Video Transcript

HOL Constitution Committee, 28 January 2009

Subject: Annual Meeting

Committee Member: Again referring to one's previous experience, of course it has been a convention that the Commons always takes constitutional bills on the floor of the House. Do you think that that is still the most effective way of scrutinising?

Jack Straw, Lord Chancellor: Again, there is an argument about what is constitutional and whether something is palpably constitutional. The reform of the House of Lords is plainly constitutional, which is another reason why it would not be possible to legislate at the end of this Parliament.

If you are asking me about what I feel about scrutiny, I think that the new procedures which we now have in place in the House of Commons for the examination of bills upstairs are significantly better than they were before. Now, I would say that, would I not, because it was I, as Leader of the House, who pushed them forward. However, the first three or four sessions of a Public Bill Committee are a Select Committee examination of a bill and it is only after that that you go through a line-by-line examination. Having myself had to go on the stand and be subject to cross-examination upstairs, it concentrates the mind.

The interesting thing about that kind of examination, which is a point I so often make to my colleagues across government, is that great parliamentary scrutiny actually helps ministers. It may occasionally embarrass ministers as well but fundamentally, the greater the parliamentary scrutiny, the greater the authority a minister in practice is able to exercise in his or her own department.

If you take big bills, in large chunks of them the policy has been agreed but the detailed wording of the drafting has not been agreed and you have a better opportunity to come up to the officials and say, "Excuse me, what the devil are you doing putting that in?" not being in an adversarial position, to respond to colleagues on all sides when they say, "Isn't this a bit daft?", to say, "On the face of it, probably, yes, but we will come back to it. We have time".

On constitutional matters, my view is that the sensible thing would probably - but it is a matter for the House, not for me - to have a Public Bill Committee holding that kind of examination and then for the business managers to make a decision about what should go on the floor and what should go upstairs. On this, the big stuff should go on the floor and some of the provisions would be better examined and dealt with upstairs.