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


APPENDIX 1

Letter from the Chairman of the Committee of Selection to the Chairman of the Committee

THE APPOINTMENT OF THE SELECT COMMITTEES

  Thank you for allowing me, as Chairman of the Committee of Selection, to make this submission to the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee's inquiry into the appointment of select committees. The views I express are my own, rather than the Committee's, although I have circulated this submission to all the Committee's members.

CONTEXT

  1.  The Committee of Selection is appointed under Private Business Standing Order 109, with a membership of nine and a quorum of three. Nominations to the membership of the Committee appear on the order paper in the name of the Government Deputy Chief Whip and are put to the House at the time of unopposed private business. The current membership of the Committee was agreed by the House without opposition on 3 July 2001.

History

  2.  The Committee was established in 1839, when its role was to ensure the appointment of impartial Members to committees considering private bills.[1] It still maintains this responsibility. On 1 December 1882 the Committee was charged by the House with the further responsibility of appointing Members to standing committees (the order has since evolved into Public Business Standing Order No. 86).[2] The Committee's responsibilities in respect of select committees arise from an order of the House of 30 October 1980, now incorporated into Public Business Standing Order No 121.[3]

The Committee of Selection and select committees

  3.  Under Standing Order No. 121(2), the Committee of Selection has responsibility for the nomination of Members to serve on the domestic committees (Accommodation and Works, Administration, Catering and Information) and the select committees relating to government departments (commonly known as the "departmental" select committees). The Committee's nominations are presented to the House as motions in the name of the Chairman of the Committee. The wording of the standing order restricts the Committee of Selection's involvement to those committees named in two other Standing Orders, numbers 142 and 152: the consequence of this is that there are a number of select committees established under separate Standing Orders for which nominations are presented to the House directly, in motions in the name of a member of the Government. These other committees include the Public Accounts Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee, the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Broadcasting Committee.

THE NATURE OF CRITICISM AGAINST THE COMMITTEE'S CURRENT PROCEDURE IN RELATION TO SELECT COMMITTEES

  4.  Criticism has been expressed of the Committee's current mode of operation, in three respects: firstly, that nominations to select committees, both at the start of the Parliament and subsequently, are controlled by the party Whips upon the Committee; secondly, that substitutions to select committee memberships are often severely delayed; and thirdly, that the minority parties are insufficiently represented in these discussions.

The appointment of select committees, and the involvement of the Whips

  5.  It has been argued that the involvement of the party Whips who sit on the Committee is inappropriate, because Whips have a particular loyalty to their party which may conflict with the best interests of the House. However, those in the Whips' offices have a very close knowledge of the Members for whom they are responsible: they are in close contact with them and know not only the Members' strengths and interests, but also the various demands upon their time. While the Committee could carry out its responsibilities without the involvement of the Whips I doubt, under the current arrangements, whether it could carry out its responsibilities as efficiently while also seeking to "match" Members to committees more effectively.

  6.  I also believe that the current practice, whereby the Committee's members are able to take note of consultations and decisions made within their own party organisations before submitting nominations, is valued by the parties. What causes difficulty is the delay which sometimes occurs to the Committee's work, as a consequence of a member's request to consult further through these entirely separate mechanisms. In the circumstances, criticism of the Committee seems almost inevitable: either it will be criticised for acting slowly by those who are unaware of such practices; or it will be criticised for anticipating such consultations by those who are more familiar with them.

who are more familiar with them.

  7.  It appears to me that the House has a choice to make in determining how its committees are appointed. The Committee of Selection provides an efficient appointments system for a huge variety of business. The House may keep it, but it may have to be prepared to accept that appointments made quickly may not always be the result of a wholly rigorous test of the available interests. Alternatively, the House can choose to have a system of appointments which is set apart entirely from the political interests of the various parties.

An alternative

  8.  The approach advocated by the Liaison Committee in its report Shifting the Balance was of the latter kind. As a member of the Liaison Committee in the last Parliament I acquiesced in that report: but I have reservations about its practicalities.

  9.  The Liaison Committee proposed a system whereby any Member could make direct, and independent, representations to a triumvirate of distinguished and equally independent backbenchers. Even were the parties themselves to accept the proposal, I have doubts whether a panel of three, however distinguished, would be more representative than a committee of nine: I am concerned that the minority parties, particularly, would find their interests overlooked. Further, while the members of the panel would themselves set out to be entirely objective in the judgements, the House collectively would have a view of them as individuals. I believe that any motion to appoint such a panel would inevitably be challenged, and create dissent.

  10.  The Liaison Committee's proposal that all committee nominations should be announced within two weeks of the application deadline is also impracticable, in my opinion, particularly at the beginning of a newly-elected Parliament.

  11.  There are currently 400 places available to Members in total upon the House's select committees (including both the "departmental" and other committees but excluding the Liaison Committee). Thus the proposal is that, in first setting up the committees, the three Members should make 400 separate, rigorously tested and wholly objective, judgements within 14 days. Such a system would require a far more complex and plentiful provision of resources than is currently available to the Committee of Selection. The panel would require staff able to research Member's participation in debates on particular subjects; to sift applications; to facilitate the production of shortlists and, perhaps, the conduct of interviews within a very short period of time. To preserve its objectivity the panel would have to be barred from seeking advice and assistance from the various parties' internal organisations.

Resources

  12.  Such a system could not operate with the level of resources available to the Committee of Selection. At present the Committee has only two staff—a Clerk and an Assistant—both of whom have other responsibilities within the House service.

responsibilities within the House service.

  13.  Nonetheless, the Committee takes its wide-ranging responsibilities towards the House seriously: in the three weeks since its appointment on 3 July last, the Committee has appointed 49 Members to sit on Standing Committees on Bills; 256 Members to sit on Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation; and has submitted 210 out of a possible 226 nominations to the membership of select committees to the House. It has achieved this with the incentive of the House's clearly expressed wish to establish the department committees before the summer recess; and because it was able through its members to draw support and guidance from the parties.

DELAYS IN MAKING SUBSTITUTIONS

  14.  The second count of criticism against the Committee of Selection has been occasional lengthy delays in changing the membership of select committees when the need arises. These delays are not generally the consequence of Committee inactivity. In fact, once such changes are brought to the Committee, it is usually the case that a proposal is put to the House for its consideration within four working days. The slow progress in achieving change is, again, in my experience because the parties themselves wish to take a view on potential candidates within their ranks.

  15.  The details of vacancies on the departmental and domestic committees are generally only communicated to the Committee of Selection by the parties as and when a clear candidate for the seat has been identified. Yet the committee Chairmen are often aware of a vacancy, or potential vacancy, long before this formal communication is made. If the Chairmen were to take it upon themselves to communicate this information formally at an earlier stage, the Committee itself could act sooner, either proceeding to direct discussion or seeking to hasten discussions elsewhere.

OTHER SUGGESTIONS

  16.  I can think of only two other alternatives, in principle, to appointments to select committees by the Committee of Selection. The first is to have all nominations to select committees tabled simply in the name of the Government Deputy Chief Whip following agreement through the usual channels: I do not believe that the House would countenance this. The second is the former Liaison Committee's proposal that it, or its successors—being a panel of senior and respected backbenchers—should assume the responsibility. Since the membership of the Liaison Committee is determined by the decisions of the other committees in respect of their Chairmen, it would not exist to appoint committees at the start of a Parliament. Therefore, unless the House should conclude that it is willing to support the establishment of a new, three-member panel and to provide it with an appropriate level of resources, I can see no practical alternative to the status quo. The panel proposal was rejected by the House in the last session of Parliament.[4]

WORKING WITH THE STATUS QUO

Safeguards

  17.  Taking the view that the Committee of Selection remains the best available, and most practical option, it is appropriate to look at the issue of safeguards. The Committee is, of course, aware that the pressure to support the House's business can at times be significant and potentially problematic. It has therefore built its own safeguards. These take the form of sessional resolutions, which require:

    "That, after a Bill has been under consideration in a Standing Committee, no application for changes in the composition of that Committee in respect of that Bill will be entertained by this Committee except where a Member is incapacitated from attendance by illness or where he has been appointed or ceased to be a member of the Government or has changed his office for another, or has acquired other duties or ceased to hold or changed such duties";

  and

    "That Motions to alter the membership of Select Committees may be tabled on behalf of the Committee of Selection only if previously approved at a meeting of the Committee of Selection".

  The combined effect of these resolutions is as follows.

  18.  The Committee is content for its members, by the exercise of delegated authority, to substitute the name of one Member for another on a standing committee, provided that the committee in question has not yet commenced its business. In my view this is a sensible approach to take for all concerned, since there are many occasions when Members are required to deal with urgent matters arising in other places. It allows the essential business of the House—particularly in committees on delegated legislation—to proceed with the minimum delay. In the period previously cited, from 3 July to the rise of the House for the summer recess, seven such substitutions were made within a composite standing committee membership of 305.

  19.  Equally, however, the Committee holds to the view that it should not permit the exercise of all its powers under delegated authority. Thus, the Committee will only allow the membership of standing committees on bills to be changed during the course of consideration in exceptional circumstances; and will only allow changes to the membership of select committees to be presented to the House when they have been properly and formally put to the Committee for its consent. While the select committee resolution could be perceived as an instrument for delay, the practice of the Committee is to the opposite effect: not for the first time, the Committee met twice on 11 July with the sole aim of enabling as many nominations to select committees to be formally agreed as possible.

  20.  I hardly need to add that the ultimate safeguard is the will of the House: in agreeing nominations to the select committees, the Committee is agreeing only the substance of a motion which may be put to the House in its name. Appointments are always approved finally by the House itself.


DEVELOPING THE COMMITTEE OF SELECTION

  21.  While I see the Committee of Selection as the only body which is in practice able to fulfil the House's demands I can also see that there are ways in which its work might be done differently.

A larger committee, protecting minority interests

  22.  As the Liaison Committee suggested in Shifting the Balance: Unfinished Business, the membership of the Committee of Selection as provided for by Private Business Standing Order 109, might be increased.[5] While, for reasons I have argued previously, I would be reluctant to lose the Whips from the committee, an increase in the membership of the committee should provide further opportunities for the minority parties and backbenchers to participate in selection: not only for select committees, but also for standing committees and the other bodies which the Committee appoints under Private Business Standing Orders.

Better resources

  23.  The House might agree to provide the Chairman and the Committee with greater resources for the first two months of a Parliament, to enable both a more open system of applications and a more systematic testing of competing claims for nomination. Such resources would have to be significantly greater than they are now.

Better communication

  24.  Throughout the Parliament, the Chairmen of the committees appointed by the Committee of Selection might be encouraged to formally notify the Committee immediately they become aware of a vacancy. I am sure that such action would greatly facilitate discussion, and be welcomed both by the Committee and the House.

Resolutions

  25.  The safeguards the Committee traditionally agrees through its sessional resolutions could be made permanent by their inclusion in Standing Orders.[6] Such safeguards could be further increased if the Committee were to be bound, or to bind itself, to the formal internal circulation of potential nominations to the select committees a fixed period of time before the Committee meets. It might be that the establishment of such a safeguard would cause further delays in some instances (if such a deadline were to be narrowly missed, and the business of the Committee consequently deferred); but it may be that this is a price the House would be willing to pay for a system in which it might place greater confidence.

Mr John McWilliam MP

7 August 2001



      (b)  That Motions to alter the membership of Select Committees may be tabled on behalf of the Committee of Selection only if previously approved at a meeting of the Committee of Selection; and


1   Clifford's History of Private Bill Legislation, Vol II, p. 835. Back

2   CJ Vol. 137 (1882) p. 523. Back

3   CJ Vol 236 (1979-80) p. 820. Back

4   Shifiting the Balance: Unfinished Business First Report of the Liaison Committee Session 2000-01, paragraph 13. Back

5   Shifting the Balance: Unfinished Business: First Report of the Liaison Committee, 2000-01, paragraph 14. Back

6   The terms of the Committee's Sessional Resolutions, in full, are: (a) That after a Bill has been under consideration in a Standing Committee, no application for changes in the composition of that Committee in respect of that Bill will be entertained by this Committee except where a Member is incapacitated from attendance by illness or where he has been appointed or ceased to be a member of the Government, or has changed his office for another, or has acquired other duties or ceased to hold or changed such duties; Back


 
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