UK Politics

Commons Speaker calls for sweeping new committee powers

John Bercow (file pic)
Image caption MPs would need "persistence and pragmatism", Mr Bercow argued

MPs must seize the initiative and hand extensive new powers to select committees, Commons Speaker John Bercow has said.

In a lecture, Mr Bercow said recent reforms aimed at making committees of MPs more independent, while laudable, were an "unfinished revolution".

Ambiguity remained over their powers, he argued, saying they must be able to compel witnesses to attend hearings.

There should also be sanctions against misleading testimony, he added.

Committees needed "the ability to call witnesses to account should they give false evidence or otherwise mislead a select committee", the Speaker told a Hansard Society event on Thursday.

In 2010, the culture, media and sport committee complained that News International bosses appeared to be suffering from "collective amnesia" as they gave evidence on phone hacking.

The former executive chairman of the company, Les Hinton, admitted earlier this year that previous evidence suggesting the practice was restricted to one reporter had proven inaccurate, but denied misleading the committee.

'Prime-time'

Mr Bercow paid tribute to Chancellor George Osborne for his "bold" decision to ensure that the Treasury committee would have a veto on the appointment of the Office for Budget Responsibility chief Robert Chote.

This power should be "formalised" and extended to other committees and other appointments, he suggested.

Drawing a comparison with the US Congress, he argued that for too long the Commons had resembled the Senate, with its emphasis on oratory in the chamber and a lack of focus on committees.

This had rendered the Commons ineffective, partly because there were many more MPs than senators, Mr Bercow observed.

The balance shifted in 1979, the Speaker said, when departmental select committees were introduced.

He praised the recent move to make committees more independent by allowing all MPs to elect committee chairs in a secret ballot and enabling MPs from each party to decide who among them should join committees.

The Speaker suggested two other ideas to rebalance powers in the Commons.

The first was a regular slot to debate work by committees in the Commons in "30 minutes of parliamentary prime-time on a Tuesday or a Wednesday".

And he suggested that departmental select committees might draw on their expertise in policy areas to draft amendments to bills, which could be moved on the floor of the House by a representative of the committee.

'Patience, persistence and pragmatism'

At present, select committees have no formal role in the legislative process, although they are sometimes invited to scrutinise draft bills - and their verdicts carry clout.

Ad-hoc alliances of MPs sometimes form behind individual backbenchers' amendments to government bills, but such bids to change the law are usually unsuccessful.

Amendments crafted formally by a cross-party committee of specialists may well be more likely to get the support of a majority of MPs.

The lecture came as part of Parliament Week, which is an initiative to try to connect the public with their legislature during the centenary year of the 1911 Parliament Act - the basis of the relationship between the Lords and the Commons.

Mr Bercow hailed the legacy of Sir Courtenay Peregrine Ilbert, from whom Commons Leader Sir George Young is descended, for his painstaking work on drafting the 100-year-old act.

It was under-appreciated, Mr Bercow argued, the extent to which the Commons - rather than the government - had spearheaded the 1911 legislation.

He urged the current crop of MPs to draw inspiration from Sir Courtenay's "patience, persistence and pragmatism", and be "in the vanguard" of pushing for these new powers.

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