EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT
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.
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
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.
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.