Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

More Resources

27. If the select committees are successfully to hold to account major Whitehall departments then we need to do more to balance the resources respectively available to Ministers and to those who hold them to account. It is often the case that a revealing answer can only be produced in response to the knowledge that enables a penetrating question to be formed. The departmental select committees have done remarkably well with very limited specialist advice. We believe that their effectiveness could be further enhanced by direct access to further specialist advice independent of Government.

28. We endorse the proposal by the Liaison Committee in the previous Parliament, in its report 'Shifting the Balance',[12] that there should be a unit within the Committee Office containing specialised staff with the expertise to support the scrutiny work of the departmental committees. Although this new support staff will be of particular help to the committee chairmen, their advice and research would be open to all members of the committee irrespective of party. 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.

29. Financial scrutiny is a good illustration of the need for specialised support to select committees. It is impossible for select committees properly to discharge their job of scrutiny unless they can adequately examine the budget control of the Department they shadow and the priority of its spending plans.[13] The introduction of Resource Accounting and Budgeting has increased both the potential for systematic financial scrutiny and the need for technical expertise to interpret it. We were encouraged to hear from the Chairman of the Liaison Committee that Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, has indicated that he is willing to consider secondees to provide expert support on financial scrutiny.[14] 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.

30. We have received vigorous representations from some committee chairmen that the role of running an active select committee generates considerable demands for secretarial services. Some may well receive several hundred letters from the public in the course of a single inquiry. It is plainly unreasonable, and perhaps impossible, for an individual Member to meet such substantial additional burden out of the standard Office Costs Allowance. 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.

12   HC 300 of Session 1999-2000, paragraphs 71 to 84. Back

13   See Procedure for Debate of the Government's Expenditure Plans, Sixth Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 295 of Session 1998-99. Back

14   Q 92-93. Back

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Prepared 12 February 2002