Select Committee on Liaison First Report
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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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