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Procedure Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 216
HOUSE OF COMMONS
TAKEN BEFORE THE
Committee OF sELECTION and Membership OF GENERAL COMMITTEES
Wednesday 19 June 2013
Dr Meg Russell and Professor Tony Wright
Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 – 42
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
This is a corrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.
The transcript is an approved formal record of these proceedings. It will be printed in due course.
Taken before the Procedure Committee
on Wednesday 19 June 2013
Mr Charles Walker (Chair)
Mr James Gray
Mr David Nuttall
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Dr Meg Russell, Reader in British and Comparative Politics and Deputy Director, Constitution Unit, University College London, and Professor Tony Wright, Chair, Committee on Reform of the House of Commons ("the Wright Committee") 2008-10, and now Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy, University College London, gave evidence.
Q1 Chair: Tony, Meg, I have read this report. I am going to be honest with you: I love some of it and I really hate quite a lot of it because I am not sure that it recognises the realities of the House of Commons as it is at the moment. But I do think some of it is extremely good and extremely useful. Can I just ask a straightforward question? I think I know what your answer is going to be. Why do you believe that the current system of selecting Members to sit on Public Bill Committees needs to be changed?
Dr Russell: Is that to me?
Chair: That is to you, either or both of you.
Dr Russell: I think at the very least, and maybe this is something for you to find out through asking them, it has rather lost the confidence of Members of Parliament and lost the confidence of people outside Parliament-that people are being selected on their merits for those committees at all times. Whether or not that is true is a different question, but I think there is a perception that people are being kept off committees if they are going to be awkward or perhaps, which is more concerning, if they know too much about the subject. As I say in the report, it is quite striking, particularly when you look back at the historical developments and you look at the recent developments with respect to the Select Committees, the extent to which those committees have developed and become more and more respected and have been recently changed. There was that great controversy about how their members were chosen, which has now been resolved by the recommendations of the committee that Tony chaired and for which I was the specialist adviser. Meanwhile, nothing has happened on the side of the membership of the Public Bill Committees, which were always less accountable in terms of how their members were chosen than the Select Committees were. Now the Select Committees are way out in front.
Q2 Chair: Would you say that, even if you do not necessarily vote against the Government line at second reading, you support the Government, but if you were seen as a free spirit and someone who had a little bit too much to bring to the table, that too could preclude you from being picked to sit on a standing committee/Public Bill Committee where you had a specific interest?
Professor Wright: Could I just give a short answer to the first question?
Professor Wright: I will do it by thinking back to when we had our reform committee. We were taking private evidence from a number of people and one of them-Meg was there and she will remember this-was a former Conservative Chief Whip who said, for me memorably and disarmingly, "When I was Chief Whip in Opposition I could never decide whether my job was to make the Government’s legislation better or worse". I thought that absolutely summed up the intrinsic problem with the process. Is it some kind of party game that is being played or is it a process designed to secure the best possible outcome in terms of the quality of legislation? I do not believe it is the latter and I think nobody believes it is the latter.
Chair: I will throw it open to colleagues. I read this report, and undoubtedly a huge amount of work and thought has gone into it and I cannot fault it for that, but the report is very expansive in its ambition. It wants to reshape the whole process of Public Bill Committees. There is option A, option B, option C. I will not go through them, but you are well aware of them because you have come up with them. I suppose when I approach this my concern is, what I would like to achieve is bringing something before the House that can be voted on that would carry the support of the House. I think we have to be looking more at incremental change. My view is, I think it is wrong-and this view may not be shared by other members of the Committee-that the chairman of the selection committee is appointed. It is stacked with Whips. There is no accountability to the House, and it can decide opaquely that someone with a specialist and passionate interest in an area will just not simply serve on a piece of legislation. That I think is wrong and concerning, so that is the direction I am coming from. Now, I am sure some of my colleagues will want to throw the discussion out more widely, but I have said my piece and thank you for your opening comments. Jacob.
Q3 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I am not sure it is as black as you both think, because I do not always support the Government and I have been put on a couple of Bill Committees. So they do sometimes put people on who are not thought to be completely reliable. You mentioned in your report the experience of other countries. How do you think they do it better than us and what can we learn from overseas experience?
Dr Russell: It is interesting, the way that you put it, in terms of your own experience. I think it certainly is not all black, and indeed, we have done other research which is only mentioned in here about the legislative process, the extent to which Parliament is influential on the legislative process. We have seen some very good work done in Public Bill Committees and it varies a bit from one type of Bill to another. On the rather more technical Bills, generally people who are the most expert do get appointed and they have a very intelligent conversation with Ministers and often things get changed as a result if they have good points.
It is interesting what you say about getting put on committees by the Government. I was just flicking through to see if I could find the words from the Liaison Committee report from 2000, the Shifting the Balance report, which included some words such as, "Those who are the subject of scrutiny should not be choosing the scrutineers". There is something quite strange about it being a matter of Government patronage as to who gets on to Bill Committees.
In terms of the overseas experience, the primary thing that is shown up in this report is those bigger factors that Charles was just talking about, and the structure of Bill Committees in all of the other countries that we looked at was quite different to the Bill Committees here. As in, from the 20 comparator countries, every single country had a set of permanent specialist committees to which legislation could be sent; that is a set of committees similar to our Select Committees. We are therefore very much an outlier, in terms of international experience, in having committees that are pulled together just for one Bill, and then disperse again. That brings problems, I think. It is a shame. It maybe encourages partisan point-scoring and things, at least in some committees, that this is a temporary collection of people who may have never worked together before and may never have to work together again. There are benefits in having a more permanent membership who can develop relationships with each other.
In terms of how members are chosen, that is not really covered in this report but it was covered in the earlier report that was influential on Tony’s Reform Committee, a report called The House Rules published in 2007. What I concluded was that other countries did not have very much to teach us in terms of how members are chosen. It is quite common for members of committees to be chosen by Whips, certainly within their parties. In a sense, we were ahead of the game. The comparator for me is our own Select Committees and the extent to which we have looked to and improved the mechanisms for our own Select Committees and the extent to which the Select Committees and Bill Committees are now rather out of sync with each other. Sorry, that was a rather long answer.
Q4 Jacob Rees-Mogg: But a very helpful one. I wonder if I can just come back on one thing that I think may underlie why we do it the way we do it, which is that the Government must ultimately be able to get its legislative business, and that is not an unreasonable expectation in the system that we have, without any formal separation of powers between the Legislature and the Executive.
Professor Wright: Do you mind if I dissent on that-on what you just said?
Jacob Rees-Mogg: No, of course.
Professor Wright: I think you phrase it slightly wrongly, if I may say so. I think the Government is entitled to put its legislative business to the House. It is not entitled to get its legislative business.
Q5 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Doesn’t it have to resign if it cannot get its legislative business because it then does not have the confidence of the House?
Professor Wright: It has to put its legislative proposals in front of the House of Commons. The job of the House of Commons is to scrutinise and process them. Those that it can win a majority for will succeed; those which it cannot-can I just say a bit more? In a way, I think this goes perhaps to the heart of what is at issue here. Meg is a great incrementalist, with good reason-a good track record of successful incrementalism. I am a bit more of a big bang person, but we needed-
Dr Russell: It would have been even worse if he had written it.
Professor Wright: To go back to Charles’ point, we have just been having a cup of tea and I have just been trying to say to Meg that I thought there was-and I do not know if this is your lack of realism-a certain lack of realism in not understanding the difference between the Government’s interest in Select Committees and the Government’s interest in legislative committees. This is the point that you are making. The fact is that the way that we do it now just produces bad outcomes. That is the point. The point I was going to make was, it is a model that was, to my mind, perfectly appropriate to the way in which politics worked for much of the 20th century: that is, mass parties, ideologically grounded, sharp divisions, majoritarianism. The whole of the way in which legislation is organised here is based upon that principle-the principle that you enunciated that I picked a fight with you about-which is that Governments have a right to get their business and Oppositions have a right to oppose it. I think that now politics is quite different. That is not how politics is and it is not how parties are. We inhabit broadly the same sort of territory. I think people expect people to work together, not just play party games, and I do not think the way we do legislation here reflects the new political reality.
Dr Russell: Could I add something to that? I am broadly inclined to agree with Tony, and this might be dangerous but it makes me think-one of the things that I spend a lot of my time doing is studying the House of Lords and the way that the House of Lords handles legislation and influences the policy process. Of course, that is a Chamber in which the Government has no majority. No Government has had a majority in the House of Lords since 1997, and indeed, even the Conservative Government before that did not really have a majority.
There is an awful lot of negotiation that goes on in the House of Lords over legislation. Indeed, in the end, many of the deals that begin their lives as concerns raised in Public Bill Committees in the House of Commons get done in the House of Lords and the Government holds back concessions for the Lords rather than giving them in the Commons, which sometimes upsets MPs and so on. I know that the Government does not have a confidence relationship with the House of Lords so it is different, but the fact that the Government has to negotiate on its legislation in that Chamber does not cause crisis. It is actually quite grown-up politics. Often they are discussions about matters of detail, not fundamentally changing the direction of policy.
I think also inherent in the question-you are quite right to challenge, of course-somebody mentioned before whether mavericks can get on to committees and so on. What I would suggest should be done in reforming the membership of committees is not to have some system that allows the most maverick Members to be the ones that get chosen. What I am suggesting is giving more power and responsibility to Members to choose who serves on those committees. I think political parties are quite disciplined, quite cohesive. If you ask the Conservative party or the Labour party even through a democratic means who they want to represent them on a Bill Committee, they are not going to pick a bunch of mavericks because they are fundamentally loyal to their leadership and Government Members want to see the Government get its business, but they would quite like to have some say over the detail and perhaps to have responsible Members with expertise chosen to serve on the committees-if that makes sense.
Q6 Mr Gray: Can I slightly take issue with what you were saying just now about this notion of politics being different? Politics is not different. The parliamentary system is the same: namely, there is a body of people who are called the Government. That body may well be a coalition or it may be a rainbow coalition, for all I know, but none the less it is an organisation called the Government and they have a majority, and the manifesto on which they stood in front of the people they get to deliver. The reason I start by that preface is that it is terribly easy under these circumstances to focus on inputs: to sit down and say, "If I had a clean piece of paper, by what mechanism would I design a legislative organisation, a scrutineer organisation?" I would not do it the way we have it. That is obvious. We would not build this building; we would not do all the bizarre things that we do do; we would not have people in tights and call each other by-so there are lots of things we would not do; none the less, it works rather well.
While I am very impressed by much of what you have in the report, is there not a risk that it is ignoring the output aspect? If the output aspect is good law and if your thesis is that good law is not being produced, are you right in your supplementary, which is to say bad law is being produced and that is because of the way in which the Bill Committees are made up? I suspect that there is no logical link between those two things at all. There are lots of other reasons why bad law is being produced, like guillotines and all sorts of other things. If your main thesis is that we are not doing a very good job, we are producing bad law and the reason why we are producing bad law is that the Bill Committees are done by this rather bizarre committee selection and all that, I am just not sure you are right.
Professor Wright: It is how they are chosen. It is how they are structured-
Q7 Mr Gray: Why does that matter?
Professor Wright: It is how they are structured and it is how they work. I think if you put those three things together you get an explanation of why we get the failures that we get. Now, you say if all is going well, if we are getting good outcomes, then does it matter. Well, anybody who looks at this believes we are not getting good outcomes. I think most Members of Parliament would not claim that the legislative process delivers good outcomes. There is a book about to come out by two of the country’s leading political scientists. They have analysed some of the biggest policy failures of the last 30-odd years. It is called The Blunders of our Governments. The chapter on Parliament has the title, "An Irrelevant Parliament"-that is, half-baked proposals came forward and Parliament allowed them to emerge half-baked. That is not a good position to be in. I think we know that we can do better. Some of the international evidence that Meg points to shows that it is perfectly possible to maintain, as in Germany, a strong party system with a much more intelligent and consensual way of examining legislation.
Q8 Mr Gray: Why consensual? I did not disagree with your thesis that maybe it is bad law, although we could debate that some other time. That is not the purpose of the discussion today. My question was: is there any evidence that that bad law is causally linked to the way that committees are constructed? Where has that causation come from?
Professor Wright: Meg can speak for her research, but the fact is that we have these committees that are chosen entirely by the party machines, where any kind of dissent is discounted, where Governments simply want to get their majority, Opposition want to oppose, they are not specialised and they are not permanent, so all the ingredients that might lead to the outcomes that we get are in place. Other places that seem to have worked more successfully do it differently. Isn’t that the proposition?
Dr Russell: I think it is important not to see this as a dichotomy. As Jacob Rees-Mogg has said, and I agree, the situation is not by any means all bleak. There is some very good work done in Public Bill Committees and expert members, well-informed members, do often get on to those Public Bill Committees, but it is not universal. We are not looking at a dichotomy between the system that we have now-which is controlled by the Whips, which is a "black" system, as you put it, whereby no mavericks will ever get on. I think some of these claims about going to Public Bill Committees and seeing nothing but people writing their Christmas cards and things are rather out of date. To be honest, I think, without having seen it, that the analysis in that book is rather out of date, probably, about Parliament. It is not as bad as that, but it is not a black and white choice between a terrible system that we have now and insurrection, whereby all of these committees are going to be full of rebels and Opposition Members who are going to overturn the Government, and they are never going to be able to get their way.
If you look at international experience, you have committees which consider legislation in a mature and intelligent way and where politics is less adversarial than it is here and there are serious conversations going on about the quality of legislation. Jack Straw spoke at the launch of this report last week and he said that in his long experience as a Minister, you want to be questioned. I know that there are a lot of probing amendments and so on that go on now, but you want an intelligent group of people asking you hard questions to justify your legislation, because that is the way you get good legislation.
Mr Gray: But that is not essential.
Professor Wright: I do not want to lapse into anything, but when I first came to the Commons in 1992-
Professor Wright: No, I think I know the answer to this, Charles.
Chair: I thought you were 1997. I do apologise. I stand corrected.
Professor Wright: Indeed, 1992-an awful long time ago. The first Bill I did was a private Member’s Bill and it went into committee. We had the most splendid time and it was consensual and the Minister was taking points. We were agreeing amendments across the committee. It was absolutely splendid. I thought, "This is a wonderful way to legislate. All these things that people say about the legislative process are just not true"-until the Bill, of course, came back to the House and in five minutes was killed off because Government did not want it and a kind of game had been played. Then when I sat on ordinary Bill Committees, then that was the Christmas cards, then it was doing your correspondence, then it was the Whips saying, "Don’t say a thing. Certainly do not start flitting about with cross-party amendments. Do not complicate the party battle that we are engaged in". It was a firmly, firmly structured process. Every new Member-those with any kind of sensibility-is shocked by what they find.
May I just briefly quote the hon. Member for Totnes and her experiences as a former GP wanting to go on to the Health and Social Care Bill? This is her writing in her first year in this place: "I would like to have joined the committee considering that Bill to keep my promise to constituents to scrutinise health legislation, but when I suggested to the Whips that I would like to table amendments I effectively signed myself off the list of candidates. The intention appears to be to get the Bill through committee unscathed with no amendments unless suggested by the Government. Does all this bode well for effective scrutiny?" I think that is the mission that you are on, Mr Chairman, if I understand it.
Q9 Chair: Yes, I appreciate that. The issue I have is, I have a huge amount of time for the hon. Member for Totnes, but she is widely quoted as one of the two accepted case studies. I would advise anybody who has a problem with the current way things are constructed-and I have a problem with it-to broaden out the case studies beyond the hon. Member for Totnes and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion, Caroline Lucas. They tend to be the two cases that are regularly quoted and we are all familiar with them. We have been familiar with them now for two years and I have great sympathy for them both, but we have to broaden it out because otherwise, the argument is not being made perhaps as strongly as it could be by those who want reform.
Dr Russell: Yes. I am not sure whether this is possible, but this is maybe where members of the committee need to do some research or perhaps just take some soundings.
Chair: Yes, that is a good idea.
Dr Russell: I think the difference between this case and a number of other cases is that she has spoken out quite vocally. But these kinds of complaints are mentioned off the record very often. I do not spend my life working here, and in answer to your first question I said I think, if for no other reason, the reason to improve the procedures is to limit the reputational damage that is done to the committees among Members themselves as well as people outside who do not seem to have faith in the system. But you do certainly hear a lot of people talking about how they do not even try to get on to committees because they know their Whips would not have them and so on.
Q10 Chair: Yes, Dr Russell, I absolutely agree with that and there will be a written call for evidence. Tony, the Sarah Wollaston one is the only one that is used and if the argument is to be made, there needs to be a broader base of concern.
Professor Wright: I could have written that in the first year of being here, and I think loads of Members could have written in terms of that sort of thing.
Chair: Yes, but we need to persuade them to come forward and respond to our written call for evidence.
Dr Russell: I agree with you as well and I am rather cautious to do it in the report. There is a danger of personalising this, and to be quite honest, I do not have any idea what standing Sarah Wollaston has within the parliamentary Conservative party. But if she is a person of good standing, I would expect that the parliamentary Conservative party would have been likely to pick her for that committee. If she was not, then you would not have done and that would be quite right.
Professor Wright: Leave aside the person-sorry, Meg-what a waste, not taking people with expertise to sit on Bills in those areas. That is what we characteristically have done.
Q11 Chair: I absolutely agree with that, which is why I want to change the Committee of Selection. I am going to just say one last thing and then I am really going to shut up. The problem I have is your recommendation here, particularly calling for the establishment of permanent legislating committees; this has to be voted on by the House. If this Committee brought that before the House, not a chance. They would say, "Are you crazy?" We are having trouble now filling Select Committee vacancies, and that is what I am saying. It may be a fantastic idea in theory, on paper, but the idea that an argument could be made to persuade colleagues in the current mood they are in to vote for permanent legislating committees that would need to be stocked by those Members-they are just not going to have it. They just wouldn’t have it because, Tony, as you know and I know, and it causes great concern, colleagues actually like Select Committees because it gives them a platform-and you recognise this in the report-and they like to be campaigning in their constituencies. I think there is a bit of work to be done on the whole process of legislation before we think we can persuade colleagues to support something that will ultimately see some of them in lockdown potentially for five years, looking at Government Bills.
Professor Wright: Yes, but Charles, to be honest, what a dismal commentary.
Chair: It is. I am being realistic.
Professor Wright: Here is one of Parliament’s central functions, determining the law of the land, and you are saying that Members of Parliament do not want to engage in that activity in a concerted way.
Chair: No, what I am saying is potentially you are asking people to give five years of their parliamentary career to being on a committee that does nothing but look at legislation. It says in the report on page 47, "Reforms need to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary". I would like to support you and others in evolutionary reforms, but I do not think I am in a position to lead a revolution at the moment.
Q12 John Hemming: I have to apologise because I am going to have to go to another Select Committee at quarter to, but I will be back in about two minutes after that. You can probably guess which one it is from that.
There is always an interesting question about the legislative sausage machine. The first stage is instructions and then you go on to the legislation. One of the factors you mentioned was the fact that modifications tend to happen in the House of Lords. What I have always been told by the Whips-well, you would expect them to say that-is that if there is a good idea in the Commons Bill Committee you do not vote it through in the Commons Bill Committee because they need to do wider consultation. It is a valid argument. You have to see what the knock-on effects are of legislation and so things come back in the House of Lords after that wider consultation. I think that is quite a coherent argument because if an idea crops up then you do need wider consultation. The advantage of the Bill Committee process, which is a decision-making process more than a scrutiny process in some ways, is that it is public so people know what is going on, so people can lobby the system. Have you thought about that process and how would you deal with the process of wider consultation of proposed amendments?
Dr Russell: I think that is quite true and this came up at the launch of the report last week as well. There are a number of reasons why often, ideas that first are put in the Public Bill Committees end up getting implemented in changes in the House of Lords, and one of them certainly is that Government needs time. They may have spending implications, you may need Treasury clearance; they may have knock-on effects for other legislation; you may need to consult other departments. Also the parliamentary draftsmen-and women, of course-need time to think about whether the wording is watertight and so on. So there are valid reasons for delay. Those things could potentially be brought back on Report in the House of Commons. I know that there is a fair degree of frustration among Members, and again it is for you to speak to Members about where their frustrations lie, but I frequently hear frustrations from Members that Ministers are not really engaging with the concerns raised in the House of Commons and resolving them in the Commons. They are saving those things up in order that they have something to give to the House of Lords, which is, in a funny way, the House of Commons sort of delegating its legislating responsibilities to the unelected Chamber, which is a bit of a peculiar state of affairs.
Professor Wright: Some of what you describe is good and would happen naturally through a process of legislation where you reflect and you come back. The virtue of having two Houses engaged on it is it gives you a more extensive-I think that is just part of how it would be, but if it becomes a reflection of the inadequacy of what happens at this end, I do not think that is good. I do not know if you have all read Meg’s report, but what really interested me most was not so much the international examples, which are interesting, but the historical evidence. Just look at the getting on for about a century, now, of homegrown proposals from committees here, as well as outside bodies, to make this process better. The recognition of what the problems are is so well-established that although Charles may say this is revolutionary, against the history it is not. In a sense, you are almost reinventing proposals first made in 1930 for First Reading Committees and that kind of thing, which I am very much in favour of. Meg has produced a list of options for you to think about. I simply have a maximalist option and a minimalist option, which I am happy to describe to you, but my sense is that you are interested in the minimalist option.
Chair: We are interested in all options, but the House eventually, whenever we report, will decide on how it reacts to those options, so we have to have options that would be supported out there.
Q13 John Hemming: As it currently stands, any Member can go to a Statutory Instrument Committee, and I saw something unusual this year when Alan Reid came along to a Statutory Instrument Committee that he was not on at that time. He had asked to go off it because he opposed it and he explained what was wrong with it and they withdrew it. I thought that was a very good example of scrutiny as scrutiny. I wonder if there is merit in a case for non-voting but speaking members of the committees dealing with that sort of issue, and potentially then a process with the committee-like Report stage but in committee-so that things that are raised at an earlier stage can have gone through consultation and come back. Because the difficulty is, if you table an amendment on, say, Wednesday night for a Thursday morning 8.55am committee, there is no way you have any consultation done by then. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Professor Wright: I think Meg has thought along the way about Ministers possibly not voting in one of her models of committee. For me, these are-
Dr Russell: Members who are not on the committee can propose amendments now.
John Hemming: But they cannot turn up and speak.
Dr Russell: Yes.
John Hemming: They can?
Mr Gray: They can propose amendments but they cannot be taken unless a member of the committee takes them up.
John Hemming: That is right.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: If a non-member sits down in the committee room you have to suspend the sitting.
Chair: Yes, but they can put forward amendments.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: On the Order Paper, but they cannot then propose them; they cannot move them.
Dr Russell: Some of these issues potentially, I suppose, could be resolved. You have a difficulty. This is rather going beyond the report and the issue of membership, but if the committee works through a Bill clause by clause there is a particular day when your amendment is in order when you are discussing that clause, and if you do not get it agreed then, then you cannot come back to it later on, unless you can find a way of reformulating it and putting it in another part of the Bill. Perhaps there are some procedural answers that allow you to come back before the end of committee to proposals that often in committees, Ministers offer to look at again: but those generally come back at Report stage when time is very pushed. You could have a final committee session perhaps where you return to the issues that Ministers said they were prepared to look at, but that would only work on committees that were sitting for a number of weeks for relatively big Bills.
John Hemming: Often, things move that quickly that it would be rather difficult.
Dr Russell: Yes.
Q14 John Hemming: At the moment, if somebody comes in who is not a member of the committee, then unlike with statutory instruments-I think on a European Committee anyone can turn up, as well; but on statutory instruments you can turn up and argue about it, but not on a Bill Committee. There might be an argument for a smallish number of non-voting members.
Professor Wright: Again, I think there is something in that. Again, if you read all this stuff, one of the suggestions made over many years is that it might be possible as well as having a permanent membership of committees to have for particular purposes add-on members. It is not just your point about dropping in when you want, but being able to add additional members. There are different models. I think it is the way of working that is a key issue. I would like to see legislative committees be working committees where they get to work on the details of legislation. They do not do it like this; around the horseshoe where it is all nice and consensual, party matters less. We do it across the divide. The whole physical format is different. I would like people to be able to feel happy in taking cross-party amendments-that would be routine-if it improved the Bill. I would like Ministers to be far more relaxed about taking amendments from wherever source they came if they made sense. That would be a way of working that would be more likely to produce outcomes that would-
Q15 Mr Gray: There is no procedural obstruction to Ministers doing that at the moment and that does happen in lots of Bills: for example, most recently the gay marriage Bill; shortly with the in/out referendum Bill; Bills of conscience-fox hunting or abortion. That is precisely what happens; there are all sorts of cross-party allegiances and there is no structural or procedural bar on what you describe occurring.
Professor Wright: No, but there is culture.
Mr Gray: It is just that it does not because the Whips do not let it happen. There is nothing we can do that would change that. The Whips are determined to get their business through and that is their job. There is no structure, no procedure that requires that to be the case.
Chair: Do not answer that, because that is a very valid statement and you can answer it in responding to David.
Mr Gray: Sorry, I jumped in, sorry.
Chair: No; David, do respond.
Q16 Mr Nuttall: Chairman, I think that is a good point. In fact, I was going to touch on a point that you made earlier in general passing about the appetite or, in my view, the lack of appetite for Members to sit on I think what you would call model A, the heavy legislating departmental committees. Before I go on to that, you propose I think an Australian senate model where there would be a creation of a parallel specialist committee to the departmental Select Committee with an overlapping membership. I may have misunderstood this, but does that mean that you would anticipate that the Select Committee members would also be on the quasi-permanent legislating committee? Is that what you had in mind?
Dr Russell: I think you allow me now to come back with a word of defence to what Charles said earlier about the lack of realism in the recommendation of the model A permanent committee. In defence, I would say I think I did put that in an incremental form because all the report suggests is that there is an experiment with setting up one committee in one heavy legislating department. Let us test whether it works, and if it does not work that is fine, we can junk it, but if it does work, if it brings some improvements, then maybe it could be extended.
I am not suggesting the Australian senate model, although I think it has some attractions. When I say overlapping, I mean like this: you have some members who are on both committees, but both committees also have their own members. So you have some degree of institutional communication between the committee that is dealing with legislation and the committee that is conducting executive oversight. But I am not suggesting that we adopt a blanket system such as that because of the uneven loads across different departments and so on.
Mr Nuttall: Yes, I appreciate that.
Dr Russell: I am suggesting one experiment in one department. If Members do not want to serve on such a committee, then the experiment fails.
Q17 Mr Nuttall: I think that might well be the problem. I may not be speaking to a representative sample of fellow Back-Bench Members, but personally I have not detected any great desire among colleagues to serve permanently on Bills of this nature, on committees of this nature. That may well be, as Professor Wright has suggested, because of the nature of the work-
Dr Russell: The culture.
Mr Nuttall: -but I cannot see that the nature is going to change any time soon because the fundamental nature of Government Bill Committees is that the Government want to get their Bill through unscathed. That is the Minister’s task when he is sent out to bat-"When you come back, I do not expect to see any changes to this Bill". They are sent off with the word "resist" against any amendments and that is what they are told to do and they will resist any amendments. They might well concede it later on in the Lords, but in that committee they will not expect to see any changes. The members who serve on that committee will be aware of this. If they are not aware of it at the start of the process, they certainly will be by the end of the process. Consequently, I suspect that there will not be droves of Members signing up to serve in permanent obscurity on some legislative committee. I just cannot see it happening. I might be wrong.
Q18 Chair: Just to pick up on David there, the problem is in our parliamentary system we do not celebrate legislators. They do in the United States, as you rightly point out. You do not get any brownie points for legislating here. Unless we can change that, your political virility in Parliament is measured by the ministerial office you obtain, not by the number of amendments you put down to a Bill. If it is cultural, that is the problem.
Professor Wright: I think we are trying to change this. My understanding is that there is a process of change going on. I think your description is completely accurate. If Members of Parliament want it to continue like that, which they probably do, then it will continue. If that is to happen, then other people will come along and think about ways of doing what Parliament is not doing. The former Cabinet Secretary gave a speech the other day. You were there, as I was. I am paraphrasing, but you tell me if I have it wrong. He said the way we do legislation is so awful, the way it is scrutinised is so awful, the way that half-baked proposals get through is so awful that we need to bring other bodies in that will start doing the job that is not being done. In fact, he proposed-I think he called it-an office of taxpayer responsibility, which would interrogate policy proposals and pronounce.
Anyway, all I am saying is Members of Parliament can go on saying, "Oh, we do not really want to get bogged down in all that legislative stuff-obscurity, nothing in it for us". If that is the case, then the spotlight will increasingly focus on Parliament’s inadequacies in this area and there will be attempts to bypass it. Just as Parliament has had to reclaim territory in terms of scrutiny and investigation because it was losing out to the media and all kinds of other people, we have reclaimed some territory there. I think we have to reclaim this territory too.
Dr Russell: I think what you have said is very interesting in terms of showing up the interwoven nature of structure and culture. I agree with you that Members are not going to volunteer to spend great swathes of their time sitting on committees that they think are useless, that they think they are never going to get a say on. But one would hope that if a group of Members with an interest in, let us say, home affairs started working together on one Bill, the first Bill might be rather on the old model, but when they came together for the next Bill they would be familiar with each other, they would have gone through some of the arguments before. They are not going to keep on replaying the same party political games because they are a bunch of adults who have an established relationship. I think that, as you say, Ministers are told to resist and so on, which is quite true, but that is also to an extent a product of the culture of the committees, because good Ministers want to hear valid points and criticisms of their legislation in order to make it better. But if they think they are going into an environment where there is party political game playing going on and people are putting down amendments for mischievous reasons and so on, then of course they are going to want to resist that. There is a challenge as to how you can change the structure without changing the culture, because one of the points of changing the structure is to get the culture to change.
Q19 Chair: Just before I bring Martin in, you do recognise, rightly, in your report that although amendments are infrequently taken in committee, often when the Minister comes back at Report stage he or she will have something positive to report back to the House. You rightly make that observation.
Dr Russell: Yes, and in the House of Lords.
Chair: I will bring Martin in. Look, we have spent 50 minutes beating the two of you up. I just want to reiterate there is quite a lot in here that I do like and I would like to focus on what we perhaps could agree on as well, because I think there is need for change. Martin, if you want to continue this along these lines.
Q20 Martin Vickers: Could I just explore a little further not just the link between membership and the effectiveness of the committee, but the other point you make about the reputation of Parliament? I have served on a couple of Bill Committees. Like Jacob mentioned earlier, it was not a reward for loyalty, as we have covered once or twice. Strangely enough, the only time I wanted to go on or was reasonably eager to go on a Bill Committee, I did not get on it, and that was strange because I was one of the few Conservatives who was in favour of House of Lords reform. You can draw what conclusion you wish from that. The point you made about expertise and the good doctor and so on being on the health care committees is obviously an interesting one, but don’t you think that expert committees, as it were, are not always what is desirable? You obviously need some expertise on a very detailed Bill about pensions or something like that, but on certain health service ones, for example, you have to take a slightly more detached view on what the public’s perception of these things is. Do you think we would lose that if we had fixed membership committees made up of people who had that little bit of extra expertise?
Professor Wright: It would depend on the method of choosing. People could decide the sort of people. If you were going to vote on it, people could decide the sort of people they wanted. I think you make a good point. I am very keen on having a mix of the expert and the non-expert, because often the non-expert can bring a freshness of approach to areas that I think you want to blend with expertise. I think your aim would be to achieve that, but when you were casting your vote you would no doubt have that in mind.
Dr Russell: Going back to the previous point, I completely agree with that. There is nothing in here that suggests that you are prescriptive about who the experts are. All our report is proposing is that you hand control to parliamentarians of choosing who should serve on their committees, rather than allowing Front Benchers to make that decision. I think that they probably would choose a mix of people with a mix of different skills and experience.
One thing, referring back to the other comments that have been made, it would be quite nice, wouldn’t it, if you could have people on committees who were at least unified in being enthusiastic about being on the committee? It is clearly a shame if there are people who, despite what has been suggested about people’s lack of enthusiasm for committees, are enthusiastic to serve on particular committees and are not allowed to do so.
Professor Wright: Sorry to interrupt, but I think if you want the best evidence on what happens-if you can get them-just get one or two former Whips here. Get them to tell you the sheer awfulness of the Committee of Selection and what happens there.
Q21 Chair: We were hoping that we could move on to the sheer awfulness of the Committee of Selection. Would you be in a position to give us a quick teaching on how you perceive it?
Professor Wright: As I say, I should call the experts in-that is, those who have been fixing it or called on at various points in the past to do it-if they would be prepared to tell you how it is, because they all tell you privately how awful it is. My sense is that you are more interested in minimalist positions than maximalist ones. My maximalist one slightly differs from Meg’s. I would not be so wedded to departments, by the way. I think we are too wedded to departments. I would have subject area, broad thematic committees that would cover a number of departments. Yes, there will always be regular work for them and I could tell you how I think we would get them but, as I say, I think you are probably not so interested in that.
The minimalist position I think would be, you retain the Committee of Selection. You would elect the Chair of it by the whole House. There would be a question to be determined about whether the Chair should come from any particular party-should it always come, for example, from the governing party or could it come from anywhere in the House? That would be an issue that you would have to resolve. We had the same thing when we were discussing how we did the Select Committee reforms. I would have contingents of Back Benchers-whatever number it is that you think is right-elected through party groups, as we do with the Select Committees now. I would have them outnumbering the Whips, but again, you could do various permutations on that. Then I would have the names that come forward from this process, as used to be the case with the unreformed Select Committee system, tabled in the House in a form that can be amended if people want to do it. That would be, I think, the minimalist position, but it would be one worth having.
Q22 Chair: You would recommend an annual election of the Chairman of that Committee? That would be my preferred option, so you get greater accountability.
Professor Wright: Yes. I do not have a settled view on that, whether you did it for one session or for a whole Parliament. Do you have a view on that, Meg?
Dr Russell: Not really, but I would say I entirely endorse that minimalist position and it is entirely consistent with what is in the report. I think it is interesting that when the discussion about reforming Select Committee membership was at its high point back in the early 2000s, the Chair of the Committee of Selection himself suggested to the Modernisation Committee that its membership could be broadened. It is slightly unfair to point to him, given his now elevated position, but Sir George Young’s evidence to that committee in 2002 as a former member of the Committee of Selection-I think, in fact, he was the sole Back-Bench member at one point. If you wanted to invite him, I do not know whether he would now feel able to share with you his experience of the sheer awfulness or not. But he suggested that it should be changed from a Committee dominated by Whips to a Committee that continued to have nine members, but of which only two members were Whips. He was suggesting a different model for the Chair. He suggested that the Father of the House should be the Chair and that the other members should be senior Back Benchers. I think we have probably rather moved on from that, following Tony’s committee, to the idea that election is the right way to go, but back then certainly you have two very senior people who have been associated with the Committee of Selection who themselves were prepared to consider change.
Chair: Yes. Would anybody like to follow up on that?
Q23 Jacob Rees-Mogg: I did not want to follow up on that. I want to go back to an earlier bit, if I may, partly on the question of programming because I wonder if programming has inadvertently made the Bill Committees more effective because there is no longer any advantage in the Opposition just talking and talking. My very limited experience of Bill Committees has been just so much more positive than what we are hearing. I was on the Banking Regulatory Reform Committee, admittedly with an extremely intelligent Minister who took on board points made from all sides, and a Conservative Member who put down amendments to the Bill that were debated seriously, and who was then immediately put on to the Finance Bill Committee, so this was not held against him as a great blotting of his copybook. Indeed, the message came, "Resist", and the Minister said, "I have a message saying I must resist, but I think the Opposition have made a very good point and I am going to consider this". So because there was no incentive to go on for ever and everything flowed, the Minister seemed to listen, the Opposition seemed to take it very seriously, the Back-Bench Conservatives and Lib Dems were very engaged because it is an interesting subject, and this just seemed to me to work pretty well. Unlike David, if offered the opportunity to go on a Bill Committee tomorrow I would jump at the chance. I found it very interesting and would be more than happy to be on committees in future.
Professor Wright: I think I agree with all of that. I vaguely remember pre-programming days and it was very much as you describe. I remember as an Opposition Member in the 1992-1997 period, the game was delay. Gosh, you thought you had had great victories if you managed to keep them up until 3 in the morning. Nobody outside cared a jot about this. It did not affect the fate of the universe at all, but in terms of the party game inside here, this was seen as great victories if you did that. I suspect you are absolutely right that the effect of programming, which is disputed in many respects-
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Which I do not like in many ways.
Professor Wright: -has been to put some discipline into the process and to eliminate that sort of needless, stupid game playing because it will not go anywhere.
I think again, to echo a point that Meg made earlier on, we tend to deal with caricatures here and I have been guilty of purveying one caricature. Of course your experience is a really good example. It depends though on a Minister who is of a certain kind, a Minister who is confident in his territory. It depends on the nature of the subject. It depends on a whole variety of things. I think you are right to say that it is possible to do it like that. I think what you are probably not saying is that it is the standard model.
Jacob Rees-Mogg: No.
Dr Russell: If I could say, I think you are quite right that that change has had the effect that you suggest and that is a good thing. Of course, we have not acknowledged the other change that happened in 2007 with evidence taking, which I think has also been at the very least a nudge in the direction of more intelligent, engaged Bill scrutiny. I think that perhaps the cases that we are talking about where people have particular problems with how members are chosen are the minority of cases. It may be the case that a significant majority of Bill Committees people are quite happy with, but certainly every now and again it flares up where there are people who feel that they have grudges, that they have been unfairly kept off and so on, and that is not good for morale in Parliament or for the image of Parliament.
Q24 Chair: I would agree with that and I think it is important that when those occasions occur, rare as they may be, Parliament has the powers to amend that situation.
Dr Russell: If I could suggest, this is a rather administrative issue, but it was only in preparing for this today that I thought one thing your Committee might want to do is just map out the different mechanisms for getting on different kinds of committees. I can imagine a table in your report, because I think there is a rather curious patchwork of mechanisms for different types of committees. In some cases, you have election for the Select Committees that were covered in the Wright Report. In some cases, for other Select Committees and I think for Joint Committees, you have Committee of Selection choice but then endorsement by the Chamber; then for yet another set of committees, including the Public Bill Committees, you have Committee of Selection choice and no endorsement by the Chamber. I am not sure if you set it out in a table, that it would make rational sense. If you were to scan your eye down-
Q25 Mr Gray: That is precisely what I indicated academics like doing: starting with a white piece of paper. In fact, if it works better, why not have a patchwork of different things?
Professor Wright: Meg has great belief in the power of reason.
Mr Gray: Output rather than input.
Dr Russell: I think it might just be informative to look at the patchwork and see whether you think it is correct or whether it needs tweaking here and there.
Q26 Mr Gray: Your take on this question about people being unhappy about the way that these work: we are really talking here about Government Back Benchers, aren’t we? With Opposition Back Benchers, presumably the more difficult they are the more likely they are to be appointed to the committee. All you are talking about is whether or not Government Back Benchers on the Bill Committee are the right people to be there.
Dr Russell: I think that is probably not true. It depends on your definition of "difficult". If your definition is make life difficult for the Government, then the Opposition Whips would be all in favour of that. But if your definition of difficult is, "Prepared to build bridges across party lines and might have some sympathy with the Government’s position", despite being a member of the Opposition party, they are not going to want people like that and maybe the people like that are the kind of people that you need.
Q27 Mr Gray: That is really central to all this, though-your thesis that somehow or other we are seeking common consensus: "This is a consensual Parliament, we are all going to have a nice cup of tea, we are all going to agree with each other, parties are old fashioned and we are all going to be intelligent". You keep using the words "intelligent" and "grown-up" and this notion that we will all be frightfully sort of Guardian readers, "We are all going to get together and we are all going to produce a wonderful Bill. Isn’t that marvellous?" It is a very soggy idea, isn’t it? What is wrong with the notion of a strong Government saying, "That is what I am going to do. Please vote for me to do it and I am then going to drive it through the committee and I am going to put on the committee, on the Government side, legislators that will do what I tell them". Surely that is strong Government, isn’t it?
Professor Wright: That is exactly what we have been doing.
Q28 Mr Gray: Yes, but isn’t that good? Why is that bad?
Professor Wright: If we think that has produced good outcomes and if we are happy with all that, then there is nothing to talk about.
Q29 Mr Gray: Again, you are still confusing the process with the outcome. I think you are right in saying that there are things that could be done to improve the outcome. My question to you, remember, was, is there any evidence that the way that the Bill Committees are created necessarily produced those bad outcomes?
Professor Wright: I thought that initial quote that I gave you from that former Conservative party Chief Whip saying that even as a Chief Whip-or perhaps even especially as a chief Whip-he did not know whether his job was to make legislation better or worse, is pretty telling stuff. You asked about Oppositions. I think-
Q30 Mr Gray: Why is it pretty telling stuff?
Professor Wright: I think an Opposition probably should say, "Look, a duly elected Government has decided to legislate in this area. They have the numbers. They are probably going to get their way, but it is our job to try to make this legislation as good as it possibly can be. We may be opposed to it. We may never go near it. We would like to overthrow it when we get into office"-all those things. But if this is the proposition from a duly elected Government, the job of Parliament is to make sure that that legislation emerges in the best, most workable form that it can do.
Q31 Jacob Rees-Mogg: Not necessarily, because you may think that the best thing to do is to gum it up so that the legislation does not work because you think it is bad legislation. I think that is perfectly legitimate. Take the fox hunting Bill. Those of us who were in favour of fox hunting wanted a bad Bill. We did not want an effective Bill. Why should we have done?
Mr Gray: I wish I had thought that was intentional. It is crap legislation, but none the less I am not sure we planned it that way.
Professor Wright: There will be examples.
Q32 Jacob Rees-Mogg: But isn’t that often the case? There was very little that I liked between 1997 and 2010. If I had been in here, then I would have wanted to gum the system up to stop laws that I did not like being effective.
Professor Wright: I hope that you would have wanted to improve-if laws were going to happen, that you would have wanted to improve them as best you could.
Q33 Jacob Rees-Mogg: No, I would have wanted them not to be effective when they came in, and I do not think that is an unreasonable motive of an Opposition.
Professor Wright: Yes. Then I think we are back to why people do not want to do it, because I would not want to do it like that.
Q34 Jacob Rees-Mogg: We are like the film The Bridge over the River Kwai, aren’t we, where the man in charge, the British man, eventually wants to build the perfect bridge because that is what he has been tasked to do and he is the opposition. Oppositions do not want to do that. You want to stymie your opponents, not help them.
Professor Wright: I think it requires, if I could say so, perhaps a different spirit on behalf of both Government Members and Opposition Members: Government Members who will not be content simply to support Ministers’ propositions even if they think they are bad; and it requires Oppositions not simply to oppose things that they are probably secretly in favour of and are going to implement anyway. It requires a different spirit I think on both sides.
Dr Russell: We keep coming back to this point, don’t we? It does depend, of course, in the end on what it is that parliamentarians want. Parliamentarians will only support reforms that go in the direction that they want. I think there is a question with respect to this central point about how Members get on to committees-about whether the only people who raise these complaints are a bunch of maverick outsiders who are not mainstream people in their parties, and are troublemakers who "would complain, wouldn’t they?" Those complaints can go on for so long. It is a bit like that line in your report, Tony, that you so liked about infantilising Parliament and demonising Whips, or whatever it was-that for so long as the Whips control the system, you create an environment where people can complain that there is unfairness in the system, whether or not it is true. Now, if it is only a bunch of mavericks who are complaining about not being able to get on to the committees that they want, then change the system to something that is more democratic and see whether those people get chosen. Maybe they will not get chosen, but they cannot complain any more because the system is defensible and democratic.
Q35 Chair: The minimalist approach that Tony has come up with, and you endorse, is, moderate the system so that there is more accountability to the House.
Dr Russell: I call that democracy, yes. It is a democratic solution. It is representative democracy, but it is democratic. There is accountability to Members.
Professor Wright: I think you asked this because you picked up the one paragraph in our Reform Committee report that simply said, "We are not dealing here with legislative committees". I am not sure what the words were, but it was something like, "There would be an anomaly if nothing was done on the accountability front about the way in which legislative committees are chosen". I think that is what you wanted to run with, wasn’t it? That would just seem to me to be an obvious position. If you had taken steps for principled reasons to put Select Committees on an elective basis, if you had taken steps to give the House more control of its own agenda, why would you have a system that simply left the core legislative activity of the House entirely in the hands of the Whips?
Q36 Thomas Docherty: I apologise, I was on the Defence Committee so I am late. Professor Wright, I completely disagree with that because it is a Bill Committee. Members are not excluded from taking part in the legislative process. We have new clauses; we have the remaining stages; we have Third Reading; we have Second Reading. All we are talking about is one narrow section-okay, a detailed section, a line by line section. But the idea that, God forbid, we have some party reflecting the-I just think this is an idea that the Whips are never going to go along with, nor will it do anything to improve the scrutiny of Bills. The idea that because somebody has a strong view on it, that that necessarily reflects the view of their party, is absolutely-I just think this is one of these esoteric discussions that, frankly, the vast majority of Members do not think is going to add anything. That is a bit of a rant there, I know.
Professor Wright: I think you missed the discussion that produced the advent of this point.
Chair: Narrowing this down, on the Committee of Selection, a Select Committee Chair is currently appointed, not elected, which is out of step with other Select Committee Chairs, and receives £14,500-
Jacob Rees-Mogg: Not all of them-
Chair: Okay, sorry. Basically, there are two or three that are out of step.
Mr Gray: There are several.
Chair: The minority position-for the pedant here, and let us be pedantic because we are Members of Parliament-is that this is an appointed position that notionally wields great influence over a Committee that largely comprises Whips, and that puts motions before the House-well, not votable motions-on who should sit on Public Bill Committees. It is not unreasonable for there to be a modicum of accountability in this process.
Thomas Docherty: Why? I am not saying-
Chair: I am not asking questions of you.
Q37 Mr Gray: I want to ask Tony a question. We all support the change that you proposed, to make Select Committees elected; everyone thinks it is a perfectly good idea. Do you think the quality of Select Committee reports produced in this Parliament is significantly higher than the quality of Select Committee reports produced in the last Parliament?
Professor Wright: I am probably not the person to answer that question. I thought you were going to ask me, do I think the profile, reputation and standing of Select Committees is higher.
Q38 Mr Gray: No, I am very simply asking about output. Have outputs improved? So, you do not know?
Professor Wright: That is the question I say that I haven’t-Meg does analysis like that.
Q39 Mr Gray: What we are asking here is, is the fact that the Chairman of the Committee of Selection is appointed rather than elected a good thing or a bad thing? I am saying you can fool around with these things. The question is: is the end product better? I am not convinced, for example, that Select Committee reports now are any better than they were before. They are all written by the clerks anyhow, so that is fine. Do you see what I am getting at?
Professor Wright: We are tending to replay the arguments now, but if you are content with the way that members of standing committees are chosen now by this process, which is entirely controlled by the Whips, with some of the consequences that we have spoken about, if you think that is likely to be conducive to the best possible outcomes, then you will stick with it. If you think, on the basis of some of the evidence that is around, that there are all kinds of reasons for thinking that not only that component of how we do it but these other components that Meg has analysed in her report are not conducive to good outcomes, you would not be so surprised when those outcomes turn out to be not very good.
Dr Russell: I have finally found the words from the Liaison Committee from 2000 that I think play in to all of this. They are obviously talking about Select Committees, but I think exactly the same thing can be said about Public Bill Committees. The words are, "That those being scrutinised should not have a say in the selection of the scrutineers. We believe that the present system does not and should not have the confidence of the House and the public". That has been dealt with with respect to the Select Committees, but without having gone back and revised that before coming, it does sound very like what I have been saying about the Public Bill Committees in terms of having confidence of Parliament and the public. It may be that a new process that was more transparent and accountable selected exactly the same people who are getting selected now, but because of it being transparent and accountable, I think it would have greater confidence of parliamentarians and the public, and that in itself would be a good thing.
Professor Wright: Just going back quickly to where we started with your first question, Charles-Thomas’ point bears directly on this as well-there is no question that change in this area would be a much bigger deal than the changes that were made to the Select Committee system, because although some of the people that I get in trouble by calling "the dark forces" were not very well disposed towards those reforms, they nevertheless did not touch, as it were, the core business of Government. They could make life more difficult for Governments, but ultimately Select Committees at most have an influence, but they do not touch the Government’s programme. So I am not under any illusions at all on the question that reform in this area, even what I have called the minimalist position, will meet serious resistance, because it is a much harder enterprise because it touches the real levers of control in the place.
If you remember, we only got the other series of reforms because we had this catastrophe that hit this institution and there was a very particular context, in that the House was prepared to make reforms that in normal times it would not have made. This is an even bigger proposition and although there is discontent, there is not a catastrophe. I am under no illusion that unless there is a head of steam among Members, unless Members want to do the job in a different way and see the institution in a rather different way, then none of this, not even the minimalist position, will happen. I do not know whether there is or not; I am not here any more.
Q40 Helen Goodman: I am sorry I am late for the opening speeches of this debate. Aren’t we talking about an inevitable tension between two different kinds of justice? There is one kind of justice, which is procedural justice, and the proposals for reform would undoubtedly improve procedural justice. But there is another kind of justice, which is about the outcomes for society and how easy it is to get radical change on anything in what is quite a conservative country. If we go down the path that you are suggesting, isn’t there the risk that those wider considerations of justice could be more difficult to achieve and more radical legislative proposals on a whole range of things could be more difficult to achieve because one would always be driving to consensual politics?
Professor Wright: I understand the argument, although it is not how I feel it and it is not my reading of where we are at. We had a bit of a conversation earlier on about the kind of politics that I think we are probably arriving at doing, which is different from the politics that we did when I started out, and I think we have to find a different way of doing it. In a way, this perhaps confuses the procedural and the outcome, but I am more interested in what might contribute to good Government and I know that is a value-laden proposition, but nevertheless I think I can distinguish good Government from bad Government. Good Government is stuff that is well thought out, is competently done and the outcomes match the intentions and so on. I am interested in whether we do things-whether it is the civil service, Ministers or Parliament-in a way that seeks to nurture doing Government well. Anybody reading Meg’s report and looking at both the history of this argument and the international experience would be hard put to say that we have a legislative process here that is designed to contribute to good Government. But it is not just my judgment; it is the judgment of almost everybody who has looked at this area.
Dr Russell: I think the way you put it, procedural justice could lead to greater justice in terms of outcomes because surely what you want is a group of people who are considering policy, in this case legislation, in detail who are open to ideas, who are not going to fall prey to group-think. The danger if you have hand-picked people chosen by the Whips who are on a committee in order to support the party line-be it Government or, as you suggested earlier, Opposition-is that you do not get outside those tramlines. You want people who are prepared to take alternative approaches, listen to what people outside are saying and query things in an intelligent way, surely.
Q41 Thomas Docherty: On the Select Committee stuff, I think it has not worked entirely, particularly 2010. At the start of the Parliament, people came in, particularly new Members who had profiles in certain areas-I am not going to name the names-who were elected because people knew who they were and they had a background in something or other, and they had been quite poor in turning up over the period and listening to other viewpoints. I would challenge Dr Russell’s point.
On the substantive issue I wanted to ask about, the chairman’s panel-and I am conscious I am flanked by members of the chairman’s panel-in theory plays an important role in the Bill Committee. They notionally decide which amendments are in order, which ones are not, the pace of progress that can be made and whether a Member is in order or out of order. I am not aware that any thought has been given to whether the chairman’s panel should be taken away from the patronage of the Speaker and the chairman of Ways and Means. Do you think it would helpful for that to be an elected body of people, to encourage greater transparency and perhaps diversity? I have two very august chairmen sitting either side of me, but some of their colleagues do not necessarily reflect the diversity of the House.
Professor Wright: You are tempting us in to territory that will get us in to trouble.
Thomas Docherty: They obviously do chair the Bill Committee, if the issue is the Bill Committee.
Professor Wright: I never understood the process by which the chairs of committees, the chairman’s panel, emerged.
Mr Gray: They are appointed by the Speaker.
Professor Wright: Chosen by the Speaker. I knew that formally, but what it meant in practice I didn’t know.
Mr Gray: It is all the old duffers that have nothing else to do.
Professor Wright: Just what I would say about that is we could usefully look at some of that, but one area that both Meg and I have some interest in exploring would be-to take Helen’s point about procedural versus substantive, at the moment the chairs of committees exercise only a procedural function. Their job is to keep order and make sure amendments are-that is not the model of chairing that of course applies in other committees; it certainly does not apply in Select Committees. It depends of course which model you go for. It would be possible to have a very different view of what a chair of a legislative committee might involve-that is, someone who knew about the area; someone who played an active chairing role. There are a number of things that flow from doing it in different ways.
Q42 Chair: Tony, there is a problem here, because I use my sheer force of character and will power to get this Committee to bend to what I want it to do, with great success. You can tell obviously by the chuckles that I am not being serious. That works in a Select Committee environment, but I think that would not be correct in a Bill Committee because clearly I have my own prejudices. If you have a court of law, you don’t expect the judge-well, certainly he has own prejudices, but you would expect him not to exercise those prejudices to influence the jury. I am concerned about the potential implications of what you are suggesting.
Professor Wright: It probably takes you further than you want to go, but if you set up a system of legislative committees on my model or a version of Meg’s model, you then could have the chairs of these committees elected by the House or you could have them chosen by the committees themselves, so that you might have different chairs for different Bills that they were looking at, and so the committee itself might choose someone to chair it whom it had confidence in to chair that particular Bill. So there are different ways of doing it. All I am saying is, to pick up the procedural point, at the moment chairs are simply procedural figures. It is not necessary that that is the case, nor is it necessary for them to be found and chosen in just the way that they are chosen now, about which I know very little.
Chair: We have had an hour and a half of your time. Thank you for coming to see us today. We are doing an investigation into the Committee of Selection and the Committee agree that was a worthwhile enterprise. There will be the usual processes attached to that, putting out a call for evidence and further deliberation. I hope we have not been too hostile. You are both robust characters, so I am sure you have not been too traumatised by your experience. It is a great pleasure to see you both again and I am a huge admirer of your work. Thank you for coming.
Dr Russell: Thank you. I hope it has given some useful ideas, at least.
Chair: It has certainly generated some debate, hasn’t it?
Dr Russell: There are a lot of things here that in the end, as I say, it is up to Members. Maybe if you put out an issues and questions paper or whatever, you must ask Members what Members want.
Professor Wright: Thank you for having us.
Chair: Thank you very much.