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:
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.
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.