Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

A Clearer Remit

31. It is reasonable to expect that the provision of more resources will enable the select committees to achieve more systematic scrutiny. The Hansard Society has been frank about what it sees as the shortcomings of select committees. In particular it has highlighted the relatively modest oversight which some select committees have provided for the expanding category of independent regulators, executive agencies and departmental boards. It has also drawn attention to the inconsistent performance of select committees in carrying out financial scrutiny.

32. On the other hand the Liaison Committee Report 'Unfinished Business' drew attention to the many ways in which the work of the select committees is expanding. For example the deepening international dimension to domestic policy has required select committees to examine a widening range of international treaties, such as the report in the last Parliament of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on the Kyoto Protocol. We endorse the recommendation of the Procedure Committee that select committees should have the right to request a debate before ratification of a major treaty and welcome the Government's acceptance of this recommendation.[15] Select committees have also developed an increasing role in the scrutiny of public appointments. For example the Health Committee took evidence from the Chairman of the new Food Standards Agency and the Transport Sub-Committee held hearings with the new Rail Regulator. As the range of executive agencies and independent regulators broadens we attach particular significance to the role of select committees in monitoring the appointment of their chief executives.

33. Inevitably the specific work of the scrutiny committees will vary and each should retain the freedom to balance its work in the light of the duties of its Department or in response to emerging issues. However, select committees occupy such a central and crucial role in parliamentary scrutiny that it would be helpful if there was greater clarity about their objectives and greater consistency about how these are discharged. We recommend that there should be an agreed statement of the core tasks of the departmental select committees.

34. Such a text could only be agreed through consultation. 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 major policy initiatives
  • 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."

We recognise that this is an ambitious work programme. it may not always be possible for all Members to be fully involved in every investigation across such a broad range. 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.

35. A statement of objectives requires a method of monitoring performance on these core tasks. Just as the select committees expect Government Departments to demonstrate improved performance against their objectives, we believe that the House can expect its committees to demonstrate that their work programme fulfils their core tasks. We welcome the introduction of annual reports by select committees in the last Parliament. 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.

15   Second Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 210 of Session 1999-2000. Second Special Report from the Procedure Committee, HC 990 of Session 1999-2000. Back

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Prepared 12 February 2002