Select Committee on Liaison Third Report

Appendix 3: The work of the Scrutiny Unit in 2007


1. The main aim of the Scrutiny Unit is to maintain and improve the ability of the House, through its select committees, to perform its scrutiny function. In particular:

  • it supports select committees and others within the House, mainly but not exclusively in the areas of government expenditure, performance reporting and pre-legislative scrutiny;
  • it provides staff for joint committees of both Houses on draft bills, and
  • it supports the evidence-taking functions of Public Bill Committees.

In fulfilling its role, it seeks to develop expertise and best practice and improve the quality of its work by developing relationships with relevant organisations outside the House.

2. In 2007 the Unit maintained the high level of activity of the previous session. All the departmental select committees have made use of the Unit's services at some point during the session and Unit staff also carried out important tasks in support of the wider work of the House. Much of the work undertaken by the Unit concerned the scrutiny of expenditure and performance—a core activity is the regular analysis of the Government's financial reporting to Parliament. The Unit has also played an important role in assisting committees—especially joint committees—in their examination of draft Bills. However, once again Unit staff undertook a considerable volume of other tasks in support of committees. This was partly owing to the fact that work on draft bills was heavily concentrated into a few months of the session, allowing us to direct resources to other tasks at less busy times.

3. Several committees have commented on the value they place on assistance from the Unit. For instance, the Transport Committee received "a great deal of support from the Committee Office Scrutiny Unit, which provided us with significant help with our inquiries" and the Justice Committee referred to the "invaluable help" of the Unit.[164]

  1. Overall, almost half (46%) of Scrutiny Unit staff time was spent on expenditure-related tasks; 23% on draft bills, and 31% on "other" activities, as shown in Figure 1 below.

5. The variation in the Unit's workload over the course of the Session is clear from Figure 2 below.

6. The "spike" of work on draft bills between April and July reflects the fact that draft legislation is now habitually published in the Spring, with pre-legislative scrutiny usually completed by the summer recess. On the other hand, the intensity of work on financial scrutiny remains broadly constant throughout the year—thereby accounting for a much higher proportion of the Unit's overall work in, for instance, August.

7. The way in which the Unit's resources are deployed has changed since it was established in November 2002. In the 2003-04 Session, most (62%) of Scrutiny Unit staff time was spent on draft bills, with 23% on expenditure-related tasks and 15% on "other" tasks. Over the last few years, expenditure and "other" tasks have increased in importance (see Figure 3 below).

8. The change in types of work reflects both the falling off in the numbers of draft bills published by the Government (see Annex for more details on numbers of draft bills) and the increase in the range and volume of tasks undertaken by Unit staff, such as supporting public bill committees.

9. Scrutiny Unit staff undertook tasks for each of the departmental select committees. although there was considerable variation in the extent to which committees used the Unit's services. The Treasury Committee made most use of Unit staff (about 10% of total staff time in Session 2006-07), which is attributable partly to the obvious synergy between its work and that of the finance team in the Unit, but especially to staff shortages experienced by the Committee. The Transport Committee was the second highest user, accounting for about 5% of staff time. The Welsh Affairs and Environmental Audit Committees used the services of the Unit the least.

Staffing of the Unit

10. The Unit's staff increased by 2.5 full-time equivalents over the course of 2007. The current complement comprises: two legal specialists on short-term contracts, a statistician on secondment from the House of Commons Library, two financial analysts on secondment from the National Audit Office and two from Government departments, an economist on a short-term contract and a Home Affairs/Public Policy Specialist on a short-term contract. In addition, there is a core team of the Head of Unit and two Deputy Heads (Finance and Legislation), an assistant clerk (attached to the Unit for one year, but not part of the formal complement), a committee assistant, a team manager, two chief office clerks, a part-time senior office clerk and an office support assistant. In addition, an additional committee assistant was assigned to the Unit for some months in the summer to support work for the joint committee on the draft Climate Change Bill. The Unit has continued to host a series of ESRC students on three-month placements.

11. Two of the additional staff were appointed in response to specific business needs. The part-time office clerk was needed because of the additional administrative burden arising from the new evidence-taking powers of Public Bill Committees (see further below). The public policy analyst post, created in Autumn 2007, represents a new departure, working across the Unit, the Home Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee in support of their work. The appointment reflects the high level of legislation-related work generated in the home affairs and justice field, affecting both select committees and public bill committees.

Financial scrutiny work for select committees

12. The Unit continues to support Select Committees in their core tasks of examining departmental expenditure (core task 5) and examining performance against key targets in the Public Service Agreements (core task 6). The finance team provided briefing for committees on the Main and Supplementary Estimates (including analysis of departments' Estimates Memoranda), resource accounts, Autumn Performance Reports and Departmental Annual Reports (DARs) of all the major Government departments and agencies. This included briefing for those committees which held evidence sessions on their departments' DARs. We also contributed to the drafting of committee reports on DARs and Estimates—for instance those by the Defence and International Development Committees. Following practice in previous years, the Unit has undertaken an over-arching review of the 2007 DARs, which was published in March 2008.

13. The finance team continues to be particularly active in its support of the Treasury Committee, including contributing to briefing on the Budget, the Pre-Budget Report and the Comprehensive Spending Review, and drafting reports on globalisation and the regulation of travel insurance. The Committee has noted the benefit of the Unit's assistance.[165]

14. Other examples of financial scrutiny work undertaken for committees in 2007 include an analysis of economic arguments for space travel for the Science and Technology Committee and of police funding for the Home Affairs Committee. The Unit has had a long-running association with the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its examination of Defra's budget—an example of the Unit's core function of analysing departmental annual reports widening to include work on the Department's wider financial management. The Committee has noted the value of the Unit's assistance.[166]

15. The Unit's statistician, on loan from the House of Commons Library, assists committees with statistical analysis, as well as contributing to the general financial scrutiny work of the Unit. Examples of the statistician's work in 2007 include assisting the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in its inquiry into Badgers and Bovine TB and the Home Affairs Committee's inquiry into police funding.

Legislative scrutiny

Draft bills

16. Draft Bills are considered by ad hoc Joint Committees of both Houses or departmental Select Committees (in pursuit of core task 3). In 2007, the Government published four bills in draft, three of which received pre-legislative scrutiny. The Unit provided legal specialists, administrative staff and one of its Clerks to support the two joint committees appointed to examine the draft Climate Change Bill and the draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill.[167] As in previous years, the two joint committees were given a very tight timetable to complete pre-legislative scrutiny, and thus an intensive workload for members and staff, but they were nevertheless able to publish their reports on schedule.

17. The draft Climate Change Bill was also subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, as well as being considered by the Environmental Audit Committee as part of a wider inquiry.[168] This put pressure on specialist staff resources, which was alleviated partly by the assignment of an NAO specialist to the committee team, on a part-time basis, and by shared working between EAC specialist staff and the staff of the joint committee.

Public Bill Committees

18. In 2007 the new procedure under which Public Bill Committees (PBCs) may take written and oral evidence on bills came fully into operation. Five PBCs took oral evidence during the year, holding a total of 15 evidence sessions, and receiving some 500 written submissions—about 400 of them in respect of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill. This represented a significant new task for the Unit's administrative staff, who manage the receipt, checking and circulation of submissions to Committee members, and make the practical arrangements for oral evidence sessions. In addition, the Deputy Head (Legislation) commissioned and edited briefing for those evidence sessions from specialist staff of select committees, and she also contributed to the briefing.

Regulatory Reform Orders and Legislative Competence Orders

19. Legal specialists in the Unit have continued to work with the staff of the Regulatory Reform Committee in its scrutiny of Regulatory Reform Orders (RROs) made under the Regulatory Reform Act 2001. In 2007 one of the Unit's legal specialists undertook all the work on the Committee's inquiry into the draft Financial Markets and Services Order.

20. The Government of Wales Act 2006 introduced a new procedure whereby the National Assembly for Wales can bring forward proposals which would extend the Assembly's law-making powers by way of Legislative Competence Orders in Council (LCOs). The Orders do not themselves change the general law for Wales—they pave the way to subsequent changes in the law applying to Wales within the devolved areas of legislative competence.[169] The Welsh Affairs Committee undertakes scrutiny of LCOs. The Unit's legal specialists have assisted the Welsh Affairs Committee in its scrutiny of two draft LCOs. Scrutiny of LCOs looks set to become a regular task for the Unit's legal specialists.

Other work for committees

21. The Scrutiny Unit continued in 2007 to support committees in areas outside its core specialisms of financial and legislative scrutiny. This provision of "surge" capacity has been of particular help to committees faced with unexpected demands in workload or gaps in their staff complement. Once again, a member of staff was seconded on a short-term basis to the Treasury Committee, but otherwise work was done on a project basis with staff remaining based in the Unit. A recent example was the Assistant Clerk managing an entire inquiry for the Transport Committee. The new Home Affairs/Public Policy Specialist post (see paragraphs 10-11 above) was created to fill a specific gap in resources elsewhere in the Committee Office, and was placed in the Unit to allow flexibility in her deployment.

22. Unit staff have also continued to assist committees in managing online forums in connection with committee inquiries, and the Unit has supported the Web Centre in developing advice and guidance to committee staff in this area. One of the Unit's office clerks continued to work as the committee assistant on the Select Committee on the Crossrail Bill. The Bill has now completed its passage through the Commons, and gone to the House of Lords. This member of Unit staff was seconded to the Lords in January 2008 to assist with scrutiny of the Bill in that House.

Work for the Liaison Committee

23. Unit staff have continued to provide support for the Liaison Committee's work. We supplied the secretariat for the Committee's working group on post-legislative scrutiny, and have made a significant input to the working group on improving financial scrutiny.[170]

24. Unit staff also advised the Committee on how to respond to Treasury proposals to merge departmental annual reports and resource accounts, a project which was piloted by two departments during 2007. The Unit has also briefed staff of the select committees which monitor these departments on how the change affects their scrutiny of financial reporting.

Wider work

25. As in previous years the Unit has carried out work for customers other than the departmental select committees, although we strive to ensure that this does not prevent us from carrying out our "core work" for committees. Prominent examples include briefing and support for the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission in its review of the Commission's 2007-08 Estimate and Corporate Plan. This included consideration of a new four-year budget for the Commission. Staff of the Unit's finance team provided briefing for the Committee and its sub-committee, in advance of its meeting with Commission officials, as well as appearing themselves before the Committee.[171]

26. At the request of the Clerk of the House, in his role as Accounting Officer, the Head of the Unit, the Deputy Head (Finance) and another member of the finance team carried out a review of the internal audit function of the House of Commons Internal Review Service. The report of the review was submitted in July. Its recommendations were accepted by the Clerk and the Audit Committee and are in the process of being implemented.

27. The finance team has made contributions to several Treasury consultations. Examples include the Treasury's reviews of the new edition of Government Accounting, now re-published under the title Managing Public Money; and the Treasury's revision of Supply Estimates: A guidance manual, which included revised guidance on Estimates Memoranda. Finally the finance team has continued to support the Parliamentary Observer on the Financial Reporting Advisory Board (FRAB).

Training and sharing best practice

28. The Unit continued the work started in 2006 to help train Government and House staff on the evidence-taking aspects of the new Public Bill Committee procedures, including presentations to staff of Government departments and committee specialists, and bilateral meetings. Members of the finance team have also briefed committee members on aspects of financial reporting, e.g. the Estimates process.

29. In 2007 the Unit also published a handbook for Members on parliamentary scrutiny of Government finances, Financial Scrutiny Uncovered and sought to put more material on its website. An example of the latter is a note on public sector pensions liabilities, which was later cited by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in its 2008 "Green Budget".[172]

30. International interest in the legislative and financial scrutiny work of the Unit is reflected in regular visits by staff and members of overseas legislatures. In 2007 Unit staff briefed visitors from, among other countries, Australia, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Egypt, Ghana, Gibraltar, Indonesia, Kenya, Namibia, Nigeria, Portugal and Slovenia.

The future

31. The Unit celebrated its fifth birthday in November 2007. This was a good time to take stock of what we had achieved, but also to consider how well we do our job and what we could do better or differently. At around the same time, the Review of Select Committee Resources produced its report. The Review concluded that:

    The Unit provides a positive model of multi-professional and cross-Committee collaboration, containing as it does a mix of accountants, lawyers and other specialists providing support to a wide range of Select Committees rather than a single customer.[173]

The Review also noted the positive view of the Unit's work expressed by the majority of chairmen interviewed.[174]

32. The Review team also noted that the Unit could do more to communicate with its "customers" among committee staff about how it could help them.[175] Partly in response to these findings, and also arising from discussions at our annual awayday, we have reviewed how we communicate with committee staff and how we can further improve the ways in which we engage with our customers. We are in the process of implementing the changes arising from our review.

33. The Review also proposed that the Committee Office works towards the establishment of a central Research Unit, bringing together a broad spectrum of skills and policy experience. The Review noted that the Scrutiny Unit "provides a good model on which the Committee Office could build" in developing such a centralised model.[176] It is not yet clear what model of staffing will be adopted for the Committee Office, but any significant changes to the current structure will clearly have a major impact on the Unit.

34. In the shorter term, it is difficult to make definite predictions about the balance of the Unit's future work, as this will depend (as ever) on the number of draft bills published and joint committees appointed, the demands of committees for "surge capacity" (which will in turn be heavily influenced by their staffing patterns) and the demands of public bill committees. The latter have already created a significant amount of extra work for the Unit in the first month of 2008. However, whatever the split between different types of work, it seems unlikely that the total volume of tasks the Unit is asked to carry out will decline in the foreseeable future.

Matthew Hamlyn

Head, Scrutiny Unit

February 2008Annex: Draft Bills published since Session 1997-1998
Session Number of draft bills published Number of Government bills published
1997-98 353
1998-99 631
1999-2000 640
2000-01 226
2001-02 739
2002-03 10136
2003-04 1236
2004-05 5232
2005-06 3583
2006-07 433
1 Includes draft clauses of the Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and the Gambling Bill

2 Includes draft clauses of the Company Law Reform Bill

3 Includes the European Union Bill (not proceeded with)

164   Transport Committee, Work of the Committee in 2007, para 4. Justice Committee, Work of the Committee in 2007, para 39. See also Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, The Work of the Committee in 2007, para 50, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Work of the Committee in 2007, paras 14 and 15. Back

165   Treasury Committee, Work of the Committee in 2007, para 33 Back

166   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, The Work of the Committee in 2007, para 44. See also e.g. Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Work of the Committee in 2007, para 14. Back

167   See Annex for more information on numbers of draft bills in recent sessions. Back

168   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, The Work of the Committee in 2007, para 14; Letter from the Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, Appendix 1, para 4 Back

169   Welsh Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2007-08, Proposed Legislative Competence Orders in Council: Additional Learning Needs, HC 44, para 1 Back

170   See Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2007-08, Parliament and Government Finance: Recreating Financial Scrutiny, HC 426, para 3 - to be published on 21 April 2008. Back

171   Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Third Report of Session 2006-07, Third Report 2007, HC 288, para 11 and Appendix 3 Back

172   Both publications are available online at Back

173   Review of Select Committee Resources, p 65  Back

174   Ibid. Back

175   Ibid., pp 63, 67 Back

176   Ibid., pp 9, 64 Back

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