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

Letter from Rt Hon Michael Jack MP (M43)

  I am putting on record my observations about the future work and for Select Committees which I hope will be of interest to the Modernisation Committee.

  Currently Select Committee rules and resources are geared towards the traditional role of undertaking a series of sequential inquiries on different aspects of Departmental policy responsibilities. Some flexibility in this approach is available if Committees are prepared to utilise facilities such as sub-committees, rapporters or unofficial groupings. These approaches increase the score of departmental activity which can be subject to regular scrutiny.

  However Select Committees are now having to face new demands to take on a further range of investigative activity. These include a more rigorous and continuing analysis of departmental expenditure including the supplementary estimates, pre-legislative and possibly post-legislative scrutiny. In addition to these UK activities it is now being suggested that Committees might take on additional European scrutiny with particular reference to EU Green Papers and other relevant documents.

  Whilst all of these suggested streams of work can be justified undertaking them all would put a strain on the ability of Committees, as currently constituted, to conduct this volume of work. The extra strain could not simply be relieved by the addition of more staff or resources. Looking at my own Committee of 14, the reality is that the majority of the work is carried out by a hardcore of around nine who are the regular attendees. Currently for us to cover our present range of tasks and inquiries we meet as a main committee, sub-committees are formed and we have even invented an unofficial grouping called an Observatory to enable us to monitor continuing issues such as Avian Influenza but where a formal inquiry is not yet required. We also do our best to meet with visiting delegations from other legislatures interested in our work.

  In addition my Committee is anxious to improve its scrutiny of Defra's financial activities. However, what this will mean is that two or three members who have some appreciation of the complexities of public finance will have to spend a considerable amount of time getting up to speed to really understand the subject in order to enhance our performance in this area. However, because of the constraints on the number of sub-committees we can form, it will not be possible for us to effectively form a standing sub-committee which could monitor the department's finances on a continuing basis. As you will appreciate for Members to do all of these functions it would mean for some being in almost permanent session. Such an approach would be incompatible with the current other duties of colleagues and unrealistic when you look at the many calls on Members' time.

  So far my comments have focused on the Parliamentary Members of the Committee. You will immediately appreciate that if we were to expand our range of scrutiny activities as suggested we would also need a substantial increase in the number of clerks and specialists who were available to us in order to give the necessary professional support to members.

  If Select Committees are to enhance their range of work I believe that the time is now right for the House to undertake a fundamental review of the way it uses the House's Committee structure. As I see it Parliament is fundamentally organised on the basis of ad hoc committees. This is different to many other legislators who have specialist committees by subject and through which all of their legislative and scrutiny activities flow. Such an approach from our Parliament would mean a fundamental change in the way that committees operate in the House of Commons. For example, the House would have to consider the implications of creating a group of members with real specialist knowledge. In legislative terms this approach could also pose a challenge to the current system of ad hoc committee whipping.

  In considering a package such as this thought should be given about the role which would be played by "enhanced" committees in looking at Department value for money and performance issues. Currently this job is largely carried out by the Public Accounts Committee. In contrast Commons committees established on these lines could significantly improve the House's ability to hold the Executive to account as well as enhancing the role of the Backbench Member.

March 2007

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