Rearranging the furniture

For the final two days of sitting by the Public Bill Committee of MPs set up to carry out the Committee stage of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill it was necessary to rearrange the furniture – well actually the Committee moved from the Boothroyd Room in Portcullis House to Committee Room 14, which is one of the grand rooms in the Houses of Parliament decorated in Gothic Revival style by Augustus Pugin.

The reason for this change of venue is explained by Jessica Levy in the report that she produced for The Constitution Unit of University College London:

“Once witness hearings are completed the PBC progresses to traditional line-by-line scrutiny. This shift is likely to involve not just a change in the mood of proceedings, as consensual questioning is replaced with adversarial debate, but also a change of location. PBCs usually conduct evidence-taking in a committee room in Portcullis House, with its furniture arranged, as in select committee, in the shape of a horseshoe; and line-by-line analysis in a room along the committee corridor in the Palace of Westminster, resembling a mini version of the House of Commons chamber. It is during the detailed scrutiny phase of the committee process that amendments to the bill can be suggested and debated.”

Committee_Room_14The layout of Committee Room 14 can be seen in the photograph above, viewed from the seat occupied by the Chairman of the Committee. The two seats to the chairman’s left (not visible in the picture) are occupied by the Clerk to the Committee and the Hansard reporter; any civil servants supporting the minister will be seated in the corresponding seats to the chairman’s right. The Members of the committee who take the Government whip sit in the three rows of seats to the right of the chairman, with the minister on the front row. The shadow minister and Opposition backbenchers sit in the three rows of seats opposite.

The line-by-line examination of the bill is carried out by the consideration of proposed amendments to the wording, which may be tabled by any Member of Parliament, but must be moved by a Member of the committee. It is not unusual for the Minister to table and move his own amendments, where shortcomings of the bill have been identified subsequent to the Second Reading. Amendments are required to be tabled at least three working days in advance; the chairman – or, in the case of our bill, a panel of two chairmen – will consider all amendments that satisfy this criterion for suitability for discussion by the committee. The chair will also group amendments that are generally on the same or a similar issue, so that they may be considered together.

The proceedings take the form of a series of debates on amendments, or groups of amendments, starting with the first clause of the bill and working through the bill, clause by clause. The conduct of debates generally follows the conventions of the Commons Chamber, except that the general rule that a Member may speak only once on an issue is relaxed in committee, to ensure that matters are fully considered. As in the Commons Chamber, Members may intervene during a speech by another by asking the speaking Member if he will “give way”.

At the conclusion of each debate the Member who moved the leading amendment may press for a decision, made by way of a division. This takes the form of each Member being called by name, in turn, and answering “aye” (for the amendment) or “no” (against the amendment). Also, a Member who moved any other amendment in the same group may press for a separate division on that amendment.

When all amendments relating to a specific clause in the bill have been debated the chairman will move the question “That the clause stand part of the bill” and may permit a stand part debate; such a debate will permit Members to raise any issues that have not been covered by the debates on amendments.

Whilst all of this appears to be a reasonable approach to the scrutiny and amendment of proposed legislation, the reality is that the Commons committee stage is usually merely a formality. In her paper on bill committee effectiveness, Dr Louise Thompson, of the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Hull, comments:

“It is widely accepted that very few formal changes are made to Government bills during the committee stage itself, with a large number of bills leaving committee unamended and the vast majority leaving committee with only government amendments having been made.”

Members do not table amendments with any real expectation of changing the bill; usually the best that can be expected is that the minister will indicate that an issue raised by an amendment may be reviewed and may result in a Government amendment further down the legislative process. The main purpose in tabling an amendment is to initiate a debate during which the Member moving the amendment may state his/her case; having achieved this it is not unusual for the Member to withdraw the amendment without a division.

The line-by-line examination of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill proved to be no exception, but I will report on what passed in Committee Room 14 in my next posting.

Acknowledgements:

The photograph of Committee Room 14 reproduced above is covered by Parliamentary copyright, distributed under a Creative Commons licence.

Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The paragraph by Jessica Levy quoted above is taken from,

Levy, J, Strengthening Parliament’s Powers of Scrutiny? An assessement of the introduction of Public Bill Committees, The Constitution Unit, Department of Political Science, University College London, July 2009.

The paragraph by Dr Louise Thompson quoted above is taken from,

Thompson, L, Influence or Inconsequential? The Impact of Bill Committees in the House of Commons.

Further information: A fuller explanation of the procedures for amending bills may be found in a training document produced by Dods Training.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by chriseaglen on September 13, 2013 at 7:11 pm

    Thank you for the details on the process and setting. The purpose of the bill is to waste money on a poor plan and inadequate solution to the needs of the future of the railway network. If it was their money the process and setting would be different. The internal relationships do not reflect the external concerns of thousands of people ousted by the extended coalition of 3 heads of the larger parties.

    Reply

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