22 June 2017

If the Conservative Party secures a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), it will be more confident of winning key votes in the House of Commons. But parliamentary committees will remain tricky, says Dr Hannah White.

Scrutiny committees under a minority government

After each election, the Speaker of the House of Commons uses a formula to work out how many chairs of scrutiny committees each party can expect. The Party Whips then agree between themselves which party will get which committee chair.

In the last Parliament, there were 25 permanent House of Commons committees with elected chairs for which this was relevant: 19 departmental, plus six specialist committees (Environmental Audit, Procedure, Public Accounts, Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, Petitions and Standards). There were also two temporary committees created for the duration of Parliament: Women and Equalities and Exiting the EU, bringing the total to 27.

It is up to the Government whether to create or do away with any of these committees. Judging by previous precedents, however, if there are 27 committees, the Government might expect to gain the chairs of 13, and opposition parties 14. Opposition chairs will mainly go to Labour, but the Scottish National Party and possibly the Liberal Democrats may also be entitled to one or more. 

The DUP is not likely to be entitled to any chairs under the formula unless quite a few more committees are created, which seems unlikely, or the Government gives them one of theirs as part of a confidence and supply deal.

The party affiliation of a committee chair does not necessarily determine how constructive or troublesome a committee will be for the Government. Chairs tend to be independent; for example, Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, Chair of the Treasury Committee in the last Parliament, was more than happy to criticise the Government where he felt it was warranted. And there are no conventions to bind the way chairs have to vote on select committees, so a committee's conclusions and recommendations will depend more on the individuals involved than their party affiliation.

More significant may be the balance of members on each committee. Committees tend to agree reports by consensus wherever possible, but if it comes to a vote, the Conservatives will no longer have a majority on scrutiny committees (whatever the affiliation of the Chair). Again, looking at precedents, it is likely that a typical 11-member committee will have either five Conservative, five Labour and one other member (depending on the subject these will be divided between the minority parties) or five Conservative, four Labour and two others. This may make it more likely that committees will produce reports that are critical of the Government. 

Legislative committees under a minority government

The Conservative Party will not be able to expect a majority on Commons legislative committees (known as Public Bill Committees or PBCs). But if the Government Whips manage to ensure MPs attend every committee meeting without fail, getting bills through committees may not be too problematic.

On PBCs, the way the Chair must vote when a vote is tied is bound by convention: he or she must vote to leave the bill as it was and ensure any change is only made by a majority of the committee. If any vote on whether a clause or schedule should ‘stand part’ of a bill is tied, the Chair will be bound to vote in favour of the question – ensuring that all the Government’s proposed clauses and schedules are agreed to. This means that the Government can expect to get its bills through committees without any changes.

Making government amendments will be harder. Normally, almost all changes to bills in committees that are actually made are proposed by the Government itself, to correct drafting errors or reflect developments in thinking. If a vote on whether to make an amendment is tied, the Chair must vote against it in order to leave the bill as it was.

It will be a pain for the Government not to be confident of being able to make its own amendments to bills during the Committee Stage. However, when the bill returns to the whole House at Report Stage, it will have the chance to make any changes it needs by drawing on the support of the DUP or other parties.

Subsequently, getting its legislation through the House of Lords – where the Government still has no majority – may be trickier. Although the Lords is unlikely to vote down Government legislation at Second Reading – even where it may not technically be covered by the ‘Salisbury Convention’, it may not feel inhibited when it comes to proposing and insisting on amendments to government bills.

And the two-year session announced by the Government means that it would not be able to use the Parliament Acts to overcome possible Lords intransigence before the deadline for the Article 50 process expires in March 2019.