Select Committee on Procedure Fourth Report


16. We have considered the Committee system at Westminster after devolution: our particular concerns have been with the Grand Committees and with the three Select Committees on Northern Ireland Affairs, Scottish Affairs and Welsh Affairs.

The Grand Committees

17. As we have already stated, we consider the Grand Committees should be suspended for the duration of the experiment in Westminster Hall. We believe that, if this experiment is successful, the Grand Committees will be found unnecessary because the debates formerly held in them will come to Westminster Hall or the House itself. If suspension of the Grand Committees meant that debates on matters relating to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland were not held we would think again, but, in principle, we agree with the Leader of the House that it is undesirable to have Members with "a different role, different responsibilities, different rights in this Parliament".[28] We consider that retention of the Grand Committees would give different Members different rights, and that this is undesirable. The Grand Committees are, in some sense, an alternative to devolution and when devolution is effected, they are no longer appropriate.[29] We explained our thinking about substantive debates in our Second Interim Report on the Procedural Consequences of Devolution[30]. The Grand Committees, of course, also have powers to hold half-hour adjournment debates and ask questions. Once the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are functioning, we consider it would be inappropriate to give Westminster Members more opportunities to scrutinise the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales than they have to scrutinise other ministers. Moreover, the logic of devolution is that, in the main, Westminster has been left with United Kingdom matters; the opportunity for such questions or adjournment debates should not be restricted to Members for a particular part of the United Kingdom.

Select Committees


18. At present three Select Committees scrutinise the "expenditure, policy and administration" of, respectively, the Northern Ireland Office, the Scottish Office and the Welsh Office. The Government proposes to retain the committees but to amend their terms of reference to the responsibilities of the relevant Secretary of State. The Scottish Affairs Committee has recommended:

"That the House should amend its Standing Orders to allow the Scottish Affairs Committee to carry out inquiries into the work of all Departments of State insofar as it affects Scotland. We would expect such a committee to be involved in assisting communications between the two Parliaments".[31]

The Welsh Affairs Committee proposed that the Committee should be able "to examine proposals for UK policy and legislation which appeared particularly to affect Wales".[32] The Study of Parliament Group suggested setting up a series of new Territorial Affairs Committees with "scrutiny, legislative and liaison functions".[33]

19. We consider that although it is no longer appropriate to provide special arrangements for debate through the Grand Committees, the need for scrutiny of the effects of United Kingdom Government policy on Scotland or Wales has not diminished.[34] The Select Committees carrying out this scrutiny should have a broad remit, although scrutiny of devolved matters should be the concern of the legislature concerned. As Mr Atkinson said "we all need to take a self-denying ordinance about not trying to interfere";[35] and all our witnesses agreed that Westminster should not attempt to "second-guess" the Parliament or Assembly.[36]

20. The Study of Parliament Group on Welsh devolution made detailed recommendations about the nature of a future Committee; they suggested that a Welsh Territorial Committee's functions could include

"liaising with the Chairs of the Policy Committees of the National Assembly to ensure, for example, that the drafting of primary and secondary legislation coincides with the Assembly's agreed policies;".[37]

The legislative powers of the Scottish Parliament mean that this function would not be required for Scotland, but many of our witnesses hoped that one function of future "Scottish Affairs" or "Welsh Affairs" committees would be liaison between Westminster and the devolved legislatures;[38] we agree that, if such links were desired by our colleagues in the devolved legislatures, this could be a significant part of their role, and we deal with the technicalities of such liaison in paragraphs 37 to 46. However, given that Select Committees here will be constituted to reflect the party balance in Westminster, and the devolved legislatures may, and indeed, are likely to, have different party balances it may be premature to forecast the nature of such liaison at this stage.[39] It will be determined by the wishes of the devolved legislatures and their Committees and of the Select Committee concerned and its extent and nature is likely to be greatly affected by personal interactions.[40]

21. The Study of Parliament Group also suggests that a "Territorial" Committee could act by:

"—  assuming the role of a standing committee at the committee stage where the National Assembly requires new Wales-only primary legislation;

—  reviewing those parts of proposed primary legislation that will apply to Wales".[41]

We deal with legislation later in our Report; here we note that it is open to any Committee to consider legislation if it wishes, and some Committees have reported on legislation before the House and even put down amendments to bills in the names of their Members. Given the nature of Welsh devolution it may be that it would be appropriate for some proposals to be formally referred to the "Welsh" Committee for pre-legislative scrutiny. This is a matter which may need to be reviewed in the light of experience. We would appreciate the views of the Welsh Affairs Committee or its successor and of the Welsh Assembly on this before we made any firm recommendation.

Terms of Reference

22. There was some concern over the precise terms of reference of such Committees. The Leader of the House proposed that their terms of reference should be limited to the "responsibilities of the Secretary of State"[42] although she later indicated that she considered it unlikely that a continuing Scottish Affairs Committee could be told "that they will not discuss some reserved matter because it is a matter for another departmental Select Committee".[43] The Clerk of the House believed that since the Secretaries of State would be responsible for promoting the interests of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in the Cabinet, such a remit could be interpreted broadly.[44] The Welsh Affairs Committee, however, was concerned that the remit was unclear and that it was unsatisfactory to have such a source of uncertainty.[45] Mr Peter Brooke told us that he did not support limiting the Committee's terms of reference to the role of the Secretary of State; indeed the current terms of reference could remain appropriate for the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, since this would mean the Committee's remit would automatically be adjusted as powers were transferred from the Northern Ireland Office to the Assembly. He also indicated there would be a number of subjects which were properly the concern of both the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and the Northern Ireland Assembly.[46]

23. We understand the concerns expressed about limiting Select Committees' remits to the responsibilities of the Secretary of State concerned. However, we do not believe that a remit to consider "Welsh Affairs" or its equivalent would be entirely satisfactory since it suggests, erroneously, that such a Committee might be expected to examine devolved matters. We consider that much confusion could be avoided if the successors to the "Affairs" Committees were not appointed under Standing Order No. 152. This would make it clear that their responsibilities went more widely than the strictly departmental. It would also avoid appointing such Committees under a Standing Order which explicitly enjoins them to consider expenditure and administration when most of that responsibility will have passed to the devolved legislatures.

24. We recommend:

—  that there should be Select Committees relating to Scotland and Wales;

—  that these Select Committees should be concerned with the role and responsibilities of the relevant Secretary of State and on occasion, the policy of United Kingdom departments as it affects Scotland or Wales.

We recommend that such Committees liaise with colleagues in the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, but it is not for Westminster to prescribe such liaison. Similar conditions should apply to any successor of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

25. There may be concern that giving the new Select Committees a remit which explicitly includes the effects of United Kingdom departments' policies on Scotland or Wales will undermine those Select Committees charged with examining particular Government departments. Some of our colleagues on other committees were concerned about this, and we sympathise with their concern.[47] However, there has always been the potential for overlap between the Northern Ireland, Scottish or Welsh Affairs Committees and other departmental select committees[48] and arrangements have been made to deal with overlap. Few problems have arisen from the fact that the Environmental Audit Committee and the Select Committee on Public Administration each have terms of reference which cut across departmental boundaries. Moreover, as Mr Moore told us, "we struggle ... to scrutinise the work of the executive enough as it is".[49] Departmental Select Committees have varied in the extent to which they have dealt with matters in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales and there is great pressure on their time.[50] We agree with Mr O'Neill, the Chairman of the Trade and Industry Committee, that "the breadth and complexity of Government activity" is "such as to require as much intelligent parliamentary scrutiny as human and other resources allow".[51] To this end, we also agree that whatever the arrangements proposed for scrutiny of "reserved" matters as they affect the territories concerned, "there must be no doubt that a departmental committee ... should continue to feel free to inquire into such matters where that arises from the logic of an inquiry".[52]

28  Q 240. Back
29  Evidence p 118. Back
30  HC (1998-99) 376. Back
31  HC (1997-98) 460-I, paragraph 86. Back
32  Evidence p 74. Back
33  Evidence p 16. Back
34  See Evidence p 18. Back
35  Q 33. Back
36  QQ 33, 175, 198. Back
37  Evidence p 140. Back
38  QQ 71, 87, Evidence p 71. Back
39  Q 212. Back
40  See Q 84. Back
41  Evidence p 140. Back
42  HC (1998-99) 148, paragraph 9. Back
43  Q 236. Back
44  Evidence p 120. Back
45  Evidence p 86, Q 321. Back
46  Evidence p 87, Q 337. Back
47  See, for example Evidence pp 113-114, 132-134, 137. Back
48  Q 202. Back
49  Q 204. Back
50  Q 226. Back
51  Evidence p 114. Back
52  ibid p 113. Back

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