Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

Scrutiny matters

1. The principal objective of modernisation must be to improve the scrutiny of public policy. The programme of work of the Modernisation Committee is intended to enable Members of the House to be more effective in discharging their role of scrutiny.

2. One of the chief means which the House employs to conduct the scrutiny of Ministers and Government policy are the departmental select committees. These have proved successful vehicles for scrutiny in the twenty years or so since they were set up. They enable Members to develop an expertise and authority in specialised areas of public policy. They provide a forum for detailed examination of Ministers at length which is not always practical in the full Chamber. At their best they enable Members from both sides of the House to examine the issues in a non-partisan environment and to assess what is in the interest of the public not the advantage of the party.

3. In the two decades in which the departmental select committees have contributed to Parliament's scrutiny of Government, they have made notable contributions to parliamentary and public debates, for instance:

  • the Defence Committee's work on Westland in 1985-86:
  • the Trade and Industry Committee's work on the Coal Industry in 1992-93;
  • the Social Security Committee's work on the operation of the Child Support Act in 1993-94;
  • the Quadripartite Committee's work on strategic export controls in 2000-01.

4. We received evidence from Democratic Audit[1] on the international comparison between our select committees and the committees of other parliaments. As their submission notes, the British system has its strengths. Our select committees have a more clearly defined role in the scrutiny of executive decisions and are more transparent in their proceedings. But they also have their weaknesses. They are much poorer in the resources they can command than in other parliaments and they have a weak record of stability of membership. They also have a much more marginal role in scrutinising legislation, which is the principal function of the parallel committees in some other parliaments. Our report is intended to build on these strengths and to address these weaknesses.

5. All innovations should be open to review and improvement after two decades. Therefore on our reappointment we decided that it was timely to consider how we could strengthen and improve Parliament's role of scrutiny through its committee system. There was a particular stimulus to this study from the controversy over the nominations last July to the departmental select committees. This Report proposes to the House a new system of nomination which will be transparent and will enhance the independence of the select committees. But this Report goes much wider than the narrow question of nominations. We were also concerned to seek an early resolution, without duplicating work well done by others, to some of the major issues which had been so effectively highlighted in the recent reports by the Liaison Committee,[2] by the Hansard Society[3] and by Lord Norton's Commission.[4] So this Report also makes recommendations to strengthen the independence, status and resources of Parliament's committees of scrutiny.

6. We concentrated first on the issue of nominations on which so many Members had expressed concern in the debates on 16 and 19 July 2001 before deliberating carefully on other matters. We have been much helped by hearing oral evidence from the former chairman[5] of the Liaison Committee, Lord Sheldon, from its current chairman, Mr Alan Williams, from representatives of the Hansard Society Commission chaired by the former Leader of the House, Lord Newton of Braintree, and also from Lord Norton. A number of individual Members, including chairmen of several select committees, wrote to us and we are grateful to all who assisted in this inquiry on a theme which we envisage will continue to be central to our work in the years ahead.

1   Ev pp 46-56. Back

2   Shifting the Balance : Select Committees and the Executive, First Report from the Liaison Committee, HC 300 of Session 1999-2000; Independence or Control?, Second Report from the Committee, HC 748 of Session 1999-2000, and Shifting the Balance : Unfinished Business, First Report from the Committee, HC 321 of Session 2000-01. Back

3   The Challenge for Parliament : Making Government Accountable, 2001. Back

4   Strengthening Parliament, July 2000. Back

5   We use the word 'Chairman' because that is the word used in Standing Orders. We record our view that the time is ripe for the House to consider changing this usage to reflect the increasing number of women who chair committees. Back

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Prepared 12 February 2002