Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Memorandum to the Liaison Committee


1.  Following the General Election in June, the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR) was established. It has four main sections: housing, urban policy and planning; local and regional government; transport strategy, roads and local transport; railways, aviation logistics and maritime. The Department differs from its predecessor (DETR) in that responsibility for countryside matters and the environment has been hived off to the newly created Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFR). Some of the DETRA's regional responsibilities have moved with the Deputy Prime Minister to the Cabinet Office, and the Regional Development Agencies are now the responsibility of DTI. The DTLR has taken over responsibilities for electoral matters and the fire service from the Home Office. Like the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee in the last Parliament, the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee has decided to undertake its work through two Sub-Committees, transport and urban affairs, which meet weekly, and a Main Committee that meets at least once each fortnight.


2.  When established in July, the Committee decided to undertake inquiries into

    -   rail franchising and London Underground in the Transport Sub-Committee

    -   Planning Policy Guidance Note 17: (Sport, Open Space and Recreation) in the Urban Affairs Sub-Committee, and

    -   empty homes in the Main Committee

    -   the Departmental Annual Report and Estimates which were to be examined by the Main Committee and both Sub-Committees.

    Subsequently, inquiries have been announced into the Ordnance Survey; road traffic speed; tall buildings; the air transport industry; the review of the Government's 10 Year Transport Plan; the Planning Green Paper; and the need for an EU regeneration framework.

3.  Those inquiries are a mixture of

    -   examining the Government's proposals (PPG 17; London Underground and the PPP; rail franchising;);

    -   taking a fresh look at areas that the Committee considers the Government is not paying sufficient attention to (eg Empty Homes); and

    -   scrutiny of the Department's associated public bodies, either directly (eg Ordnance Survey), or through evidence in other inquiries (eg. the Rent Assessment Agency, the Housing Corporation, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Rail Regulator).

    -   following up the inquiries of its predecessors; eg, the examination of PPG 17 follows on from the report on Town and Country Parks that led to the Government's commitment (announced in the Urban White Paper, 2000) to a revised policy framework for parks and open space.

The Department's Annual Report

4.  The Committee has continued to monitor the Department's activities and expenditure plans through an inquiry into the Annual Report. This year was a little unusual in that the relevant Annual Report was that published by now defunct DETRA before the General Election. Accordingly, the Committee decided to extend the inquiry to look at policy development since the Report's publication. This has provided an opportunity to take evidence from each of the Department's three Ministers of State at separate sessions, and to have a joint session with the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary.

Recent developments

5.  There have been two notable developments in recent months. In November the Committee took evidence from officials from the National Audit Office (NAO) following the NAO Report into the London Underground PPP, which was undertaken as a result of a recommendation by our predecessor Committee. This was an extremely useful session, which elucidated how value for money might be assessed, but we were not drawn into discussing policy or matters which would compromise the impartiality of the NAO. In December the Committee arranged an evidence session with the Minister of State on the Planning Green Paper within a week of its publication. As the Green Paper was not the subject of an oral statement in the House, the Committee's evidence session was the first opportunity for Members to question the Minister on its contents.

Government replies

6.  Government replies to several of the predecessor Committee's reports have been received unacceptably late, even allowing for an extension due to the General Election. The reply to the Cemeteries Report which was published in March 2001 was received in October 2001. The Committee has been particularly concerned that two reports on environmental matters, both published in March, Delivering Sustainable Waste Management and the Draft Water Bill, where responsibilities were transferred to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in June, had still received no response nine months later by the end of this year.

Attendance of Ministers and officials

7.  We were pleased by the readiness of Ministers in the Department to give evidence to the Committee. By late December the Secretary of State had appeared twice, Lord Falconer of Thoroton three times, Mr John Spellar MP and Mr Nick Raynsford MP once each and Sally Keeble MP twice. In addition, the Minister for Sport gave evidence to the PPG 17 inquiry.

8.  However, we were very disappointed that no Treasury Minister or official was prepared to appear before the Committee to answer questions, either about rail franchising or London Underground and the PPP. The latter was particularly unfortunate since the evidence which we received made it abundantly clear that the Treasury had devised and been the main supporter of the PPP project. London Underground stated to the Committee that central to its support for the PPP was the Treasury's commitment to a steady stream of public funding for the PPP, which it would not commit to under alternative financing arrangements. It was evidently of the utmost importance to question the Treasury on this matter. In its report on the Treasury in the last Parliament, the Treasury Committee concluded

    "We are concerned that the Treasury as an institution has recently begun to exert too much influence over policy areas which are properly the business of other Departments, and that this is not necessarily in the best interests of the Treasury or the Government as a whole."

We now find ourselves in a situation where the Treasury is ever more powerful and influential but is unwilling to be fully accountable to the Departmental Select Committee system. We are aware that this matter has been considered by the Liaison Committee.

The Liaison Committee

9.  Finally, we note with surprise and disappointment the decision of the Leader of the House to end the practice of the last Parliament whereby both our Chairmen were nominated and subsequently appointed to the Liaison Committee. We are not aware that any objections were raised by any Members in the last Parliament and we are confident that any perceived problems over a notional "additional vote" or voice on the Committee could have been overcome. We are, however, aware of the prominent support given by them to the thrust of the recommendations in Shifting the Balance. We have to conclude that their removal was a deliberate attempt by the Government to diminish the effectiveness of Liaison Committee in reflecting the views and needs of select committees.

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Prepared 7 February 2002