We need reform of the legislative process to empower Parliament
Parliamentary sovereignty is the United Kingdom’s central constitutional principle; in theory, Parliament holds all the power, but in practice the government wields much of it.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the legislative process; legislation is one of Parliament’s core functions, but government control of the timetable and scrutiny mechanisms in the House of Commons means that its ability to influence the content of bills is limited.
Recent trends towards passing bills on expedited timetables and increased use of secondary legislation – accelerated by the UK’s exit from the EU and the coronavirus pandemic – have curtailed opportunities for parliamentary input still further. This has prompted urgent warnings from two House of Lords committees of the need to rebalance power between Parliament and the executive.
The government’s short-term desire to do things quickly should not overrule the long-term objective of doing things well
But redressing this constitutional imbalance requires going beyond asking the government to exercise restraint. It means empowering Parliament and creating new opportunities for parliamentary influence. The recommendations of the Wright Report, published in 2009, led to the election of Commons select committee chairs and the establishment of a backbench business committee. They demonstrated the power of procedural change in giving parliamentarians the tools and opportunities to challenge government policy and influence debate. In this spirit, the Institute for Government and Bennett Institute have undertaken a comprehensive study of the legislative process to identify opportunities for reform.
One area is pre-legislative scrutiny (PLS). There is wide consensus amongst MPs, ministers and officials that pre-legislative scrutiny can greatly improve the quality of legislation. It gives Parliament the opportunity to influence legislation before it is finalised, allowing for more time and space for the government to make changes to reflect the views of parliamentarians on the quality and content of draft legislation. It can be useful too for the government, allowing ministers to tease out disagreements on knotty policy issues, test arguments and ultimately smooth a bill’s passage through Parliament.
Since 1997 eight parliamentary select committee reports have recommended expanding the use of pre-legislative scrutiny and making it a core part of the legislative process. However, bursts of enthusiasm for the practice amongst governments have been short-lived. Pre-legislative scrutiny remains a rarity; overall just 11.6 per cent of the total government bills receiving royal assent since 2007 were published in draft.
It is clear that the current approach to pre-legislative scrutiny, in which the government has complete discretion as to whether and which bills to publish in draft, is failing to unlock its full potential. So we propose taking inspiration from the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament) and requiring that the government give parliament an opportunity to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny on all government bills.
This does not mean that a full PLS inquiry – taking three to four months – should take place on every bill, but that the government should publish all its bills in draft and give Parliament the opportunity to select bills for PLS and allow others to progress without delay. They should be able to choose from a menu of options including a full inquiry and report, scrutiny of certain clauses, to a one-off evidence session and letter. This should ensure the level of scrutiny is proportionate and does not introduce undue delay to the bill timetable, or pressure on parliamentary capacity.
Another area ripe for reform is Commons Committee Stage. While public bill committees are intended to allow MPs to scrutinise each clause of the bill in detail, their partisan nature means that they are rarely constructive, and research suggests their impact on the content of bills have diminished over time. Reforms to permit oral evidence-taking has improved the functioning of these forums, but it is still only taken a quarter (27 per cent) of all bills passed in the last five parliamentary sessions. Witnesses are chosen through the usual channels, meaning they are often there to support one political position or the other rather than bring new evidence and perspectives to deliberations.
One proposal, already adopted by the devolved legislatures, is to abolish public bill committees and give select committees’ responsibility for scrutiny during this stage of the bill’s progress. This has the potential benefits of bringing more expertise and cross-party working into the process, as well as the ability to utilise the relationships with key experts, interest groups and businesses. But it risks overwhelming these committees’ work, and by making them a forum for key votes it could undermine their independence.
Nonetheless, we believe there is a middle ground. Building on the informal inquiries they already conduct on bills, we propose that select committees should be able to request a “select committee stage” on all government bills – to allow them to consider the bill, take oral evidence and publish a committee view, including draft amendments. This can inform the debate in public bill committee and beyond, while giving select committees the opportunity to decide which bills to prioritise.
We recognise that many of these recommendations may add time and potential friction to the legislative process. But legislating is a serious business – policy is more likely to succeed where it has been robustly tested and where it has broad support from the people’s representatives. The government’s short-term desire to do things quickly should not overrule the long-term objective of doing things well.
Jess Sargeant, senior researcher at the Institute for Government (IfG).
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.