Select Committee on Liaison First Report

FIRST REPORT (continued)


Committee Staff

  20. A recurring theme in studies made by those outside the House of the operation of select committees is the assertion that, broadly speaking, the departmentally-related committees are fine as far as they go, but that they cannot be compared to the Public Accounts Committee in terms of effectiveness since the PAC is supported by the full might of the National Audit Office while other committees have to rely on insufficient staff. In the opinion of such observers, a substantial increase in effectiveness could only be achieved by a substantial increase in staff numbers. Such views were frequently expressed to the Public Service Committee.[18]

  21. But the reports from individual Chairmen make it clear that, with the exception of one or two specific and modest proposals, there is no demand from the departmental committees themselves for a massive increase in staff, nor would such an increase improve the output of committees either quantitively or qualitively. The real constraint on any substantial increase in activity by select committees is the inevitable limitation of the time of busy Members. We support without reservation the view that much of the value of reports is that they are essentially Member-driven, not staff-driven, and they should remain so. The PAC performs a different, though equally valuable, role from the departmentally-related select committees. We turn later to the use of the National Audit Office by other committees.

  22. There are two or three specific proposals in relation to staff resources that we would make in the light of comments by individual Chairman. The first concerns research. Committees already have the power to appoint what are currently called specialist assistants, who are employed as members of the Clerk's Department for up to four years to provide specific expertise in certain fields. Not all committees make use of such staff and the current complement has not been filled. Some committees are more obviously suited than others for the provision of particular expertise and clearly it would be wrong to require every committee to employ staff of this sort. At the same time there may be a case for re-examining the role of such staff, whose current title does not satisfactorily describe their varied roles, to emphasise more strongly the research element of their work. The Clerk's Department is already undertaking such a study and there should certainly be no difficulty in increasing the complement if that is what individual committees want. We recommend that the House of Commons Commission should approve an increase in the complement of what are now called specialist assistants so that if needed in the new Parliament, such staff can be recruited without delay when specific requests are made for extra staff.

  23. Several Chairmen have stressed the need for flexibility in staffing so that there is capacity for a swift response should there be a need for a temporary ad hoc increase in staff to cope with a specific issue or inquiry. To a large extent, but not exclusively, this is linked to the employment of specialist advisers, who for most though not all Committees are already fairly extensively used. Although there is no fixed limit on the number of specialist advisers who can be employed and the amount an individual Committee may use their services, there is at present a very strict limit on the rates of pay available to them. Many specialist advisers are willing to work for modest fees and indeed some do not even claim because of their sense of public duty and recognition of the prestige which attends such appointment. But in some subject areas, the rates of fees payable inevitably restrict the field of those willing to offer their services. We believe that a greater flexibility should be given to committees in the employment of temporary staff whether full-time or part-time. The precedent set by the Standards and Privileges Committee which has been enabled to use the services of an eminent QC shows what can be done. There was a general will in the House as a whole and in the Commission that the Committee's request for immediate extra assistance for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should be met without delay, and approval was given for the normal rates of pay for specialist advisers to be exceeded if necessary. Similar flexibility should be given to all select committees subject to proper safeguards. We recommend that the Commission authorise the employment of temporary staff by select committees at rates of pay to be determined in each case subject to the approval of the Clerk of Committees and the Clerk of the House as Accounting Officer.

Links with the National Audit Office

  24. The Public Service Committee and also the Procedure Committee made a number of suggestions about closer liaison between departmentally-related select committees, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. Among these were regular formal contact between the PAC and other committees about the NAO's work programme: a new power for departmental committees to request memoranda from the NAO; and regular briefings by the NAO for other committees on administrative and value for money issues. Implicit in many of these proposals was concern for better use of resources already in place.

  25. As the reports from individual Chairmen make clear, there has been steadily increasing cooperation and liaison with the National Audit Office in an informal way. All departmentally-related committee Clerks maintain a link with the appropriate staff in the NAO. Some committees have a member of the NAO staff seconded to them as a specialist

assistant and there is no reason why this practice should not be extended if so desired. Informal briefings have been given to some committees when requested. Where there are potential problems of overlap with the PAC, it has been the practice that the Chairman of the Liaison Committee should seek to resolve the matter in conjunction with the two Chairmen concerned; this procedure has rarely had to be resorted to and has not failed.

  26. We believe that the closer co-operation which has been evident in this Parliament can and should be extended further in the next Parliament. We do not, however, at this stage favour any attempt to formalise the relationship, not least because this could lead to very real problems in relation to the statutory duties of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office, and their relationship with Departments on the one hand and with the Public Accounts Committee on the other. There is some fear that if Departments knew that everything disclosed to the NAO might be passed to other committees, which, unlike the PAC, looked into policy matters, they might be less forthcoming. The access of NAO to all papers in Departments must not be put in jeopardy. As in so many instances, it is the informal practice which is developing rather than formal powers that enables the system to work. Our successors should undoubtedly pursue this approach with even greater vigour.

Parliamentary Commissions

  27. The Trade and Industry Committee recommended the establishment of what they described as Parliamentary Commissions; that is to say inquiries set up not at the instigation of the Government but at the instigation of Parliament, to establish factual information on complex subjects which would otherwise occupy too much of the time of individual select committees. The proposal was supported by the Public Service Committee. Again behind this proposal was concern about the level of resources available to existing committees, an inevitable contrast being drawn between the resources available to and duration of the inquiry of the Trade and Industry Committee into arms sales to Iraq and the inquiry of Sir Richard Scott.

  28. We have had insufficient time to consider this radical proposal. A whole range of issues would need to be clarified before any firm view could be taken. As we have already said, the real constraint on select committees is the pressure on the time of their individual Members. We make no firm proposals at this stage other than to suggest that this would be an appropriate topic for the Procedure Committee to consider in the next Parliament.


Scrutiny of Executive Agencies and other Non-Departmental Bodies

  29. The Public Service Committee recommended that select committees play a more active role in the work of Executive Agencies and other bodies, and that the Liaison Committee should study ways of improving parliamentary scrutiny of agencies. There is absolutely no doubt at all that the concept of Executive Agencies and their rapid growth in recent years is a matter of profound importance, not just for select committees but for the House as a whole. There are now 130 Executive Agencies, which employ approximately 74% of all home civil servants. As the Report of the Public Service Committee makes clear, giving an account to Parliament on matters delegated to the Chief Executive of an Agency should be the responsibility of the Chief Executive. That Committee recommended that the Osmotherly Rules[19] be amended to indicate that Agency Chief Executives should give evidence to select committees on matters delegated to them in the framework document. We note that Agency Chief Executives who are accounting officers appear regularly before the PAC and that to date there have been no recorded difficulties when Agency Chief Executives have been asked to appear before select committees. The new edition of the Osmotherly rules, published in response to the recommendations of the Public Service Committee, says that Ministers will `normally' wish to nominate the Chief Executive to give evidence on matters assigned to an Agency. However, we agree that the Government should make it quite clear that Agency Chief Executives will not be prevented from giving evidence to select committees when invited. We agree that to date Executive Agencies have not been sufficiently accountable and we support the recommendations of the Public Service Committee.

  30. So far as select committees are concerned, as the reports from individual Chairmen make clear, some committees have far more Agencies and similar bodies within their remit than others and there has also been an understandable variation in the extent to which each committee has been involved in scrutiny of those bodies, whether on an ad hoc or a regular basis. It is a fundamental principle that it is for each committee to determine its own work programme. The Liaison Committee has no power to direct their activities, nor do we think it appropriate to recommend that the House should do so, since this would destroy the flexibility which is one of the strengths of the present system.

  31. Nevertheless, in our view it would be appropriate, indeed essential, for the new committees to build into their forward programme examination of some if not all of the Agencies and other non-Departmental Bodies of whom they have an oversight. In the 1974-79 Parliament the then Select Committee on Nationalised Industries as a matter of practice examined, through its sub-committees, the Report and Accounts of every nationalised industry within its remit on an annual basis in a single session of evidence, as well as carrying out a number of full-length inquiries. Something along those lines should be the aim of each committee; even if there were no time or possibly need for a full oral session, written answers to specific questions should be sought.

Legislative scrutiny

  32. Successive Governments have developed to a considerable extent the practice of publishing bills in draft prior to their formal introduction. This is good in principle and provides select committees in particular with an opportunity to seek to influence thinking on the right form of the legislation at the appropriate stage. Some committees have taken advantage of this and we believe that more could be done in the next Parliament subject to the inevitable limits on the time of Members. We recommend that whenever a draft Bill or draft clauses are published the Department concerned should include the relevant select committee among those to whom documents are sent for consultation. It is undoubtedly one of the most effective ways in which the work of select committees can have a direct impact on the House as a whole, a subject to which we return later.

  33. The Procedure Committee has recommended a new procedure for examination of delegated legislation, which involves the creation of a new "sifting" Statutory Instruments Committee which will liaise as appropriate with the relevant departmental committees.[20] We supported this proposal when it was put to us, and we look forward to its implementation, while recognising that there will be significant implications for the time of Members and for numbers of staff. For that reason alone a decision on the recommendation is essential.

Scrutiny of expenditure

  34. Departmental select committees are charged under Standing Order No. 130 with examination of the expenditure, administration and policy of departments. It was the firm expectation of the Select Committee on Procedure (Supply) which recommended the establishment of the current system of Estimates Day debates that such debates would be based on detailed reports from committees of specific aspects of Government expenditure. In practice that has seldom been the case, and Estimates Days have tended more and more to become simply the vehicle by which committee reports on policy and administration matters can be debated. This is valuable in itself, but does not meet the real need for committees to scrutinise expenditure in as much detail as they do policy and administration. In that respect the work of committees could be improved.

  35. Nonetheless there are some encouraging developments. When the departmental committees were first set up the financial information before them was largely incomprehensible and it was difficult, even for the most expert, to relate the Estimates, the Public Expenditure White Paper and other departmental financial data to each other. As a result of much hard work by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee[21] these difficulties have been overcome and the departmental reports, which in 1991 replaced the Public Expenditure White Paper, now provide detailed public expenditure figures, the main objectives for future years, reports on performance and analysis of achievements against objectives and targets. They are a much more convenient and meaningful basis for examination by each departmental select committee.

  36. Most select committees have been making considerable use of their departmental reports. Some have taken evidence annually on their reports; others have used the information in their reports as a basis for specific inquiries. We emphasise that there is a need for committees carefully to scrutinise their departmental reports and particularly the financial information they contain. Reports based on such scrutiny would be especially appropriate candidates for debates on Estimates Days. We recommend that in the next Parliament committees should intensify examination of their departmental reports.


  37. In earlier Parliaments a recurring complaint by Members who served on select committees was that, while they did valuable work and their reports drew public attention to important issues, that work bore little relation to, and had no impact on, what was going on in the House itself. There have been some improvements in this respect, notably with the establishment of the three Estimates Days, which in practice are devoted specifically to debates on select committee reports. But if more time were available for debate of committee reports, the Estimates Days could be devoted to debate of reports particularly related to expenditure. In the current Parliament the situation has improved further with the allocation of three hours on three Wednesday mornings again specifically for consideration of select committee reports. In addition to the formal time allocated there are numerous occasions when individual reports are "tagged" as relevant to a particular debate. This happens regularly for example with the Treasury Committee report on the Budget on the second reading of the Finance Bill, with the Defence Committee report on the Defence Estimates for the annual two day debate and with the Reports of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the European Legislation Committee on European Union matters. Ad hoc "tagging" is also becoming more frequent.

  38. This is fine as far as it goes, but we are convinced that more should be done. The discussions we have when determining which reports should be debated on Estimates Days or Wednesday mornings are difficult, since it is clear that there are many more candidates for selection than there are slots available. Simply to ask for more Wednesday mornings would not be satisfactory since the consequences would be a lessening of the limited and valuable time available to individual backbenchers to initiate debates of their choice. Furthermore the one drawback to Wednesday morning debates, valuable as they are, is that they provide no opportunity for the House to express a view, since they arise on a motion for the adjournment. Estimates Days in theory offer the chance of a vote, but normally only on a somewhat artificial device of a token reduction of a particular Vote. There are occasions when the recommendations of a committee and the Government response ought to be put before the House for a decision.[22] The way in which the House has in recent years established a specific allocation of time each session both for the Opposition, for private Members and for discussion of Estimates should, in our view, be the model for the establishment of Committee Days. We recommend that Standing Order No. 13 (Arrangement of Public Business) be amended so as to provide that on six days each session reports of select committees should have precedence. On such days the motion to be tabled would be a substantive, amendable motion in the name of a particular select committee chairman. Provision should be made for half days, as is provided for Opposition Days, so that two reports could if necessary be debated. It would be for the Liaison Committee to determine which reports should be selected.


  39. Quite apart from their impact on the House, one of the particular strengths of the select committee system as it has developed in recent years is its growing impact on the informed public outside the world of Westminster and Whitehall. Not only are those interested entitled to put their point of view formally or informally, but the reports and evidence themselves are of immense interest to a whole range of people. It is therefore important that they should be available as widely as possible. Hitherto one of the drawbacks to reaching a wider audience has been the cost of obtaining reports. In 1995-96 the Information Committee and the Commission endorsed a plan for the majority of House publications, including Select Committee reports, to be made available, free of charge, on the Internet.[23] A trial is already underway, and some reports, notably those of the European Legislation Committee, are already on the Internet. Provided that there are no technical problems, the intention is that in the next Parliament all reports from select committees will be similarly available. We warmly welcome this development which we believe will do much to enlarge the impact on the public of reports by select committees.


  40. Scrutiny of the activities of the Executive is one of the traditional and most important roles of any democratic Parliament. In a House of over 650 Members the only effective way such scrutiny can be carried out in a substantial and comprehensive manner is through the Select Committee system. These are not our views, they are the views of many informed commentators on the workings of Parliament. A similar awareness of the value of the committee system is growing throughout the Westminster-model Parliaments of the Commonwealth, from large and established Parliaments like Canada and Australia to the newly emerging multi-party democracies in Africa.

  41. We do not think it right to seek to be the judges of our own worth; that is for others to do. The present system is far from perfect. We have made a number of practical suggestions for improvement and there is doubtless much more that can be done. Sadly, and partly as a result of denigration in the media, proceedings on the floor of the House sometimes fail to command the esteem of the electorate as they did. By contrast, for all their imperfections, Select Committees enjoy a degree of respect from the informed public at large as well as from those who have direct dealings with them. It is imperative that, whatever constitutional and other reforms are undertaken in the next Parliament, every Member of the House should seek to ensure that the Select Committees are established without delay, and further improved and made even more effective. Such development will help to restore the reputation of the House.


It is totally unacceptable that the House should acquiesce in a practice [of delaying the nomination of members of committees] which limits the operation of the principal means of effective scrutiny of the work of the Executive. (para 4)

At the very latest, the committees should be nominated in sufficient time for them to begin work before the following recess. (para 5)

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. (para 7)

We see no justification for any Minister or former Minister to decline to appear before a select committee undertaking an inquiry within its remit. (para 11)

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. (para 12)

We therefore endorse the recommendation of the Public Service Committee that there should be a presumption that Ministers accept requests by committees that individual named civil servants give evidence to them. (para. 13)

We conclude as the Procedure Committee did in its 1990 Report[24], 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. (para 14)

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 shall be debated on the floor of the House within ten sitting days and brought to a conclusion after one hour. (para. 16)

We recommend that the House of Commons Commission should approve an increase in the complement of what are now called specialist assistants so that, if needed in the new Parliament, such staff can be recruited without delay when specific requests are made for extra staff. (para 22)

We recommend that the Commission authorise the employment of temporary staff by select committees at rates of pay to be determined in each case subject to the approval of the Clerk of Committees and the Clerk of the House as Accounting Officer. (para 23)

We agree that to date Executive Agencies have not been sufficiently accountable and we support the recommendations of the Public Service Committee. (para 29)

We recommend that whenever a draft Bill or draft clauses are published the Department concerned should include the relevant select committee among those to whom documents are sent for consultation. (para 32)

For that reason alone a decision on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee for a "sifting" Statutory Instruments Committee is essential. (para 33)

We recommend that in the next Parliament committees should intensify examination of their departmental reports.(para 36)

We recommend that Standing Order No. 13 (Arrangement of Public Business) be amended so as to provide that on six days each session reports of select committees should have precedence. (para 38)

We warmly welcome the making available of select committee reports on the Internet which we believe will do much to enlarge the impact on the public of these reports. (para 39)

18  HC (1995-96) 313 - II and III. Back

19  The Osmotherly rules is the commonly used name (after its original author) of Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees - the Cabinet Office Guide to Departments and civil servants giving evidence to Committees. Back

20   The Procedure Committee is currently considering the whole question of European Union activity; including business under the second and third pillars of the Maastricht Treaty. This may have further implications for the work of select committees. Back

21   Now the Treasury Committee. Back

22  See for example the comments by the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee in relation to the Committee's report on the British Energy Policy and the Market for Coal, p 83, para. 6. Back

23   See First Report from the Information Committee, HC 328 (1995-96), paras 4 & 5 and Annex. Select Committee's press releases are now also displayed on the Internet. Back

24  HC (1990) 19-i, para 158. Back

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