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


Memorandum from Democratic Audit, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex



  This report aims to assist the Modernisation Committee in its deliberations on parliamentary reform by providing information about the position of committees in other European and foreign states. Our evidence on reform of the select committee structures, rules and ethos in the House of Commons draws upon immediate research into the practice and powers of parliamentary committees and the rules governing them in Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States; on a major research study of parliamentary committees in 18 west European nations (including the UK) (Strøm, 1998); our own experience of and research into parliaments in eleven nations (including Italy); and our study of select and standing committees in the House of Commons (Weir and Beetham, 1999). Our focus is on:

  1.  The areas of responsibility of parliamentary committees (reviewing and amending draft legislation, holding the government to account, and both these and/or other responsibilities);

  2.  the means by which members of parliament are appointed to committees and the influence of the governing party and other parties on their work and findings

  3.  the effectiveness of the mechanisms committees use to report back to the house;

  4.  the extent to which committees influence government policy-making and legislation;

  5.  the committees' powers of investigation; and

  6.  the quality of resourcing and support services available to them.

Most of the evidence was gathered directly from parliaments, their websites, officials and committee members. We have supplemented direct evidence with data and research from academic sources, which we reference. Given the time-scale within which we had to work to be able to contribute to the Modernisation Committee's work, there are gaps in the comparative material—especially on the party political elements of the processes. As in the UK, political parties invariably exert control over the appointments procedures, how committees conduct their business and how their conclusions are mediated through the political process.

  Democratic Audit is a specialist academic institution which "audits" democracy and political freedoms in the UK and internationally. The Audit draws upon scholars and practitioners both in the UK and internationally and works in partnership with the Centre for Democratisation Studies, POLIS, University of Leeds. Democratic Audit has worked around the world for the Department for International Development; DFID's State and Local Government Programme, Nigeria; the European Union; the UK High Commission, Zimbabwe; and International IDEA (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance), Stockholm.

  This report has been put together by Professor Stuart Weir, Director of the Audit, and Iain Kearton, University of Leeds. Weir and Kearton are among the authors of the International IDEA Handbook on Democracy Assessment. They would like to thank Judith February, of IDASA (the Institute for Democracy in South Africa), and Ben Jackson, Nuffield College, Oxford, for additional information.

  In Part 1, we set out our general findings from the comparative studies; and Part 2 contains our conclusions and recommendations. The list of references follows. We have also prepared a detailed summary of the position in Germany, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA, which we can supply to committee members should they wish it.



  The parties must find a balance between their own political interests and the representative role of legislators, effective legislation and good government. Concern over the weakness of Parliament in its relationship with the executive is not confined to this country. Representative assemblies and legal systems around the world have generally failed to expand their oversight of state executives and have a limited capacity to deal with the multiplicity of issues with which modern states engage. This is why, some 30 years ago, the US sociologist, C Wright Mills, relegated even the powerful US Congress to the "middle levels of power".

  All large parliaments work through committees; such committees are usually important forums for making law and policy. The more committees there are, and the greater the role they perform in the legislative and policy processes, the higher the potential output of the parliament. Thus the quality of their output is usually vital to the effectiveness of their parliament.

  At the same time, the political parties that make representative democracy possible naturally play a significant - and essential—part in all parliaments and their committees. We found that the political parties, through their organisational activities, their powers of discipline and patronage, and their prior demands on members' loyalties, are the principal agencies for the formation and conduct of parliamentary committees; and thus the committees are always to a greater or lesser degree the instruments of the parties (and especially the governing party). Strong and effective committees are not incompatible with strong parties, and a close relationship between the parties and committees can enhance the influence of committees, especially in their legislative functions. However, the parties must recognise the need to find a balance between their own political interests and their parliamentary members' party loyalties and the members' primary representative role, effective legislation and good government.

  Of course, governing parties world-wide are sensitive to the work of scrutiny and investigative committees, like the UK select committees, and tend to employ their power over the state, parliamentary process and their party in the legislature to control them and to evade due accountability. They often seek legitimacy for all their policies and actions in electoral victory, but the diffuse mandate of the electorate is never sufficient in itself either to endow every act of government with popular approval or to endow political executives with supreme wisdom in their legislative proposals or policies.

  We welcome the Modernisation Committee's decision to examine how to make the House of Commons and its select committees more effective. We share members' concern about the breakdown of communication between the general public and politicians, including MPs, and the political process. We believe that the Committee must go back to the basic principles of representative democracy if it is to restore public confidence in Parliament and the ability of MPs to represent their views and interests. The basic democratic principles are those of "popular control" and "political equality"—in other words, MPs, the people's representatives in parliament and elsewhere, should first and foremost represent their interests in their work equally; and other interests, be they of the executive, party bosses or business interests, should not come first.

  We know from our research into public attitudes that that public are not satisfied for their voice to be heard only at periodic elections; rather, the Rowntree Reform Trust's "State of the Nation" polls show that the British people think constitutional rules and practice and the democratic institutions should ensure that government continues to be both properly accountable and transparent between elections; and a large majority believe that they should have greater continuing power over government between elections (Dunleavy et al, 2001). Strong, transparent and independent select committees are one means by which the balance of power can be redressed in the interests of ordinary citizens.

The House of Commons—a deviant case?

  The study of parliamentary committees in 18 west European nations describes the House of Commons as "the most deviant case" (Strøm, 1998). Our committee structure is certainly distinctive; and is both weaker and stronger in certain respects than those in other west European parliaments. The majority of west European parliaments have permanent specialist committees whose prime function is to examine and amend legislation; a few have the power to initiate legislation as well. These legislative committees can usually also summon witnesses. They are vastly superior to the UK's ad-hoc non-specialist "standing" committees onto which MPs are conscripted to examine draft legislation. The ad-hoc UK committees have no powers to call witnesses and possess marginal legislative functions and most of the UK executive's legislation is summarily rail-roaded through them. Legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons is a charade—a verdict put most compellingly by the Hansard Society's study, Making the Law, in 1993.

  Most European parliamentary committees combine their responsibilities for reviewing, shaping, and in some cases initiating legislation, with other duties such as keeping the government accountable and performing inquiries (perhaps also taking up public petitions, performing financial reviews and commenting on international treaties). There is not the same separation of functions as in the House of Commons, with its standing and select committees. The legislative role seems usually to take precedence. It involves committees much more deeply in parliamentary life and in the work of their government departments than committees confined to oversight alone, not least because they may become involved in shaping policy through legislation. However, the responsibility of examining and amending legislation—which seems to take the lion's share of their time—and the diverse range of responsibilities that some of them undertake can preclude them from giving scrutiny of government actions and policies sufficient weight and time.

The scrutiny, or investigative, role

  Few European parliaments have separate scrutiny, or investigative, committees at all; and none have an effective equivalent of the British select committees that are now being copied around the world. And while European legislative committees often have an oversight role, they rarely have sufficient resources to perform it well.

  The German Bundestag compensates for this tendency by having additional mechanisms for inquiry:—

    —  ad hoc committees of inquiry ("investigative committees") may be set up to investigate specific matters;

    —  study commissions, comprising of members and outside experts, may be established to examine and report on "complex and important issues"; and

    —  its legislative Defence Committee can at any time constitute itself as an investigative committee and assume extra powers of inquiry (see below).

  Opposition parties in the Bundestag have the opportunity to establish "investigative" committees—one of which was set up to inquire into the CDU financing scandal in 1999—as it requires only a 25 per cent majority vote in the Bundestag to establish them. However, their terms of reference are quite specific and they must be approved by a simple majority in the House (which allows the government some influence over their course of inquiry). Such committees tend to have a partisan image by comparison with most UK select committees, which have developed a workable broadly objective and (internally amicable) way of scrutinising the policies and decisions of the executive through the cultivation of a "non-partisan" ethos, albeit within the perspective of heavy executive dominion and strong party influence. Thus, select committees are generally able to gain broad agreement across their party members, except on issues of particular sensitivity for government.

  The German study commissions are a valuable non-partisan resource at the disposal of the German parliament. They have the same rights and duties as any Bundestag committee, but their objective status is protected by the rule that their reports may not contain any recommendations for decision. It is up to the federal government or plenary parliament to bring forward proposals for legislation or action based on their reports.

  Finally, the German Defence Committee has the power to constitute itself as an investigative committee and thus to take on the same additional powers that such committees possess (see below). It may also receive evidence in private while standard investigative committees receive evidence in public. This flexibility is a consequence of its monopoly over defence matters within the Bundestag which cannot itself set up any other investigative committee to examine defence matters. It is hard to judge how much this greater flexibility enhances the committee s role. It tends to concentrate on its oversight role anyway, since there is rarely legislation on defence issues; and has invoked the right to conduct inquiries only eleven times in total.

  Our research suggests that parliamentary committees—the chief means by which parliaments seek to make governments transparent and accountable—have had limited success universally in overcoming the difficulties of creating an independent and objective oversight of the executive. The strongest and most independent are in the US Congress, notwithstanding C Wright Mills's view. While the UK does not have the same separation of powers that distinguishes US politics, we believe that there are lessons that the UK Parliament can profitably learn from the US experience—especially on issues of powers and resourcing.

  Countries with proportional electoral systems usually have a greater opportunity for creating more balanced and independent parliamentary scrutiny, but as the example of South Africa shows, even a relatively strong committee system can be swamped by the power of a governing party with an overwhelming public mandate. The well organised legislative committee structure in Germany is the most influential and politically balanced of the comparator systems, but is closely integrated into the consensual German inter-party politics that is quite different from the partisan politics of the House of Commons; parties "let off steam" through the "investigative" committees (see above).

Openness of committees

  Both UK select and "standing" committees are far more open than their European counterparts. Both types of committees work largely in public: standing committees publish verbatim transcripts of proceedings; and select committees hold public hearings, and publish the oral and written evidence they receive. Most German committees generally meet in private, though public hearings are becoming more common. While of course the deliberations of UK select committees are held in camera, the openness of most of their proceedings gives them a more visible presence and impact that neither Germany's legislative nor "investigative" committees can match. Though they have far less influence on government than German legislative committees, the open role of select committees undoubtedly contributes to raising public interest and confidence in British politics.

Size, resources and powers

  Size and resources are significant issues for committees everywhere. It becomes clear from study of other parliaments that committees must be of an appropriate size if they are to perform their duties fully and avoid neglecting any of them. By the same token, they must be adequately resourced.

  The committees in the four legislatures that we especially studied all have a great advantage over select committees in the House of Commons. In each of the legislatures, all members are expected to serve on a parliamentary committee. This is so even in the larger Houses as the table below shows:
CountryHow many
members are
there in the
How many
serve on a
Germany669 All
New Zealand120 All
South Africa400 All
USA435 All
Source: Democratic Audit research

  Britain's House of Commons, given its large membership, need not suffer from the problems in creating suitably large committees that a smaller parliament like that in New Zealand suffers from. As the experience of the German Bundestag shows, large and well-resourced committees can share the parliamentary workload evenly and exert real and continuing influence on government legislation (though their "investigative" committees are more partisan and less weighty than our select committees). Their strength however depends on the high level of member participation; in fact, there are 20 more places on permanent committees than there are members of the Bundestag! The House of Commons, by contrast, fails to make anything like the same demand on MPs. Select committee places in the Commons require at any point in time only 40 per cent of the total membership of the House, though the turnover in membership means that nearly 60 per cent of MPs serve on a committee during a session (see below). (Of course, ad-hoc standing committees and business committees make extra demands.)

  In Germany, official funding for committees is as modest as here. But political parties play a far stronger role in German society than here; and state funding of political parties and of the party-related education and research foundations means that committee members can broadly draw upon support and research information through their parties. Committees in the US Congress are, as is well known, powerful bodies which command huge staffs and have substantial resources; while those in South Africa are far less well-resourced and thus tend to be too reliant on government ministries for information. In the UK Parliament, select committees are poorly resourced and rely heavily on government departments and external witnesses for their information. Standing committees are even worse off; they are strongly whipped, short of time, and rely almost wholly on government briefs and lobby material from interest groups. The experience of Germany, South Africa and the USA demonstrates the need for them to have additional resources of their own.

  Legislative committees in most democracies are able to hold public hearings on major pieces of legislation. These hearings are considered very important because they demonstrate an interest in openness and invite public and interest-group engagement in making legislation and public policy. Admittedly, the role of public testimony is often limited to minor amendments, but the process publicly brings legislation under expert scrutiny and can expose unwelcome or poorly thought-through legislation.

  Generally, the powers of committees abroad to compel ministers, civil servants and others to give evidence are weak and usually depend on the approval of the whole House or Speaker where they exist. However, German committees have the power to demand the attendance of a member of the federal government at any meeting (though we have been unable to find out whether similar powers exist in the case of civil servants or expert witnesses, though committees may of course invite experts or interested parties to give evidence). As for investigative committees, they have the right to summon and swear in witnesses; to demand files and documents from the federal government; and to require ministers consent for civil servants to give evidence. The federal government may refuse demands for documents or the attendance of civil servants if compliance would harm the interests either of the federal state or a constituent state; or it would seriously jeopardise or impede the performance of public functions (see Schick and Zeh, 1999).

  Committees in New Zealand and South Africa have limited powers to call for witnesses and documents for their scrutiny either of draft bills or government policies and actions. In New Zealand, committees had their powers of summons dramatically curtailed in 1999 and they may now usually only request witnesses to attend. However, they can approach the Speaker to issue a summons, or may do so themselves with the leave of the House (ie, in practice, as in the UK, the government). In South Africa, wide-ranging constitutional powers to call for witnesses or documents are moderated by a House rule that reserves the right of summons to the Speaker. Of the 18 west European countries in the Strøm study, only five of the legislative committees have the formal power of compulsion, though all can invite witnesses. On documents, eight can demand government or parliamentary documents, the others cannot.

  Finally, it is a sign of the demands upon committees internationally that the effective use of committees resources and powers often depends in the final event on the time that members can devote to committee work. Here, much depends on the culture of parliaments and members and their priorities; but the ability of committees to scrutinise government rises where all or more members are expected to participate in committee work. Half the parliaments in the 18-nation European survey employ sub-committees to relieve the workload. Sub-committees enable parliaments to cover more ground and to develop members specialist expertise; but attendance on them can fall below the average for full committees. Where their membership is based on self-selection, as is often the case, their policy preferences may deviate even more from those of the full House than their parent committees.

The role of the political parties

  In the four legislatures we investigated, the political parties play a defining role in the selection of committee members and exercise considerable influence over their conduct. The parties are strong within each of the legislatures and have recently tended to take tighter control of committees and the legislature's business than in the past. In Germany, much research and policy work is carried out within party working groups, involving committee members and the party leadership prior to committee discussions; thus committees tend to be forums for party bargaining and consensus-building and party point-scoring is rare. Committees are traditionally the work-horses of the US Congress, but are now less independent of the policy agendas of their party leaders than they used to be and less free to develop their own legislative initiatives. Party leaders are also more likely to place people on committees with a view to their helpfulness rather than to observe previous conventions of seniority and continuity. Select committees on the UK model have been introduced in South Africa, but they are still bedding down and MPs haven't yet developed their oversight role. For the time being at least it is the mass membership of the governing ANC and organised civic groups rather than parliamentary committees that keep government under scrutiny.

  The party system facilitates and orders the committee structure and is necessary for its operation. Given confidence and a measure of consensual understanding, well-organised and strong parties can improve the contribution that committees make, but this is often at the cost of their ability to exercise independent oversight of policy and legislation.

An alternative career structure

  Stability of membership is vital to an effective committee system. The more stable the membership of committees is, the more expert committee members become, and the better able they are to improve the quality of legislation and to keep public policy under informed scrutiny. As Kaare Strøm observes, "The trick for the legislature as a whole is to induce members to take the trouble to acquire expertise". The key is to foster a culture of stability, or the "alternative career structure" that the Liaison Committee proposes for service on select committees, so that members are encouraged to invest in specialism knowing that the investment is worthwhile. Established committee members usually also become familiar with the administrative agencies and relevant outside interest groups; and their acquisition of expertise is usually facilitated if the committee's jurisdiction is well defined. At the same time, it is important to avoid members becoming too closely associated with outside interests; the former Agriculture Committee's closeness to farming prevented its members from taking expert warnings about the dangers of BSE seriously enough to be a check on the government's policies (Weir and Beetham, 1999).

  In both the USA and Germany the composition of committees has been relatively stable; in the US Congress, in particular, service on committees has been a significant and respected career choice and seniority has mattered. In both cases, the influence and power of the committees has buttressed and made worthwhile the idea of an alternative career structure; and thus if the UK is to adopt the same aim (as most witnesses suggest), the idea is likely to depend more on an effective and independent committee structure than extra payment for (say) committee chair persons. In the US Congress, committee chairs receive only the same (high) salary as other members, augmented by larger allowances for office costs. It is also worthy of note that where all or most members are expected to serve on parliamentary committees, the scope for vetoes or other manipulation by party managers and whips diminishes.

Chairing parliamentary committees

  Active and inquiring chair persons are of course vital to creating effective committees. In the USA, the stable career structure has set a high value on senior committee positions and encourages promotion on the grounds of seniority; and the separation of powers means that committee chair persons and aspiring members are more likely to play fulfilling roles and less likely to be compromised by hopes of executive position. Otherwise, the differing conventions regarding the appointment of chair persons are naturally based on party. In Germany, the chairs are allocated proportionally between the parties (and with PR elections this means in line with their electoral strength); and winner-takes-all distribution of positions in New Zealand and the USA. In most countries, the strength of party means that chair persons must establish a balance between pursuing inquiries that will satisfy their scrutiny role and avoiding issues that may prejudice their political career. Given that few countries have established a secure alternative career structure in committee service, their political progress and executive advancement are both at hazard if they perform the task of scrutiny too zealously.

The influence of parliamentary committees

  The inter-action between governments, parties and committees is crucial to the influence of the committees and to the reception that their reports and recommendations receive in the chamber and from government. Abroad the focus of committee scrutiny is normally on legislation. In Germany, the fact that that government s party managers and other party leaderships have been involved in developing their parties position in committees means that their reports are commonly accepted in their entirety by government and in parliament. There is a tradition almost of deference in the USA towards the stronger US committees which possess a legislative capacity and also powers of veto over what pieces of legislation go forward to the House. But they too are becoming more reliant on party whips to get their bills through. In South Africa, a piece of legislation may be knocked backwards and forwards openly in the House between committee and the responsible minister, until the government and committee reach agreement on a bill that can go forward. In New Zealand, major committee amendments must generally be approved by the dominant and, if necessary, other parties before the House accepts them. In Germany, the process happens in reverse, with parties bargaining in committee around positions developed in internal meetings. The result is that the parties generally reach agreement on legislation before it goes forward to the House. Here, it is the House of Lords that generally accomplishes major amendments to draft legislation, not the weak standing committees in the Commons where ministers simply drive their proposals through; and government treatment of select committee reports is too often perfunctory, dilatory and even dismissive.

The effects of electoral systems

  Proportionality makes for a higher quality of representation, and usually for more independence for parliamentary committees. But our four case studies show how party politics and traditions can override its effects. Germany is perhaps a classic example of the more balanced and consensual committee politics that PR generally provides; and the arrangements of the parties there ensure that the committees still contribute to decisive government. The USA has the confrontational two-party system that first-past-the-post elections encourage, but the separation of powers and the consequently stronger committees in Congress, along with the looser and less disciplined parties there than (say) in the UK Parliament, have created more independent committees. In South Africa, the sheer electoral popularity of the ANC has swamped the opposition parties even under PR elections and creates a dominant party system within which the role of committees has been subdued. New Zealand, is somewhat of a hybrid. New Zealand is a recent convert to PR (1996), but has not abandoned majoritarian politics. The current coalition government has a small majority and has increased the sizes of committees to secure a majority on most of them and thus to control their conduct rather than make the political deals with other parties that most governments adopt in such circumstances.

Service on UK select committees

  Scrutinising legislation and government departments are regarded by MPs as the two main priorities of Parliament. A poll for the Hansard Society in June 2000 found that nearly 85 per cent of MPs say that scrutiny of legislation is very important , and another 10.1 per cent say it is quite important. The equivalent figures for scrutiny of government departments are 73.7 and 20.7 per cent. Both roles are ranked well above debating national issues, constituency work and supporting party policy.

  However, in practice, the culture of scrutiny is poorly developed in the House of Commons. MPs give priority to dealing with constituents complaints (53.1 per cent) over holding government to account (52 per cent) when asked what was their most important role; and while just 23.5 per cent of MPs did more than five hours work weekly on select committees, some 77.1 per cent of MPs gave more than five hours to dealing with constituency casework . These figures point to the well-known fact that personal priorities for most MPs are party loyalty and constituency affairs.

  In the 1999-2000 Session of Parliament, 376 MPs served on select committees (other than business committees). There were in all 259 places on the 21 select committees that scrutinised government activities ( scrutiny committees ), not counting either the Environmental Audit and Liaison committee. Thus, at any one time, scrutiny committees required service from nearly 40 per cent of the total membership of the House; and in all, some 57.1 per cent of MPs served at some point on a scrutiny committee. The size of the government pay-roll in the House which now stands at 141 members (21.4 per cent of the total number of MPs) inhibits the capacity of the House to provide the resources in terms of MPs abilities and time that are required for effective scrutiny.

  While over half the MPs surveyed saw select committees as the most effective mechanism for securing information and explanation from government , MPs as a whole were under no illusions about the capacity of Parliament to keep government s diverse activities and agencies under effective scrutiny under a third said that Parliament kept government spending under very or quite effective scrutiny; and just over a quarter said the same for departmental policy making . The scores for other scrutiny functions were far lower.


  In summary, our research indicates that strong committee systems can be allied to traditions of strong government; and in our view, can contribute to good government as well. The first pre-conditions seem to be that the political parties should be willing to enter into dialogue over draft legislation and public policy, rather than aim to inflict defeat on their rivals; that all or most members of a parliament participate in the work of committees; and that the committees are properly resourced. Parties are essential to the business of representative government; and as our small sample shows, their strong role in parliament need not wholly compromise the independence and integrity of committees and can assist in satisfactory outcomes. A great deal depends on the political culture; and in this respect, the non-partisan ethos of UK select committees is a major advantage. Nevertheless, the parties will naturally always wish to advance their own interests at the expense of objective scrutiny (where that desirable commodity exists) and possess the whip hand in the last resort. But it is possible to encourage a political culture within which the quality of legislation and government matter; and respect for a diversity of view exists. Such a change in attitudes is essential in the House and in British politics generally.

  The structure, resources and powers of parliamentary committees are vital to the overall success of any Parliament. The Modernisation Committee should consider these aspects of the work of both standing and select committees and also consider the committee structure in the Commons as a whole. While select committees are more effective than parliamentary committees abroad in the oversight role, standing committees fail to subject draft legislation to effective scrutiny. The Modernisation Committee ought to make proposals to reform the standing committee process alongside improving the role of select committees; and ought to consider root-and-branch reform of the committee system on more European lines. Larger committees which draw more fully on the human resources of the House ie, on all or most MPs could transform their powers and influence. At the same time, the House would benefit from more flexible committee arrangements, as in Germany.

  As for powers and resources, the US committees are the most obvious models. They have more powers to call witnesses, more control over their greater resources, and there is more transparency in the way they are resourced. While the Modernisation Committee will wish to respect the traditions of UK parliamentary democracy, more powers for committees and greater and more transparent resourcing could establish a more modern and relevant Parliament in the UK.



  The Modernisation Committee can learn from the experience of other nations. However, there are also four valuable guides to reform at hand domestically:

    —  Shifting the Balance, the First Report of the Liaison Committee (session 1999-2000);

    —  The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government Accountable, the Report of the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny (chairman, Lord Newton of Braintree), 2001;

    —  Strengthening Parliament, the report of the Conservative Party's Commission to Strengthen Parliament, July 2000 (chairman, Lord Norton of Louth); and

    —  Making the Law, the report of the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, 1993 (chairman, Lord Rippon of Hexham).

  In our view, British select committees provide a firm base for improving the accountability role of the House of Commons. The Modernisation Committee, through the adoption of a judicious balance of the main recommendations of the above reports, and good practice from abroad, could put the House of Commons in the first rank of legislatures around the world for scrutiny both of government legislation and policy-making.

1.   Broadening the role of select committees

  It is important to preserve and enhance the attributes of select committees while remedying the deficiencies of standing committees. The Modernisation Committee should refrain from looking at select committees in isolation from standing committees and consider the House's ability to deal with legislative proposals and policy-making as a whole.

  We RECOMMEND that the role of select committees should be expanded to take on scrutiny of the government's legislation as well, as in the Scottish Parliament and west European parliaments; and that the ad-hoc standing committees should be abolished. This would at once bring informed scrutiny to bear upon draft legislation and cumulatively build up extra expertise for the future. Various aspects of current experiments in parliamentary reform in the House of Commons already point in this direction.

2.   Drawing most MPs into committee scrutiny work

  To accomplish such a change, or an equivalent strengthening of the scrutiny of legislation, the House of Commons can no longer ignore its own human potential. The most important resource that the House has at its disposal—the men and women who sit on its benches—is wasted. If there were to be expanded committees that scrutinised both government legislation and policy-making, these new "scrutiny committees" would have to be larger than either existing types of committee are now so as to take on the additional workload without neglecting either aspect of their wider scrutiny role. This would mean drawing more MPs into a scrutiny role on committees - a change which would have the added advantages both of developing the expertise of MPs and reducing the scope of manipulation by party managers.

  Whereas other parliaments, like the Bundestag, make full use of the human potential at their disposal by requiring all members to serve on parliamentary committees, our select committees take up only 40 per cent of MPs at any one time. One of the reasons for this is the swollen government contingent (the "payroll vote") which appropriates a fifth (21.4 per cent) of the House's membership. Another is the growing demand from constituents that MPs naturally wish to satisfy to secure their seats at election time.

  It is time to make a reality of the commitment to scrutiny which MPs expressed to the Hansard Commission. While they pay lip-service to the ideals of scrutiny and accountability, in practice they devote far more of their time to their constituency caseload than to service on committees. One way of easing the conflict would be to increase the office staff of MPs, perhaps by welfare rights workers able to deal well with the problems of constituents.


    —  The House of Commons draw upon as large a number of MPs as possible to staff effective scrutiny committees (however they may be organised)

    —  A strict limit should be imposed on the executive's demands on the House to allow MPs to perform their major scrutiny functions effectively

    —  If necessary, the staffing needs of MPs should be re-considered to ensure that their scrutiny role does not adversely affect their constituency work.

3.   Developing an alternative career structure

  Other legislatures have developed the idea of basing "alternative career structures" on committee service to create more informed and consistent scrutiny of government. We set out the advantages of this approach in other countries above. Here it would dilute the pressures to climb the greasy pole to ministerial office—and the deference that goes with ministerial ambition. We do not think that it would be necessary to pay committee chair persons an extra salary, as has been suggested; though committee chair persons could be given additional office allowances, as in the USA, to meet the additional costs that their responsibilities demand. In our view, it is more important that

  (a)   committee structures and powers are sufficient for committee service to offer MPs a worthwhile and effective role; and

  (b)  MPs can be reasonably certain that the "alternative career" is a stable prospect that does not depend on them pleasing or not offending party whips.

  We RECOMMEND that the Modernisation Committee consider and develop proposals for a stable alternative career structures for MPs based on service on scrutiny committees; and bear in mind that a stronger and more effective committee system is likely to encourage such alternative careers. Many of the detailed recommendations from the four domestic reports cited above to make committees more autonomous would do much to create confidence among MPs that a "committee career" would be worthwhile.

4.   Reforming the system for appointing committee members

  Our research indicates that political parties are inescapably involved in determining the composition and conduct of parliamentary committees; and that their involvement can enhance their work and influence and need not damage their effectiveness. However, the parties in the House of Commons—and especially the governing party—are very strictly disciplined. The politics of the House are hierarchical and intensely partisan and do not allow for the political flexibility within which parties and committees work well together in other parliaments. Both Conservative and Labour governments in the recent past have removed or blocked chair persons and members from being appointed to particular select committees. Conduct of this sort prejudices not only the work of committees, but also the prospect of establishing a stable career structure on committees and public confidence in Parliament as a whole.

  In some parliaments, the Speaker plays a mediating role between government, parties and committees. Given the reservations which the current Speaker has apparently expressed about his deputy being involved in any new appointment process, independent of party whips, it would seem that this is not a precedent that can be followed in the UK.

  We therefore RECOMMEND that the Modernisation Committee pursue the proposal of the Hansard Society Commission report, The Challenge for Parliament, that reform of the appointment system for committees should be based on the Liaison Committee of select committee chair persons. We further RECOMMEND that

    —  The chair persons of scrutiny committees should be constituted as a smaller, less unwieldy committee to represent these committees; to take charge of appointments to scrutiny committees; and to order the resources and affairs of scrutiny committees in a more transparent way than at present

    —  this smaller committee should be empowered to establish its own executive sub-committee, as also recommended by the Hansard Society Commission, to which all the above functions may be delegated.

5.   Strengthening the powers and resources of committees

  The powers and resources of parliamentary committees around the world are generally weak in relation to the powers and resources of governments. Given that ministers are formally accountable to Parliament, we believe that parliamentary committees here should have stronger powers to require their attendance and that of named civil servants; and to ask for official documents. Unfortunately, committees require the approval of the House—thus, in effect, of the government—to order attendance at a hearing. Further, the recent Freedom of Information Act places considerable obstacles in the way of effective committee scrutiny of government policy-making. The resources available to committees are limited and the criteria for awarding them are obscure. From our own experience of research for select committees, we believe that the types of research that can be undertaken are themselves limited. Committees should be able, for example, to commission public opinion polls or specific external research projects. They are also largely bound by obsolete printing processes and House rules to produce poorly-designed reports that have no visible popular appeal.

  We RECOMMEND that the Modernisation Committee examine ways

    —  to strengthen the powers of committees to order the attendance of ministers, specific civil servants and others; and to send for documents

    —  to increase the resources available to committees to conduct their business; commission research; and to publish attractive reports, so far as is possible from individual budgets under their own control; and

    —  in order to strengthen their own accountability, scrutiny committees should organise their budgets under the oversight of a committee of scrutiny committee chair persons, or an executive sub-committee, on behalf of the House as a whole.

6.   Creating a wider and more flexible scrutiny role

  The example of the German Bundestag, with its variety of committees, suggests that the House of Commons may benefit from more flexibility in its arrangements for scrutiny. It may well be worth experimenting with British versions of the German study commissions. At the moment, the executive has a virtual monopoly over longer-term inquiries, task forces and czardoms of various kinds. There is a tendency for such inquiries to become partisan, to be "captured" by sectional interests, or to be heavily influenced by the executive in advance, as for example both the Jenkins Commission and the Royal Commission on the Future of the House of Lords were. The Commons would benefit from the ability to establish alternative commissions of its own, taking a dispassionate view of complex issues that has a longer perspective than the next election and perhaps mixing MPs and external experts.

  We RECOMMEND that the Modernisation Committee give scrutiny committees the right to establish longer-term commissions of inquiry, with external members as need be, on an experimental basis.

7.   Other proposals

  The Liaison Committee, Hansard Society and Conservative Party reports contain sensible proposals on which our comparative research has cast no light. We believe that the Modernisation Committee has the opportunity to put the British Parliament in the first rank of parliaments around the world if it builds on good practice and experience from abroad and the recommendations of these reports. However, our Parliament is likely to remain in the "middle levels" of power until electoral reform; stronger Freedom of Information laws; and a second chamber with at the least a majority of elected members between them give parliamentarians a real prospect of representing the people with a proper degree of distance from executive dominion, party control or sectional interests.

Stuart Weir and Iain Kearton

January 2002


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