House, political parties and interested experts with modernisation, and the prospect of reform of the House of Lords, present a unique opportunity for timetabling to be taken beyond the issue of individual Bills to a broader look at the parliamentary timetable.

  10.  The issue of broader timetabling has an established pedigree of consideration by both members and officials of the House of Commons and outside expert investigations.

  11.  The Jopling Report recommended "that the dates of the Christmas, Easter and Whitsun recesses be announced at the beginning of each session"[17]. In evidence to the committee Alistair Darling recommended that the Committee "consider timetabling of all business" and indicated that "[he] would favour as much notice being given [of business] as possible". The Ripon Commission, published by the Hansard Society in 1993, recommended that "Government should move towards the adoption of a two-year legislative programme"[18] and noted that "if parliamentary scrutiny of bills and delegated legislation is to be improved, as many Members wish, much more extensive formal-timetabling of all legislation will have to be accepted."[19]

  12.  The Modernisation Committee's 3rd Report from 1997-98 recommended experimentation with the carry-over of public bills through the use of sessional orders.

  13.  More recently, the Norton Commission, appointed by the Leader of the Conservative Party in July 1999 and reporting in July 2000 after considerable evidence-taking, made the following observation:

    "Parliament has experimented with the carry-over of bills from one session to another. We believe that this should be the norm, not the exception, subject to the proviso a bill must be enacted within fourteen months of the date of its second reading."[20]

  Norton also proposed that timetabling of the days available to a particular bill be undertaken by a Legislation Programme Committee.[21]

  14.  In December 2000, the Hansard Society's Scrutiny Commission published a pamphlet by Greg Power in which he argued that all business should be timetabled and that business should be arranged formally by a `bureau', giving the opposition a role in the organisation of the business timetable.[22]

  15.  The Leader of the House has demonstrated a continuing commitment to establishing a different calendar basis for the scrutiny of legislation. In his speech to the Hansard Society in May 2001 the Leader of the House said that the House should "set ourselves the ambition of organising the legislative programme on a `pipeline' principle. Ideally this would involve a two year rolling programme." This was further explored in his consultative memorandum to the Modernisation Committee in December 2001:

      21.  The Commons would have much more opportunity to carry out scrutiny of legislation if Bills were carried over from one Session to the next. Plainly there must be a time limit on the period within which any Bill must complete all stages, and the quid pro quo for greater flexibility on the carry-over between Sessions should be a requirement that all Bills must complete all stages within a fixed period of months.

  16.   In M115 to the Modernisation Committee (memorandum on the Programming of Government Business), 2001-02, the Chairman of Ways and Means, Sir Alan Haselhurst, makes the following suggestion to improve scrutiny: "the starting point should be an agreement on the parliamentary calendar. Whatever obfuscation and bluster is heard on one side and the other, everyone knows that there is an overwhelming desire to have breaks at set times so that family and constituency demands can be accommodated. Other Parliaments have not found it essential to play an endless guessing game". He also makes some very important observations on the point of timetabling of Business as a whole:

    Programming is a procedure which is capable of being used constructively and consensually, in the interests of balanced and effective scrutiny. Equally it is a procedure which is capable of being used destructively, merely as a routine guillotine to make life more comfortable for the Government and its supporters and without adequate regard to other interests in the House. For that reason, those committees and outside commentators who originally advocated the systematic timetabling of Government legislative business envisaged that such a system would be operated through a representative committee with a degree of independence from Government and a degree of transparency in its deliberations. Most developed parliaments have such a body . . .[23]

  17.  In his speech to the Hansard Society in May 2002 the Leader of the House reiterated his desire for "a mechanism to permit the carry-over of a Bill from one parliamentary year to the next, to allow a longer time for Parliament to carry out scrutiny".

Legislative Business Committee Function and Operation

  18.  We believe that it is important to consider the issue of carry-over in the context of the more general timetabling of parliamentary business.

  19.  We maintain the view that we need an evolutionary approach to reform. We also maintain the view that in the interests of better scrutiny, the Opposition's forfeiting of its capacity to undermine the Government's day requires the Government to take a view of the legislative calendar that effectively forfeits its ability to dictate the parliamentary year without reference to Parliament. Time is a useful tool of Government and Opposition, but only when its management is used to give effect to improved scrutiny—not just express the frustrations of one side or the other. If the House collectively "owns" the basic timetable then it should reduce (if not completely eliminate) the need for such a negative approach to the consideration of the Government's legislative programme. Once again, it reinforces the understanding that, providing the Government commands a majority, it has a responsibility and duty to attempt to secure the completion of scrutiny of its legislative programme. Conversely, opposition parties and backbenchers have a right and duty to ensure that each bill is well and truly examined.

  20.  In the first instance, there should be speedy implementation of the recommendation from the Modernisation Committee that "There should be discussions at the earliest possible stage of the Government's legislative proposals as a whole. We propose therefore that the Government should begin informal talks with all parties just after the Queen's Speech."[24]

  21.  Secondly, we envisage the setting up of a Legislative Business Committee that would consider a recommendation on the terms of the parliamentary year proposed to it by Government. This would include identifying and agreeing the recesses, non-Sitting Fridays, days for Private Members' Business, the time available for the consideration of select committee reports, the sittings of the House devoted to Opposition Business and the time available within a fixed number of weeks for the Government's legislative programme.

  22.  The Legislative Business Committee could then consider an outline timetable for the introduction of legislation, again proposed by Government and subject to advice from counsel.

  23.  These two exercises, undertaken as soon after the Queen's Speech as possible, should then enable the Legislative Business Committee to become the vehicle by which a view of the detailed timetable could be taken. This would include the Business for the following week, the Provisional Business for the subsequent week and, hopefully, an outline of Business expectations in the third and fourth weeks.

  24.  As part of that process, the Legislative Business Committee could consider which Bills ought to be subject to the experimental application of Sessional Orders to carry them over from one session to the next and determine the "life span" of the Bill. Effectively, the Legislative Business Committee, having identified the date for Second Reading, would establish the "out date" by which a Bill should emerge from its Commons processes. It would also be the vehicle by the House expressed a view on the scheduling of Lords amendments.

  25.  It is important to note that we envisage the process of programming individual Bills continuing in much the same way as it does now, but with the relevant Committees and sub-Committees paying due regard to the framework timetable laid down by the Legislative Business Committee.

  26.  In each instance above, it would be for the Legislative Business Committee to deliberate upon proposals put to it by the Government, attempting to reach an agreement rather than force the issue to division.

  27.  It is important to recognise that the Government's ability to "guillotine" legislation would remain a reserve power (or "safety valve") in the event that the parliamentary timetable or individual Bill timetables cannot be agreed.

  28.  We would hope that, given time, the Legislative Business Committee might more properly come to be recognised as a Parliamentary Business Committee, not merely concerning itself with legislation but becoming a vehicle for the House of Commons to manage its overall timetable more rationally, making creative use of the facilities available for scrutiny (such as Westminster Hall), and, whilst continuing to acknowledge the unique and privileged position of the executive, ultimately safeguarding the rights and responsibilities of all its members.

Suggested Composition

  29.  We have no fixed view over the composition of the Legislative Business Committee, though it should be chaired by a non-voting representative of those presiding over proceedings (most probably the Chairman of Ways and Means). It should also include in its membership the Leader of the House or his/her representative and business managers from the first and second opposition parties. It should also consider whether it wants to include a representative on behalf of the minority parties and senior backbench parliamentary experience, perhaps from representatives of the Chairman's Panel the Liaison Committee and/or party nominations.

  30.  Whatever its final composition, there will be a need for close liaison between its members and the parties through the `usual channels', and discussions with the Liaison Committee and the Chairman's Panel, to ensure that business can be timetabled in a way that addresses the concerns of Members of Parliament.

The Prospect of Lords Reform

  31.  Whilst the Standing Orders of one House cannot bind another, their interpretation and application, and the general conduct of Business in one House (notably the management of time), establishes a causal relationship with the other. We contend that a Legislative Business Committee would help confirm the primacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords and its reformed successor. The initiative on the parliamentary timetable would be clearly set from the House of Commons.


  32.  With the wealth of expert opinion and research available, from the Conservative Party's Norton Commission to the Hansard Society and Greg Power, along with so much evidence from other mature democracies, it is difficult to understand the unique objection to Westminster experimenting with some form of round-table legislative timetabling.

  33.  It is our conclusion that both Government and Opposition can only benefit from a more considered and long-term determination of the parliamentary calendar and that the House should be encouraged to begin with some form of experimental timetabling at the earliest opportunity.

June 2002

15   1st Report of the Select Committee of Modernisation of the House of Commons, HC190, 1997-98, The Legislative Process. pgvi (reiterated in Memorandum from Mr Paul Tyler and Mr Andrew Stunell, Appendix 4, 2nd Report Modernisation Committee 1999-2000, Programming of Legislation and Timing of Votes). Back

16   Report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, HC 20, 1991-92, pg xxiBack

17   Report of the Select Committee on Sittings of the House, HC 20, 1991-92, pg xxvBack

18   Report of the Ripon Commission, Hansard Society 1993, Chapter 7, para. 483. Back

19   Report of the Ripon Commission, Hansard Society 1993, Chapter 7, para. 512. Back

20   Strengthening Parliamant, Report of the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, July 2000, pg 22. Back

21   Strengthening Parliament, Report of the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, July 2000, pg 22. Back

22   Creating a Working Parliament: Reform of the Commons Chamber, Hansard Society's Scrutiny Commission, 2000. Back

23   Programming of Government Business, Memorandum from the Chairman of Ways and Means, M115 2001-02, para. 27. Back

24   2nd Report of the Select Committee of Modernisation of the House of Commons, HC589, 1999-2000, Programming of Legislation and Timing of Votes, para. 18 pg viiiBack

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