Public Bill Committees are a topic that many students get confused over and this is primarily because students confuse them with Select Committees. So what are Public Bill Committees and how effective are they?
What is the difference between a Public Bill Committee and a Select Committee?
A Public Bill Committee is an ad hoc committee that is set up to scrutinise a particular piece of legislation as it makes its journey through the House of Commons. They carry out this function after the Second Reading during the Committee Stage and the bill is then reported back to the house for Report Stage. The purpose of a Public Bill Committee is therefore to look at a bill in more detail than may be possible in the chamber of the house during its reading stages.
However, a Select Committee is one appointed by the House of Commons or the House of Lords to scrutinise a particular department or area of public policy. Whilst Select Committees may occasionally be launched or retired, they are standing committees are are permanently in place.
When are Public Bill Committees formed?
A Public Bill Committee is automatically formed in the House of Commons when a bill has completed its Second Reading. The exceptions to this are they are referred to a Committee of the Whole House. This is always the case for Money Bills and is occasionally used for other bills. For example, the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. In addition, the Committee Stage in the House of Lords always takes place as a Committee of the House Whole House.
How is the membership of Public Bill Committees chosen?
The size of each Public Bill Committee varies depending on the bill being considered. However, they normally have between 17 and 20 members. Since the Wright Reforms of 2010 Select Committees membership has been chosen by elections by MPs. This has had a significant impact on their independence. However, membership of Public Bill Committees is still chosen by party whips. The mechanism for doing this is the Committee of Selection, but this is simply the way party whips send MPs to different Public Bill Committees. Whilst it is possible for the whips to chose MPs who have a particular expertise, they may also choose MPs who are likely to be compliant with their wishes. Famously, in 2013 Dr Sarah Wollaston was kept off the Committee on the Health and Social Care Bill, meanwhile fellow MPs chose to elect her Chair of the Health Select Committee in 2014!
How do Public Bill Committees operate?
The way the committees operate depend on the House of Commons Programme Motion. However, they usually meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays in both the morning and in he afternoon.
The Committee will consider the bill in detail. However, not only will it look at the text of the bill, it will also hear oral evidence. The Committee is able to take evidence from those outside of Parliament. This will be done via both written and oral submissions.
For example, when considering the Public Order Bill in 2022 the Public Bill Committee took evidence from a number of stakeholders. As the bill considered new offences for protests aimed at public infrastructure the witnesses were linked to these areas:
- Chief Constable Chris Noble, Lead for Protests, National Police Chiefs’ Council
- John Groves, Chief Security and Resilience Officer, High Speed 2 Limited
- Nicola Bell, Regional Director, South East, National Highways
Just like in the chamber, if amendments are made to the bill they are voted on by all members. However, most members simply vote down party lines meaning bills do not change much more than the Government want them to.
When the Committee has finished their deliberation the bill goes back to the House of Commons for its Report Stage where all MPs will be able to vote on the amendments made.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of Public Bill Committees?
Some of the strengths of Public Bill Committees may be that:
- They allow MPs to go through a bill line-by-line and give it the detailed scrutiny it likely cannot get in the chamber.
- It allows MPs to hear the opinions of external stakeholders. This allows them to test the bill more fully. For example, the Domestic Abuse Bill received 96 pieces of written evidence from various stakeholders.
- It allows MPs to raise concerns that they might have received from their constituents.
- It allows the selection of MPs with specialist expertise to sit and scrutinise bills. For example, Jess Phillips sat on the Domestic Abuse Bill committee and she has extensive experience of campaigning on this issue.
- Public Bill committees do not normally get significant media attention and so the work can be done without having to worry about media presentation.
However, some of the weaknesses of Public Bill Committees may include:
- They are normally highly partisan and MPs vote within them the way that their whips want.
- MPs who sit on a Public Bill Committee are effectively chosen to do so by their party whips. This means that the MPs chosen may be those least likely to challenge their own party.
- Amendments to the bill are often not accepted unless they are proposed by the Government side.
- Very few amendments come out of Public Bill Committees. This is because the Government have a majority and Government MPs are heavily whipped.
- They do not have the same level of independence as Select Committees do since the Wright Reforms.
Public Bill Committees are often confused with Select Committees but they have very different functions. Public Bill Committees are set up solely to consider a particular public bill. However, whilst they have some strengths, the dominance of the government within them and the strength of government whips makes them largely ineffective.
Public Bill Committee – An ad hoc Committee set up to consider a bill making its way through Parliament. Unlike Select Committees membership is still chosen by party whips.
Second Reading – The second stage of the legislative process. At this stage a Minister outlines the principles of the bill, and a debate and vote follows.
Report Stage – The stage of the legislative process in which the bill that returns from Committee is debated and voted on.
Committee Stage – The third stage of the legislative process. The bill goes to a Public Bill committee which scrutinises the bill and adds amendments before sending it back to the House. In the Lords this takes place as a Committee of the Whole House.
Committee of the Whole House – When the whole chamber sits in on a Committee Stage of a bill. This always happens in the House of Lords but only very occasionally in the House of Commons.
Select Committee – Committees that were set up in 1979 to scrutinise the work of the Government. They include both Departmental Select Committees and those that look at issues across the government, such as the Public Accounts Committee.
Wright Reforms – A series of reforms made to the House of Commons in 2009 which included the creation of a Backbench Business Committee and elections to all Select Committee roles.
Whips – Members of political parties who are responsible for maintaining party discipline.