Westminster Diary: How scrutiny can help provide clarity to proposed legislation
- Credit: Archant
Welcome to my Westminster diary. Each week, I’ll be giving a behind-the-scenes take on what life is really like as a new MP. From jeering and bobbing, procedures and prayers, I’ll be lifting the lid on the mother of all Parliaments. Think ‘The Thick of It’ not ‘House of Cards’!
This week, I joined my first ever “Bill Committee”: a cross-party group of MPs who scrutinise new laws line-by-line. The “Fire Safety Bill” is the first piece of legislation introduced to address some of the findings from the Grenfell fire disaster, more than three years ago.
I’ve been supporting some St Albans residents living in housing that is affected, so when a space unexpectedly became available, I jumped at the chance to join the committee.
At just three pages, it is a very short bill and very limited in scope – but very important. It’s main purpose is to clarify who is responsible for managing and reducing the risk of fire for the structure and external walls of a building; something which will empower residents and fire and rescue services to take enforcement action.
The government ‘owns’ the Bill. It’s their legislation. And if they don’t want opposition MPs to amend it, they’ll use their majority on the committee to make sure they don’t. But, frustrated at the lack of progress over the last three years, opposition MPs, including me, tabled a raft of amendments to show the government we wanted it to move further and faster.
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In these circumstances, the purpose of tabling “probing amendments” is two-fold: either to pressure the government into giving a concession or assurance - on the record - or to facilitate discussion on a specific point to see what the Government’s thinking is.
I tabled amendments calling for public registers of fire safety assessments and the accredited assessors who conduct them. The government opposed the amendments but stated - on the record - that it would legislate for registers like those in a future Bill.
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The government’s bill is silent about who should pay for any remedial works, so I also tabled a “probing amendment”. It worked. The government confirmed – on the record - that a Minister would make a statement on this in the House of Commons before the summer – thus hopefully giving a timetable for some greater clarity to the residents I’ve been working with.
Of course, most parliamentary procedure favours the ruling government but it was heartening to see the role that scrutiny can play, especially on such an important issue.
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