Thursday, 15 September 2011

What Is A Grand Committee And What Does It Mean For Welfare Reform?

 Cross posted with thanks to LatentExistence

After all the fuss of the Welfare Reform Bill in the house of lords yesterday I wasn’t expecting much for a couple of weeks when it will reach committee stage. However, I woke up today to find that the government had tabled a motion in the lords to send the bill to the grand committee, held in a side room.

This is in fact the normal procedure for legislation moving through parliament. The committee stage is where the bill is examined line-by-line and objections from the debate at the second reading turn into amendments to the bill before it goes back to the house for the report stage and the third reading. Parliament’s own web page states:

Any Bill can be referred to a Committee of the whole House but the procedure is normally reserved for finance Bills and other important, controversial legislation.

So you can see, controversial bills are supposed to be debated by a “committee of the whole house” rather than a “grand committee.” As one lord stated in the debate today, no one can argue that this legislation is not controversial. The peers have stated over and over again during debate that they have been inundated with letters, emails, and phone calls from people concerned about this bill. They show surprise at the scale of concern shown to them. Unfortunately, despite a heated debate this afternoon in the end the lords voted 263 to 211 to pass the motion and move the bill to the Grand Committee. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats voted for the motion, and Labour voted against it. Some of the reasons given were that it would block up the chamber and delay the passage of other bills, and that too many people would want to speak in the debate and it would take too long. (Yes, really! Democracy apparently takes too long.) One lady stated that several of the bills going through parliament are really three bills in one, and that of course it would take longer. (As an aside, I would urge you to look up Shock Doctrine for reasons as to why changes are being made so quickly.)

The difference between the two options for committee stage are quite important, I think. Here’s the official description of the committee stage:

Line by line examination of the Bill
Detailed line by line examination of the separate parts (clauses and schedules) of the Bill takes place during committee stage. Any Member of the Lords can take part.

Committee stage can last for one or two days to eight or more. It usually starts no fewer than two weeks after the second reading.

Before committee stage takes place

The day before committee stage starts, amendments are published in a Marshalled List – in which all the amendments are placed in order.

Amendments on related subjects are grouped together and a list (“groupings of amendments”) is published on the day.

What happens at committee stage?

Every clause of the Bill has to be agreed to and votes on the amendments can take place.

All proposed amendments (proposals for change) can be discussed and there is no time limit – or guillotine – on discussion of amendments.

What happens after committee stage?

If the Bill has been amended it is reprinted with all the agreed amendments.

At the end of committee stage, the Bill moves to report stage for further examination.

Here is the critical part though:

Grand Committee

The proceedings are identical to those in a Committee of the Whole House except that no votes may take place.

As compared to:

Committee of the whole House

In the House of Lords the committee stage of a Bill usually takes place in the Lords Chamber and any Member can take part. The Committee may choose to vote on any amendment and all Members present can vote.

So you can see, apart from being in a less-accessible room, with space for far fewer peers to discuss the bill and no public gallery, sending a bill to the Grand Committee also means that the amendments cannot be voted on individually. I think, on the whole, this can be viewed as a bad thing.

However, please keep sending your messages to peers. They have noticed our objections, and we can’t let up now. Details are in my previous blog post.

***Important Update***
As Sam points out below, in the Grand Committee there is no voting on amendments, which would enable a majority vote to fix some of the worse points. Instead, the committee must agree unanimously on an amendment which means that just one person siding with the government can block any attempt to fix this bill.


Anonymous said...

where is the democracy in this the whole fecking things crazy and guess what we are all putting up with it instead of having these bastatrds over. what the fudge is the matter people actions ours will speak mnuch louder than words its been a fruitless exercise

Visually Impaired said...

On another note could we not put a complaint into the parliamentary ombudsman. Statin g that it is discriminatory as the level of access to this meeting is seriously curtailed and that the majority of campaigners who wished to go couldn't

DeusExMacintosh said...

Instead, the committee must agree unanimously on an amendment which means that just one person siding with the government can block any attempt to fix this bill.

Wouldn't that also mean one person against the government could block its progress?

Anonymous said...

have received a reply from Lord Kennedy who urges us to write to Crossbench members of the House of Lords.
"It would be very helpful if you were able to make representations to these members in particular during the passage of the bill, as they play a crucial role and bring much independent thought to proceedings in the House of Lords."
The following link provides their contact details

Kyron said...

Email from mr S Bassam
Dear Sir /Madam

Welfare Reform Bill - House of Lords Debates

Firstly, can I thank you for making contact with Labours team in the Lords on this important Bill.

Like you and no doubt many others concerned about the Bill and its implications for many people in the UK we were concerned when the Government suddenly announced that it was going to prevent the Bill from being taken on the floor of the main chamber of the House of Lords. As Labour’s Chief Whip, I had been carefully negotiating with the Government to ensure we had the maximum amount of time to discuss its serious implications for the many people in the country who are reliant on the Government to ensure they are free from poverty and receive much needed support. We know too how important and controversial the bill is for many who suffer from a disability.

It is unprecedented for any Government to put a procedural motion of the sort the Government Chief Whip Baroness Anelay did before the House - instructing the Lords to take a Bill in Grand Committee. These things are always reached by mutual agreement. We argued that the Bill needed at least 8 full committee days in the main Chamber of the House of Lords because it is controversial and has big implications for some of the poorest and most vulnerable of our citizens. We did force the issue to a vote and lost 263-211. Most of those supporting the Government were Liberal Democrats and Conservative peers who now have a political majority in the House of Lords.

Now, sadly, the Bill will be considered in a committee room. We will try to ensure that the Bill is not hidden away and forgotten. Most of all we will play our part in ensuring that the room and space used is accessible for those with a disability or mobility problem and that interested members of the public can listen in and access the debates and discussions.

In terms of voting on amendments to the Bill, this is not possible in a Grand Committee. This is one of its disadvantages from an opposition perspective. However, we can vote when the Bill is at Report Stage, though it might limit the number of issues we can realistically oppose in the division lobbies. I will be working out a strategy with our front bench team to ensure we make good use of the opportunities to oppose those parts of the Bill which are most objectionable. We hope that you can help us in this exercise and we would very much welcome your continued interest and contact. If you are involved in a campaign group do please keep sending the briefings. Personal testimonies are also very helpful in debates because they help explain and put in context the issues.

I am attaching the Hansard link ( ) to the short debate which took place on the location of the committee. Baronesses Jane Campbell and Tanni Grey-Thompson were brilliant from the Cross-benches. I just wish that the Government had not been so dogmatic. Sadly they have put too much controversial legislation into Parliament too quickly and are running out of time in this session to get it through. The Welfare Reform Bill is a victim of their ruthlessness.

Finally thank you for your interest.