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


Letter from the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to the Chairman of the Committee


  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 Northern Ireland:
Government7 Members
Official Opposition2 Members
Democratic Unionist1 Member
SDLP1 Member
Ulster Unionist2 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

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