The Work of Committees in Session 2008-09 - Liaison Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. This will be our final review of the work of select committees before the 2010 General Election. For many committees, their sessional reports for 2008-09 will similarly be their last in the current Parliament. Our report reviews the same period but its comments extend into 2009-10, to cover recent developments on some issues. It gives a flavour of the wide variety of work carried out by the House's select committees and highlights some of the areas in which they have made an impact on the policy formation process. It also traces new developments—some introduced, some imminent—that stand to affect the conduct of select committee work, if not in the remainder of this Parliament, then certainly in the next.

2. After 30 years of what most observers would agree to have been successful operation, the departmental select committee system continues to evolve. In 2008-09 the new arrangements for pre-appointment hearings were used more widely, not entirely without controversy; committee scrutiny of National Policy Statements (NPSs) began; and new regional select committees were established. We report on the innovative ways in which committees have sought to engage with the public on specific issues and also comment on our own role in supporting the work of committees and the maintenance of a constructive dialogue with the Government.

3. In a year that was dominated by the banking crisis and the impact of the recession it is only necessary to look as far as the Treasury Committee to illustrate how effective select committees can be in influencing the public policy agenda. The spectacle of leading bankers, regulators and Ministers being held to account by the Committee for their roles in the UK banking crisis featured regularly on rolling news coverage. The televised sessions provided a voice for public dissatisfaction and a prominent input to the Government's response to the situation. That is but one high profile issue which, taken with the effects of the recession, occupied the time of five other select committees during the session. But there was plenty of time for other issues. Look beneath the surface of any new major policy and there can usually be found a select committee taking evidence, analysing and making recommendations to Government, frequently outside the glare of the public spotlight. That is true in respect of the supply of equipment for British troops in Afghanistan, the rights of Gurkhas to settle in the UK, the future of the railways, sentencing guidelines and carbon trading, to pick just a few subjects. It should also be acknowledged that some press coverage of select committees' work was probably nudged out by the blanket coverage afforded to the issue of parliamentary expenses that so dominated the second half of the session. One of the indirect consequences of the turmoil caused by this issue was the establishment of the Committee on House of Commons Reform. This reported at the very end of the session and made a number of proposals which may, if implemented, have a significant impact on the way in which select committees are perceived and how they operate.[1] We have reported separately on these proposals, some of which are currently still before the House for decision as we consider this report.[2]

4. Much of the work that Members of Parliament do outside the Chamber, including that on select committees, goes unseen by press and constituents alike. Select committees are more demanding than ever before in terms of the time commitment required of Members. The establishment of nine new regional select committees during the session exacerbated these pressures.[3] Levels of activity and output in 2008-09 were broadly in line with the previous year. However, the length of this parliamentary session was some eight weeks shorter than 2007-08, meaning that committees worked significantly more intensively than the previous year. Detailed figures and comparisons are contained in Chapter 5.

5. In summary, there were 565 places on select committees occupied by Members of the House during the session.[4] Committees held 1,118 formal meetings and published 371 substantive reports.[5] There are 19 departmental select committees, each monitoring the work of a Government department. The work of others, such as the Committee of Public Accounts, Environmental Audit Committee and Public Administration Select Committee, cuts across a wide range of Government departments. Similarly, the issue of human rights is not confined to one department: responsibility for this subject lies with the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) which contains members of both the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Work of the Liaison Committee: an overview

6. The Liaison Committee comprises of the chairs of most select committees in the House and meets periodically during the session, roughly on a monthly basis. It has a number of functions, some clearly defined, others which have evolved over the years. An example of the first type is that under the House's Standing Orders the Liaison Committee is required to select the reports to be debated on days allocated on the floor of the House and in Westminster Hall for the consideration of departmental Estimates and matters raised by select committees.

7. The more evolutionary role is encompassed by the requirement under Standing Orders for the Committee "to consider general matters relating to select committees" and to advise the House of Commons Commission—and, increasingly, other committees, the House administration and the Government—on such matters when necessary.[6] Our meetings provide a forum in which committee chairs can raise issues which may be relevant to other committees or to the effective operation of the system as a whole. Where necessary the Liaison Committee, usually through the chair, pursues matters arising with the Leader of the House or the Chief Whips. Our aim is to promote the activities of select committees within the House and outside; to ensure that they have the resources necessary to do their jobs; and to secure the full co-operation of the Government with select committees. In a nutshell, we see it as our role to help ensure the smooth running of effective parliamentary scrutiny by select committees. This report represents the more formal part of the dialogue with the Government on these issues; we refer in Chapter 3 to the main problems which we believe need attention.

8. In addition to addressing some longstanding wrinkles in the relationship between committees and Government we have also considered several new issues during the session. The negotiation of the new arrangements for handling National Policy Statements was one such issue: others include the tabling of amendments to bills by select committees; the handling of confidential papers and the procedure for dealing with leaks; and the operation of the new system of pre-appointment hearings. These issues, which are discussed in Chapter 4, all benefited from the constructive engagement of the Government with the Liaison Committee. We are grateful for the positive way in which the Leader of House and other Ministers co-operated with us on issues of mutual concern relating to the work of committees during the session.

9. To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the modern system of departmentally-related select committees, the Liaison Committee was very pleased to sponsor a seminar in June 2009 which looked at the impact of committees and assessed future challenges for them. This event was organised in conjunction with the Study of Parliament Group and the Hansard Society. It was attended by a wide range of current and former select committee chairs and Ministers, academics, political commentators, officials and interested observers. It proved to be an excellent opportunity for reflection on the first 30 years of this scrutiny regime and for a forward-looking exchange on how it might be improved.

10. We also have a direct role to play in holding the Prime Minister to account. Since 2002 this Committee has held 16 oral evidence sessions with the Prime Minister, at least twice a year—the only occasions on which the Prime Minister appears before a select committee. We welcome this opportunity to pursue matters of current public and parliamentary interest in greater depth than is allowed by Prime Minister's Questions on the floor of the House and in a serious, investigative spirit that is more in line with the bipartisan approach of select committees. We believe that our regular evidence sessions have the potential to provide a valuable extra means of holding the Prime Minister to account but that this potential has not yet been fully realised. While we look forward to continuing these in the new Parliament, we will therefore keep the detailed arrangements under review.

  • Table 1: Liaison Committee - formal evidence and informal meetings, Session 2008-09[7]
  • Date Meeting
    12.02.08Oral evidence from the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP
    23.06.09Seminar to mark 30th anniversary of departmental select committee system
    16.07.09Oral evidence from the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP

    1   House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117 Back

    2   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272 Back

    3   See paras 144-145 Back

    4   Figure derived from Sessional Returns, Session 2008-09, HC 1 Back

    5   Sessional Returns, Session 2008-09, HC 1 Back

    6   Standing Order No. 145 Back

    7   Table does not include the private meetings of the Committee Back

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    Prepared 16 March 2010