Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr Giles Radice, Chairman of the Committee

Scrutiny of Agencies and other non-departmental bodies

  1. The Committee delivered its views on the scrutiny of agencies in its Report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (Second Report of Session 1995-96, HC, 1995-96, 313). The Committee argued that where a Department has established a number of agencies, it has exposed a much greater area of its activities than before to much more detailed scrutiny. A number of those giving evidence and talking to the Committee were disappointed by what they saw as the failure of committees to take up this opportunity to get more closely involved in the work of Government. The Committee supported (paras 122 and 123) calls for select committees to become more involved in the process of setting up Executive Agencies, by considering Agencies' Framework Documents.

  2. The Committee also recognised the difficulties of properly scrutinising the work of agencies and quoted the point made by the Chairman of the Environment Committee on the difficulty of monitoring in depth the full range of responsibilities of the Department of the Environment and its agencies. The Public Service Committee itself has within its remit a growing number of agencies and may well find it difficult to monitor all of them with any regularity. The Committee drew attention to the benefits that might be drawn from better staffing, which might enable Committees to make better use of the time they have at their disposal by directing their attention more quickly and effectively to areas of interest and concern.

  3. Some of the same points could no doubt be applied to non-departmental public bodies as well, although the issue of their accountability to Parliament is a somewhat different one.

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

  4. The Committee delivered its views on this in its Report. It is often argued that Members only have a limited amount of time to spend on select committee work and that this means that information produced by staff may not be used effectively - or else that committees will be driven by the work of their staff, rather than the concerns of their Members. The Committee felt, however, that there is now an enormous amount of information available about the work of Departments; it is difficult for Members, with the limited amount of time at their disposal, always themselves to pick out what is significant and what is not. A small increase in the resources available to committees could help them to do this. We accepted, however, that there will be a corresponding need for Members to find ways of making the most effective use of the information they gain.

  5. The Committee did not specify in what way extra resources should be used. There would seem to be three main options (apart from the question of the relationship with the NAO, which is considered separately below):

  -  Greater use of specialist advisers. Because specialist advisers are normally appointed for a particular inquiry, it is unlikely that they could provide the sort of sustained service in informing the committee about issues of importance, and filtering information for them. Too great a use of specialist advisers does carry the danger of a committee becoming `adviser-driven': well-established advisers with a considerable reputation may have a disproportionate influence on a committee. Committees may benefit, however, from advisers on particularly technical or complex matters. Because it is often difficult to find those with sufficient expertise on these matters at the pay rates currently offered for specialist advisers, it may be worth reviewing these.

  -  Greater use of specialist assistants. Specialist assistants do provide the sort of sustained service and broad degree of expertise in a particular set of issues that would probably be most valuable to committees. This is, however, one of the most expensive options. It might be worth considering whether it would be helpful both to committees and to the Library to exchange specialist staff between them occasionally.

  -  Greater use of commissioned research. I understand that it is currently possible to commission research, but the budget for it is too small to fund more than about one or two projects a year. An expansion of this budget would give committees the ability themselves to make an impact on the terms in which policy is discussed, rather than (as they tend to do), to pick up a discussion whose terms are set by others. There would be problems: it is difficult to design well-conceived research projects; and there would be a danger that, were the budget expanded, ill-considered research projects would too easily be approved. This might be avoided if committees were to establish closer links with research institutes which could advise on how a project might be put together. It might also be necessary to ensure that the funds for such work were cash-limited, to prevent too much research being entered into lightly or wastefully.

  6. I would hope that the Committee might think of all of these methods of increasing the research power available to committees and not see them as alternatives.

Relations with the PAC and NAO

  7. The Committee has delivered its views on this matter in its Report. The Committee examined the history of the relationship between committees and the NAO (paras 134-140) in some detail and said that the limited arrangements that would enable committees apart from the PAC to draw on the work of the NAO, set up following a Procedure Committee report in 1990, had had little effect. While the Committee noted that there would be problems in using the NAO's expertise in `economy, efficiency and effectiveness' in inquiries that are mainly concerned with policy - from consideration of which the NAO is barred - it felt that there is scope for increasing contact and cooperation between select committees and the NAO, and it recommended that this be considered by the Liaison Committee. It made a number of specific proposals: that the PAC should consult select committees at regular intervals about the NAO's programme of inquiries; that committees should be able to request memoranda from NAO concerning economy and efficiency issues within the Departments they scrutinise; and that the NAO hold regular briefings for select committees on administrative and value for money issues within Departments.

  8. I would stress, particularly, the value of the National Audit Office holding regular briefings for select committees on administrative and Value for Money issues within Departments. I would hope that the NAO might see this as an opportunity to direct the attention of committees to areas which they thought might be in need of improvement but which they did not think necessarily worthy of a full NAO report - and, indeed, to discuss with the committee broader issues of public management.

The concept of Parliamentary Commissions

  9. The Committee has delivered its views on this matter in its Report. The Committee welcomed the proposal of the Trade and Industry Committee and suggested that the Tribunals of Inquiry Act of 1921 already contained a procedure for the House to instigate inquiries, which might be adapted for the idea.

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

  10. The Committee has delivered its views on this matter in its Report. It says that there should be a presumption that Ministers accept requests by committees that individual named civil servants give evidence to them. The Government in its response has agreed that `where a select committee has indicated that it wishes to hear evidence from named civil servants, Ministers should normally accept such a request', subject to two qualifications. The first of these is that they appear before committees on behalf of their Ministers and under their directions. Therefore, it remains the right of a Minister to suggest an alternative civil servant to that named by the committee and, although the committee is under no obligation to accept the proposal, it is open to the Minister to appear personally before the committee if there is no agreement about which official should most appropriately give evidence. The second is that it is not the task of select committees to act as disciplinary tribunals: where a committee asks to hear evidence from named officials, if this is likely to expose the individuals concerned to questioning about their personal responsibility or the allocation of blame between them and others, the Minister may suggest that a senior official gives evidence on their behalf. Where a committee needs information about individual civil servants who are the subject of disciplinary proceedings, the Government undertakes to provide them in closed session and on an understanding of confidentiality. They say that evidence on such matters will be given on the basis that:

-  The Government will not give information about departmental disciplinary proceedings until the hearings are complete;

-  When hearings have been completed, the Government will inform the committee of their outcome in a form which protects the identity of the individual or individuals concerned except insofar as this is already public knowledge;

-  where more detail is needed to enable the committee to discharge its responsibilities, such detail will be given but on the basis of a clear understanding as to confidentiality;

-  the Government will thereafter give an account to the committee of the measures taken to put right what went wrong and to prevent a repeat of any failures which have arisen from weaknesses in departmental arrangements.

  11. The Committee would wish to draw these guidelines to the attention of the Liaison Committee.

Ordering the attendance of Members

  12. The Committee did not specifically consider this matter in its Report. The Committee has had no difficulties with ordering the attendance of Members, nor would it expect to do so. It may be that this is a matter that may be usefully dealt with if the concept of Parliamentary Commissions were to be proceeded with.

The "crown jewels" procedure

  13. The Committee has not sought to invoke the "crown jewels" procedure. The Committee does not deal with intelligence or military matters and therefore the "crown jewels" procedure is unlikely to be relevant to our own work.

  14. The Committee did, however, support the proposal of the Trade and Industry Committee that the procedure be employed more widely to allow select committees access to intelligence material for inquiries to which it is directly relevant.

  15. This case, too, may be a matter that could be usefully dealt with if the concept of Parliamentary Commissions were to be proceeded with.

Any other issues or difficulties

  16. There are no particular other matters which the Committee would wish to bring to the attention of the Liaison Committee, although, like other committees, it would welcome a clarification of the rules concerning declaration of interests as they apply in select committees.

Suggestions for the future

  17. The Committee would strongly support the idea of holding prelegislation inquiries. The Committee discussed in its Report the proposals of the Hansard Society Commission on the Legislative Process, which suggested that select committees might helpfully examine Green and White Papers and other published consultative documents relating to proposed legislation and make reports which would assist the preparatory work on the legislation and inform Parliamentary debate.

  18. Because few Statutory Instruments or European documents are the responsibility of the Office of Public Service, the Committee has little comment to make on how committees might deal with them. We might add, however, that we do regularly see the Commissioner for Public Appointments and discuss with him the rules governing senior appointments.

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