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Legislative Scrutiny

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 22 March 2012

The Government recognise the value of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. We have ensured that Bills have adequate time for proper scrutiny in the House. The Government are also committed to publishing more legislation in draft to enable pre-legislative scrutiny.

In this Session, five Bills have had a Report stage taken over two days. Indeed, both the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the Finance (No. 3) Bill were considered over three days. This is more than in any Session of the previous Parliament, when there were none whatever in the first and last Sessions.

How many Bills had pre-legislative scrutiny in the last Session, and how did that compare with this Session? Will the Deputy Leader of the House make a statement on plans for the future?

The Government have published nine draft measures this Session, and are committed to publishing more measures in draft in the next Session, with a view to pre-legislative scrutiny. Further specific announcements will be made at the start of the new Session. In the last Session under the previous Government, two Bills—just two—were published in draft.

Will the Deputy Leader of the House say more about the Government’s plans for post-legislative scrutiny?

Like their predecessor, the Government are committed to reviewing every Act of Parliament three to five years after it has passed. Government Departments publish Command Papers, allowing Commons Committees to decide whether or not to conduct further post-legislative scrutiny of each Act, when it is appropriate to do so. Forty-four of these memorandums have been published since this system was introduced in 2008. We welcome the work undertaken so far by Select Committees to examine such memorandums, but it is up to the Select Committees to decide whether they wish to do more.

I am a member of the European Scrutiny Committee which receives a thick bundle of policies and proposals from the European Union each week. What measures can be taken to ensure that more of these can go before departmental Select Committees, as they cover the whole vast area of UK national policy?

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The Government are keen to explore possible ways further to improve the effectiveness with which this House deals with European legislation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is in discussions with Select Committees and others about possible changes.

The effectiveness of scrutiny of legislation is important, and so is the cost of the effectiveness of such scrutiny. One mechanism that arguably assists with that scrutiny is that of early-day motions. I congratulate the Government on reducing the annual cost of early-day motions by 38% since 2010, but I hope my hon. Friend will join me in welcoming the Procedure Committee’s announcement that it will carry out a fresh review of early-day motions in the near future.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and the fact that he recognises that the House of Commons Commission is looking across the House to establish where savings can be made. The interest of Members in the hon. Gentleman’s recent Adjournment debate, to which I responded, highlighted the variety of views on this issue. It is quite right that, if there is a swell of opinion for further reform in this area, it would be appropriate for the Procedure Committee to consider the issue of early-day motions.

Further to the question put by the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), will the Leader of the House look again at establishing permanent membership of European Standing Committees? The ad hoc approach, frankly, does not work.

Again, I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. The Government are continuing to explore ways to improve scrutiny, and there remain areas that we need to explore. One issue to bear in mind is whether hon. Members would be willing to serve on such a Committee. If that is the case and if we can make satisfactory arrangements, we will of course bring them to the House.

If there is a new look at early-day motions, will the Deputy Leader of the House ensure that Members will not be deprived of one of the rare opportunities to criticise parliamentary answers? A recent EDM suggested that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), gave a parliamentary answer that reached a new low “in evasiveness and vacuity”, and recommends that in future Ministers should read the question before answering parliamentary questions.

Order. I am sure we are talking about these matters with reference to the scrutiny of legislation.

Yes, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman’s question was about the scrutiny of legislation. I have already set out our position on EDMs. We recognise that they have value, but sometimes some can, shall we say, come close to an abuse of the House in terms of their cost compared with their benefit. On the subject of questions to Ministers, the hon. Gentleman knows that if there are deficiencies in the responses Members receive, I and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House are always happy to take that up with the Departments and Ministers concerned.

What plans does the hon. Gentleman have to extend the time available for the consideration of Bills on Second Reading? It has become traditional for Second Reading debates to be considered on a single day. May we extend the time available, as many Members, especially Back Benchers, want to contribute on Second Reading?

First, let me make the important point that the scrutiny of legislation is an essential part of the business of this House. People often talk about Government time as if it were unrelated to the business of the House when, in fact, it is Parliament’s time in order to scrutinise legislation. I merely make the observation that the more time that is eroded from so-called Government time by consideration of other matters that are no doubt of enormous importance—such as urgent questions and emergency debates—the less time is available to the House to scrutinise legislation properly.