Select committee powers and effectiveness
Written Evidence by Dr Ruth Fox , Hansard Society
R t . Hon . Peter Riddell, Institute for Government
Dr Meg Russell and Prof Robert Hazell, The Constitution Unit (UCL)
1. Select committ ees are more influential than they perhaps realise . Recent research by the Constitution Unit (Russell & Benton; 2011) found that around 40% of committee recommendations were accepted by government, and roughly the same proportion went on to be implemented in practice . But it also found that committees also exercise considerable influence in other more subtle, less easily measurable forms . Particularly important were ‘ anticipated reactions’ , whereby Whitehall departments adjust behaviour in anticipation of how a commit tee might react to a course of action. A vigil ant committee can thus shape behaviour in Whitehall in a positive direction. T hat Permanent Secretaries are now talking more about committees than in the past, and not always in warm ter ms, is itself a sign of impact (though also suggests a need for greater mutual understanding between Whitehall and Westminster ) . Despite these findings, we believe that committees could do better, and be more effective, than they are.
2. We see no clear need for the select committees to have new powers; the existing powers are sufficient. What matters is how t he powers are used, and this forms the focus of our evidence below. Committee members (and commentators) do not always fully appreciate the influence that the committees already have. Increasingly the focus is placed on ‘hard power’: rules that are written down, the use of vetoes , etc. In fact, what often works for committees, and where their biggest influence comes from, is ‘soft power’ : the use of persuasion and political pressure. Because this is largely invisible it is too easy to assume that such power does not exist.
3. Any discussion about improving the effectiveness of committees must recognise the reality of party loyalties but also the limits on backbenchers’ time. So rather than more committees or more sittings we believe the focus should be on a better use of existing time and resources.
4. The range of core tasks is broadly correct : they are not fixed duties and are sufficiently wide to cover most eventualities. But exactly how and why committees determine their inquiries, and the role the core tasks play in this , remains unclear .
5. Each committee should publish a strategic plan at the start of each Parliament setting out how it proposes to discharge its responsibilities and what tasks and priorities it will focus on, and why. Committees naturally need to retain freedom of manoeuvre to undertake work outside this, in order to respond to emerging, unforeseen developments. But the early adoption of a plan would provide some continuity of purpose to a committees’ work.
Planning of inquiries
6. Clear objectives should be set for each inquiry, for example, through publication of a statement about what a committee would like to achieve, separate from the issue and questions paper that is normally published at the start of an inquiry.
7. A prolif eration of inquiries, often with 6-8 week deadlines ( or less ) for written response s , also pose a challenge . I t is difficult enough for large organisations to produce of evidence at short notice, and often very hard for smaller ones to do so. Such short notice also makes it hard for committee staff to commission research and organise effective consultations . This can lead to an over-reliance on the ‘usual suspects’ and reduces any prospect of broadening the evidence base.
8. Committees are less effective if they venture into territory that is already well trodden. They are more effective if they investigate genuinely new areas, and particularly if they can turn up new evidence. They can be at their most effective when they conduct original research, providing a new, clear evidence base for their recommendations (as, for example, the Business Committee did in surveying pub tenants for its Pub Companies report). Committees can work with outside organisations that have extensive networks , or use online mechanisms, such as the consultation conducted by the Treasury Committee through www.moneysavingexpert.com .
9. Committees should resist too great a focus on short-term, ‘headline seeking’ inquiries at the expense of topics that require longer-term attention and are perhaps less attractive for media coverage. Select committee-inspired items now regularly appear in the news, and often set the agenda on the Today programme: which is a sign that the committees are taken seriously. But while celebrity witnesses and the like can draw attention to a committee, this is not always the most effective way of persuading the Government to change its approach.
10. Rather than creating special new committees to address cross-cutting policy areas, there is a strong case for more ad hoc joint inquiries / joint evidence sessions.
11. Traditional question sessions have value in placing information on the record . However, they are time consuming for members and witnesses alike. M any witnesses express frustration that MPs are frequently unprepared, wander in and out of evidence sessions without explanation or apology, and questions are often repetitious . As a consequence, committees risk being both less effective and less well respected b y outsiders. Chairs might consider calling members to ask questions only if they have been there since the start of the evidence session.
12. Q uestioning by a smaller number of MPs would provide more opportunity to pursue and develop promising lines of robust inquiry. At present witnesses – particularly ministers and civil servants – can be let off the hook by the failure to follow-up questions effectively: if they can evad e the first few questions they know they are unlikely to be pressed further once the questions move on to the next member. MPs could thus be encouraged to specialise in particular inquiries, or at least on certain witnesses, perhaps reserving al l-committee participation for major inquiries.
13. Committees should also make use of a broader variety of evidence-taking models: more emphasis should be placed on the value of private seminars with experts and affect ed parties, public conferences and informal visits. Where committees wish to hear from groups unused to takin g part in the political process they should be more ready to use alternative methods. These might include focus groups, opinion polling, or meetings in specific localities. Much greater and more effective use could also be made of online forums .
14. The greater assertiveness of select committees in the current parliament-partly reflecting the election of their chairs and members - has challenged previous understandings and relationships between Westminster and Whitehall. Civil servants are being put under more pressure by MPs. The leadership of the Civil Service needs to come to terms with this shift , but MPs also need to recognise the inherent conflicts in civil servants’ lines of accountability when they appear in front of select committees. They are not speaking for themselves but on behalf of their ministers. The Liaison Committee should seek a new understanding, even a concordat, with the Government on the position of civil servants appearing in front of committees, to replace the Osmotherly rules. This should recognise more fully the distinction between policy advice and the provision of factual information.
15. The quality of inquiry reports is variable and it is sometimes hard to work out whether a paragraph in a committee's report is a recommendation or not. E v en when something clearly is a recommendation, it is not always clear who is responsible for delivering what the committee wants, or indeed whether it would be possible to discern if it has been done. Drafting could be tightened up.
16. The committees’ annual reports should become more effective reporting tools. Committees scarcely ever evaluate what has worked best in terms of inquiries, reports, methods of workin g, and the return on resources.
17. Improving follow-up is a key area where committees could improve performance. They are often most successful in areas where they are most persistent. However, t here is a strong tendency to move on quickly to new subjects, without always making the most of p revious inquiries; a more rigorous approach is needed. Some committees do systematically log and track implementation of past commitments but the practice is patchy and unsystematic . Reliance on folk memory is of limited value given the frequent turnover of both members and officials. Here c ommittees might usefully look at the example of how Legacy Reports are used by committees in the Scottish Parliament at the end of each term.
18. More effective use could be made of a broader range of opportunities to raise issues . Debates on committee reports in the Commons chamber or Westminster Hall are not the only parliamentary opportunities for drawing attention to recommendations. Question time with ministers and adjournment debates for example, can provide additional opportunities to raise issues. Legislative amendments moved by committees are relatively rare and a draft bill has only ever been produced once ( by the Public Administration Select Committee). C ommittees should consider doing more of this. There is also the opportunity (which some committees have taken, but which is not routine) of having a minister in for a one-off evidence session some time after a report has been published, to ask for an update on what has happened to the recommendations.
19. Com mittees should be consulted by the G overnment when a job description and person specification is being drawn up since this is sometimes a point of later dispute when a nomination is criticised or rejected. But committees should not be involved in selection since that could make it harder to hold the nominee to account at a later stage.
20. As the Constitution Unit’s research (Waller & Chalmers; 2010) for the Liaison Committee has previously demonstrated, the lack of a committee veto does not re nder c ommittees toothless. N ominees take the appointment hearing process very seriously, and most said that they would have withdrawn from consideration if the committee had not approved them . Additio nally, civil servants take th e likely response of the committee into accou nt when making the appointment . Though there are clearly some concerns that ministers have brushed aside rejections.
21. It may be useful for committees to take evidence more often from individuals reaching the end of their period of appointment, when they have more of an insight, and less to lose, by giving full and frank evidence.
Training and s upport
22. There is a danger of ‘induction fatigue’ at the beginning of a parliament, but new committee members should have both general induction into the workings of select committees and more focused induction into the subjects covered by their committee remit. G overnment departments, think tanks and academics could provide assistance and ‘add value’ to the efforts of the House of Commons staff . G iven the heavy turnover in committee membership professional development support should be provided on a continuing basis, whenever vacancies occur.
23. Members should also be offered training in questioning styles. Committees are not court rooms and training in legal-style advocacy by barristers (as suggested by some after the Murdoch inquiry) would not necessarily be the most appropriate approach for many sessions. Committees might consider the different approaches to training and support offered to committee members at the National Assembly for Wales and to members of the Scottish Parliament.
24. On the staf f side, greater investment in re search and development within the House of Commons could provide the critical analysis necessary to help committees to improve their working methods .
A. Brazier & R. Fox (2011), ‘Reviewing Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operation’, Parliamentary Affairs , 64(2), pp. 354-369.
L. Maer & M. Sandford (2004), Select Committees Under Scrutiny, (London: Constitution Unit).
A. Paun & D. Atkinson (2011), Balancing Act: The Right Role for Parliament in Public Appointments (London: Institute for Government).
M. Russell & M. Benton (2011), Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees (London: Constitution Unit ).
P. Waller & M. Chalmers, ‘An Evaluation of Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings’ in House of Commons Liaison Committee (2009-2010), The Work of Committees in Session 2008-2009 , HC 426, Appendix 3.
20 February 2012