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


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 workload—although 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 alternatives?

7 December 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 February 2002