Letter from Dr Phyllis Starkey MP to the
Chairman of the Committee
Following the discussion at the PLP on Wednesday,
I thought it might be helpful to expand slightly on the points
I made about Select Committees. All of these remarks apply only
to Departmental Select Committees, not the various administrative
select committees, though I would include Environmental Audit
and the Science & Technology Select Committees as being of
equivalent importance to departmental committees.
I strongly support the idea of using Select
Committees more in taking evidence on draft legislation and thus
acting as a bridge between individuals and organisations outside
and the legislative process. I also think it is important to use
Select Committees to build up a body of MPs with expertise and
experience in a particular area of policy.
The Hansard Society report on Select Committees
does seem to me to make some very useful points, particularly
its definition of the characteristics of good scrutiny, although
I do not agree with all its recommendations. The Report was, as
you know, very uncomplimentary about the generality of select
committee members, it commented on the high turnover, the non-attendance
of members, and their tendency to simply parrot questions drawn
up for them by the clerks rather than making any real input to
committee proceedings themselves.
My feeling is that part of the problem is that
to be an effective member of a select committee takes a lot of
time, and that with many competing commitments, members are only
going to commit this time if there is some pay-off for them. Part
of this pay-off lies in the intrinsic satisfaction of a job well
done, but it is unfortunately the case that there is very little
status deriving from being a member of a select committee, and
neither the press nor one's voters, value the work of individual
committee members unless they are attacking government ministers
during the once a year ministerial evidence session. The chairs
of most committees take all the publicity that is going and rarely
encourage individual members to take the limelight or even acknowledge
contributions made by individual members.
The recommendations made by the Hansard Society
report that I would support include:
Setting out core duties for each
select committee to include monitoring departmental performance,
following up government action or inaction on previous reports,
financial monitoring, questioning on target setting, consultation
on draft legislation and ad hoc reports on a balance of topics.
Increasing the size of the departmental
committees to deal with this increased workloadalthough
I do think the size should not be so big that there is no sense
of group identity, 20-25 might be a suitable size.
Encouraging more active participation,
and giving more kudos to individual members, by importing the
rapporteur system from the European Parliament.
The other, unrelated point I should like to
make is that I strongly support Fiona MacTaggart's point about
giving the House of Commons a chance to decide on the seating
arrangements in Westminster Hall. The current arrangement is just
as confrontational as the main chamber whereas the previous hemispherical
arrangement allowed individual members to sit where they liked,
instead of in Party blocs, and as appropriate to the subject under
discussion. There is also the issue about the seats for the public.
How many were available under the hemispherical layout and how
many in the current layout? During a debate on Thursday, two members
of the public were excluded because there were insufficient seats.
When will the House be given a chance to choose between the two
7 December 2001