Who should decide who appears
before Departmental Select Committees
17. One of the most surprising aspects of this episode
is that the Prime Minister and his Department should take it upon
themselves to decide who should give oral evidence to Select Committees.
In a democratic Parliament the Prime Minister and his advisers
should not obstruct a Select Committee from taking evidence from
a relevant witness. If the Prime Minister does not want them to
give oral evidence, he should appear himself. Select Committees
themselves should determine who should and should not give evidence
to them. We consider that No 10 Downing Street's refusal to allow
Lord Birt to attend this Committee to discuss the future of transport
amounts to a deliberate attempt to undermine the Departmental
Select Committee system.
IV. THE CONVENTION THAT
MEMBERS OF THE HOUSE OF LORDS DO NOT APPEAR BEFORE DEPARTMENTAL
18. This Committee, like other Select Committees,
faced by a recalcitrant witness, has the power to summon him or
her to appear. We would undoubtedly have used that power to summon
Lord Birt, but cannot because he is a is a Member of the House
of Lords, like so many of the Prime Minister's advisers. Accordingly,
he is able to hide behind the convention, established long ago,
for utterly different circumstances, that Members of the other
House cannot be summoned to appear before House of Commons' Committees.
We understand the reasons for this convention in general, but
it should not be used to enable the Prime Minister's or other
Ministers' advisers to evade scrutiny by Departmental Select Committees.
We have no doubt that this is an anomaly which a Government committed
to the modernisation of Parliament and to increasing the powers
of Select Committees will wish to clear up. We endorse the
recommendation of the Modernisation Committee made in its report
on Select Committees that this matter be investigated by the appropriate
Committees of both Houses, which we take to be the Procedure Committees.
It is our particular concern that the Procedure Committees consider
whether the convention might be modified to prevent those Members
of the House of Lords who are Government advisers from refusing
to appear before Select Committees.
19. There are a growing number of units and staff
attached to No 10 Downing Street. In effect a Prime Minister's
Department has been created. It, and the advisers within it, like
Lord Birt, are increasingly influential, although we readily admit
that he is far from the most significant. There is a serious danger
that in their endless meddling in the work of departments, they
reduce rather than increase the effectiveness of Government.
20. Our current inquiry is reviewing the Government's
Ten Year Plan for Transport. It is entirely appropriate that in
doing this we should take evidence from Lord Birt who, judging
by his almost weekly meetings with the most senior civil servant
responsible for the Plan, is clearly undertaking an exercise of
some magnitude relating to the future of transport.
21. The Prime Minister's advisers should be accountable
to departmental Select Committees. If the Department for Transport,
Local Government and the Regions, can account to this Committee
for its review of the transport plan up to 2010, so Lord Birt
should for his review of transport after 2010. It should be for
House of Commons' Committees themselves to decide who should or
should not give evidence to them, not the Prime Minister, his
Department, or advisers. Of course, Committees in most circumstances
can do this by summoning witnesses to appear.
22. Unfortunately, this is not possible because Lord
Birt, like so many of the Prime Minister's advisers, is a Member
of the Other House. He is therefore able to take advantage of
the ancient convention, established in quite different circumstances,
that he will not be summoned to appear before a Commons' Committee.
We recommend that this convention be modified to ensure that the
Prime Minister's or other Minister's advisers do not abuse it
to evade scrutiny. We endorse the recommendation of the Modernisation
Committee that the Procedure Committees of both Houses examine
23. It should not, however, be necessary for the
Prime Minister and the Central Unit to hide behind an ancient
convention. Even at this late stage we urge Lord Birt to give
oral evidence to the Committee.