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Parliament needs to do far more than just stand up to the latest government power grab

8 September 2017

7:19 PM

8 September 2017

7:19 PM

What a surprise: a government trying to make it easier to get legislation through the House of Commons. Today’s Huffington Post story that Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom is trying to ensure that there is a Tory majority on every committee scrutinising legislation is just the latest example of Theresa May’s government making every effort to make life easier for itself.

Journalists at the Number 10 lobby briefing today pointed out that the Tories haven’t actually won a majority and therefore do not deserve to have a majority in public bill and delegated legislation committees. Rather astonishingly, the Number 10 spokesman responded that ‘the government has a majority on the floor of the House’. It’s almost as if Theresa May has chosen to forget that a snap election of her calling actually removed that majority.


Leadsom’s spokeswoman told the Huffington Post that ‘the adjustments provide for maximum scrutiny with minimum disruption and delay, both to Parliamentary proceedings and to the governance of the country’. How very kind of the government, to conclude that the country wouldn’t want the disruption of MPs on a committee pointing out that a policy won’t.

Of course, this in itself is a bad move from ministers. But what is missing from the outrage and exasperation is an acknowledgement of just how pointless these legislative committees are most of the time. We are really being afforded a great luxury in there being a possibility at all that MPs might be able to amend legislation in these committees because normally they are a strange parliamentary charade in which the only changes that are made to legislation are ones introduced by the government, and the backbenchers from the governing party are there merely to get the bill through committee stage rather than to check that it is actually a good bill. It is considered totally unacceptable for a backbench MP from the party in power to roll up to committee stage with their own amendments, or indeed to use the stage at which expert witnesses are called to give evidence on the impact of the detail of the bill to check with those witnesses that the legislation really is going to do what is intended.

This might sound fair enough because if you are an MP in the party that holds power in the country, you want your party’s programme for government to succeed. But committees are about ensuring that the legislation proposed will actually work. A really loyal MP with a long-term perspective might worry more about whether their party was getting something wrong and use committee stage to check that, rather than just help the whips minimise disruption.

This isn’t a Conservative-specific problem, but one that afflicts all parties in government. Of course ministers don’t want to admit that the legislation they are taking through the Commons has flaws which still need correcting. But a strong Parliament would be one that firstly prevents naughty plans like the one cooked up by Leadsom getting through and secondly recognises that the executive is not the only source of wisdom in Westminster.

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