Select Committee on Liaison First Report


An alternative career

29.  Ministerial office has a powerful attraction for many back-benchers on the government side of the House. But it is a matter of concern when able and effective select committee members - and sometimes even Chairmen - are so easily tempted by the lowliest of government and opposition appointments. We must be realistic about this; many Members understandably aspire to be Ministers, and of course former Ministers bring valuable knowledge and experience to their service on select committees.

30.  What we would like to see is a better balance between the attractions of government office and of service on select committees. If all the recommendations in this report are implemented, we think there will be a significant shift in that balance. Members generally (and perhaps especially those relatively new to the House) should then see service on select committees as a career path which, in terms of status and influence, will be a proper reward for their hard work and commitment.

31.  The position of select committee Chairmen also needs to be considered. They will be crucial in the further development of the system and in the full realisation of the changes we seek. Membership of an investigative select committee requires considerable work and commitment, and chairmanship even more. In addition, a chairmanship brings with it correspondence and other duties which are not part of the committee's programme. Committee staff can sometimes assist, but this may not be the best use of their time.

32.  There are two ways of approaching this. One would be to pay Chairmen of specified select committees (including the departmental and "cross-cutting" committees). There are strong views for and against this, and we acknowledge the issues of principle involved. But we also note that the Royal Commission on Reform of the House of Lords has recommended that "Chairmen of significant Committees of the second chamber should receive a salary in respect of their additional duties".[7]

33.  Another possibility might be to make Chairmen eligible for a higher Office Costs Allowance to pay for additional secretarial and research support. This would not be a payment to Chairmen, but would go directly to staff salaries and office expenses.

34.  These are matters which need entirely independent assessment, and we therefore invite the Senior Salaries Review Body to consider the matter. To maintain a proper detachment from our own position as Chairmen, no change should be made before the start of the next Parliament.

Select committee reports and the House

35.  There has been a tendency to use the extent or frequency of debate on select committee reports as a criterion of success. This is too crude. Debates must be both timely and effective. There is little value in a debate which does no more than allow members of a select committee - their voices echoing in an otherwise empty Chamber - to relive their inquiry months after the event.

36.  At the moment, select committee reports come formally before the House either because they are the subjects of debate (on a substantive motion or on the Adjournment) or because they are "tagged": that is, mentioned on the Order Paper, in an italic rubric below the text of the motion, as being relevant to a debate.

37.  Debate opportunities at present reserved for select committees are:

  • a Westminster Hall sitting once every two weeks on a Thursday afternoon, on a report selected by us; and three Wednesday morning sittings in Westminster Hall, again selected by us

  • a debate on reports of the Public Accounts Committee, normally on a "take note" motion, once a Session.

38.  Recurring debates, for example on the Common Agricultural Policy or the annual Defence White Paper, provide opportunities for committee reports to be tagged; and of course highly controversial reports can occasionally make their own agenda.

39.  We would like to see more debate on select committee reports, and the higher profile that this would give to the work of committees. Debates are also an extremely effective way of focussing the minds of Ministers and officials on a report, and the need to justify the government reply. Since our predecessors' recommendation that select committee reports should have precedence in the House on six days each session,[8] more debating time has become available in Westminster Hall, but there is still a case for additional time on the Floor on major or contentious reports. The timing of such debates is crucial; in order to make them topical and useful, they should take place very soon after a report has received a government reply, and they should be on a substantive motion. There is no reason why committees should not suggest the terms of motions in their reports, and we will encourage them to do so.

40.  But an increase in conventional debating time is not the whole answer. What is needed is a new way of giving timely and effective exposure to reports. We propose that, once a week after Questions, there should be a period of half an hour devoted to a report - normally one published within the previous fortnight. The proceedings would begin with a Minister giving an initial response to the report for five minutes, followed by the Chairman of the committee, or another Member speaking on its behalf, for five minutes. The remainder of the half-hour would give an opportunity for Opposition front-benchers to comment, together with any back-benchers who caught the eye of the Chair. A procedure of this sort is already used in some other Parliaments, for example in Australia and Canada. Its introduction here would help to keep the work of select committees at the forefront of Parliamentary and public attention.

41.  This select committee half-hour should take place on Tuesdays; Tuesday Ten-Minute Rule Bills should be moved to Mondays.

42.  Reports would be selected for the Tuesday half-hour by the Chairman of the Select Committee Panel, consulting the Deputy Chairmen and the executive sub-committee as necessary. We think that there would be no shortage of candidate reports; but they would have to merit this treatment, and it might be that Tuesday slots were occasionally unfilled.

43.  We see no conflict between this procedure and that for formal government replies to select committee reports. Indeed, when the subject of a report is a major current issue, it is a little artificial for there to be no government reaction until two months later. Whether or not a report gets a Tuesday half-hour, however, government departments will still be obliged to produce a detailed response in the usual way.


44.  At present the italic tag below a motion on the Order Paper is under the control of the "owner" of the motion - the government, an opposition party or a private Member. A minor but worthwhile change would be to place tags referring to select committee reports - both for motions and, where appropriate, for stages of Bills - under the authority of the Chairman of Committees.

Government replies


45.  The rule on government responses to select committee reports is clear; they must be made within two months of a report's publication. Too many replies are missing this deadline, sometimes by a considerable margin and with no good reason. This must be put right quickly. If a department continues to perform poorly, we recommend that the committee concerned should, at the time of publication of a report, arrange for the responsible Minister to appear before them a little more than two months later. That evidence session can be used for follow-up evidence on the government reply (a useful practice in itself) - or, of course, as an opportunity for the Minister to explain why the reply has not been produced on time.

46.  There has been a common-sense relaxation of the rule when a government reply would fall due during the summer recess or very shortly thereafter. We think this flexibility should be maintained, with the timing being agreed between the committee and department concerned.


47.  The quality of government replies is patchy. Some are exemplary[9] but too many are superficial - and give the impression that they have been drafted with only a cursory look at the summary of recommendations, ignoring the analysis and argument in the body of the report.

48.  The process of report and reply is pivotal in the relationship between select committees and the government. The government needs to sharpen up its act, but part of the remedy also lies with committees themselves. A sub-standard response should automatically result in the responsible Minister spending an uncomfortable morning or afternoon supplying what was missing.

49.  We will expect committees to address the standard of government replies when they make their annual reports (see paragraph 52 below) and the performance of government as a whole will be one of the things that we, or our successor Panel, will examine when the operation of the system is reviewed each year.


50.  The format of replies sometimes borders on the casual. A government reply should not be given by letter or written answer; it should be a formal memorandum to the committee concerned, on which the committee may want to take evidence, and which it can publish as a special report.

Review of recommendations

51.  A major factor in a committee's effectiveness is its willingness to pursue and review its recommendations. Once the publication of the report, the media coverage, and the government reply have conveniently faded away, nothing is easier than for a government department to forget all about what a select committee has recommended.

52.  Some select committees have made a practice of following up their recommendations and criticisms at regular intervals; and the Agriculture and Defence Committees produce annual reports bringing matters up to date and detailing any progress made. This is an area where we believe that concerted action will have a disproportionate effect. Accordingly, we will expect all appropriate select committees, by the rise of the House for the Christmas 2000 recess, to assess progress on "live" recommendations and criticisms, and to report. This may be possible with written evidence only; or one or more oral evidence hearings may be necessary. But we are in no doubt of the value of the exercise.

53.  It will not be a mechanistic process. The passage of time will have made some recommendations less relevant; and individual committees will be in the best position to judge relative priority. This will also ensure that the burden on government departments is kept to an appropriate level.

54.  This initiative will also provide a useful audit of committee effectiveness. Mere comparison of reports and government replies produces the "bean counting" so beloved of some academics, which is actually misleading. It does not distinguish between the "soft" recommendation which is already halfway to implementation and the "hard" recommendation which may change thinking - and may even be quietly adopted months or years later. Nor does it give proper weight to situations where analysis and criticism, rather than formal recommendations, have the most influence. Regular follow-up reports - which of course may include a committee's own views upon its work - will give a much truer and fairer assessment of committees' achievements.

55.  Each committee should make its annual report before Christmas each year. In the following January, we (or our successor Panel) will consider all the reports, with two aims: first, to draw conclusions about the overall effectiveness of the select committee system; and second, to address any problems affecting committees, such as - for example - access to documents, attendance of witnesses, or quality of government replies.

Constructive co-operation

56.  The work of select committees tends to be seen by government as a threat rather than an opportunity. This may partly be a result of the unfamiliarity which we cover in paragraphs 87 to 89 below, but the result is often the missed chance of effective explanation of policy, and of the enlistment of committees' understanding or support.

57.  There have been some examples of valuable co-operation and understanding - for instance the improvements to the Treasury's Financial Services and Markets Bill following the Joint Committee's consideration of the draft; the Cabinet Office's use of the work of the Environmental Audit Committee; co-operation between the Deregulation Committee and the Cabinet Office's Better Regulation Unit in seeking an effective and workable widening of the deregulation procedure; and the development of Resource Accounting and Budgeting through co-operation between the Treasury, the Treasury Committee and the Public Accounts Committee.

58.  When Ministers and departments have got their act together, and are prepared to be co-operative rather than defensive, the results have benefited both Parliament and government. We will encourage this style of working.

Select committees and government expenditure

59.  Last July the Procedure Committee published a report on Procedure for Debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans.[10] There is no point in our going over what is now well-tilled ground. We endorse the Procedure Committee's analysis and its recommendations (the latter set out in an Annex to this report for convenience). Where recommendations fall to us to implement, we will do so.

60.  In one respect we would go further than the Procedure Committee: we would like to see the present three days a Session on expenditure, linked to select committee reports, increased to six. The Supply procedure, whereby the Crown proposes expenditure which it is for the House to grant, lies at the heart of the relationship between the Executive and the Legislature. If select committees do not make a serious effort to monitor government expenditure - particularly with the introduction of resource accounting and budgeting - they will forfeit a considerable degree of power and influence. We would like to see a sharp focus on Resource Estimates, departmental plans and Output and Performance Analyses.

Select committees and legislation

61.  Following the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, this Parliament has seen a major and overdue improvement in the consideration of primary legislation - the use of draft Bills. This is a function to which select committees are ideally suited.[11]

62.  From our experience of pre-legislative scrutiny so far, we think there are seven areas for improvement:

  • scrutiny of draft Bills has often had to be undertaken at short notice. To some extent this probably reflects the government coming to terms with a new procedure; but if the process is to be of full benefit both to government and to Parliament, there must be adequate lead time - necessarily longer for select committees than for standing committees. The government's legislative programme is tightly controlled. When the Cabinet approves the programme for the coming Session it will presumably be clear which Bills are to be published in draft and so be available for pre-legislative scrutiny. In our view the Leader of the House should, very early in a new Session, be in a position to give the Chairman of Committees the likely timing of draft Bills for that Session, and a preliminary view of the Government's plans for pre-legislative scrutiny; and should notify any changes of plan thereafter. This will become more important if - as we hope - the use of draft Bills becomes routine. In turn, the Chairman of Committees would be able to express preferences for particular Bills to be published in draft.

  • there must be adequate time for the pre-legislative stage if there is to be high quality scrutiny, and especially if the process is to be of the inclusive character favoured by the present government in other areas, involving the public and those likely to be affected by the legislation. With good notice and orderly phasing of draft Bills, it should be perfectly possible to provide more time for consideration.

  • We understand the arguments for ad hoc pre-legislative committees (and for joint committees); but we consider that, where the subject matter of a Bill falls primarily to a single department, pre-legislative scrutiny should be normally undertaken by the relevant departmental or cross-cutting select committee. Departmental committees will have the necessary collective familiarity with the background; they will have established working methods which suit them; and they may well have already done some work on the subject matter of the Bill. When departmental committees are asked to consider draft Bills, proper notice and planning will be essential in order not to disrupt other important work. We would also expect departments with draft Bills to liaise closely with the relevant departmental select committee.

  • When an existing committee is asked to consider a draft Bill, this should be by formal referral motion in the House (after discussion with the Chairman of Committees and the Chairman concerned). When adequate notice has been given, and if adequate time has been allowed for consideration (as we discuss above) it would be reasonable - and in the spirit of the programme motion approach - for the House to impose a deadline for the committee to report.

  • although our preference is for pre-legislative scrutiny to be undertaken by the relevant committee, this must not be allowed to prejudice that committee's programme. A committee must be able to decline reference of a draft Bill, in which case an ad hoc committee would be used.

  • if a Bill is examined by an ad hoc select committee, we would expect it to have a proportion of its members from committees with an interest. Under our proposals, the Select Committee Panel will be able to ensure that this is the case. If the subject of a draft Bill is one that spans the responsibilities of several departments, the Panel will be able to ensure the proper "joined-up" approach (see below).

  • at the moment there is a somewhat artificial disconnection between a select committee's consideration of a draft Bill, and a standing committee's consideration of the Bill following second reading. We hope that the Committee of Selection would put on the standing committee at least some of the select committee that had considered the Bill in draft; but a better way of using the select committee's expertise on the Bill would be to provide that any member of the select committee could attend and speak (but not vote) in the standing committee.

63.  Pre-legislative scrutiny also raises questions of staffing, which we consider in paragraphs 71 to 84 below.

7  . Cm 4534, January 2000, Recommendation 123. Back

8  . First Report from the Liaison Committee, HC 323-I of Session 1996-97, paragraph 38. Back

9  . A recent example was the reply to the Deregulation Committee's report on the future of the deregulation procedure: see First Special Report from the Deregulation Committee, HC 177 of Session 1999-2000. Back

10  . Sixth Report, HC 295 of Session 1998-99. Back

11  . Special standing committees offer something of this approach (see Standing Order No. 91) but they are not as flexible. Nor are they pre-legislative; they may consider only those Bills which have received a second reading. Back

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