Study of Parliament Group [Logo]
Home News About us Publications Links Site search

You are here: Publications > Books > Reforming the Commons

Reforming the Commons

by Members of the Study of Parliament Group

PEP (Political and Economic Planning) Vol XXXI No. 491, October 1965, pp 269-310

The page numbers from the original publication (except part II) are shown here in square brackets. Part II of the publication consists of a reprint of written evidence to the Procedure Committee: this evidence is on a separate page on this website and there are links to it at the appropriate places.

[269]This publication has been prepared by members of the Study of Parliament Group and approved for publication by the group while not necessarily representing the views of each member.

The Study of Parliament Group is a private group of university teachers and officers of both Houses of Parliament who have been meeting, since the summer of 1964, under the Chairmanship of Sir Edward Fellowes, one time Clerk of the House of Commons, to further serious study of the working of Parliament. (The joint secretaries of the group are Professor Bernard Crick and Mr. Michael Ryle).




On Tuesday, 26 October the House of Commons meets for two weeks to wind up the present session. During that time the question of Parliamentary reform is to be debated. The House will have before it four reports from its Select Committee on Procedure: the Committee has not yet finished its work, but at least one of these reports is of constitutional importance. This broadsheet seeks to explain in non-technical terms the issues that are before the House since they affect the interests of the public, not just of Parliament.

This broadsheet also republishes as an Appendix the evidence submitted by the Study of Parliament Group to the Select Committee on Procedure. It was necessarily partly technical, being aimed to aid the deliberations of a group of MPs well aware of the general issues. But it is part of the Group's whole case that there should be more informed public discussions of how Parliament goes about its business, not just of what it does.

The Group's evidence attempted to show the interconnections between various proposals for various types of reform or procedural change that are being considered by Parliament. "Parliamentary reform" too often has meant to each Member or publicist one or more hobby horses to be ridden with skill and panache, like Don Quixote's horse, in all possible directions at once. But the work of Parliament should be looked at comprehensively.

Parliament has to be seen as a practical working system. One thing cannot be changed without involving consequences, often unexpected and unwanted, in others. Nothing can or should be changed unless [272] MPs are quite clear what it is they have and what it is they want to have.

The British system of government has been uniquely stable because it has been able to combine strong government and strong opposition - effective Parliamentary and public criticism. Thus the Group's evidence showed no sympathy for those few "romantic reactionaries" (in all three parties, let it be said) who might wish to return to the almost mythological mid-Victorian days of "the rights of the private member". Governments must govern, but they will govern better if subject to a kind of scrutiny and criticism which is in fact performed at the moment by Parliament but only in an excessively piecemeal, random and unsystematic manner. That is why the Group based its evidence on the assumption that for a long time effective "Parliamentary control" has meant not mainly the threat of overthrowing the Government in the House but also the process of informing the electorate, influencing the government by inquiry and debate and scrutinising the administration.

So the evidence of the Study of Parliament Group did not argue for great changes in the basic character of British institutions or of the procedures of Parliament, still less for any fundamental change in the balance of power between Parliament and the executive. They urged rather "the need to relate together systematically a fair number of changes of detail which have seemed for a long time ... no more than the commonsense of the matter of maintaining the repute and power of Parliament." (See page 289 below). So eager was the Group to keep the horse in front of the cart, that governments must govern, that it stated its basic case in this way:

"We consider that there is a strong case for streamlining the passage of legislation, but only if the consequence is to give the House more time, facilities and procedural devices with which to obtain the information that Members require and to study, scrutinise and criticise both the workings of the whole machinery of government and the factual assumptions on which policy decisions are made."

It could indeed be argued that the House quite simply spends too much time on considering legislation and too little on the scrutiny of administration.

So if none of these contemplated changes is of any great novelty, yet the need for such changes is nonetheless very great. For there is no denying the growth of a scepticism about Parliament which is not entirely a product of ignorance of how antique forms obscure modern [273] realities. It results more from a deep-seated anxiety that Parliament has ceased to perform efficiently its role - however that be conceived - within the constitution. Perhaps that is why we have not thought it the first priority to discuss the questions of proxy voting, methods of taking divisions or even the time of sittings. These are important matters, but, within broad limits, matters for MPs to decide to suit their own convenience. But the need for Parliamentary reform is wider than the convenience of Members: they should be prepared - and mostly are - to inconvenience themselves considerably if it aided Parliament's essential dual task of being, to paraphrase Walter Bagehot, the educator of the political nation and the mirror of public opinion.


The Select Committee on Procedure of Session 1964-65 was appointed on 22 December 1964 "to consider the Procedure in the Public Business of the House; and to report what alterations, if any, are desirable for the more efficient despatch of such business." Even though this order of reference was usefully wide, three important matters were excluded: the research and information services available to the House; facilities available to individual Members; and, of course, the relationship between the two Houses of Parliament (which is potentially a fruitful field in which small changes could save much time for the Commons and shed much light on the administrative process both for MPs and for the political public).

The Select Committee, working with commendable speed, has so far produced four reports. It was given the usual power to send for persons, papers and records and also "to report from time to time"; indeed, it was specifically instructed by the House to report on certain matters first. So far the committee while fulfilling its instructions on these detailed points, has seemed determined not to lose the wood for the trees.

The First Report (H.C. 1964-65, 149) dealt with three matters which the committee was specifically instructed to consider. First, they reported in favour of a suggestion that the debate on the Second Reading stages of some Bills could be taken in Committees (as for Scottish Bills), so long as they were limited to measures not "involving large questions of policy nor likely to give rise to differences on party [274] lines." The best way of ensuring this, they suggested, was that such a procedure could not be invoked if no less than twenty Members objected. The obvious comment is that while it would be useful for the House to have this power, yet it is almost impossible to assess how much use would be made of it: it would seem to depend almost entirely on the mood and temper of the House - it could lead to a significant saving of time, or to practically none at all.

Secondly, they were asked to consider the times of sittings of the House. Here the Committee considered and published some evidence, but wisely and firmly refused to make a recommendation until they had considered the rest of their evidence. How the House chooses to spend its time must to some extent at least determine, as for any private individual, when it will spend it. For instance, if there was a considerable expansion in Committee work in such a way as to save time on the Floor of the House, then the politically vexed question of whether or not to have morning sittings could be resolved away into a distinction between "committee work" in the mornings and the formal Session as at present - though ending more often at a time when wives are still awake and buses running (see paragraphs 17-18).(1)

Thirdly, they had to consider the question of moving the time of backbenchers' motions for leave to introduce bills under the "Ten Minute Rule" from the beginning of the Parliamentary day, when the time table is very crowded, to the end. The Committee recommended the adoption of this proposal which was supported by frontbench opinion, but only for "an experimental period" - in case it infringed the rights of backbenchers.

The Second Report (H.C. 1964-65, 188) considered the matter of Question Time: the diminishing number of oral questions answered and the lengthening period of notice required to enable an oral answer to be obtained from any Minister. The matter is highly technical. After much discussion and consideration of statistical evidence, the Committee wisely did not propose to curb supplementary questions by any new rules. They simply suggested a motion promising the Speaker the support of the House if he uses powers that he has already to try to shorten supplementaries and to insist on strict relevance. The Committee also recommended further rationing of the number of questions allowed from Members and a limit on the advance notice [275] possible so as to reduce the number of "stale" questions. Question time always catches the public eye. It makes good copy for the press (sometimes - may one say - easy copy?). Discussion of the alleged "breakdown" of Question Time as an effective device (which is utter nonsense) appeared in some newspapers. Only MPs can be the final judges of whether they choose to spend the time they give themselves with more main questions or more supplementaries. But the importance of Question Time as a control on the executive is very great. Although possibly commonly exaggerated, it nevertheless retains importance as a weapon of Parliamentary control and should be wielded as effectively as possible (see paragraphs 22-23 below). As we will see, under modern conditions the work of some Select Committees is at least as important - though harder to dramatise and publicise and far less understood.

The Third Report (H.C. 1964-65, 276) began with an expression of the Committee's concern at the way their desire to make a comprehensive report on all aspects of procedure had been frustrated by the requirements placed on them to look at various specific matters separately. They urged that a Committee "unhampered by specific instructions" be appointed at the beginning of next Session.

They then reported on the much considered topic of speeding the course of the Finance Bill - which at the time they reported in June was a matter dear to the hearts of many Members. They considered that, in drafting Finance Bills, a distinction should as far as possible be made between "budgetary" and "administrative" proposals (either within one bill or in separate bills), so that as much as possible of this legislation could be considered in Committee upstairs. They believed that the House should be advised by a select committee on the methods of considering every Finance Bill - including what provisions should go to standing committees. Such a select committee should also have power to recommend a timetable for the consideration of the Bill.

These proposals are ingenious - perhaps a little too much so. The difficulty posed by the large number of people liable to wish to debate one part or another of every Finance Bill would still remain. An alternative solution proposed by the Study of Parliament Group is that the administrative aspects of each Finance Bill (and indeed any aspect of taxation administration) could be considered by a select committee at the same time as the policy aspects of the Bill were being debated on the floor of the House (see paragraphs 13-15).

Whatever solution is favoured one thing is clear. 'The time of the [276] House itself should not be requisitioned day after day (and night after night), as it was this session, for detailed debate on technical aspects of the Finance Bill which are inevitably of immediate interest to only a handful of Members.

The Fourth Report (H.C. 1964-65, 303) is the most important and could prove, without exaggeration, to be a landmark in Parliamentary history. It considered the "examination of the Estimates in the broadest sense". The essence of the matter lay in the last four words. For the Committee was able to show how far sub-committees of the Estimates Committee had already ranged over "the whole field of ministerial administrative responsibility", and thus were able to recommend not the creation of a brand new system of specialised committees to scrutinise and investigate, but that the orders of reference of the existing Estimates Committee should be extended and that it should function through new sub-committees each specialising in the different spheres of governmental activity.

The Committee applied a basic concept to the entire question of the control of Estimates and the work of Select Committees, indeed to the whole relationship of the House to the public: the importance of information - how it can reach Members and, through Members and the House, the public.

"Your Committee are convinced that a main purpose of Parliamentary reform must be to increase the efficiency of the House of Commons as a debating chamber. At the same time no change should be allowed to supersede the traditional right of the Commons to consider grievances before granting supply nor to absolve them from their duty to examine Government expenditure and administration. In order to achieve this latter purpose your Committee have come to the conclusion that more information should be made available to Members of the way government departments carry out their responsibilities, so that when taking part in major debates on controversial issues, they may be armed with the necessary background of knowledge. This requires that the House should possess a more efficient system of scrutiny of administration".(2)

There then followed a paragraph which it is perhaps pardonable to quote in full:

"It is to be expected that Members of Parliament will consider that [277] their work would be improved if they were able to become better informed about the work of the executive; and it may also be expected that those who see the situation from the point of view of government will have some reservations in this connection. Your Committee attach importance, therefore, to the evidence of three academic observers of the constitution(3) the whole tenor of whose submission was to the effect that the machinery of Parliament has failed to keep pace with the increase in the scope of governmental activity and that the problem is that of enabling Members 'more effectively to influence, advise, scrutinise and criticise'. These witnesses drew attention to the extent to which Government Departments have come to rely on the advice of Committees set up by Ministers outside Parliament, and 'Members of Parliament have to take the advice of these high-powered bodies as it were filtered through to them instead of having an opportunity of evaluating the advice of these people'. On the other hand, in an area where the House has taken steps to obtain information by means of a Committee with wide terms of reference, that of the nationalised industries, these witnesses took the view that debate was 'enormously improved when it took place not merely on the basis of the Reports laid before the House, but on the basis of the Report produced by the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries on that particular industry which was being debated'."

The Committee, as well as recommending that two Clerks of the House of Commons should supervise the work of the new Estimates Committee and that there should be one full-time Clerk to each sub-committee, said that the Estimates Committee should be able from time to time as occasion arose "to employ specialist assistance". It is said that Lord Robbins refused to serve as chairman of the advisory committee on Higher Education until he had been promised an adequate - and almost uniquely large - research establishment. On the other hand, the recent and extremely valuable Sixth Report of the Estimates Committee on Recruitment to the Higher Civil Service (H.C. 1964-65, 308) ostentatiously went out of its way to thank the Acton Society Trust for paying 85 for the cost of a survey of student attitudes to recruitment prepared for the committee by Mr Trevor Smith of Hull University: "there is at present no authority given to the [278] Estimates Committee to appoint outside assessors or to incur expenditure on specialised assistance ...".

It is a mystery or a muddle why one such subject warrants a well-equipped Government appointed committee with no MPs on it at all,(4) and the other a Parliamentary committee with no money or specialised assistance at all - which is surely injurious both to the dignity and the effectiveness of Parliament. Both the Clerks and the Library do what they can, but they cannot go out and conduct even such a relatively cheap and simple survey. But without Mr Smith and the Acton Society Trust with their 85 the Committee might have sat for ever hearing rival and largely worthless speculations from men from elsewhere about why students from the civic universities do not even put in for the Administrative class examinations. The example is a small but pretty one.


Those who used to talk and write most about Parliamentary reform, both inside and outside the House, used to have in common at least a desire for some new system of specialised committees. Why have the present committee and so many "academic observers" suddenly come round to the "usual business" of reshaping a going concern? Partly because the Estimates Committee has extended its scope; and partly because, it must be admitted, the House, "academic observers" and the press have been slow to catch up with the cumulative effect of these changes. The terms of reference of the Estimates Committee are "to examine such of the estimates presented to this House as may seem fit to the Committee and to report how, if at all, the policy implied in those estimates may be carried out more economically." As the Committee on Procedure point out, they have thus been able within these terms of reference to ask the question, "Are the managerial arrangements under which the expenditure takes place fully effective?" This has led them far away from what traditionally might be felt to be the field of estimates in a narrow sense. So the weakness of the present arrangements has been not in the kind of work done, but in its lack of system: its incidence in relation to the work of departments has been far too haphazard and, in some cases, far too infrequent.

Since there has been this natural evolution of the Estimates Committee [279] from concern with the details of Estimates to concern with the efficient execution of the work of departments, it would be foolish to have two possibly rival sets of committees. This evolution has taken place because the details of estimates - the current bills coming in, as it were - are merely the annual financial reflection of the efficiency of the managerial arrangements.

The evidence of the Study of Parliament Group in fact suggested (see paragraph 21) new specialist committees of scrutiny and investigation, but then that they should gradually take over the functions of the Estimates Committee. But the Procedure Committee's recommendation amounts to much the same thing in the end and is probably a politically more realistic way of getting there. In one respect it is actually bolder. The Study of Parliament Group, like the minority on the 1958 Committee on Procedure, felt it realistic to suggest no more initially than a very few areas and committees. But the present Select Committee envisages an amended Estimates Committee covering the whole field of administration with its sub-committees specialising. They propose as its terms of reference "to examine how the departments of state carry out their responsibilities and to consider their Estimates of Expenditure and Reports".

The fear that such committees will inevitably either get embroiled in policy or have to go for trivial subjects is not borne out by experience. Firstly, there is the experience of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries which since 1957 has turned out a series of reports on both the new and old industries (the most recent was on London Transport) which have been acknowledged as helpful in creating better understanding of the problems of the industries both for Parliament and for many within the industries. Officials within a nationalised industry or a government department have often been almost as much in the dark about vital aspects of how their organisations work as have MPs or the press - situations hardly conducive either to Parliamentary control or to departmental efficiency. One thing both the Estimates Committee and the Nationalised Industries Committee have shown, time and time again, is that the process of investigation is no necessary enemy to efficiency, sometimes the contrary.

Secondly, the examples of some recent reports of the Estimates Committee show how far committees can go without incurring undue Ministerial wrath for trespassing into the policy fields, or without descending into mere trivialities. The Report on Dental Services, for [280] instance (First Report of the Estimates Committee, H.C. 1962-63, 40) consisted of fifty pages of closely reasoned report and just over three hundred pages of evidence. It has been the only full study of these services. Its recommendations (neatly summarised as usual in three pages, as every editor should know) contained fundamental proposals on manpower and conditions of service. Two large reports appeared in successive Sessions on Military Expenditure Overseas (H.C. 1962-63, 282 and H.C. 1963-64), both of which made important proposals on co-operation between the services, the use of local labour and on tendering for overseas contracts - as well as bringing to light some classic cases of highly unusual expenditure. They have plainly influenced the current thinking of the newly integrated Ministry of Defence. The last session of Parliament saw two, it is fair to say, excessively holy cows studied rather analytically and usefully. There was the Fifth Report of the Estimates Committee on Grants to Universities and Colleges (H.C. 1964-65, 283) and the Sixth Report on Recruitment to the Civil Service (H.C. 1964-65, 308). In brief, it is fair to say that neither the University Grants Committee nor the Civil Service Commissioners can have found some sections of these reports and their proposals entirely comfortable reading, but neither should they have found such soul searching operations unhelpful.


The proceedings and evidence of both the above reports provided more colourful copy on social questions of great public interest than any (or are there any?) of the "Whitehall correspondents" on Sunday newspapers seem to have unearthed. Here many of the "anonymous men" of "the corridors of power" were exposed to a searching and published cross-examination by MPs. The press is slow to use what is at hand to inform the public; this is far from entirely Parliament's fault.

Parliament could help the press here in one simple way, and the Sessional Select Committee on Procedure of 1963-64 in fact made the suggestion in a special report, though the Government has not yet acted upon it: that Select Committees should be given power to send copies of their reports to the lobby correspondents twenty-four hours before publication. This is not much but it is something. It might be objected that it would take an elephant with the reading speed of a [281] Sidney Webb twice twenty-four hours to master any of the reports used above as examples, but in fact no one needs to read them all or to read any one of them all at once. Select Committee reports are usually helpfully presented: they are kept short, there is a brief summary of recommendations or conclusions (giving references to the main body of the report and to the evidence), and the reports themselves are printed with abundant sub-headings. They are thus far more easy to digest and use than many people (whether journalists or students) seem aware.

But the best of journalists needs more than a few hours between about eleven in the morning and eight at night of the day of publication to make even a first approximation at summarising the recommendations, let alone at realising what rich copy the verbatim evidence often furnishes. And the evening papers appear apt to abandon the problem as insoluble: the following day, of course, it is no longer news. Is not this the kind of actualité that the Sunday Times, the Observer and the Guardian are all searching for - high civil servants under cross-examination by the peoples' tribunes etc?

The objection to this prior circulation to the press is that it would infringe the rights of Members of Parliament. The reports are to them and they should see them first and have the first opportunity to comment. The Government, however, is under no such inhibition: all their publications are circulated in advance to the press and these include Command Papers which are equally laid before Parliament.

The Select Committee on Procedure 1963-64, while it expressed "some sympathy" with this constitutional objection, yet declared its agreement with Mr Douglas Houghton's view that "it is the duty of Parliament to facilitate all channels of communication with the country and the world outside."(5)

To this one can only add "Amen". Perhaps the fundamental problem of Parliamentary reform is not procedural (in a narrow sense) or institutional, but is conceptual: to get Members to conceive of the proceedings of Parliament as a way of influencing, informing and reflecting the country, not just of debating with "Honourable Members opposite". And the fundamental problem of the relationship between press and television and Parliament is to help them become more effective, as well as lively, middlemen in this process. [282]



The present Committee on Procedure deserves every support for its Fourth Report. This contains the essence of the matter. It is to be hoped that the House will not treat the country solely to a debate on issues of proxy voting, times of sitting or the minute-saving merits of mechanical voting, but will attempt a comprehensive view of Parliamentary control of the executive.

The greatest savings in Parliamentary time, for instance, could come after the Committee have considered more fully the problem of legislation and the timetable. The amount of time that could be saved in various ways was analysed by the Study of Parliament Group in an Appendix to their evidence (see pages 305-308 below). There are all sorts of different savings that could be achieved in different political conditions by sending different stages of different sorts of legislation upstairs to different sorts of committee; and in each case it is arguable whether they will get better or worse scrutiny. But more valuable scrutiny of legislation might come if bills were more briefly drafted. At present it is often puzzling why some Statutes contain remorseless detail and others simply give power to the Minister to make Statutory Instruments. These were once viewed as a threat to all our liberties. Without taking the matter lightly, one can at least recognise that delegated legislation has come to stay, that its application to one field more than another may seem no more than the preference of a particular Ministry or even of a particular draughtsman, and that what is really required is more effective Parliamentary scrutiny of what happens once legislation becomes administration rather than simply scrutiny of proposed powers and administrative arrangements. The Group made other proposals for taking the Committee and Report Stage of nearly all Bills from the Floor - some of them really novel and all highly technical (see paragraphs 6-11). But the point to be made here is that the total saving of time from such proposals could easily amount to some twenty-eight days in an average session. (See Table III, page 307 below). If to some there is a price to be paid for this, yet it might seem one well worth paying for such an opportunity for many more general debates and debates on reports etc. But the Group hold to the view that if some such committee system is established as the Select Committee suggests the total result would be an increase in Parliamentary control - though not in a sense that threatened the [283] Government's day-to-day control of the Floor of the House or threatened to frustrate the implied wishes of the electorate.

Research and Information

Any reform of the committee system and of legislative procedures must involve changing attitudes to research and to the main source of information for most MPs - the Library of the House of Commons. The public and the press (and even some MPs) seem little aware of the great changes in the character of the Library that have taken place since 1945. It is a conventional library still. But in addition it has developed a small "Legislative Reference Service" in the Research Division which contains some seven graduate research staff (three of whom are statisticians) who answer Members' research queries and provide them with factual memoranda.(6)

The Research Division contains a growing number of indexes and press cutting files - though small by some foreign standards. The range of these questions and memoranda is very wide and the demand for them increases yearly.

Some Members are aware of what help they can expect from the Library; many more are becoming so. Basically the Library can do no more than make use of every possible source of already published information on governmental activities: but these sources are by no means negligible as weapons of Parliamentary control or sources for public information constantly in need of repointing and digesting. And if the Library cannot institute original research, Departments of State and other public bodies are usually fairly helpful in sharing what information they have.(6) But the point is quite simple, that the demands that could be made on the Library by a reformed committee system, directly and indirectly, are likely to necessitate expansion. Expansion should mean, as always, a full-dress discussion of priorities. There is need for a Select Committee on Research and Information, but already the greater need is simply for MPs to appreciate the distinction between a Reference Library (as a place where things are looked up in books), and a Legislative Reference Service (whose main duty is to provide in a usable, hence partly digested, form all the background and immediate information that a Member of Parliament might reasonably require). Parliament could well set an example to industry and the universities, both often hindered by [284] minimal and old-fashioned ideas of what constitutes a "Library", by helping its own Library to develop many of the techniques of information storage, retrieval and reproduction which are now readily available for military or banking use.

Members' Facilities

Members' facilities have also been deemed to lie outside the terms of reference of the present committee. They were also excluded from the Lawrence Committee's report on "Remuneration of Ministers and Members of Parliament" (Cmnd. 2516, 1964). It was a small mystery how that committee could think it sensible to discuss remuneration apart from facilities. But any comprehensive review of procedure which may emerge from the work of the present Select Committee must force the House to look again for improvements in accommodation and facilities to make the work of the average backbencher more effective.

Facilities must be related to function. The Lawrence Committee was an opportunity lost to do so and so was the report of Mr Speaker's Committee on Accommodation, 1963-64 (H.C. Hansard, 4 May 1964, cc. 915-18) - in which important, if inadequate, recommendations for Members' rooms and television and press facilities got obscured in the debate about "the Gothic style" recommended for the proposed new Bridge Street extension.

Privilege and Contempt

Things that affect each other should be considered together. Sooner or later Parliamentary reform must be related to some rethinking of the old doctrines of "privilege" and of "contempt" in light of modern conditions. They are not separate considerations. The recent "Hogg" and "Callaghan" cases raised basic issues of what may be said about Members of Parliament and what special protection they still need to fulfil their functions, which needs to be resolved. The "Duffy" and other cases have shown again difficulties about the working of "contempt" in relation to the press which plainly need review. This is needed not simply to tidy up the law and remove unnecessary areas of uncertainty, but to relate both these doctrines to a coherent view of what MPs need to do and of what the public needs to know about how they do it.[285]

The Ombudsman

Nothing shows the danger of an approach too empirical or too ad hoc more than the "Ombudsman" or Parliamentary Commissioner controversy. If such an officer is created plainly he should be subject to some form of Parliamentary control. But so far few of those who have campaigned most strongly for such an institution have given much thought to the Parliamentary relationship involved. In some cases there is a justifiable suspicion that the demand for an Ombudsman arises out of despair for Parliamentary reform.

In fact there is no incompatibility whatever between the creation of a Parliamentary Commissioner and an increase in Parliamentary work of scrutiny and investigation. The Parliamentary Commissioner would deal with individual grievances, abuses and cases; the proposed specialist sub-committees would be looking at the general efficiency and the overall management of departments and "across-the-board" functions of government. The one cannot sensibly be treated as a substitute for the other. There is a danger that they may be, through either political motives or a general misunderstanding of what each new institution could best do, unless - for the last time - a reasonably comprehensive view is taken.


The most frequent objection raised to any extension of the select committee system seems the most groundless: that committees would develop crossbench sentiments to threaten Ministerial control of the Floor. These are bogeys from a long passed era of Tory and Whig politics. The discipline of the major parties, for better or worse, is not a product of Parliamentary procedure, it is a product of the social history of England and of clear differences of purpose.

None of the proposals advanced by the Study of Parliament Group seeks either to damage our tradition of stable government or to attempt the impossible - though often attempted - task of taking the politics out of politics. They seek only to make party strife and parliamentary procedure combine better to provide both the general public and politicians with better argued briefs based on a more rational and objective sifting of evidence - such as select committee procedure already does.

The more subtle objection is the fear of involving civil servants in [286] policy disputes. The Select Committee questioned Professor Wiseman on this matter.

"You are suggesting widening the terms of reference to a very considerable extent so that they would have power to investigate, if not matters of policy, at least something very closely related to them; is that right? - (Professor Wiseman). Yes, Sir, I would say that. I think it is largely a matter of discretion and of the good sense of a select committee as to how far it does go into matters of policy. I think there is a very useful sanction here in so far as if a select committee does not report unanimously and if it divides upon Party lines then its influence, to say the least, is extremely limited: and I should have thought that the experience both of the Estimates Committee and of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries did suggest that Members of the House of Commons serving on these Committees are very, very well aware of what they can usefully investigate and usefully recommend and what they should avoid as being matters of acute Party controversy ...
"Do you think it would be practicable to expect civil servants to express views on matters of policy? - (Professor Wiseman). If I may intervene here, we understand from our outside knowledge that civil servants are extremely skilled in discerning when matters of policy are implicit in the questions that are being asked and they are, in fact, extremely adept at indicating that on this particular point it would not be proper for them to express an opinion; and I think this is a matter of judgment, on the one hand, of the Chairman of the Committee and, on the other hand, of the civil servant concerned. If the committee really felt that here was a high matter of policy that it would like to probe a little further, then at one point in our memorandum we do suggest that at least the Minister might be invited, if he so wished, to come and discuss it with the committee but obviously he would have the right to say that the time was not appropriate for him to do this. I know this is very general but it does seem to me to provide the framework for a pragmatic working out of this kind of problem in any given circumstance." (7)

In other words, committees and civil servants will use both their common and their political sense if they wish to retain their influence.

Even if, however, a Select Committee were to run into unexpected political controversy, the danger or the horror need not be too great. [287] In the past, Select Committees have sometimes divided: as in Royal Commissions, there have been occasional minority reports; and certainly the views of any minority appear in any case directly in the Proceedings, if votes are taken or motions moved, and indirectly in the examination of witnesses in the Evidence. Even a divided committee collects, sifts and publishes evidence thus providing, like two counsel in court, two reasoned and supported briefs rather than mere rhetorical advocacies. The coherent presentation of facts and the record of the examination of witnesses may sometimes be of more value, in any case, than necessarily forming a "committee view" on every topic.

The real distinction that committees should try to heed lies in their method of work rather than in the matter. They should not seek to avoid policy subjects as such, but should distinguish in approaching all subjects between discovering, analysing and elucidating the facts on which policy decisions have been taken and between forming opinions themselves on the merits of proposals or decisions. The former process is necessary for the understanding of both the formulation of policy and its implementation - and is best performed by a committee; but the latter process, especially if contentious between the parties, is best left to its proper place: debate on the Floor of the House.

Both public and Parliamentary opinion is moving towards reform. The Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Procedure is moderate; it simply proposes extending the work of an existing experienced institution. But all the same it could prove far reaching in its consequences. If these proposals were adopted it would put at last nearly all aspects of administration under the regular surveillance of Parliament and expose them to intelligent and constructive outside criticism.

[pp 288 to 308 are a reprint of the memorandum submitted to the Procedure Committee]



Henry Burrows, "House of Lords: Change or Decay", Parliamentary Affairs, Autumn 1964.

Peter Bromhead, "British Government: Dynamic and Static", Parliamentary Affairs, Winter 1964-65.

Change or Decay: Parliament and Government in our Industrial Society, by a group of Conservative Members of Parliament (Conservative Political Centre, 1963).

Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament (Weidenfeld, 1964).

Bernard Crick, "Tackling the Lords", New Society, 6 May 1965.

Crossbow, special number on Parliament and Party, October 1963.

Sir Edward Fellowes, "Parliament and the Executive", Journal of the Parliaments of the Commonwealth, October 1962.

Joseph Grimond, The Liberal Challenge (Hollis and Carter, 1963), Chapter III.

Hansard Society, Parliamentary Reform, 1933-60: A survey of Suggested Reforms (Cassell, 1961).

Harry Hanson, "The Purpose of Parliament", Parliamentary Affairs, Summer 1964.

Harry Hanson and H. V. Wiseman, "The Use of Committees in the House of Commons", Public Law, Autumn 1959 (their evidence before the Select Committee on Procedure 1958-59).

Andrew Hill and Anthony Whichelow, What's Wrong with Parliament? (Penguin Books, 1964)

Political Quarterly, special number on Parliament, July-September 1965.

Michael Ryle, "Greater Scope for M.P.'s", The Times, 17 April 1963.

Socialist Commentary, "Three Dozen Parliamentary Reforms by One Dozen Parliamentary Socialists", special supplement, July 1964.

S. A. Walkland, "Science and Parliament: the Origin and Influence of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee", Parliamentary Affairs, Part I, Summer, and Part II Autumn, 1964.


S. A. Walkland, "Science and Parliament: the Role of the Select Committees of the House of Commons", Parliamentary Affairs, Summer 1965.

Debate on Parliamentary Reform opened by Mr. Charles Pannell, H. C. Debates vol. 673, 15 March 1963.

Report from the Select Committee on Procedure (H.C., 1958-59, 92).

Reports from the Select Committee on Procedure (H.C., 1964-65, 149, 188, 276, 303).

A comprehensive bibliography is Anthony Barker's "Parliamentary Studies, 1961-65", Political Quarterly, July-September 1965.


1. Paragraph numbers refer to the Group's evidence printed in part II.

2. Fourth Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, (H.C. 1964-65, 303) p. v.

3. Professor P. A. Bromhead of Bristol, Professor A. H. Hanson of Leeds and Professor H. V. Wiseman of Exeter.

4. Though a touch of political realism might have benefited the Robbins Committee.

5. "The Disclosure of Matters Contained in the Reports of Select Committees", Second Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, H.C. 1963-64, 295, para. 6.

6. See Dr David Menhennet, "The Library of the House of Commons", Political Quarterly, July-September, 1965.

7. Fourth Report of the Select Committee on Procedure, op cit., pp. 54-55 [Q 224, 227]

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 20 August 2003