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
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.