Select Committee on Liaison First Report



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 a third.

  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 for Coal[143] in the midst of the `coal crisis' in the autumn of 1992 and more recently, Nuclear Privatisation[144] and Export Licensing and BMARC.[145] 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 to Iraq[146], 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 any committee.

  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 Expenditure Plans

  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 officials, etc.

  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".[147] 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 NAO

  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 each other.

  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 topical issues.

  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

144  Second Report, Session 1995-96, HC 43 Back

145  Third Report, Session 1995-96, HC 87. Back

146  Second Report, Session 1991-92, Exports to Iraq: Project Babylon and Long Range Guns, HC 86. Back

147  para 171. Back

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Prepared 13 March 1997