Committee calls for urgent Commons changes

24 November 2009

A Committee of MPs established by the House of Commons in July 2009 to look into reform of the House of Commons, following concerns raised about its standing and independence in the wake of the expenses crisis, concludes that urgent change is needed to make the House a more vital institution, more responsive to the public and more independent of Ministers in deciding what it debates.

In a report published today, 'Rebuilding the House', the House of Commons Reform Committee, chaired by Dr Tony Wright MP, calls for:

  • the creation of a backbench Business Committee and protected backbench time
  • a boost to the standing and authority of select committees through direct election of chairs and election of committee members within party groups; and
  • a strengthening of the public’s ability to influence the work of the House

The report concludes that:

"A flourishing representative democracy demands an effective and vital House of Commons, with strong government improved by strong accountability. This is also the best antidote to the political disengagement and anti-politics that characterises our age, and which is dangerous in its consequences."

The Committee recognises its recommendations can only be the start of the urgently needed process of rebuilding confidence.

Commenting on the report, Dr Wright said:

"Out of the catastrophe of the expenses scandal, Parliament has an opportunity and obligation to show that it really matters. This will not be achieved by one report, but we can at least start a process that I hope the next Parliament will want to carry forward."

Business in the House

To ensure the House is more responsive to public concerns and back bench members have more control over the setting of House business, the report recommends:

  • a backbench Business Committee elected by secret ballot of all Members, responsible for all business which is not strictly Ministerial
  • at least one day a week, or its equivalent, should be given over to discussing matters that Members feel should be prioritised
  • the back bench Committee should, together with representatives of Government and Opposition on a new House Business Committee, be responsible for putting a weekly agenda to the House for its decision.

This would enable business in the House to be conducted in new ways. The Committee also wants the House to decide for itself when it sits and calls for the new Parliament to decide promptly on the issue of September sittings.

Select committees

To enhance the credibility of select committees the report recommends:

  • chairs of most select committees should be directly elected by secret ballot of the House using the alternative vote
  • members of most committees should be elected from within party groups by secret ballot
  • in order to increase their impact of committees, a reduction in the numbers of members on each committee and a reduction in the number of committees

Public involvement

The Committee concludes that the House is insufficiently responsive to representations from the public on issues of concern.

The main focus of the House’s agenda for engagement with the public should shift beyond the giving of information, to actively assisting the achievement of a greater degree of public participation.

Discussions should begin to find ways to strengthen the petitions system, with the possibility of introducing e-petitions and the Procedure Committee becoming the Procedure and Petitions Committee for a trial period from January 2010.

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