Speech to Conference of Speakers of G8 Member Countries

On 9 September 2011, Mr Speaker delivered a speech entitled "Legislation procedures and contemporary challenges: exchanges of experiences" at the Conference of Speakers of G8 Member Countries in Paris.

First working session (9 September): Legislative procedures and contemporary challenges: exchange of experiences

President Accoyer, fellow Speakers, Ladies and Gentlemen: Thank you very much for your warm welcome and your invitation for me to act as Rapporteur for your first debate. It was kind of you to refer to the practices of the Westminster Parliament as a “reference point” for other Parliaments: but I am equally keen to learn from the other Parliaments represented here. We often find, despite considerable differences in our constitutional and Parliamentary arrangements, that the challenges we face are very similar; and the methods that we can use to meet these challenges can often be quite similar too.

Our Rules of Procedure—or for the Westminster Parliament our mixture of rules and practices—provide the framework for both the legislative process and the wider political debate. We can do our best to improve the rules: but we must also recognise that much depends on the willingness of individual Members and political parties to make them work. In 2009 there was a general feeling in the House of Commons that procedures should be reformed; this feeling arose out of a belief that the public did not understand our work and did not respect it. This was caused partly by the controversy about Members’ expenses; but the causes were deeper than that, and merely changing the expenses system was not enough. What emerged from the reports of the Committee for the Reform of the House of Commons in 2009 and 2010 was the creation of a Backbench Business Committee, with members elected by secret ballot, to control the time allocated to a range of non-Government business in the House. There has also been a commitment to create, by about 2013, a Business Committee to allocate the whole of the House’s business, including the Government’s legislative programme. None of this would have been possible without a strong feeling among Members of all parties that reform was needed.

Turning more specifically to the legislative process, I should like to tell you about several recent reforms we have made. A frequent criticism of our system is that by the time the Government presents a Bill it is politically committed to the policy behind that Bill, often at a considerable level of detail, and it is therefore inclined to resist any amendments to the Bill as it passes through Parliament. This criticism is something of an exaggeration, but the amendments made may be more the result of political concessions rather than of a cross-party effort to improve the Bill. To counter this, Bills are increasingly often published as drafts and considered by Parliamentary committees—sometimes joint committees of both Houses—which can take evidence from interested people and organisations. The committee can make recommendations for the Government to consider rather than having to formulate specific amendments.

In addition, since 2007, most of the Committees which consider amendments to Government Bills—we now call them “Public Bill Committees”—have been allowed to take evidence, both orally and in writing, as well as going through the Bill line by line. Outside bodies have always been able to influence Bills at Committee stage, by writing to individual Members, but the new procedure allows anybody to get their views on the record and for some organisations to be invited to express their views in public.

Our new coalition Government, elected in 2010, went further by announcing a new “public reading stage”, intended to allow Members to discuss, as part of the Committee stage, suggestions received from outside. This has not yet been put into effect, but an experiment was held earlier this year with one Bill, the Protection of Freedoms Bill, when the Government set up a website and invited the public to comment on the individual clauses of the Bill by making suggestions on-line. It then submitted a summary of the responses as written evidence to the Committee on the Bill.

If this process is to be effective, the Committee, and the Government, need time to consider the suggestions received; and the public will be convinced that the system works only if they can see that their suggestions have been taken into account.

This brings me to the second of the three challenges mentioned in the paper that you have: the conflict between the demand for urgency and the need for time to consider legislation properly. There has been an improvement here: following a report by a House of Lords Committee on the Constitution, the Government now has to justify the need for urgency for any Bill which is being taken through the House of Lords faster than usual. Although we do not have similar rules in the House of Commons, the Government’s justifications are published in the explanatory notes about the Bill and can be challenged in debate in both Houses.

For less urgent bills, we have a system of programming, where the length of the Committee stage and the time allowed for later stages are laid down in a programme order, put forward by the Government and passed by the House. The order specifies the date by which the Committee must finish, but the number of sittings and their length are within the control of the Committee. Although the Government, as it has a majority in the House, also has a majority in every committee, there is usually a certain amount of cross-party agreement about the use of time in Public Bill Committees, and they usually succeed in getting to the end of the Bill in the time allowed. Unfortunately this is not always the case at the Report Stage in the House, where the Bill is considered in the form in which it left the Committee and further amendments can be debated.

The third challenge is the use of new methods of communication. The rules governing use of electronic equipment in the Chamber and in Committees are being discussed by both Houses at the moment. On the one hand, electronic equipment should allow Members to have much faster access to the information that they need and could save a large amount of money on printing. On the other hand, sometimes the use of electronic equipment can be disruptive—whether or not it is being used for matters relating to the business before the House or the Committee—and there is some unease amongst Members that the possibility of instant briefing of Members by outsiders, or Members giving a running commentary about the proceedings, could harm the process of debate.

There has been some fear that the increased use of social networks for the discussion of national policy might result in the supplanting of political parties and the Parliamentary process. Parliament must show that it is alert to what is being discussed outside and must be capable of reacting swiftly. This does not mean that every debate should be based on what is in the day’s newspapers—but some of them should be, and I have made increasing use of my power as Speaker to allow the asking of urgent questions and, less often, the holding of emergency debates.

It could be argued that legislation is different: that there is no danger of Parliament being supplanted in this area as only Parliament can make legislation; that many areas of public concern, such as foreign affairs, do not normally engage legislation at all, and that there is the danger of using legislation to make a point, or to show that something is being done, whereas the only proper use of legislation is to change the law. We have had bad experiences with legislation passed in a hurry, often with cross-party support, in response to a public demand. There are often technical difficulties or unforeseen consequences with legislation passed in a rush.

But, even in the area of legislation, Parliament can engage with the fast-moving process taking place outside its doors. It can hold debates on topics of the day which might give rise to legislation later; it can seek views on draft legislation; and it can seek detailed comments on Bills as they pass through Parliament and show how it has taken them into account. And any Member can initiate legislation—a Private Member’s Bill—to air a topical issue through the means of a specific legislative proposal. Even those which do not become Acts of Parliament can have a significant effect on the political process and may give rise to Government legislation later.

To sum up, the challenges that we face have obvious advantages and disadvantages, and if we meet these challenges in the right way we can improve how Parliaments deal with legislation: this should lead to better legislation and to a greater engagement of the public with the process. But our rules of procedure can take us only part of the way: it is up to Members, as well as political parties, and Speakers, to make them work.