Discussions...about discussions

What next for the battle to empower the Commons? Last night, Mr Speaker hosted an agreeable dinner for the chairs of the various Commons select committees, to discuss their future and the possible move towards a House Business Committee, which would allow MPs a real say over what they discuss.

The Tony Wright reforms agreed at the end of the last parliament, and implemented in this one, have made a huge difference to the operations of the Commons and its committees; they speak with a more powerful voice and scrutinise the work of government rather more effectively.

So the importance of rather tekky-looking changes to the rules should not be underestimated. But what changes?

Some of the chairs want clear powers to summon witnesses, perhaps enshrined in a new Privilege Bill. Others want to clarify the responsibility of the assorted agencies which now run many public services, to make it explicit that they are responsible to Parliament through ministers - and for that matter to make it clear that civil servants appearing before committees are expected to give straight answers.

Many of the chairs are also keen to have a guaranteed chunk of Commons debating time in which the work of the committees can be considered - there's a rising realisation that MPs who are not members of select committees are feeling a bit excluded from all the fun. This would be one way of including them. It would also be one of the key duties of the hoped-for House Business Committee, which should, in theory, emerge from its chrysalis sometime later this year.

The House Business Committee would be the crowning reform of the way the Commons operates. At the moment the parliamentary timetable is hammered out by the "usual channels": the parliamentary euphemism for a conclave of whips and business managers from the government and opposition. In the past this arrangement has been focussed on pushing business through with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss - with the result that bills frequently leave the Commons in a semi-digested state, with key sections un-debated by MPs.

To its considerable credit, this government has allowed longer debates at report stage, which has allowed the whole House more time to consider amendments to bills - but the complaint remains that Commons scrutiny of legislation is perfunctory and ritualistic, and hardly stands comparison to the detailed examination it receives in the Lords.

If the Commons is to reach a legislative nirvana, where these problems are abolished, and proper time is found for debates, someone has to draw up a blueprint for MPs to vote on. But who?

There was some talk about having a Speaker's Conference to give real clout and authority to the proposals, but enthusiasm for that idea is waning. There is the Liaison Committee, the super-committee of select committee chairs, best known for its regular Q&A sessions with the prime minister. But this big, unweildy body, which has a pecking order as nuanced as any band of gorillas, normally operates by consensus and is not exactly designed to produce hard-edged proposals.

So maybe the solution will be to set up a "son of Wright" committee to carry forward the work of the saintly Tony Wright's reform proposals. If the government is really serious about this, they will have to move before the end of the Parliamentary year.

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