Letter from the Chairman of the Northern
Ireland Affairs Committee to the Chairman of the Committee
MEMBERSHIP OF SELECT COMMITTEES
Following discussion in the Liaison Committee
last week I am writing to you as Chairman of the Modernisation
Committee in respect of the proposal under discussion to increase
the size of select committees. My particular concern is for the
Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
1. While most departmental select committees
have 11 Members, for historical reasons the Northern Ireland Affairs
Committee has 13 Members. Its composition is also significantly
different to that of most departmental select committees. By convention
one would expect a committee of 13 to include 8 Government, 3
Official Opposition and 2 minority party Members. The Northern
Ireland Affairs Committee, however, is composed in such a way
as to reflect better the nature of political representation in
|Official Opposition||2 Members
|Democratic Unionist||1 Member
|Ulster Unionist||2 Members
2. I do not believe that there would be any benefit in
further increasing the number of seats available on the Committee.
Since the Committee already has a larger membership than the majority
we have some experience of the logistical difficulties which can
arise. It can become difficult to conduct business effectively,
particularly when taking oral evidence from witnesses. As Chairman,
I often have to curtail one Member's questions to provide an opportunity
for another Member to participate. I am also aware that in many
instances Members find themselves cramped and uncomfortable as
there is insufficient space around the horseshoe. When evidence
sessions last for two hours or more, because of the number of
questions to be asked, the discomfort can be considerable.
3. In spite of these limitations I am pleased to be able
to report that the Committee's attendance record is excellent.
I am concerned that any further increase in numbers would make
it more difficult for individual Members to make their voices
heard, and pursue their particular concerns with witnesses: it
might well be that while Members have shown themselves willing
to endure less than ideal physical conditions, the frustration
arising in such a case would lead to falling attendance and reduced
commitment to the Committee's work.
4. While the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee has,
like other committees, the power to appoint a sub-committee to
enable a more efficient use of resources, the Committee has not
yet chosen to exercise this power.
5. The reasons why the Committee has not done so would
apply even with a larger Committee membership. Given the number
of political parties represented on the Committee it would be
difficult to have all-party representation on the sub-committee
without loading some Members' schedules significantly more than
others. In particular, the burden would fall on the minority party
members who, because of their limited representation in the House,
frequently have other heavy demands upon their time. Further,
with the difficulties in commuting between Westminster and constituencies
in Northern Ireland (or, for some, in Scotland and Wales) there
is only a limited period each week when the majority of Members
are able to convene.
6. It would be difficult to find a time when sub-committees
might operate in addition to the main Committee. I do not believe
that it would be acceptable to Members to have sub-committee activity
as a substitute for the Committee meeting in plenary.
Mr Michael Mates MP
17 December 2001