Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Sir Jerry Wiggin, Chairman of the Committee


  1. The Agriculture Committee was nominated on 13 July 1992. Sir Jerry Wiggin (at that time Mr Wiggin), who had been the Committee's Chairman throughout the 1987-92 Parliament, was elected Chairman at the Committee's first meeting and has continued as Chairman for the whole of this Parliament. Four other Members, Mr Richard Alexander, Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones, Mr Colin Pickthall and Mrs Ann Winterton, have also served on the Committee for the entire Parliament. A further fifteen Members have served on the Committee.

  2. Up to the end of 1996 the Committee had published 18 Reports and 15 Special Reports, all of the latter containing Government Replies to Committee Reports. One Report did not require a Government Reply, one Reply was published as a Command Paper, and one Reply was expected early in 1997. On two occasions the Committee published stand-alone Minutes of Evidence, once jointly with the Health Committee. Over the same period the Committee held a total of 123 formal meetings, at 86 of which evidence was taken in public. The Committee did not take evidence in private. All meetings were held at Westminster, with the exception of five meetings at which evidence was taken in other parts of the UK and one private meeting in the Republic of Ireland. Five meetings at which evidence was taken were held jointly with another select committee, and one joint private meeting was held. Three Reports were debated on the floor of the House. Further details of the Committee's reports and evidence sessions are contained in the separate statistical summary of the Committee's work. In addition the Committee held a number of informal meetings at Westminster with parliamentary agriculture committees from foreign countries and others.

  3. In pursuance of its inquiries the Committee made, up to the end of 1996, a total of 33 visits away from Westminster, 21 within the UK and 12 abroad. Of the foreign visits, two were outside Europe and seven to one or more European countries. Three of the European visits included meetings in Brussels with representatives of the European Commission. In addition the Committee made three visits to Brussels alone.

  4. Throughout the Parliament the Committee's permanent staff has comprised a Clerk, a Specialist Assistant, a Committee Assistant and a Secretary. For most inquiries it has been the Committee's practice to appoint between one and three Specialist Advisers to assist it. These Specialist Advisers have included academics, consultants and retired civil servants.

  5. Excluding staffing and office costs, the total expenditure associated with the Committee's activities for the four financial years 1992-93 to 1995-96 inclusive was £470,197, of which the main element was printing, at £232,554. Overseas visits cost £107,895, transcription of evidence £65,382, specialist advisers' fees and expenses £42,617 and UK visits £20,692.

  6. Further details of the Committee's visits, staffing and costs are contained in the published Sessional Returns for Sessions 1992-93 to 1995-96.

Inquiries and Reports

  7. While the Committee's work in this Parliament may never quite have scaled the heights of drama seen in its predecessor's inquiries into salmonella in eggs and BSE during the 1987-92 Parliament, the Committee has maintained a consistently productive level of activity and some of its work has caught the interest of the wider public outside the farming community and agricultural interest groups. The backbone of the Committee's work has been successive inquiries into important sectors of UK agricultural or fisheries production. These inquiries have been into: the effects of conservation measures on the UK sea fishing industry (6th Report, 1992-93 - incidentally the first time that an Agriculture Committee has examined the sea fisheries part of its remit in detail); the UK poultry industry (2nd Report, 1993-94); horticulture (4th Report, 1994-95); and the UK dairy industry and the CAP dairy regime (1st Report, 1995-96). Other major inquiries have been those into: health controls on the importation of live animals (5th Report, 1993-94); the Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (5th Report, 1994-95); and the current inquiry into Environmentally Sensitive Areas and other schemes under the Agri-environment Regulation. The Committee has always retained the flexibility to conduct shorter inquiries into issues of concern to the farming community or others, some of which have followed up aspects of the Committee's previous work. Examples have been inquiries into: changes in Hill Livestock Compensatory Allowances (3rd Report, 1992-93); milk marketing (1st Report, 1993-94); identification and registration of farm livestock (1st Report, 1994-95); and trading of milk quota (3rd Report, 1994-95). The Committee also held four joint evidence sessions in March and April 1996 with the Health Committee on the possible link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease. In addition to these inquiries, the Committee has attached importance to its role in examining each of the Departmental Reports produced by MAFF and the Intervention Board, and has reported on each of these Reports between 1993 and 1996.

  8. The Committee has from time to time followed up issues of concern in inquiries by holding further inquiries - the inquiry into the UK dairy industry and the CAP dairy regime, for example, followed up two short inquiries held previously into problems within the dairy sector. However, apart from the exercise carried out in 1993 for the Liaison Committee, the Committee has not systematically examined the fate of each of its recommendations. For the reasons we set out at the time to the Liaison Committee, such an examination would be beset by problems, and of severely limited value. We have the impression that, by the large, the Government accords serious consideration to our recommendations, even if their initial response is unfavourable. It is a source of some frustration to the Committee that certain recommendations which we have made have been rejected initially, only for the measures concerned to be introduced at a later stage and under less propitious circumstances. Since our 1990 inquiry into BSE, for example, we have been calling for improved systems for tracing cattle. Our 1995 Report on identification and registration of farm livestock renewed those calls, yet the Government has taken action in line with the Committee's recommendations only because of the need to convince the European Commission of the adequacy of the UK's control measures in the context of the current BSE crisis. Similarly, the recent announcement of MAFF's review of quarantine against rabies may herald a change of policy along the lines of the Committee's recommendations, but fully two years after the publication of the relevant Committee Report.

The European dimension

  9. With both agriculture and fisheries governed by comprehensive EU common policies, the issues of administration and policy at the European level have been of great importance to the Agriculture Committee, probably more so than to any other departmentally-related select committee. Virtually all the Committee's inquiries have had to establish the framework of European legislation and policy within which the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the other Agriculture Departments and the UK's agricultural and food industries operate. For this reason regular visits to Brussels have been essential in enabling the Committee to work effectively. Likewise, visits to other EU member states have been vital to the Committee in establishing how those states are implementing common European legislation. It is a complaint made frequently to the Committee that the UK faithfully adheres to EU legislation while others interpret it more liberally. The Committee also needs to be aware of the factors which affect other member states' positions in relation to the consideration of policy in the Agriculture Council, so that the Committee's recommendations to the Government can be made in full cognizance of any political constraints which may affect the Government's ability to achieve its aims in European negotiations.

Foreign travel

  10. Given the centrality of agricultural and fisheries policy throughout the European Union to the Committee's terms of reference under Standing Order No 130, the Liaison Committee's unprecedented decision of 20 February 1996 to refuse to accept any further bids in the course of this Parliament for foreign travel by the Agriculture Committee caused a considerable sense of grievance within the Committee. I wish to place on the record that my Committee is of the view now, as it was at the time, that there was no justification for this discriminatory decision, which reflected little credit on the Liaison Committee and breached the principle that applications for foreign visits should be considered on their merits. It is most unfortunate that the Liaison Committee ascribed to the myth that the Agriculture Committee has overspent on inappropriate foreign travel, a myth which I demonstrated to be untrue at that time by analysis of all committees' travel expenditure. I continue to believe that the allocation of a separate overseas travel budget to each Committee for each financial year, perhaps subject to Liaison Committee agreement that proposed visits are relevant to particular inquiries, is the most sensible way of proceeding in these matters. The potential difficulties faced by Committees which might wish to make major visits every other year could be mitigated to some extent by having a mechanism which permitted a degree of "carry-over" of funds, subject to Commission approval.

Executive Agencies

  11. In the course of this Parliament the Committee has carried out a major inquiry into two of MAFF's Executive Agencies, the Pesticides Safety Directorate and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. At no stage has the Committee encountered difficulties in relation to the accountability of Chief Executives of Executive Agencies through Ministers to Parliament.


  12. The level of permanent staffing and other resources provided to the Committee (with the exception of the moratorium on foreign travel referred to in paragraph 10 above) has been fully sufficient to meet the Committee's requirements. Members' attendance at meetings and participation in visits has only rarely given cause for concern. The flexible resource of specialist advisers has been extremely useful to the Committee throughout the Parliament. We have not had cause to make use of the facility of commissioning research. There seems to me to be little point in a significant expansion of select committees' staffs unless Members are able to find the extra time to devote to committee activity. The `development recommendation' of the Senior Salaries Review Body that consideration should be given to remuneration of select committee Chairmen would appear to be an appropriate recognition of the heavy extra workload which Chairmen must carry. The concept put forward by the Trade and Industry Committee of `parliamentary commissions', able to look in depth at particular issues of concern, is one which merits further examination.

Expenditure matters

  13. It is a criticism often made of select committees that they devote too little time to examination of their Department's expenditure. Mainly through our inquiries into MAFF's Departmental Reports, we have sought to ensure that the Ministry's provision of financial and expenditure information maintains consistency and comparability year-on-year and maintains high standards of clarity and usefulness. By agreement MAFF provides us with explanatory memoranda each time it presents Estimates, and the Ministry consulted us on the changed format of the Departmental Report consequent upon the introduction of the simplified Estimates format. MAFF has also agreed to consult us on its introduction of resource accounting and budgeting. The sole problem which we encountered was MAFF's refusal to provide us with a full copy of their fundamental expenditure review (FER) on the grounds that it contained policy advice to Ministers. The Committee accepted this reasoning, and in the event much of the detailed information relating to the FER was made available to the Committee in the context of its examination of MAFF's 1996 Departmental Report. Most of the Committee's inquiries contain some consideration of expenditure matters in relation to

MAFF's administration and policy, and the annual examination of the Departmental Report keeps the Ministry on its toes in that any item of Government expenditure may be queried by the Committee.

Relations with NAO and the PAC

  14. We have not found the lack of a direct formal link with the NAO to be a hindrance to our work, and the informal liaison arrangements have kept problems of overlap within a tolerable level. On the one occasion on which we asked the PAC for a copy of an unpublished NAO memorandum which had not been followed up by that Committee, we received full co-operation. We have noted with interest the Public Service Committee's recommendation that the NAO should "hold regular briefings for Select Committees on administrative and Value for Money issues within Departments". This could work well if such briefings were held at the request of Committees - prior to embarking on major inquiries, for example.

Debates on Reports

  15. The addition of three Wednesday morning adjournment debates to the three Estimates Days available for debates on select committee reports has been a welcome development, but, although some days may be undersubscribed, demand does still generally exceed supply. My Committee has greatly welcomed the debates which have taken place on its reports, particularly when there has been significant participation from Members who are not on the Committee. With select committees now a fully-established part of the House's scrutiny apparatus, the time has perhaps come for links between committees and the House to be strengthened by instituting debates on substantive amendable motions relating to committee reports and their recommendations.

Other future developments

  16. Various changes in select committee practice, some voluntary and others, presumably, to be brought about by amendments to Standing Orders, have been floated by certain other select committees and others. These include: greater examination by select committees of legislation in draft form; preliminary scrutiny of statutory instruments; and hearings on individuals taking up senior public appointments. With some extra staffing resources, there is no doubt that select committees could take on some or all of this work, but it must be questionable whether members of committees would be able to cope with the extra time commitment involved, or be content to see an infringement of committees' traditional independence in determining their own programmes. In any case, I consider that select committees' links with the House would need to be strengthened before committees' powers or functions are expanded.

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Prepared 13 March 1997