Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Sir Giles Shaw, Chairman of the Committee


  1. In its present form as a departmental select committee, the Science and Technology Committee is a relatively new creation since it was only established in July 1992. The previous Science and Technology Committee had been abolished when the House adopted the current system of departmental select committees in 1979. As repeated reports from the former Education and Science Committee made clear, there was subsequently a view that the new system had resulted in an unwelcome reduction in the House's ability to consider science and technology. Accordingly, when the Office of Science and Technology (OST) was formed as part of the Cabinet Office, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was given responsibility for Public Service and Science, scrutiny of the Cabinet Office was divided between the new Select Committee on Science and Technology and the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, which would examine the public service element of the Chancellor's responsibilities.

  2. In July 1995, the Office of Science and Technology was absorbed into the Department for Trade and Industry. Several commentators expressed concern that this might affect the future status of the Committee, although there appeared to be no formal reason for a change. Whatever the merits of this development, the Committee was very concerned that this might have a negative impact on the perception of Government support for science and technology in general. I sought, and was given, assurances from Ministers that the Committee would not be disbanded and that the move should not be considered as an indication that the Government had reduced its opinion of the importance of the subject. The interest of this episode is that those outside the House, especially the scientific community, as well as Members, considered the existence of a Select Committee as an important factor in ensuring that science policy was not neglected.

The Committee's work

  3. Since the formation of the OST brought a sustained period of policy development and institutional reorganisation, most of the Committee's initial output has been concerned with the structure of publicly funded science, engineering and technology (SET), as the Committee felt duty bound to keep a watching brief on these developments. The first inquiry by the Committee[133] was conducted quickly to allow its conclusions and recommendations to be taken into account in the drafting of the OST's White Paper Realising our Potential.[134] Among the developments flowing from the White Paper which have been the subject of inquiry by the Committee are the Forward Look of Government-funded Science, Engineering and Technology, which the Committee has reported on three times, the repeated reviews of government research laboratories, and the Technology Foresight Programme.

  4. A characteristic of the Committee has been that it has seldom been split on party lines; this, to a certain extent, must be seen as a reflection of the desire by Members of the Committee to set the long term needs of science over and above short term political considerations a point stressed in many of the Committee's reports. Although the Committee has criticised the Office of Science and Technology on many occasions, our intention has always been constructive and we have consistently welcomed the OST's existence and the focus for science policy that it provides.

  5. This cross party approach has been an advantage in the other aspect of the Committee's work, which has been to look at major subjects - such as technological innovation in industry, and human genetics - in some detail. The tale of the main recommendation of the Committee's Report on Human Genetics: The Science and its Potential[135] is of some interest. The Government initially rejected the Committee's recommendation to set up a Human Genetics Commission. The Committee was not satisfied by the Government's reply[136], which appeared overly relaxed about some of the problems raised by this rapidly growing area of science and accordingly undertook a further inquiry, recalling some of those who gave evidence in the original inquiry and seeking written evidence on the Government's reply. We also took oral evidence from the Secretary of State for Health and the Minister for Science, which gave both parties the opportunity to explore compromises. The Government reversed its position and accepted the need for a Human Genetics Advisory Commission, which has now been set up.[137] The episode provides a good illustration of how a united Committee can influence Government policy by pursuing a wider and long term analysis which cuts across the narrower views of individual Departments. The Government must also be congratulated on its readiness to reconsider its position.

Views on matters raised by the Trade and Industry and Public Service Committees

Scrutiny of Agencies

  6. The OST has no Next Step agencies. However the Research Councils themselves, through which almost all OST money is distributed, are non-departmental public bodies. The Research Councils were reorganised following the White Paper Realising our Potential. In the course of various inquiries we have taken evidence from each of the Research Councils both orally and in writing. In addition, now that sufficient time has passed to allow the new structure to become established, we have resolved to inquire into each of the councils in turn. We have reported on the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council[138], and are currently inquiring into the Natural Environment Research Council.


  7. The Committee meets weekly and in general focusses upon one inquiry at a time. It is served by three full time members of staff. It has also appointed at least one specialist adviser for each inquiry. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has also proved an additional resource for the Committee; it has, for example, at our behest, provided extremely useful background papers at the start of several of the Committee's inquiries. These have later been made widely available as POST notes.

  8. Committee staffing has proved, so far, to be sufficient and this must in some part reflect the successful recruitment policy of the House of Commons. However, I am concerned that the Committee has set its programme in the light of the staff resources available to it and that resources might not be sufficient to allow any expansion of the Committee's work, if Members desired to do more. It must be borne in mind that scientific issues can be complex and international in scope.


Relations with the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office

  9. The Committee has not found that its area of work and that of NAO/PAC has overlapped unduly. The Committee recently requested a note from the Comptroller and Auditor General about performance measurements for the Research Councils, which was provided without difficulty.

  10. I would agree, in general, with the Public Service Committee's recommendations about the NAO/PAC relationship with departmental select committees. There would appear no good reason to restrict the substantial resources of the NAO to only one committee of the House.

Summoning of named Officials

  11. The Science and Technology Committee has experienced no difficulties in summoning named officials; indeed, since the Committee usually requires expert witnesses, such as departmental chief scientists and heads of Research Councils, it is rare for the Committee not to specify the names of those it wishes to see.

  12. However, the Committee has encountered difficulties in obtaining certain government papers. In our recent report on Prior Options Reviews of Public Sector Research Establishments[139], we sought the reports on the establishments under review drawn up by steering committees and review teams. These were refused on the grounds that they were advice to ministers and that they contained commercially confidential material. We were sent instead, memoranda prepared by the Departments concerned. Whatever the conventions about the release of advice to Ministers, on this occasion the Steering Committee reports were prepared as a result of a highly public process. Similar documents have been made available to other Committees in the past and we were disappointed that these were not released to us. For a committee to properly scrutinise the work of a department it is vital for it to see the advice the Government itself receives. In the interests of open government this should be recognised and acted upon.

Suggestions for the future

  13. The Committee gave a positive response to the Liaison Committee's consultation about the possibility that departmental select committees have a formal role in scrutinising delegated legislation. This in part may be because there are few SIs which would need examining; I recognise that a committee with a potentially heavier burden of delegated legislation might not be of the same mind.

  14. A minor point on the new Code of Conduct emerged as a consequence of our inquiries into Human Genetics. The subject generated a great deal of debate and Members of the Committee were in demand to speak at various conferences. Some of these offered honoraria to participants. Members may well see it as part of their duty to take discussions begun in Parliament to wider audiences, and yet may also see little reason why they should not participate in these events on the same terms as other speakers. The new Code of Conduct makes clear that "the advocacy rule is to apply with equal effect to any registrable or declarable pecuniary benefit irrespective of the source of that benefit..."[140] While I support the broad thrust of the Code of Conduct, if Members take part in such an event on the same terms as others, they face a year's restriction on their freedom of action. They may also be in the position that giving a speech to a conference sponsored by, say, an engineering organisation, restricts their freedom in the House on a topic which interests them, while giving exactly the same speech to a conference arranged by a commercial conference organiser does not. I have no wish to see payment for speeches being used as a way to evade the rules on advocacy, but I hope that, in time, the House will come to apply the rules with some discrimination.

133  The Policy and Administration of the Office of Science and Technology HC(1992-93)228-I Back

134  Cm 2250 Back

135  Human Genetics: the Science and its Consequences, HC(1994-95)41-I Back

136  Cm 3061 Back

137  Cm 3306, HMSO, June 1996 Back

138  HC(1995-96)249-I Back

139  HC(1996-97)71-I Back

140  The Code of Conduct together with The Guide to the Rules Relating to the Conduct of Members, approved by the House of Commons on 24th July 1996, HC 688. Back

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Prepared 13 March 1997