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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



Joan Ruddock

  60. One of my great concerns with the proposals that came from the Liaison Committee was that they were vested interests in this in that they were all chairs of select committees anyway. We have a culture of reappointment of existing chairs of committees of previous parliaments. In that context, if we moved to what would be the Chairman's Panel do you believe that no person who serves on that panel should themselves be a candidate for a select committee? Secondly, should the term that the chair of a select committee is to serve be limited? Finally, do you believe we should continue with the system that exists at the present time whereby which committees have a chair of which party is determined in advance because clearly that is an influence on who serves on the committee?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Peter, do you want to take those on this occasion and I will come in.
  (Mr Riddell) On the latter, it goes back to the point Tony has been making, that we cannot end politicisation and there have to be some deals otherwise inevitably you will just be a government cheerleader. There has to be some distinction, and the distinction I would draw is between the party and the nominee because I think it is very important, if it is agreed it should be a Tory Chairman or Lib Dem Chairman(although it is not likely to arise with the Lib Dems because you are not going to have more than one on a committee if) that the committee then decides which of the Tories. I think that is important.

  61. May I ask for clarification, you do believe that the parties should go on deciding which of the committees should have a chair of that particular party?
  (Mr Riddell) I cannot see how you do it to ensure that the Opposition parties get it unless you do do that, given that this is a majoritarian chamber. I went to the States ten years ago and the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives from 1954 to 1984. There was a chap there Bob Michael, an Illinois Congressman, who was for 30 years a Congressman and who never chaired a committee in his life apart from internal party committees. I think we have some advantages over that. That can only be done by deals between the parties on the fact of which party (but not the identity) is chosen for the chair. Term limits. To go back to the initial point you made, I think on the Chairman's Panel what was suggested is perhaps two senior people from the Chairman's Panel would augment the Deputy Speaker and other Deputy Speakers in practice. I can be worked out which members of the Chairman's Panel want to be on select committees. I do not know what the figure is now but I cannot remember how many are apart from office committees and so on. I think that can be sorted out in practice. I am less sure about the term limits. I think there is an advantage in a bit of turnover in practice. There is such a turnover on the committees. There is the extraordinary turnover in the Public Administration Committee—I think it is 66 per cent, rather like the first day of the Somme—and Tony Wright, unlike having to write to the relatives to comiserate with them for their losses, was having to write to congratulate them for becoming PPSs and member of the front bench. You do want a bit of continuity but it is very difficult to establish a rule, especially an invented rule, as turned out two years ago, that it should only be two Parliaments.

Mr Kidney

  62. Can I put to you that the phraseology is wrong about a court of appeal and we want a system that is fair and open where members can make application and give reasons for a particular job whereas the people who make the decision against competing applications are working to some understood criteria where people who are turned down are told why they are turned down and if the Whips have any say at all people are told what that say is? Is that not the system we are actually aiming for?
  (Mr Riddell) I think the hidden topic—and I gather the PLP is having a review of the issue itself—is the extent to which the individual parties decide on their own selection of nominees according to whatever formula—going back to the last question—it is done, and I think most people would say that you should not necessarily allow Tory members to choose which Labour member serves, apart from when the committee meets and they decide who is chairing the committee. I think it is going to be rough and ready. Everything to do with it is rough and ready and it will produce obvious unfairnesses. Its aim, like in the example Martin Salter gave, is to have a second look so that it is not just rammed through. That is what I meant when I was talking about political reality, that it is not just done on the nod like the farce of the Committee of Selection but is regarded and is saying robustly, "Perhaps it would be desirable that at least one or two every parliament are turned over and not recommended." It is not easy but I think there is a robustness there.

  63. Tony Newton was asked earlier who should decide, the House or the executive, and in fact he said yes!
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Yes was to the House!

  64. You are introducing this third element of the political parties themselves doing their slate and handing it into somebody. You are saying it is the political reality. Again that is not necessarily what is being sought here. If I could illustrate with a niche question. Induction of new members is in its infancy but I could foresee new members getting their say like everybody else in select committee applications through an improved induction procedure. Can you not see Members outside their party making applications to whoever the decision-maker is?
  (Mr Riddell) I do not think anyone would suggest ruling that out but in practice you have to balance it. The suggestion is that parties have to be much more open and democratic on voting and so on, but it does allow for, when that has been done, what you are working towards, and what we have talked about is someone writing to this panel saying, "I was ignored, I happen to know an awful lot about this." On your other point—and here we get into training and induction—one of the things that came across in our hearings over 18 months is that MPs are very well trained to be campaigners, they are very good on the welfare officers' role compared with 30 or 40 years ago. We had Tom Sawyer on the Commission and he was very much involved with the Labour members of the committee pre-1997 and he said, "We never talked about scrutiny at all". I am struck in my conversations with new Members how this is a strange world. There needs to be much greater familiarity, training and explanation.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  65. Speaking as somebody who made five attempts to get on this Committee before I eventually got on it, do you think we are being slightly naive here in trying to take politics out of politics? Inevitably with 659 of us it is going to be competition. Applying for a job is a competition and what realistically would probably aid the process is some established criteria which were agreed that could be referred to so at least there were a few reference points for Members to understand if they had not been successful (because inevitably it is a competition) and they would understand why and also the "why" would have to be justifiable by the people who decided to deny the application. Do you not think that trying to apply not totally scientific criteria but some form of criteria would give it the fairness that I think colleagues are looking for from the system?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) My answer to that would be yes and I would link it with the point that David raised just now which in turn linked back to something that Nick raised earlier on. I think greater openness about this, both in terms of what the criteria for selection are—which is your point—and those who have expressed interest in relation to those criteria—your point and to some extent Nick's—could play an important role in this. To re-emphasise, I am not suggesting you can take the politics out of politics, but I do think that greater openness and the strengthening of forces of something approaching an objective judgment about the contribution people could make in that subject area would be helpful.

  66. People talk about the way to soften the blow is to extend the membership and we have heard colleagues talk about changing the formula, but I think—and perhaps the Committee can look at some of the statistics—in all the committees I have sat on, standing committees specifically, the Opposition's ability, and especially the smaller Opposition parties' ability to provide people to sit through the whole of the scrutiny process of that standing committee is patchy—I think is the honest truth—and therefore is there not a possibility that we will create a bigger problem and a bigger imbalance by seeking to perhaps fudge the hard decision which is that it is a competition?
  (Ms Coote) If Members are unable to attend, is it to do with the fact they really are too busy doing other things which they absolutely must do or is it about the priority they attach to their committee work? Does this not come back to the issue of the status of committees and how they sit in the order of things that MPs want to do. If we are trying to increase and develop a culture of scrutiny, then the aim would be to reach the point where MPs would drop other things in order to be on committees rather than feel it is just something they do on the side.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) You did use the phrase standing committees; did you mean that because that is a different scene?

  67. There are many scrutiny fora in this place done by many committees and the question is which takes supremacy because there is scrutiny through a bill process and then there are the select committees and often they complete with each other. We have to be very careful when talking about scrutiny to understand that often it is competing committees of scrutiny that make it hard for members to prioritise.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I understand that and indeed I remember in respect of an earlier Hansard Society Commission that was looking at the scrutiny of delegated legislation, among other things, which made the suggestion for committees of all kinds all over the place, and I remember making exactly the same point in my then more defensive role as Leader of the House along those lines. I do not think that problem can be denied. We have sought however to address it in various ways in the report. One is by suggesting that more emphasis should be given to committee work on at least one day a week by comparison with what are relatively routine sittings of the Chamber. There should be an adjustment of the priorities there. And, equally, there should be an enhancement of the size of select committees so that the burden of some of the work could be done more on a sub-committee or rapporteur basis, in other words, looking at new ways for select committees doing the work. None of those will completely avoid those tensions but they will reduce them.

Mr Shepherd

  68. Just responding to Tony's points—and the point was well made by Lorna—serving on the Public Administration Select Committee (I had a particular interest so I wanted to) I noticed there was a great deal of difficulty, particularly on the Conservative side, in supplying members. We were over-stretched so people were asked to keep their names on the books of select committees perhaps whilst they tried to find someone, and there is a genuine conflict between standing committees, which is the legislative process of this country, and the select committee process, Lorna is right about the scrutiny function of those. Peter mentioned a court of appeal. Clearly from the House of Commons' focus on the Committee of Selections' nominations the House wants some reform and hence why we are sitting here now. But who is appealing to whom and for what? If we follow the instruction that the Chairman of Ways and Means and senior Deputies, who actually performed the role of the Committee of Selection, took it over and owned it, the appeal is obviously the House of Commons, just as it is in theory at present.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Not only in theory in recent times.
  (Mr Riddell) One possibility would be that you would have the parties on whatever form you had in relation to the balance of membership of committees putting up names. They would then be known and for people who felt aggrieved in some way, in that sense it would be a court of appeal. The term "court of appeal" would obviously not be an appropriate term but it has that sense where someone aggrieved can raise that issue. These very experienced parliamentarians could have a look at it and see whether the person had a fair case or not. As I suggested, it would be quite good if a couple of times every parliament it did just to prove themselves, but of course the final decision would be the House's naturally. We do not know what would have happened in July if this procedure had applied, we do not know what would have happened in 1992 with Mr Winterton. It gives a further chance of looking at it; that is the key thing.

  69. But the argument that has gone round the House is that this is not an appropriate function for the Whips, it is an effective method of finding people but it does not meet the challenges of competence, application and all the things one seeks from this and therefore the body that would be best placed to do this in an independent way without applications being channelled through the Whips would be the one that was outlined perhaps by Philip Norton last week. They would have probably the greatest competence in this House to assess the capabilities of former and existing members. I say that because there is the problem of new parliaments that come in. They know these qualifications and the spirit of the nature of the work that they do in the House itself does remove them to a certain extent from that partisan bias or challenge. What is your response to putting it so face on?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I have already indicated there will be a flavour of our own personal views in some of our responses. I have to say I personally am more attracted by what you suggest, Richard, than perhaps might have been implied by Peter's remarks, not that I would wish to distance myself from him in any way. I do not know whether he wants to comment further. Putting it in the vernacular, if I thought you could pull it off and it would be accepted, I see a lot of attractions in what you are suggesting, and I suspect you will not be alone in that.
  (Mr Riddell) I think it would be difficult to take the parties out of it completely. That is why I am suggesting a multi-tier thing rather than the old single approach which, in pure terms, has considerable attractions. I wonder in practice whether it would be do-able, if you have 320, or whatever it is at present, Labour backbenchers and whether they are all going to write in and say, "I want this and that" and whether there will be a filtering process. Ideally yours is the preferred solution but I am just sceptical in practice.

Mr Pike

  70. Firstly, on the point Anna was making in relation to Lorna's point on the clashing of committees, would you not accept that it is not often a question of members deciding what they believe is the most important but that the whips expect members to go to a standing committee if it is dealing with legislation and will pull them out of select committees to do that, so that does put members in an extremely difficult position. Secondly, on the point Peter was making that whichever party is in government will decide who will chair which select committee, was that not best underlined by the Conservative Government in 1992-97 when the Deregulation Committee was established and the Government decided it was going to be a Conservative chair and therefore had to make another chair available for Labour in one of the existing select committees and, indeed, appointed somebody as a minister to change the chair during mid-term. In fact the Environment Select Committee was dealt with in that way at that time because the Government decided that the Deregulation Committee was too important to give to an opposition chairman. On the point about select committees, is there not a danger that whatever the flaws are in the system we fail to recognise some select committees have done extremely good work over the years—
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Yes.

  71. Does that not need underlining? My first select committee was Environment under Hugh Rossi which published a number of reports which the then Government did not like, most of which have proved to be very wise and ahead of their time, and I think there is a danger that we fail to do that. The final point I want to make, and it has come out when we were talking about Chairman of Ways and Means and the Chairmen's Panel, do not the people on the Chairmen's Panel in their job as chairing Westminster Hall and committees now as part of their duties exercise an impartial role, and does that not underline therefore if we want to use them in this additional way that the House accept they do already act quite impartially on behalf of the House if the House were to function in the way we would wish?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) The first of those was directed to you, Anna.
  (Ms Coote) And the third one to a certain extent. On the first one, this clash of timing, I would hope that better or different management of the time of the House would make that problem at least a lesser one than it is now.

  72. The clerks are not always available, that is one of the problems.
  (Ms Coote) Is it not a bigger thing about when the standing committees and select committees are scheduled, so that people can attend both? If more time were given to committee work anyway, then one would assume it would be easier for members to attend each of them and clerks as well. So I think it is an issue about time management. On the other point, is it not true and should we not recognise that some select committees have done good work, of course we all know there are some really excellent committee chairmen and they have done some excellent inquiries. I think the danger is that the reputation of those individual events and individual chairmen over-shadows the underlying problem, which is that an awful lot of members are ill-prepared for the job, are almost entirely untrained for it, take ages if not a lifetime to learn how to be an effective committee member and the House itself takes apparently little or no collective responsibility for building up the capacity of its members to do that job. For anyone in industry, indeed anyone in the voluntary sector where I work, it is just assumed that if you have people coming in who are new to the job, they do not know how to do it, they get trained, or they have a career development process. There is nothing like that in the House and I think there needs to be.


  73. Thank you for those trenchant remarks, Anna.
  (Mr Riddell) I think this touches on a rather broader argument which is if you are going to change the culture of scrutiny—and there are some procedural changes which we have suggested—a lot of it is to do with how you lot use your time and how occupied you are. A lot of the power is in your hands. I agree entirely, there are some extremely good select committees, and we have given a number of examples in the report of innovation produced by various committees in various ways—the Treasury Committee having its combination going to the Bank of England—proper accountability which has given rise to major constitutional change. But the thing is to ensure it is more systematic. Our feeling at present is it is a difficult balance but, when we talk about core functions and core duties, we are not saying the House tells the committees how to do it but that they should every year look at estimates, they should look at the regulatory bodies. We also use the phrase that Parliament is at the apex of the system of scrutiny. There are lots of bodies out there doing things, but you do not use them enough. It does not necessarily involve more members' time or more resources, it is looking in particular areas at what is going on. For instance, some could be very interested in air traffic control and that would involve the Transport Committee keeping in touch with what is going on. It probably is going to report in the next year on that for obvious reasons. There is a whole range of quasi public bodies which in a sense escape scrutiny. They are out there. It does not always involve sitting around in a horseshoe like this, it involves rapporteurs and members of staff keeping an eye on what is going on and alerting the committee and saying, "Actually there is something wrong here." It does not have to be done every year. I think that is what we are suggesting, that committees retain their independence but with some duties and, as Anna rightly said, some pilots and experiments which extend scrutiny enormously and also deal with what I believe at present is quite a lot of wasted time.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) I do not disagree at all with what has been said but I would want to underline the point which emerged partly from Peter's question or comment on something Anna was saying about clerks needing to be in two places at the same time. We ought to clearly acknowledge—and I noticed Joan had obviously picked up this point—that anything remotely like the proposals we have sketched out here would require a significant increase in the resources made available to select committees. I happen to think that is sensible and important anyway. Of all the changes made in Parliament during the period when I was here, and I can say this because I had nothing whatever to do with it, the introduction of departmental select committees, for which Norman St John-Stevas takes the lion's share of the credit, at the back end of the 1970s was the most important. It has been hugely successful, in my view. The best select committees have made a real contribution to the development of the role of Parliament and the development of public policy. What we sought to do here—you can call it incrementalist if you like—was to build on that to respond to new pressures and new needs in Parliament, but it would involve not just the change in culture we have talked about but a willingness to invest more resources in select committees, both the resource of MPs and the resource of the support they would need to do that job effectively.
  (Ms Coote) On the question of resources, I absolutely agree with what Tony said. There is the issue of communication and how committees communicate their work, both to colleagues and to the outside world. We were very struck by the poor quality of the presentation of reports and findings by committees. We described them as 1950s mathematics text books. There is very little effort made to present them in ways that people can easily grasp. We were struck by the fact that there were 1,083 media relations staff in Whitehall and one, possibly one, media relations or information officer attached to the select committees. There is obviously an imbalance here. Communications are a very important part of the—

Mr Pike

  74. Not a spin doctor!
  (Ms Coote) It is not about spinning, it is about communication, and that must be indigenous to the work of Parliament. It is very important and under-rated.

Mr Knight

  75. Do you think we should pay select committee chairmen? What is your view on the proposal to introduce the automatic removal of a member of a select committee for prolonged non-attendance?
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) On the first question, it is one I have thought about and I suppose really worried about a bit. I can see pluses and minuses, I am afraid I am not going to give you a clear-cut yes or no answer here. I would not want to go down the path of paying chairmen of select committees unless and until I was confident that this did not just become another part of the whips' patronage system. If you can solve some of the problems we talked about earlier, then I think it would be worth considering because to do it well, certainly in the context we have sought to set out in the report, and it has been implied by much of the discussion this morning, it is a large and demanding job and the effectiveness with which it is done is heavily dependent on the input, skills and time of the chairman. So I would not rule it out, but I certainly would not want to do it unless one was confident of the basis on which these appointments were being made, and that it took into account more of the factors we have been talking about and was not just yet another gift in the hands of the whips. I am afraid I have put that very bluntly but that is my view.
  (Mr Riddell) We had a very interesting seminar from Robert Sheldon last week, Chairman of the Liaison Committee, who, along with Archie Kirkwood and others was actually a catalyst for a lot of the thinking of the Liaison Committee, and it was the first time we had discussed these issues. It produced quite a lot of reservations about payment because then it was viewed as patronage. I think that provided you ensure it is not patronage, then it should be paid. I know that something which was raised last week was the issue of alternative career paths. I do not think it is as simple as saying, "Front bench, back bench" because in practice people move from one to the other and in some cases it is disappointment and in others not, and people move in and out, and I think that is a thoroughly good thing. I believe that provided you get that insulation, there should be payment, obviously at a level to be agreed. A more difficult issue is paying the senior opposition member because immediately people say, "Hold on, what is a senior opposition member", with some fairness in the current Parliament. But I would do that. The problem at present is that the executive has grown enormously with PPSs, despite devolution we still have as large a government as we had in 1997, it is just people have moved somewhere else, and we now have three times as many ministers in the Commons as a century ago when we ruled a rather large empire, for understandable reasons I think. I think there is an automatic assumption that people want to go to the front bench, rather than saying, "Actually I want to do a select committee." The interesting example is Chris Mullin. I remember when Chris Mullin became a minister I talked to him about it—and he went public on this so I am not breaching any confidence—and he said, "I just want to see what it is like." Of course, as we know, at the election he said, "Actually I prefer being on select committees". Very few people have his attitude to life in that way. A payment does not necessarily say, "You shall be purely a select committee person all your career", it is much more likely that people will go in and out, have a period on the front bench, then go out, so it does offer an alternative rather than immediately saying, "Whoopee, I have been made a PPS, I come off select committees." There was an enormous turnover in the last Parliament of members of select committees. A few became ministers but a lot of people became PPSs and I wonder if that is a sensible trade-off.


  76. The turnover was almost equal between the two sides of the House.
  (Mr Riddell) Absolutely, it is not a particularly partisan point in any way. I do find the number of PPSs rather startling.

Joan Ruddock

  77. When Peter was answering my previous question about which party should control the chairs of which committees, there is an obvious way, there could be a rotation from the current fixed position so that it was not determined as at present. That would take out another aspect of the patronage and I think that is quite an important aspect of patronage. On your report, the summary we have says that key posts should be paid and I would like clarification. You have said the senior opposition member would be paid, but if there were to be rapporteurs then the chances are that the rapporteur would be doing an equivalent amount of work and therefore it would raise the question of, are we even talking about three posts?
  (Mr Riddell) Not easy.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) Clearly the detail of this would need thinking through and there is no point pretending otherwise. I was asked a general question by Greg and I do not think I can improve on the answer, which is that I would not rule out payment. I was thinking primarily of the chairmen and I would not want to rule out other things, but it would need very careful thinking-through, provided you had tackled the appointment process, so to speak. None of us replied to Greg's second point, which was whether people should be tipped off for non-attendance. I certainly think in a world in which the demand exceeded the supply, that would be sensible—were such a world to exist and it is patchy, I suspect, at the moment, as Richard implied. If the purpose is to enhance the role of select committees in their overall contribution to Parliament and public affairs, and to increase the importance attached to them, then I think that should be reflected in saying, "If you are not interested, we will look for somebody who is."

Mr Winterton

  78. How would Tony reply to the situation which occurred in the Procedure Committee yesterday where at least three, if not four, members of the Procedure Committee were otherwise engaged and they chose not to come to the Procedure Committee? Some were on a standing committee and at least one other was on a select committee, Trade and Industry, because he felt the inquiry they were undertaking was on that occasion more important, albeit I would question it, than the inquiry that was being undertaken by the Procedure Committee.
  (Lord Newton of Braintree) As in almost any body which might have a rule of such a kind, many charity trust boards, for example, you would clearly want some small print that recognised good cause or something. You would not want it to be, "Three meetings missed and you are out, regardless of all circumstances", but something which allowed you to say, "If you are not interested, we have other people who are" I think would be sensible and reasonable.
  (Ms Coote) I agree, there has to be some flexibility for those sorts of circumstances, but if you are going to look at attendance and perhaps strike off members who do not attend regularly, I think it is important there is a recognition that attendance means attending and not just coming in for ten minutes. I have seen this quite often and that is not attendance. If you are going to have that rule, they have to attend for a reasonable proportion of time.

Mrs Fitzsimons

  79. The truth of the matter is, as we all know, there are some select committees which people do not want to go on and, I am sorry, Nick, having duly served under your great chairmanship, Procedure is one, primarily because most people do not realise until they are on it and get into it the importance of it and the power it can actually have. The truth is that whips ask members to do them favours by going on committees so at least they can nominally function. How do you feel about being honest and, if you are allowing members to have choice to focus on what they consider from their constituency basis is the important thing for them, saying some committees just do not attract enough members through pure choice?
  (Mr Riddell) I think this is partly a matter of duty. You might say to your constituents in Rochdale that you are doing all these wonderful things by turning up at 10 o'clock at night when you are voting, and there is an element of truth in that, but there are aspects of an MP's life which are duties and if you are put on a committee you should do the duty. I am accepting there are differences though. One of the arguments is that you would be able to operate more flexibly if you had larger committees and if you had sub-committees too it would give some members of the committee a more fulfilling role. One of the things we suggest which we have not talked about is finance and audit where, apart from the PAC, some committees where money is so important, like Defence, Social Security and so on, do not look enough at estimates. That is not going to interest all members but if you had a sub-committee looking at the financial side, drawing on the various resources which we suggest, that could appeal to a number of members. One of the things which we do feel keenly is the range of experimentation. My observation as a journalist of the House as well as discussing this is that change does not happen unless people regard it as permanent, and that it is very dangerous to experiment—and this was one of the objections to TV in the 1980s—because once you make a change everyone will assume it is going to be permanent. Just as journalists are always supposed to have read Evelyn Waugh and Scoop, I rather feel perhaps the clerks have all studied Francis Cornford and his Guide to Cambridge Politics and the Danger of the Wedge and so on. Anna was talking about other organisations. You ought to be willing to experiment and possibly fail. One of the things we have suggested, and this is one of the things Mr Salter took up last week, is the idea of having a half-hour session on select committee reports and he wondered whether it was long enough. The idea behind this was drawing attention to the report. It may not work out, it may fail, but I think you need to be prepared for failure. A number of the other ideas we have are to broaden the debate and to try out things because I do feel there is a sense that we cannot do anything unless we are willing to accept it is going to be here in a century's time. I think that is dangerous, it is much better to experiment. Many select committees do but some of that involves procedural changes. We can have it time-limited, have a sunset clause.
  (Ms Coote) There is a link between not knowing about something and not being enthusiastic about going on a committee, so there is a link between attendance and training or development of the skills and knowledge of the members. We have quoted in our report one chairman of a committee saying that he could not get members to attend for those sessions when they were looking at finance because they did not know how to scrutinise departmental finances, so they were not interested in it. So some of the problems about getting members to attend the more so-called boring meetings might be dealt with by training, induction and development of the knowledge of the members, so they could understand why it was necessary to go on and felt they could contribute. Who is going to want to sit on a committee if they do not understand and feel they have nothing to contribute?

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