Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 24)



Mr Winterton

  20. Could I come back to the payment or provision of additional resources for the chairmen of select committees. Do you believe, Lord Sheldon, that there should be an opportunity for people to serve Parliament, i.e., on the one hand, as ministers serving in a Government for the benefit of the country; and, secondly, people who perhaps do not want that particular opportunity but people who do want to serve Parliament and the House of Commons for the benefit of the country; and that it is important to attract the very best people to do that, as well as to attract people into government and serving in a particular government? And would you not accept that perhaps by offering some incentive, now what that incentive would be we could talk about at great length, but that it is appropriate that there should be these two channels which are available to Members of Parliament, to serve Parliament or to serve Parliament through being a member of a government, and that both are important and both must attract the very highest calibre of individual man or woman? And, therefore, those that take the parliamentary channel would very much appreciate, if I may say this to my colleague Andrew Stunell, they would take account of the importance of the smaller parties, the minority parties in this House, and the role that they must play and the fact that they should have their representation within committees. So do you think that, again, is a fair appraisal of what the Liaison Committee was seeking to do in establishing people who were independent of government and political parties, albeit elected here under party flags, to decide how people should, in fact, be appointed to committees, including minority parties?
  (Lord Sheldon) If I can deal with the point about payment; if this goes through in the way that I hoped it might then the authority of the chairmen would be greatly enhanced, the authority of the select committees would be greatly enhanced, and it would be an alternative career that would be very valuable indeed, and membership of that committee could be more valuable perhaps in the future than it has been in the past. There are two careers, the ministerial career and the select committee career; there is another one, of course, the person who speaks very well as a backbencher on various occasions, but there is only a handful of those who really make their name in that sort of way; the most important one, of course, is government and if you are not in the government and you see that you are not going to be in the government then you should not feel you have got a diminished role, there is a role for you, you have been elected, and if you are not in the Government you can still look and make suggestions to the Government and press for things, and the select committees is a way of doing it in a very thorough, detailed manner, with much greater authority than most people will have on their own account.

Mr Kidney

  21. Bob, you were asked a question about the size of the Liaison Committee, you said perhaps the way to reform it would be to elect an executive committee from amongst them. What do you make of the Hansard Society's suggestion that the chairs of all the domestic committees should come off the Liaison Committee and that that is not the right place for them?
  (Lord Sheldon) They all occupied a lesser role in our deliberations because of the point that you made; but you mentioned the Hansard Society, for which I must express my thanks as well. The precursor to all this, perhaps I should just mention it, was that we sent out, about two years ago, some complaints that we had had, to see if chairmen of select committees found that they agreed with those complaints; we did not get very much, so I suggested that really this is the time for discussion of the role for select committees and bringing other people into it. So we got other people involved, and fortunately the Hansard Society came in on this and the London School of Economics gave some assistance as well, and we had a one-day conference, which brought everything to a head, on which we produced our reports of the kind that you mentioned. But I thought I would just like to get that in, if I might.

  Ann Coffey: One of the ways of solving the problem would be to, in fact, increase the size of the select committee, so that more Members were able to sit on select committees. Do you have any view about that? I gather some of the larger select committees work on a sub-committee basis, which is a way of managing a large number of members, but, clearly, if more Members were able to sit on select committees, in fact, on them all, we would not have this problem about deciding who should go on, because that would be available to everybody. Do you have a view about that?


  22. Can I just couple with that, Bob, a question about another part of your report, where you recommended that where a Member, for no good reason, had failed to attend over a period of time the chair might recommend to an appropriate panel that that person be removed. I see the logic of that and I think the question of attendance is one we should focus on, not focus unfairly, but the power to withdraw somebody from a select committee would be a novel one and might attract criticism. Perhaps you could respond to both parts?
  (Lord Sheldon) It is, of course, essential that a member of a select committee must be interested in the work of that select committee and attend that committee. Eleven, I think, is pretty large, actually, I would not like to see it exceeded in that; in my experience, if it is well attended you get such a range of views, it is more than adequate, and in some cases there are problems. In the Public Accounts Committee, for example, whereas years ago you had difficulties getting people to join the Public Accounts Committee, in the more recent years I had to send a note round stopping everybody, fifteen minutes is all they had; and this is not the time for reminiscence.

Ann Coffey

  23. Can I just follow on quickly. Some of the select committees examine the work of departments that are very large, Environment, Transport, and how they have dealt with that is actually divide the committee into areas of specialty; and, I agree, if you are having a select committee it is difficult to have more than 11 or 12 people asking people who give evidence. But there is a facility for dividing people, and, in fact, some of the committees have done it. So you could perhaps have a select committee, Treasury Select Committee, that had 20 members, but, in fact, decided itself which aspects of the Treasury's work it would look at, and a smaller number of people looking at those aspects of its work?
  (Lord Sheldon) There may be a case for that in certain instances, but, of course, sub-committees can always be arranged, and so we had the Treasury and Civil Service Committee, a Treasury Committee and the Civil Service Committee was a sub-committee. That worked reasonably well, but I am open to further suggestions, of course.

Mr Knight

  24. Can I take you back to Nicholas Winterton's point about payment for select committee chairmen. You said you felt it would be good for the prestige of the chairmen, but you did not appear to be fired with enthusiasm on this particular proposal. Do you not think there is actually an argument that the workload of a select committee chairman warrants the payment, because if you look at, say, the workload of a minister of state, is not the workload of a select committee chairman roughly comparable with that? Do we not also, as a House, expect select committee chairmen not to have the same level of outside interests, say, as a backbencher? And if we are expecting the select committee chairmen not to have outside interests, or certainly to the same extent, and to be on top of his brief, is not there an argument for payment on those grounds alone, totally disregarding any prestige that may follow?
  (Lord Sheldon) I think you are on stronger grounds when you put it that way. For prestige, I would hope that the position of being a chairman of an important select committee, with perhaps the greater enhancement of its standing as a result of your future decisions on these matters, might be sufficient to produce that kind of prestige. As far as offsetting some of the disadvantages of earning a bit of money outside, that is a separate point; it may be that this Committee might look at that more favourably. I was rather more concerned with the other aspect.

  Chairman: Thank you very much, Bob, and we are very grateful to you for your guidance to us. We will try to respond as quickly as we can to the problems of the present appointment system, and we are very grateful to you for your guidance. Thank you so much.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 8 November 2001