Select Committee on Liaison First Report


APPENDIX 17

NORTHERN IRELAND AFFAIRS COMMITTEE 1994-97

Report by Mr Clive Soley MP, Chairman of the Committee

Introduction

  1. There are several unusual features of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee:

  It was established later than most of the Departmental Select Committees - in March 1994;

  It has five (originally six) political parties represented on it;

  There are thirteen Members serving on it, rather than the usual eleven; and

  Its working methods are heavily influenced by the current fluid political situation in Northern Ireland.

  2. Of the Committee's thirteen Members, only four are from Northern Ireland, so local knowledge is limited (although one of the English Members served for nine months as a minister there). This is unlike the other two regional Committees, whose Members are largely drawn from or have some substantial connection with the region covered. There is no doubt that the Committee would benefit from more Northern Ireland Members, although the mix of Members from all parts of the United Kingdom is a strength.

  3. The larger than average size of the Committee does leave it at a disadvantage when applying for funds for foreign travel or when using the new limit of £5000 for travel to Brussels. The result is that a smaller than usual proportion of Members of the Committee are able to take part in this aspect of the Committee's work. There is a case for the allocation of money available for Brussels visits, at least, to be revised to take account of the size of a Committee.

  4. The political situation affected the Committee's work schedule particularly in the last session, as Northern Ireland Members of the Committee took part in the debates on the legislation establishing the Forum, stood for election to it in May and have continued to attend its meetings, along with the parallel talks process, since then. As a result, work on three enquiries which would have been completed in session 1995-96 had to be delayed. (Reports on these subjects have been or are expected to be completed in the present session).

The Work of the Committee

  5. The formal work of the Committee to date is listed in the separate statistical summary of the Committee's work.

  6. The statistical summary does not contain a full statement of the Committee's work. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, possibly in a similar way to other regional Committees, has placed considerable emphasis on informal contact during visits to the Province - in addition to the traditional formal sessions and Reports. This has been a conscious decision, as part of a process of improving regional representation in Parliament. Visits to Northern Ireland, especially in the first two sessions of the Committee's life, have been a major part of the Committee's programme. The subjects covered informally during such visits may or may not relate to formal enquiries. The most recent visit to Northern Ireland, for example, involved one formal meeting (on the enquiry into secondary education provision) and three informal meetings on the BSE crisis in Northern Ireland. During the informal meetings the Committee met most of the major figures involved in Northern Ireland's £400 million a year beef industry who were able to voice their concerns about the continuing crisis.

  7. Since its nomination, the Committee has travelled to Northern Ireland on the following occasions:

COMMITTEE VISITS TO NORTHERN IRELAND

  (up to 6 December 1996)


  DATE(S)   DESTINATION
  11.5.94   Belfast
  20-22.6.94   Belfast & Londonderry
  30.11.94   Belfast
  23-24.1.95   South Down
  1-2.2.95   Fermanagh & South Tyrone
  27.4.95   Belfast
  7-8.6.95   Belfast
  22-23.11.95   Belfast
  17-18.1.96   Belfast
  8-9.5.96   Newry & Belfast
  4-5.12.96   Belfast & Dungannon

Committee Resources

  8. The question of resources is of central importance to the development of the committee system. What type of staffing committees should have very largely depends on the job which committees are to be called on to do. At present, the Committee functions with a surprisingly small staff (Clerk, Assistant and Secretary). A number of other committees operate with more staff: a second Clerk; or a specialist assistant who copes exclusively with research; or both.

  9. The Committee needs an extra member of staff devoted solely to research. The present background work is done by the Clerk, acting in consultation with any specialist advisers that may have been appointed - usually in connection with a specific enquiry. In my view, the present role of the Clerk as combined researcher and manager of the Committee's business is not appropriate. These two roles should be split. I endorse the views expressed by the Public Service Committee in its Report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility, paragraph 142 about the need for greater committee resources to deal with the immense amount of information available to committees.

  10. A specialist assistant would represent a benefit to the Committee in a further way. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, in common with other committees, places great reliance on outside specialist advisers for technical advice and research. Advisers will usually be closely in touch with the latest developments in the subject of a particular enquiry. However, there is a danger in over reliance on them, especially when dealing with a relatively small area like Northern Ireland where most people of sufficient standing to serve the Committee will be closely involved in forming or commenting on policy. Our Committee's enquiries can, unless care is taken, seem to be too closely associated with the views of specialist advisers. A specialist assistant, by providing an alternative source of information, would assist Members of the Committee to balance the various opinions expressed to them.

  11. If the Committee were called on to carry out a wider role of the kind that has been mooted - pre legislation enquiries, closer scrutiny of agencies or examination of senior public appointments and so on - then the extra workload would justify another staff member for the Committee anyway. A specialist assistant could keep in touch with the detailed developments within a Committee's remit. Much of the information would not be relevant to a continuing enquiry but would serve to keep the Committee generally better informed.

  12. There should be an expansion in the resources available to committees. All Committees should, as a matter of course, have a specialist assistant.

Agencies

  13. The growth of agencies exercising responsibilities previously within the remit of Government Departments has affected Northern Ireland. Several new agencies were launched in April 1996. The Committee will need to examine their work closely in the next Parliament as many of the functions carried out by the new agencies directly affect the lives of those living in Northern Ireland, often in circumstances of considerable local controversy.

  14. The Public Service Committee's recommendation that Committees should have early sight of agency Framework Documents and Corporate Plans has my full and enthusiastic support. During the enquiry into the Planning System in Northern Ireland, which took place in the six months leading up to the launch of the Planning Agency, the Committee was disappointed not to have sight of the Framework Document, Corporate and Business Plan or Charter Standards Document of the new Agency in advance of publication and said so in its Report.[109] In its Reply to the Committee the Government said:

    "The timing of the publication of the Planning Service Agency documents was in line with practice adopted for other Departmental agencies and for Next Steps agencies generally. These documents represent a major step forward in transparency. For the first time, the priorities of the Planning Service have been published and at the end of each financial year people will be able to see how the Agency performed against its stated targets.[110]"

  15. Despite the vaunted greater "transparency" the Committee was not given an adequate opportunity to study and comment on these important documents at an appropriate time or influence their content.

Relations with the C&AG

  16. The separate public service structure in Northern Ireland, which has been kept in place since the imposition of Direct Rule against the day when some form of local democratic accountability can be re-introduced, includes a separate National Audit Office and Comptroller and Auditor General. At present the C&AG, who would under "normal" circumstances report to a local Assembly in Northern Ireland, reports to the House of Commons. The Public Accounts Committee has a prescriptive right to examine his reports.

  17. The general question of relations between the Public Accounts Committee, the NAO and other committees has been raised by the Public Services Committee. There is no doubt that the work of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee would benefit from a closer relationship with the C&AG for Northern Ireland. To some extent this has already started on an informal basis, as one of the C&AG's published Reports was very useful as a source for the Committee's enquiry into the Planning System in Northern Ireland.

  18. There are many Reports by the C&AG for Northern Ireland - and this may apply equally to Reports by the mainland C&AG covering subjects within the responsibility of other committees - on which the Public Accounts Committee cannot hope to take evidence because of the pressure of time but which deserve some form of parliamentary scrutiny. Some Reports from C&AG may include relatively minor matters covering the responsibility of Public Accounts Committee but have major policy implications and thus be unsuited to extensive Public Accounts Committee scrutiny. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee could usefully include such Reports in its programme.

  19. The scope for an extension of the working relationship on a formal basis or otherwise includes use of the C&AG for Northern Ireland's office for briefing on expenditure issues connected with the Committee's enquiries or direct enquiries based wholly or mainly on Reports from his office.

Media relations

  20. The public image of Parliament could be greatly enhanced if the Select Committees' work was more widely recognised. There are many enquiries and witnesses which can and should attract media attention. The Parliamentary process has not yet caught up with the media revolution and tends to be sidelined by the Party political conflict.

  21. At present a press release is produced by the clerk giving the basic information about an enquiry or visit. What is needed is a more pro-active approach where the attention of the media is drawn to the particular importance of a witness, enquiry or visit.

  22. We do not need a press officer for each Select Committee but a press office working for all Select Committees could do the briefings and chase the media which is the only way to engage their attention in a positive way. At present our approach to press releases appears to be designed for the front page of the Times 30 years ago. Unless we present the information differently only the most diligent journalist will pick it up unless it is a `hot' political issue.

  23. Surely our work deserves more attention than this. It will only receive such attention if we adjust our working practices in a way that addresses the changed working methods of the media.

  24. A Press Office working for Select Committees would raise the profile of our work and could give a real boost to the public's perception of Parliament and Parliamentarians.

Members' interests

  25. One final point which is of some concern is the confusion about the rules of the House relating to declaration of Members' interests in Committee that has been apparent over the course of the past year. Much work has gone into this subject but the current situation is that in practice the House has agreed a set of rules which are quite rightly strict in application but unfortunately too complex to be clear to many Members. Simpler guidance for Members on declaration of interests is needed.

General

  26. There are no other matters relating to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's work which should be drawn to the Liaison Committee's attention at this stage. I have informally consulted the other Members of the Committee about the contents of this paper and in general they agree with the remarks contained in it.


109   First Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 1995-96: "The Planning Service in Northern Ireland" (HC 53); see para's 56 & 69. Back

110   See Second Special Report from the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Session 1995-96 (HC 707), para.3.3. Back


 
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Prepared 13 March 1997