Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Special Report


The Home Affairs Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—



1.  The Liaison Committee report Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive invited other committees to assess progress on the implementation by government departments of their past recommendations.[9] This special report responds to that suggestion. We asked the Home Office for a memorandum on progress on past recommendations and this is published as an appendix. Since the Liaison Committee also wishes to report on the overall effectiveness of select committees and relations with government departments, these issues are also addressed below.


2.  The Committee monitors the work of two major government departments - the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department - and the four smaller legal offices under the Attorney General. Between them they have a total budget of just over £12,000 million in 2000-01, of which the Home Office accounts for about £8,000 million.

3.  In the past year - as in earlier sessions of this Parliament - the Committee's main inquiries have focussed on Home Office matters. Two long inquiries have examined Controls over Firearms and Border Controls. We have also looked at two emerging policy areas, a proposal from the Law Commission to relax the Double Jeopardy Rule and government plans for Managing Dangerous People with Severe Personality Disorder.

4.  When things went seriously wrong at Blantyre House Prison we conducted a post mortem inquiry into what had happened and reported on the lessons to be learned. This latter inquiry was fitted into our planned programme with only slight delay to other work. It involved us operating in unfamiliar ways, receiving evidence which could not be published for security reasons, seeing confidential internal reports, taking oral evidence at a prison and hearing oral evidence in private. We think it is important for select committees to be able to react quickly to such events, but this has implications for the staffing support which we deal with in paragraph 29 below.

5.  Our work on inquiries leading to reports has been interspersed with single evidence sessions on a variety of topics. In these cases we have published the evidence but have not added comments of our own. Such sessions account for nearly half of our work - nine of the 23 oral evidence sessions in 1999-2000. These include two annual policy sessions with the two Cabinet ministers heading the main departments and three administration sessions with the permanent secretaries (including the Director of Public Prosecutions).

6.  Two further single sessions were devoted to the work of specific agencies - the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the Public Trust Office. We have also used this method to follow up with the responsible minister an unsatisfactory government response to our report on Drugs and Prisons and to air the issues raised by the Police Foundation in its report on Drugs and the Law. The latter recommended some relaxation of the penalties for using cannabis. The rather dismissive reaction of the Home Office to the detailed Runciman report led us take oral evidence from the inquiry team.[10] Since the Home Office showed no sign of producing a considered response to that report, we used the powers of a select committee to insist on a memorandum (notionally to the Committee) answering each specific recommendation.[11]

7.  One new subject area to which we have devoted more attention in the past year is the European Union dimension of justice and home affairs. It is clear, following the European Council meeting in Tampere in October 1999, that an increasing number of the issues we deal with will be influenced by EU initiatives. Consequently we have taken steps to increase our understanding of this dimension to our remit by conducting an informal seminar, taking oral evidence from a Home Office minister, visiting the European Commission and Parliament in Brussels and sending one or two representatives to international meetings on home affairs issues. What we have learnt on these occasions has informed our work, particularly in the inquiry into Border Controls.


8.  In all, only three of our oral evidence sessions and none of our reports touched directly on the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor's Department. This raises the question whether that department is receiving the degree of parliamentary scrutiny which it deserves. When the current structure of departmental select committees was established in 1979, the Lord Chancellor's Department was the only major department not covered by a select committee. It was added to the remit of the Home Affairs Committee in 1992 following a recommendation from the Procedure Committee.[12] A previous chairman of this Committee told the Liaison Committee in 1997 that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Law Officers' Departments had been inadequately scrutinised and raised the possibility of a separate select committee to cover those areas.[13]

9.  We echo these past concerns and see the logic in appointing a separate committee to cover the Lord Chancellor's Department. The only major disadvantage we foresee is that this might seem to run contrary to the considerable efforts made in recent years to join up the work of the Home Office, Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service in running the criminal justice system. While we do not expect to see these departments combined into a Ministry of Justice, there may be a case for keeping parliamentary scrutiny of them around one table. One option might be for this Committee to make greater use of the power to operate through a sub-committee. Another might be to emulate the two larger committees - each with two sub-committees -which monitor the work of the combined Departments for Education and Employment and Environment, Transport and the Regions.

10.  We make no firm recommendation on this matter, but believe it is an issue the Liaison Committee should consider. We are also concerned that machinery of government changes made in the immediate aftermath of an election lead to the need for changes in the structure of select committees. Since those decisions about committees are taken before committees are established there is no Liaison Committee which might be consulted and express the views of Members about changes to the select committee system. We would welcome the Liaison Committee making arrangements before the end of this session for those of its Members who are elected to the next Parliament to form an informal group which could be consulted by the Government before changes are made to the standing orders appointing select committees.


11.  After some unusually long delays in producing government responses to our reports published in 1998-99, the record more recently has improved. Strangely, the replies which have taken longest have been the shortest in length : the reply on Freemasonry in Public Life was a whole year late and the one on Accountability of the Security Service was six months late but both were only two pages long .[14] It is our impression that, while replies may be prepared on time at official level, insufficient time is planned for the process of ministerial clearance - especially when other departments are involved.

12.  We have not been dogmatic about the two month period for reply. In the case of Police Training and Recruitment we were content to await preparation of a consultation paper on the way to improving the system as we had recommended. On the Double Jeopardy Rule, we saw no need for any government reply in advance of the completion of the Law Commission's further work in this area. In the latter case, the absence of a reply did not prevent us securing a debate on our report in Westminster Hall.

13.  The quality of government replies has varied. We were particularly dissatisfied with a reply on Drugs and Prisons which contained bland words of agreement with our recommendations without specifying what action was to be taken. We accordingly invited the Prisons Minister to re-appear at a single evidence session and explain a little more precisely what was being done. We are pleased to record that the updated reply to that report - contained in the appendix to this report - is much more forthcoming. It is possible that the re-examination of the Prisons Minister had a salutary effect. Certainly, from our point of view, it seemed a more effective way of pursuing our recommendations than a debate.

14.  One report has been the subject of a specific select committee debate in the past year. Our endorsement of the Law Commission's proposal for relaxing the Double Jeopardy Rule in certain criminal cases was controversial and we were not disappointed that other Members of the House tabled an Early Day Motion critical of our report. Two of the Members concerned then took part in the subsequent debate. Not only did this mean that the arguments were well canvassed in the debate; the Home Office and the Law Commission were also given an impression of the range and strength of opinion in the House on this emerging issue.

15.  Another report was debated - but in the House of Lords. We made arrangements to publish as quickly as possible the government reply to our report on the events at Blantyre House prison in time for a back-bench debate initiated by Lord Mayhew of Twysden on 17 January 2001. Both he and other peers drew heavily on the Committee's report. We therefore concluded that little purpose would be served by following it up in the short term in the Commons. In the longer term, the Committee will certainly look at what the Prison Service learns from this experience and what improvements are made in the resettlement of prisoners.

16.  In trying to assess the impact of our past recommendations, we are conscious of the difficulty of judging things over a short timescale and the impossibility of distinguishing the contribution of a select committee report from other sources of pressure for change. For instance, the Committee has embarked on an inquiry into the setting up of the Criminal Records Bureau, which is due to be fully operational in 2002. Such a system was recommended by our predecessor Committee and not accepted by the then Government in 1990. A subsequent Efficiency Scrutiny within government advanced the case and a White Paper made it government policy in 1996. The legislation was passed in 1997. The Criminal Records Bureau should be working some 12 years after a select committee and others advocated it. On another subject - electoral law and administration - the appendix to this report shows how recommendations can be implemented in different ways and over varying timescales through both legislation and administrative action.

17.  Very recently we saw, in the context of the Criminal Records Bureau, two aspects of the work of a select committee. On Tuesday 6 February we took oral evidence from voluntary organisations about the proposed charge of at least £10 for checking the criminal records of those working with children and vulnerable adults. Later that day the Government announced a change of policy: no charges would after all be levied on volunteers.[15] This was published in a written answer and given to the press but the Committee was not notified. We very much welcome the change in policy and accept the immediate written apology (for not informing the Committee) from the Minister of State at the Home Office.


18.  We have been keen to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft bill in the way that some other committees have done recently. In the event the only bills published in draft have appeared so late in the year and when the House was not sitting that it has proved impossible for the Committee to examine them. We very much support the principle of pre-legislative scrutiny - as part of a wider consultation process, it should improve the quality of legislation and enable well-prepared bills to pass through Parliament smoothly. But such scrutiny requires careful planning to fit into the Committee's other inquiries. In practice only a draft bill published by Easter in a normal year is likely to receive the attention it deserves from a select committee. Given the heavy legislative programme of both the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department, it is disappointing that more bills have not come forward in draft in time for the Committee to take evidence and report on them.


19.  One area of public appointments which falls within our remit is that of judges - in terms of the system rather than individual cases. Over several years we have questioned the Lord Chancellor closely on the way appointments are made and the need to achieve a judiciary which is more representative in terms of the proportion of women and people from ethnic minorities.

20.  We have not challenged the general assumption that individual appointments are a matter for ministers (usually advising the Crown) rather than Parliament. Recently we have taken an interest in the process of replacing the present highly effective Chief Inspector of Prisons. The post is not one of executive responsibility accountable to ministers but more of a regulator and assessor. We do think Parliament has a responsibility to ensure that people of quality and independence are appointed to such posts. As with the Treasury Committee considering appointments to the Monetary Policy Committee, we may wish to take evidence at an early stage from the next Chief Inspector of Prisons who is due to take office on 1 August 2001.


21.  The Committee has received papers from the departments it monitors on the implementation of resource accounting and budgeting. The Home Office's trial run on resource accounts for 1998-99 received an adverse opinion from the National Audit Office. The equivalent work in the Lord Chancellor's Department was given a qualified opinion. We questioned the Permanent Secretaries on how their departments were learning the lessons of these audit opinions and getting onto track for the full introduction of resource accounting and budgeting.[16]

22.  We have also looked at the Service Delivery Agreements published in connection with the Spending Review 2000. The Home Office's agreements are more specific than those of the Lord Chancellor's Department. We questioned the Home Secretary on several of the Service Delivery Agreements.[17] In our report on Border Controls we drew attention to one target - for removing 30,000 failed asylum seekers and illegal immigrants in 2001-2002 - as a very ambitious goal.[18] We expect that these Service Delivery Agreements will be a useful way of measuring the performance of departments in future, provided they are expressed in verifiable terms.


23.  Devolution has not had a significant impact on the activities of the Committee. Home Affairs matters in Scotland and Northern Ireland were already a matter for the Scottish Office and the Northern Ireland Office before devolution and few responsibilities in this area have been transferred to the National Assembly for Wales. In our report on Controls over Firearms we noted that while policy on firearms was a reserved matter, oversight of the way police forces operate the licensing arrangements is now a matter for the Justice and Home Affairs Committee of the Scottish Parliament.[19] The experience in Scotland, under a different legal system, was relevant to our inquiry into Managing Dangerous People with Severe Personality Disorder.

24.  We have not had a formal meeting with the two Justice Committees of the Scottish Parliament but there have been exchanges of documents at staff level. Our current inquiry into the Criminal Records Bureau covers ground on which the Scottish Executive had a different approach to the UK Government in relation to charging for disclosure checks (until the recent announcement described in paragraph 17 above). We expect that it will be possible in future to draw more comparisons in justice and home affairs matters between the practice in England and Wales and that in Scotland.


25.  We have used the new procedure for publishing the transcripts of ministerial evidence sessions on the Internet within 24 hours on nine occasions. This has been an important development of the Committee's role in bringing more information into the public domain. The initiative suggested by the Liaison Committee to improve the web pages for all committees is also welcome. We look forward to the time when all the Committee's reports and evidence are made available on the Internet in a form which enables anyone to print off copies at will.

26.  There may be other ways in which we could operate in a more modern way. In the past year, we have sought to structure our reports in a way which identifies the key questions addressed and to present them in a format which is easier to read. The Liaison Committee's support for improving the layout of reports is welcome. A modest investment in design advice and some experimentation with different styles of presentation might enable committees to publish their reports with a more modern appearance. We have already drawn on the advice of the House Service's newly-appointed Communications Adviser in handling the media aspects of publishing our reports.

27.  The opening of Portcullis House has given us the opportunity to meet in less formal surroundings, particularly for deliberative meetings considering draft reports. Access to coffee and tea during such meetings is one way in which select committees can operate in the way most other bodies do. Another more modern way of operating, whether in Portcullis House or elsewhere, would be to allow journalists to use tape-recorders when reporting oral evidence sessions.


28.  Throughout the Parliament the Committee has operated with a permanent staff of only four - two Clerks, a Committee Assistant and a Secretary. In the past year we appointed our first specialist adviser, to assist with the inquiry into Border Controls. We have also drawn on the expertise of a Clerk/Adviser to the European Scrutiny Committee to brief us on EU Justice and Home Affairs matters. The Home Affairs Section of the Library has contributed to briefing on several issues and contact has been maintained with the equivalent staff of the National Audit Office. Nonetheless, in relation to our remit and work load and in comparison with other committees, we are under-staffed. We have therefore decided to seek to appoint a committee specialist with legal experience to take up post in June 2001.

29.  The sudden burden of our post mortem inquiry into what went wrong at Blantyre House prison was carried without any addition to our staffing. The Liaison Committee in 1996-97 said "Several [Committee] Chairmen have stressed the need for flexibility in staffing so that there is capacity for a swift response should there be a need for a temporary ad hoc increase in staff to cope with a specific issue or inquiry".[20] The real need in such cases is for a highly-capable committee assistant or assistant clerk to be added to the Committee's team within hours rather than days. The Committee Office does not currently have such spare capacity. The unit recommended by the Liaison Committee in its report Shifting the Balance to deal with public expenditure and pre-legislative scrutiny could also have the task of providing some emergency and short-term assistance to a committee faced with a sudden and urgent inquiry.

9  First Report 1999-2000 HC 300 paras 52-56. Back

10  Minutes of Evidence 8 June 2000 HC (1999-2000) 561-i. Back

11  Second Special Report HC (2000-01) 226. Back

12  Second Report 1989-90 HC 19. Back

13  First Report 1996-97 HC 323 The Work of Select Committees p46. Back

14  Cm 4813 and Cm 4588. Back

15  Official Report 6 February 2001 col 504w. Back

16  Minutes of Evidence 11 July 2000 HC 708-i Qq 61-68 (Home Office) and 25 July 2000 HC 856-i Qq 17-23 (Lord Chancellor's Department). Back

17  Minutes of Evidence 21 November 2000 HC 994-i Qq1ff. Back

18  First Report 2000-01 Border Controls HC 163 para 69. Back

19  Second Report 1999-2000 HC 95 para 14. Back

20  First Report 1996-97 HC 323 para 23. Back

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