Select Committee on Liaison First Report




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 Committee

  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 in future.

Overseas travel

  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 Committees

  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 Parliament.

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[25] 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.

Departmental structure

  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 structure changes.

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.

25  Cm 3330-I, para 41, Development Recommendation No. 1. Back

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Prepared 13 March 1997