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Press Release: Commons bill committees 'left behind', says Constitution Unit report

11 June 2013

A new report from the Constitution Unit highlights how House of Commons bill committees are out of step with their overseas comparators, and have been increasingly left behind in the process of parliamentary reform. While the Commons select committees have gone from strength to strength, bill committees are subject to much complaint, and are now ripe for reform.

The report looked at practice in other parliaments (in the EU, Commonwealth and US) and found that the UK can be described as a 'deviant case'. While bills in the Commons go to temporary committees of MPs drawn together for only a few weeks, all 20 comparator parliaments sent bills to permanent, specialist committees - that is, to bodies similar to our respected select committees. At Westminster too, the select committees have gained in resources and strength. In contrast, the public bill committees have been left behind.

Lead author of the report Dr Meg Russell (Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit) said of the proposals:

"Despite improvements in recent years, including more bills published in draft and introduction of evidence-taking, many complaints remain about Commons bill committees. The fundamental problem is that - unlike the select committees - they are temporary and nonspecialist. Hence expertise, and relationships between members, cannot build up, which encourages adversarialism rather than rational, cross-party working".

There are also problems with how members of bill committees are chosen. Meg Russell continued "In 2010, select committees were reformed so that their members are now elected. In contrast, bill committee members are still chosen by the whips. This system looks increasingly outdated and difficult to defend".

The report sets out a number of proposals for reform, including:

· Experimenting with different models of bill committee, including a permanent, specialist legislation committee elected by MPs to shadow bills from at least one department (but separate from the departmental select committee).

· Select committees to have the right to nominate at least two of their members to serve on any new bill committee considering bills from the department that they shadow.

· Other bill committee members to be chosen by an elected body, with MPs given the right to reject lists of names proposed.

· Some changes to chairing and staffing arrangements to encourage greater continuity, transparency and expertise.

Meg Russell concluded "We have put forward a pragmatic set of proposals, including for piloting different models, which we hope will help to move the debate forward on bill committee reform. But we also think some changes - notably to how committee members are chosen - should be implemented in full straight away".

Notes for editors

· The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre based in the Department of Political Science at University College London http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/

· Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation Committees into Line with Best Practice, by Meg Russell, Bob Morris and Phil Larkin is the product of a project funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. It is downloadable from the project website here (and includes an executive summary, and list of recommendations at the back): http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/parliament/legislative-committees

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