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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 86)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001

RT HON LORD NEWTON OF BRAINTREE, MR PETER RIDDELL AND MS ANNA COOTE

Mr Stunell

  80. My point is a different one but I will ask it anyway even if it is discarded. There was an indication that you may think there are too many ministers or too much government, or whatever, are there too many select committees or are there not enough? Do you have a view about whether we need more select committees or concentrated select committees? What sort of structure does the Society have in mind?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Again this is going to be a bit off the cuff, because I have always more or less taken for granted and thought to be broadly right the matching of departmental select committees to the structure of government departments, for a variety of reasons. I think that probably would remain my view, certainly at this moment. I did feel, and indeed made one or two moves in this direction, if I remember rightly, there ought to be more scope for select committees working together or creating joint sub-committees, for example, so you could have joined-up select committees in the same way as we talk these days about joined-up government. I personally have not got some great new structure which I think would improve things. Picking up the point made by Lorna, I do slightly wonder—and this is no more than wonder, I have no idea what the truth is—whether the existence and creation of this committee may not have made the Procedure Committee seem a little less attractive because of the apparently more strategic role of this Committee and its overlap. That may be something which could be looked at. I do not know whether it is the intention there should be a Modernisation Committee and a Procedure Committee forever, but there are some obvious overlaps.

Mr Winterton

  81. I have to say—
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I thought I might provoke you!

  82.—I was looking to merge Modernisation into my Committee on Procedure. I suspect you would not take too kindly to that, Chairman! My own view is that I think there is a role for both, because of course Procedure looks very much at how the House of Commons deals with legislation and holds the Government of the day to account. Many of the aspects of modernisation are, as it were, more strategic and perhaps less detailed than that. At the moment, for instance, we are undertaking an inquiry into the whole subject of parliamentary questions and also motions as well, for instance whether they can be tabled electronically rather than actually physically being taken in.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) It was not my purpose to stir up trouble in the Committee!

  Chairman: Let me reassure you, Tony, we work in happy harmony!

Mr Winterton

  83. We work in happy harmony, as Robin says!
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I was just slightly puzzled by Lorna's question because I do not recall huge difficulty in getting people to go on the Procedure Committee, in the days when it would have looked at the strategic issues as well as some of the more limited ones. But, as I say, that is clearly not the main focus this morning. Coming back to the main thrust of the question, I would broadly continue with the structure as it is, give select committees more resources, probably more people, more capacity to operate in sub-committees or through rapporteurs, and more capacity to work in conjunction with other select committees where the cause seems good.

Chairman

  84. Let me put a question which will enable you to make a last response, because I am conscious your report is very rich and very broad and there may be points you would wish to put to us before we close. In your report you are actually commendably frank about your opinion of the performance of the select committees, and you make some very strong observations, for instance, as Peter has indicated, about the failure to follow up the work of the external regulators which have proliferated without necessarily achieving the necessary status in select committee thinking. You are critical of the performance in the financial over-view of select committees. One point you do suggest is there should be annual objectives and performance indicators for select committees. I was struck by the thought that whilst I could see its merits I could also see immense problems there. Who sets the objectives and performance indicators. Who does the report on them? How do we avoid the circularity of getting into the position in which the executive scrutinises the committees which are scrutinising the executive. How do you see that working and basically have you anything else to say to us?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Can I bring Anna in on this because this is one of the things she feels particularly strongly about?
  (Ms Coote) On the question of setting performance indicators, there is a cliché in that which does not sound very appealing, but we were struck by the fact that in any self-respecting institution outside Parliament, whether in the commercial world or the voluntary sector or wherever, it is now quite routine for people who set about a task to say what they are going to do and how they think they will judge their success and make that transparent in some way, and perhaps produce targets or indicators which would help them track whether they are obtaining their objectives. The main thing is to have some kind of routine planning on the part of the committee so they can say, "This is what we are going to do this year, this is what we are aiming to do", not setting out every inquiry because they have to be responsive and flexible, but setting out what they think they can achieve and how they are going to achieve it, and making that open so people can look at them and say, "Are they doing what they say they are going to do?" I accept your point there is a danger of circularity, who is going to do the evaluation of the work of the committee, but something like the Liaison Committee or whatever replaces it could play a role there to see whether select committees are doing the job they are supposed to be doing and doing it well. This has to be linked with a much more purposeful role for Parliament in training and developing the capacity of its members to fulfil their scrutiny function. So transparency, statement of aims, some kind of indicators so people can track progress, and training and development for members.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) How can I best put this? I thought you asked some very good questions, as it were, in your general questions and I personally think that this would work best on the basis Anna has just indicated, that is to say committees themselves if you like as a piece of self-discipline setting objectives at the beginning of the year and making some attempt to measure their achievements against those objectives at the end of the year rather than having some external force telling them. In fact I think it is probably the only way in which it could be made to work. The only other point I personally would like to add, because one way or another we have managed to work in most of the points you had not asked in the course of this—training, communication and various others—is that the one I feel most strongly about, and it goes beyond select committees but I think they can have an important role, is the scrutiny of legislation in draft before it is put before Parliament at all. One of the things which animated me in my fairly lengthy period as Leader of the House was to move things in the direction of far more Bills being published in the session before they were actually going to be introduced, but published as detailed draft Bills so the people who were going to be affected could really look at the detail and not just the broad generalities. The present Government has continued, I think I am right in saying, to seek to move in that direction and I heartily approve of that. Part and parcel of it would be that select committees would regard it as quite an important part of their duties, once a Bill had been published, to look at that Bill in a much broader way with less nit-picking amendments moved; some of the less productive work of standing committees. I think select committees could bring a different, broader approach and play a material part in improving the ultimate quality of the legislation.

Mr Shepherd

  85. It does interrupt the work of select committees in other fields. The Home Affairs Select Committee is going to be doing pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft of three Bills in November, December and January.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I can understand that and of course when Governments, as all Governments have from time to time, produce a lot of legislation in one area, or just a lot of legislation anyway, there is no way of avoiding some of the problems that creates. All I was saying was it would be a lot better that select committees should have some input into trying to problem-spot before the Bill is passed and assist in improving the legislation that way, than them having to conduct a lot of post-legislative inquiries into crises and difficulties which have arisen.

Chairman

  86. Could I thank all three of you for what has been a very helpful and stimulating session. Some of your thoughts you may well find reflected in our future work.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Thank you, Chairman, for the open and friendly way in which the proceedings have been conducted. I have to say I found it much more fun than some of the grillings I had when I was a minister!

  Chairman: Thank you very much.





 
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