Select Committee on Liaison First Report


Annual Reports: Common Themes

5.  In the meantime this Report has a more limited aim. It offers an initial snapshot of the work of the select committees which were nominated in July 2001.[5] We publish their Annual Reports using the framework instituted by our predecessors.

6.  A system of regular Annual Reports enables committees " to review recommendations, report on activity, share best practice and identify problems".[6] On this occasion we have invited each Committee to produce a brief report covering the initial months of its existence. These are published as Appendices to this Report. There will be a full review of 2002 at the end of the year, when we intend to move towards greater standardisation of the way material is presented by committees and to deal more substantively with emerging issues.

7.  In reviewing these Annual Reports by committees, we note some common themes, both positive and negative, which already emerge.

Effective scrutiny

8.  The Reports reveal the improved focus of committees in planning how they carry out their functions. In particular, we welcome the use of seminars. These enable Members, committee staffs and advisers to consider how a committee can operate more effectively. The Work and Pensions Committee organised an initial induction programme including a two-day seminar.[7] The Defence Committee comments on the value of such a self-examination session.[8] The Home Affairs Committee sets out the objectives it agreed at a meeting in July.[9] The same committee has developed a pro-forma for choosing inquiries focussed on subjects "on which the Committee can make a difference". In addition we are encouraging the exchange of best practice between the staffs of committees.

9.  A more methodical and less ad hoc approach to the business of scrutiny can only strengthen the work of committees. Identifying core tasks enables Members to have a clear discussion of priorities for a committee's work programme, and to monitor the results achieved.

Prompt nomination

10.  We pay tribute to the Leader of the House for the unusual promptness with which departmental committees were nominated in July. The process depends on action by the political parties to select their Members. Regrettably the Science and Technology Committee was left behind and had to wait almost four months longer, until 12 November 2001. This has substantially delayed its work programme. This is not acceptable.

Government Responses to Reports

11.  Some committees continue to have serious problems in getting Departments to reply within the two-month limit which the Government lays down in its own rules. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee had to wait from 11 June until 4 December for a response to its Third Report.[10] The Science and Technology Committee suffered delays of six and a half, seven, and six months respectively in respect of three Reports in the last Parliament. The Government had still not responded after nine months to two Reports on environmental matters made by the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee. The Welsh Affairs Committee had to wait six and a half months for the Response to one Report.

12.  Like delayed appointment of committees, this is unacceptable. In the context of modernisation this failure must be addressed. The House is entitled to expect higher standards of performance from Departments. We recommend that, in the context of the revision of Public Service Agreements which will accompany the 2002 Spending Review, Departments adopt formally the target of replying to reports of Select Committees within a two month period and, where this is not possible, giving the relevant committee an explanation within that period.

13.  Furthermore, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee comments that replies to some Reports were inadequate.[11] This issue is a matter of concern to us, which we shall monitor. Quality matters as much as timeliness.

Pre-Legislative Scrutiny

14.  Select committees contain a pool of knowledge and experience in their membership which should be used effectively to consider legislative proposals. Our predecessors' Reports supported scrutiny of draft bills by departmental select committees. This needs early notice, adequate documentation and the avoidance by the Government of unrealistic deadlines for committees to complete their work.

15.  In recent months, committees have taken the initiative and have usually received substantial co-operation from Whitehall. Thanks to a quick reallocation of resources, three committees were able to comment on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill introduced after the events of September 11. The Home Affairs Committee took evidence on the policy proposals in advance of the Bill's publication, and then further evidence after the Bill was published. Its Report was issued in time for Second Reading on 19 November.[12] Such initiatives make for better-informed debate on the Floor of the House.

16.  Indeed, the Committee's approach went further: its Chairman tabled amendments to implement some of its conclusions, two of which were accepted by the Government. This effective involvement was complemented by a Report from the Defence Committee which reviewed the Bill's provisions covering the Ministry of Defence Police.[13]

17.  Less satisfactory was the case of the Animal Health Bill. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee wished to report to the House on its provisions, but the Bill was not published in draft, so the Committee only had time to take evidence shortly after the Bill's presentation to the House. It then published the evidence before the Second Reading debate, in order to inform the House's deliberations. Such a rushed procedure could have been avoided by publication of the Bill in draft, permitting detailed scrutiny and informed comment.[14]

18.  Even when a Bill is published in draft, time for consultation needs to be adequate. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee describes the brief consultation period of one month for the draft Justice (Northern Ireland) Bill.[15] Eventually this was extended by a further four weeks, including the Christmas and New Year holiday, but the Government then introduced the substantive Bill before the end of the consultation period. The Northern Ireland Office failed to provide adequate time for examination of the proposed changes. This precluded "proper scrutiny and debate". It is important that all Departments sign up to the Leader's commitment that 'good scrutiny makes for good Government'.

Human Rights

19.  The third committee involved in reporting on the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill was the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). The first priority of this new committee, which met for the first time in January 2001, is the scrutiny of primary legislation for its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights. The JCHR took evidence from the Home Secretary and issued a report before the Bill's second reading. It then issued a further report in time for the Report Stage of the Bill in the House of Lords. Like the Home Affairs Committee, the Committee was able to have an influence on the Government, which tabled several amendments to meet various points raised in its Report.

20.  The existence of the JCHR provides a significant addition to committee scrutiny of legislation. The extent of its contribution, both actual and potential, is described in the full report which it has made to us.[16] It is to the credit of Government that the Committee was set up. It is to the credit of the Committee that it has so rapidly proved its relevance and its independence.

21.  The JCHR also has duties given it by its standing orders in relation to the procedures by which remedial orders made under the Human Rights Act are considered and approved by Parliament. In its Seventh Report,[17] it commented on the lack of safeguards in the House's standing orders surrounding the procedures by which these orders (whether in draft or not) are approved following their consideration by the Committee. The Committee set out proposals for amendments to the standing orders in their report. We support these recommendations, and hope for a favourable response from the Government.

'Joined-Up Committees'

22.  The co-ordination between the JCHR and the Home Affairs Committee has been productive. We also welcome other evidence of improved co-ordination, for example between the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee and departmental select committees.[18] We hope that a co-operative approach between committees generally can ensure effective coverage of issues that straddle the responsibilities of several of them.

23.  With the Cabinet Office encouraging more 'joined-up Government', we must ensure that we are able to respond more widely with 'joined-up scrutiny'. The re-creation of the 'Quadripartite Committee' on strategic export controls (from the Defence, Foreign Affairs, International Development and Trade and Industry Committees) is welcome. It met for the first time on 18 December, and now benefits from the permanent incorporation in Standing Order No. 137A of a provision which reduces the quorum from each committee to two when more than two committees are taking evidence. The same Order allows identical reports from two or more committees to be formally published and referred to as a joint report although it does not remove the requirement for the committees to agree the reports separately. It also allows for committees to consider draft reports concurrently, although the full significance of this power remains to be seen.

24.  It would be helpful if the new standing order (which the Leader of the House brought forward as part of his package of positive responses to our predecessors' recommendations) could be amended to regularise the right of committees meeting concurrently to join together in appointing one of their members to chair such meetings.

Use of Sub-Committees

25.  A new provision in Standing Order No. 152(3) permits each departmental committee appointed under the Order to appoint one sub-committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee may each appoint two. For the moment, we note a degree of caution in using the new provision. Greater flexibility in the working methods of committees is made possible, but use of a single permanent sub-committee can have disadvantages by excluding some Members from committee activities while other Members "would be expected to work twice as hard".[19] Nevertheless, a sub-committee can provide a valuable extra vehicle for inquiries, widening the scope of Departmental scrutiny and facilitating greater immediacy.

Legislative Scrutiny Committees

26.  We have also received Reports from two select committees which operate in the legislative area. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments reports on improvements made to its working practices in order to accelerate the delivery of its advice and sharpen its scrutiny of statutory instruments. The Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee, the successor to the Deregulation Committee, raises particular issues concerning its relations with the Government. In particular, it is seeking to ensure an even flow of items before the Committee, and to protect the freedom of its members to support the Committee's recommendations in a subsequent vote on a substantive motion.[20] The latter issue could be one of concern to us as well, if select committee Reports were to be debated in this way, as our predecessors recommended.

National Audit Office

27.  We draw attention to a valuable innovation reported by the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee. In November the Committee took evidence from the National Audit Office (NAO) following the latter's report on the London Underground PPP. The Committee comments on the value of its session "which elucidated how value for money might be assessed" without drawing the NAO officials "into policy or matters which would compromise the impartiality of the NAO".[21] We welcome the co-operation received from the NAO. The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) already seconds some officials to committee staffs. We understand that other committees are also making use of the NAO's resources in carrying out their scrutiny work. There is no single model for this; it will therefore be important for committee staffs to exchange information in order to establish best practice. At our Chairman's request, a background note was prepared by the C&AG. We hope to see more work done in conjunction with the NAO, especially in areas such as the Estimates.

Restructuring of Government

28.  The changes to the structure of Whitehall made after the General Election have been reflected in consequential alterations to the titles and responsibilities of a number of the departmental committees. A number of the Reports describe evidence taken from Ministers on their new responsibilities after the restructuring. These sessions have been a valuable exercise in public information and accountability. In addition, they provide a framework for continuing scrutiny. For example, the Education and Skills Committee has given itself the task, over the course of this Parliament, to assess the effect of the new structures on the Government's performance in delivering its education and skills programme.[22]

Public Consultation

29.  Another improvement described in the Reports is greater provision for public consultation. For example, the Public Administration Committee organised an on-line consultation to gather views on issues related to public participation.[23] The same committee produced an "Issues and Questions" paper to set out the main themes of its public service reform inquiry. This attracted "useful and well focussed responses".[24] We also note the experience of the Health Committee which took formal evidence at a hospital, to assess the impact of a PFI project on local staff and management, and then supplemented this by informal contacts with staff and patients.[25] The Science and Technology Committee tried the new technique of inviting interested organisations in its field to suggest topics for investigation. It received "an extensive and very useful response, which has informed our decision on future inquiries".[26]

A Strategy for the Public and the Media

30.  Such contributions from the public are likely to be increased if there is greater media coverage of the work of select committees. A media strategy is being developed by the Committee Office in co-operation with the Communications Adviser and her assistant. The Office is reviewing ways in which to publicise and explain committee activity better.

31.  Already the number of public meetings of select committees is up 31 per cent compared to last year, and more are being covered by the broadcast media now that extra facilities are available in Portcullis House.[27] In addition, a webcasting experiment has been started, which will include audio webstreaming of some select committees, accessible via the parliamentary website at This provides direct access to committee hearings, which we hope can be extended and made permanent. A new layout of the website has also been developed, and will be inaugurated in the spring, including improvements to the websites of individual committees. We also note the suggestion from the Education and Skills Committee that a wider range of evidence should be placed uncorrected on the internet. This would speed up the accessibility of evidence which arouses great public interest. Accordingly we intend to look again at this issue.[28]

Format of Reports

32.  Readers of this Report will notice another visible, if limited, sign of progress. It follows a staff review of the presentation style of select committee reports. The old format has met with a great deal of criticism. Proposals for its modernisation put forward several years ago foundered on cost grounds. The Leader of the House's Memorandum described the format as "old-fashioned" and "obsolete".[29] We share that view.

33.  Since the start of this year, committees have been using a larger typeface and arabic numbering of Report pages. Reports have a less forbidding cover and title page. Best practice on presentation of the contents is also being developed. More substantial improvements are planned, after consultation and an assessment of consequential costs of printing and staff time. We are determined to achieve a more inviting format that will both encourage the reader and demonstrate the modern approach to scrutiny described in the Reports that follow.

5   excluding the Science & Technology Committee, which was not nominated until 12 November 2001 Back

6   Shifting the Balance: Select Committees and the Executive, First Report from the Committee, HC 300 of Session 1999-2000, paragraphs 51 to 55 Back

7   Appendix U, paragraph 12 Back

8   Appendix B, paragraph 14 Back

9   Appendix I, paragraph 5 Back

10   Appendix L, paragraph 6 Back

11   Appendix A, paragraph 10 Back

12   First Report from the Home Affairs Committee, HC 351 of Session 2001-02 Back

13   First Report from the Defence Committee, HC 382 of Session 2001-02 Back

14   Appendix F, paragraph 7 Back

15   Appendix L, paragraphs 10 to14. The Government had announced in the 1999 Queen's Speech that a draft Bill would be published on reform of the system of criminal justice in Northern Ireland following the Criminal Justice Review Back

16   Appendix J Back

17   Seventh Report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Session 2001-02, Making of Remedial Orders, HL Paper 58/HC 473, paragraphs 39 to 45 and Annex B Back

18   Appendix C, paragraphs 13 and 14 Back

19   Appendix D, paragraph 9 Back

20   Appendix C, paragraphs 7and 8 Back

21   Appendix R, paragraph 5 Back

22   Appendix D, paragraph 6 Back

23   Appendix M, paragraph 3 Back

24   Ibid, paragraph 10 Back

25   Appendix H, paragraphs 6 and 7 Back

26   Appendix N, paragraph 4 Back

27   In the three months October to December 2001, select committees held 164 public meetings to take evidence compared to 125 for the same period in 2000 Back

28   Appendix D, paragraph 13. Recent examples where such access would have been useful were the evidence by the Rail Regulator given to the Transport Sub-committee concerning Railtrack; or that given on Afghanistan to the Foreign Affairs Committee by Mr Paul Bergne Back

29   The Leader of the House's Memorandum, paragraph 55 Back

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Prepared 7 February 2002