Select Committee on Liaison First Report


The Liaison Committee has agreed to the following Report:—




1.  Almost exactly a year ago we published our Report Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive[4]. We thought that twenty years after the establishment of departmental select committees was a good time to take stock of what committees had achieved, to assess their working methods, and to see whether some reform and modernisation might be needed.

2.  There was no doubt that the system was widely acknowledged to be a success. Select committees had become a vital source of scrutiny, analysis and ideas; they had made the political process more accessible; and they had provided a much-needed climate of Parliamentary accountability. In so doing, they became more visible and widely known, and an entrenched part of our constitutional arrangements.

3.  Select committees are an essential means of questioning, checking and calling to account an over-mighty Executive - of whatever political colour - on behalf of the citizen and the taxpayer. Our Report Shifting the Balance suggested ways of making committees more effective and independent.

4.  We felt the time was right. Improvements could be based upon twenty years of practical experience. The Government was committed to a programme of constitutional change, including modernisation of the House. With a sharp decline in attendance in the Chamber, it was all the more important to stress an area of the House's work that is seen by the general public as valuable and constructive.

5.  Our proposals were not radical. We did not suggest, for example, that all Estimates should be cleared by departmental select committees before being put before the House for approval; nor that the time had come for a more exacting scrutiny of Bills than can be provided by usually adversarial debate in standing committee.

6.  But the Government's response[5] was disappointing. Its warm approval of the principles of more effective Parliamentary accountability were not matched by a willingness to make the modest changes that we had put forward.

7.  In this Report, towards the end of the 1997 Parliament, we therefore assess how the recommendations we made in March 2000 now stand: progress already made and, we are sure, progress that will be made.

The debate since March 2000

8.  Shifting the Balance has remained firmly on the political agenda over the past year. The Government's Reply was published on 10 May; and on 10 July we took oral evidence from the Leader of the House, producing our critique of the Government Reply on 25 July[6]. Our proposals were debated on the Adjournment on 9 November 2000[7] and received widespread support both inside and outside the House [8]. On 12 February 2001 the House again debated Shifting the Balance[9] on the basis of a Motion suggested in our Second Report. This debate took place on an Opposition Day, and the debate took on a more partisan nature as a result; but we regard the Resolution to which the House came, following the approval of a Government amendment,[10] as helpful.


9.  We now review the progress made on each of the proposals in Shifting the Balance. We briefly recall, but do not rehearse, the case for each; these are fully set out in our two earlier Reports.

Committee membership

10.  We believe that the nomination of Members to committees is not satisfactory.[11] It is too much under the control of the Whips, either through the Committee of Selection (Standing Orders give that committee the task of nominating all the departmental select committees) or directly (for those committees whose nomination Motions normally appear in the name of the Government Deputy Chief Whip). We want to see a system which is more transparent and independent; which ensures:   

•  that committees begin work earlier in a Parliament;

•  that vacancies are filled quickly;

•  that knowledge of a subject and the readiness to commit time to committee work are in every case key criteria for membership; and

•  that Members are not kept off committees, nor removed from them, on account of their views.

11.  We had suggested that nomination should be in the hands of a Chairman and two Deputy Chairmen of Committees: senior Members of the House appointed at the beginning of a Parliament and prepared to work in a wholly non-partisan way. As Chairmen of committees were elected in the early stages of a Parliament, they would join the three "wise persons", forming a Select Committee Panel - a development of the Liaison Committee.

12.  We do not think that this proposal deserved the somewhat apocalyptic tone of the Government's response to it.[12] We did not, and do not, think that it would have created a new and baneful form of patronage, nor "first and second class Members" (those on committees and those not).[13]

13.  However, on 12 February 2001 the House endorsed, on division, the Government's view that "concentrating patronage in the hands of three senior Members of the House" would not "increase the transparency or effectiveness of the Committee system".[14] This particular means of achieving our aim has thus been rejected, at least for this Parliament.

14.  But there are other methods of securing the transparency and independence that we seek. For example:

•  if concentrating the power in the hands of three Members is the problem (and we note that there are only nine members of the Committee of Selection) then the task could be given to a larger group (or the Committee of Selection itself could be expanded to reduce the proportion of its members who are Whips);

•  or the members of the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament who were returned to a new Parliament could join the Committee of Selection to form a body specifically to make select committee nominations;

•  select committee nominations could be by secret ballot. This would be a less revolutionary proposal than it might formerly have been: the Procedure Committee's proposals for the system of electing a Speaker include a secret ballot.[15] Nominations of select committees would involve many more names, of course, but there is no reason why the simplest ballot procedure could not be used;

•  there could be a transitional system, with an enlarged "Committee of Selection" making the initial nominations, but Standing Orders providing that after (say) the eighth sitting Wednesday the task of nominating replacements would fall to the Liaison Committee.

15.  There are no doubt other possible permutations. But whichever means were chosen, the process would be open, in that names and qualifications were known (and open waiting lists would be maintained) and considerably more independent than the present system. The actual decision on names would rest with the House, as it does now.

16.  A change in the system would also be an appropriate time to end the present anomaly whereby twelve permanent committees and all ad hoc committees are still nominated directly, on a Government Motion.[16]

17.  There could be no more eloquent argument for changing the system than the one which the Government itself has now provided. Every five years Parliament considers a Bill to renew and amend legislation on the discipline and conditions of service of the Armed Forces. This Bill is considered by a select committee appointed for the purpose, which normally includes a number of members of the Defence Committee. Defence Ministers have also been members of previous committees, but we see no reason why Ministers should sit on a select committee to examine their own legislation.[17]

18.  On 9 January the House debated a Government Motion to appoint the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, and to nominate its 11 members, who were to include two Ministers and a Government Whip (enough members of the Government to constitute a quorum in themselves), three Opposition spokesmen and two Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

19.  The Committee contained not one member of the Defence Committee, despite the fact that that Committee had just completed a substantial inquiry into Armed Forces Personnel issues and was about to publish its Report.[18] By contrast, the Committee on the 1996 Bill contained eight back-benchers out of 11, of whom four were members of the Defence Committee.

20.  On the one hand this demonstrates a peculiarly insensitive fix by the "usual channels" at a time when independent membership of select committees was already a matter of concern, which we deplore; but on the other it provides decisive evidence that the system must be changed, which we welcome.

21.  It is clear that the system for nominating members of select committees must be changed. It is also clear that there is widespread support for such a change. Our successors (or we ourselves, if the end of the Parliament is delayed beyond current expectations) should explore the various options, and lay further proposals before the House.

The Select Committee Panel and the Liaison Committee

22.  We suggested that the "Select Committee Panel" (the three "wise persons" plus all the Chairmen of select committees) should take on the existing duties of the Liaison Committee, plus a broader responsibility for other matters affecting select committees: for example, the format and presentation of select committee reports. We also suggested that the Panel (because of its size) should have power to appoint an executive sub-committee.[19]

23.  Our proposals for the nomination of members of select committees were originally linked with the composition and duties of the Panel. However, following the House's rejection of the "wise persons" proposal there is no reason why the Liaison Committee as at present constituted should not carry out the additional functions.

24.  We welcome the Government's tabling of an amendment to Standing Order No. 145 to give us power to appoint a sub-committee. We hope that the Government will give this practical effect by finding time for its approval before the end of the Parliament.

25.  We expect that our successors in the next Parliament will wish to discuss with the new House of Commons Commission how the Liaison Committee could have more practical responsibility for a range of matters affecting select committees.

"Best practice"

26.  The annual reports of select committees (which we recommended in Shifting the Balance[20] and which we examine in more detail in Part III) are an impressive demonstration of the variety of activities undertaken by select committees, and of the range of working methods they use. This system of annual reports will provide a valuable opportunity for the exchange of best practice, as well as for the identification of any problems which committees may encounter.

27.  Since the publication of Shifting the Balance the Committee Office has undertaken a review of its organisation and working methods, in a process involving all members of staff. Clerks of Committees have also taken part in a series of seminars on ways in which committees might further improve their effectiveness. The Office also plans a new approach to the induction and briefing of Members who serve on select committees for the first time in the new Parliament. We welcome these initiatives.

Select committee reports and the House

Debates on reports

28.  In Shifting the Balance we recommended an increase in debating time on the floor of the House, on substantive Motions.[21] The Government rejected this,[22] on grounds we thought less than convincing.[23]

29.  We nevertheless acknowledge the opportunities offered by Westminster Hall for debate on select committee reports, and the generally high quality of debate there. Including today (8 March 2001) 27 debates on reports have taken place in Westminster Hall. We especially welcome the opportunity to choose reports for debate on six days a Session to be appointed by the Speaker[24] in addition to those for which time is found by the Government. We will continue to encourage committees to bring forward reports for debate.

30.  We maintain our view on the value of debate in the Chamber on substantive Motions, and we hope that progress can be made on this in the new Parliament, complemented by the regular diet of committee reports in Westminster Hall. We point out once again that timely debate usually depends upon timely Government Replies,[25] and we return to this in paragraph 108 below.

 The select committee half-hour

31.  We proposed a select committee half-hour once a week on a Tuesday, with the Ten-Minute Rule Bill being moved to Monday. A Minister would give an initial response to a report for a maximum of five minutes, followed by the Chairman or another member of the committee concerned, also for a maximum of five minutes. The remainder of the time would allow short contributions from Opposition front-benchers and from back-benchers generally. We envisaged that this procedure would be used only for recently published reports, and only for strong candidates among them; in some weeks the slot would not be used.[26]

32.  Our proposal was rejected by the Government[27] on grounds which we demonstrated were not valid.[28] We maintain our proposal for a weekly committee half-hour.

33.  From the 12 February debate on our reports, it appears that the half-hour slot has been seen by some as a debate. This was not our intention; half an hour would not be enough for a proper debate, and we would not want to pre-empt detailed consideration of a report together with the Government's reply to it.

34.  Our aim was to provide an opportunity for an early exchange of views on reports and subjects of immediate topicality. This reflects reality: subjects do not go into political purdah for two months simply because a select committee has reported and the Government is preparing its reply.

35.  However, a proposal was made during the debate on 12 February which we think is worth closer examination. Mr John Healey suggested that there should be

    "...a half-hour Question Time in which we deal with reports and the Government's response to them on major issues. A Question Time could give priority to select committee members, but would also allow other hon. Members to exercise their scrutiny function. It would also rightly raise the profile of the work of select committees."[29]

A more Question-based event could be alternated with the format we have suggested, or the two might be assimilated, perhaps along the lines of starred Questions in the House of Lords. We trust that our successors in the new Parliament will explore the detail further and put proposals before the House.

Select committees and Government expenditure

36.  We maintain our recommendation that the present three days of debate on expenditure, linked to select committee reports, should be increased to six; and we repeat our endorsement of the recommendations of the Procedure Committee in July 1999.[30] These were designed to ensure more exacting and effective scrutiny of Government expenditure, and were largely rejected by the Government. As we said in Shifting the Balance, the Supply procedure, whereby the Crown proposes expenditure which it is for the House to grant, lies at the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature. We hope that the Liaison Committee in the new Parliament will keep up the pressure to improve the scrutiny of Government expenditure.

Select committees and legislation

37.  In Shifting the Balance we called for more pre-legislative scrutiny by select committees, with more notice of the arrival of draft Bills, and more time available for effective examination.[31] The Government's Reply was more forthcoming on this subject, but pointed out that resources available to Parliamentary Counsel was the main restriction on publishing Bills in draft.[32] We welcomed the increased resources the Government had provided over the previous three years, and hoped that this would be maintained.[33] We repeat our view that the benefits in terms of better thought out and properly examined legislation will be out of all proportion to the modest expenditure involved.

38.  In Independence or Control? we noted the decline in the number of Bills published in draft.[34] The early days of a new Parliament will be a good time for the new Liaison Committee to enter into discussions with the Government on the likely timing of draft Bills for the first Session, and on the Government's longer term plans for the publication of legislation in draft.

"Joined-up committees"

39.  In Shifting the Balance we expressed our view that "joined-up government" must be scrutinised by joined-up committees: in other words, that issues affecting the responsibilities of more than one Department were best examined jointly by the committees affected. We suggested how some of the considerable practical problems of joint working could be overcome.[35]

40.  The Government came some of the way to meet us,[36] but did not accept our two most important recommendations: that there must be some formal way of resolving differences in joint meetings - at the moment everything has to be done by consensus - and that committees working together should have power to agree a single report.

41.  We nevertheless welcome the Government's tabling of amendments to Standing Orders to reduce the quorum of more than two committees meeting jointly, and to add the Environmental Audit Committee to those committees which may meet jointly. We hope that the Government will give this practical effect by finding time for these amendments to be approved before the end of the Parliament.

42.  We welcome the Government's undertaking to consider any proposals from the Liaison Committee for an ad hoc committee to consider a particular cross-cutting issue. We hope that the Liaison Committee in the new Parliament will review likely major issues (drawing on the Government's undertaking to give early notice of cross-cutting initiatives within Government[37]) and will consider whether any ad hoc committees are needed. The future of the "Quadripartite" Committee[38] on strategic export controls will no doubt be an element in this.


43.  In Shifting the Balance we built on an earlier recommendation of the Procedure Committee in recommending that the Committee Office should establish a unit specialising in public expenditure and pre-legislative scrutiny. We were grateful for the consideration which the House of Commons Commission, as the financial and employing authority, gave to our proposal. A detailed business case is to be considered by the Finance and Services Committee shortly, and we hope that some staff will be in post early in the new Parliament.

44.  We have noted with interest the review by Lord Sharman of Redlynch of audit and accountability of central government. The Review Report suggests that the Comptroller and Auditor General should have the resources to brief departmental select committees on key financial issues, without prejudicing the special relationship between the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.[39] We have already identified NAO expertise as an important part of the new unit; we hope that the Liaison Committee in the next Parliament will consider how to take forward Lord Sharman's recommendation.


45.  In Shifting the Balance we recommended that there should be secondments from outside the House to the Committee Office and, where possible, outward secondments of committee staff, to broaden expertise in the support of select committees.[40] Following our recommendation, a working party chaired jointly by the Cabinet Office Director of Recruitment and Development and a Principal Clerk of Select Committees drew up a scheme for secondments between the Clerk's Department and the Civil Service (taking into account the need to safeguard the independence of the House Service and of the support which it provides for select committees). This scheme was approved by the Clerk of the House and the Head of the Home Civil Service, and the first secondments will take place shortly. We welcome this implementation of our recommendation.

Whitehall's understanding of select committees

46.  We said in Shifting the Balance that there was insufficient knowledge of select committees, and of Parliament generally, among departmental officials. We thought that this contributed to a degree of suspicion and reticence, and from time to time resulted in avoidable errors which exposed and embarrassed Ministers.[41] In response, the Government said that it was troubled by our conclusions, and undertook to work with the House authorities to improve matters.[42] This is an area which will need continuing attention; we note as an example of good practice the "day in Parliament" course run by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which aims to give officials an insight into the practicalities of dealing with Parliament.

Select committees and the public

Presentation of reports

47.  We are keen to see an improvement in the design and format of select committee reports,[43] and hope that this can be taken forward in the new Parliament. We acknowledge that this will not be a simple process. Committee staffs themselves create report texts in final form for publication; there is no outside setting or proofing stage. This camera ready copy (CRC) can then be produced very quickly by The Stationery Office - if necessary, overnight for publication the next day. The often desirable speed of publication must therefore be balanced against the additional time required for layout and design work. Any improved formats will thus need to be capable of being produced quickly with minimal additional staff time.

48.  The IT implications will also need to be considered; whatever system is employed must be as robust and reliable as the software used by the Committee Office at the moment. Finally, a strategic view must be taken of the printing of written evidence: to what extent can electronic availability via the Internet replace production in hard copy; and what savings might be made as a result?

Publicity and publication

49.  In Shifting the Balance we identified the need for a more integrated approach to select committee publicity, and for professional communications advice.[44] Since that report was published, a Communications Adviser for the House Service as a whole has been appointed, and has joined the newly-established Office of the Clerk. She is working on a pilot project with four committees to analyse their public and press relations needs, and to develop a strategy for select committees generally as well as techniques which can be used by committees individually. This is good progress, and we expect further developments in the new Parliament.

The Internet

50.  In March 2000 we drew attention to the role of IT and the Internet in making select committees more accessible, and stressed the need for improvements to the Parliamentary website.[45] We are glad to see good progress in both these areas. The Parliamentary website is now being redesigned, with an emphasis on user-friendliness and ease of navigation. In the Committee Office a redesign project for committees' homepages is well under way; the new format being developed will be a great improvement on the present homepages.

51.  At the moment select committees are able to put on the Internet, in an uncorrected form, transcripts of oral evidence given by Ministers. This has been a valuable way of putting important evidence quickly into the public domain. There are many other high-profile oral evidence sessions which would merit this treatment, and the cost would be modest. We hope that our successors in the new Parliament will seek the agreement of the new House of Commons Commission to an extension of the arrangements.



52.  In Shifting the Balance we instituted a system of annual reports from select committees, to review recommendations, report on activity, share best practice and identify problems.[46] The first round of annual reports has now been made.

53.  All Departmental and cross-cutting committees have taken part in the exercise, with the exception of the Public Accounts Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee, which have rather different methods of work, and from which we did not seek reports. Committees have either published their own contributions, or have submitted evidence to us which is appended to this Report. The table opposite gives the reference for each committee's report. All published material is available on the Internet at

54.  In this first exercise we gave committees considerable flexibility. Some have produced reports on the whole of the Parliament so far; some for last Session; and, for the Committees directly affected by devolution, the transfer of powers has been a convenient reference point. The Environmental Audit Committee has taken the opportunity to consider the process of environmental audit as a whole, and has produced a draft Bill to place such work on a statutory footing with the appointment of an Environmental Auditor General within the NAO.

55.  Some committees have reported upon their work before, notably the Agriculture and Defence Committees, which over several Sessions have produced detailed analyses. But for most committees this has been an innovation; and their responses have demonstrated its worth. We are grateful to the members and staffs of our committees for their efforts.

56.  The review of recommendations attached to each committee's report has been a key part of the process. Government departments have for the most part been very efficient and helpful in providing evidence for this, and we join individual committees in expressing our appreciation for the work involved. We are also grateful to the range of organisations and agencies which have also provided evidence on matters which fall to them.

Report Reference
AgricultureSecond Special Report, HC117: The Committee's Work, Session 1999-2000
Culture, Media and SportFirst Special Report, HC57: Review of Reports, Recommendations and Responses, 1997-2000
DefenceFirst Special Report, HC177: Annual Report of the Committee for Session 1999-2000
DeregulationMemorandum, printed in Volume II
Education and EmploymentFirst Special Report, HC206: The Work of the Committee
Environmental AuditFirst Report, HC67: Environmental Audit: The First Parliament
Environment, Transport and Regional AffairsFirst Special Report, HC65: Annual Report of the Work of the Committee to the Liaison Committee
Foreign AffairsFirst Special Report, HC78: Work of the Committee during the present Parliament: A Progress Report
HealthFirst Special Report, HC 152: The Committee's Work, Sessions 1997-98 to 1999-2000
Home AffairsThird Special Report, HC24: The Work of the Committee in the 1997 Parliament
International DevelopmentFirst Special Report, HC82: The Work of the International Development Committee, 1997-2000
Public AdministrationMemorandum, printed in Volume II
Northern Ireland AffairsFirst Special Report, HC148: Annual Report for Session 1999-2000
Science and TechnologyFirst Special Report, HC44: The Work of the Science and Technology Committee 1997-2000
Scottish AffairsMemorandum, printed in Volume II
Social SecurityMemorandum, printed in Volume II
Trade and IndustryFirst Report, HC109: The Work of the Committee in the 1997 Parliament
TreasuryFirst Report, HC41: Work of the Treasury Committee and Treasury Sub-committee
Welsh AffairsFirst Special Report, HC81: The Work of the Committee since Devolution

All HC numbers are of the present Session

57.  There have been reviews of recommendations before, but the present exercise has been more limited, focussing on "live" recommendations. Future annual reviews will build on this year's round and should both be shorter and less time-consuming.

58.  Committee annual reports have provided exactly the audit of effectiveness and working methods that we had envisaged. They have also created invaluable introductory and briefing material for each committee; we expect that recent annual reports will become required reading for new Ministers, new committee members, officials, witnesses, and indeed anyone who wants to know how a particular committee goes about its business. In conjunction with the improved committee websites, annual reports should help improve public information and understanding.

Levels of committee activity

59.  This Parliament continued the rising trend of select committee activity seen over the previous decade. In the first financial year of this Parliament there were 524 formal meetings of select committees. This comparatively low number reflected the late nomination of most select committees. In financial years 1998-99 and 1999-2000 the totals were 1199 and 1067 respectively (although the latter figure does not include 147 informal meetings). Taking 1999-2000 as the penultimate full financial year of a Parliament, the comparative figures for the 1992 and 1997 Parliaments were 619 meetings and 931 meetings respectively.

60.  In Session 1998-99 each departmental committee met an average of 35 times; this increased to 36.8 in 1999-2000. Average attendance also rose, from 64.7% to 67.8%. Turnover of membership rose markedly from 16% to 23.2%, which underlines the need for more rapid nomination of replacement members.

61.  In financial year 1999-2000 the departmentally-related select committees produced 138 reports compared with 120 in the previous financial year. Indications for the current financial year are that the upward trend in activity, measured especially by meetings and reports, is continuing. This places particular strain on committee staffs, and an increasing premium upon Members' time.

The Sessional Returns

62.  The Sessional Returns form a valuable part of the audit of select committee work, and complement committees' annual reports. The latest Returns, for Session 1999-2000,[47] were published on 9 February 2001, and devote 162 pages to select committees, giving statistics on the work and expenditure of each committee, and totals for all committees. The Select Committee Return is a remarkable exercise in detailed transparency and accountability in the expenditure of public money, and we commend it as a further source of information.

63.  We now review the work of committees as presented in the annual reports. Our examples are purely illustrative; for most cases that we quote, there are many more to be found in the reports.

Types of committee activity


64.  Major inquiries naturally form a substantial part of most committees' work and in this Parliament have included investigations such as those into controls over firearms (Home Affairs), public libraries (Culture, Media and Sport), conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction (International Development), social exclusion in Wales (Welsh Affairs), "making government work" (Public Administration), NHS mental health services (Health), and the operation of multi-layer democracy (Scottish Affairs).

65.  At the same time committees have been quick to tackle issues at short notice, as shown by the International Development Committee's inquiries into humanitarian crises in Montserrat, Sudan and Kosovo, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's report on ITV's proposal to abolish News at Ten, and the Trade and Industry Committee's report on BMW, Rover and Longbridge.

66.  Select committees are well equipped to examine emerging ideas, and to contribute to the debate before policy is formed (for example, possible changes to the double jeopardy rule (Home Affairs) and the negotiation of climate change targets (Environmental Audit)). Committees also have a role to play in creating public debate by obtaining and publishing information which has not been available (for instance, the Health Committee's inquiry into the tobacco industry and the health risks of smoking, which has been drawn upon worldwide).

67.  Inquiries after the event have been a traditional part of select committee work, although they are a smaller proportion of the total than was once the case. Nevertheless, investigations into the Kosovo conflict by the Defence and Foreign Affairs Committees, of events at Blantyre House Prison by the Home Affairs Committee, of the decision to accept Georgian nuclear material at Dounreay by the Trade and Industry Committee, and of the Royal Opera House by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, show the value of this type of inquiry in establishing what took place and drawing lessons for the future.

68.  Most inquiries deal with matters already on the political agenda; but committees can also create an agenda of their own. The Health Committee's difficult and emotionally charged inquiry into the welfare of former British child migrants, and the Environment Sub-committee's examination of town and country parks, well represent the way in which committees can ensure that subjects which have been neglected or ignored are given proper consideration.

69.  Some of the most useful work takes the form of one-off sessions of evidence, typically with a Minister or senior official, or with a regulator or the head of an agency. These give committees the opportunity to monitor events, but they also provide a chance for witnesses to take the initiative in reporting to a committee: a shop window for successes as well as a forum for sharing problems and difficulties. All committees conduct sessions of this sort: the Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, has supplemented its regular sessions with the Foreign Secretary before each European Council with additional hearings on NATO enlargement, Iraq, Zimbabwe and the Middle East; and the Public Administration Committee uses single evidence sessions to review the work of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

70.  Single evidence hearings are also a good way of pursuing unsatisfactory government replies. The Home Affairs Committee (on the reply to its report on drugs and prisons) amongst others has used this technique. We return to the subject of government replies in paragraph 108 below.


71.  The "continuing agenda" of almost all committees is well illustrated by some of the subjects which come under the spotlight again and again. The Foreign Affairs Committee reported upon Hong Kong, and then returned to the subject in its report on China. In the present Parliament it has reported three times on foreign policy and human rights. The Defence Committee has returned to the problems of Gulf veterans' illnesses; and the Environmental Audit Committee has reported three times on "greening government". The Transport Sub-committee has conducted four inquiries on air traffic control, and six on the railways. The Trade and Industry Committee has produced four reports on the Post Office and related matters. OFSTED has been a theme of the Education Sub-committee's work, and the New Deal has been a focus for the Employment Sub-committee. The Treasury Committee's responsibilities involve an almost continuous follow-up of previous work.

72.  We are glad that, in addition to the examination of recurring themes, committees have followed up specific recommendations, taking evidence where necessary. We are confident that the new system of annual reviews of recommendations will help in this aspect of committees' work, which is crucial to their effectiveness.

Expenditure and administration

73.  All committees carry out some form of regular examination of the expenditure and administration of the departments which they monitor. In some cases (for example the Defence Committee's work on the Ministry of Defence's Annual Reporting Cycle) this is a major element of their work. Other committees may cover these aspects in individual evidence sessions with the relevant Secretary of State, Permanent Secretary and Principal Finance Officer. More detailed departmental administration may have a slightly lower priority (although we note the extensive work on this by the Treasury Sub-committee).

74.  We will encourage committees in their work on expenditure and administration. Policy is of course vitally important, and has a special interest, but detailed questioning on what is being spent and how a Department is being run concentrates the minds of Ministers and officials wonderfully, and contributes markedly to the influence and effectiveness of committees.

75.  We note the concern expressed by several committees about the clarity, transparency and consistency of departmental targets, as well as the extent to which they reflect departmental objectives. The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee spoke of targets as having a life cycle: "they start off as real targets, become aspirational targets, and are then dropped." The Environmental Audit Committee criticised targets based upon outputs rather than outcomes; and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee thought that "the search for measurable outputs in Government appears akin to the search for the Holy Grail". The Home Affairs Committee (with particular reference to the target for removal of failed asylum seekers) emphasised the need for verifiable targets. In Shifting the Balance we drew attention to the importance of committees examining Public Service Agreements, Service Delivery Agreements, and departmental targets in general.[48] This will be an important area of work in the new Parliament.

Quangos and agencies

76.  All committees examine the work of non-departmental public bodies within their remit. For some, such as the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, this is a considerable task: the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is a small department but sponsors more such bodies than any other; and 95% of its programme expenditure is spent by quangos. The Agriculture Committee and the Defence Committee have begun rolling programmes to examine the agencies for which they are responsible, and other committees are following a similar pattern.

Draft Bills

77.  In their annual reports some committees assessed the effectiveness of their scrutiny of draft Bills. The Public Administration Committee drew attention to its work on Freedom of Information, which moved from investigation of the Government's initial proposals to an examination of the draft Bill. This work was heavily drawn upon in proceedings in both Houses on the Bill as eventually introduced.

78.  The Trade and Industry Committee reported upon its examination of three draft Bills (a quarter of the total of draft Bills for the Parliament), which "had varying results". On Limited Liability Partnerships some of its recommendations, both on detail and policy, were accepted by the Government; most were not. The subsequent passage of the formally introduced Bill raised substantial issues which had not been identified by those from whom the Committee took evidence. The Committee examined draft Clauses on Insolvency informally circulated by the Department of Trade and Industry; it recommended the dropping of two clauses: one was and one was not, and the Committee found the Government's response "brief and dismissive". The Committee had expressed concern about the unfettered right of a landlord to effect peaceful repossession; this was dismissed by the Government "in a cursory sentence". But during proceedings in the Lords on the subsequent Bill the Government engaged in urgent consultation on the point, and brought forward amendments in the Commons to constrain that right. In the third case, the Committee had had the opportunity to influence the draft Electronic Communications Bill before its publication, and the draft reflected a number of the Committee's views. Further recommendations were accepted by the Government before the Bill's formal introduction.

79.  The possibility of an earlier input into the process has been explored by the "Quadripartite" Committee on strategic export controls, who have raised the idea of examining drafting instructions before the draft Bill so that they could examine the detailed policy proposals before (or instead of) examining their legislative form. This seems to us to be a very constructive suggestion.

80.  This issue of "pre-pre-legislative" scrutiny was taken up by the Deregulation Committee, whose Chairman noted that none of the concerns expressed by the Committee and its Lords counterpart were taken into account in the Regulatory Reform Bill as introduced. This may have something to do with the ever-present possibility that the Government may wish to proceed formally with a Bill originally intended to be published in draft, and that any text will thus reflect settled policy. For example, the Education and Employment Committee expected a draft Bill which did not materialise. The 1999 Queen's Speech foreshadowed a Bill on special educational needs. On 21 June 2000 the Secretary of State for Education announced that, because of lack of Parliamentary time, there would be no Bill in the 1999-2000 Session, but that it would be published in draft. On 6 November 2000 the Government announced that it had proved impossible to publish the Bill in draft; and the special Educational Needs and Disability Bill [Lords] was introduced into the House of Lords on 7 December 2000. The pressures of the legislative programme will always tempt a Government to proceed with a Bill formally when it has been fully drafted; we repeat the need for longer-term planning noted in paragraph 38 above.

Bills as introduced

81.  Committees which are quick on their feet can make a useful contribution to the scrutiny of legislation even after it has been formally introduced. The International Development Committee conducted a rapid inquiry into the provisions of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill [Lords]; the Trade and Industry Committee followed up its work on the draft of the Electronic Communications Bill after the formal introduction of the Bill, and its principal recommendations on delegated legislation powers were accepted; and the Defence Committee reported on the Armed Forces Discipline Bill [Lords] in time to inform the Second Reading of the Bill in this House.

82.  We referred earlier to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill.[49] The procedure for quinquennial review by a select committee was first recommended nearly fifty years ago, long before the establishment of departmental select committees.[50] There is now no reason for a committee to be set up specially for the purpose. We think that the Bill should from now on be referred to the Defence Committee, and we concur in the Defence Committee's view that there would be merit in using the draft Bill procedure.

Delegated legislation

83.  This is another area where select committees can make a contribution, although the fact that secondary legislation is only exceptionally published in a preliminary form limits the influence committees may have and poses problems of timing. However - for example - the Government has undertaken to warn the International Development Committee when the Boards of the World Bank and Regional Development Banks agree to seek replenishments, so that the committee can arrange to take evidence and report before a debate in a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation.

84.  The new variant of Orders in Council under section 85 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 gives the House and committees an opportunity formally to consider and make representations on a proposal for a draft Order before the draft proper is laid before the House for approval (not unlike the deregulation procedure). The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has suggested that there should be a procedure in the Northern Ireland Grand Committee for such orders, similar to that of European Standing Committee, where there is an opportunity for a Minister to make a statement and be questioned before the debate. We agree with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that this would be a useful development.

Examination of treaties

85.  This is an expanding area of select committee work. For example, the Defence Committee has examined the OCCAR Convention (on the organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation), the Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe, and has reported on the Six-Nation Framework Agreement on the restructuring and operation of the European defence industry. The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee has worked on Multilateral Environmental Agreements and has produced a major report on the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol; and the International Development Committee examined the finalising of the EU's mandate on the Lomé Convention which the Government judged to have "contributed to the successful conclusion of the mandate." The European Scrutiny and Foreign Affairs Committees have, of course, carried out major inquiries into the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties.

86.  We welcome the Procedure Committee's report on the Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties[51]; its view that departmental select committees have demonstrated their expertise in examining treaties (with which the Government concurred); and its recommendation that, if a select committee requests a debate before ratification of a treaty raising major political, military or diplomatic issues, and if that request is supported by the Liaison Committee, it would normally be acceded to. We are glad that the Government has accepted this recommendation.[52]

EU matters

87.   There is increasing emphasis on European Union subjects: not only broad policy, but also specific proposals and documents. The Home Affairs Committee has stepped up its work on Justice and Home Affairs business in the EU; the International Development Committee has produced three reports on EU development policy; the Welsh Affairs Committee has examined European Structural Funds as they affect Wales; the Environmental Audit Committee reported on a greening agenda for the Helsinki Summit; and the Health Committee looked at the proposed EC Directive on Tobacco Advertising. These are only a few examples; and for some committees, such as Foreign Affairs and Trade and Industry, the EU dimension is present in much of their work.

88.  We particularly welcome the co-operation between the European Scrutiny Committee and other committees in the examination of issues on the EU agenda. This relationship has been underlined by the new provision in Standing Order No.143(11) under which the European Scrutiny Committee may seek an opinion on a European document from another committee before deciding whether to clear a document or to recommend debate. This was successfully used for the first time on proposals on European security and defence, where the Defence Committee produced a substantial report in response to the European Scrutiny Committee' s request. Since then, the European Scrutiny Committee has sought opinions from the Trade and Industry Committee on a Commission document on fair trade, and from the Public Accounts Committee on proposed changes to rules governing the EC Budget.

89.  The House's National Parliament Office in Brussels was set up in September 1999 primarily to support the work of the European Scrutiny Committee, but it has also been an important support for committees' work on European matters. It has provided briefing - and often more up-to-date information than has been available from departments. It has helped formulate programmes for the increasing numbers of committee visits to the Institutions of the European Union, and in providing access to key people. At the request of the Trade and Industry Committee, our National Parliament Representative made a formal prepared oral submission to a Commission public hearing on the block exemption for motor vehicle sales, on which the Trade and Industry Committee had reported. Some members of committee staffs have also been able to undertake short secondments to the National Parliament Office to increase their understanding of EU institutions and procedures.

Public appointments

90.  In Shifting the Balance we noted that so-called "confirmation hearings" for major public appointments, and the exposure they involve, are proving increasingly influential.[53] In its reply, the Government agreed that taking evidence from people newly appointed before they took up their posts was a useful practice, but came down firmly against any more formal role for committees in the appointment process.[54]

91.  A number of "appointment" hearings are reported by committees. The principal example is that of the Treasury Committee, which took evidence from all nine members of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) in June 1998, and on four appointments and one reappointment since then. The Committee took care that such hearing should not be used as a pretext for inquiring into matters not directly relevant to the choice, resolving formally to that effect. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has accepted the "rightness" of this process, but the Government has rejected the Treasury Committee's recommendation that such hearings should be made statutory.

92.  The Home Affairs Committee made a distinction between those appointed to be regulators and assessors, such as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, and those with executive responsibility to Ministers. We agree that the appointments of those charged with independence from the Executive should be of special interest to committees.

93.  In addition to the Treasury Committee's MPC work, a wide range of appointment hearings took place. The Health Committee took evidence from the Chairman-designate of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence; the Transport Sub-committee took evidence from the newly-appointed Chairman of the Shadow Strategic Rail Authority, from the Rail Regulator two weeks before he took up his appointment, and from the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the Commission for Integrated Transport shortly after their appointment. The Chairman of the Environment Agency appeared before the Environment Sub-committee shortly after taking up his post. The Chairman of the Agriculture and Biotechnology Commission appeared before the Agriculture Committee, and that committee took evidence jointly with the Health Committee from the Chairman of the new Food Standards Agency. The Education Sub-committee took evidence from the OFSTED Complaints Adjudicator, and from the Chairman of the General Teaching Council, upon their appointment. At different times, the new Head of the Defence Exports Organisation, the MoD's new Chief Scientific Adviser, and the new Chief of the Defence Staff appeared before the Defence Committee.

Informal meetings

94.  Committees are holding an increasing number of informal meetings with a wide range of organisations and individuals. For some committees this is a major part of their work: the Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, has held 139 such meetings during the present Parliament, with Heads of State and Government, foreign ministers, ambassadors, and international organisations. For some committees, such as Defence and European Scrutiny, meetings with equivalent committees of other Parliaments are a significant activity.


95.  Committees have used seminars to plan programmes of work; to ensure that inquiries are properly focussed before they are undertaken; and as a forum for discussion of issues that may lead to an inquiry. Examples include the International Development Committee's seminar to discuss private investment flows to the developing world, which brought together representatives of government, the private sector, trades unions, non-governmental organisations, and academics. The Treasury Committee held a seminar on its long-term strategy and working methods, as did the Education Sub-committee; and the Public Administration Committee hosted discussions on modernisation of government issues.


96.  The reports of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Welsh Affairs Committee set out the effect of devolution on their work and the change in their responsibilities. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee described the substantial impact on its work both of the introduction of devolved government at very much shorter notice than in Wales and in Scotland and of its subsequent suspension and re-establishment. Each of the three committees has established good relations with the Parliament or Assembly, and with the Executive, concerned. The Scottish Affairs Committee particularly commended the Scottish Executive for its responses to reports.

97.  There have been informal meetings between the "territorial" select committees and committees of the devolved bodies. In their report on Poverty in Scotland, the Scottish Affairs Committee recommended that the Procedure Committee should examine how formal joint meetings might be held between select committees of this House and committees of the devolved assemblies. If there is a desire for this, we agree that it would be useful for the Procedure Committee to consider the matter.

98.  Devolution has affected other committees in general terms; and the Public Administration Committee specifically in that the Ombudsman function for Scotland and Wales is now the concern of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales respectively. The Northern Ireland Ombudsman still reports to this House, but the function is to be transferred.

"Joined-up committees"

99.  We welcome the way select committees have identified opportunities for joint working. The principal example in this Parliament has been the "Quadripartite" Committee: a co-operative venture between the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees to investigate strategic export controls, which has produced three reports. The Agriculture, European Scrutiny and International Development Committees have recently taken evidence jointly on tariff-free access for the least developed countries and the sugar regime; and the Agriculture and Health Committees have held a joint hearing with the Chairman of the new Food Standards Agency as a witness. In Session 1998-99 the Employment Sub-committee and the Social Security Committee carried out a joint inquiry into the ONE Service Pilot (this reflected the joint responsibility for this policy within government); and in 1998 the Defence Committee and the Trade and Industry Committee carried out a second joint inquiry into defence procurement and industrial policy.

100.  Co-operation between committees may also take the form of one committee taking up a subject which has been the subject of initial investigation by another. The Trade and Industry Committee's investigation of the costs of electricity privatisation was taken further by the Public Accounts Committee. The Trade and Industry Committee also referred the matter of the Horizon benefit card to the National Audit Office after the Committee's own investigation, and the Public Accounts Committee is now to take evidence on the basis of the NAO report.

101.  The Science and Technology Committee has sought from the government powers to hold formal joint meetings with the equivalent committee of the House of Lords. We note that equivalent powers exist in respect of the European Scrutiny Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee.

102.  Just as committees may combine to examine a subject which falls across their responsibilities, so an individual committee may need evidence from other departments on a subject which falls primarily within its own remit. For example, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development gave evidence together in the International Development Committee's inquiry into debt relief. The Trade and Industry Committee has taken evidence from Ministers other than those in the Department of Trade and Industry, including one hearing with Ministers from the DTI, the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The Science and Technology Committee (formally a departmental select committee but with cross-cutting responsibilities) has undertaken two inquiries involving the Department of Health (mobile phones and cancer research), two involving the DETR (diabetes and driving, and climate change), and one involving the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). The Government's response to joined-up requirements has been generally helpful, although we note that the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee was critical of the refusal of the Minister of Agriculture, as one of the authors of the Rural White Paper, to appear before the Committee, and his decision to send a junior Minister in his place.

Relations with departments

103.  Committees report generally good relations with departments, although some difficulties have been identified. The Culture, Media and Sport, Agriculture, and Welsh Affairs Committees reported poor or delayed responses to requests for evidence or information. Although the Agriculture Committee found improvements over the last year in the general level of information it received from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, it had experienced particular difficulties with submission of written evidence by the Ministry. Over the last year only two submissions had arrived on time, and one arrived the day after the evidence session for which it was intended. The memorandum updating progress on recommendations, of which several months' notice had been given, arrived nearly three weeks late, and the one update for which DETR was responsible arrived nearly six weeks late.

104.  The Scottish Affairs Committee was surprised not to be sent a copy of the Scotland Office's Annual Report, nor even to be told that it was to be published. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee experienced difficulties arising from clashes between long arranged committee commitments, including visits to Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland business put on at short notice in the House. The Secretary of State undertook to ensure that these difficulties did not recur, and the situation has since improved.

105.  A failure by departments to inform committees of relevant developments is a theme running through the annual reports. This should be simple enough to resolve with clear instructions from Ministers to parliamentary branches, liaison officers and private offices.

106.  Committees appreciate a department thinking ahead about what will be useful and relevant to a committee's work, and thoughtfulness and planning in this respect pays dividends.

107.  Late submission of evidence can create considerable difficulty for a committee. Committees are aware of other pressures upon departments, and will normally allow the maximum time for the preparation of evidence. Delays in submission can dislocate a committee's programme, and departments should make every effort to provide evidence on time. If a department foresees a difficulty, it is a sensible precaution to explain the problem to the committee as soon as possible. If delays arise closer to the deadline, perhaps because of the need to consult other departments, or a wait for Ministerial clearance, then committees need to know the reason. It is the combination of delay and silence which is most unhelpful.

Government replies

108.  In Shifting the Balance[55] we said that the process of report and reply is pivotal to the relationship between select committees and the Government. We also observed that the quality of government replies was variable: some were exemplary, but too many were superficial. We reiterated the rule that Government replies should be made within two months of a report's publication, but noted the sensible practice of relaxing the timing (by agreement with the committee concerned) when the deadline fell during the summer recess or very shortly thereafter. We asked committees specifically to cover Government replies in their annual reports.

109.  Most annual reports expressed concern about the timeliness of replies. The Trade and Industry Committee had no complaints about timing or content, and the Foreign Affairs Committee described the Government as in general being conscientious in meeting deadlines. However, most other committees were less complimentary. The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee described its department as having "developed an unfortunate habit of consistently delivering its replies after the expected two-month deadline" and giving reasons for delays which were not especially convincing. The Education and Employment Committee said: "...even allowing for a sensible relaxation of the convention in periods when the House is in recess, in a number of instances the cause of the delay has been unexplained and its length unacceptable".

110.  The Treasury Committee found that a "disappointingly large number of replies have arrived outside the two-month deadline" (even allowing for the recess relaxation), although it acknowledged that timing and content of replies had improved recently. The Science and Technology Committee pointed out that the reply to its report on genetically modified foods arrived four months late, "barely in time" for a scheduled debate in Westminster Hall, and only after a complaint directly to the responsible Minister. The Home Affairs Committee cited two especially late replies: that on freemasonry in public life was a year late; and that on accountability of the security services was six months late. The Committee also pointed out that these most delayed replies were also the shortest; both were two pages long. The reply to the International Development Committee's reply on debt relief and the Cologne G8 Summit overran the deadline by ten weeks because of an oversight in the department. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee also reported late replies: that on the Eyre Review and the Royal Opera House took more than four months; that on staging international sporting events took more than eight months.

111.  In Independence or Control?[56] we accepted the Government's point that replies take longer when more than one department is involved, and this was acknowledged by the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Welsh Affairs Committee and others. The replies to the "Quadripartite" reports took 154 days and 136 days respectively; but four Government departments were closely concerned with the subject matter.

112.  We also acknowledged the very fair point made by the Government that saying "no" takes little time; the Culture, Media and Sport Committee noted that the quickest response it had received was that to the report on Wembley National Stadium, which arrived 21 days after publication of the report and rejected all the recommendations.

113.  It is nevertheless clear that delayed Government replies are rightly a matter of concern. Delays make the dialogue between select committees and departments less effective; delays may also mean that issues have lost their importance or topicality by the time the reply is received; and unexplained or unjustified delays do not make for good relations between committees and departments.

114.  Improvements are needed. We think this should be the approach:

•  there should be no change to the "two-month rule". Departments have demonstrated that they can produce full, high quality replies within this time

•  there should continue to be flexibility when the deadline for a reply would fall in a recess, but only by agreement with the committee concerned

•  if a reply is not necessary, committees should make this clear as soon as possible; preferably in the report so that the information is public, but otherwise as soon as possible after publication. It may be sensible for the Government by agreement to postpone a reply, for example awaiting the completion of some independent inquiry or work by the Law Commission, and this should be discussed between the committee and the department at an early stage

•  if it is likely that for good reasons it will be difficult to meet the deadline, the committee should be told as soon as possible after publication of the report, preferably by Ministerial letter which also gives a date by which the reply will be given. Committees should be prepared to be flexible when there are good reasons why a deadline cannot be met

•  if unforeseen difficulties arise, the department should inform the committee as soon as possible, again preferably by Ministerial letter; and at the time the difficulty is identified, not when the deadline (two-month or revised) is imminent

•  if there is further delay, or no good reason is given, the presumption should be that the committee seek an explanation from the responsible Minister in oral evidence.

115.  As with delays in the submission of evidence, explanation and understanding are important; it is the combination of delay and silence that is most unhelpful. Our successors should review the situation after the next round of reports on committee work.

116.  Several committees criticised the quality of replies. The Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee found them "variable". The Science and Technology Committee singled out a poor reply to a report on the Government's expenditure on research and development. The Agriculture Committee went back to the Ministry on two replies; that on regional service centres failed to address the conclusions and recommendations of the report. The Home Affairs Committee's report on drugs and prisons was responded to "with bland words of agreement without specifying what action was to be taken". On the other hand, the Treasury Committee thought that the content of replies had improved recently; and the Trade and Industry Committee had no complaint about the content of most of the responses.

117.  Government replies that deal with the issues raised, and which properly address committees' analyses and arguments, are of course a vital part of the process. The quality of replies overall appears to worry committees less than delays in replies; but there have evidently been lapses. We commend the practice of taking oral evidence from a Minister on an unsatisfactory reply. If this is seen to be the norm, it is likely that the lapses will become rare.


118.  Some committees encountered difficulties in securing evidence necessary for their inquiries. The Foreign Affairs Committee experienced problems in respect of intelligence matters in its inquiries into Sierra Leone and Kosovo, but took a robust attitude, reporting that it had "successfully...insisted on having access to internal documents of the FCO (including telegrams and classified papers) where these are vital to the conduct of an inquiry". The Committee also stressed the importance it attached to the assurance given by the then Foreign Secretary that the establishment of the Intelligence and Security Committee "would not truncate in any way the existing responsibilities of existing committees". This reinforced the point that we made in Shifting the Balance.[57]

119.  The Public Administration Committee was frustrated in securing the attendance of a number of witnesses. The Leader of the House declined to give evidence on financial assistance to opposition parties ("Short money"); the Prime Minister would not give evidence on the Ministerial Code (we return to the question of evidence from the Prime Minister in Part IV); the Government deemed it "not appropriate" for serving special advisers to appear even though the Committee was investigating their position and role; the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff would not appear although the Press Secretary (an analogous post) had already done so; and the request for evidence from a former head of the Performance and Innovation Unit was met with the appearance of the current holder of the post instead.

120.  The Public Administration Committee wished to take evidence from retired officials in its inquiry into changes to SERPS, where the events it was investigating stretched back over a number of years. The Government was reluctant to agree to this, and sought from us agreement to the general proposition that former officials should not appear. Committees should of course focus primarily on the doings of the current Administration, but we are in no doubt that, where a select committee is satisfied that such evidence is necessary to its inquiry, it should not be denied. We also recognise that, when officials have been retired for any length of time, there may be questions of burden and fairness to be considered. We have therefore asked all committees to let us know should they contemplate taking evidence from retired officials.

121.  The Treasury Sub-committee faced a number of problems in securing documents. During its inquiry into HM Customs and Excise it was refused an internal report on the possibility of merging the revenue departments and a report on measures to combat tobacco smuggling. The Treasury Committee commented:

    "...we remain mystified as to why the Government felt forced to employ a range of spurious and conflicting excuses to explain its reluctance to hand over to parliamentary scrutiny an old report on a routine matter concerning departmental administration. With regard to the Taylor report, we deplore the manner in which the Government has published those snippets of Mr Taylor's advice which support the new strategy for dealing with tobacco smuggling when it has refused to publish, in any form, his advice in full."

122.  By contrast, in the Home Affairs Committee's investigation of events at Blantyre House it was able to draw upon confidential internal documents, which contributed to the authority and quality of the report which resulted.

123.  The Treasury Sub-committee also identified a point which potentially affects all committees. In an inquiry into the Government's debt and cash management it was refused sight of the non-confidential responses to consultation documents, because those consulted had not been warned that there was a possibility that their responses might be made public. The Sub-committee secured an undertaking from the Treasury that future consultations would make clear the possibility of publication unless confidentiality were requested.

124.  The Treasury Committee and its Sub-committee invite us to consider the circumstances in which select committee should have access to consultation responses. We understand that, if those consulted had not been warned of the possibility of publication, a department would be reluctant to break a de facto relationship of confidentiality, even if responses contained nothing sensitive. However, the results of a consultation can be very useful to a select committee inquiry; and such access can also benefit a department, for example in demonstrating the grounds for subsequent action. We note that the Deregulation Committee routinely receives the responses to consultation on proposals for deregulation orders.

125.  We think that the approach adopted by the Treasury Sub-committee is the right one. All Government consultation documents should make clear the possibility that the responses may be passed to the relevant select committee, and may be published, unless confidentiality is requested. We are glad to see this provision in Criterion 2 of the Cabinet Office code on written consultation[58], and trust that this will now be standard practice in all Government consultations.

126.  The Defence Committee reported an unusual event. It had taken classified evidence relating to the work of the Defence Geographic and Intelligence Agency. Following its normal practice of wishing to put as much information as possible into the public domain without prejudicing genuinely sensitive matters, it asked the Ministry of Defence to review the classification. The Ministry of Defence refused. A journalist from The Guardian then sought declassification of the evidence under the Code of Practice in Open Government, and succeeded. It was of course the case that the Defence Committee already had the information, but was simply unable to publish or refer to it in its report. Nevertheless, these are circumstances that may arise again, and we hope that committees and departments will take note of them.

Supplementary Estimates

127.  The Trade and Industry Committee described difficulties experienced in seeking to examine and report upon Supplementary Estimates (on the Horizon benefit card project and on nuclear decommissioning at Dounreay) before they were voted upon in the House. The circumstances are set out in full in the Annex to this Report, and show real cause for concern. There were unjustified delays in providing the Committee with the information it needed to form a view on the Supplementary Estimates, and the Government effectively made it impossible for the Committee to report before the Estimates were voted upon. The Committee commented:

    "The system is failing, judging from our experience. We have the time, the expertise and the will to do our job, even within the largely unnecessary constraints of the timetable for considering the Winter Supplementary Estimates. But the absence of any formal powers means that departments can get away with delay and obfuscation."

128.  Select Committees which have the responsibility of examining the expenditure of Government departments must have the opportunity of examining and reporting upon Supplementary Estimates. The Trade and Industry Committee's experience demonstrates that there is now a strong case for building on the Procedure Committee's proposals,[59] and providing that no Supplementary Estimate should be capable of being put to the House for decision until reported on by the relevant departmental committee. In order to provide a safeguard against any unreasonable delay, there could be a stipulation that a Committee had to report no later than a certain number of sitting days after publication of the Supplementary Estimate. There should also be an arrangement whereby, if a Committee drew the special attention of the House to a particular Estimate, that Estimate, and any Motion on behalf of the Committee to reduce, would be voted upon separately and not included in the roll-up.

Delays in replacing members of committees

129.  This is evidently causing concern. The Public Administration Committee had experienced a turnover of 64% in Session 1999-2000, and commented "it is not helpful to have members nominally on the strength who are unable to attend from October to February." The Education and Employment Committee noted a rising trend in turnover, from 19% in 1997-98, to 25% in 1998-99, and 47% in 1999-2000, and said "this makes the effects of long delays in replacing Members who leave the Committee more acutely felt". This further emphasises the need for a more rapid and efficient method of nominating new Members to select committees[60].


130.  Committees' reports contained a number of interesting and useful experiments and suggestions. The Public Administration Committee commissioned the Hansard Society to organise an on-line discussion on the use of electronic communications and improving citizen participation. It has followed up its inquiry into quangos by asking Democratic Audit to monitor the openness and accountability of such bodies. In its inquiry into cancer research, the Science and Technology Committee took evidence from some 20 sets of witnesses who were cancer sufferers, thus allowing those most profoundly concerned about the subject to have a direct input to the inquiry, and a voice they would otherwise not have had. The Environment Sub-committee among others now places its written evidence on the Internet early in an inquiry so that potential witnesses (perhaps not yet identified by the Sub-committee) can comment and submit evidence of their own.


131.  Committees' annual reports give an encouraging, and indeed impressive, demonstration of the influence and effect they have had. We said in Shifting the Balance[61] that audits of committee effectiveness can be misleading. Analysis and criticism can often have as much effect as formal recommendations; and the influence of committees can be as much through the public debate that they initiate and inform as it is in their relationship with Government. In this respect, we commend the study of effectiveness and influence in the report of the Environment Audit Committee, which looks at a wide range of indicators and also draws upon independent studies.

132.  It would be invidious - and pointless, because each committee's approach and circumstances are different - to make comparisons of effectiveness. But the range and variety of cases in which committees have been able to make a real difference, demonstrated by this exercise, is a cause for satisfaction.

133.  In Shifting the Balance we said that it was important to distinguish between the "soft" recommendation already halfway to implementation and the "hard" recommendation which may change thinking and which may be adopted months or years later. One striking example of this was reported by the Home Affairs Committee. In 1990 the Committee's recommendation to set up a Criminal Records Bureau was not accepted by the then Government. Subsequently, an Efficiency Scrutiny advanced the case, a White Paper made it Government policy in 1996, and the necessary legislation was passed in 1997. The Home Affairs Committee is now about to report on the administrative and financial arrangements of a body which it recommended three Parliaments and eleven years ago.

Constructive co-operation

134.  In Shifting the Balance we said that when Government sees the work of select committees as a threat rather than an opportunity, the result is often the missed chance of effective explanation of policy, and of the enlistment of committees' understanding or support. Committees should be tough critics, but not adversarial for the sake of it. For example, the Trade and Industry Committee (whose credentials as a tough critic could not be in doubt) listed some occasions on which its inquiries had led it to support the Department of Trade and Industry:

•  the Committee examined the allegations that there had been damaging bidding-up between public authorities to attract inward investment, and found no evidence to support the allegations

•  it endorsed the decision of Ministers to accept Georgian nuclear material at Dounreay and provided an objective analysis of allegations made by the former Chief Constable of the UKAEA Constabulary about security at Dounreay

•  it generally endorsed the decision to abandon the Horizon benefit card project

•  the Committee supported much of the Government's negotiating position on European Structural Funds

•  it reported broadly in favour of a public private partnership for BNFL; and

•  the Committee examined in great detail allegations that the Secretary of State had or should have known in advance of BMW's intention to dispose of Rover, and found them largely without foundation.

135.  We hope that the realisation that there is another side to the coin will encourage greater openness and frankness on the part of Government departments.

Possible changes in the departmental select committee system

136.  There has been some speculation about changes in the organisation and responsibilities of government departments in the new Parliament. The Home Affairs Committee drew attention to the particular question of how best the work of the Lord Chancellor's Department might be scrutinised (balancing the additional time and attention which a separate committee could devote against preserving the increasingly joined-up approach to the work of the Home Office, the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Crown Prosecution Service in running the criminal justice system).

137.  As the Home Affairs Committee points out, decisions on machinery of government will be taken in the next Parliament before the nomination of a Liaison Committee able to express a view, from the point of view of select committees as a whole, as to how the committee structure should reflect departmental responsibilities. The Home Affairs Committee says "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". We think this an excellent suggestion, and have made arrangements accordingly.


138.  We have referred to the strains on committee staffs as a result of the rising trend of committee activity. This was touched on by several committees (including Defence, Education and Employment, Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, and Foreign Affairs) who felt that present resources were not adequate, and we were asked to consider the matter further. As the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee pointed out, changes in the machinery of government may affect the structure (and so the staffing) of the select committee system in the new Parliament. This will be something for the Committee Office to address when the likely changes are known, and to bring forward proposals as necessary.

Select committees in the Lords and Commons

139.  In Independence or Control? we drew attention to indications that select committee activity in the House of Lords might increase with the changes in that House, and warned of difficulties that might arise.[62] The Trade and Industry Committee raised the matter specifically in a discussion of overlap between committees:

    "Our greater concern arises from the potential for overlap of a potentially destructive sort with committees in the House of Lords. Although we have avoided most problems through one or the other committee standing aside, we consider that the Liaison Committee might give some thought to mechanisms to avoid overlap between the two Houses, all the more as the reformed House of Lords may seek to expand the scope of its committee operations."

140.  We agree that there is a case for so doing; but what are probably the closing stages of a Parliament may not be the best time. We think that the relationship between the committee systems of the two Houses should be high on our successors' agenda in the new Parliament.


141.  This first round of committees' reports on their work has been successful, and we are sure that it should become a fixture. It is possible that the first Session of the new Parliament will be a long one, and that the next Sessional reports would therefore fall to be completed before the Christmas recess 2002. We think that there will be a strong case for an interim exercise before Christmas 2001, to be considered by the Liaison Committee in early 2002. That will give an opportunity to assess the process (and speed) of nominating committees, and any problems encountered in their early work. It will also be important to make some initial assessment of any changes in the committee structure and, in the reviews of recommendations, to focus the attention of departments fairly early in a new Parliament.

142.  We conclude this section of our Report with an interesting comparison. Central government expenditure for 2001-02 is expected to be £394.9 billion.[63] The cost of the entire select committee system in this House, including the departmental committees charged with examining the Government's expenditure, administration and policy, is £7.7 million[64], or less than 0.002% of the money which it scrutinises.


143.  A central theme of Shifting the Balance is a more integrated approach to the work of select committees in scrutinising Government. When reviewing progress on our recommendations, we therefore also considered how the scrutiny of Government as a whole might be improved. Now that the Government produces an Annual Report[65] on its policies and performance, we thought that the logical response in terms of scrutiny was for the Liaison Committee to take evidence following the publication of each Annual Report. There is, after all, no other select committee which is able to consider the whole range of select committee responsibilities. By the same token, the only Minister who would be able to give evidence on the overall direction and performance of the Government would be the Prime Minister himself.

144.  We had in mind that several Prime Ministers had declined invitations to appear before select committees in the past; and, although in individual instances the case for a Prime Minister giving evidence may have been strong, the possibility that a number of committees might then invoke the precedent has no doubt been a factor in the reluctance to appear.

145.  Our invitation to the Prime Minister took this factor into account: we proposed that he should give evidence once a year, and it was clear that this occasion would be sui generis and would not provide a general precedent. We also thought that Parliamentary questioning of the nation's Chief Executive, not in the noisy and adversarial atmosphere of the Chamber but in the calmer surroundings of a committee room, with the ability to pursue lines of questioning, would be very welcome to the voters who put us here.

The Chairman of the Committee therefore wrote to the Prime Minister on 14 December 2000:

At their last meeting the Liaison Committee were informed by Tony Wright, as Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, that his Committee had been in correspondence with you about the possibility of giving evidence on the ministerial code.

The Liaison Committee appreciate, of course, that there is a recent convention that Prime Ministers do not give evidence to Select Committees, primarily for the reason that it is more appropriate for the relevant departmental Minister to appear, since he or she will have direct responsibility for the matter under investigation. Nevertheless the Committee would not wish such a convention to be regarded as sacrosanct, and they feel that in certain circumstances there could be positive benefits not only to the House as a whole but to the Prime Minister of the day if he or she were able to discuss the policies and programme of the Government in a rational way and in an essentially non-partisan forum.

The Government has made it its practice to produce an Annual Report. What the Committee has in mind is that this document should be the basis of an annual appearance by the Prime Minister to discuss with the Liaison Committee the main elements in this Report. The exact timing would, of course, be a matter for discussion, but we envisage a reasonable period elapsing between publication and discussion so that the Committee can be properly prepared to make best use of the time available.

For its part the Committee would undertake that no further requests for your appearance would be made by any Select Committee that year, and that, so far as possible, you should be given a broad indication of the main themes to be covered. We would normally envisage the meeting lasting not more than two hours. For your part I would hope that you could see real advantages in being able to spell out your policies to your Parliamentary colleagues in an atmosphere very different from that on the floor of the House. I also believe that the general perception of Parliament and politicians in the eyes of the public would be greatly improved if such procedures could be introduced.

The Liaison Committee has no intention of making this proposal public*, and I would be happy on their behalf to discuss it further with you if you so wish. I look forward to a positive response.

* We subsequently sought and received the Prime Minister's consent to making our request public in this Report.

The Prime Minister replied on 29 January this year:

Thank you for your letter of 14 December on behalf of the Liaison Committee, asking me to give evidence to the Committee on the Government's policies on an annual basis.

As your letter recognises, there is a convention that Prime Ministers do not give evidence to the House in this way which is founded on the important principle that it is for individual Secretaries of State to answer to the House and its Select Committees for their areas of responsibility, and not the Prime Minister. You described this convention as "recent" but, as I understand it, no Prime Minister has in fact given evidence to a Select Committee in person since at least 1945.

It is right of course that the House of Commons should have an opportunity to question me as the Head of the Government, and it does of course have that opportunity in weekly Prime Minister's Questions. More detailed questioning of the kind that you propose would, however, inevitably mean trespassing on other ministers' responsibilities and would, I believe, risk obscuring the present lines of accountability in our system where statutory powers are conferred directly on Secretaries of State and other Departmental Ministers, and not on the Prime Minister.

I have decided, therefore, having given the matter serious consideration, that I should stand by the precedent set by former Prime Ministers and decline your invitation.

146.  We were disappointed by this reply.

147.  The Prime Minister asserts that the

    "...convention that Prime Ministers do not give evidence to the House in this way ... is founded on the important principle that it is for individual Secretaries of State to answer to the House and its Select Committees for their areas of responsibility, and not the Prime Minister."

But if evidence on the overall direction and performance of the Government is to be given, how can "individual Secretaries of State" respond to such a Parliamentary requirement?

148.  Second, the Prime Minister says that

    "More detailed questioning of the kind that you propose would, however, inevitably mean trespassing on other ministers' responsibilities and would, I believe, risk obscuring the present lines of accountability in our system where statutory powers are conferred directly on Secretaries of State and other Departmental Ministers, and not on the Prime Minister."

149.  No Prime Minister can be expected to carry a detailed knowledge of the whole range of Government responsibilities, and detailed questioning is not our intention. Our proposal was to explore exactly those broad strategic themes which are raised in the Government's Annual Report and with which the Prime Minister is closely concerned; and we suggested that a single session each year, with advance indication of the themes, should rule out a request from any other committee to the Prime Minister to give evidence.

150.  The Prime Minister's argument that statutory responsibilities should define Parliamentary responsibilities should not pass without comment. It would mean - for example - that Ministers had no responsibility to Parliament for any action taken under the Royal Prerogative, for instance in defence and foreign policy; that there was no responsibility to Parliament for the general conduct of the nation's financial affairs; and that there was no responsibility to Parliament for the Government's proposed legislative programme as a whole - because in none of these cases is there specific statutory responsibility. Such a case is not sustainable; but even if we were for the purposes of argument to accept that responsibilities lie with Secretaries of State and other Departmental Ministers, and not with the Prime Minister, this would surely lead one to ask: for what is the Prime Minister responsible, if he is not responsible for the Government's performance and programme? Where does this particular buck stop?

151.  We said in Shifting the Balance that "the work of select committees tends to be seen by government as a threat rather than an opportunity" and "when Ministers and Departments have got their act together, and are prepared to be co-operative rather than defensive, the results have benefitted both Parliament and government."[66] We hope that on further consideration the Prime Minister will feel able to accept our invitation.

4   First Report from the Committee, HC 300 of Session 1999-2000. Back

5   Cm 4737, 10 May 2000. Back

6   Independence or Control?, Second Report from the Committee, HC 748 of Session 1999-2000. Back

7   Official Report, cols. 473 to 540. Back

8   For example, EDM 476; the Report of the Commission chaired by Professor Lord Norton of Louth, July 2000; Systematic Scrutiny by Alex Brazier (Hansard Society Commission on the Scrutiny Role of Parliament), and a number of political commentators. Back

9   Official Report, cols. 80 to 128. Back

10   Votes and Proceedings, Session 2000-01, page 207. Back

11   See Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 10 to 20. Back

12   Cm 4737, paragraphs 6 to 14. Back

13   See Independence or Control?, paragraphs 6 to 28. Back

14   Votes and Proceedings, Session 2000-01, pages 206 and 207. Back

15   Second Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 40 of Session 2000-01, paragraph 60. Back

16   For lists of Committees appointed by each method, see Independence or Control?, page ix. Back

17   The case of Standing Committees does not provide a contrary argument: Ministers are members of Standing Committees as Members in charge of a Bill, present in order to explain and defend their proposals. The same end may be achieved in a Select Committee by Ministers attending as witnesses. Back

18   Second Report from the Defence Committee, The Strategic Defence Review: Policy for People, HC 29I and II of Session 2000-01. Back

19   Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 21 and 22. Back

20  ..ibid., paragraphs 51 to 55. Back

21   ibid., paragraphs 35 to 39. Back

22   Cm 4737, paragraphs 24 to 28. Back

23   Independence or Control?, paragraphs 41 to 46. Back

24   Sessional Order (Sittings in Westminster Hall), 20 November 2000, paragraph 13. Back

25   See ibid., paragraph 42. Back

26   Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 40 to 43. Back

27   Cm 4737. Back

28   Independence or Control?, paragraphs 35 to 39. Back

29   Official Report, 12 February 2001, col. 111. Back

30   Sixth Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Procedure for debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans, HC 295 of Session 1998-99. Back

31   Paragraphs 61 and 62. Back

32   Cm 4737, paragraphs 37 to 41. Back

33   Independence or Control?, paragraph 59. Back

34   ibid., paragraph 58. Since then, the International Criminal Court Bill and the Water Bill were published in draft in Session 1999-2000. The figures were therefore: 1997-98: 1; 1998-99: 8; 1999-2000: 3; 2000-01 (to date): 0. Back

35   ibid., paragraphs 65 to 68. Back

36   Cm 4737, paragraphs 45 to 51. Back

37   ibid., paragraph 46. Back

38   Formed by members of the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees working jointly. Back

39   Holding to Account: The Review of Audit and Accountability for Central Government; Report by Lord Sharman of Redlynch, February 2001, paragraphs 5.15 to 5.17. Back

40   Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 85 and 86. Back

41   ibid., paragraph 87. Back

42   Cm 4737, paragraph 55. Back

43   See Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 93 to 95. Back

44   ibid., paragraphs 96 to 98. Back

45   ibid., paragraphs 99 to 104. Back

46   Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 51 to 55. Back

47   HC 100 of Session 2000-01. Back

48   See, for example: The Department of Trade and Industry: Role, Objectives and Targets, Second Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, HC 140 of Session 2000-01. Back

49   See paragraphs 17 to 20 . Back

50   Report from the Select Committee on the Army Act and the Air Force Act, HC 223 of Session 1953-54. Back

51   Second Report, HC 210 of Session 1999-2000. Back

52   Second Special Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 990 of Session 1999-2000. Back

53   Paragraph 24. Back

54   Paragraph 19. Back

55   Paragraph 48. Back

56   Paragraph 50. Back

57   Paragraph 91. Back

58   Paragraph 8. Back

59   Sixth Report, Procedure for Debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans, HC 295 of Session 1998-99. Back

60   See paragraphs 10 to 21. Back

61   Paragraph 54. Back

62   Paragraphs 69 to 72. Back

63   This comprises: Departmental Expenditure Limits of £210.5 billion (£185.1 billion on resource budgets, plus £25.4 billion on capital budgets), together with £184.4 billion of Annually Managed Expenditure. Source: Building Long Term Prosperity for All: Pre-Budget Report, HM Treasury, Cm 4917 of November 2000. Back

64   This comprises staff salary costs for the Committee Office (£3.5m), printing and publishing (£2.4m); plus £1.8m for: recording and transcription of evidence, specialist advisers' fees and expenses, work commissioned and travel. It does not include the costs of accommodation, heating and lighting. See Sessional Returns 1999-2000, HC100 of Session 2000-01. Back

65   See, for example, the government's annual report 99/00 (the third annual report), The Stationery Office Ltd; and at Back

66   ibid., paragraphs 56 and 58. Back

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