Select Committee on Liaison Second Report


12. We recommend that, in the light of the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, this limitation on the power to require witnesses to give evidence should be reviewed by the appropriate committees of both Houses.— [Paragraph 36]

  19. The experience of select committees in obtaining evidence from witnesses has normally been satisfactory, in the sense that almost all witnesses have readily accepted an invitation to attend. Where they are reluctant, a reminder of the existence of a formal power of summons is usually enough to secure their acceptance. However, as the Modernisation Committee Report notes, committees 'have experienced occasional difficulty'.

20. Invitations to Members of the House of Lords are usually issued because they are Ministers, and so would be likely to attend in line with the convention that Ministers will normally attend select committees when requested to do so. However there has been a recent refusal to attend by a member of the House of Lords who was also a special adviser to the Prime Minister.[19]

21. We have received no recent complaint about any failure of Ministers generally, whether Members of the Commons or the Lords, to attend. Indeed, the same committee which encountered the difficulty with the adviser also paid tribute to 'the readiness of Ministers in the Department to give evidence to the Committee'.[20] However it has challenged the refusal of HM Treasury to provide a Minister or official to answer questions on two policy areas where it considered that the Treasury had been a dominant force in planning new financing arrangements.[21] This is another issue which must be considered in the review.

22. Accordingly, we welcome the Modernisation Committee's recommendation of a review on the limitations on the power to require witnesses to give evidence. This review might also usefully consider the position of named civil servants, where no difficulties have arisen recently but where agreement between the Government and this Committee has been lacking in the past. It could also consider special advisers and civil servants who work directly for the Prime Minister, whose staff is not currently covered by one of the departmental select committees. We note that the Public Administration Committee's current inquiry into the Government Information and Communications Service includes consideration of the role of special advisers. We would expect its eventual recommendations to be taken into account in the proposed review.

A More Coherent Committee Structure

13.We recommend that the investigative select committees should be named "scrutiny committees".— [Paragraph 37]

23. The Modernisation Committee recommends that the "investigative select committees" should be renamed "scrutiny committees"[22]. It justifies the change by arguing that the new term would give the public a better idea of the purpose of committees which carry out "scrutiny". We see no real merit in this proposal, although we acknowledge the constructive spirit in which it has been proposed, and the value in giving parliamentary institutions a sensible title. That point was well made in the Procedure Committee's 1996 Report on Nomenclature of Standing Committees which recommended that committees dealing with legislation should be re-named.[23]

24. There is by contrast no evidence to suggest that the title "select committee" is not generally understood. "Scrutiny" is a useful if ill-defined term to describe one aspect of a committee's responsibilities, but it does not reflect the full breadth of its functions. It carries the implication that committees are only reactive, and limit themselves to examining proposals put forward by others (predominantly the Government) or the actions of the Government, whereas in fact they are equally initiators and promoters of new policies.

25. The term is, of course, already in the title of the European Scrutiny Committee, where it was chosen as a means of describing a relatively circumscribed remit. To attempt to group some select committees by their perceived function will inevitably open up questions in respect of others. How is it to be determined which committees are "investigative" and so in accordance with the Modernisation Committee's proposals to be named "scrutiny committees", and which are not? Are the Committee of Public Accounts or the Joint Committee on Human Rights or the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee to be regarded as "investigative" committees? And how are those committees not recategorised as "scrutiny" committees to be known? The proposed change is at best a case of change for change's sake, and at worst likely to spread confusion where there is now clarity.

14.We recommend that there should be a Scrutiny Liaison Committee including the chairmen of the scrutiny committees, and also the chairmen of those committees which have a legislative or procedural role such as Deregulation and Regulatory Reform, Procedure, and Standards and Privileges.— [Paragraph 39]

26. The Report then turns to examine the Liaison Committee, and recognises the more proactive role that we have sought to play in developing a strategy for committees. We acknowledge the unwieldy nature of a committee of 34 members. But our new power to establish a sub-committee has already helped to provide a useful element of flexibility: it has indeed been used in preparing this Report. There might in theory be merit in having a "smaller, more focussed Liaison Committee". However, the Modernisation Committee's proposal only seems to remove the chairmen of domestic committees, which would bring our own numbers down from 34 to 28. We hardly think this change is worth making. Nor do we see the point of renaming the committee the 'Scrutiny Liaison Committee' if a number of the chairmen of committees which do not carry out "scrutiny" are retained.

An Alternative Career Structure

15.We recommend that the value of a parliamentary career devoted to scrutiny should be recognised by an additional salary to the chairmen of the principal investigative committees.—[Paragraph 41]

27. We fully support the aim of creating an alternative career structure to counterbalance the pull of the prospect of ministerial office. The Report rightly seeks to increase the status of chairmen in order to make committee work more attractive to Members as a long term commitment.

28. The proposal is that the salary should, if agreed, be payable to the chairmen of the "principal investigative committees". Which committees are to be included needs clarification before the House takes a final decision in the light of any recommendation from the SSRB.

29. A large majority of chairmen are in favour of the principle of an additional salary. But they also emphasise that those who receive this would have to relinquish outside interests, as now occurs with the Deputy Speakers and other non-ministerial postholders who are paid an additional salary.

16.We recommend that the House should impose an indicative upper limit of two consecutive Parliaments on service as chairman. We recognise that the House may wish to make special provision in the case of short Parliaments. —[Paragraph 43]

30. The Report proposes a two-Parliament rule for chairmen, which it describes as "an indicative upper limit of two consecutive Parliaments", subject to special provision in the case of short Parliaments. Here we think it important to remember the fundamental role of these committees. They are to provide effective monitoring of the Executive, which includes career civil servants. Length of service builds up experience, and so is likely to make a chairman more effective. Thus a limit as short as two Parliaments could reduce the effectiveness of committees. The choice of chairman, including the length of time they serve, should be left to each committee.

31. The argument in favour of limits is based on giving more Members experience both of serving on and chairing committees - an argument considered again in respect of size of membership below. Yet that desire has to be weighed against effectiveness. In any case, the newly developing use of sub-committees may provide opportunities for more Members to have experience of chairing committees, and thus weaken the Modernisation Committee's argument.

32. We reject the claim that 'the case for such limits is unanswerable if Chairmen are to be paid'.[24] This is not self-evident. No such limit applies to Ministerial Office, which is also keenly sought after. Effectiveness must be paramount.

33. Furthermore, the Modernisation Committee's proposal fails to take account of the healthy competition that now exists for chairmanships. Committees do not passively accept a name chosen by the Whips but have discretion to choose by merit. A less effective chairman is likely to lose his or her job. So we are opposed to the creation of this highly artificial rule.

A Wider Membership

17.We recommend that the standard size of departmental scrutiny committees should be fifteen. —[Paragraph 47]

34. The 'standard' size of departmental select committees is eleven at present. The Report bases its argument for an increase to fifteen on the need to provide "a wider opportunity for Members to serve on Committees", and to meet the problem of excessive demand that it says exists and leads to competition. From our own experience, we are aware that some committees such as Foreign Affairs or Defence are over-subscribed, but not all are.

35. If all departmental select committees were to be so expanded, there would be a number of serious difficulties:

q  we doubt that there are reserves of willing Members - some fifty - to make up the numbers on all committees;

q  we are uncertain that - in present circumstances - the official Opposition would easily be able to find a fourth backbench member, required to reflect the number of seats in the House in a fifteen-member committee. At present some official Opposition spokesmen or Whips are serving on committees. We are strongly opposed to this in principle.

q  most fundamentally, the cohesion and ability of Members to play a full part in a committee's work would be weakened, even if use is made of sub-committees

q  on a practical level, accommodation problems would be caused in a number of committee rooms.

36. We understand the wish of the Modernisation Committee to meet the demand that exists for places on committees, and indeed to involve more Members in their work. However, the effectiveness of committees must be the crucial test for any change. Accordingly, we recommend that the standard size of a departmental select committee[25] should remain at eleven Members, which we consider is the absolute maximum to retain cohesion - even if committees use a single sub-committee. We are wholly opposed in principle to any increase in this number. Nevertheless, we would support some flexibility, including the continuation of existing arrangements for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committees, to have larger memberships of seventeen to cover the wide responsibilities previously covered by two Departments; and for a membership of thirteen on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which allows for the unusual complexity of the party balance in Northern Ireland.

37. Having dealt with the departmental select committees, we now consider the numbers of other select committees. The Modernisation Committee noted that the European Scrutiny Committee with a membership of sixteen appeared "able to function coherently".[26] It also proposed that there should be a reduction in the size of membership and the quorum of select committees "where there has been a persistent problem securing attendance", apparently drawing on the problems facing the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee[27] (see below). That committee has seventeen nominated members and an "established " size of eighteen. There is however a good case for bringing it down to the standard size for the other large scrutiny committees —European Scrutiny, Environmental Audit, and Public Accounts — of sixteen. There is also a good case for reducing the maximum number on the Procedure Committee — where we understand that the attendance has not been high — from seventeen to a somewhat lower figure.

38. We see no case for raising the numbers on the four Domestic committees ( currently nine members each) or on Broadcasting or Finance and Services or Standards and Privileges (currently eleven Members each). Nor do we see any reason to change the numbers of Members on Joint Committees.

18.We recommend that the scrutiny committees should have the right to report to the Committee of Nomination any member who has a record of poor attendance without good cause and that the Committee of Nomination should have the right to replace that member. —[Paragraph 49]

19.We recommend a reduction in size of the membership and of the quorum of select committees where there has been a persistent problem securing attendance. —[Paragraph 50]

39. The proposal in the Report to replace poor attenders is welcome. This can be a significant problem, caused by Members not being replaced when they request it - often because of an inability to find a replacement. We would hope that the Committee of Nomination would take a proactive role in this matter on the basis of a report from a Committee Chairman.

40. Attendance also needs to be consistent throughout a meeting, and not merely a brief appearance to record a name in the minutes of proceedings. But the main requirement is to avoid unrealistically large sizes for the committees which are in less demand.

Connecting with the public

41. We welcome the endorsement given by the Modernisation Committee to our call for select committee Reports to be made more attractive to the general reader, and its support for the limited changes introduced from the beginning of this year. In our February Report, we recorded our determination to achieve a more inviting format.[28] Proposals made in 1997 foundered because of the relatively slight additional cost involved. It is therefore very helpful to have the Modernisation Committee's conclusion that "the House should not shrink from some marginal increase in cost if that is necessary to give reports a more modern and attractive presentation".[29]


42. The Modernisation Committee went on to express its belief that "there are areas where substantial savings could be secured ...We are not persuaded that current practices on printing and publishing evidence pay sufficient attention to economy".[30] It gives two examples of potential areas for savings.


43. It suggests that the ready access to transcripts of oral evidence and written memoranda on the parliamentary website may avoid the need invariably to print and publish such evidence bound with the Committee's Report, with the consequential increase in the cover price of Reports. We would add two important riders:

q  The printing of transcripts and oral evidence, as opposed to their being merely placed on the internet, is not in itself a significant expense, since the overwhelming bulk of the costs are incurred in preparing and electronically marking up the texts for uploading onto the internet.

q  Many— indeed most— people do not have access to the internet. It is of course not only "Members and the press"[31] who are entitled to be able to access evidence, but also the public, with whom committees are endeavouring to connect. Furthermore, most Members and other users find it more convenient to have the evidence to hand in printed form to refer to, rather than having to download it from the internet onto office printers.

44. We would be loath to move to a situation where oral and written evidence was available only on the internet, unless and until access to the internet becomes more widespread. Committees must in our view be allowed to make a judgement in each case as to how much to print, and how to publish it, with a due regard for economy, but also for the public interest. We will continue to seek to ensure that similar ways are found of keeping down the cover price of Report volumes while still making the evidence committees receive genuinely available to the public.


45. The Modernisation Committee's second example of possible savings relates to the form in which evidence received is transmitted to the printer. An internal working group in the Committee Office has been examining this issue over the past three months, and detailed proposals are being worked up. If more evidence from witnesses was sent to committees in electronic form and could then be appropriately formatted before being sent to the printer, there could indeed be substantial savings in the annual select committee printing bill. The Modernisation Committee's endorsement of this process, which may require some expenditure up-front to produce savings elsewhere, is most welcome.


46. As we have set out in previous Reports, we are committed to improving the presentation of select committee reports. Rather than too little attention having been paid in the past to the importance of economy, as the Modernisation Committee suggests, it may indeed be that we have in the past spoiled the ship for a ha'pporth of tar. We still have no intention of following the recent trend of some recent government publications, with more white space, coloured graphics and photographs than content. But we do expect to have to spend more to get a better product. That will be part of the price of modernisation. We hope that the House will, as advised by the Modernisation Committee, be prepared to pay it.

19   The Attendance of Lord Birt at the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, Fourth Report from the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee, HC 655 of Session 2001-02 Back

20   HC 590, Appendix R, paragraph 7 Back

21   Ibid, paragraph 8 Back

22   Report, paragraph 37 Back

23   Fifth Report of Session 1995-96, HC 595 Back

24   Report, paragraph 43 Back

25   We include Public Administration in this category as its work and responsibilities are broadly similar to such committees Back

26   Report, paragraph 47 Back

27   Report, paragraph 50 Back

28   HC590, paragraphs 32 to33 Back

29   Report, paragraph 54 Back

30   Report, paragraph 54 Back

31   Report, paragraph 54 Back

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