Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr Frank Field, Chairman of the Committee

  1. The Social Security Committee has been chiefly occupied during the 1992-97 Parliament with two issues: the operation of pension funds and the Child Support Agency. In both of these areas the Committee was continuing work undertaken by its predecessor Committees in the 1987-92 Parliament.[141]

  2. The other major themes of the Committee's work have been the control of public expenditure and the extent of fraud in the social security system. The Committee has also carried out a number of other inquiries ranging from the methodology of Low Income Statistics to the operation of Incapacity Benefit, and has undertaken a number of evidence sessions on the organisation and administration of the DSS and its public bodies, not all of which have led to Reports.

  3. Generally, the Committee has been concerned to lead forward the public debate on the future of welfare spending and has not tied itself down to a routine of examining Departmental and Agency publications which are produced according either to an annual cycle which takes little account of the parliamentary calendar or to the Government's initiatives or reforms in Social Security. The Committee has preferred rather to set the agenda and several items of legislation have reflected the Committee's influence to considerable effect:

     - Pensions Act 1995

     - Social Security Administration (Fraud) Bill

     - Child Support Act 1995

     - Social Security (Recovery of Benefits) Bill [Lords]

     - Church of England Pensions Measure 1997

Scrutiny of Agencies and other non-departmental bodies

  4. The role of Agencies in the DSS is central to the operations of the Department and most inquiries have involved oral evidence from Agency officials at some point. The Child Support Agency has been the focus of particular attention, not only by this Committee but also by other committees.[142] All of the other Agencies gave written and oral evidence on their operations for the inquiry which led to the 1994-95 Report on the Work of the DSS and its Agencies.

  5. Non-departmental bodies are by contrast less a feature of the DSS, although the Committee has devoted sessions to the Social Security Advisory Committee and the new Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority. Informal contacts have been maintained with the Social Fund Commissioner and the President of the Independent Tribunal Service.

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

  6. Although the Committee met several times during recesses for its inquiry into the operation of pension funds, generally the Committee has met once a week, during weeks when the House is sitting, and has maintained a creditable 74 per cent average attendance record. Finding the time to prepare for meetings and to absorb the quantity of written material varies from Member to Member and can be a problem for those who are heavily committed in a number of different areas. One purpose of more staff might be to reduce the quantity of paper circulated to Members by more use of digests and executive summaries, although clearly there are dangers in Members becoming cut off from the primary material.

  7. In addition to the Clerk, Committee Assistant and Personal Secretary provided by the Department of the Clerk of the House, the Committee had the benefit of an officer seconded from the NAO from January 1993 to July 1994. This individual made a major contribution to the Committee's work on the operation of pension funds and his contribution was much appreciated. The Committee has also had two excellent specialist assistants, who have each in turn supplied the Committee with thoroughly reliable and unbiased support.

  8. The Committee has had a number of specialist advisers, some of whom have concentrated on particular inquiries while others might be called upon only infrequently. Generally the Committee has looked for practitioners rather than academics and has occasionally co-opted a witness as a specialist adviser for later stages of the same inquiry.

  9. Commissioned research has been an essential part of the Committee's work on Low Income Statistics.

Relations with the PAC and NAO

  10. The Committee has had a constructive relationship with the PAC and the NAO. The Committee's inquiry into the Harland and Wolff Pension Fund was partly prompted by a PAC report. The Committee has made frequent use of the Appropriation Accounts and other Reports from the C&AG, including for example a value for money report on the Resettlement Agency produced by the NAO in 1992 but not taken up by the PAC, which we used in our survey of the work of the DSS and its Agencies in 1994-95.

  11. The Committee did not directly examine the NAO on its role as auditor of the Church Commissioners but one of its recommendations was that a private sector firm of auditors should be appointed, which has since been done within the necessary approval of the Treasury.

  12. The NAO has maintained informal links with the Committee staff, but the formal communication with the NAO has always been carried out through the Chairman of PAC. The Social Security Committee welcomes the work of the C&AG in highlighting fraud issues affecting the DSS, and has recommended that the NAO carry out a thorough review with the Audit Commission of the extent of Housing Benefit Fraud, which we understand is now under way.

The concept of Parliamentary Commissions

  13. The Social Security Committee took evidence on the consequences for pension funds of the collapse of the Maxwell companies in late 1991. These events were the subject of prolonged criminal proceedings, and so were sub judice from 1992 to late 1996. The sheer quantity of material now available arising from those proceedings and would make any select committee inquiry on the traditional model very difficult to carry out and yet there remains considerable public disquiet that not all the truth has emerged in the course of the ultimately unsuccessful criminal prosecutions. It may be that a less adversarial form of inquiry, carried out on the lines of a DTI inspectors' report, would enable Parliament to get at the truth of a matter too complicated for an open inquiry. There is considerable merit in the proposals of the Trade and Industry Committee for a special commission procedure to be available for select committees to direct expert inquiries by (for example) a chartered accountant and a barrister into the kind of business transactions which lay at the heart of the Maxwell affair.

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

  14. The Social Security Committee has not encountered any significant difficulty in obtaining evidence or summoning officials, although there persists in some quarters of Government a rather tiresome defensiveness about providing full and helpful answers to inquiries. Such paltering with the truth is usually a false economy, as excessive caution only serves to alert Members with any acumen at all that the Department has something to hide.

Ordering the attendance of Members

  15. The Committee has observed the usual courtesies in seeking evidence from Ministers or from Members of the House of Lords, including His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury. We have no problems to draw to the attention of the Liaison Committee in this area.

The "crown jewels" procedure

  16. It is hard to imagine any context in which the "crown jewels" procedure of allowing limited access to inspect intelligence material which has previously been disclosed in court proceedings could have any relevance to the scrutiny of the expenditure, policy and administration of the DSS and its associated public bodies.

Questions of Procedure for Ministers

  17. The Public Service Committee invited comments on Questions of Procedure for Ministers and I drew their attention to the provisions concerning parliamentary private secretaries, which state that PPSs should "avoid associating themselves with recommendations critical of or embarrassing to the Government". It would be a pity if the independence of a select committee were impugned by too strict a reading of Questions of Procedure for Ministers. In the experience of the Social Security Select Committee, Members who are PPSs to Ministers in other departments can and do make valuable and independent-minded contributions to the work of the Committee.

Declaration of interests

  18. Declaration of interests has not proved to be a source of difficulty as the Members of the Social Security Committee have been scrupulous about reminding their colleagues of what they have declared in the Register when related issues come up in Committee. The rule against a Member with a registrable interest initiating anything with regard to that interest is a major potential difficulty. A Member may well be on a committee due to special expertise. This expertise may also be reflected in his or her outside interests in which case he or she would be prevented from suggesting lines of inquiry or even from moving amendments to draft reports (or from procuring another Member to do so). Given the small number of Members on a select committee, this seems unreasonable. It would surely be undesirable to create a situation which encouraged a Member to get someone else on the committee to make a proposal on his or her behalf. The good sense of Members, a reasonable degree of mutual confidence between colleagues and the full declaration of relevant interests in the Register should allow any committee to operate effectively within the spirit of the rules laid down by the House.

Advance press copies of Reports

  19. The existing provisions of S.O. No. 116 are unduly restrictive and should be amended to allow embargoes of up to 72 hours to facilitate publication on a Monday and should also be extended to allow committees to provide Opposition spokesmen with embargoed copies of Reports in advance of publication.

Pre-legislative scrutiny

  20. A most important suggestion for the future is the systematic use of select committees to examine in detail draft Government bills in the Session before the Bills are brought before the House for Second Reading. The Government's response to the Public Service Committee's Report on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility suggested that "the Government's plans to expand its practice of publishing legislation in draft give departmental select committees considerable opportunity to comment on and help shape legislation at a formative stage" (HC 67 Appendix para 30). Subject always to the committee's right to determine its own agenda, this development points the way forward to a serious and influential role for select committees in opening up the public debate on proposals brought before the legislature by the executive.

  21. The scrutiny of delegated legislation continues to be of concern to parliamentarians and others. The staff of the Social Security Select Committee prepare short notes for circulation to the Committee on all DSS regulations laid before Parliament. The "explanatory notes" written by departmental lawyers on the SI itself are often impenetrable.

  22. The more important of the regulations in the social security area may be the subject of consultation by the independent statutory Social Security Advisory Committee. The SSAC publishes the draft regulations and a DSS paper explaining the proposed changes, and invites comments from interested parties. The conclusions of the SSAC are laid before the House when (and if) the final version of the regulations are laid. This consultative process is to be commended, not least for the interval that is imposed between a draft being prepared and the effective version being laid before Parliament. The Social Security Select Committee was able to use this interval to hold public hearings on the proposed changes to benefits for asylum seekers and, with some help from the Christmas recess and a slight postponement by the Department of the planned implementation date, the Committee was able to publish a Report before the House debated a "prayer" against the Regulations in January 1996.

  23. Another example of a select committee Report on a statutory instrument, this time one outside the remit of the SSAC, was on the proposals to amend the benefit penalty for non-cooperation with the CSA in the summer of 1996, which followed a Departmental review of the "good cause exemption" in accordance with the Select Committee's earlier recommendation. The Department allowed the Committee sufficient time between publishing its Good Cause Review and laying the actual Regulations to hold a brief inquiry and prepare a Report. The Regulations were subject to approval and debated as expected in a Standing Committee, which some Members of the Committee attended pursuant to S.O. No.101(2). Future consideration might be given to giving some formal recognition in a Standing Committee to a Report from a select committee, in the same way that there is a "tag" on the Order Paper when a Report is relevant to a debate in the House.

Informal Sub-committees

  24. The inquiry into benefits for asylum seekers referred to above was carried out by an informal "Sub-committee" of four Members who held evidence sessions and deliberative meetings at different times from the full Committee. The Chairman of the "Sub-committee" was Mr Robert G Hughes, who presented the draft Report to the full Committee which was adopted as the First Report of 1995-96.


  25. Select committees should be able to stimulate debate on issues of public importance in ways additional to publishing yet another Blue Book available from the Vote Office. One of the ways of doing this is to promote seminars on subjects on which committees have reported. The rather stilted procedures of the traditional question-and-answer evidence sessions still have their place, particularly when a committee is seeking to expose facts which others wish to remain hidden. Where there is a genuine public debate on an issue, however, select committees should be able to host public meetings at which all points of view may be represented, giving others a chance to participate in a public discussion on issues raised by a select committee report.

  26. One of the realities of the last quarter of the twentieth century to which British institutions have been generally slow to respond is that it is necessary to consider policies in an international, and more particularly European, context. More thought needs to be given to improving reciprocal links with other national parliaments and EU institutions, so that there can be a greater exchange of ideas and information.

  27. The Social Security Committee has taken the opportunity of visits to other European countries (Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands) to discuss issues of common concern with our parliamentary opposite numbers and we have also welcomed visiting delegations to Westminster from France, Germany and Finland as well as from Australia, Thailand, the Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Chile. The lack of facilities and funding to provide sophisticated and up-to-date simultaneous interpretation facilities is a serious reproof to the standing of the British Parliament on the verge of the twenty-first century. No doubt the new parliamentary building above the Westminster Underground station will at last provide the necessary physical equipment to provide simultaneous interpretation but this will be a waste of resources unless funds are made available to operate and use the facilities. The Liaison Committee should give serious attention to the need for proper funding for providing the kind of language facilities which are indispensable in the modern age.

  28. An illustration of the short-sightedness of the present provision may be given from the experience of the Social Security Committee, which arranged a Seminar for 18/19 February 1997 on the subject of unfunded pension liabilities in the European Union to which members of EU national parliaments were invited. The only suitable location at Westminster for this kind of event is the QEII Conference Centre, which is run on commercial lines by an executive agency of the Department of the Environment. The House of Commons Commission declined to provide the necessary funding for holding the Seminar at the QEII Centre, so the Committee was forced make alternative arrangements and to proceed without the benefit of interpreters.

141  The Social Services Committee covered the DHSS up to the division of the Department in July 1988 and continued to monitor both the Department of Health and the Department of Social Security until the Health Committee and the Social Security Committee were established from the beginning of the 1990-91 Session. Back

142  Public Accounts, Public Service and Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Back

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Prepared 13 March 1997