Select Committee on Liaison Third Report

4. New developments

Regional committees

105. The Governance of Britain Green Paper made proposals to improve democratic accountability and scrutiny of the delivery of public services in the English regions.[134] This followed on from proposals in a Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee for the establishment of "more thorough and consistent scrutiny of the regions at Westminster". The Committee suggested that select committees on the regions might be appointed, on an experimental basis, and asked the Modernisation and Procedure Committees to examine the detailed implications of improved parliamentary scrutiny for the regions.[135] We discussed the Government's proposals at our informal meeting with the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Justice, and the Modernisation Committee is now inquiring into regional accountability, including what models of accountability might work; what the role of the House should be in regional accountability; and what resources would be needed to make regional accountability work in the House of Commons.[136]

106. Our Chairman and two select committee chairmen gave evidence to the Committee's inquiry in February 2008. We argued that any new parliamentary arrangements for regional accountability should not overlap with, or undermine, the role of the existing departmental select committees. We also expressed concern about practical issues—for instance the possibility of conflicting demands for resources and access to relevant witnesses.[137] The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Rt Hon Hazel Blears, and the Regional Minister for the South West, Ben Bradshaw, gave evidence to the Committee's inquiry on 5 March 2008. The Ministers argued that Parliament could have "a clearer role in holding to account the range of regional organisations". Ministers felt that the nature of any new committees was "very much for the House to decide", although Ms Blears floated the idea of some kind of "hybrid" committee model—"a select committee with constraints". Ms Blears agreed that, if a select committee model was chosen, there was a risk of overlap and confusion with existing select committees, and that therefore "clear boundaries" and a "proper structure" would have to be put in place. Mr Bradshaw also drew attention to the existing pressures on Members' and ministers' time, which should be taken into account in deciding what kind of new system should be established.[138]

107. We await the outcome of the Modernisation Committee's inquiry into regional accountability, and more detailed proposals from the Government. At this stage, we reiterate the concerns put to the Modernisation Committee by our Chairman and other Members, that establishing a group of select committees on the regions, operating in the same way as the existing departmental select committees, could lead to wasteful duplication of effort, confusion over the roles of the different committees and conflicting demands for resources and access to relevant witnesses. We welcome the prospect of enhanced regional accountability, but it must not be at the expense of replicating—or weakening—the existing scrutiny system.

Scrutiny of major planning proposals

108. The Planning Bill, published in November 2007, contains provisions which could have a significant impact on the work of certain select committees.[139] The Bill would create a new system of development consent for nationally significant infrastructure projects, including the publication by the Secretary of State of "national policy statements" on proposed planning and development projects. The Government suggests that such statements could cover, for instance, key elements of energy policy relevant to infrastructure provision and infrastructure development for water supply and waste water treatment. Such statements would "set the framework" for decisions by the proposed new Infrastructure Planning Commission. The Government proposes that the House "establish a new select committee with the main purpose of holding inquiries into draft national policy statements in parallel with public consultation", and suggests that such a committee should be comprised of members from existing select committees with a particular interest: BERR, EFRA, Transport and Communities and Local Government.[140]

109. Chairmen of the committees most affected have twice discussed the Government's proposals with the Leader of the House. These discussions are continuing. The Government has not yet made a detailed announcement about how it intends to proceed, and the Planning Bill is still before Parliament. At this stage, we make the following points:

  • The principle of parliamentary scrutiny for National Policy Statements is welcome and we believe select committees are the proper forum for such scrutiny;
  • The Government should work closely with the committees most affected to ensure that any new arrangements allow existing committees adequate time to carry out effective scrutiny without adversely affecting the rest of their programme of work, and
  • Decisions on the statements should be made by the House, informed by the committees' analyses, and the Planning Bill should be amended to ensure that ministers may not designate statements without the approval of the House.

We look forward to a continuing dialogue between committee chairmen and the Leader of the House on how these aims can best be achieved.

134   Ministry of Justice, The Governance of Britain, Cm 7170, paras 115-20 Back

135   Communities and Local Government Committee, Is there a future for Regional Government?, paras 113-14 Back

136   Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Press Notice No. 10 of Session 2007-08, New inquiries, 24 October 2007 Back

137   Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Minutes of Evidence, 27 February 2008, HC 282-iv Back

138   Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, Minutes of Evidence, 5 March 2008, HC 282-v, Qq 144, 152, 163-64, 166 Back

139   Planning Bill [Bill 71 (2007-08)] Back

140   Written Ministerial Statement, 27 November 2007, col 14WS Back

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