Select Committee on Liaison First Report



Report by Mr Gareth Wardell, Chairman of the Committee

Work of the Committee

  1. A separate statistical summary of the Committee's work during this Parliament so far is attached as an appendix. It is notable that, in addition to full inquiries on selected topics within the wide range of responsibilities of the Welsh Office, the Committee has held a number of single sessions, not usually followed by a report. These include a session following up the Government response to a Report and general scrutiny sessions on the work of non-departmental public bodies.

  2. The appendix does not show informal proceedings, which represent a significant part of the Committee's work. These include visits and informal meetings away from Westminster, and informal briefings here at Westminster. Last Session, for example, as part of our inquiry into Further Education in Wales, and in addition to our programme of formal evidence, we held informal briefing meetings in Cardiff with the Welsh Office and with the Further Education Funding Council for Wales, and in Westminster with the Office of HM Chief Inspector of Schools in Wales and with Principals of a number of colleges which we were unable to visit. In the current Session, we have held informal sessions at Westminster with an Ambulance Trust which has experienced financial difficulties, and with the new Permanent Secretary at the Welsh Office. In our view, informal meetings can at times be more effective than formal proceedings.

Recommendations of the Trade and Industry Committee and Public Service Committee

  3. The Committee has noted with much interest the reports of the Trade and Industry and Public Service Committees. The Liaison Committee asked for comments on the following matters in particular:

(a)  Scrutiny of Agencies and other non-departmental bodies

  4. The Welsh Office has only one Executive Agency (Cadw), from whom the Committee took evidence in 1993 and will take evidence again this month.

  5. There are 25 executive NDPBs in Wales. The Committee has held general monitoring sessions with a number of these, and would recommend this approach to other committees.

(b)  Resources

  6. The Committee shares the view that the factor limiting a select committee's activities is Members' time not lack of staff and that significantly increasing staff resources would make committees staff-driven rather than Member-driven.

  7. The Committee wishes to acknowledge the contribution made by specialist advisers to its work. Because of our wide brief, advisers have for the most part been employed for particular inquiries rather than on a continuing basis as specialist committees may do.

(c)  Relations with PAC and NAO

  8. The Committee strongly supports the Public Service Committee's recommendation of closer links between departmentally-based committees and the National Audit Office.

  9. In February 1996 we requested an informal briefing from the NAO on their current studies of Further Education in Wales and in England to assist us at the beginning of our inquiry into this subject. For reasons that are not clear to us, this was turned down. We found this disappointingly unhelpful.

  10. Happily, attitudes seem to have changed. In December 1996 we received an excellent informal briefing from the NAO on its programme of work in Wales, both in financial and value for money audit. We hope that this may be repeated in the new Parliament.

  11. We understand that PAC do not have the time to look at all the Green Reports produced by the NAO. We would suggest that some of them could be taken up instead by departmental committees. Where a departmental select committee has recently studied a subject on which the NAO reports, it might well be appropriate for that committee, rather than PAC, to take up the NAO report.

(d)  The concept of Parliamentary commissions

  12. The Trade and Industry Committee's proposals for parliamentary commissions are, in our view, certainly worthy of further consideration by the House.

(e)  Difficulties

  13. The Committee has had no difficulties in obtaining evidence from Government Departments. The Welsh Office has always been helpful in providing what we ask for but is rarely proactive in providing information which we might be expected to find useful.

  14. We have not encountered any difficulty in securing the departmental witnesses from whom we wish to take evidence but have only rarely asked for named officials.

(f)  Ordering the attendance of Members

  15. We have never encountered difficulty in securing the attendance of a Member of the House but have sympathy with the view that select committees should have power to order the attendance of Members if necessary.

(g)  The crown jewels procedure

  16. We have had no need to seek classified material and have no view on the merits of the crown jewels procedure.

Other difficulties

  17. In our view, the rules governing declaration of interests and advocacy are unclear and should be clarified before select committees are appointed in the next Parliament.

Suggestions for the future

  18. To enhance the effectiveness of select committees in future, we would advocate -

  -  greater use of informal briefing sessions, especially at the beginning of inquiries;

  -  more follow-up inquiries, including taking evidence from Ministers on Government replies;

  -  greater use of the resources of the National Audit Office;

  -  more scrutiny of legislative proposals at the Green and White Paper stage.

  19. We do not believe that departmental committees are equipped to scrutinise either UK Statutory Instruments or European legislation effectively. We support the Procedure Committee's recommendation of a specially constituted committee to sift SIs.

  20. We are not in favour of committees holding formal hearings on senior public appointments.

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Prepared 13 March 1997