Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Sir Ivan Lawrence, Chairman of the Committee


  1. This note is in response to the Liaison Committee's decision to prepare an `end of Parliament' Report based on comments from individual Committees.

  2. The work undertaken by this Committee during the course of the Parliament is set out in the separate statistical summary. Overall, the Committee is confident that it has done some good work which has received wide support, including our Reports on Domestic Violence, Juvenile Offenders, Racial Attacks and Harrassment, Organised Crime and the Private Security Industry.

Legal issues and European Union matters

  3. We would like to make one or two comments on the scope of the Committee's work. There are two areas we have covered insufficiently: the work of the Lord Chancellor's and the Law Officers' Departments and the task of scrutinising European Union activity.

  4. The Lord Chancellor's and Law Officers' Departments have been inadequately scrutinised. The coverage of the Home Office is already wide and we have not been able to give as much attention as we would wish to such matters as court administration, legal aid and the Crown Prosecution Service. It would be fully in accordance with the principle of having a select committee to cover each Department if there were a separate committee to allow these matters to be more effectively examined; equally there is a danger that it might create a barrier to inquiries into the those criminal and legal issues which involve the responsibilities of both the Home Office and the Law Departments.

  5. As for scrutiny of European Union activity, this is already being examined by the Procedure Committee. European business within the field of this Committee has been growing substantially since the Maastricht Treaty, with the introduction of the `Third Pillar' (Justice and Home Affairs matters) into the scope of the European Union (although not within the competence of the European Community institutions). We have tried to keep regularly abreast of developments in this field, but we are well aware that we have not been able to do enough. There is a question as to whether part of the solution to this problem is to extend the terms of reference of the European Legislation Committee to include Third Pillar matters or for this Committee to give them a higher priority. We are apprehensive that, if the Westminster Parliament through this Committee is unable to give adequate consideration to European proposals, then not only will unacceptable measures be more likely to slip through the net but, in time, power will slip further away from us to Europe simply because we will be doing too little at Westminster to prevent it happening.

  6. It seems to us that it might be necessary either for responsibility for the Law Departments to be given to a separate new Committee, or for primary responsibility for scrutiny of European Third Pillar matters to rest elsewhere. We have indicated to the Procedure Committee that in practice a final view on what route to take can most satisfactorily be resolved by whatever new Committee is established after the election. We would prefer, at this stage in the Parliament, not to attempt to commit a future Committee to a view of the matter which it may not in fact support.

Constraints on Members

  7. Our central difficulty in this matter reflects a problem which also faces many other committees, namely the major constraint on our level of activity posed by competing pressures on the time of our Members. Although we have not had problems in reaching quorums or in thin attendances generally (and our attendance record compares quite well with other committees) we have nevertheless faced problems when it has proved necessary to arrange additional meetings to the regular Wednesday meeting. This has created particular difficulties when we have needed extra meetings in order to give proper consideration to draft reports.

  8. Of course, a higher level of output could be sustained if we were content to conduct inquiries and to agree reports relying more directly on the work of the staff (particularly if the staff - whether permanent or contract staff - were larger). But this is not a road many of us would wish to go down. It is important that select committee reports are seen very clearly to represent the views of Members, and are not basically the work of officials with only minor contributions from Members.

Other points

  9. This Committee has no major observations to make about other aspects of the way the committee system works, though the following points might be noted:

  (i)  We welcome the introduction of the procedure for allowing committees to apply for debates on their reports on three Wednesday mornings in the session; this is an improvement on the limitations of the previous system whereby debates could only take place as longer debates on the Estimates on less convenient occasions.

  (ii)  In the middle part of the Parliament, we found that the Government was slow in replying to our reports, but this problem had reduced for our more recent reports.

  (iii)  The Committee has had major problems on more than one occasion relating to leaks of the Committee's proceedings. We have not sought to engage the formal `leak inquiry' mechanism involving the Standards and Privileges Committee since we felt that little would be gained from such an inquiry and because such problems must be primarily a matter for a committee to sort out for itself.

  (iv)  The requirement by Whips that in general parties travelling away from Westminster (whether abroad or overnight in the UK) must be balanced in party terms can cause problems. Although the reasons for it are understood it can cause difficulties both for the committee and the hosts if late changes -or even cancellations - are necessary because one Member's decision to drop out means that a Member of the other party has to stay behind as well. A possible solution might be to accept pairing between a Member who is overseas with a committee and another Member of the committee who remains at Westminster.

  (v)  It is also unfortunate for the effectiveness of the Committee whenever the numbers travelling abroad have to be limited by the availability of funds.

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Prepared 13 March 1997