Select Committee on Liaison First Report


The Liaison Committee has agreed to the following Report:



  1. It has been the normal, though not invariable, practice of our predecessors to report to the House towards the end of each Parliament on the work of select committees during that Parliament.[1] On this occasion such a report is particularly timely, not least because the work of select committees has recently been reported on by two individual committees. The Trade and Industry Committee in its Report on Export Licensing and BMARC[2] and subsequently the Public Service Committee in its Report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility[3] drew attention to a number of problems or potential problems facing select committees and made a series of recommendations. The Public Service Committee went so far as to recommend "That the Liaison Committee inquire into the operation of Select Committees."

  2. In making this Report to the House we have paid particular attention to the issues raised by the two committees. The Appendices to the Report, as in previous Parliaments, contain a report from each of the Chairmen represented on the Liaison Committee commenting on the specific points raised by the Trade and Industry and Public Service Committees as well as on other potential or actual problems, and making suggestions for future committees. A statistical summary of the work of each committee will be published as a separate volume. An Annex to this Report gives an indication of the cost of committees.

  3. Even had we wished to do so, the limited time available in the remainder of this Parliament would have made it impossible to carry out the full-scale inquiry envisaged by the Public Service Committee. We are not in any case convinced that we are the right body to undertake such a task. What we have sought to do in this Report is to draw attention to some of the major issues which now need to be considered and to show how these are perceived by those who actually work the system rather than by those who comment on it from outside. At the same time this Report is addressed to the House itself and particularly to those who will be responsible in the next Parliament for the establishment and operation of the select committee system.


  4. The Queen's Speech opening the current Parliament was delivered on 6 May 1992. But it was not until 13 July that the membership of the departmentally-related committees was agreed to by the House. The summer recess was imminent and the committees could not begin effective work until October, seven months after their predecessors had ceased work at the dissolution. A delay of this magnitude was not abnormal; indeed it was much greater in the previous two Parliaments. Quite apart from the point of principle, there are many specific reasons why such a delay should not be allowed to occur in the next Parliament. To give but one example the Foreign Affairs Committee will need to examine the outcome of the European Union Inter-Governmental Conference in June, a matter of the highest importance.[4] It is totally unacceptable that the House should acquiesce in a practice which limits the operation of the principal means of effective scrutiny of the work of the Executive.

  5. We recognise that membership of committees cannot be determined overnight and that some small delay is inevitable. Nevertheless, if the will is there, there is absolutely no reason why the process should be as dilatory as it has been hitherto. There is a clear onus on every Member of the next Parliament who is concerned with the effective functioning of the House

to put pressure on those responsible to ensure that membership of all select committees is decided as soon as possible. At the very latest, the committees should be nominated in sufficient time for them to begin work before the following recess.

Chairmanship of the Liaison Committee

  6. The Liaison Committee itself cannot be established until the individual select committees have been nominated and until they themselves have elected their Chairmen, who are then nominated for membership of the Liaison Committee. In the first three Parliaments in which the present committee system operated, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee was elected from among the individual committee Chairmen. Given that many of the discussions in the Committee are over allocation of resources or of time for debates, it is infinitely preferable that there should be a Chairman who has no specific interest of his or her own to defend in such discussions. As a result, in the current Parliament the Chairman of the previous Liaison Committee, who was no longer serving as Chairman of a select committee, was nevertheless nominated as a member of the Liaison Committee and was elected Chairman.

  7. Although it will be for our successor committee to elect its Chairman, we are convinced that the precedent of electing an independent Chairman should be followed in the next Parliament. To achieve this, we suggest that soundings be taken among newly elected select committee Chairmen to identify a candidate who would command their support so that he or she could be added to the list of those nominated to the Liaison Committee. We therefore recommend that the nominations for membership of the Liaison Committee should include a senior Member not currently a member of any other select committee who would be able to act as an independent Chairman.


Powers to summon persons, papers and records

  8. When the Departmental Select Committee system was established in 1979, it was acknowledged that committees' general powers to send for persons, papers and records did not extend to ordering the attendance of Ministers nor to the production of specific Government papers. In rejecting a recommendation of the Procedure Committee,[5] that committees should be able to take the failure to provide papers automatically to the floor of the House, the then Leader of the House committed the Government to making available to committees as much information as possible and to giving the House an early opportunity to debate a matter on the floor of the House if the Government refused to provide information and that refusal was of serious concern to the House as a whole. These undertakings have been amplified in the intervening period.

  9. The Public Service and Trade and Industry Committees in their recent Reports have made a number of specific recommendations about the powers of committees in this respect. In particular they called

-  for committees to be given the power to order the attendance of Members of the House as witnesses in the same way as other witnesses can be summoned;[6]

-  for there to be "a presumption that Ministers accept requests by committees that individual named civil servants give evidence to them";[7] and,

-  in relation to papers, for the House to agree to a 1978 recommendation by the Procedure Committee for a procedure which would "restore to select committees in certain specified circumstances the right, which formerly belonged to any backbencher, to move for an Address or an Order for a Return of Papers".[8]

  10. The reports from individual Chairmen indicate that, with a few exceptions, there have not been any real difficulties in the current Parliament. Nonetheless there remains concern that the lack of specific powers leaves committees at a disadvantage in obtaining the fullest cooperation from Government.


  11. There have been a number of instances since 1979 when Members who are former Ministers have been unwilling or reluctant to appear before select committees to assist inquiries into matters for which they had previously been responsible. The Foreign Affairs Committee failed to persuade the former Prime Minister (Baroness Thatcher) to give evidence to its inquiry into the contract for the Pergau Dam. The Hon Member for Derbyshire South (Mrs Currie) initially refused to appear before the Agriculture Committee when it was investigating salmonella in eggs (although eventually she was prevailed upon to appear).[9] While it is the practice that Cabinet Ministers currently in post accept invitations to appear before committees, it has been suggested that Prime Ministers or former Prime Ministers should not be invited to give evidence in relation to their current or former responsibilities.[10] We see no justification for any Minister or former Minister to decline to appear before a select committee undertaking an inquiry within its remit.

  12. The House has recently decided that all of its Members are bound to give evidence to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Its Standing Order[11] provides that the Committee has power to order the attendance of any Member - and indeed to require that specific documents or records in the possession of a Member relating to its inquiries be laid before the Committee. We see a case for consistency in this regard although we doubt whether use of the power will be necessary. Its availability should be sufficient encouragement. Accordingly we recommend that all select committees should be given the powers contained in paragraph 6 of the orders of reference of the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

Civil Servants

  13. Few cases have been documented of named officials being prevented from giving evidence to a select committee when invited to do so. In the present Parliament, the Foreign Affairs Committee was unable to procure evidence from the intelligence services in its inquiry into UK policy on weapons proliferation and arms control. There is also a reluctance on the part of Government concerning former civil servants giving evidence about their erstwhile responsibilities. In its inquiry into Arms to Iraq (the Supergun), the Trade and Industry Committee had difficulty in contacting former civil servants whom they would have wished to examine. The Head of the Civil Service has affirmed that when named civil servants are summoned to appear, they have a duty to attend although Ministers reserve the right to suggest that other civil servants also give evidence or to attend themselves in place of civil servants. We consider that, except where their personal conduct may be at issue and they may be subject to disciplinary proceedings,[12] all civil servants should attend upon committees when invited and that Departments should assist in identifying their former staff where requested to do so to enable them to be called. It is unacceptable that committees should be denied access to civil servants whose knowledge of and involvement in Government activity is essential to a committee inquiry. We therefore endorse the recommendation of the Public Service Committee[13] that there should be a presumption that Ministers accept requests by committees that individual named civil servants give evidence to them.

Provision of Documents

  14. It is in the area of provision of documents that most difficulties have arisen. There is a basic problem facing committees in so far as they are not always aware of the information and documents available in Departments which are germane to their inquiries. Some Committees have complained of the difficulties in discerning the existence of documents. We conclude as the Procedure Committee did in its 1990 Report[14], that it should be the duty of Departments to ensure that select committees are furnished with any important information which appears to be relevant to their inquiries without waiting to be asked for it specifically.

  15. In most but not all cases where specific problems have arisen it has been because papers were, or were alleged to be, sensitive, either politically, militarily or commercially. Frequently it has been possible to reach a reasonable compromise but this was not always the case.[15] There are established arrangements under which committees may receive classified evidence - and indeed publish that evidence subject to agreement on sidelining (that is, excising the particularly sensitive passages from the published evidence). On occasions it has been helpful for committees to see particularly sensitive material under the "crown jewels" procedure[16] although some committees have misgivings about the restrictions thereby placed on their freedom to comment upon the evidence. There is evidence that Government is using outside experts more frequently to consider specialist subjects such as "efficiency". Such advice has been claimed as "advice to Ministers" and thus denied to select committees.[17] We believe this is unacceptable.

  16. Since 1979, the Government has given a series of undertakings that time would be provided for debate in the fairly rare cases where there is disagreement about the provision of information or papers. It is clear that these undertakings are not entirely satisfactory in the rare cases where a committee needs access to a specific document but the Department concerned will not release it. There have been a significant number of cases where committees have been refused specific documents but the Government has not provided time for the subject to be debated. The onus should be shifted onto the Government to defend in the House its refusal to disclose information to a select committee. A committee should be able to table and have debated a motion for the return of a specific document. A debate for an hour or so would enable the committee and the Government to set out their points of view and the House could decide the matter on a division. This procedure would be analogous to the one hour debate provided for in Standing Orders if nominations to select committees are opposed on the floor of the House. In practice we believe the existence of such a fall-back procedure would encourage a compromise to be reached before the matter had to be taken to the floor of the House. We recommend that Standing Orders be amended to provide that if the Chairman of a departmental select committee tables a motion on behalf of the committee that a specific document be laid before the committee the motion should be debated on the floor of the House within ten sitting days and brought to a conclusion after one hour.

Power to travel

  17. Some of the most valuable work done by select committees takes place away from Westminster on informal visits and meetings both in the UK and overseas. While visits within the United Kingdom meet with little criticism and indeed generally with approval, overseas visits are often regarded by the public at large, relying on partial and misconceived reports in the less responsible sections of the media, as a cloak for "an expenses paid, no expense spared jaunt". Nothing could be further from the truth, as anyone who is actually concerned with the visit in the countries concerned would readily confirm. The power to travel, within the UK or overseas, is an essential weapon in the armoury of all committees, not just those with an obvious overseas remit such as Defence and Foreign Affairs. For example, the Home Affairs Committee benefitted from discussions overseas when carrying out inquiries into drug trafficking and international police co-operation, obtaining evidence not available in the United Kingdom. Moreover, regular liaison between the committees of Parliaments round the world has become increasingly important in holding Executives everywhere to account. In the case of the European Union this "networking" between the various committees of the legislatures of Member States has taken on a semi-formal pattern and looks set to develop much further as part of the process for involving national Parliaments in the democratic processes of the Union and holding Union institutions to account. Links between Commonwealth parliaments are also on the increase. Here, too, it is very much in the interests of the UK and its Parliament that these are developed.

  18. The total amount of money available for travel overseas is determined each year not by the Liaison Committee but by the House of Commons Commission. It has been increased from a sum of £250,000 allocated in 1980-81 to £691,000 in the current financial year but in almost every year the increase has been simply to take account of inflation. On three occasions there has been a real increase to enable committees to meet the growing need for gathering information on European Union related matters. While growth in the budget has been limited, since 1980-81 the number of committees with power to travel has increased from eighteen to twenty-five. Furthermore there has been an increase in the size of select committees and thus the number of Members eligible to travel. As a result we have found it increasingly difficult to fit the genuine need of committees to travel within the budget allocated. The upshot has been in many cases that visits have had to be curtailed and the number of Members taking part severely restricted. Difficult choices have to be made if funds are not available for all the Members of a committee to go on a particular visit (a practice which has often been necessary but which can create problems when a report has to be agreed in the light of evidence obtained by some of the Members). This is clearly unsatisfactory and can detract from the authority of the final Report.

  19. In the autumn of last year the Liaison Committee decided to approach the Commission with a request for a substantial increase in the overseas travel budget, not for ourselves, but for our successors in the new Parliament. Our request was not accepted, largely on grounds of timing. The Commission felt that any increase should more properly be considered in the next Parliament. We understand their reasoning, even though we do not agree with it. We consider that our successors should return to this issue as a matter of urgency in the new Parliament with a view to obtaining sufficient funds to enable committees to carry out their duties effectively. The next Liaison Committee will of course continue to have the task of ensuring that all overseas visits are justified and properly costed in conformity with the guidelines agreed with the Commission.

1  First Report of the Liaison Committee, HC (1982-83) 92; and First Report of the Liaison Committee, HC (1984-85) 363, First Report of the Liaison Committee (1986-87) 100. Back

2  HC(1995-96) 87-I Back

3  HC(1995-96)313-I Back

4  See Report by Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee below, p.43  Back

5  HC (1977-78) 588. Back

6  Third Report of the Trade and Industry Committee, HC (1995-96) 87, para. 166. Back

7  Second Report of the Public Service Committee, HC (1995-96) 313-1, para. 83. Back

8  HC (1995-96) 313, op cit para. 130. Back

9  Report of the Agriculture Committee, HC (1988-89) 108. Back

10  Both Lord Callaghan and Sir Edward Heath have given evidence to the Procedure Committee. Back

11  SO 121A(6) Back

12  A situation dealt with in the Report of the Public Service Committee, pp 68-69. Back

13  HC (313) - i, para. 83. Back

14  HC (1990) 19-i, para. 158. Back

15  See eg Report by the Chairman of the Defence Committee, paras. 22 and 23. Back

16  The "crown jewels" procedure was named after the arrangement made for the Foreign Affairs Committee in Session 1984-85 to consult intelligence material known as the "Crown Jewels" on the Department's premises, without taking away copies or making any notes. Back

17  See eg Report by the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, p. 73, para. 13; Report by Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, p. 77, para. 12. Back

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Prepared 13 March 1997