The House of Commons, and indeed Parliament as a whole, is an institution in which change is rare. Even rarer are periods of significant change in its operation. However, the Wright Reforms of 2009 did make a number of significant changes to the operation of the House of Commons. On the whole, these changes saw power shift away from the Executive and towards backbenchers. However, not all the recommendations of the Wright Committee were implemented. So, what changes were made and in what areas might it be argued they did not go far enough?
What is meant by the Wright Reforms?
The Wright Reforms were named after Dr Tony Wright who between 2008 and 2009 chaired the Reform the House of Commons Select Committee. This was an ad hoc committee there was established to improve the House of Commons. On the 12th November 2009 it published its long-awaited report in a document called Rebuilding the House. The report can be found here.
What did the Wright Report recommend?
The report made a number of recommendations to the House of Commons:
On Select Committees:
- Chairs of Select Committees should be elected by secret ballot of the whole house.
- Members of Select Committees should be elected by their own party by Secret Ballot.
- There should be a reduction in the size of Select Committees.
- There should be a reduction in the overall number of Select Committees.
On House Business:
- A Backbench Business Committee should be established.
- A House Business Committee, made up of both Government and Opposition members, should be established.
- That the Forthcoming Business of the House should be agreed by a resolution of the House.
- That one day per week should be devoted to backbench business.
- Ministerial statements should be given at a set point in each parliamentary day to enable better scrutiny.
On the Legislative Process:
- That more time should be devoted for the Report Stage for bills meaning, similar to the House of Lords, the Commons could go through bills line-by-line.
- There should be a new system whereby Private Members Bills could not just be filibustered.
On Public Involvement:
- An E-Petitions System with its own Select Committee should be established.
- The right of the Petitions Committee to select petitions for debate in the House of Commons should be enshrined.
- The legislative process should be opened up to the public. (One suggestion was an adoption of a new legislative stage called the ‘public reading’ stage).
As can be seen, the recommendations made by the Wright Committee were extremely wide-ranging.
Why were changes bought about?
Before the 2010 General Election both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat Manifestos both included elements included in the Wright Reforms:
Establishing a Backbench Business Committee to give the House of Commons more control over its own timetable.
So, with a Conservative government, any petition that secures 100,000 signatures will be eligible for formal debate in Parliament. The petition with the most signatures will enable members of the public to table a Bill eligible to be voted on in Parliament. And we will introduce a new Public Reading Stage for Bills to give the public an opportunity to comment on proposed legislation online.Conservative Manifesto 2010
Strengthen the House of Commons to increase accountability. We will increase Parliamentary scrutiny of the budget and of government appointments and give Parliament control over its own agenda so that all bills leaving the Commons have been fully debatedLiberal Democrat Manifesto 2010
Subsequently, when the Coalition Agreement was reached between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats it said:
We will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full – starting with the proposed committee for management of backbench business. A House Business Committee, to consider government business, will be established by the third year of the Parliament.The Coalition Agreement 2010
What changes were bought about?
After the 2010 General Election, a number of changes that were recommended by the Wright Committee were bought about:
Prior to the Wright Reforms membership of Select Committees was chosen by party whips. This gave Party leaders significant power and ultimately led to Select Committees that lacked any notion of independence. However, after the reforms, Committee Chairs were elected by secret ballot of the whole house and members were elected by secret ballot of their own party. There can be no doubt that the independent scrutiny offered by Select Committees has consequently grown.
Backbench Business Committee
As recommended by the Wright Committee, a Backbench Business Committee now exists. This committee hears requests for debate from Backbenchers and directs backbench time. One day a week is now reserved for backbench business, with 35 in total over each session. This is often on a Thursday.
Parliament now has an operational E-Petitions site. If a petition reaches 10,000 signatures the Government will issue a written response and if it receives 100,000 signatures it will be considered for a debate in Parliament.
What significant changes were not bought about?
Despite these significant changes, there were others that were not pushed through, including:
- Changes to ministerial statements.
- Significant changes to the legislative process, including greater involvement from the public and better use of the Report Stage.
However, by far the most significant change not made was reforming the way the Business of the House is run. Under Standing Order 14 the Government controls the agenda of the House of Commons:
14.— (1) Save as provided in this order, government business shall have precedence at every sitting.
In fact, in each parliamentary session, only 35 Commons days are not directly controlled by the Government and even then, the Government can cancel opposition day business if they feel it is required. Indeed, the current Speake, Lindsey Hoyle, has scolded the Government for organising Government business on Opposition Days. The Wright Reforms called for a cross-party committee to discuss the Business of the House and allow it to vote on the Business agenda for the next week. This would mean that the House as a whole, and not the Government, would be in charge of the agenda.
In the conception of the Wright Committee this would have been an avenue through which to loosen the ‘elective dictatorship’. Giving the House a say over its own agenda would have given it more legitimacy and, due to their majority, it would normally be the case that the Government decide the agenda anyway.
During the Brexit impasse in Parliament in 2018 and 2019 the House of Commons had to wrestle control of the Commons agenda through a series of rebellions, including the one which saw Boris Johnson withdraw the whip from 21 of his MPs, including Ken Clarke. Ultimately, it should not be this messy for MPs to discuss what they want to discuss.
Had it been actioned the creation of a Business of the House Committee would have been a significant reform which may have given more legitimacy to the House business and may have fostered a more bipartisan spirit in the chamber. Instead, despite the other significant reforms that came from the Wright recommendations, this was the gaping hole in them.
The Wright Reforms did a significant amount to improve the House of Commons and its ability to scrutinise the Government. This was particularly the case as regards Select Committees which have become more independent since 2010. However, the failure to reform how Business of the House is scheduled means that the changes were not as radical as they otherwise could have been.
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.
Filibuster – The process whereby an MP, or a group of MPs, keep talking about a bill in order to stop it going to a vote.
Report Stage – The stage of the legislative process in which the bill that returns from Committee is debated and voted on.
Coalition Agreement – The agreement signed between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2010 to enable a programme for Government.
Elective Dictatorship – A term coined by Lord Hailsham to describe the situation in Britain in which when a government is elected, they can normally govern without much effective scrutiny.
E-Petition – A petition that can be signed and shared easily online. If they reach 100,000 signatures on the Government website, they may be considered for debate in Parliament.
Backbench Business Committee – A Select Committee set up following the Wright Reforms of 2009 that directs backbench debating time in the House of Commons. Backbench MPs can apply to the committee for debating time in the Commons Chamber of Westminster Hall.
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.