Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr William McKelvey, Chairman of the Committee

  1. The Scottish Affairs Committee was re-established in 1992 after a gap of five years during which it had not proved possible to set up the Committee. The end of the 1983-87 Parliament had seen a breakdown of the consensus based approach to Committee work and it was with these memories still in mind that the new Committee began its work in 1992.

  2. The Committee chose a relatively uncontentious and therefore safe subject for its first inquiry (Transport Links with Europe). The Report was unanimous, well received and laid the basis for tackling more difficult subjects. The next subject, Drug Misuse in Scotland, was highly contentious though not in party political terms. This was a lengthy and high-profile inquiry and though the Minutes of Proceedings of the Report show all the scars, the divergence of views were buried when it came to agreeing the report unanimously. The inquiry, to my mind, constituted a watershed in demonstrating a maturity of approach and an ability to tackle difficult subjects. Our recommendations had a major impact in shaping the Scottish Office Ministerial Task Force's own conclusions on drugs policy in Scotland. The Committee has since developed a pattern of carrying out two major inquiries per session, interspersed with short inquiries into topical concerns which require a speedy response. We have taken evidence on the departmental annual report on a regular basis from the Secretary of State and The Scottish Office's Principal Finance Officer. But for political reasons, it has not been regarded as appropriate to produce reports on the Government's expenditure programmes.

Relations with the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office.

  3. Evidence given to the Procedure Committee has suggested that the assessment of departmental performance could be improved if based on reports from an independent audit body. In its 1990 Report, the Procedure Committee suggested that Select Committees might take forward NAO reports. The Committee produced a Report on the Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise in March 1995. We were aware that the National Audit Office was about to begin its own study of Scottish Enterprise's Financial Management and its report was published in August 1996. This strikes me as the type of report which the Scottish Affairs Committee could usefully take up. The other example of overlap with the Public Accounts Committee concerns Health Care International (HCI), a private hospital project which failed, having received a large amount of direct and indirect financial assistance. The Committee took evidence from the Secretary of State on the project but felt unable to agree a report and simply published the evidence taken. I believe that, had the Scottish Affairs Committee been able to ask for a memorandum from the C&AG and use it as the basis for questioning, some of the political heat might have been taken out of the subject. Under these circumstances the Government's policy objectives would have taken a back seat in favour of an examination of the Scottish Office's efficiency and effectiveness. I should therefore like to see the relationship between the PAC and NAO become less exclusive and select committees able to request memoranda from the C&AG. The C&AG would not himself be asked to question the policy objectives of the Department nor would he brief committee members on any matter outside his specific remit.

Committee Staff

  4. The Committee has been served by its Clerk, Committee Assistant and Secretary. During the 1995-96 Session, we had the additional help of an Assistant Clerk. Although this was largely a training post, the extra pair of hands gave us some flexibility which we used to take on smaller inquiries. The question of staff resources is closely tied up with the role which the Committee is expected to play. If we are to continue along traditional lines, with Committees deciding their own agendas I believe that the present situation is broadly satisfactory. Inevitably there are peaks and troughs to Committee work which make it difficult to plan staffing levels. In our case, there is a need for greater flexibility in staffing rather than a significant increase in staffing levels. The one area in which flexibility does exist is that of specialist advisers. Specialist advisers can vary but where a committee feels that it has struck gold I would like to see specialist advisers able to devote up to two full days per week to committee work on top of travelling to and from and attending committee meetings. Given adviser's other commitments this is rarely possible. On our Drugs inquiry, for example, we had three excellent advisers but as clinicians their time was limited and they were difficult to contact during the working day. The current maximum daily rate of pay for specialist advisers is £137. This may be appropriate (even generous) for academics or retired people who have other sources of income. It is, however, unlikely to be sufficient to attract freelance consultants. I do not wish to see select committees become yet another honeypot for consultants, but we have to be realistic about what type of advice we can purchase. Perhaps there could be a flexibility in the system to allow for higher daily rates in exceptional cases where advisers are self-employed freelance consultants.

  5. The broad responsibilities of the Scottish Office cause difficulties for the Committee Members and staff. Unlike the non-territorial Committees we are unable to acquire a high level of specialist knowledge of all our Department's responsibilities. The Scottish Affairs Committee is not therefore a suitable candidate for a full-time specialist assistant. Depending on the subject under investigation, expert advice on inquiries is therefore of particular importance to the Committee.

  6. The Committee Office already has an arrangement with the NAO, whereby staff are seconded as specialist assistants to select committees. There is flexibility in the arrangement and, in the case of the HCI inquiry, mentioned above, it would have been possible to second an NAO auditor to the Committee for the duration of the inquiry. I am not sure that this would have been a valuable addition, as the person concerned would have had no access to departmental accounts and documents. In the event we were well served by the two specialist advisers we appointed.

Scrutiny of Agencies and other non-departmental bodies

  7. The Committee has taken evidence from one Next Steps Agency and from a wide number of NDPBs during the course of inquiries. The Committee conducted a lengthy inquiry into the operation of two major NDPBs: Scottish Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. We have not however held specific scrutiny sessions with Agencies and NDPBs. There is merit in doing so; in the case of agencies, for example, I believe that the Committee should have early sight of agency Framework Documents when they are reviewed or published. I hope that the Committee will be able to hold scrutiny sessions with agencies and NDPBs in the next Parliament. However, I have to be realistic about the prospects for this. There are enough difficulties in ensuring that the five Departments within the Scottish Office come under the eye of the Committee. We have unfortunately been unable to even touch on the subject of education during the course of the current Parliament.

Pre-legislative inquiries

  8. The Committee has had ample opportunity to undertake pre-legislative inquiries on the White Papers on the water industry and local government reorganisation. I doubt whether it would have been possible to achieve agreed reports on these subjects and the Committee wisely felt they were best avoided. Of course, it is conceivable that White or Green Papers may provide suitable subjects for inquiry and I am in favour of committees having an input into the process out of which legislation emerges. But I would not wish to see a presumption in favour of the notion that select committees are committees of pre-legislative scrutiny. If the House wants pre-legislative scrutiny then it should build on the example of the Special Standing Committees. Select committees should retain their ability to set their own agendas and avoid being bounced into inquiries to suit the Government's legislative programme. If select committees are to have a formal pre-legislative role, I fear that the Whips will take a greater interest in the outcome of their inquiries and cross-party consensus will break down. There is one further point to be made. Many opposition Members may feel that their role (whether in or out of committees) is not to help improve the Government's legislation but rather to subject the executive to scrutiny and hold it accountable.

Statutory Instruments and European Documents

  9. The Liaison Committee has already discussed the question of using the departmental committees to sift negative instruments, identifying those of political importance which might justify debate. This suggestion was, in my view, rightly rejected. The Scottish Affairs Committee would have been deluged with Statutory Instruments to such an extent that, without extra staff, work on inquiries would have ground to a halt. The situation concerning European Union legislation is very different. Draft legislation does not specifically concern Scotland, though certain subjects, such as fisheries and Less Favoured Areas may have a disproportionate impact on Scotland. It would therefore be difficult to impose a duty on the Committee to scrutinize such measures as it is a matter of judgement as to which measures concern Scotland. But these are matters which the Committee can take up if it wishes.

Difficulty in obtaining evidence from Government Departments and summoning named officials

  10. Due to the lack of a Scottish Affairs Committee between 1987-92, I believe the Scottish Office had become unfamiliar with the demands which a departmental select committee placed on its Department. The Scottish Office has over the years become less reticent in providing documentation. However, their willingness has depended on the inquiry and a generosity of spirit has not extended to requests for internal working documents on sensitive issues. In one case a request for a Regional Selective Assistance appraisal for a project many years earlier was rejected on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. Consultants' reports represent a grey area. Their use has increased and "advice to Ministers" now comes from a variety of sources both public and private. Consultants' reports are the property of the client (in this case the Government Department) and as such their production cannot be required by committees. We have on one occasion had difficulty in obtaining a consultant's report which was central to our inquiry. The report was initially withheld on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, though we were unable to elicit an objection from any of the commercial organisations which might have been affected. Eventually, the Department gave way and made the report available under restricted conditions. I suspect that this was a case of departmental unfamiliarity with the various ways in which confidential material could be made available to committees.

  11. In December 1993 the Committee conducted an inquiry into the dismissal of Greater Glasgow Health Board's Chief Executive and his ensuing appointment as Special Projects Manager with the NHS Management Executive. It would have been impossible to carry out the inquiry without the appearance of the former Chief Executive, Mr Peterken, before the Committee and this request was readily agreed to. But in general, I can see no particular advantage for select committees in having the power to insist on the appearance of named civil servants so long as Ministers can restrict what the officials say. I agree therefore with the Trade and Industry Committee's suggestion that the House should specify the reasons it would accept for refusal by civil servants to answer questions. As for Members being ordered to attend as witnesses, I can see no justification for Members being treated differently to any other member of the public. If a Member refused to attend, the Committee would still need to have recourse to the House to enforce its order and this would give an appreciable measure of protection against a committee's abuse of its power.

Other issues

  12. The major constraint on the activities of the Committee is the time which Members can devote to its work. Time is a commodity which, for Scottish Members, can be in very short supply. The special nature of Scottish legislation means that parliamentary commitments bear more heavily on Scottish Members than on English and Welsh colleagues. The reduced number of Scottish Conservative MPs has affected the Committee in a number of ways. Most obviously it has meant that English Conservative Members have had to sit on the Committee in order to maintain the Government's majority. Whilst these Members have made a valuable contribution to the Committee's work it is unreasonable to expect them, especially as the election draws nearer, to commit time to concerns which are remote from those of their constituents. Second, the reduced number of Scottish Conservative MPs has meant that they are without exception drafted onto Scottish Standing Committees; this effectively rules out work on Tuesdays and Thursdays. These factors need to be borne in mind when discussing requests for greater staff resources. Committees are already swamped by paper and I fear that Committee Members, as opposed to Clerks, are at present unable to make full use of the expertise which they have available.

  13. It is in this context that I turn to the suggestion by the Trade and Industry Committee of Parliamentary Commissions. Paradoxically perhaps, the idea of a Commission avoids the accusation of greater resources leading to staff driven-inquiries. A Parliamentary Commission could establish factual information on complex subjects which the committee could either publish without comment or draw on in the way that the PAC uses C&AG memoranda. It would be important, however, to maintain firm control on the use of such Commissions. There would be a danger of committees setting them up, at no cost (financial or of time) to themselves in response to requests that the committee `do something' about a complex and newsworthy subject. I would also wish to see any such Commissions retained firmly under the control of the House authorities and not allowed to develop into another NAO.

  14. The Committee has, as a matter of policy, met frequently in Scotland. In addition to holding on average 25% of our formal evidence sessions in Scotland, the Committee has also placed considerable emphasis on informal meetings in connection with inquiries. These informal visits have ranged from needle exchanges in Glasgow and an abattoir in Grampian, to the nesting sites of the corncrake at the northernmost tip of Skye. Where necessary the Committee has made overseas visits in order to obtain information which would not otherwise have been available. However, the overwhelming bulk of our travelling has been in Scotland and for certain inquiries, such as Mountain Rescue Services or Northern Isles Freight, almost all evidence sessions were held as near as possible to the people concerned with the inquiry.

  15. Throughout the last Session, the Committee's pattern of frequent meetings in Scotland, usually on a Monday, has been severely disrupted by the frequency with which the Scottish Grand Committee now meets and by the location of its meetings. After a ten year gap, the Government has twice made use of Special Standing Committees for Scottish legislation. I have been asked to Chair both Special Standing Committees and the Committee staff, rather than the Public Bill Office, have provided support for the evidence taking stages. Inevitably there has been a considerable degree of overlap of membership between the Select and the Special Standing Committee, especially on the Conservative side. This overlap and my Chairmanship have allowed the Select Committee to, in effect, close down for the period during which the Special Standing Committee took evidence. These arrangements have worked well but I can foresee problems if the assumption that the relevant Select Committee Chairman should Chair the Special Standing Committee's evidence sessions is adhered to. In cases where there is no significant overlap in membership between the Select Committee and the Special Standing Committee it might not be possible to put the Select Committee's work on ice for the duration and the resulting workload on the Select Committee Chairman and staff would become intolerable.

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Prepared 13 March 1997