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


Further letter from Mr Andrew Tyrie MP to the Chairman of the Committee


  Last year, I published a paper which examined some of the reasons for parliament's decline in recent years at the hands of the executive and the media and made some suggestions on what to do about it. One of my suggestions was that Chairmanships of Select Committees be chosen by election and I am writing particularly to ask that the Committee consider the proposal. Perhaps I could set out in a little more detail than I did in the paper how this might be approached.

  At the moment, although processed by the Committee for Selection, almost all the important decisions to create Select Committees are taken by the Whips. The three most important decisions, all taken by them, are: (i) the division of Chairmanships of the various Committees between the various parties; (ii) the membership of Committees; (iii) the choice of individual Chairman for each Committee (this is dominated by the Whips although nominally each Chairman is chosen by the membership at the first meeting);

  I suggest leaving (i), the Whips' horse-trading for the division of Chairmanships between the parties, unchanged. It is a welcome feature of our Select Committee system that the dominant party does not arrogate all the Chairmanships to itself, as happens in a number of other parliaments. It is, incidentally, a particularly healthy feature that the Gladstonian precedent of giving the PAC Chairmanship to a member of the opposition party has stuck.

  The need for greater independence from the Whips of the appointment of members to Committees (ii) is suggested by allegations that the Whips pack Select Committees with the compliant—too often appointment (rightly or wrongly) has come to be seen as a party reward—and also because in some instances the expertise of members has been blatantly overlooked.

  The minimalist improvement would be to take most of the Whips off the Selection Committee when considering Select Committee appointments (the appointment of Sir George Young is a step in the right direction) and otherwise carry on as before, leaving parties to decide whether and to what extent to democratise selections for Select Committees. More adventurously, MPs could be invited to nominate themselves for Select Committees, with the nominations published. Transparency may do something to curb concerns about "reward" and neglect of expertise.

  An objection to publication might be that most MPs would be seen to get their second preferences, since the bidding would be highest for the plum Committees, but I don't think the public would look askance at that. I have also heard it said that publication would reveal a depressing tendency on the part of MPs to bid for Committees that travel. Were things so bad (which I am confident they are not) that we could not risk publication because of what it might reveal about colleagues I would argue all the more strongly for a little sunlight.

  It is from reform of the appointment of Select Committee Chairmanships (iii) that the most benefit to Parliament can come; it is also the most amenable to practical change. The public visibility, effectiveness and accountability of Select Committees already largely depends on the authority and quality of the Chairmen. We already have a good cadre but if Select Committees are to play a larger role in parliamentary life it is the position of the Chairman, above all, which will need to be further strengthened.

  I suggest that the process be democratised. Election by fellow MPs would give Chairmen an enhanced status, greater independence from the executive and a sense of direct accountability to Parliament. After completion of (i)—the horse-trading to decide which party controls which Committee Chairmanship—by the usual channels, election should be by secret ballot, preferably of the whole House. In this way, nominees for Chairmanships would expect to seek cross party support. Election on such a basis would greatly increase not just their status in the House but also their authority when speaking on behalf of parliament outside it. Alternatively, and somewhat less attractively, election could be by electoral college of the party which has secured the Chairmanship in the horse-trading, although the Modernisation Committee is in no position to instruct parties on how to go about this.

  Election by the whole House might seem a radical step but, in an increasingly democratic age, a wider public will find something curious if all the decisions remain a backstairs "political fix".

  The results should of course, be published. My guess is that only a small number of candidates for each post would emerge—members would not want to risk the humiliation of a derisory showing. Election of Chairmen would break the tradition of Chairmen being elected by newly appointed Committee members but, in practice, the Chairmanships are normally "stitched up" before the first meeting, anyway. It should of course remain open to members of a Select Committee to vote down a Chairman, thereby triggering a "by election", but the instances of that are likely to be rare.

  In view of the extremely interesting and important reforming work on which your Committee is now engaged I thought members of the Committee might also want to see a copy of the full paper and I have passed copies for members to the Committee Clerk. In Chapter six, "Stopping the rot", in addition to election for Select Committee Chairmanships, I set out the case for a number of changes, including: Prime Ministerial appearances before Select Committees; more pre-legislative scrutiny; scrutiny of Departmental expenditure by Select Committees; better treatment of Select Committee Reports on the floor of the House; changes in the parliamentary timetable to create more space for Committee work; salaries for Chairmen and better staffing.

  I also enclose a copy of a letter I sent earlier this year to the Procedure Committee which contained a proposal on the handling of minority reports by Select Committees and which may be of some relevance to your review.

7 November 2001

Letter from Mr Andrew Tyrie MP to the Chairman of the Procedure Committee


  I am writing to suggest a modification to the way this is conducted. The rules of procedure governing the consideration of draft Select Committee Reports derives from the way legislation is approved and in particular the way business is taken in the committee of the whole House. I'm not sure that this is entirely appropriate.

  At the moment, minority Reports have to be submitted before the Chairman's Report is considered. Amendments to the Chairman's Report (or the one which obtains approval) are then taken. This can have perverse consequences of reducing the likelihood of reaching a consensus in the committee. Someone who disagrees with the Report has to take a decision on whether to submit a minority Report before he knows whether his amendments, which might make the Chairman's Report acceptable to him find favour with the Committee. He is therefore faced with a dilemma: either submit a minority Report, which once taken cannot be withdrawn, even if the committee subsequently accept amendments to make Chairman's draft acceptable, or rely on obtaining support for the amendments which, if not forthcoming, leaves him without the option of tabling a minority Report.

  Would it not be helpful if, after all the amendments have been considered for a Report members of Select Committee had an opportunity to submit a minority Report or at least a statement indicating the reasons for their dissent? This would remove the incentive to submit a dissenting minority report at the start and maximise the opportunities for consensus building during consideration of amendments. Of course, a device would be needed to stop the process developing into an endless round of consideration of minority reports.

Andrew Tyrie

1 March 2001

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