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

Examination of Witness (Questions 40 - 48)



Joan Ruddock

  40. If I might say so, on that point, it does overcome the point that I made to Lord Sheldon about the vested interests, because I think that it is clearly perceived there are vested interests for the chair to be appointing people. May I put it to you that the high profile cases of which we know, the three cases of people being taken off the committee, not being put forward for nomination to the committee, was not because nobody would have them as members of that committee, but because, very clearly, the expectation was, if they were a member of the committee, that person would become the chair of the committee. And that is something that is clearly perceived in advance, there is either promotion of people for the chair or this pressure on the committee to ensure that someone is elected. I think you agree with all the points I make?
  (Lord Norton) Absolutely; yes.

  41. Which takes me to your recommendations about payment. The stakes will be that much higher, especially, as you suggest in your submission, that people could be paid even at the level of a cabinet minister; and, I put it to you, if that were to be the case, surely there ought to be a limit of a single Parliament to anyone who chaired a select committee?
  (Lord Norton) On your first point, I would not necessarily accept fully the argument that there are vested interests in the way you said, but I would accept that there is the perception, and perceptions are all-important. I realise other people may think there are vested interests, and I think that is the same point with the role of the Whips, why we have got to get away from the present system, it is not just the actuality but it is also the perception, and I think that is absolutely fundamental. No, I take your point; there would be competition, that is part of what is in the report, because what we are concerned to do is to actually build incentives into the system, to make being involved in select committees more attractive, to want to bring Members into it. Now, you are quite right, it may be that one should, therefore, have a rotation rule, it works fairly well in the Lords, it is a three-year rotation rule for chairmen, and indeed for members, but I think, in this context, only for chairmen, which could be for a Parliament, with perhaps a provision for coming back at a later Parliament, whatever, but you cannot have two continuous terms. So, yes, that would meet your point, and, of course, it would maintain in the system some element of fresh blood, in terms of chairing committees as well.


  42. Very good. Shall we move on to some of the wider issues that you have raised about the select committees. First of all, I noted in your report that I think you were more sympathetic to the enlargement of the select committees than Lord Sheldon indicated when Ann Coffey inquired; would you like to expand on your thinking on the size of the committees?
  (Lord Norton) Yes, certainly. I think there are a number of arguments for it; one I touched upon earlier, if it was felt there was a degree of expertise that would allow for a committee to expand. And, again, coming back to Nick Winterton's point, one is not setting a precedent there, because at the moment select committees are not of a uniform size, so it is felt that some subjects, for different reasons, require a slightly larger membership; it may be because of the subject matter and the Members one wishes to appoint, like the Northern Ireland Committee, or it may be the nature of the subject matter lends itself to it. So there is no rule that it necessarily has to be 11 members; so I think there are grounds for some degree of flexibility there. But there is another reason, which comes back to my point about other goals of reform, which is that if you are to encourage the committees to go beyond their existing practice of focusing upon scrutiny of policy and issuing reports, so that they spend time, for example, looking more at estimates, if they are going to engage more in pre-legislative scrutiny, then there may well be a case for them to appoint sub-committees; some may focus on the estimates, but it might be preferable to allow the committee to get through a fair amount of work to appoint, say, a sub-committee to engage in some degree of pre-legislative scrutiny. For that purpose, I do think there is a case for enlarging the committees, because it would give them the flexibility, if they wished, and I think a lot should rest on the committees themselves to decide how they ought to proceed, but if they wished they would therefore have the scope to appoint sub-committees. So that was one part of our proposal, to allow them to expand what they do and to spend more time on pre-legislative scrutiny, but it would not be the only way we felt that they could accommodate that expansion, but it is one of the proposals that we have put forward to allow them to do that.

  43. One other point, from your report. I personally find myself very sympathetic to your comments on the character and nature of the actual reports, I am not just talking about the substance but the presentation of it, which has a certain olde worlde charm, and I find myself impressed by your proposal it should be made a more reader-friendly style. That, presumably, is something that you attach some importance to, if we are going to connect with the public?
  (Lord Norton) It does, and I have done for some time. Some of the recommendations in here and in the Liaison report I was actually putting before the Procedure Committee in 1989/90 when it issued its report on the first ten years; both in terms of strengthening committees but also the dissemination of reports, I think they are extremely important. I know there may be those who feel this is a rather small issue, but it is actually rather important to the whole concept of disseminating reports. Committees can do extraordinarily important work, excellent recommendations, but the only people who sometimes read them will be the Government, of necessity, because it has got to respond, and affected public, the interest groups outside who want to see to what extent the recommendations are taken on board; but they are the only captive audiences. The other audiences, in terms of Parliament and the wider public: what is there there to bring them to the reports? There have to be ways of disseminating the reports to those wider audiences. Part of that is presentation, in terms of how they are designed, how they look, which is not unimportant, given that MPs are not exactly short of material to read, so you need something that is going to catch the eye, that stands out from other things. But I would also ally it not just with the physical presentation of a report but the mechanisms by which they are actually disseminated to the wider public. I think there has tended to be too much of a restrictive attitude, in terms of disseminating reports; it is seen too much in terms of, "Well, if we print them, they're going to cost quite a lot of money, we'll have charge people a lot of money if they want to get hold of a copy." I think there needs to be a different attitude, that these are reports that really ought to be in the public domain, to see them as under the ownership of the public, so that one presents them in an attractive manner but then tries to ensure they are pushed out as widely as possible to all those who might be interested in what is going on. The Internet obviously is important in this context, it is being redesigned in a way that I think will be clearly more user friendly, and already, if you look at the number of hits that committee reports get, it is quite encouraging. But if it were redesigned in a way so that not just those who wanted to get the reports got them immediately, I think there is an awful lot to be done there. I think it comes back to my point about culture, how you see these things, that there needs to be a completely different attitude of mind about the dissemination of the outputs of committees. It is a shame if they do wonderful work and yet the band of output is so narrow. I think select committees have been a great plus, they have done excellent work, but there is a danger if there is not a sufficient linkage between the committees and the chamber, and between the committees and the outside world. And I think that ties in with my earlier point about linking it with other changes, so that committee work feeds far more into what goes on in the chamber and also feeds far more into that wider environment, so that people outside are more aware and more interested in what is actually going on, because committee reports can be extremely educative for people and I think could add enormous value to the reputation of this place.

  Chairman: Thank you. I think we would all say Amen to much of that.

Mr Pike

  44. Could I just return to the pre-legislative scrutiny of bills, because, obviously, the Modernisation Committee reported on that, and at the moment we have given several options. Now you will appreciate that some government departments have a lot more legislation than others. Now there is a danger, would you not accept, that some select committees could have their agenda totally dictated by looking at these bills, and that, therefore, the procedure recommended by Modernisation allows two or three different avenues for this type of scrutiny, which I think is the right thing, is a sensible approach, because, otherwise, I am sure you will see some select committees would be almost totally dominated? Now the other thing that I would ask, while I am raising the question, is that the three reports that we are looking at, your report, the Hansard and the Liaison Committee report, have all suggested that we give select committees more powers, and making them more important; do you think that that would, in the end, result in members having better attendance? Because I know I had to yesterday be having officers `phone round, the Clerks of the House, to get people so that we could start our meeting, and many chairs of committees are in that difficulty at times?
  (Lord Norton) Indeed; I agree very much with what you are saying. On your first point about pre-legislative scrutiny, in our report we say something similar to Modernisation, in that we recognise the need for some degree of flexibility. As I mentioned earlier, I am not for being too rigid in terms of what committees do, because I think committees have to adapt to their particular needs, for the very reason you have mentioned, so some committees dealing with domestic policy areas are going to be extremely busy if they are looking at all the bills coming before the House; others like Foreign Affairs are not exactly going to be overwhelmed by pre-legislative scrutiny. Therefore, I think committees do need some degree of flexibility in how they respond; that would tie in with my earlier point, for example, about possibly even enlarging certain committees, giving them scope perhaps for one or more sub-committees, and, of course, there is the point that in some areas it would lend itself more to a joint committee, and on occasion an ad hoc committee; and, as we mentioned, the committees will not necessarily be obliged to engage in pre-legislative scrutiny, it will be up to them whether they engage in it. So I take your point exactly, I have no disagreement with what you said. I think it is up to committees to adapt to their particular circumstances, and they need the resources and the capacity to do that; and, as I say, we take that point completely in our report. On your second point, again, I agree completely, and what we address in the report explicitly is how do you provide incentives for members to be involved in the process, what is it that will make them attend? You cannot just say, "You should attend," or rely on their sense of duty, because there are competing demands on their time, so what is it that will draw them to committees? Well, making the committee work more relevant, not necessarily in formal powers, but if you make the committee members feel they are going to have some impact on what Government may be doing, not in terms of formal sanctions, but if you have actually got the opportunity, for example, with the estimates to propose transfer of funds from one head to another, make it more relevant from their point of view in terms of what the committees are doing. I think, as well, there is the point about paying the chairs. But, of course, another recommendation is that each committee should be allowed to appoint a deputy chair as well. This would be part of a package of incentives. Of course, if you have sub-committees someone has got to chair them, which could be an ordinary member of the committee, and, again, I think you can build in things like that, which are incentives. So I am all for giving select committees a range of things to do without overburdening them, so that you build in the resources, the capacity for sub-committees, so they are not overburdened, but in a way that makes them more relevant to the members, so, in other words, make them actually feel, "Yes, there's something worthwhile in attending, I'm not just making up numbers, I'm not just going to pop in for a minute so I am on the attendance list, I'm actually interested in the work of the committee and therefore I will attend it." So we were very much driven by what underpinned your question, that is, what is it that we can do to actually make members want to attend the committees, just telling them they should will not necessarily bring them there, there has actually got to be something in it for them that makes the whole exercise worthwhile. And that was what we were very much concerned with, incentives for the committees, and indeed incentives in terms of the chamber as well, what is it that will bring Members back into the House. That was very much at the heart of our thinking, what are the incentives for Members to make use of what is there? We can provide all the structures, all the procedures you like, but if Members are not interested and are not prepared to commit themselves then the whole exercise will be for nothing.

Mr Knight

  45. Do you think there is a case for saying that prolonged non-attendance without reason should trigger a committee vacancy?
  (Lord Norton) I am very much drawn to that. It is the other side of the coin, because I think there should be both carrots and sticks; so carrots to attend make it worthwhile to attend, and if you do not attend then you are off the committee. I think there is a lot to be said for that. You could argue, in a way, it also then becomes a carrot, because presumably no Member would like to be seen to have been kicked off a committee for not attending; so I have tremendous sympathy with that. And, on the point of principle, it is not fair on the committee; for the committee to do its work, members have to attend, they have got to apply themselves, and it is not fair if someone is not doing that. I think that would be a reason for removing them, because otherwise, and I think it is probably the only reason I am keen to keep members on committees, because I think it is important to develop a sort of collective ethos on the committee for the purpose of continuity, so I think we want to discourage members from leaving, as far as possible, certainly those who have been active in committee, but, if it is someone who is clearly not participating, it is not fair on the committee. Indeed it is not fair on somebody else if they actually want to be on the committee and would be willing to commit their time to it, so I think you should give them the opportunity.

  46. And do you think that should be an automatic trigger or a power which is vested in the committee?
  (Lord Norton) I think you need to have at least some basic rule about it, which would be that four, five or six consecutive non-attendances should normally trigger removal, unless the Member is able to present, either to the committee itself or perhaps to whoever is responsible for appointing the committee, some reasonable excuse; obviously, if a Member has been in hospital, or something like that, you do not want to penalise them for that, but if they have no reasonable excuse I think you need something that would trigger that anyway, but with some flexibility.

Mr Winterton

  47. Following up really the question that Greg Knight and Peter Pike asked relating to attendance, anecdotal evidence I always think is quite important. In the last Parliament, the Procedure Committee had one member, I do not intend to make mention of the name or constituency, who did not attend for nearly three years. I do not blame the individual member, because he had requested to be replaced but his party did not wish to replace him, and he had just been told not to turn up if he did not wish to do so. That does, as Lord Norton has said, put further pressure upon the other members of that committee, and, therefore, the present system clearly does not work and does not represent the best interests of the House. Relating to estimates, and I think Peter Pike also made mention of that, as did you, Lord Norton, of course the Procedure Committee has made a recommendation to the House, and Andrew Stunell and Paul Tyler have been well aware of that, from the past, that part of the job of a select committee should be to examine the estimates of the department that they are scrutinising. Now, of course, there is some reluctance to do that because there are more high profile, attractive things to do, but you are saying to this Committee that examining the estimates clearly is an important task. And, finally, because of your concern to get higher profile for select committees, and I fully endorse that, would you agree with me, and I am not necessarily going to get support from my colleague on my right, do you not feel that the experiment of Westminster Hall has given the House a much greater opportunity to debate, perhaps not quite the chamber but it is a public exposure of the very important reports, Philip, to which you have made mention, that are produced by select committees; and do you therefore think that the Westminster Hall experiment has been a success, particularly in respect of select committee reports?
  (Lord Norton) You have raised three points. The only thing I can say on the first one, you are absolutely right, though, of course, you have now offered us all an incentive to rush off and look at the membership of the Procedure Committee during that period and then look at the attendance list, but you are absolutely right, and, of course, if you have the sort of mechanism I mentioned, which is a triggering mechanism, after so many non-attendances you go off unless there is reasonable excuse, would meet that very case you have mentioned. On your second point about estimates, you are quite right; I think there is a case for select committees to be encouraged to fulfil the different aspects of their terms of reference, and we know from the data presented in the Liaison Committee report that there is an overwhelming emphasis on the policy aspect rather than administration expenditure. So, again in our report, we are trying to think of ways of giving incentives to committees to broaden the scope of what they do, so they would look more at expenditure. One possibility which was put before us was that one might require select committees to report each year that they have considered the estimates; that would be one way of doing it. Now the committee may decide just to look at the estimates and report they have looked at them without really doing anything, but at least it would prompt them, would require them to report to the House they have considered the estimates, so you can provide prompts in that way, and, as I mentioned earlier, build in resources to provide them with that scope. So we felt certainly that committees should be encouraged perhaps to spend a little less time on policy, because 70 or 80 per cent of the time is spent on that, and move a little more towards the estimates; so I agree completely with you on that, and I think they could be given a nudge in that direction, which I think would be rather important. Westminster Hall has provided a forum, certainly opened up the scope for more debate of select committee reports; so I would agree with you in that any opportunity for Members to debate select committee reports is to be welcomed. I also agree with the Liaison Committee, I would like to see it taken further and closer links between those reports and the chamber itself, because on occasion I think that is rather important; rather than just a `take note' debate, sometimes select committees do bring forward matters where I think the whole House needs to be given the opportunity to debate it, and, if necessary, on a substantive motion. And therefore I think you have got to be careful about just saying, "Westminster Hall has been very good;" it comes back to the point we make about select committees in our report, it is the half full, half empty bottle, so, okay, the bottle is filling up, but we need to be conscious that it is not full, and, for the health of the political system, I think that bottle needs to be brimming.


  48. Thank you very much, Philip, that has been very helpful, it was a very interesting session. We are very grateful to you for your guidance.
  (Lord Norton) My pleasure.

  Chairman: We hope we will have something, at the end of the day, that will go with the grain of your thinking. Thank you.

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