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Peers call for better scrutiny of UK bills

9 July 2019

A Legislative Standards Committee to examine bills and explanatory materials, an additional committee stage to scrutinise substantial late Government amendments, and an evidence taking stage for bills introduced in the Lords, as now happens with House of Commons bills, are among improvements to the Westminster legislative process recommended by the House of Lords Constitution Committee.

The committee's report The Passage of Bills Through Parliament, the latest in its series on the legislative process, follows an inquiry that explored the passage of bills through Parliament, the time available for scrutiny, the explanatory materials accompanying bills, and the opportunities for the public and stakeholders to engage with the legislative process.

It makes several recommendations, including:

  • Evidence-taking committees – The House of Lords should take evidence on bills that start there, as the introduction of an evidence-taking stage for bills that start in the House of Commons has strengthened Parliament’s scrutiny of bills, while also enabling greater public engagement with the legislative process. It is unsatisfactory that no such process exists for bills starting in the House of Lords.
  • Substantial Government changes to a bill late in the process – The committee raises concerns about the Government practice of adding substantial new material to a bill late in its passage, thus inhibiting appropriate parliamentary scrutiny. It recommends that when this happens the bill, or at least the new clauses, should return to committee stage to ensure that there is sufficient detailed scrutiny.
  • Legislative Standards Committee – The Parliamentary Business & Legislation Cabinet Committee has not always rigorously ensured that bills are fit for purpose for introduction to Parliament. The report recommends the establishment of a Legislative Standards Committee in Parliament, which would examine explanatory materials accompanying bills and assess their quality and consistency. If they were found inadequate, defective or absent, this committee could press the Government for improvements. It could also express a view about the amount of time needed for scrutiny of a bill, on the basis of its assessment of the bill and having listened to the views of backbench MPs and peers.

"The view of our witnesses was that Parliament’s scrutiny of bills is moderately effective, but there were several areas where improvements could be made", the report states.

It also deplores the fact that fast-tracking of bills, which should take place only in exceptional circumstances, has become "routine" for nearly all bills relating to Northern Ireland, exacerbating the "significant democratic deficit" already caused by the non-functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive for the past two years.

Committee chair Baroness Taylor of Bolton commented: "Scrutiny of legislation is Parliament’s most important function. We identify areas where improvements could be made to the legislative process, to enhance the quality of scrutiny, to make it more accessible, and to increase the opportunities for public and stakeholder input into the process. We urge the Government and both Houses to work together to make these changes and improve the quality of the laws Parliament passes."

Click here to view the committee's report.

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