Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons First Report

A Wider Membership

44. Our investigations were in part the result of the controversy last summer that arose from the competition between a large number of Members for a small number of places on the departmental select committees. We have therefore considered whether some of that controversy could be reduced by providing a wider opportunity for Members to serve on the select committees by increasing their size.

45. There is no standard size for the scrutiny committees. They vary from a membership of seventeen in the case of the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee down to eleven in the case of Foreign Affairs, Treasury, Home Affairs and others. It may be thought surprising that the latter group, which covers some of the most important Departments, should have the smaller membership.

46. In the last Parliament the larger size of the Education and Employment Committee and the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee was justified on the grounds that they had the power to set up sub-committees and required a larger pool of members for this purpose. However, following rule changes last July departmental scrutiny committees now have the power to set up sub-committees or to form joint committees with others. The statement of core tasks which we have proposed sets out the heavy workload on scrutiny committees which will continue to grow as their role expands. For instance, the new stress on pre-legislative scrutiny, to which the Modernisation Committee attaches importance, will significantly increase the pressures on those select committees which cover departments with a substantial legislative programme such as Home Affairs. In these circumstances we would expect most select committees eventually to appoint sub-committees of an ad hoc or a semi-permanent character.

47. There have been contrary views expressed in the course of our study. It has been objected that in a larger committee it would be more difficult to ensure that every Member could ask a question at evidence sessions and that there would be greater difficulty in securing consensus on reports.[18] We do not find these arguments conclusive. Not every Member needs to ask a question at every evidence session. Committees with a larger membership, such as the European Scrutiny Committee with a membership of sixteen and indeed ourselves with a membership of fifteen, appear able to function coherently. We recommend that the standard size of departmental scrutiny committees should be fifteen. Such an increase would retain the membership of any one committee to a manageable size but would enable up to fifty more Members of Parliament to play a full part in committee scrutiny.

48. We recognise that there will be individual cases where there may be good cause to vary the standard size of membership. There is no compelling reason why we should reduce the present membership of seventeen of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committees, both of which straddle wide policy areas. Nor is it necessary to increase the size of the territorial committees which have a smaller pool of constituency Members on whom to draw. Indeed we note the letter we received from Mr Michael Mates,[19] Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which set out a persuasive case for keeping its present size at thirteen to accommodate the unusual complexity of party balance in Northern Ireland.

49. It is important that those Members appointed to a scrutiny committee should play a full part in its work. It will not be possible for committees to fulfil the workload we have described for them unless every member shoulders his or her share of the burden. It is also unfair to deprive willing Members of a place on a scrutiny committee if that place is blocked by an absentee member. We recommend that the scrutiny committees should have the right to report to the Committee of Nomination any member who has a record of poor attendance without good cause and that the Committee of Nomination should have the right to replace that member. In coming to a view on whether to report a member on grounds of poor attendance, the scrutiny committees will be entitled to have regard to attendance over the totality of a meeting and not only a token appearance for the record.

50. Conversely there are some select committees on which it is difficult to find Members to serve and even more difficult to secure their attendance. For example the Modernisation Committee heard from one of our number, Mr Peter Pike, of his difficulty in securing a quorum at meetings of the Deregulation and Regulatory Reform Committee, which has a membership of seventeen. We see no merit in retaining a committee size that is greater than Members are prepared and willing to fill. We recommend a reduction in size of the membership and of the quorum of select committees where there has been a persistent problem securing attendance.

18   Eg Q 89, Ev p 44, 46, 57, 60. Back

19   Ev p 57. Back

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