Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr Paul Channon, Chairman of the Committee


  1. Details of the Reports published by the Transport Committee in the 1992-97 Parliament, together with information about the Government replies to those reports, are contained in a separate statistical summary. It was agreed at our meeting on 15 January that I should also send the Liaison Committee a paper prepared by Mr Paul Flynn, a Member of the Transport Committee.

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

Scrutiny of Agencies

  2. Until the Transport Research Laboratory was privatised earlier in the year, the Department had eight Executive Agencies. The Committee has held substantive inquiries into the work of the Coastguard Agency and into the privatisation of the Transport Research Laboratory and the deregulation of work carried out by the Vehicle Inspectorate. Both of these allowed issues to be raised in public that might not otherwise have been discussed as openly. A number of the recommendations of the Committee were carried out.

  3. In the course of its inquiries into policy matters we have taken evidence from the Highways Agency and the Marine Safety Agency.

  4. The Committee has not examined any Agency Chief Executives on their objectives and performance. I note that the Public Service Committee has recommended that committees take a more serious and long-term interest in agency performance and administration. The importance of the work of these agencies is recognised. However it should remain the right of committees to set their own agenda and it may not be possible to accommodate scrutiny of all agencies in the time available to Members. It is also likely that proper scrutiny of agencies would require a particularly large amount of staff and Members' time in preparing and absorbing briefing material for single sessions of evidence. In addition, in many cases there may be little that the committee may wish to say in a report following such a session. Committees must have the right not to take evidence from an agency if there appeared no necessity to do so.

  5. The Committee has investigated the work and responsibilities of associated public bodies of the Department: British Rail, London Transport and the Civil Aviation Authority. These hearings have usually been part of inquires into policy matters of relevance to these bodies.

Resource and time constraints

  6. We have not found that we have needed further staff resources or, apart from the special case of overseas travel, have we found that financial constraints have prevented the effective work of the Committee. However the Committee has more staff than some others and makes use of a number of specialist advisers.

  7. There might be a danger, if committees had larger staffs, of committees being staff- rather than Member-driven, as Members have generally not been able to meet more than once a week other than on a few occasions and during the inquiry into railway privatisation early in the Parliament, which was obviously an urgent matter of Parliamentary and public interest.

  8. The Transport Committee has made extensive use of specialist advisers and has generally found their help valuable. There has occasionally been concern at possible conflicts of interests that advisers may have. Since they are recruited because of their activity and knowledge of a particular subject, it is to be expected that even academic advisers will have certain relevant financial interests, and this need not affect the quality or reliability of the advice they give. I would suggest, though, that advisers be asked formally to declare their relevant financial interests.

  9. The Treasury-set per diem rate of pay for specialist advisers, particularly those of non-professorial rank, is rather low compared with the rates they might command in working for private sector organisations and I understand that it has not altered during the Parliament. Although many advisers are willing to accept these lower rates because they believe that working for one of the House's committees may be useful for their careers or simply because they will find it interesting, I do not think that committees should rely on this goodwill to compensate for low pay. Consideration should be given to raising the rates of pay for specialist advisers.

  10. I am sure that advisers who have completed their tasks could have useful comments on the committee system and its effectiveness. Might it be worth asking advisers for their views on a House-wide basis?

Relations with the NAO and the PAC

  11. We have not found that the work of the NAO/PAC and of the Transport Committee have overlapped unduly. I am sure that there would be merit in some more formal relationship between the NAO and departmental select committees. It would, for example, be useful to be consulted formally by the NAO on its programme of work so that duplication of effort can be minimised. It might also be a more effective use of the NAO if the policy implications of its findings were on occasion to be pursued by departmental select committees in a way that the PAC is not empowered to do.

  12. On occasion I am sure that the Transport Committee might wish to request a memorandum or oral briefing from the NAO on the financial affairs of the Department; this would be particularly useful during the change to resource accounting and budgeting by Departments. There might be times when it would be helpful for NAO staff to work temporarily for committees.

The concept of Parliamentary Commissions

  13. There might be merit in extremely complex matters, which would otherwise occupy too much of a committee's time, being studied on a committee's behalf by a commission so as to establish important factual information. It would be open at the moment to a committee to commission research into a topic but I understand that the budget for such research is very limited.

  14. An alternative method of proceeding is to ask specialist advisers to undertake work in return for their per diem rate. The Transport Committee has done this early in the Parliament when we asked an academic adviser for a paper on the consequences of the deregulation of buses. He then presented oral evidence to the Committee on the basis of his paper, which Members found a most informative exercise.

Other matters

  15. We have not needed to summon named officials, preferring to allow the Department and other organisations to send those whom they believe would be the most suitable. We have not needed to order the attendance of Members. Nor have we needed to see confidential documents under the `crown jewels' procedure whereby Members have been able to see documents but to take no record of them.

  16. The Liaison Committee may however be interested in a matter which we have already raised with the Public Service Committee, concerning the difficulty the Committee had in obtaining the attendance of Treasury witnesses. It was raised with the Liaison Committee at the time.

  17. During our inquiry in 1994 into the Government's proposals for motorway tolling the Committee invited the Treasury to give evidence on the rules governing the use of fees levied with the purpose of paying for the renovation of facilities in view of the Treasury's reputed opposition to hypothecation. This invitation was refused. At the subsequent evidence session with the Department of Transport we were hampered by the lack of witnesses from the Treasury who would have been able to answer questions as to the use which would be made of motorway toll proceeds; Department of Transport officials told us that they had to follow the guidance of the Treasury.

  18. In my absence Mrs Dunwoody wrote to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to point out the problems that the absence of Treasury witnesses had caused us and reiterating our invitation to the Treasury to give evidence. He wrote back again refusing to allow his officials to appear before the Committee. We therefore raised the matter with the Liaison Committee at its meeting on 14 June 1994.

  19. At that meeting the Chairman of the Liaison Committee proposed that the Transport Committee seek to examine Treasury Ministers on the paper that it had by then offered the Committee. If that did not succeed, Sir Terence Higgins offered to take the matter up with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

  20. The Committee eventually succeeded in taking oral evidence on 18 July 1994 from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, which proved to be extremely valuable to the Committee in its deliberations. This was, however, eight weeks later than the meeting at which it had originally been intended to hear from Treasury officials and our Report was therefore delayed.

Suggestions for the Future

Pre-legislative inquiries

  21. The Transport Committee has undertaken several inquiries into matters on the basis either of White or Green Papers and has found them to be extremely valuable. I am sure that a committee's views have more influence with the executive at the pre-legislative stage than after policies have been implemented.

  22. We conducted a substantial inquiry into railway privatisation early in the Parliament, based on the proposals in the relevant White Paper. The inquiry was completed before the Bill had passed, but even such a prompt inquiry was probably too late to have a significant impact, particularly in such a politically controversial matter.

  23. The Committee's inquiries into the then recent Green Papers and consultative documents relating to taxis, motorway tolling, urban road pricing and the privatisation of air traffic control were most timely and many of the Committee's opinions were positively received by the Government. I believe that these took place at the most effective time to influence policy formation, as they were published during the consultation period. The Committee is presently examining National Air Traffic Services and we will produce a report in February which will be in time to form part of the consultation process on the number of air traffic control centres the country needs.

Scrutiny of Delegated and European Legislation

  24. When the Liaison Committee consulted departmental select committees on the possibility that they should have a formal role in scrutinising delegated legislation, the Transport Committee was of the opinion that such committees should be involved in such work. This would certainly have involved an increase in the number of committee staff and the time commitment of Members and would to some extent have removed from committees the right to set their own agenda. I do not believe that it is possible for committees properly to scrutinise all the delegated legislation from their departments.

  25. The Liaison Committee concluded in April that a central `sifting' committee would be the appropriate means of scrutiny, along with a mechanism for the relevant departmental select committee to have the opportunity of having an input at an early stage of the sifting committee's consideration of an instrument.

  26. The Procedure Committee has recently reported on the scrutiny of delegated legislation. It agreed with the view of the Liaison Committee. It recommends that the new committee should have the power to communicate with departmental committees and draw on the expertise and staff of those committees. It also rejected the idea that the committee should have a representative membership from the several departmental committees.

  27. We would be concerned if the requirements of the proposed new sifting committee were significantly to eat into the time of our own Committee staff. The new committee would also, I am sure, benefit from having a membership representative of departmental committees. Such a membership would additionally allow the departmental committees to keep in touch with the sifting committee, if only in an informal manner.

  28. The Transport Committee has not systematically investigated the merits of pieces of European legislation, but has visited the Commission in Brussels and has taken oral evidence at Westminster on several occasions from Commission officials and, on 9 December 1996, from the European Transport Commissioner himself. At these meetings the Committee heard evidence on several European legislative proposals. There is an increasing amount of European legislation in the transport field, some of which has great potential importance. It will always be difficult for the Committee to scrutinise it systematically, as monitoring the work of the Department already keeps the Committee busy.

Accountability of Regulators, etc

  29. Particularly since the privatisation of the railways, a number of offices have been created which are associated with the Department of Transport but are not executive agencies. Two prominent ones are the Office of the Rail Regulator and the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising. The Committee has taken evidence from these offices at least every year since their creation, as part of its work in reviewing the implementation of rail privatisation. Neither of the offices is effectively accountable through the Secretary of State on the floor of the House and the large sums of public money and the important decisions for which such people are responsible make it important that the select committee should take evidence from them regularly even if it is unable to hold a full scale inquiry into their work. I am sure that other committees will have similar offices within their spheres of interest.

  30. It has been suggested that select committees should undertake hearings with those nominated by the Government to hold senior public appointments. There would be merit in committees holding evidence sessions with newly appointed officials other than civil servants, for example regulators, who have substantial autonomy and individual responsibility in important policy areas.

  31. Whether the approval of the relevant select committee should be required before such a person took office is less clear. Committees do not necessarily hear evidence in a way that would be conducive to a fair appraisal of the different candidates. In any case, it would seem strange for a select committee to be able to veto an appointment by a Secretary of State, who has the responsibility for the executive and would have to work with the appointee. There is also the danger that if committees were to have such formal powers, they would attract more interest from the whips, thus endangering their independence.

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Prepared 13 March 1997