Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr Andrew F Bennett, Chairman of the Committee

  1. This Report summarises the work of the Select Committee on the Environment in the 1992-97 Parliament and then comments on a number of matters on which the Liaison Committee has invited views.

Summary of the work of the Committee

  2. The Committee had by the end of 1996 made 20 substantive Reports to the House. The Government has responded to 18 of these Reports; replies are awaited to the two most recent. Disregarding one untypical case (considered in para 22 below) the average time elapsing between publication of a Committee Report and receipt of a Government Response was 3 months, performance being better in the early Sessions than in the later. In almost every case, agreement was reached with the Department on late publication of responses.

  3. In contrast to the Committees nominated in the previous two Parliaments, the Committee in the 1992-97 Parliament has conducted inquiries into the full range of the Department of the Environment's responsibilities. Whereas the previous Committees focused on environmental protection issues, the 1992 Committee also considered housing, planning and local government matters. The Committee continued its predecessors' practice of conducting annual inquiries into the Department of the Environment's Main Estimates and Annual Report and also instituted a series of annual appearances by the Secretary of State to answer questions on the Department's environment White Paper.

  4. Turnover among membership of the Committee was high in the early Sessions of the Parliament, but tailed off towards the end. Attendance followed a similar pattern. The Committee had two changes of Chairman during the Parliament: Mr Robert Jones (Conservative) left the Committee on his acceptance of a Ministerial appointment in July 1994; he was succeeded by Mr Barry Field (Conservative), who left later that year to become Chairman of the Deregulation Committee; following negotiations between the usual channels, Mr Andrew F Bennett then became the Committee's first Labour Chairman since the 1979-83 Parliament.

  5. The Committee had the same Clerk and the same Committee Assistant throughout the Parliament. Its staff was increased by one in 1993 when an Assistant Clerk was appointed, since when two further Assistant Clerks have served the Committee. Over the period, two Specialist Assistants and four Secretaries have also been part of the Committee staff (one of each at any one time).

Comments on the various recommendations of the Trade and Industry and Public Service Committees

Scrutiny of Agencies and other non-departmental bodies

  6. The Environment Committee has taken steps to monitor the work of a range of agencies which are responsible to the Department of the Environment. Witnesses representing such agencies have frequently appeared before the Committee in the course of its regular inquiries. The Committee has also conducted inquiries into the work of individual agencies, chief among which was the 1993 inquiry into the Housing Corporation. This Report led to significant changes in the management of the Corporation and to its relationship with the Department of the Environment.

  7. The Public Service Committee's recommendation calling on the Government to invite select committees to comment on framework documents and corporate plans before publication echoes the Environment Committee's recommendation that the Housing Corporation's corporate plan should be published, or at least sent to the Committee. That recommendation was rejected, but a less detailed forward plan has been published.

  8. The experience of the Environment Committee suggests that the Public Service Committee's proposal fails to recognise that select committees monitoring several agencies would have neither the time nor the resources to comment on all framework documents and corporate plans. However, a power to send for and obtain such papers would be useful.

  9. The Environment Committee has not experienced any difficulty in securing the attendance of a chief executive or other agency staff.

Resources - constraints caused by lack of staff and Members' time, and use made by committees of specialist advisers

  10. In recent Sessions, the Environment Committee has met more frequently than most departmentally-related committees and has heard more evidence than any of them. The main problem experienced directly by members has been the demands made on their time and it has proved difficult to achieve a consistently good attendance rate when the Committee has met more than once a week.

  11. At times the Committee's staff has also been overburdened, although the situation has always remained manageable. Assuming that it is reappointed in the next Parliament with substantially the same terms of reference, the Environment Committee would benefit from the addition of a second specialist assistant qualified or experienced in respect of one or more of the following: housing; local government; and planning. There will be a continuing need for a specialist assistant with qualifications or experience in environmental science.

  12. The Environment Committee has made extensive use of specialist advisers. While the Committee has experienced no difficulty in obtaining advice of sufficient quality, there are signs that the low rates of remuneration are restricting the field from which candidates may be chosen.

Relations with the PAC and NAO

  13. The Environment Committee has not had cause to have formal relations with the Public Accounts Committee in the 1992-97 Parliament. The Clerk of the Committee has held regular meetings with the relevant Associate Director in the National Audit Office.

The concept of Parliamentary commissions

  14. The Environment Committee has not considered the case for Parliamentary commissions and can offer no comments based on experience.

Difficulties in obtaining evidence from Government Departments and summoning of named officials

  15. The Environment Committee has experienced few difficulties in obtaining papers from government departments. In the course of the 1993 Inquiry into the Housing Corporation, the Committee's request for a copy of the Corporation's corporate plan was initially refused, but granted after discussion between the Clerk and officials. A single copy was received, which members were able to consult in the Clerk's office.

  16. While the Committee has been able to obtain all departmental papers it has requested, it is in no position to know the extent to which papers the existence of which it is unaware might have been withheld. On occasion, the Committee has become aware of papers which have then been supplied on request, leaving open the question of why they were not volunteered in the first place as being relevant to the Committee's inquiry.

  17. Generally, it has been the Environment Committee's practice to allow agencies and departments to determine for themselves which officials should appear before it. On those few occasions where attendance of a named official has been requested, the request has been complied with.

Ordering the attendance of Members

  18. This matter has not arisen.

The "Crown Jewels" procedure

  19. The Environment Committee has not sought access to intelligence material.

Any other issues or difficulties which have arisen

  20. Constraints on opportunities to travel outside the United Kingdom have affected the Committee's ability to pursue its inquiries in the way it would wish. The present system of allocating funds in the Liaison Committee for a financial year has caused a rush of applications before the summer recess each year, at a time when the Committee may not have fully defined its working programme for the Autumn. The natural tendency of those dividing a cake to wish to claim an equal slice has acted against the best allocation of funds and may have meant they have been spent to less than the best effect.

  21. A better system for allocating funds should be devised. This has been discussed before and has proven to be problematic. However, the final months of a Parliament might be the best time for the Liaison Committee to reconsider this question and to propose a new procedure which could be adopted in the next Parliament.

  22. The other major difficulty experienced by the Committee was the late production of a Government response to one of its Reports. The Second Report of Session 1994-95 was published on 13 June 1995 and the Government's response was published on 6 June 1996. The delay in production of the response was the subject of much discussion at official level and, eventually, of correspondence at Ministerial level. The delay was primarily the responsibility of the agency which the Department regarded as being "in the lead" in preparation of the response. However, it is not acceptable for Departments to hide behind agencies in this way; it is Ministers who are responsible to the House and it is they who should cause responses to Reports to be produced, preferably within the two-month period which applies by convention, or if necessary by agreement at a later date. A delay of almost one year is quite unacceptable.

  23. A more general difficulty in relation to Government responses concerns the format in which they are made. The Environment Committee has preferred that all responses, except those to its annual Reports on the Main Estimates, should be made in the form of a Command Paper; this gives them a status which in the Committee's view is appropriate and also avoids the confusion which it is felt might arise when a Government paper is published as a Special Report. However, the Command Paper route does incur a time penalty. All Command Papers have to be cleared at Cabinet Committee level and the Department of the Environment's service level agreement with its publisher provides for a three-week period to elapse between delivery of copy and publication. While the Department's performance in the face of these constraints has-with the sole exception referred to above-been very creditable, it should be possible to reduce the time taken to print Command Papers.

Suggestions for the future

Pre-legislation inquiries

  24. The Environment Committee heard oral evidence on the draft Environment Agencies Bill, which later received Royal Assent as the Environment Act 1995. The exercise was useful, though how useful it is difficult to tell. The Committee would certainly have welcomed the opportunity to conduct further such sessions on other draft bills, subject to other demands on its time.

Scrutiny of Statutory Instruments

  25. Following the Liaison Committee's recommendations on scrutiny of SIs, the Clerk of the Environment Committee, with the co-operation of the Department of the Environment, conducted an exercise in order to determine the degree to which any assumption of a scrutiny function by the Committee would add to the workload of Members, staff and the Department. The main conclusions of this exercise were that the Department would incur substantial extra work; the Committee's staff would incur significant extra work; there would also be a burden on the Chairman, and to a lesser extent on other members of the Committee. This caused the Chairman and Clerk to conclude that other areas of the Committee's work would suffer were this extra function to be taken on.

Scrutiny of European Legislation

  26. Similar considerations would apply here as in the previous section. However, the Environment Committee has on several occasions taken evidence from Commission officials and towards the end of the Parliament sought to establish a pattern of annual visits to Brussels for wide-ranging discussions on environmental matters. Agendas for forthcoming meetings of the Council of Ministers and reports on the outcome of such meetings are circulated to Members.

  27. Relations with the European Parliament's Committee on Environment and Consumer Protection, which at the end of the 1987-92 Parliament were poor, have improved.

Senior public appointments

  28. The Committee has not discussed whether it should take on a scrutiny role in relation to certain public appointments. Assumption of such a role would, once again, take time from the Committee's other activities.

Other matters

  29. The Committee is still in the early stages of exploiting the opportunities offered by information technology. The Chairman and staff communicate using the PDVN's electronic mail service but not all Members are yet connected to the PDVN.

  30. The Committee intends when considering its next draft Report to conduct an experiment in the use of a computer projector to throw the text of the Report and amendments on to a screen so that Members can see the effect on the text of various amendments and of changes to them as they are discussed. If this experiment proves that the technique is worthwhile, the Committee is likely to press for permanent facilities in one or more committee rooms.

previous page contents next page
House of Commons homepage Parliament homepage House of Lords homepage search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1997
Prepared 13 March 1997