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


Letter from Mr Chris Mullin MP to the Chairman of the Committee

  I understand you are conducting an inquiry into the workings of select committees. I should stress that I am writing in a personal capacity, as someone who has spent seven of the last nine years on the Home Affairs Committee, including nearly three years as chairman.

  I wish to address three issues:


  There is huge scope for expanding the work and relevance of select committees in this area. On the few occasions pre-leg scrutiny has been tried, it has resulted in real improvements in the quality of legislation. It has also saved time on the floor of the House, since many problems can be identified and ironed out in advance. As recently as last week, David Blunkett accepted a number of significant amendments to his Anti-Terrorism Bill which had been tabled as a result of prior scrutiny by the Human Rights and Home Affairs Committees. I am told, although I have no personal experience, that the passage of the Bill establishing the Food Standards Agency was greatly eased by advance select committee scrutiny. Pre-leg scrutiny is an idea whose hour has come. It is overwhelmingly in the interests of both Parliament and the executive. I hope you will do everything possible to encourage ministers and their departments to make more Bills available in draft.

2.  PAY

  It is my firm view that the single most effective way of enhancing the status of select committees is to create an alternative career structure and that means paying chairmen of the departmental committees. I have not come to this view lightly. As you know I have always taken a Puritan view of members' pay, speaking and voting against both the above-inflation increases of 1996 and 2001.

  However, after seven years on one of the main select committees, I have noted that many of the best and the brightest backbenchers are tempted away by office or the prospect of office.

  While some cross-fertilisation between Parliament and the executive is desirable, it is evident that at present many of the more able members are either not attracted to select committees or see them only as a stepping stone to Government office. Some committees suffer a huge turn-over of members in the course of a Parliament. My committee has had members who have stayed for as little as two months before being tempted away by an offer of a PPS-ship. Over the years I have heard much discussion of ways in which the status of select committees can be improved, but I do not believe anything will change unless the nettle of pay is grasped.

  There will be many views as to the level at which pay should be set. My own is that it should be somewhere between that of a Parliamentary Under Secretary and a Minister of State. As you know, I have some brief experience of Government and in my view the influence and responsibilities of a good select committee chairman are substantially above those of an Under Secretary.

3.  SIZE

  I understand that you are contemplating increasing the size of select committees in order to give more members a chance to serve. I believe this would be a mistake. Eleven members is quite enough. It is already difficult enough to give everyone a fair chance to question witnesses at oral evidence sessions. A committee with thirteen members would become unwieldy. Also, in my experience, the main Opposition party has difficulty filling its existing allocation. So much so that, in one or two cases, it has had to appoint front bench spokesmen. This difficulty could only be exacerbated by an increase in numbers.

23 November 2001

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