REPORTS OF COMMITTEE CHAIRMEN
Report by Sir Terence
Higgins, Chairman of the Committee
1. The Liaison Committee
does not meet in public and even within the Palace of Westminster
its work is not well known. It nonetheless has an important function
in ensuring that the select committee system works effectively
and its Chairman has an essential role at the interface between
the select committees and the House of Commons Commission, the
Government, the Leader of the House, the Shadow Leader of the
House and the Whips.
2. I naturally agree entirely
with the main report of the Liaison Committee which I hope will
provide a basis for the more effective working of the select committee
system in the next Parliament. In this note I simply add a few
personal reflections which may be helpful in the future.
Establishment of new Committees
3. If the new Government
is to be held properly to account after the next election it is
essential - as the main report makes clear - that the select committees
should be established without the kind of delay which was experienced
in the last three Parliaments.
4. Unfortunately, it has
not been possible to devise - through Standing Orders or other
means - any way of ensuring that the committees are set up within
a set time scale. In the past it has fallen to the previous Chairmen
of the Liaison Committee to press all parties not to procrastinate.
There will be no previous Liaison Committee Chairmen in the next
Parliament. It will therefore be for other surviving committee
chairmen to play this important role.
5. Previously the main cause
of delay has been - not the Government which selects Ministers
very quickly and the availability of whose back benchers to serve
on select committees is soon known - but all the opposition Parties
who tend to take time to choose their front bench teams and spokesmen.
6. As previous Procedure
Committees have said, it should not be necessary for every minor
party post to be filled before the Committee of Selection gets
on with its task. But the pressure for early action must come
from Members of the House of Commons as a whole including new
Members. It is to be hoped they will be helped by the media if
delay becomes significant.
Chairmanship of the Liaison
7. When the Liaison Committee
was first established, it consisted only of the Chairmen of other
Select Committees who then elected their Chairman. However, this
could occasionally result in the Chairman of the Liaison Committee
having a conflict of interest when representing his own Select
Committee. The Procedure Committee had also recommended that
decisions on overseas travel should be considered by Members of
the Liaison Committee whose Committees do not travel. It was
therefore decided at the beginning of the present Parliament in
1992 that an independent Member should be appointed to the Liaison
Committee who, subject to election by its other members, would
act as independent Chairman. There is general agreement that
the establishment of an independent Chairman of the Liaison Committee,
with no other select committee interests, has been helpful in
resolving any problems between committees and in providing a neutral
appraisal of competing schemes for scarce resources, particularly
those for overseas travel. The main report proposes a formal
means of providing the Liaison Committee with an independent Chairman
8. As the main report makes
clear, the funds available for overseas travel (particularly with
the increase in the number and size of committees) have been inadequate
for the committees' needs. This has presented the Liaison Committee
with difficult decisions when allocating resources. There have
been suggestions from time to time (reflected again in the report
of the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee) that funds should
be divided equally between committees, apart from some extra allocation
to the Committees on Foreign Affairs, Defence and perhaps Trade
and Industry. However, the Liaison Committee has consistently
taken the view that this would be ineffective, with some committees
using funds on visits of lower priority and others not having
the resources, in particular years, which it is essential for
them to have.
9. Comments in the press
on committees' overseas travel have failed to appreciate the strict
criteria for approving visits which the Committee has developed
in the light of experience:
(i) Except in exceptional
circumstances, visits will not include a weekend.
(ii) Members must go
for the whole of the visit paid for out of public funds or not
go at all. (A rule which has caused some anguish when Members
have competing claims at Westminster or in their constituency).
(iii) Visits may have
to be shorter than individual committees think is appropriate.
(iv) Lack of funds
available for particular visits has dictated that not all members
of a committee have been able to take part. This has sometimes
made getting agreement to a Report the more difficult since some
Members have not heard the evidence.
(v) Travel is restricted
to Club Class (but the Liaison Committee has rejected the suggestion
that committees travelling long distances should travel economy
so that all members can go on a visit, because they are not likely
to be able to work effectively on arrival and on return).
10. Because of these restraints,
I have no doubt that the expenditure on overseas travel represents
good value for money but the increase in resources proposed in
the main report would also produce a worthwhile marginal return.
Chairmanships of Departmental
11. An important strength
of the reformed committee system has undoubtedly been the fact
that it is operated on a genuine all-Party basis. While in general
it is important that the Whips should not interfere in select
committee affairs, they necessarily do so if some of the committees
are to be chaired by Opposition Members. Otherwise committees
which all have a Government majority would naturally tend to elect
Government chairmen. It is very important that while the Whips
have to be involved in deciding which party should have the chairmanship
of a particular committee, (Treasury, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs
and Defence have traditionally had Government side Chairmen),
choice of the individual chairman of that committee should remain
with the committee members.
Selection of Committee members
12. The way in which Members
are appointed to departmental select committees is somewhat obscure
and there appear to be significant differences between the Parties.
Originally, the Committee of Selection appeared to carry out
its duties taking into account representations from the Whips
of each Party and individual Members who wished to serve. But
the nominations were relatively free of influence from the Whips
and on some occasions nominations were made which did not reflect
the Whips' wishes. (The situation is of course quite different
in the selection of members of Standing Committees which largely
work on Party lines).
13. At the beginning of
this Parliament there was considerable controversy surrounding
the exclusion from membership of one of the departmental committees
of its former Chairman. The Chairman of the Committee of Selection
argued that the Member had not been nominated because the Conservative
members of the Committee of Selection had introduced a rule that
excluded a Member from serving for more than three Parliaments
on the same Committee. It seemed to me, and it is still my view,
that such an arbitrary rule would exclude more experienced Members
from remaining as chairmen even when the members of departmental
committees would wish them to do so. It is anyway wrong that
there should be any rule concerning membership of a select committee
which affects Members of one Party and not the others. The rules
of the Committee of Selection should obviously apply to all.
14. As I understand it,
the system of selection in the Labour Party is that selection
is also done by the party managers, subject to ratification by
the PLP. The decision is then transmitted to the Committee of
Selection by the Labour representatives on it. The selection
is then endorsed. We have obviously moved some way from the original
situation where the Committee of Selection acted independently,
only taking into account representations made to it and
then selecting Members on merit. There would seem to be a clear
case for a more uniform, open and impartial procedure in the new
Availability of Members
15. The effective working
of the select committee system depends upon sufficient enthusiastic
Members being available to serve on them. The amount of time
which service on select committees may require is considerable.
It is generally agreed that Whips should not serve on departmentally
related select committees although it may be appropriate for them
to do so on certain "domestic" select committees.
16. A particular problem
has arisen because of the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries
(PPSs). Although PPSs are not Ministers, they are from time to
time subject to more pressure to toe the party line than other
backbenchers so it is arguable that it is inappropriate for PPSs
to serve on departmental select committees. The number of PPSs
naturally reduces the availability of Members to serve on select
committees. It follows that the number of PPSs needs to be reduced
to increase the number of Members available to serve.
Parliamentary Career Structures
17. Another of the strengths
of the select committee system has been the balance between new
Members who (particularly when their party is in Government and
they are not encouraged to speak on the Floor of the House because
it would delay the progress of business) are able to make their
mark in a select committee. These need to be balanced by experienced
Members, particularly ex-Ministers. It is very important that
these senior Members should be prepared to serve on select committees.
Their experience is particularly important because they know
how Government Departments work from the inside.
18. The latest report of
the Top Salaries Review Body
recommends that further consideration should be given to extra
payments for select committee chairmen and I believe that this
is something which should be done early in the new Parliament.
19. Members of select committees
have a difficult choice when offered promotion. A number of members
of the present Cabinet have followed a path from active committee
member to PPS and on to ministerial rank. But if the promotion
offer is not PPS to a senior member of the Government it is a
difficult choice. Indeed it is arguable that good select committee
chairmen may have more influence on the development of policy
than someone of Parliamentary Secretary rank.
20. A strength of the reformed
system of select committees introduced in 1979 has been the direct
relationship between the structure of Government Departments and
the committee structure. With the sole exception of the Committee
on Science and Technology this has been maintained and suggestions
that committees should remain in being indefinitely after the
Departments have changed have been resisted. This is clearly
right. I believe it is very important that the departmental committees
should mirror Departments and be adjusted when the Departmental
Accountability and television
21. The extent to which
Governments are held to account on the Floor of the House is limited.
If a debate is controversial, there is a natural tendency for
the two sides, facing each other across the Floor, to divide on
Party lines. And Question Time on the Floor of the House is seldom
effective in pinning Ministers down, because the Speaker will
normally take supplementaries from each side in turn and the subject
changes after a few supplementaries.
22. Procedures in select
committees where Members sit on an all-Party basis in a semi-circle,
with Ministers, officials and other witnesses subject to questioning
for two hours or more, is a very much more effective way of ensuring
accountability. However television coverage of select committee
work is presently limited and needs to be extended.
23. At present the proportion
of the population who have continuous coverage of the House of
Commons through cable is small but, with the extension of cable
and the advent of more digital channels, this will clearly increase
during the next Parliament. When Select Committees were first
established it was argued they would draw attention away from
the Floor of the House. In fact this has only happened to a small
extent although limits on Members' time have had a major impact
on attendance at Party Committees.
24. What has recently had
a major impact on attendance in the Chamber has been the provision
of television sets in Members' rooms, giving continuous coverage
of proceedings on the Floor of the House. Members have therefore
tended to remain in their rooms, from time to time watching television
coverage of the Floor of the House while working on constituency
matters. The combination of all these factors will inevitably
give the public (switching from one channel to another) the impression
that Members are rarely in the House. It is therefore very important
that committees should get greater coverage on television to give
a more balanced impression.
25. It would be particularly
helpful in future to have television channels on a split screen
available so that viewers can choose between the Floor of the
House and committees with perhaps transmission of committee proceedings
being taken in sequence if a number are sitting at the same time.
I must add that the specialised radio and television programmes
covering select committee work are important and of value in giving
the public a better understanding of work in Parliament.
3330-I, para 41, Development Recommendation No. 1. Back