FIRST REPORT (continued)
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.
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
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.
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.
SCOPE OF COMMITTEE INQUIRIES
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
SELECT COMMITTEES AND THE
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
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
SELECT COMMITTEES AND THE
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.
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.
SUMMARY OF CONCLUSIONS AND
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.
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.
We see no justification for
any Minister or former Minister to decline to appear before a
select committee undertaking an inquiry within its remit.
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
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.
We conclude as the Procedure
Committee did in its 1990 Report,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
For that reason alone a decision
on the recommendation of the Procedure Committee for a "sifting"
Statutory Instruments Committee is essential.
We recommend that in the next
Parliament committees should intensify examination of their departmental
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.
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