Select Committee on Liaison Second Report


The Liaison Committee has agreed to the following Report:



1. The publication of the Report on Select Committees by the Modernisation Committee takes forward a debate initiated by the Liaison Committee at the end of the last Parliament. It takes forward the case for strengthening the House's scrutiny of the Executive by making select committees more effective.

2. We particularly welcome the Modernisation Committee's belief in the central role of select committees in parliamentary scrutiny. The Liaison Committee has long proposed reform. Most issues - notably ' independence, status and resources'[1] - have been addressed positively. We support most of the proposals in the Report.[2]

Independent Nomination

1.We recommend that at the start of each Parliament the Committee of Nomination should be set up under the Chairman of Ways and Means. The Chairman of Ways and Means should chair proceedings, but in order to preserve the impartiality of his office have no vote.—[Paragraph 15]

2. We recommend that appointment to the Chairmen's Panel must remain firmly in the hands of the Speaker and not subject to any party interest or lobbying.—[Paragraph 16]

3.We recommend that membership of the Committee of Nomination should be prescribed in Standing Orders. We recommend that the Committee of Nomination should consist of the Chairman of Ways and Means and nine other members:

  ·    seven Members of the Chairmen's Panel chosen with broad regard to the party balance, reflecting gender balance and based on length of service as members of the Panel. Those seven would consist of:

      —    the four most senior Members of the Government party on the Panel including the most senior woman Member of that party;

      —    the two most senior Members of the official Opposition on the Panel, including the most senior woman Member of that party; and

      —    the most senior Member of the second largest opposition party on the Panel.

  ·    the most senior back-bencher on the Government side of the House; and

  ·    the most senior back-bencher on the opposition benches.

The quorum of the Committee when nominating committees afresh at the start of a Parliament should be six, and three when filling subsequent vacancies, not including the Chairman of Ways and Means. In the unavoidable absence of the Chairman of Ways and Means the First Deputy Chairman or in his or her absence the Second Deputy Chairman shall act as chairman. — [Paragraph 17]

3. A review of the procedure for nominating departmental select committees was the starting point for the Modernisation Committee's inquiry. Its recommendation of a Committee of Nomination seeks to create machinery that is "independent, authoritative, transparent and able to command the confidence of the House on both sides".[3] This involves the Chairman of Ways and Means, seven Members of the Chairman's Panel, and the most senior backbencher from the Government and Opposition sides of the House.

4. We are attracted by the new framework, which draws on the independence and authority of the occupants of the Chair. Of course it will need to be tested in practice, as certain elements remain unclear. The Report seeks "a fail-safe mechanism to ensure fair play and to provide a court of appeal".[4] It envisages that the new Committee of Nomination would only vary party nominations in "exceptional circumstances where it was clear that a fundamental problem had arisen".[5] How the Committee would arbitrate in a case such as occurred in July 2001, when two Chairmen were not re-nominated by their party Whips, remains to be demonstrated, and would be dependent on the procedures of individual political parties. Nonetheless, we support the Modernisation Committee's proposal as offering sensible new machinery, which is worth trying.

Appointment of Chairmen

4. We recommend that the proposed allocation between parties of the posts of chairmen of select committees should be reported to the Committee of Nomination.— [Paragraph 25]

  5. We are glad to note that the new Committee of Nomination would also receive the results of negotiations on the proposed allocation between parties of the posts of chairmen of select committees.[6] This should enable the allocation, which is based on a formula reflecting the balance of parties in the House, to be made available in advance of elections of chairmen by committees. Such transparency should help to avoid misunderstandings as have occurred in the past, while permitting committees the discretion to select their own preferred candidate for chairman from the appropriate side of the House.

More Resources

5.We recommend that the House of Commons Commission should make available the necessary funds for a central unit of specialist support staff to be in place in the next financial year. — [Paragraph 28]

  6. The Modernisation Committee compares the resources available to select committees with those available to Government, and rightly seeks a better balance. It notes the 'very limited specialist advice' which is provided, and considers that effectiveness could be enhanced by 'direct access to further specialist advice independent of Government'.[7]

7. We are glad that the Report specifically endorses the Liaison Committee's recommendation for a central unit within the Committee Office to support specialist scrutiny functions.


8. Our First Report noted that a number of committees have taken the initiative in recent months to scrutinise bills in substantive form, as well as in pre-legislative drafts.[8] Legislative scrutiny requires early notice, adequate documentation and realistic deadlines. These are for Government to deliver. Pre-legislative scrutiny, if it is to be comprehensive, depends on a regular flow of draft bills. Despite the good intentions expressed in the 1997 Modernisation Committee's report,[9] the number of bills published in draft since then has been disappointing. We look forward to an improvement in this situation.

9. Pre-legislative work imposes extra burdens on Members, and will create a problem of priorities for the committee and for committee staff. So it is welcome to have the endorsement of the Modernisation Committee for the provision of extra specialist support that could help enhance committees' examination of legislation. The staff of the unit could provide briefing to individual committee staffs, or augment a committee secretariat for a particular pre-legislative study.


10. The same method of operation is supported by the Modernisation Committee in respect of financial scrutiny, with a central specialist resource again being available to committees. At present some limited examination of expenditure plans is undertaken by most departmental select committees. Greater provision of specialist assistance from the scrutiny unit should enable committees to ensure that Departments are made accountable and transparent in more policy areas.

11. The pressure for select committees to engage in more thorough scrutiny of expenditure - which should range more widely than just a review of the Estimates - is not new. But these hopes have not been realised. This is the fault of select committees. As early as 1978 the Procedure Committee Report which led to the establishment of departmentally related select committees recommended that [those Committees] "should be encouraged to examine the.... Estimates referred to them in the conduct of their scrutiny of departmental policy and administration....".[10] In 1981 the Select Committee on Procedure (Supply), which recommended the establishment of Estimates Days, stated in its Report that the departmentally related committees "should allot some time each session to the examination of their departmental Estimates, but.....the amount of time and depth of such scrutiny should be a matter for each committee to determine".[11] This view was reinforced by the Procedure Committee in 1990 in its Report on The Working of the Select Committee System.[12] These recommendations were taken a stage further by our predecessors in 1997 when they proposed that select committees "should intensify examination of their departmental reports".[13]

12. The 1999 Procedure Committee Report on Procedure for Debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans adopted a more prescriptive approach, recommending that, by Standing Order, the main Estimates and the departmental plans and annual reports should be referred to the relevant select committee, who would be obliged to report on them to the House.[14] From outside the House, the most recent impetus in favour of extending the financial scrutiny role of select committees came from the Hansard Society whose principal new recommendation was that each committee should "pilot and evaluate a ..... Finance and Audit Sub-Committee [which would] consider ...... Estimates and departmental allocations, audit and value for money inquires, Public Service Agreements, performance indicators and outcomes".[15]

13. The Modernisation Committee is right to re-emphasise the importance of financial scrutiny within the overall remit of the departmental select committees. The fact that their record so far has been relatively patchy should strike a cautionary note. Committees have to remember that they belong to the House. The House has the right to spell out what it expects of them.

6.We recommend that the National Audit Office be invited to help assess the need for specialist and other support staff for select committees and to advise on how this could best be provided, and that the House of Commons Commission should look favourably on funding for staffing increases which may be proposed.— [Paragraph 29]

14. We are glad that the Modernisation Committee accepted this proposal which our Chairman put forward when he gave evidence. Staffing levels for the new scrutiny unit will need to be agreed by the House of Commons Commission in time for its introduction in the financial year 2002/3. Staffing is to include secondments as well as permanent and short term staff. We understand that the National Audit Office, which already supplies secondees to the Committee Office, is prepared to consider providing further expert staff, particularly to assist with financial scrutiny. We understand also that it would be willing to help assess how extra specialist and support staff might best be provided to meet any needs identified by the House.


7.We recommend that within the Committee Office there should be sufficient staff to assist with the function of supporting the administrative workload of the select committee chairmen. —[Paragraph 30]

  15. The Modernisation Committee's Report considers support to committee chairmen, in the light of representations from some of them that "running an active select committee generates considerable demands for secretarial services".[16] We are only too conscious of these demands, although there are different views within our own membership as to how best these burdens might be supported. We are glad that the Report has recognised that it is not reasonable to expect this burden to be met from the resources available within the general range of Members' allowances. The Modernisation Committee's solution, which is helpful, is to recommend that the Committee Office should have sufficient staff "to assist with the function of supporting the administrative workload of the select committee chairmen".[17] Such support would probably best be available within individual committee secretariats, as the staff would be familiar with the issues and with the chairman's manner of working. The duties to support chairmen, many of which are carried out already, would be likely to be shared across the staff of each committee, but a fuller service will require extra staffing levels.


10.We recommend that select committees should experiment with appointing one of their number as a rapporteur on a specific task, such as for example financial scrutiny.—[Paragraph 34]

11. We recommend that as part of the process of producing an annual report each departmental select committee should submit to the Liaison Committee a statement of how it has met each core task in the scrutiny of its department.—[Paragraph 35]

8. We recommend that there should be an agreed statement of the core tasks of the departmental select committees.—[Paragraph 33]

9.We recommend the following model as an illustration of what we would regard as the principal objectives of departmental select committees:

  "It shall be the duty, where appropriate, of each select committee:

  •     to consider the Government's response to major emerging issues
  •     to propose changes where evidence persuades the Committee that present policy requires amendment
  •     to conduct pre-legislative scrutiny of draft bills
  •     to examine and report on main Estimates, annual expenditure plans and annual resource accounts
  •     to monitor performance against targets in the public service agreements
  •     to take evidence from each Minister at least annually
  •     to take evidence from independent regulators and inspectorates
  •     to consider the reports of Executive Agencies
  •     to consider, and if appropriate report on, major appointments by a Secretary of State or other senior ministers
  •     to examine treaties within their subject areas."—[Paragraph 34]

16. The Modernisation Committee reflects our own approach to improving the focus of committee work. Our recent Report was able to draw on the review of committees' work in 2001, and noted the use of seminars, induction programmes, and clear frameworks for justifying an inquiry and assessing its desired output. Indeed, we commented:

"A more methodical and less ad hoc approach to the business of scrutiny can only strengthen the work of committees. Identifying core tasks enables Members to have a clear discussion of priorities for a committee's work programme, and to monitor the results achieved."[18]

17. We welcome the further ideas on committee objectives and tasks set out by the Modernisation Committee as a valuable contribution to this process. The Report sets out a useful illustrative list. It contains no novelties for most departmental select committees, which should have no difficulty in meeting the spirit of the recommendations - although the use of terms such as objectives, tasks, work programmes and performance measurements will need some refinement and standardisation. We would also be glad to develop a framework based on such objectives and tasks as a template for the annual reports which committees now make to our own Committee. The key to the usefulness of a list of core tasks is that it should represent a serious aspiration for committees, not a mechanical checklist. Not every item will be appropriate for every committee, nor will all items be capable of being tackled each year. One other task which we and our predecessors and the Hansard Society Commission considered crucial is the need for committees to follow up previous reports in a systematic way. Although not mentioned in the Modernisation Committee's list of "principal objectives", we continue to believe that reviewing their earlier work is something which the House has a right to expect its committees to do on a regular basis, with assistance from the proposed central scrutiny unit where appropriate.

18. The work of select committees has expanded consistently since their creation. There are limitations on what committees can take on: mainly the time Members have to devote to committee work and the resources of committee staffs. Even if the latter were increased, the former would remain, particularly in the crowded Westminster week. The use of sub-committees, made possible by the recent revision of SO No. 152, requires some Members to put in extra time. Use of rapporteurs, which the Report proposes as an experiment, would be a matter for decision by individual committees; it is of course an option already open to them. Wider use of either sub-committees or rapporteurs would require additional staff support, and the time of Members for consideration of the output by the full Committee in due course.

1   Select Committees, First Report from the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons, HC 224 of Session 2001-02, paragraph 5 Back

2   Subsequent passages in our Report are preceded by relevant recommendations from the Report of the Modernisation Committee - "Report" - , and follow the same broad categories Back

3   Report, paragraph 9 Back

4   Report, paragraph 12 Back

5   Report, paragraph 19 Back

6   Report, paragraphs 24 to 25 Back

7   Report, paragraph 27 Back

8   The Work of Select Committees 2001, First Report from the Liaison Committee, HC 590 of Session 2001-02, paragraphs 14-18 Back

9   The Legislative Process, First Report, HC 190 of Session 1997-98 Back

10   First Report, HC(1997-78), 588-I Back

11   First Report, HC (1980-81), 118-I Back

12   Second Report, HC (1989-90), 19-I Back

13   First Report, HC(1996-97), 323-I Back

14   Sixth Report, HC(1998-99), 295. This proposal was rejected by the Government in its Reply to the Report. Back

15   Report of the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny: The Challenge for Parliament - Making Government Accountable, 2001 Back

16   Report, paragraph 30 Back

17   Paragraph 30 Back

18   HC 590, paragraph 8 Back

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Prepared 19 March 2002