By Louise Thompson
One of the key targets outlined in last month’s Digital Democracy Commission report was that the House of Commons should make sure that everyone can understand what it does. One of the examples it gave to demonstrate this was the rather arcane language still used during Parliament’s scrutiny of legislation. As someone who spends most of their time reading bill committee transcripts, I completely understand where they are coming from. How can we expect members of the public to know what MPs mean when they ask to ‘move’ or ‘speak to’ an amendment? Or what it actually means if a clause ‘stands part of a bill’ or an MP asks to ‘beg leave to withdraw the amendment’? And this is all before we get to starred amendments, manuscript amendments and clause stand part debates. Such language, the report says, is a ‘barrier to understanding’.
Making parliamentary language easier to understand will help the public to find out more about the work of parliament, to understand what goes on within its walls and to read and understand proposed legislation. If initiatives such as public reading stage take off, they will also help members of the public to make constructive comments on, and contributions to, the drafting of bills. But it will also help MPs too. For while there are many good reasons for retaining the formal language used in Parliament (most notably that it helps debate stay more civilised than it may otherwise be), but at the same time it causes huge problems for MPs who want to scrutinise government bills, or to introduce bills of their own. We saw this very clearly during Michael Cockerill’s ‘In the Commons’ which launched last week. The television cameras followed Sarah Champion as she tried to amend the government’s Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to change the law on child grooming. We saw what was ultimately a successful struggle to get the government to listen to her. But we also saw that at the very start of the process she simply could not understand the legislation she was trying to amend. In fact, so complex was the wording used, that neither could the parliamentary clerk she sought assistance from.
We see this problem all the time during the committee stage of bills. MPs wish to change the law and even if the government are highly amenable to it, they usually have to take the proposed amendment away and redraft it with the aid of Parliamentary Counsel (a resource not available to the average backbencher). The legal language used in bills can make them impenetrable for anyone who does not possess a legal background. Even the name of bills doesn’t always make sense and can cause confusion. See for instance the second reading debate on the Protection of Freedoms Bill in which MPs from both parties lament its poor choice of name and suggest that it instead be given a much more sensible title – namely the Criminal Justice Amendment Bill. Writing our legislation in clearer, more accessible language would therefore do much more than simply help the public to understand and contribute to the work of Parliament; it would give its Members a greater capacity to do so too.
But the recommendations of the Digital Democracy Commission should not end here. For the problem of parliamentary language is made even worse when it is used in conjunction with arcane processes. Even if we tackle the terminology, the way that bills themselves are considered and amended is confusing. This confusion isn’t just among the public. It also blights MPs themselves. I have lost count of the times that I have seen a committee chair have to explain terminology and process to MPs, including those who have spent several years in the House. Take the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill in 2009, where the government minister (someone who should have been in a strong position to actually understand what was going on) failed to realise that in order to replace two clauses of the bill with freshly drafted clauses, she would first need to vote against the existing clauses ‘standing part of the bill’ before voting for her new clauses. Despite two attempts to get it right, she failed to understand what the Chair was asking when he put the question that ‘the clause stand part of the bill’ (read the full exchange here). And who can blame her. The process itself is confusing due to the way in which scrutiny proceeds in committee. And the language used by the Chair in ‘putting the question’ did nothing help her understanding of the process.
So I applaud the recommendation set out in the report to pilot legislative scrutiny in plain English. Not only will it help the public to understand the proposed content of laws as they are being made and scrutinised, it will also give MPs a greater capacity to find faults, correct errors and introduce fundamental changes to these bills. But at the same time, it will also be important to consider parliamentary processes. These process are somewhat outside of the remit for the Digital Democracy Commission, but simplifying them would add even more to public (and MP) understanding and scrutiny.
Louise Thompson is Lecturer in British Politics at the University of Surrey. She tweets @louisevthompson.
Images: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced here with the permission of Parliament.