Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Welcome, very much, to the Committee, and thank you for agreeing to guide us. You come here with a long distinction on the Liaison Committee, of which you were Chair in the last Parliament, and therefore you are a very appropriate person to guide us on thinking behind the report of the Liaison Committee, both shifting the balance and then the unfinished business at the very end of the Parliament. Bob, to put in context this exchange, we are commissioned to produce a report on the select committees, particularly the departmental select committees, and how they can better do their job of scrutiny. I would hope that, at some point, at the turn of the year, we would produce a report, looking at many of the points that were in your two reports. The immediate and pressing problem we have, of course, is tackling the thorny issue of how the House processes nominations to the select committees, and it may be that we will feel that we should bring forward an interim report, dealing with that single item as a matter of urgency, because I have already got vacancies on some of the select committees. So, our focus this morning, we would like to begin with that question of the nomination process, but I would hope that we would find time to widen out some of the other issues, which it is also essential we address if the committees are not only to be independent but also to carry out a genuine job of scrutiny. Can I begin, Bob, by inviting you to address your mind to the proposals in the Liaison Committee report on the nomination process; initially, you proposed three senior figures, nominated by the Liaison Committee, who would, post-election, process the nominations to the new select committees. When that was rejected by the House in the subsequent report on unfinished business, you produced a number of variants on that, mainly to make the numbers involved rather larger; but they all had the same characteristic of being based on membership of the Liaison Committee. I wonder if you would like to expand, before I proceed further, on that proposal and why the Liaison Committee felt attracted to it?

  (Lord Sheldon) I think the crucial aspect of all of this is that the Executive, via the Whips, ought not to select those members of select committees who will be examining the Executive; that is crucial. Now, it may be that had the Whips operated in a more relaxed attitude it might not have been quite so important a matter; but it was very important, because we had seen, in particular, two examples, which really I considered quite outrageous. The earlier one was Nick Winterton being removed from chairman of his select committee, because he had served two terms. I served three terms as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and nobody ever thought that if I wanted to go for the fourth, if we were unfortunately to be defeated at the subsequent election, I would be barred from doing that. Now that was quite disgraceful. And the other one was Gwyneth Dunwoody. Because, Gwyneth Dunwoody, in the last months of the previous Parliament, in order to make sure that the work of the Liaison Committee was carried forward in some sort of way, we did meet and discussed how to do this, and the way that we suggested was that we would choose three people who would have the confidence of that previous Liaison Committee to approach the Government to bring about the kind of changes that the Liaison Committee of the previous Parliament had in mind. And the ones we chose were, Gwyneth Dunwoody was one of them and the other one was Nick Winterton, who I am glad to see here, and the other was Archy Kirkwood, and it was agreed that they would have the confidence of that previous committee. Now it had no authority, we understand that, but the fact that the 33 members of that Liaison Committee thought that these were worthy representatives to carry their ideas forward, at least to make sure that it was speeded up, I thought it would carry some weight. And I gather, with you, Robin, it did carry some weight, I believe you had discussions with them, and that was quite right. And to find that one of those people in whom we had invested such confidence was debarred from being the chairman of a select committee, which she had undertaken with great distinction, and appreciated by that Liaison Committee throughout all those years, we thought this was quite outrageous. So you need to bring a change. Now there is no change that is going to be perfect, but there is change that at least can be less imperfect than the previous one, and that is that the Government should not choose those people to examine the Government, that is fundamental; if it had been done with a lighter touch we might have just overlooked it, but it was not, and it may not be in the future. So that is the most important thing. Now, how to do it. As I said, there is no certain way, but at least if you were to have three people they could have some sort of acceptance by the House generally, they could be nominated, there could be discussions through the usual channels, but at least you would have these three people who would have that kind of authority to undertake methods of selection over that Parliament.

  2. That is very helpful, Bob. Can I just tease out a little bit the question about the Government Executive, the Whips, controlling the process. Effectively, the Whips will always have some kind of initiative role in the party; do you see the problem as being within the Committee of Selection and the intimate relationship the Committee of Selection necessarily has with the Whips on the other side?
  (Lord Sheldon) The great advantage of the Whips is that they do have some information which is not readily available to others, and particularly at the beginning of a new Parliament they will know something about the new Members. But, of course, when it comes to selection of chairmen, in the United States, of course, they have seniority rules; now we do not use those seniority rules, because we think there is something better than that. One way better than that, I think, is the method that we suggested, that there should be these three, the chairman and the two deputy chairmen, selecting members of Select Committees. Now I am open to argument, if somebody comes up with something better than that. All I can say is, the one that we have proposed is far better than the existing system. The Whips, of course, will have some input into this, nobody is disputing that, they are very valuable and very useful colleagues they would be, but they must not have the kind of power, we think, that they have had up to now.

  3. And, in the context of the Committee of Selection, you believe that the Whips have too much power?
  (Lord Sheldon) Yes, indeed; indeed. Well, they got rid of Gwyneth Dunwoody, they got rid of Nick Winterton; this was outrageous. And, of course, there are others as well, but those were the two prime examples. Input, yes; domination, no.

  4. I think, Bob, we would all agree that there needs to be a change, and, indeed, I doubt if any member of the Committee would be minded to go back to the House and recommend the status quo; the issue, as you quite rightly say, is how do we find a better system. Turning to the proposals of the Liaison Committee, there are two problems; one is a practical one, which the Liaison Committee wrestles with in its report, which is that, by definition, the Liaison Committee itself cannot exist when the select committees do not exist, hence the appointment of three people to stand as proxies for the Liaison Committee. The second consideration is a more fundamental one of principle. Whilst it may be improper for the Executive to choose those who scrutinise it, is it proper for those who may themselves be chairs of committee, or aspire to chairs of committee, to choose those who are members of a committee? Now, in your report, you suggested the chairman of the three should not be such a candidate, but you did not exclude the other two; is there not a possibility of a conflict of interest there?
  (Lord Sheldon) You would have more than just one, of course, it would not just be the one person choosing, it would be the chairman plus the two deputy chairmen, plus, of course, the chairmen of select committees would have some sort of input, and the Whips would have some sort of input. And, if one could perhaps widen it to have the acceptance of the membership of the House to be involved in some sort of way, I have no answers on this, but that would obviously be one way of taking it further.

  5. Ultimately, the House is going to have to approve what is put before it, and, indeed, in July, famously, it refused to do so. I think it would be very difficult though, would it not, to devise any kind of voting system by which the House could make individual voting decisions on membership?
  (Lord Sheldon) I was not thinking of that, I was thinking of those three members, the chairman and the two deputy chairmen. There could be a very strong feeling on those three because they would have this, I will not say power, because, remember, they would have the whole of the Liaison Committee to deal with as well, and they have not been too soft a touch in the past, and I would hope they would not be in the future.

  6. Tell me a little bit about that, Bob, because I have never myself served on the Liaison Committee, although one or two of our members have; it is a large committee, is it not, unusually large, in the context of the House?
  (Lord Sheldon) Thirty-three; 33 members is large, and so we suggested there should be perhaps an executive committee formed from them, but not all 33 have the same position, of course, because some of them are House committees and some of them are very senior committees, Foreign Affairs, Treasury, and so on.

  7. Does it cohere as a group? As you rightly say, those who are there come from a very heterogeneous group of committees, who have in common only the fact that they are termed select committees. Does it work effectively and cohere as a group?
  (Lord Sheldon) I think the committee system works pretty well. There is great variation, of course. You do have the outstanding committees, in particular the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, they introduced a number of innovations, very valuable, confirmation hearings, no authority, of course, but, nevertheless, it is a valuable thing, it is a valuable exercise to bring people before you and say, "Can you justify your position there?", and, of course, having weekends where they can discuss the whole of the future work of the committee. Those were two innovations. But a number of the committees did bring innovations, and they were useful.

  Chairman: Thank you, Bob.

Mr Winterton

  8. Chairman, would Lord Sheldon confirm that, in the appointment to select committees, the procedure has been abused, misused, by successive Governments, not just Labour Governments in recent times but also Conservative? I want to get that on record, that successive Governments have actually abused their power in selecting people to go onto select committees.
  (Lord Sheldon) Unquestionably; that is undoubtedly true, and you are a living example of it.

  9. Thank you very much. I wanted to get that on record. Secondly, would it not be a constructive procedure to announce that there are going to be appointments to select committees, and that anyone interested should make their interest known, with a full application, perhaps to a senior Clerk of the House, or it might even be the Clerk of Committees, and, therefore, anyone and everyone who is interested could make that known and a full list could be published so it would be transparent? And, secondly, the procedure which you have just articulated, namely what happened between the last Parliament and this, that three of us were, as it were, nominated by the old Liaison Committee to act as liaison with the Government in the new Parliament, that that proposal could, if necessary, be put to the House, debated and voted on, so that the three people, chairman and two deputies, could be endorsed by the House, and that any recommendation that they made about appointments, and, of course, the Whips could make their views known as well to the three wise individuals, they would have then to be voted upon by the House. And this was really the direction in which the Liaison Committee was pointing. Would you accept that that is a sensible interpretation?
  (Lord Sheldon) Very good, on the assumption that all three were going to be re-elected, of course.

  10. Yes, of course.
  (Lord Sheldon) This was one of the problems that I foresaw, in doing that, as a general rule. In the particular case, I could see that those three were likely to be re-elected, but there was no certainty about it. But I think it is a useful proposition.

Joan Ruddock

  11. You spoke about the assumptions, I think, which we would recognise that people who have been the chair of a select committee, if returned to Parliament, would wish to become the chair again; you spoke of people who had had two years, three years, could conceivably have had four years. I wonder if you cannot see that that could look like a vested interest, in the way that the Whips have a vested interest in who is on the committee; if one is not on the committee then you cannot become the chair of the committee. And I think that is bound to be a matter of concern. And I would add to that the question how consistent you think it is with an alternative career path that people have those assumptions, assumptions which I think no Minister could possibly have, that from Parliament to Parliament he, or she, might be the chair of a committee.
  (Lord Sheldon) Remember, it is up to the Committee to choose the chair. In the Liaison Committee of 1983, there was one individual that had all the Whips' backing, and it was assumed that he would become Chairman of the Liaison Committee. I happened to be the most senior member at that time on the Liaison Committee, and I moved another person, Terence Higgins, who got the approval of the whole committee. So it is up to the committee to decide, if they have got the guts to do it. In that case, it was a very good decision, because Terence Higgins was a very good Chairman of the Liaison Committee.

  12. But not the norm?
  (Lord Sheldon) Yes.

Mr Shepherd

  13. I accept there is a danger, and some say it, about old buffers forming their own committees and it continuing. The Committee of Liaison though must have looked at the question of why could not this be election, say, within party caucuses, for instance, for their proportional membership of a committee; why was that rejected, or why was it not considered, nominations for membership of the committee itself, so it is set out, for instance, that you put in your name for nomination? The party caucus, for instance, determines by secret ballot who shall be on the various committees, it meets the criteria of the independence, in a sense, from the whipping system, and recognises the role of, as we are here, proportionality on the committee itself, but the parties, by secret ballot, are internally choosing who their members are, taking it out of the grasp of the Whips?
  (Lord Sheldon) I have nothing against that at all, except the complications of having all these numerous elections, that is the only thing; in principle, no objection whatever.

Mr Tyler

  14. I suppose I should confess, as a former member of the Committee of Selection and a former Chief Whip, so I have collective guilt in the eyes of you and your colleagues. What I think I am worried about is that we might create a new little oligarchy to replace the Whips, which might be slightly more transparent than the usual channels, but, actually, in the eyes of the House as a whole, would still be a comparatively small group of establishment figures who would act really as a court of appeal, I think, more than an initiator of nominations. And I wonder whether the Liaison Committee, in its long discussion of this issue, has addressed the problem of an apparently rather incestuous, establishment approach to this, when I think the House is looking for something that is more open?
  (Lord Sheldon) Of course, they need not be appointed for the whole of the Parliament; it is always possible to have a situation where, at halfway through, or at some stage through, you could make a further decision on that. But, of course, what we are talking about is should there not be, not an alternative career because that sounds a bit too much but at least alternative methods of working in this place; and given the dominance of the Executive, which has certainly grown in my time, greatly grown. The number of people who spoke their minds freely and easily on all occasions; after all, I spoke against the Prime Minister on devaluation, the thing that was dearest to his heart in 1965, I spoke against him on east of Suez, again in 1966, the second most dearest to his heart, and he still brought me into the Government, in due course; but that sort of thing we do not see very often now, and if you are not going to see it in the future, and it may be that that is so, then we must look to the select committee system to provide that kind of scrutiny which is so essential.

Mr Knight

  15. Do you think there is a case for term limits for select committee chairmen?
  (Lord Sheldon) Yes. I think there is a case for looking at it halfway through, or something like that. But, in general, this has not been a problem, because select committee chairmen have not thrown their weight around, they have been dedicated people. There is no great reward in being a select committee chairman, other than the interest of the job, and it is a fascinating job to be able to decide on these matters, who comes, and take your part in the discussions and the questioning, and it is an alternative career in that sense, that you are doing a useful parliamentary job and you get the rewards of that and nothing else.

  Chairman: Bob, I am very conscious that we have limited time, and the report is a rich one, covering a large number of areas, and I would like to give the Committee a chance to look at some of the other worries.

Mr Pike

  16. On the appointments, just very quickly, I just wanted to say that is it not important that we ensure that these three people do liaise with the Whips, because we have to ensure that we have got the right political balance, and at the end it would be totally wrong if we had the Labour Party deciding who the Conservative members were, and the Liberal Democrat Party, and we have to also look carefully at the minority parties? And would it not also be true that we should take into account the views of the chairs of committees, because has it not been a fact that, at the Liaison Committee, there have been occasions when chairmen have reported that they found it difficult to get a quorum at their committee and maintain a quorum; and, therefore, it is not just names, it is being sure that we have people who are prepared to attend the meetings and maintain their attendance at the meetings?
  (Lord Sheldon) I think that is undoubtedly true. You really do need to have the Whips' involvement, because, as I said, they know so much about the individuals, and, indeed, of course, a party balance. I do not think there is any doubt that the question of party balance has to be maintained. And, as far as the chairman is concerned, when I was Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I was almost invariably asked for suggested names; but I did not make decisions myself, I did not make a decision, and even the Conservatives asked me, on occasion, which of them I thought would be useful on it. But you do not decide these things, you make your suggestions, and it is the general balance that decides the membership itself.


  17. Bob, can I return to one of the proposals that you have made in the report, concerning the question of payment and resources for chairs. I think that there would be a broad consensus of support for the fact that the chairs need more resources in order to carry out their work effectively, to support them in the additional work which necessarily comes from being chair of a select committee, and that the select committees themselves perhaps need some additional resources; but the proposal for the payment of the chairs may well have some resistance, within quarters of the House. I would welcome a feel from you as to how united the Liaison Committee was behind that proposal, which, of course, would be a departure from the broad principle on which you acted hitherto, which is that Members of the House are paid the same salary as Members of the House; but I am open to what comment you might want to make on that?
  (Lord Sheldon) The one advantage of paying the chairmen would be the prestige. I see no other advantage than that. I think it is an honour to serve as chairman of a select committee, a great honour, I think, and very rewarding in experience and interest. Whether the question of prestige cannot be obtained in some other way, I would prefer to see it in some other way, but prestige is an important matter. As far as the needs of the committees is concerned, I think there is need for better monitoring facilities. A committee produces a report, and there has got to be a system whereby the consequences of that report are monitored; so that you come up with some conclusions, have they been carried out, and if they have not been carried out why have they not been carried out, and bring them before you. This is what we did in the Public Accounts Committee; we informed the National Audit Office that they keep this, and two years later to let us know how it is getting on, and if they had not done what they said they were going to do then they come back before us, and they come back again and again. The trouble with select committees generally is that they have gone on to other matters and they have not got that kind of monitoring system that makes sure that their task is properly effective.

Mr Salter

  18. It was on that point, Bob. Although the subject of this inquiry is nominations to select committees, you clearly touched on the importance, or lack of importance, that the Government attaches to select committee recommendations. Now, with the singular exception of the Public Accounts Committee, it has seemed to me, in my short time in this place, that pretty significant reports of major departmental committees, I am thinking particularly in the case of Transport, have been ignored, almost contemptuously, at times. And I notice in one of your recommendations you are talking in terms of the value of allowing perhaps a half hour slot after Tuesday Questions, so that selected select committee reports can be debated, and in prime time, on the floor of the House. Can I just ask you to think whether or not a half hour would be long enough, and also to give us an insight into your thinking into this particular area?
  (Lord Sheldon) It just needs some sort of impetus. What happens is that the report is produced and is so frequently lost sight of. And, very often, you wait a few months, you get a reply, sometimes anodyne, from the department, and that is the end of it; and it should not be. There has been a lot of work that has gone into this, by people who are very knowledgeable about these matters, who have an expertise, frequently greater than the ministers themselves, because they are dealing with a narrow subject. I remember very well that once, in the Treasury Select Committee, where we went into an area of great concern to us and we knew so much more than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and so we just smiled when he got it wrong. You see, now that is the kind of situation you can have. Now if you do have that kind of level of expertise and understanding you should be able to monitor it and find out whether they are actually doing what needs to be done, and to go back again and again at it. In the Liaison Committee that is what we did, of course, in our report, because we produced our report, we got what we thought was a wholly inadequate reply, and came back again; and if the Parliament had continued we would have continued again and again making the life of the minister perhaps a little more difficult.

Mr Stunell

  19. I would like to pursue that line of questioning, but I also think I ought to ask a question rather at my own expense, because one of the concerns which has come forward is the position of the smaller opposition parties when it comes to nominations to select committees, which is currently the function of the Liberal Democrats to promote, through the Selection Committee. Do you think that your three-person team, or any variant of it, can actually overcome that problem, of a lack of ownership, if you like, of those nominations by the people who are promoting them?
  (Lord Sheldon) I would not like to think of these three people as a closed system, oblivious to any outside influence; that is not the way it works at all. Whenever any Member of Parliament is in a position of some minimum amount of power, I was approached regularly, you live in this place, you know each other, and you hear each other, you quarrel with each other and you understand each other, and that leads you to perhaps a greater acceptance of I think the point that you are making. I do not know if you need to have four people, or five people, to do this thing, and I think such people should recognise the importance of the point that you are making, and if they do not, for heaven's sake, we can shout about it.

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