House of Commons question

As some readers will be aware, I am working on a large project called Party Personnel Strategies. The nutshell version is we are seeking to determine the characteristics of legislators (career background, marginality of electoral situation, rural/urban district, etc.) that are associated with assignment to legislative committees and other offices. The “personnel” analogy refers to the notion that party leadership would seek to match the characteristics of members with the policy-making (or supervising) roles of committees.

I have a question for those who are familiar with the workings of the UK House of Commons. The intention is to focus on “permanent” or “standing” committees, as distinct from “ad hoc” committees.

The distinction itself may sometimes not be clear, but in general, if it is in the standing orders of the chamber or in legislation, and if it persists across legislatures, it is probably a permanent committee. Most of these are Select Committees that are “largely concerned with examining the work of government departments“.

On the other hand, if a committee is created for a specific term of parliament, or especially it it is for a specific bill, it is probably an ad hoc committee. In most cases it is a straightforward distinction, so let’s not get hung up on the tricky cases. I will give a few examples of “ad hoc” committees below.

The question is: is it acceptable to confine the analysis of the House of Commons only to those MPs who have a permanent committee membership? The question arises because the UK is a major outlier in the percentage of MPs who have no “permanent” committee positions. For instance, over the election years 1997-2010, we have observations on well over 1000 Labour Party MPs. Yet less than 500 remain in the data when those with only an ad-hoc committee assignment are excluded.

There is no other country in which dropping MPs with only ad hoc committee positions results in such a large drop-off in the number of observations. There is, however, one system that comes close: New Zealand, particularly in the era before its electoral reform in 1996.

The high percentage of MPs with only ad hoc committees does, in some respects, “fit” preconceived notions of the classic Westminster parliament, wherein the main policy-making action is in cabinet and the bureaucracy rather than in parliament, and where MPs are overwhelmingly dependent on voter evaluations of their party rather than their own policy activities. (Other actions that might affect an MP’s “personal vote” do not depend on committee assignments–for instance, asking parliamentary questions, doing casework, holding office hours or constituency events, etc.)

Maybe we are seeing a basic feature of the system in action.

On the other hand, maybe by dropping ad hoc committees, we are missing the “real” work in parliament in Britain (and New Zealand).

A less comfortable conclusion might be that UK parties should not be expected to have a “personnel strategy” at all with respect to parliamentary committees–whether permanent or ad hoc–because committees are just not important enough. I am not ready to accept such a conclusion just yet. Besides, there are patterns in assignment, just not the patterns one would expect if committee service was based on electoral needs of either the party or individual MPs. But, again, maybe that’s the point of the “efficient” Westminster system.

Thoughts?

__________________
Examples of what I mean by “ad hoc” committees:

Armed Forces Bill (as distinct from the “standing” Defence Committee)
Draft Detention of Terrorist Suspects (note that this is a committee related to a specific draft bill, not ongoing scrutiny of policy with respect to terrorism or judicial matters)
Draft Marine Bill Joint Committee (again, “draft”; plus the committee is joint with the House of Lords)
Draft Civil Contingencies Bill Joint Committee
Regulatory Reform

We are also considering as “ad hoc” a host of other “general committees” such as those on regional issues that are described on the official parliamentary website as being forms for discussing matters of local concern, but do not appear to have any direct role in managing bills or overseeing cabinet departments–“East of England Regional Select Committee” is one such example. Another is the “Welsh Grand Committee” which is apparently less significant than its name might imply.

A few examples from New Zealand:
Clutha Development Empowering Bill Select Committee
Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Select Committee
Employment and Accident Insurance Legislation
Private Bill – Cornwall Park Endowment and Recreation Land Bill (a committee formed to consider a specific private member’s bill?)
Papa Adoption Discharge Bill (what a great name for a committee!)
MMP Review Select Committee (as much as I want to think of this as the most important committee ever, it is clearly for a set purpose in one legislative term)

14 thoughts on “House of Commons question

  1. Public Bill Committees, which are in your “ad hoc” list, are the only committees that consider legislation. Most of the other committees are pretty irrelevant (the Scottish and Welsh Grand Committees, in particular, are political nonentities).

    Unlike, say, the US Congress, the Select Committees, which match up to departments, do not consider legislation that emerges from that department. Instead, it’s considered by a Public Bill Committee, which are the key elements of “committee work” for most (backbench) MPs.

    I think it would be a mistake to disregard Public Bill Committees, because that’s where all the detailed work on legislation gets done.

    Note that you’ll need to consider whips (including opposition whips) and ministers separately, as they don’t serve on committees (or, at any rate, don’t do so in the same way).

    A few other notes:

    Private Bills are not the same thing as Private Member’s Bills. There are some things that can only be done by legislation, but which benefit an individual or private company (e.g. compulsory purchase of land by a private company requires a private bill). They can also affect certain ancient corporations that were established by statute (e.g. the three Scottish and four Northern Irish banks that have the right to issue their own banknotes have to go through the private bill procedure for corporate restructurings). But the main use is as a local act to benefit a local authority, usually by granting it additional powers (e.g. the power to close a public right of way for the filming of a movie, to pick one recent example). Private Bill committees are ad hoc committees and involve a lot of work for very little reward in most cases; they tend to be used as punishment duty by the whips.

    • Thank you, po8crg. Very helpful.

      The analysis does exclude ministers, and I am aware that we should exclude some of the opposition leadership that do not serve on committees as well.

      This is the real core of the question: “I think it would be a mistake to disregard Public Bill Committees, because that’s where all the detailed work on legislation gets done.” In one sense, I think you are clearly right. On the other hand, if I understand correctly that such a new committee is created for each “public bill”, then they are by their very definition ad hoc. Thus for comparative purposes, we either need to drop them (as we do with ad hoc committees everywhere else), or we need a “special rule” for the UK (which may be justified, but is not desirable).

      In general, the committees we are interested in are those that line up with ministerial departments (although there are some parliaments where even the “permanent” committees do not so line up). The UK may be unique, or nearly so, in having committees that tend to match departments, and yet not using them for considering draft legislation. And this very feature of the UK parliament probably tells us a lot about “party personnel strategies” (and other party strategies/practices). If only we could figure out what!

      “Private Bill committees are ad hoc committees and involve a lot of work for very little reward in most cases; they tend to be used as punishment duty by the whips.” Good to know, and very much what we suspected.

    • Before 1900 private bills were a majority of all bills passed by the UK parliament. Ditto divorce.

      I’d guess that Thatcher simply saw private bills as part of an ancient tradition.

      • Somehow the sentence: ‘Before the Joint Stock Companies Act 1844, companies could only be incorporated by private bill.’ was omitted before ‘Ditto divorce.’

  2. With their usual flair the British parliament manages to use a great number of expressions with exactly reverse meanings to other parliaments. The select committees, for example, are actually standing committees or portfolio committees but do not consider the legislative proposals of the portfolios they deal with.

    @Tom

    There is a serious historical argument that the long closures of parliament by the early Stuart kings were unpopular because local magnates could not operate their estates and businesses without a constant stream of private legislation that could come from nowhere else.

  3. “Speaker” shouldn’t confuse an American and though… Baroque though British usage can be, it’s preferable to the highly rational but repetitive Continental usage where the official title of the Head of State, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lower House, Chair of the Upper House, regional premier, and Chief Justice are all “President of the [XYZ body]”. Confusing.

  4. ” A deliberate assembly, the House of Commons, for instance, carries this mummery to the point of a methodical madness. The whole system is stiff with rigid unreason; like the Royal Court in Lewis Carroll. You would think the Speaker would speak; therefore he is mostly silent. You would think a man would take off his hat to stop and put it on to go away; therefore he takes off his hat to walk out and puts in on to stop in. Names are forbidden, and a man must call his own father “my right honorable friend the member for West Birmingham.” A deliberate assembly, the House of Commons, for instance, carries this mummery to the point of a methodical madness. The whole system is stiff with rigid unreason; like the Royal Court in Lewis Carroll. You would think the Speaker would speak; therefore he is mostly silent. You would think a man would take off his hat to stop and put it on to go away; therefore he takes off his hat to walk out and puts in on to stop in. Names are forbidden, and a man must call his own father “my right honorable friend the member for West Birmingham.” http://www.ccel.org/ccel/chesterton/whatwrong.i.iii_1.iv_1.html

  5. “Thus for comparative purposes, we either need to drop them (as we do with ad hoc committees everywhere else), or we need a ‘special rule’ for the UK (which may be justified, but is not desirable).”

    I’m just thinking off the top of my head here, but combining all of the bill committees that consider bills emanating from a particular department and treating them as if they were a single, typical standing legislative committee might be the least intrusive “special rule,” conceptually speaking. It would probably make committee membership pretty fungible, but that’s not a characteristic that’s necessarily unique to the UK. I can certainly see a ton of potential practical downsides (the number of unique MPs on each so-created “committee” could be ridiculously huge, the variance of the number of MPs across “committees” could be equally ridiculously huge, some “committees” might not exist in a given session if the relevant department produces no bills that go to committee stage, determining which “committee” to assign private members’ bills to could be sticky — except perhaps for PMBs being shepherded by the government) but maybe it’s worth a shot? I don’t believe there are a great many bills that reach committee stage in any given session, so doing a quick set of numbers wouldn’t necessarily take a huge amount of time, especially if you already have the membership-by-committee data in hand (the total number of government bills is typically between 30 and 40, not sure what the numbers are for PMBs that make it to committee stage but it can’t be very large).

    The other thing that occurs to me: it would be unexpected, at least when the government holds a majority, for the bill committees to be able to make substantial and lasting changes to the legislation WITHOUT GOVERNMENT APPROVAL (unpalatable committee amendments could be undone at report stage when the bill gets back to the chamber), and their limited independent effectiveness (if indeed it is limited) might serve as good (or good-enough) grounds for dropping them?

  6. I should add to this the Standing Committees, which are permanent committees for the consideration of those bills that are not assigned to a specific ad-hoc committee, and which take on bills in round-robin fashion. Many Bills do not go to Bill Committtee, but are considered by a Standing Committee. In most sessions the Standing Committees are Standing Committee 1 and Standing Committee 2. I think there has occasionally been a third.

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