Select Committee on Liaison Second Report


SECOND REPORT

The Liaison Committee has agreed to the following Report:—

INDEPENDENCE OR CONTROL?

The Government's Reply to
The Committee's First Report of Session1999-2000
Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive

Shifting the Balance

1  On 3 March this year we published proposals to improve the Select Committee system.[2] We drew on the lessons of the reformed Select Committee system over two decades, and on the practical experience of the 33 Chairmen who make up the membership of our Committee. Our proposals were designed to make the system more effective and independent; to make it a better scrutineer of Government; and to provide a better deal for the citizen and the taxpayer.

2  On 18 May the Government published its response.[3] It rejected virtually every recommendation we had made.

3  The Reply was both disappointing and surprising. We found it disappointing because our proposals were modest. We did not suggest line-by-line scrutiny of the Estimates as a condition for their approval; we did not suggest any change in the powers of Select Committees: for example, to allow them to require papers from Government Departments or to summon Ministers[4] - for all of which there are strong cases. And we found it surprising that a Government which has made so much of its policy of modernising Parliament should apparently take so different a view when its own accountability and freedom of action are at issue.

4  The content of the Reply led us to take evidence from the Leader of the House on 10th July. The transcript of that evidence is published with this Report.

5  We now analyse the Government's response to our main proposals, with the particular intention of setting the record straight for the House when our Report is debated. [5]

Membership of Committees: independence, fairness and transparency

Our proposal

6  It was clear to us that nomination of Members to Select Committees was under the control of the Whips. This had led to delays in setting up Committees at the start of a Parliament, delays in replacing Members who left Committees and, undoubtedly, selection of Members on the basis of their known views. We said that this was wrong in principle.

7  We proposed a new system for the nomination of Members to Select Committees: at the beginning of a Parliament a Chairman of Committees and two Deputy Chairmen (senior Members working in a wholly non-partisan way) would call for nominations. Any backbencher could apply. Selection would be on the basis of qualifications and suitability (including work commitment). Correct party proportions (both in Members and Chairmen) would be maintained. During a Parliament, the Chairman and Deputies would be joined by the Select Committee Panel (a development of our own Committee) in nominating replacements. The process would be an entirely open one: at all stages it would be clear who had applied and who was on the waiting list.

The Government's reply

8  The Government's Reply says that our Report

This is an inaccurate paraphrase. The Government rests its case against our proposal mainly on the fact that twenty-two years ago the current system was put forward by the Procedure Committee of the day. Four Parliaments have come and gone since then. The experience of two decades has shown that nomination by the Committee of Selection was a good idea which in practice has not worked; in which there is little confidence (except, of course, among the party managers); and which must now be replaced.

9  We stress that we make no criticism whatever of the Committee of Selection themselves, nor of their Chairman; they have operated the system as they found it, but it is a burden of which they should now be relieved.

10  It is also worth emphasising that, although the Committee of Selection proposes names for twenty of the House's Select Committees,[7] the names for twelve other Committees[8] are presented directly to the House on Motions in the name of the Government Deputy Chief Whip. The process of nomination for these Committees bypasses even the system commended by the Government in its Reply.

11  The Government's advocacy of yesterday's solution rests also on its view[9] that any system for selecting Members needs

  • to acknowledge the influence of political parties

  • to ensure that party managers are subject to scrutiny and possible challenge

  • to provide an incentive for the Government to ensure that nominations from the Government party, at least, are considered reasonable.

We agree. That is why our proposal does all of these things. But the system devised in 1978 now only does the first.

12  The Government says that

    "The appointment of members to serve on Select Committees is not straightforward. Some committees are so popular that there may be ten or more Members prepared to serve for every place thereon. It is necessary to balance the competing claims of new and of experienced Members; of long established committee members with those who desire to broaden their experience; and to balance membership from different geographical regions and of the sexes. A certain amount of negotiation is often necessary, and Members may well need to be persuaded to accept outcomes they consider less than ideal."[10]

True; and no-one could be more familiar with these facts of life than we are. As arguments against our proposal, however, they are not relevant. The Chairman and Deputies (and, for almost all of a Parliament, the Panel as well)[11] will take all these factors into account. The difference will be that their decisions are reached in an open, transparent, fair and independent way.

13  This method of operation would make another assertion in the Government Reply surprising even if it were not so over-stated. Without adducing any evidence, the Government states that

    "Members might well be inclined to challenge the decision of a Select Committee Panel to a far greater extent than they do the Committee of Selection. If this were the case, disputes over Select Committee membership might regularly take up time on the floor of the House. The Report is concerned with the 22 scrutiny committees - last session every single such committee had a change of membership; some committees had changes of as many as five or six Members. Each of those changes, if challenged, could result in at least an hour's debate on the floor of the House. The result of the Liaison Committee's proposals could well be that the House spent longer in debating membership of select committees than it did on substantive business. This is a key consideration in the conclusions we have reached." [our emphasis]

Last Session the House spent 1342 hours and 59 minutes on substantive business.[12] The nature of the Government's case against our proposal, in which this element was, in the Government's own words "a key consideration", is not assisted by this type of exaggeration.[13]

14  Although the Leader of the House confirmed that the Government understood that every nomination by the Select Committee Panel would be subject to approval by the House, just as under the present system,[14] some of her evidence seemed to indicate concern on the Government's part that the Panel would not be subject to the control of the House. "The suggestion is that two or three Members should be appointed to actually make the appointments", she said[15]; and she asked "What would be the court of appeal against a decision to appoint or not to appoint an individual Member?"[16] "What happens if someone feels that they have been wrongly and unfairly treated?"[17] The answer is that the Panel would only be suggesting names to the House. The decision would lie with the House - to accept, reject or amend a Motion put forward by the Panel. There would be no court of appeal after the House's decision - nor is there now.

15  In her evidence to us the Leader of the House raised two practical questions not mentioned in the Government Reply.

16  First, the Leader of the House asked whether, like the Speaker and the Deputies, the Chairman of Committees and Deputy Chairmen would not vote. The common-sense solution would be that they should not vote on matters on which they had already had to exercise impartiality. The situation would exactly parallel Chairmen of Standing Committees not voting in further proceedings on Bills which they have chaired in Committee. In practice, the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Committees would thus not vote on Motions to nominate Members to Select Committees; but they would not otherwise be restricted.

17  Second, the Leader said that

    "...one of the reasons that the Speaker and the Deputy Speaker are seen as impartial is because they do not concern themselves, the House protects them from being concerned with, for example, making a choice between one Member and another, as to who should serve on a Select Committee".[18]

In our view, this is not a valid comparison. It ignores two things:

  • that the Speaker exercises sweeping powers in respect of contentious matters of great concern to Members: selection of amendments; selection of Members to speak; authorisation of emergency debates, and so on. Except in the extreme circumstances of a Motion of censure upon the Chair, the powers are exercised by the Speaker and, to lesser extents, the Chairman of Ways and Means and the Deputies, without restriction or the need for the House's approval; and

  • that, as we noted above, we are suggesting only that the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Committees should propose names to the House. At no stage would they take the sorts of executive powers wielded by the Speaker and Deputies. And they would operate alone only for the first few weeks of Parliament; once Chairmen of Select Committees began to be elected, they too would take part in suggesting names to the House.


Chairmanships

18  The Government Reply alleges that our proposed system

19  We find it hard to see this as an argument against our proposal. Under the present system one person "considered worthy of Chairmanship" is usually placed on each Committee; and any Committee "might not choose to elect that person". In this respect, how does our proposal introduce any new difficulty?

20  We suggested to the Leader of the House that the Select Committee Panel could be required by Standing Order to take into account a division of Chairmanships in proportion to the membership of the House, thus protecting the interests of all parties.[19] This seemed to make little difference to the Government's stance.[20]

21  We note the following exchange during the Leader of the House's evidence:

    Qq 37-38 [Mrs Dunwoody] "Could you tell me how you ensure at the present time that the choice of party managers...is always elected?"

    [Mrs Beckett] "You do not and it has been known for them to elect the wrong person."

22  Later in her evidence the Leader of the House said

    "...often it is clear that probably people envisage that X or Y might come to be Chairman of that Committee, indeed, someone is added to the Liaison Committee on exactly that basis in order to be a potential Chairman of that Committee."[21]

In fact, no-one is added to the Liaison Committee until after he or she has been elected Chairman; but we note a recent case where the election of the "wrong" Chairman (but of the "right" party) led to the extreme unwillingness of the Government to table the Motion in the House (as only the Government could do) to place that Chairman on the Liaison Committee.

Delays

23  In its Reply the Government acknowledges that "continuity of membership is important to running an effective Committee".[22] How, then, are we to interpret the Government's apparent acquiescence in the current difficulties and delays in replacing Members of Select Committees? We expect our system of nomination to replace Members within a week of a vacancy becoming known.[23] The Annex to this Report sets out some recent examples of delays (of up to fourteen months) under the present system. The Government's favoured method of selecting members of select committees seems to fail the Government's own test of effectiveness.

24  We criticised the delay in setting up Select Committees at the start of a Parliament because this is

    "...the very time when committees need to put in maximum effort to establish their approach, plan their programme and begin work. These delays are of course convenient for the government of the day".[24]

In response, the Government says

    "A timescale of two months is not ideal, but cannot be considered to be of extreme significance over the four to five year life of a Parliament."[25]

This response confirms our view that any Government is bound to find a two or three month delay in any detailed scrutiny of its activities not inconvenient.

25  The Reply says that the Government

    "...take heed of the Committee's concerns about the length of time it takes to establish Committees after an election. We hope all parties will use their best endeavours to establish Select Committees as quickly as practicable."[26]

But such hopes are not bankable. Our proposals are.

26  The Leader of the House said in evidence to us that our proposals

    "...immediately arouse in my mind the feeling that maybe there will be a kind of two-tier membership of the House and that those who put themselves into the career stream for select Committee membership are in some way different from and perhaps even, dare I say it, slightly above the ordinary backbench Member, and that is one of my concerns." [27]

and in the House later the same week she said

    "The proposals made by the Liaison Committee are indeed far-reaching and profound - so far-reaching and profound that they raise questions as to whether they would create a two-tier membership in the House."[28]

27  On the Government side of the House in any Parliament, there is already "two-tier" membership, if one cares to call it that: Ministers, PPSs and those who aspire to a Governmental career; and the others. All we are suggesting is that Select Committees should have a little more power and influence in order to be able to scrutinise the Government a bit better. If that makes Select Committee membership more attractive, well and good. But as the Government itself points out, there will always be Members moving in and out of Select Committee membership.[29] This increases Members' skills and experience, and seems to us to be a desirable thing.

Conclusion

28  In its Reply, the Government says that the present means of selecting Members to serve on Select Committees "have stood the test of time".[30] This is not so. There is widespread disquiet, both amongst Members and outside the House, about a system which is not open, and which is not clearly independent of the Government and the party managers. Those being scrutinised should not have a say in the selection of the scrutineers. We believe that the present system does not, and should not, have the confidence of the House and the public.



2   Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive; First Report from the Liaison Committee, HC 300 of Session 1999-2000. References here to that Report are in the form of "Report, paragraph 1". Back

3   Cm 4737. References to the Government's Reply are in the form: "Reply, paragraph 1". Back

4   The arguments for doing so have grown stronger; a (possibly unintended) consequence of devolution legislation is that UK Ministers in one or other House of the United Kingdom Parliament may in certain circumstances be required by law to attend a Committee of one of the devolved assemblies: see the Scotland Act 1998, section 23, the Government of Wales Act 1998, section 74, and the Northern Ireland Act 1998, section 44.  Back

5   Report, paragraphs 12 and 13. Back

6   Reply, paragraph 10. Back

7   The fifteen Departmental Select Committees, the Science and Technology Committee and four domestic committees (Accommodation and Works, Administration, Catering and Information). Back

8   Broadcasting, Consolidation, &c, Bills, Deregulation, European Scrutiny, Finance and Services, Liaison, Public Administration, Procedure, Public Accounts, Standards and Privileges, Statutory Instruments, Environmental Audit. Back

9   Following the First Report from the Select Committee on Procedure, HC588-I of Session 1977-78, paragraphs 6.18 to 6.21. Back

10   Reply, paragraph 10. Back

11   The Panel, composed of all Select Committee Chairmen, would be set up as Committees elected their Chairmen. See paragraph 21 of our First Report. Back

12   Sessional Return, 1998-99, HC1 of Session 1999-2000, pages 19 and 20. The time excludes points of order and "miscellaneous business" including suspensions. Back

13   We note that, in evidence before us, the Leader of the House appeared to resile considerably from the Government's original position. See Qq21 to 23. Back

14   Q28. Back

15   Q5. Back

16   Q5. Back

17   Q11. Back

18   ibid. Back

19   This is only one of a number of viable procedural solutions. For example, a Sessional Order might require that the Chairmanships of named Committees should be held by Members of specified parties represented in the House. Motions in Committee "That X do take the Chair" would be in order only if X were of the specified party. This would meet the Government's stated objection even more directly than placing an obligation upon the Panel to take such matters into account.  Back

20   Qq 29 to 36. Back

21   Q42. Back

22   Reply, paragraph 13. Back

23   Report, paragraph 19. Back

24   Report, paragraph 12. Back

25   Reply, paragraph 13. Back

26   Reply, paragraph 14. Back

27   Q43. Back

28   Official Report, 13 July 2000, col. 1170. Back

29   Reply, paragraphs 21 and 22. Back

30   Reply, paragraph 8. Back


 
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