The Liaison Committee has agreed to the following
SHIFTING THE BALANCE:
PART I: INTRODUCTION
1. Almost exactly a year ago we published our
Report Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive.
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
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
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
6. But the Government's response
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.
Our proposals were debated on the Adjournment on 9 November 2000
and received widespread support both inside and outside the House
. On 12
February 2001 the House again debated Shifting the Balance
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
PART II: PROGRESS ON OUR PROPOSALS
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.
10. We believe that the nomination of Members
to committees is not satisfactory.
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
begin work earlier in a Parliament;
are filled quickly;
of a subject and the readiness to commit time to committee work
are in every case key criteria for membership; and
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
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. 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
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:
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);
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
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.
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;
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
26. The annual reports of select committees (which
we recommended in Shifting the Balance
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
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
The Government rejected this,
on grounds we thought less than convincing.
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
in addition to those for which time is found by the Government.
We will continue to encourage committees to bring forward reports
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
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.
32. Our proposal was rejected by the Government
on grounds which we demonstrated were not valid.
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."
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.
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.
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.
We welcomed the increased resources the Government had provided
over the previous three years, and hoped that this would be maintained.
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.
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
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.
40. The Government came some of the way to meet
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
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)
and will consider whether any ad hoc committees are needed.
The future of the "Quadripartite" Committee
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.
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
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.
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
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.
In response, the Government said that it was troubled by our conclusions,
and undertook to work with the House authorities to improve matters.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
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
PART III: REVIEW OF SELECT COMMITTEE WORK
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.
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 www.parliament.uk
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.
|Agriculture||Second Special Report, HC117: The Committee's Work, Session 1999-2000|
|Culture, Media and Sport||First Special Report, HC57: Review of Reports, Recommendations and Responses, 1997-2000|
|Defence||First Special Report, HC177: Annual Report of the Committee for Session 1999-2000|
|Deregulation||Memorandum, printed in Volume II |
|Education and Employment||First Special Report, HC206: The Work of the Committee|
|Environmental Audit||First Report, HC67: Environmental Audit: The First Parliament|
|Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs||First Special Report, HC65: Annual Report of the Work of the Committee to the Liaison Committee|
|Foreign Affairs||First Special Report, HC78: Work of the Committee during the present Parliament: A Progress Report|
|Health||First Special Report, HC 152: The Committee's Work, Sessions 1997-98 to 1999-2000|
|Home Affairs||Third Special Report, HC24: The Work of the Committee in the 1997 Parliament|
|International Development||First Special Report, HC82: The Work of the International Development Committee, 1997-2000|
|Public Administration||Memorandum, printed in Volume II|
|Northern Ireland Affairs||First Special Report, HC148: Annual Report for Session 1999-2000|
|Science and Technology||First Special Report, HC44: The Work of the Science and Technology Committee 1997-2000|
|Scottish Affairs||Memorandum, printed in Volume II|
|Social Security||Memorandum, printed in Volume II|
|Trade and Industry||First Report, HC109: The Work of the Committee in the 1997 Parliament|
|Treasury||First Report, HC41: Work of the Treasury Committee and Treasury Sub-committee|
|Welsh Affairs||First 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'
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
The procedure for quinquennial review by a select committee was
first recommended nearly fifty years ago, long before the establishment
of departmental select committees.
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
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;
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
108. In Shifting the Balance
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?
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
should be no change to the "two-month rule". Departments
have demonstrated that they can produce full, high quality replies
within this time
should continue to be flexibility when the deadline for a reply
would fall in a recess, but only by agreement with the committee
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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,
and trust that this will now be standard practice in all Government
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
endorsed the decision to abandon the Horizon benefit card project
supported much of the Government's negotiating position on European
broadly in favour of a public private partnership for BNFL; and
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
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.
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.
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
or less than 0.002% of the money which it scrutinises.
PART IV: EVIDENCE FROM THE PRIME MINISTER
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
4737, 10 May 2000. Back
or Control?, Second Report from the Committee, HC 748 of Session
Report, cols. 473 to 540. Back
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
Report, cols. 80 to 128. Back
and Proceedings, Session 2000-01, page 207. Back
Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 10 to 20. Back
4737, paragraphs 6 to 14. Back
Independence or Control?, paragraphs 6 to 28. Back
and Proceedings, Session 2000-01, pages 206 and 207. Back
Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 40 of Session 2000-01,
paragraph 60. Back
lists of Committees appointed by each method, see Independence
or Control?, page ix. Back
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
Report from the Defence Committee, The Strategic Defence Review:
Policy for People, HC 29I and II of Session 2000-01. Back
the Balance, paragraphs 21 and 22. Back
20 ..ibid., paragraphs 51 to 55. Back
paragraphs 35 to 39. Back
4737, paragraphs 24 to 28. Back
or Control?, paragraphs 41 to 46. Back
Order (Sittings in Westminster Hall), 20 November 2000, paragraph
ibid., paragraph 42. Back
the Balance, paragraphs 40 to 43. Back
or Control?, paragraphs 35 to 39. Back
Report, 12 February 2001, col. 111. Back
Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, Procedure for
debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans, HC 295 of Session
61 and 62. Back
4737, paragraphs 37 to 41. Back
or Control?, paragraph 59. Back
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
paragraphs 65 to 68. Back
4737, paragraphs 45 to 51. Back
paragraph 46. Back
by members of the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development
and Trade and Industry Committees working jointly. Back
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
the Balance, paragraphs 85 and 86. Back
paragraph 87. Back
4737, paragraph 55. Back
Shifting the Balance, paragraphs 93 to 95. Back
paragraphs 96 to 98. Back
paragraphs 99 to 104. Back
the Balance, paragraphs 51 to 55. Back
100 of Session 2000-01. Back
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
paragraphs 17 to 20 . Back
from the Select Committee on the Army Act and the Air Force Act,
HC 223 of Session 1953-54. Back
Report, HC 210 of Session 1999-2000. Back
Special Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 990 of Session
Report, Procedure for Debate on the Government's Expenditure
Plans, HC 295 of Session 1998-99. Back
paragraphs 10 to 21. Back
69 to 72. Back
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
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
for example, the government's annual report 99/00 (the
third annual report), The Stationery Office Ltd; and at www.annualreport.gov.uk.. Back
paragraphs 56 and 58. Back