The Constitution Unit


Meg Russell gives evidence to Liaison Committee inquiry into the role of House of Lords Committees

27 April 2018

House of Lords committee work

On 25 April Constitution Unit Director Professor Meg Russell gave oral evidence, alongside two representatives from the Institute for Government, to the House of Lords Liaison Committee, which coordinates and reviews the work of the chamber's committees. Earlier this year it launched an inquiry aiming to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the Lords committee system, and to make proposals for reform - representing the first such major review in 25 years. This was a historic evidence session, being the first public evidence session ever held by the committee.

An audio recording of the session (link below) is available on the parliament website, and some key points from Meg Russell's evidence are summarised here.

On the current committee system in the House of Lords, she suggested that:

  • A key strength is the complementarity of the Lords committees, which are cross-cutting rather than shadowing government departments and hence duplicating the work of House of Commons departmental committees.
  • Another strength is that the committee system reflects the particular nature of the chamber's membership: in terms of expertise, particular specialisms, and an overall less partisan culture. The fact that peers do not have an electoral link enables the committees to focus on long-term policy issues that go beyond electoral cycles, as well as lower-profile issues and sometimes sensitive ethical issues.

In terms of possible future changes, Professor Russell argued that:

  • Reform proposals should be guided by the principle of complementarity with the House of Commons, and by a holistic approach to the work of parliament - identifying scrutiny gaps not only in the Lords, but across the parliamentary process overall.
  • The Lords committees could assume a more important role in legislative scrutiny. A key scrutiny gap is that while public bill committees in the Commons take evidence from outside groups and ministers on bills introduced into that chamber, there is no parallel evidence taken on bills beginning their passage in the Lords. Lords committees could fill that gap, and perhaps also invite some evidence on bills arriving from the Commons - as the Constitution Committee recently did on the EU Withdrawal Bill.
  • Lords committees could also take a wider role of oversight of the legislative process, for example by holding evidence sessions with the Leader of the House of Commons and the Leader of the House of Lords on the legislative programme perhaps just after the Queen's Speech, to discuss issues of process and timing. A long-term objective has been to subject more government bills to pre-legislative scrutiny ('PLS'), but many important bills are still not subject to this process. Lords Committees could take the initiative to invite evidence on the topics of bills promised in the Queen's Speech, to inform public debate and future parliamentary debate, where these have not previously been subject to PLS.
  • Considering the changes required in the post-Brexit period, the House of Lords committee system could usefully develop to cover policy areas that will become the responsibility of the UK government, such as trade, international treaties and environmental issues. The Lords committee system would also be particularly well suited to oversight of the machinery of government changes made in response to Brexit, and of intergovernmental relations with the devolved administrations.
  • In order to raise the profile of House of Lords committees, the Liaison Committee should invite views from outside groups and the public during its annual consultation on the creation of new ad-hoc committees for the year ahead - which currently only invites proposals from Lords members. This would encourage a national conversation on the key strategic policy issues that parliament should be addressing, as well as helping to ensure that parliament is responsive to public views.

You can find out more about Meg Russell's related research and publications on the House of Lords project page.