Scrutinising the scrutinisers

One of the more important circuits in the hidden wiring of the British constitution is the Committee of Selection.

Never heard of it? You're not alone.

This is the Commons select committee which "decides" which MP should sit on which public bill committee, scrutinising which piece of legislation.

I put scare quotes around the word "decide" because in reality, the Committee is a clearing house for lists produced by the party whips - there's not much, if any, real discussion of the names, and the meetings are almost embarrassingly short.

Now there are moves to open the whole thing up.

The Commons Procedure Committee has been running an inquiry into its operation and, my spies tell me, a few ideas for reform are beginning to crystallise.

I'm relying on spies because much of the evidence is being taken in private - with much entertainment afforded by the recent evidence from ex-Chief Whip Nick Brown, former Leader of the House Jack Straw and 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady.

"Two reformist ultras and one from the Cave of Adullam," says my source.

They shared some not-in-front-of-the-children anecdotes about how the system really worked.

The next session should be even more fun, at least for those allowed in the room; I gather all three chief whips have been invited to give their thoughts to the committee.

But behind all the storytelling lurks a serious issue.

The public bill committee system has long been identified as a suitable case for treatment by the internal reform lobby in the Commons.

These are the ad hoc committees which are set up to scrutinise particular bills in detail - the "committee stage" of consideration.

Sometimes these committees do good work, but sometimes they are little more than a ritualistic rubber-stamping exercise, and sometimes they don't even complete their scrutiny, before the bill returns to the Commons.

There's a general complaint that the parties use the present set-up to keep MPs who might ask awkward questions or push awkward causes off public bill committees where they might do a bit of damage to legislation.

There's the famous case of GP-turned-MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston, kept off the committee for the Health and Social Care Bill, having told the whips she had some ideas about how to improve it.

And then there are the Labour gripes about the way in which MPs, like Robert Flello, with traditionalist views on marriage, were kept off the committee on the gay marriage bill.

Certainly, the argument can be made that a bit more expertise on the Health and Social Care Bill Committee might have saved the government an awful lot of trouble.

A number of possible remedies are being discussed.

First, and most controversially, that the chair of the Committee of Selection should be elected annually.

At the moment the post is appointed, and the thought is that direct accountability to MPs is needed and that the post is so crucial that the elections should happen every year - forcing the incumbent to keep in close touch with MPs from all sides.

Second, that the Commons select committee most concerned with a particular Bill (say, the Energy and Climate Change Committee, for the Energy Bill) should be able to nominate two of its members to sit on the public bill committee.

This would bring in members with actual experience and expertise… and there is even a semi-precedent from earlier in the parliament, when the Education Committee Chair, Graham Stuart, sat on the committee for the Education Bill.

Third, that the chairs of public bill committees should be able to allow an MP who wasn't on their committee, but had a particular issue to raise, to make a short speech.

There's more equivocation about holding votes in the Commons on public bill committee memberships - Nick Brown pointed out that a majority party in the Commons could decide to be mischievous and meddle with the membership of minority parties, perhaps installing a known trouble maker or maverick… Perish the thought.

It will be some time before any recommendations emerge, and still longer before they are voted on, but this is quite radical stuff.

No-one is arguing that a government should be stopped from getting its legislation through - but allowing more opportunity for thorough scrutiny and the asking of awkward questions is no small thing.

And of course it's only part of the jigsaw...

But it will be fascinating to see how a government that has always promised to open up parliament will respond.