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

Examination of Witness (Questions 87-98)




  87. Alan, welcome. Please feel relaxed because we have a very informal style in this Committee. It is taken very much as an informal discussion rather than a formal taking of evidence, which we can use in future against you. We have made this public. I think the rest of the public is probably recovering from last night's Christmas parties, wherever they were, but we are on the record so there will be a formal transcript of what is said. I felt that at the opening you might want to be free to make a few observations on what way we should go because I know the Liaison Committee did have a preliminary session, quite rightly, before this evidence and I would be interested to hear from you what they see as the priorities for change and indeed what anxieties they may have for change.

  (Mr Williams) First of all can I declare my credentials in that having spent 22 years on the Front Bench I am now a convert to the role of the back bencher. I pointed out to the House on one occasion, as no doubt you will all remember, that one of the best things that could happen to Members of Parliament would be that when they came in they had to spend their first spell in the House on the Opposition Benches. There is nothing like a spell in Opposition to convince you of the value of accountability and of the importance of access. Your experience has been different from mine. The departmental committees did not exist when I was previously a back bencher and so I have been entirely on the Public Accounts and Privileges side which works somewhat differently, so I apologise for the difference in background but it helps me to look at things perhaps from a slightly different perspective. As many of you know, I am an absolute devotee of the role of the PAC. I would sooner be the senior member on the PAC than a Chair of almost any other committee, frankly. I have become increasingly conscious of the absolute inadequacies of the system of scrutiny. I repeat things which no-one listened to when I said them before so I do not feel embarrassed about repeating them, but here we are with committees generally, if you just take the financial side, having over £700 billion worth of spending and income to monitor for value for money, prudence, fraud and so on. It is almost impossible for part-timers like ourselves to do it unless we have back-up. It does not apply only on the financial side. Because of the fragmentation of government into executive agencies and so on (and I am not knocking that) in a managerial sense, the job of the committee trying to hold the executive accountable becomes more diffused. The lines are less clear than when we just had the departments. That is my starting point. I also, with the Chairman of the PAC, headed a rebellion in the last Parliament that most people would never even know took place, but it was of some importance in accountability in that we went on to the Resource Accounting Bill with one of our Liberal colleagues, David Rendel, as a PAC implant to put down amendments in order to focus attention on the fact that actually the powers of the House were continually being eroded with new quangos being set up which are not accountable, for example, to the public, and as a result of that action we had the Sharman Committee set up which came up with the recommendations which recommended virtually everything we wanted. I may be a late convert but I am a genuine convert.

  88. There is far more joy for the sinner who repents.
  (Mr Williams) I have a lot of sins to repent so there must be great joy. As far as the Liaison Committee is concerned I am rather embarrassed to put forward this point of view when you have Nick and Peter here who have been in on the evolution of the thinking on the Liaison Committee. What I will do is set up markers rather than go into depth on individual things because you probably want to ask questions under some of the headings. One of the big issues of contention, as was apparent in the debate in the House a short while ago, is the issue of membership and the selection of membership. I start from a basic proposition here which is that the Standing Committees should be within the control of the Front Benches to decide who best represents them in bringing forward legislation and opposing legislation. I start from the opposite point of view as far as the Select Committees are concerned, and I think this is where the Liaison Committee is as well. They are the property of the back benchers. They are not the property of the House in general. Because we do not have a separation of powers it is difficult for us to find ways of observing that division but my view is that whatever formula you arrive at in relation to membership, and the recommendation put forward by the Liaison Committee of three wise men or three wise men plus was turned down in the last Parliament, it is one of the most difficult points to resolve because there is no denying that the parties also have an important right in this. In the same way that the committees are the creatures of the back benches, they are also the creatures of the back benches in the various parties and so it will be a very difficult task of trying somehow to distance the executive. It is really a problem on the Government side rather than in Opposition, whoever happens to be in government. Whatever structure you have, and, as the recommendation of the Liaison Committee was turned down you will probably evolve another one, it probably will not work unless in some way the executive, the Government (including Whips), is excluded from the decision making process. I see a smile on your face thinking, "Here we go again", but nevertheless it is worth stating the basic principles. We have to consider the role also of front benchers from the Opposition parties on the committees and how we deal with the problem of how long it takes to get replacements when people are taken off. The membership issue is a very complex one. I do not envy you your task there. The second one, which is the emerging issue, is the issue of size. The Liaison Committee had a discussion on this just last Thursday morning in anticipation of this occasion. There was virtual unanimity against an increase in size. George Young argued for an extra couple of people on Treasury but there was almost overwhelming agreement that it would be damaging to the nature of the committees if we just used them to put tails on seats, to occupy the unoccupied, or to be, as one of our colleagues put it, a piece of work experience. Their feelings were strongly against that. I kicked it around and thought about it and thought, "Is there any advantage in it?", and the only one I can see, and I would not push this hard against the disadvantages, is that it would help to develop what I would call a scrutiny culture in the House of Commons. We have enormous turnover of Members at every Parliament and we all remember our first delighted euphoric days in the House of Commons and then the gradual emergence of disillusionment or reality or whatever you care to call it, and I had, as I say, a spell in Opposition. I look with (I hope well suppressed) glee at some of our colleagues on what to me is the other side of the House in my party role, who are now sitting there enduring what we had to endure when we were in Opposition, but that is one of the tragedies of the House of Commons. Once things start going wrong the other side says, "Yah boo", and repeats it. The importance of the scrutiny culture is that a new Member coming in inevitably is full of loyalty for his or her party, full of enthusiasm, and it takes time for people to recognise that part of the job is to ask questions even of your friends, that it is not disloyal but it is a key role of Parliament because you do not do your friends any favours if you let them make silly mistakes. That seems to me to be one of the strongest propositions that have been put forward in favour of having larger numbers, but I think the arguments against it are very strong indeed. All members referred to the lack of identity, the lack of cohesion that they felt there would be. It is like when you go on a deputation to a minister. If there are three of you, you get worked on. If the whole of the Welsh group turns up everyone has a say, you are patted on the head and you go home. That in effect is what the Select Committees would become like if we accepted the proposition, which originated in the Hansard Society, that 17 should be a standard. I can see cases for 17 in the very large departments. If the House and the Government will large departments we have to will the means to monitor them, but in that case it is important that they then be divided into sub-committees. A very interesting argument was put forward the other morning by Peter against this. The argument he put forward was, and he described his committee as being one of the less popular committees, that if you enlarge big committees it is going to be very difficult to man the smaller committees. One other thing is financial accountability and possibly using the sub-committee structure (and it could be that that might depend on how much extra work they take on) might be an additional argument in support of those who favour the bigger committee. I think however I would be misleading you if I suggested for one second that the Liaison Committee is in any way inclined to support an expansion of the idea of larger committees. The other things one needs to look at are pre-legislative and sub-committees and debates on reports, which are issues which are important to the Liaison Committee, but I have jabbered on, it is the end of term and I think it would be better if I let people ask questions.

  89. Thank you very much, Alan. You have obviously had a very interesting and full discussion. It might be helpful, since we only have this morning to discuss this, if the Clerk of the Liaison Committee were not to put in a formal minute because that would require approval of the Liaison Committee but were to advise our Clerk of the general tenor of the discussion and that would help us to make sure we were fully informed on their views as we prepare our text. Can I just begin with the question of the size? I understand the points that you make and Donald Andersen's letter is very precise and vigorous on the practical problems of an increased committee. The other side of the coin of course is that on the larger committees—and generally speaking they are the more prestigious committees—there always are a large number of members who do not get on and who wish to get on, so I think the case for the larger committees is that it would enable more members who wished to to take part in those committees. I utterly agree that we should not have a blanket rule of everything going up by 20 per cent or whatever, and we could make a case in the Deregulation Committee for reducing the size of the committee which would ease Peter's problems somewhat there. When one looks at a committee like Foreign Affairs, or indeed the Treasury, which are committees of great prestige, status (and indeed rightly so because of the importance of their policy areas) they cover such vast areas of different policy that I find myself asking whether it would not be reasonable to increase them from 11 to 14, say, which would accommodate another three members who are very keen to get on those committees.
  (Mr Williams) There I think you really have to go by the experience of those who are on those committees you have named. They were less than enthusiastic. Donald was one of those who argued strongly for not increasing the size. As in all cases, they vary in priorities. The overwhelming priority for a Select Committee has to be its prime purpose, which is effectiveness in monitoring. Any change that is made in whatever committee it happens to be has to be judged against that criterion. That is why I said that if the Government wills large departments then the House has to will a committee that is capable of covering the whole range of that department, but in the case of Foreign Affairs that is a static department. Its role has not changed over a very long time and as far as I am aware there may be more people wanting to get on but I do not think the Committee feels that it is incapable of doing its work with its present number of members, and indeed they argue that if 17 members are all going to have their turn in asking questions there is going to be a considerable amount of repetitiveness. I think it is horses for courses. You judge in each individual case, but you must have a clear priority. The Select Committees are there to monitor. What is best to enable them to carry out that monitoring function?

Mr Tyler

  90. I did want to follow up this point about size. I do not think we were thinking in terms of massive increase in any case. I understand their reservations but I am rather worried and I would like to tease out what exactly was meant by this phrase "work experience". It sounds as if that was used in a derogatory sense. In this place we keep saying that everybody should have work experience, not least Members of Parliament. I suppose therefore what I would be thinking is that if you are not prepared to consider the way in which people come into the system by enlarging the committees we would have to think in terms of limitation of term, ie, no Member sat on a committee for more than five years, because otherwise we are never going to get new Members coming forward and gaining experience. I do not want this to sound derogatory but I just wonder whether the view of the Liaison Committee is not that of those who are sitting comfortably in the committees and have gained that experience and are not recognising that we have to bring on a new generation.
  (Mr Williams) Ii think that would be a problem if it were not for the high rate of turnover on the committees. Most committee Chairmen complain to me that their problem is that they lose a lot of Members, understandably, because if they perform well on a committee or if they have been put on a strong committee they are probably people who have good prospects of advancement anyhow and they are going to be moved on. If there were a work experience argument then that enhances our case that we must ensure that there is quicker replacement because I understand that in the last Parliament there were very long delays. As to the time limit on membership, as someone who has been 11 years on my present committee you will understand that I have a vested interest in what I am about to say, but I think my vested interest is somewhat limited in duration, so I think I can say it reasonably objectively. When these committees were first set up the House has experimented with committees for over a century and we had these generalist committees. When the Select Committees were first set up there was fierce opposition from certain very prominent Cabinet members at that time because they felt that the committees would develop an identity of their own, would become their own creatures, but also would develop an expertise which was the great edge that the minister always had over the committee. One minister on average serves perhaps only two and a half to three years in any one department and then moves on. Nevertheless, immediately they move in they have the back-up of the Civil Service. It takes longer for us to build up anything like a comparable knowhow. The great advantage of the committees is that there are now a great many Members who speak with undeniable authority on their subjects and would not have been able to do that with the same authority or with the same background knowledge had they not served for a considerable period there. Again I keep coming back to fundamentals on it. What is it we want to do? If our objective is to ensure that, limited though our capability is to do it, ministers are answerable to this House as fully and as effectively as possible, we have to ensure that the committees are as effective as possible.

Mr Winterton

  91. Two things to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee. Clearly there is a difficulty in ensuring not just that Her Majesty's Opposition, which is the Conservative Party, is properly taken care of in representation on Select Committees, but also there are minority parties and although Andrew Stunell can speak for them, as he does seek to do, to represent their interests, clearly there can be a problem of ensuring reasonable opportunities for minority parties on Select Committees. Might that not be a reason for a very modest increase in size? Along with that, is there any need on Select Committees for the ratio of Members in each party to be exactly that which reflects that of the political parties in the House? I am increasingly of the view that it is not necessary. The number of votes that take place in Select Committees are pretty few and to an extent Members are there for the contribution that they can make, not the party view that they can make. The second main point, which I am again coming round to, and it may be absolutely out of the question but I often ask questions that are out of the question, is this. Is it not actually worth us considering having Select Committees that do not just monitor departments but actually monitor major government functions? I am worried that we have got huge departments like DEFRA and Local Government, Transport and the Regions. I personally believe that there should be again a Select Committee for transport. It is a major issue for government. With Gwyneth we have a super Chairman who knows a lot about it, but I am wondering whether, and I know it is something that has not been considered because we have been monitoring government departments, we should not have Select Committees that monitor major functions of government and not just departments. That of course would give greater opportunities. Whether there would be sufficient Members in one or two of the parties to do justice to that I am not sure, but I pose those questions.
  (Mr Williams) Certainly the position of a minority party has to be protected. I cannot pretend I have any authoritative view on how it is best done. I apologise for that but I have had no experience of having to grapple with the sort of problems that our colleagues have to deal with. On the issue of balance of voting, it is difficult to know how to do it. My suspicion here, and this again is if you like a piece of geriatric cynicism which comes of having been around the House a little while, is that the nearer you get to marginality on the committees the more likely divisions become. On Don Andersen's Committee early in the last Parliament he had a couple of people from our own side who were known as of independent disposition. I think it is great that people of known independent disposition get on committees but it does make for rather unpredictable outcomes as far as the committee is concerned, which is what it is intended to do. However, it meant that there were votes being forced that would probably not have been forced. One of the problems of being a departmental Select Committee is that because you deal with policy there is a difference between us in the PAC and you: we have not got that advantage and that excitement of dealing with policy. We deal with nuts and bolts and it is money and it is easy when you are dealing with quantities to have a common view. But when you are on a Select Committee you are Members of Parliament, you are party politicians. There is a strong disposition for you to divide according to party and it takes a considerable development of the ethos of a committee for Members to overcome that. I cannot think of any fairer way of allocating the seats than doing it as we do it at the moment. I do not think I have anything to offer on that one. On the second one I do have strong views. I referred to the nature of the committees' remit. I said that the Government has been experimenting with Select Committees for over a century. Many of us remember the old Science and Technology Committee and the Lords have their Science and Technology Committee and they still do cross-boundary work. Many of us remember the old Nationalised Industries Committee and so on. They were ineffective as an only method of monitoring because they were too generalist. They never got the expertise on them. This is great, the enormous and invaluable power of the departmental committees, their sheer knowledge and depth, but government evolves. We are moving into the days of joined-up government. Only on Monday we were dealing on the Public Accounts Committee with the National Audit Office report on the various experiments that are being carried out headed by a team in the Cabinet Office to try to get cross-departmental co-operation over a whole range of functions. We have all called for it. We all know as Members of Parliament when we sit down and think, "Who do I write to about this one?" when we are dealing with a constituency case. The move to joined-up government is highly desirable. The House has always been alert to reflect changes that take place in the executive. If the executive changes its form of working, and it is not for me to question that as an individual, I am not concerned about whether it is right or whether it is wrong, but for whatever managerial reason they do it, when they do it we must be sure that it does not leave us disadvantaged, "us" being the rest of the House of Commons. If government is moving more into joined-up activities in order to deliver more and deliver better, then we have to ensure that we have systems that will match that. Let us take the Department of Public Administration. That is a generalist committee and it will present difficulties but I think something we may have to consider is more joint operation, which is what the Liaison Committee envisaged in its last report. The Cartwright Committee is a case in point. We are going to have to look at more cross-boundary methods of either working together or—and this may help to solve your problem of numbers, Robin—possibly even setting up additional committees which have specific cross-boundary functions. That is something we need to look at. Government is changing. If we do not change the outcome will be that, as Gwyneth has just been arguing, rightly or wrongly, in relation to whether she has the powers to get the Chancellor before her because of the role of the Treasury. She sees it in relation to the Tube. The more you have cross-government co-operation the more diffused the accountability becomes. Therefore, since we are about accountability, we must adapt ourselves or supplement ourselves in a way which will match government changes.

  Mr Pike: I have two issues on the size. Is it not important that we understand that what was being said by the Chairman, if I understood it correctly, at the Liaison Committee was that most of those in the Chair in the various committees did not feel that those committees were any better with an increase in numbers and indeed those who have a larger committee said that they only work by splitting it into two main committees? Is that not important, that we should take note of that point? The second point is on the Deregulation Committee which you referred to in your opening comments. Is it not important that we should note that although that committee is a large committee of 18, it has only so far ever had 17 members put on it in this Parliament? There are at least five members wishing to get off that committee at the present time. It is extremely difficult to get a quorum of five members to sit, and indeed last week with great difficulty the clerks told me that we could get a quorum for one hour exactly on Tuesday morning, so I had to ensure that the business was concluded before two members had to leave to go on to Standing Committees. If we were to widen the scope would it not be accepted that I know that there are members of my committee now, if they saw the opportunity of going on Foreign Affairs or Environment or other committees would also wish to add to that number who wish to come off? The final point that I would make is, is it not essential that we remember that the Deregulation Committee by Act of Parliament legislates and has to work against a rigid timetable that is established within that Act?

  Chairman: I do not think, Alan, you need to feel compelled to answer those questions. You can make a fairly robust comment. What I cannot help asking myself though is why do we have 18 on a committee on which Members do not want to serve and 11 on committees on which lots of Members do want to serve? There seems a logic instead for reducing you to 11 and increasing others to 14 or whatever.

  Mr Salter: First of all, Alan, you mentioned the fact that perhaps we should be looking at functions rather than just departmental scrutiny. An example comes to mind: animal welfare, not an issue that exercises me particularly but exercises our constituents. It is split among three departments—the Home Office, DTLR and DEFRA. I am sure if we racked our brains we could find many other policy areas that are split all over the place and therefore has our scrutiny caught up? Answer: clearly no. The point I want to press you on is this. Robin's memorandum on modernisation and the general (and welcome) drift towards pre-legislative scrutiny clearly envisages a much more robust role for Select Committees. I would put it to you that a number of people go on Select Committees for a number of different reasons. Some people like to get to grips with the big policy issues. Other people get excited by the prospect of pre-legislative scrutiny and are prepared to go through legislation on a line by line basis, and we all bring different talents to the show as it were. Is there not a case, given that situation is likely to increase, for a larger committee size which will enable the committees themselves to break down into more effective sub-committees to at times take on what would be very onerous and time-consuming task of pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly if there are situations such as we had recently where the Home Office had three or four Bills published almost at the same time? Can you imagine the Home Affairs Committee being able to cope with a constrained timetable for pre-legislative scrutiny on the basis of 11 members and carrying out its very important work on other matters?

  Chairman: Thank you, Martin. Joan?

Joan Ruddock

  92. I want to make essentially the same points about the pre-legislative role which we see as being increased and enhanced and I would suggest to you and ask for your comments on the fact that having larger numbers would enable committees to split down into sub«groups. If we are going to deal with functions, which I certainly think is a good thing and I am glad you raised it, Alan, people coming together from two sub-groups on different committees would clearly make sense in quite a number of cases. May I also ask you to consider that in the case specifically of the Foreign Affairs Committee, because we have had the letter from Donald as well as your own comments this morning. Is it not the case that many people go on to Foreign Affairs because they have an interest a particular country or group of countries and although it is not obvious because it is not the same as other departments with such disparate things as local government, transport and the regions, none the less ministers reflect, and the whole foreign service reflects, country groupings? There does not have to be the suggestion that every member of this Committee will be travelling on every trip. I suspect there are key interests that people have and therefore maybe a third of the committee would want to go to one country only and a third of the committee to another. I do think that the Foreign Affairs Committee, which is being held up as a particular example, needs some consideration because I am not convinced that it is so utterly different from any other and I ask you to reflect on that.
  (Mr Williams) Most of what Peter said I agree with. I accept the point that you made, that it would make sense to cut the size of his Committee. Certainly it would in no way help his problem if the more popular committees became larger. Martin made the point about function, which I agree with, that we do have to agree because more and more of these areas of policy we are discovering it is difficult to deal with because of their spread and government is finding it difficult and therefore they have set up this special unit. We do have to, as I have already said, consider adapting our structure of committees or the way the committees work. The pre-legislative work I am an enthusiast for, I must admit. I have only ever once been to Australia about seven or eight years ago, and they described to me how it worked there where they use it particularly in relation to Standing Committees so that the Standing Committee got experience particularly on technical Bills before they went into the legislative phase. That struck me as a very desirable process. I think it is very important that the Select Committees build on this function. I am not saying this out of politeness, but I welcome your new document, Robin, and I welcome particularly what it said in relation to this and we intend to get earlier draft Bills available. I can see that much of what we have said today may change if Robin is able to deliver post-consultation on what he says in relation to pre-legislative. The argument is being put forward here that one of the difficulties is the problem of draftsman, and there has traditionally been an almost standing 20 per cent shortage of parliamentary draftsmen. They are hard to obtain. It seems to me that if another of his proposals, the rollover into the next session takes places, then it now becomes much easier, regardless of the draftsmen problem, that the Bill is eventually going to emerge and therefore, because of the rollover process and the removal of the buffers in October next year, it will be far easier, and it should be far easier, for committees to carry out pre-legislative. This is where you have a chance of real input into policy making and development. Indeed, our Clerk related this story to me yesterday where a very eminent ex-Cabinet Minister on the other side, when they tried an experiment like this, commented afterwards that he saw his Bill dissolve before his eyes. It seems to me that that is a good thing. There are many Bills which would be better with a bit of dissolving. It saves a lot of time in the committee. One final point. I have circulated a letter I have had. Because of what I said about the role of the PAC I am anxious that since the PAC is a bottleneck, we can only do 50 hearings a year, I differ in my view from the previous Chairman of the PAC, I think it is important that the financial role of the Select Committees be enhanced. The PAC just cannot cope with it. We have to have a second PAC. As soon as I heard that I was joining the Committee—one of my other functions is that I chair the Public Accounts Commission—I spoke to Sir John Bourn, the C&AG, and asked him if he would prepare me an initial paper on the way in which he could help, and then he and George and I and two senior colleagues had a meeting last week. I reported this to the Liaison Committee the other day, the result of which is, knowing that I was coming here, Sir John has prepared this report of his outline of the things he thinks he can do that would help the committees. I think one of the most important things there is the way in which he is willing to consider secondees, short term or even medium term. I would ask you to have a look at this. I think it is a very helpful development.


  93. I have been given a copy of that letter this morning and every member of the Committee also has it. We are very seized of the need to provide more resources for the Select Committees and indeed it is a classic case where the one place that resource needs to be there in terms of professional expertise and assistance is on financial scrutiny. I can assure you that our own discussion on this earlier shared the same commitment that you have just given to making sure that we encourage Select Committees and the group Select Committees to do a better job on financial scrutiny. Can I move on to one or two other areas? One point on which we must invite your views before close is the question of whether or not the Chairs of the Select Committees should be paid. Before I turn to that one, in the course of our discussion we have been reflecting on whether in return for the greater resources, greater freedoms, of the Select Committees there might not also be a requirement for some more discipline and order in how Select Committees go about their business. It is a very delicate area and we want to tread carefully and delicately on it. The Hansard Society report, for instance, did suggest that there should be a core statement of the functions and the role and the jobs of Select Committees, what should be their objectives, which in a way brings us back to financial scrutiny because such a statement of core tasks could list financial scrutiny among them. Would you see it being acceptable for Select Committees to have a common mission statement for what is the job of the Select Committee over the course of the session: to carry out financial scrutiny, to make contact, for instance, with the outside regulator? The other question is perhaps less delicate and possibly a touch more brutal and one that is rather less controversial: should the Chairs of Select Committees have the right to report to the House or whoever is going to have regard to the nominations to Select Committees those Members who had poor attendance and who repeatedly failed to attend without showing good cause? Plainly it is not something that Peter is likely to do in the circumstances of his committee but it does seem unreasonable that where there are committees for which there is a queue of Members wanting to join there should continue to be Members on them who do not necessarily always attend.
  (Mr Williams) In the order in which you have put them, first, the paid chairmanship, the Liaison Committee seems to be completely split on this. I can only give you a personal view which is again a matter of priorities. If resources are limited it is more important that resources are put into the committees than that they go in payments. I regard it as a great privilege to be chairing the Liaison Committee at the moment. It does involve quite a lot of work. I am not being sanctimonious when I say that I do not want to be paid for doing it. I enjoy doing it. It is connected to priorities but that is the same for all Chairmen. That is a purely personal view. The Committee was very split on that.

  94. When you say "split", was it 50-50 or was there a prevalence either way?
  (Mr Williams) You can say 50-50 for the few who said anything and the few who said anything were very much a minority of those who were present, so there was a considerable silence. It could be that some were sitting and hoping and not wanting to express a criticism. Can I jump back to how you started your comments. You referred to resources. What amazed me, coming into this job, was that there is no authoritative basis for resourcing these committees. It seems to me very cap in hand. I would like to float the thought, which may sound somewhat heretical, that the National Audit Office as our parliamentary watchdog has a vested interest in and is committed to the monitoring role, but also is committed to efficiency and effectiveness. It would seem to me not a bad idea, as it is going to be several months before you produce your report, to ask the C&AG to carry out a study on the resourcing of the Select Committees. The advantage of that would be if you could give the Liaison Committee and the Select Committees an authority when they speak to the Commission and when they speak to Government in relation to resources. At the moment we go to the Commission and we have no what I would call quantifiable provable basis on which to ask for resource. I think it is about time we became more professional about resources. Resources are not being used efficiently. Let us find out. In parallel with what someone else said in relation to committees going away as a whole committee all the time on overseas visits, I floated at the last meeting the idea of more specialist groups possibly going away. Can I leave the really important point I want to make with you, which is please consider, even if you reject it, the possibility of asking the C&AG to do a study on the resource provision and needs of the Select Committee system in the House of Commons.

  Chairman: I think that is a very interesting and helpful idea. We may well wish to pursue it. I am not sure that we could pursue it in the timescale of issuing our report, but there is no reason whatsoever why we should not recommend more resources and say that we have asked the C&AG to advise on it. Do you agree, Nick?

Mr Winterton

  95. Yes, I do.
  (Mr Williams) That is a very helpful response; I appreciate that. As your core statement I think that would be thoroughly desirable. I think the committees have found, and I am told this and George will be more experienced and so will the two colleagues, that the discipline of producing annual reports seems to have focused attention and minds much more. Anything that leads to committees having a clear sense of focus and direction is desirable and I certainly would favour that. The final point was poor attenders. It seems to me that the first sanction would be the near equivalent of the withdrawal of passport. A sanction which I quickly formed the opinion is very meaningful in terms of some people serving on Select Committees is the frequency of use of their passports and therefore if people were told that non-attendance could lead to non-membership of delegations and that priority would be given to those who are frequent attenders, I think that is a good idea. But that is an interim thing that the committees could do for themselves. They do not need any recommendation to do it. They can do it now. It is essential that they have power to offload. If we are going to have efficient committees then if they are not to be enlarged to make up for the absentees you have to get rid of the absentees as quickly as possible because being too small can also mean being ineffective.

Mr Kidney

  96. Going back to the question of pay for the Chairs of Select Committees, what do you make of the argument from the independent reports we have received that it enhances an alternative career structure to wanting to be a minister in this place?
  (Mr Williams) Yes, it can do that. It depends whether you need to be paid to do that. I had a wonderful time being in Parliament. Twenty two years is a long time. Unfortunately for most of it our party was not in government. I have spent more time as a minister which was an experience I will never forget. Since then, and I can only speak personally here, I have found working with the PAC more of a duty than a pleasure because judging your colleagues on the work they are doing over the years is no-one's idea of fun. I find that the stimulus of doing what I am here to do as a Member of Parliament is to help the Government govern by voting for it more often than I vote against it and by monitoring what they do and the way they carry out their duty, whichever party happens to be in power. That is what I was elected for and that is what I see as being a Member of Parliament. I can always say no to the Chairman's job, as can anyone else if they find it too onerous, but I cannot pretend to speak on behalf of the Committee in that respect. I do go along with this argument about the alternative career structure. I think it is going to lead to a lot of animosity as well between Members.

Mr Winterton

  97. Could I go back to the very first thing that Alan mentioned, which is also very high on our list of changes that we need to make: appointment to Select Committees? You are quite right, Alan, that in the last Parliament the Liaison Committee put forward the proposal of the three wise individuals. Clearly that was not acceptable to the Government or, for that matter, to the House. What mechanism would be acceptable? Would a mechanism using the Chairman of Ways and Means and other senior Members of the House, probably primarily taken from the Chairmen's Panel, a committee of, shall we say, eight, who would consider appointments to Select Committees, be acceptable to your committee, to you as Chairman, ie, taking control of the appointment out of the hands of the executive? Parties would still of course be able to submit lists but individual Members would also be able to make application or submit an application to the committee or the Panel. Would this, do you think, be the answer? Do you think that this would be a meaningful and worthwhile alternative to the suggestion of the proposal of the Liaison Committee in the last Parliament?
  (Mr Williams) I think it was rejected last time. Obviously it was unacceptable then probably to the Government and therefore to the majority of the Government Members. That does not mean it is not worth revisiting and not worth considering revision. I think that it would be infinitely better than what we have at the moment. There is a confusion indeed within the Select Committee, and it is a problem for the Committee of Selection, that they have been there, their main role is to ensure that Government has its standing committees from all sides, and therefore they can quite easily slip into the idea of just rubber-stamping whatever comes from the whips. Therefore, I think separating the organisation that deals with the standing committees from that which deals with the select committees must be an advance in itself, further separating the whips' involvement from it; because the whips are involved, though it has varied all the time, in the Committee of Selection. Starting from my basic proposition of distancing the Select Committee from the Government as a prime need, the formula you put forward certainly seems to meet that need. I would find it an interesting and acceptable experiment. I think that whatever happens, we have to see how it works. No one can guarantee that whatever system you recommend is going to be acceptable after several years when you get people who have not been selected and feel they blame the system. I think we have to try something that is different from, clearly more transparent than and hopefully a bit better than, what we have at the moment.


  98. Thank you very much. Does any other colleague wish to raise any other point? If not, then, Alan, can I thank you very much for the time you have spent with us, sharing with us the views of the Liaison Committee. I think that we are very much on the same wavelength on a number of the issues which we have discussed, and my impression is that you and the Liaison Committee will be broadly pleased with the recommendations that we make. There are one or two areas obviously on the size of committees where we shall have to reflect and get the balance right between the views of those who are the chairs of committees and the views of those members who hope to join some of those committees, but we are trying to find the right balance.

  (Mr Williams) Thank you for having me. I hope my tactic of speaking at enormous length means that you will not be encouraged to invite me again to see you. Thank you very much.

  Chairman: It has been a very pleasant and useful occasion. Thank you.

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