Published on 8 December 2022
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Government should give parliament proper power to scrutinize legislation

Report on the legislative process makes recommendations to empower parliament, to give them more opportunities to influence legislation and hold the government to account.

A new Bennett Institute/Institute for Government report calls on the government to empower parliament and allow it to properly scrutinise legislation, provide a check on executive action and maintain balance in the UK constitution. 

Published today, The legislative process: How to empower parliament sets out steps to reverse the gradual erosion of parliament’s powers – accelerated by Brexit and the Covid pandemic – which has undermined its role and means laws can be easily passed without their impact on people and businesses being properly tested. 

Existing arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny are unhelpfully opaque, lack input from experts both inside in outside parliament, and involve too little interchange between the executive and parliament. MPs lack the time, resources and opportunities to properly scrutinise important bills: despite eight parliamentary committee reports since 1997 recommending that pre-legislative scrutiny should be a key part of the process, the government rarely uses it. Meanwhile highly partisan public bill committees result in low-quality debate, lack cross-party working or the involvement of MPs from relevant select committees and too often turn to “usual suspect” witnesses. 

New analysis of parliament scrutiny shows: 

  • MPs spend less time debating legislation in the chamber than 20 years ago: on average MPs just a quarter (24%) of their time in the chamber 2006-21 debating bills, compared to Peers who spend 44%
  • Only one in ten (11.6%) government bills passed by parliament received pre-legislative scrutiny 
  • Only 27% of bills were subject to at least one oral evidence session in the last five parliamentary sessions 

While allowing greater scrutiny of bills means accepting more delays and challenge, the report says it is in the government’s interests to ensure legislation is of as high a quality as possible and has greater legitimacy by involving Parliament.   

The report’s recommendations include: 

  • A requirement on the government to publish all bills in draft form (with a waiver for urgent or emergency legislation) with a ‘menu’ of options for pre-legislative scrutiny to allow  flexibility within the process and prevent adding significant additional time to a bill’s timetable in all cases

  • Giving Commons select committees the opportunity to request pre-legislative scrutiny on any bills in their departmental remit  
  • Allowing select committees to request a ‘select committee’ stage on all government bills, so creating the opportunity to take evidence and set out its view on the bill.  

  • The House of Commons Commission should review of the resources available for members to support legislative scrutiny, including expert policy and legal resources  

Jess Sargeant, the report’s author, said: 

“It is in the interests of the government, parliament and the public that the laws that govern us have been well scrutinised, well tested and have genuine broad-based support. Parliament represents the whole of the UK, but the government still has strong control over the process and timescale for considering bills, meaning most pass the Commons with limited resistance. And recent trends have been for less, not more parliamentary scrutiny – with more bills being rushed through and the government giving ministers broad secondary legislation powers. Our report makes recommendations to empower parliament, to give them more opportunities to influence legislation and hold the government to account” 

Baroness Smith, Labour leader of the House of Lords said: 

“In analysing how the legislative process works this report demystifies the processes and offers sensible, practical suggestions for improvement. Legislation is often seen as the key function of Parliament – considering, enacting and reviewing – yet the time and resources focused on it are inadequate.  The House of Commons spends significantly less time on legislation – just 24% from 2006-21 – and whilst the Lords prides itself on spending more time, there’s increasing frustration that Ministers and Government resent challenge rather than seeing scrutiny as an essential part of the process.  We can do better and this report provides practical advice on how.  

Sir David Lidington, former Conservative Cabinet Minster said: 

” As this paper shows, our system for making new legislation is flawed. A government, Conservative, Labour or Coalition, with a secure majority in the Commons can force through even controversial laws speedily and without sufficient opportunity for Parliament to test the effectiveness of a Bill or assess the impact, deliberate or unintended, that it will have on families, businesses and others. The authors offer a menu for reform designed to provide better law-making and increased powers and responsibilities for Parliament to scrutinise and check the executive. The paper should be required reading for Ministers, backbench MPs and anyone who wants to see the reputation of our democratic system improved.”

Report: The legislative process: How to empower parliament

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