Select Committee on Liaison First Report





  Report by Sir Malcolm Thornton, Chairman of the Committee


  1. This report covers the work of the Education and Employment Committee and also the two Committees which it replaced on 1 March 1996 - the Education Committee and the Employment Committee.

  2. A list of all the Reports, Special Reports and minutes of evidence published by the three Committees is contained in the separate statistical summary of the Committees' work.

Matters raised in reports from the Trade and Industry Committee and the Public Service Committee

The scrutiny of Next Steps agencies and NDPBs

  3. The Public Service Committee has recommended that committees take more interest in Next Steps agencies and examine their administration and performance. The DfEE and its predecessor departments have not had responsibility for many Next Steps agencies. On the education side, the only Next Steps agency is the Teachers' Pension Agency, from which the Committee has never taken evidence. The Employment Service is one of the largest Next Steps agencies and, while the Employment Committee (and more recently the Education and Employment Committee) regularly took evidence from ES officials as part of its inquiries, it did not carry out specific inquiries into its work and administration.

  4. Of more relevance to the Committees' work is the scrutiny of non-departmental public bodies in the education field. In recent years, a great deal of the work of Government in delivering education programmes has been devolved to NDPBs: the funding councils for further and higher education, the Funding Agency for Schools (FAS), which administers funding for GM schools, the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, the Office for Standards in Education and the Teacher Training Agency. Their chairmen, chief executives and board members are appointed by the Secretary of State. As none of these bodies is a Next Steps agency, when a parliamentary question is referred to the relevant chief executive, the reply is not published in Hansard. Detailed Parliamentary accountability is therefore very much a task for the relevant select committee.

  5. The Education Committee took evidence from the heads of all these bodies, either as part of its general inquiries or at ad hoc scrutiny sessions. For instance, in its inquiry in 1994-95 in to education expenditure, the Committee took evidence from both the higher and further education funding councils and the FAS. Their written and oral submissions added greatly to the amount of information put into the public domain both about education spending and about how the educational machine operates. The Committee also regularly took evidence from HM Chief Inspector of Schools, both to update itself on developments in the work of OFSTED and to discuss in more detail his reports and other public comments on education. Given the often controversial character of the current educational debate, these sessions provided a useful opportunity to concentrate the minds of Members and others on the real issues, in a more effective way than exchanges in the floor of the House (or indeed in television studios). (The Education and Employment Committee has also recently taken evidence from the Chief Inspector.)

  6. Although I have stressed the value of these hearings, I am less convinced by the idea of placing a duty on Committees to take regular evidence from the relevant chief executives or chairmen. I am doubtful about this approach for a number of reasons. First, committees should retain the power to set their own agendas, responding to the current debate and helping to shape the agenda where appropriate. Second, given the large number of such bodies, the committee might well take up a considerable amount of its time interviewing all chief executives during each Session. (There would be a wide variation in the impact this requirement would have on different committees' workloads, depending on how many agencies fell within their remit.) While we may do so during the course of the year on a voluntary basis, we would wish to retain the right not to do so if other, more immediately important, issues and witnesses had to be examined. Finally, Members might resent going through the motions of taking evidence from bodies when there is nothing particularly new to say and in whose fields there have been no particularly significant developments. There would be a risk of "staleness" creeping in, especially if such meetings were seen to be displacing other, more valuable, evidence sessions.


  7. The Education Committee had three staff, and the Employment Committee four, during the current Parliament. The new Education and Employment Committee initially had three staff; a second Clerk was appointed to run the Sub-committee in October 1996. In addition, the Committees have used a small number of specialist advisers on an ad hoc basis. Both the Education and Employment Committees found great benefit in maintaining links with one or two long-standing advisers who were able to build up an effective relationship with Members and permanent staff over a period. Overall, Members have been content that the level of staffing has been adequate to meet the demand placed on them by the Committee's work.

Relations with the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office

  8. Neither of the Committees had any formal contacts with the PAC and NAO during the present Parliament, although the Education Committee took a great interest in the reports they produced on grant-maintained schools and further and higher education. Informal contacts at official level have ensured that the Committee has been kept abreast of work being carried out by the NAO that might be relevant to the Committee and vice versa.

  9. It might be helpful to develop these contacts further, e.g. by arranging informal briefings from the NAO for committee members on current inquiries where the NAO had expertise, or on the work of the NAO generally in the relevant field. This might be particularly helpful for committees when first set up in each Parliament.

Parliamentary Commissions

  10. The Trade and Industry Committee has suggested that the House might consider setting up "Parliamentary Commissions", on the recommendation of the relevant Select Committee, to undertake inquiries which would be too complex and time-consuming for an individual committee to undertake. The Committee suggested these bodies could include specialist experts as well as Members. I have no very strong feelings on this proposal, although I would note that there would have be a limit to the number of such bodies that could be created at any one time, given demands on staff time (assuming that the staff would be drawn from the House of Commons.) There might also be a danger that they would suffer the fate of some Royal Commissions, and become a "long grass" exercise for difficult issues.

Other issues

  11. The Trade and Industry Committee and the Public Service Committee raise a number of other issues: difficulties in obtaining evidence from Departments; summoning named officials; ordering the attendance of Members; and the so-called "crown jewels" procedure, under which committee members may examine certain classified documents in the relevant Department without taking notes. None of the three Committees had any difficulties in obtaining departmental papers or securing the attendance of named officials or Members. Neither did any of them seek to employ the "crown jewels" procedure.

Other matters

Pre-legislative inquiries

  12. There have been suggestions from time to time that select committees might undertake pre-legislation inquiries. The Education Committee, while it has not done exactly this, did take evidence on safety in outdoor activity centres at the same time as a Private Member's Bill on the same subject was before the House. While the timing was coincidental - the Committee had agreed the inquiry before the Member concerned won his place in the ballot -it was generally agreed that the additional material generated by the inquiry helped inform debate in Standing Committee on the subject, and its recommendations no doubt reinforced the Government in its decision to reverse it previous position and support the principle of the Bill. It is possible that the Committee's current inquiry into teacher training will take evidence on the issue of a General Teaching Council, currently the subject of a ballot Bill, and similarly assist Members in their debate on it in the House and Standing Committee.

  13. This approach has I think been of assistance to the House and the general public. Committees can also carry out the same procedure in respect of White Papers and draft legislation. However, I am not sure that it would be appropriate to lay a duty on all committees to examine draft legislation or White Papers, partly for the same reasons that I mentioned in paragraph 6 above - not fettering committees' decisions as to what inquiries they undertake, and also because some legislation will be so minor and technical as not to merit the full panoply of an inquiry.

Scrutiny of Government expenditure

  14. I should like to add a "plug" for the former Education Committee's work in monitoring Departmental expenditure during the present Parliament and indeed before that. The Committee took written and oral evidence from the Department almost every year between 1980 and 1995-96. For the first few years, this took the form of one or more evidence sessions with officials and sometimes Ministers, together with written evidence based on questions submitted in advance (which in turn incorporated the "core questions" supplied by the Treasury Committee). From 1985-86, the Committee also published a report based on the evidence - only in 1991-92 did they fail to take evidence or produce a report. In recent years, evidence has been taken only from Departmental officials, but on occasion this format has been varied: as I mentioned above, in 1995 evidence was also taken from the Higher and Further Education Funding Councils and from the Funding Agency for Schools, spread over two sessions.

  15. The work of the Education Committee in the present Parliament built on the solid body of work produced by its predecessors between 1979 and 1992. Information was put into the public domain which added to and clarified that published by the Department (in the departmental report and elsewhere). In addition, the Committee's recommendations over a number of years led to changes in the way the Department presented information in the report, and in the kind of data included.

  16. The Education and Employment Committee continued this valuable tradition in 1996, taking evidence from officials and producing a report which examined aspects of DfEE spending on education and employment programmes, as well as making some constructive criticisms of the way information is presented in the DfEE's annual departmental report.

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Prepared 13 March 1997