Select Committee on Liaison First Report


The Liaison Committee has agreed to the following Report:—


Our starting point

1.  Select committees have been used by the House of Commons for centuries to investigate, judge, assess and advise.[5] As governments have become more powerful, the work of select committees has increasingly focused upon the Executive: the quality of its policies; the effectiveness of its administration; and its expenditure of the taxpayer's money. But in practice governmental power has always outstripped parliamentary control.

2.  In turn, the Estimates Committee, the National Expenditure Committee and the Expenditure Committee,[6] and "subject committees" of varying longevity, tried to make the whole sweep of government business subject to the same parliamentary accountability which the Public Accounts Committee had since 1861 exercised over public money after it had been spent.

3.  It was an unequal struggle; but in 1979 the appointment - for the first time - of committees to shadow individual government departments gave some hope of redressing the balance. These committees, and the "cross-cutting" committees which complement them, are the subject of this report.


Culture, Media and Sport
Education and Employment
Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs
Foreign Affairs
Home Affairs
International Development
Northern Ireland Affairs
Scottish Affairs
Social Security
Trade and Industry
Welsh Affairs
Welsh Affairs

Environmental Audit
European Scrutiny
Public Accounts
Public Administration
Science and Technology
Statutory Instruments

Note: Some committees have changed names or responsibilities since 1979 to reflect changes in the organisation of government departments. Some were first appointed after the 1979 Parliament. The Northern Ireland, Scottish, and Welsh Affairs Committees also have cross-cutting interests.

4.  The 1979 select committee system has been a success. We have no doubt of that. At a bargain price, it has provided independent scrutiny of government. It has enabled the questioning of Ministers and civil servants, and has forced them to explain policies. On occasion, it has exposed mistaken and short-sighted policies and, from time to time, wrong-doing both in high places and low. It has been a source of unbiased information, rational debate, and constructive ideas. It has made the political process less remote, and more accessible to the citizen who is affected by that process - and who pays the bill. Its very existence has been a constant reminder to Ministers and officials, and many others in positions of power and influence, of the spotlight that may swing their way when least welcome.

5.  It has also shown the House of Commons at its best: working on the basis of fact, not supposition or prejudice; and with constructive co-operation rather than routine disagreement.

6.  But we acknowledge that the performance of the select committee system has not been consistent, and its success not unalloyed. In each of the five Parliaments since 1979, different committees have shone; some found it harder to surmount the difficulties they encountered. On occasion the government has been too ready - and has found it too easy - to thwart a committee's legitimate purpose. Over the same period, however, the House of Commons committee system as a whole has evolved. It has developed new methods of work. Radio and television have brought it home to the public. More visible and more widely known, it is an entrenched part of our constitutional arrangements as never before.

7.  We do not intend to analyse the work of select committees in detail. We have no wish to add another thesis to the extensive literature, and doubt that such an exercise would have much value.

8.  As a committee consisting of all Chairmen of select committees, our concern is the effectiveness of the system. After two decades - and especially in the present climate of constitutional change - we think it is time for some further reform and modernisation.

9.  Any proposals need to be informed by an understanding of the realities of select committee work:

  • select committees have to operate within the constitutional framework. In 1979 there were (and still are) those who expected the new system to operate like committees in the US Congress. In the United Kingdom there is no separation of powers, and a stronger party system. Ministers are also Members of Parliament, and are sustained in office by Parliament. The relationship is thus more subtle, but there is no reason why select committees should not call Ministers to account.

  • operating within the political framework, select committees are to some extent affected by party loyalty and organisation, which structure the way in which Parliament and its institutions work. In turn, careers have generally been shaped by party service and the floor of the House rather than by work on select committees.

  • because select committees are bodies created by and subordinate to the House itself, the exercise of their formal powers is eventually subject to the will of the House, in which the government of the day is likely to have a majority.

  • no pain, no gain: there is no easy route to success. A determined and hard-working committee, in which Members are prepared to devote substantial effort and put the interests of the citizen and taxpayer first, can be extraordinarily effective.

  • within their powers, and subject to any instruction from the House, committees are entirely independent. It is up to them to decide how to do the job, set their priorities, and select and run inquiries. Every committee operates in a different way, and this flexibility is a real strength of the system. We have no intention of writing a prescription for individual committees; but we want to be sure that they have the tools they need, and that we give the committee system greater clout through collective action wherever possible.

  • the scarcest resource in the committee system is Members' time. The credibility of the system depends upon Members being fully involved in the work of committees, being prepared to put in the necessary preparation and study as well as taking part in the committee's programme. Additional staff resources may improve the quality of a committee's work, but should not be the means of increasing a committee's output at the cost of Member involvement.

Our proposals

Committee membership

10.  When the 1979 system was introduced, the Committee of Selection was given the responsibility of picking Members to serve on the departmental select committees. If the committees were to be independent monitors of Government, the argument ran, then their membership should not be in the hands of government or party organisation - in practice the Whips. They should be selected to do a job on behalf of the House as a whole. On the same reasoning, this procedure was also applied to the domestic committees appointed in the wake of the Ibbs Report of 1990.

11.  In practice, however, the Committee of Selection - itself heavily influenced by the Whips - has nominated Members to serve on select committees in the same way as Members to serve on standing committees or private bill committees - primarily on the basis of lists supplied by the Whips.

12.  This has had three unwelcome results:

  • when a Member decides to leave a committee there have been long delays - for no good reason - in making the change of membership. Some committees have been as many as three Members short for a matter of months, when there has been no shortage of volunteers.

  • Members have undoubtedly been kept off committees, or removed from them, on account of their views. Oppositions as well as governments have been guilty of this, but of course if committees are to be effective scrutineers of government it is the influence of the governing party that causes us the greater concern.

13.  It is wrong in principle that party managers should exercise effective control of select committee membership. We propose a new system.

14.  The Liaison Committee should be renamed and reconstituted as the Select Committee Panel, mirroring for select committees the role of the Chairmen's Panel for standing committees. It should have a crucial additional task: proposing to the House the names of Members to serve on select committees.

15.  In the early weeks of a Parliament there has been no Liaison Committee because there have been no committees and so no Chairmen. Just as the House appoints the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means at the very beginning of a Parliament, so it should, at the same time and after similar consultation, appoint a Chairman of Committees and two Deputy Chairmen of Committees. The Chairman of Committees should not serve as a Chairman of any other select committee, but the Deputies should not be so restricted. All three would be senior and respected Members of the House, prepared to work in a wholly non-partisan way.

16.  Immediately upon appointment, the Chairman and Deputies would invite names for membership of committees, with a deadline for submissions. They would propose to the House the membership of each committee not more than a fortnight after that deadline.

17.  Members would be free to propose themselves, or others, with information about qualifications and suitability; and the Whips could make their own suggestions; but the final decisions on nomination would be made by the Chairmen and Deputies. The party managers would also be free to give their views on the division of Chairmanships; but, once again, it would be for the first three members of the Select Committee Panel to decide how to reflect those views in their proposals. It is, after all, up to each committee independently to elect its Chairman.

18.  The proposals would be put to the House in amendable, debatable motions, as is already the case.

19.  During the course of a Parliament, the Panel would maintain lists of those who wanted to serve on particular committees. A Member of the House would be able to put forward his or her name at any time, again with any supporting information. When a vacancy occurred, the Chairman of Committees would consult the Chairman of the relevant committee about a replacement; names would be considered by the executive sub-committee (see below); and the necessary motion would be tabled in the name of the Chairman of Committees. There is no reason why the replacement should not normally be made within a week of the vacancy becoming known.

20.  We are sure that this system would be transparent and fair, and that it would protect the independence of select committees.

Other duties of the Panel

21.  As Chairmen were elected by their committees (including ad hoc pre-legislative committees), they would become members of the Select Committee Panel, their appointment being notified to the House by a Speaker's Memorandum in the Votes and Proceedings. Chairmen of permanent sub-committees such as Education, Employment, Environment and Transport should also be members of the Panel. In order to ensure that no committee loses its voice on the Panel, there should be a system of substitution for Chairmen unavoidably absent.

22.  The Panel would take on the duties and powers of the Liaison Committee, including such things as selecting subjects for debate on Estimates Days, and select committee reports for debate in Westminster Hall. It would also have general responsibility for all matters affecting select committees; including, for example, the format and presentation of select committee reports. Authority over expenditure would remain the responsibility of the House of Commons Commission, but there is no reason why the Commission should not delegate detailed decisions to the Panel (as it has on funds for overseas travel by select committees).

23.  A membership of 33 (the current Liaison Committee membership) is too large for taking detailed decisions. The Panel should have power to appoint an executive sub-committee, of which the Chairman of Committees and the Deputies would automatically be members.

"Best practice"

24.  When select committees have been prepared to experiment and innovate, this has often increased their effectiveness. Recent initiatives have included:

  • scrutiny of draft Bills, with great benefit to the House when a revised Bill is introduced

  • examination of Treaties (after tabling a motion to deny routine Parliamentary acquiescence (under the so-called "Ponsonby Rule"))

  • holding "confirmation hearings" for major public appointments. Select committees have as yet no formal role in appointments, but hearings of this sort, and the exposure they involve, are proving increasingly influential. We will be seeking statutory acknowledgement of this process in new legislation

  • involvement of a range of experts in seminars to plan programmes of work

  • committees setting and reporting on objectives for the effectiveness of their work

  • systematic monitoring of action on recommendations by the Government and others

25.  Clerks and their staffs are increasingly developing best practice by sharing experience. We see an important role for the Select Committee Panel in bringing Chairmen and committees into this process.

Select committee attendance

26.  Full participation of a committee's members in its work is essential to the effectiveness of that committee. It ensures that Members share the experiences and evidence upon which they will base their report; it encourages vital trust between them; and it helps in building up the collective expertise of the committee.

27.  In the circumstances it is strange that the House's convention of recording attendance at select committees should mark a Member as present if, for example, he or she were in the committee room for only the first minute rather than remaining for the whole of the three-hour evidence session which followed. Over a Session, the formal record of a Member's attendance may thus be wholly misleading.

28.  A Member who is prepared to serve on a select committee must regard that service as a significant priority in his or her Parliamentary work, with the appropriate commitment. We therefore think it entirely reasonable that the Chairman of a select committee should be able to report to the Panel a Member who, without good reason (such as standing committee service), had not taken a full part in, say, four successive formal Committee activities (both sittings and other events). We would expect the Select Committee Panel to replace a Member whose participation was no longer justifying his or her membership of that committee, but was keeping out other Members who wanted to join.

5  . A random selection from some four centuries ago includes the Committee for Uniformity of Religion (1571), the Committee for the Examination of Fees or Rewards taken for Voices in this House (1571), the Committee on the Queen of Scotts [sic] (1572), the Committee on the Confirmation of the Book of Common Prayer (1604), and the Committee on Union with Scotland (1604), as well as regular Committees on the Subsidy (the grant of money to the Crown), on Grievances, and on Privileges, and occasional Grand Committees which apparently operated rather like Select Committees (such as the Grand Committee for Evils) (1623). Back

6  . And their subject sub-committees. Back

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