TRADE AND INDUSTRY
Report by Mr Martin
O'Neill, Chairman of the Committee
The Role of the Committee
1. The remit of the Trade
and Industry Committee at the end of the current Parliament is
considerably larger than it was at the end of the previous Parliament,
reflecting the additional functions that have accrued to the Department
of Trade and Industry in recent years. By far the largest addition
followed the abolition of the Department of Energy in 1992, when
the DTI gained responsibility for the Government's energy activities.
Further enlargement came in July 1995, when the Department of
Employment was abolished and its functions were split between
the Department for Education and the DTI.
2. The inclusion of energy
in the remit of the Committee has had a considerable impact on
the work of the Committee. Almost a quarter of the inquiries
the Committee has conducted in this Parliament have covered topics
which formerly would have been within the scope of the Energy
Committee; in terms of evidence sessions, the figure is almost
3. As the role of the DTI
has grown, inevitably the Trade and Industry Committee's time
has become more thinly spread over the subjects which it has a
duty to examine. It is, perhaps, telling that the Committee has
not get undertaken an inquiry into any of the areas it gained
from the Employment Committee. For this reason, if for no other,
the Committee would be concerned over further significant extension
of the functions of the DTI without a serious review of the structure
and operation of the Committee.
The Work of the Committee
4. A separate statistical
summary of the Committee's work details the inquiries undertaken
and Reports published to date in the current Parliament, together
with details of Government replies and debates in the House.
5. The Committee has undertaken
a number of high-profile, controversial inquiries in the current
Parliament, starting with British Energy Policy and the Market
in the midst of the `coal crisis' in the autumn of 1992 and more
recently, Nuclear Privatisation
and Export Licensing and BMARC.
Nevertheless, it has not experienced procedural problems or difficulties
to the same extent as it did in the previous Parliament, with
the Supergun inquiry for instance.
6. The Committee was
disappointed that it was not able to secure an opportunity for
the House to vote on its recommendations included in the Report
on British Energy Policy and the Market for Coal,
despite every effort made by the Committee and its then Chairman.
7. The Chairman wrote to
the Liaison Committee at the time to stress his, and the Committee's,
dissatisfaction, stating that "it cannot be right that the
only means by which an independent, all-party Select Committee
Report on a matter of such political importance can only be put
before the House if one of the two main Parties adopts its recommendations
as their own ... The growing importance and significance of the
select committee system in Parliament means that it is important
for the Committee to consider this matter with a view to establishing
a more rational and transparent means of dealing with such matters
in the future".
8. Different procedural
difficulties were raised, more in prospect than in reality, when
the Committee undertook its inquiry into Export Licensing and
BMARC in the last session. In fact, the Committee had little
difficult in securing the attendance of witnesses or the production
of documents (one exception is highlighted in the report). Nevertheless,
it was an unusual inquiry - one suggested by the Government and
for which the Government specifically offered full co-operation.
The Committee took the unusual step of taking oral evidence from
the President of the Board of Trade, in private, to ascertain
what information would be available before the decision
was made to undertake the inquiry. The procedural issues raised
by the BMARC inquiry, and the Committee's inquiry into Exports
were discussed in the final chapter of the Report.
9. Two issues, both regarding
overseas travel, have been of particular concern to the Committee
in the current Parliament.
10. The first relates to
specific events surrounding a proposed visit to southern Africa.
The Committee secured funding from the Liaison Committee for
the visit but were unable to travel on the set date, as a result
of a breakdown in communications in the usual channels. The Committee
recorded its disquiet in its First Special Report of Session 1993-94,
printed in full in Votes and Proceeding on 2nd March 1994, which
said that "The Committee feels strongly that, having been
entrusted by the House with the duty to scrutinise a government
department, it should be permitted to carry out that duty without
interference. Political disagreements elsewhere in the House
related to the conduct of legislation should not be allowed to
impede the scrutiny of the executive by select committees".
In the event the visit took place later in the Session. Admittedly,
these were exceptional circumstances; nevertheless, it remains
the case that such a breakdown could effect future inquiries of
11. The second issue, which
arose in particular at the time of the Committee's visit to India
to May 1996, regards funding. The Chairman wrote to the Liaison
Committee at the time to emphasise the Committee's dissatisfaction
with the level of funding available for overseas travel for select
committees in general and the funding provided for the Trade and
Industry Committee's visit to India in particular. The Committee
is aware that this subject is currently under review.
Department of Trade and Industry
12. The Committee has examined,
and taken both written and oral evidence on the DTI's annual report
and expenditure plans in each session in this Parliament. Usually
no report has been made, with the exception of 1994-95, when the
Committee made a brief report recommending that the Department
should seek to improve the clarity and presentation of information
and in particular, make it easier for the lay reader to link the
text to the spending plans. The Committee were pleased to see
that the Department had acted on its suggestions in its latest
annual report and expenditure plans.
Views on matters raised by
the Trade and Industry Committee and Public Service Committees
Resources, summoning of named
13. The Committee's opinions
on the matters raised during its inquiry into Export Licensing
and BMARC are recorded in the final chapter of that report.
Scrutiny of Agencies
14. The DTI has numerous
agencies and non-Departmental public bodies associated with it.
During the course of the Parliament the Committee has taken both
written and oral evidence from many of them. However, as the
functions of the DTI have expanded and the remit of the Committee
has broadened, it is likely that the detail and frequency with
which the Committee looks at these organisations will decline.
This issue is directly related to that of Committee resources.
As the Committee pointed out in its report on Export Licensing
and BMARC, "the difficulty is not so much in respect
of Committee staff, since extra staff could probably be obtained
if requested. Instead, the difficulty is Members' time".
It may be that, in time, there will be a case for increasing
the number of Members on particularly busy committees and extending
the use of select committee sub-committees.
Relations with the PAC and
15. The Committee has not
found that its work and that of PAC has overlapped extensively,
with the exception of inquiries into regulation undertaken by
both Committees this session. Even in this case, the inquiries
address different issues from different perspectives and therefore
complement each other. It would, however, have been useful if
the PAC had been able to communicate evidence to the Trade and
Industry Committee, other than that submitted by the NAO, just
as the departmental select committees can share evidence with
16. The Trade and Industry
Committee already makes substantial use of NAO publications and
expertise from time to time. The Committee has also, in recent
years, had the advantage of having a specialist assistant on secondment
from the NAO. The Committee has encountered no problems with
its current ad hoc relationship with the NAO. Nevertheless, the
recommendation from the Public Service Committee, that select
committees other than PAC should be able to utilise the resources
of the NAO, seems soundly based and formalisation of the relationship
might extend the use that select committees are able to make of
the substantial resources of the NAO.
Suggestions for the future
17. While some sensible
suggestions have been made regarding the structuring of the work
of departmental select committees, such as scrutiny of SIs and
pre-legislation work, there are drawbacks. The Chairman of the
Committee submitted a paper to the Liaison Committee, regarding
the role of departmental select committees and delegated legislation,
which emphasised the difficulties the Trade and Industry Committee
would have. Select committees can already undertake such inquiries
if they wish to do so, but any obligation to do so would reduce
the flexibility of the Committee and its ability to respond to
18. As already mentioned,
the House might need to review the structure of departmental select
committees in the post election period, especially if there is
a review of Government departments which includes giving the DTI,
or other large Departments, additional functions. A busy Committee
could be given additional Members, who could then be broken down
in sub-committees for specific inquiries or generic purposes,
thus increasing the work the committee would be able to undertake.
143 First Report, Session 1992-93, HC 237. Back
Report, Session 1995-96, HC 43 Back
145 Third Report, Session 1995-96, HC 87. Back
Report, Session 1991-92, Exports to Iraq: Project Babylon and
Long Range Guns, HC 86. Back
147 para 171. Back