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


3  Working practices

Introduction

80. The core tasks shape the objectives of select committees, but committees seek to achieve these objectives in a variety of ways. The diversity of the topics examined by committees is mirrored by the diversity of their working practices. Committees are increasingly taking an innovative approach to the process of gathering evidence, both formally and informally; they are also making substantial efforts to improve both the quality and the quantity of their engagement with the public. This chapter highlights some of the developments in working practices during the 2008-09 session.

Changes to committee remits

81. The period of relative stability in the remit of departmental select committees, on which we commented in our last sessional report, continued during the 2008-09 session, with one notable exception. On 5 June 2009 the Government announced that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform would be merged to create the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.[82] The then Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (IUSS), anticipating that the Government would bring forward changes to Standing Order No. 152 to establish a Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, produced a special report in which it urged the Government to "reconsider the need for a separate science scrutiny committee".[83] The Government accordingly brought forward proposals, to which the House agreed on 25 June 2009, to re-establish a Science and Technology Committee.[84] (For convenience, references to the Science and Technology Committee in this report include its former incarnation as the IUSS Committee.) The only other change was the establishment of select committees on the English regions, on which we comment in Chapter 4.

MEMBERSHIP ISSUES

82. We noted last year that the number of select committees, and the number of Members serving on them, has increased significantly since the creation of the departmental committee system in 1979.[85] This "near-doubling of places to be filled" continues to place a heavy demand on those Members who are able and willing to devote themselves to select committee work. The figures for the annual attendance of Members at select committee meetings once again reveal to an extent the difficulty Members face in juggling many pressing commitments but also the problems the whips have in finding replacements for Members who are no longer eligible to serve on committees (due to being appointed to serve in the Government, for example).[86] In its response to our last sessional report, the Government undertook to "consider whether to bring forward proposals for reducing the number of places on certain committees at the beginning of the next Parliament".[87] The Reform of the House of Commons Committee, in its report Rebuilding the House, recommended that the members of a standard departmental select committee should number "not more than 11".[88] We have expressed support for this recommendation in our own report on the Reform Committee's conclusions and are pleased that the House has now approved this change.[89]

83. Committees have once again reported lengthy delays in the replacement of Members who have left, or wish to leave, committees. The Environmental Audit Committee, for example, notes that one of its members was made a Minister in 2007 but had still not been replaced. The Science and Technology Committee reported that delays in making membership changes had left it with only seven active members in a committee of fourteen.[90] The International Development Committee noted that "it would greatly assist select committees in carrying out their duties if membership changes were dealt with more promptly".[91]

Working with others

COOPERATION BETWEEN COMMITTEES

84. In an era of increasingly joined-up Government, responsibility for a given area of policy does not always sit squarely within a single Whitehall department. Where more than one select committee has a legitimate interest in a policy, the relevant committee chairs usually discuss how best to avoid duplication of effort. For example, the Energy and Climate Change Committee and Environmental Audit Committee conducted complementary inquiries in a similar field: the former into low carbon technologies and the latter into green jobs and skills. The Justice Committee reports that, where issues of common interest arise, it liaises with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees, the Home Affairs Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Communities and Local Government Committee.[92]

85. When two (or more) committees want to pursue the same issue they have the power to meet concurrently and to publish joint reports. Two examples of such formal co-operation are given in Table 12. The continuing work of the Committees on Arms Export Controls (a standing arrangement between the Business, Innovation and Skills, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development committees) is a particularly striking example of committees working together successfully. Since 2000, the four committees have co-operated on inquiries into the annual reports on the UK's strategic exports and related matters, including legislation. They have produced many joint reports on this subject. However, the arrangements for concurrent meetings under Standing Order No.137A were not designed with such semi-permanent arrangements in mind. The Chair of the CAEC has written to the Chair of this Committee asking for the procedural arrangements for formal meetings of the CAEC to be re-examined in the next Parliament. We support his call, and invite our successors to examine this issue.

  • Table 12: Joint scrutiny activities
  • CommitteesJoint Scrutiny Activity
    Business, Innovation and Skills and Culture, Media and Sport Pre-appointment hearing with Dr Colette

    Bowe, the Chair designate of OFCOM.1

    Business Innovation and Skills; Defence; Foreign Affairs; and International Development The Committees on Arms Export Controls is a concurrent meeting of the four committees. They have worked together since 1999 to examine the Government's expenditure, administration and policy on strategic exports—that is, the licensing of arms exports and other controlled goods.2

    (1) Business and Enterprise and Culture, Media and Sport Committees, First Joint Report of Session 2008-09, Pre-appointment hearing with the Chairman-elect of Ofcom, Dr Collette Bowe, HC 119; (2) Business and Enterprise, Defence, Foreign Affairs and International Development Committees, First Joint Report of Session 2008-09, Scrutiny of Arms Export Controls (2009): UK Strategic Export Controls Annual Report 2007, Quarterly Reports for 2008, licensing policy and review of export control legislation, HC 178.

    86. The European Scrutiny Committee has the power formally to seek the opinion of another select committee on a European document, in order to get an informed view to aid its own scrutiny. It exercised this power on one occasion during the session, when it sought the opinion of the Treasury Committee on the European Commission's proposals for financial regulation and supervision.[93] The Treasury Committee accordingly published a report on the matter.[94] In addition, the European Scrutiny Committee drew the attention of other select committees to what it considered significant documents on 22 occasions.[95]

    RELATIONS WITH GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS

    87. Committees continue to maintain constructive working relationships with Government departments. Most report that they are generally satisfied with the quality and timeliness of correspondence and memoranda submitted in evidence. Many report very positive relationships with the parliamentary sections of the relevant department; the Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, commented upon the "high quality of liaison service" from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Parliamentary Relations Team.[96] Following earlier complaints, the Communities and Local Government Committee was able to report an improvement in the promptness with which Government responses to its reports were received.

    88. The issue of slow responses from departments is one we pursue with vigour, as it can greatly hinder the effective working of committees. Whilst there have been some improvements noted by committees, we are disappointed to note that many committees had again repeatedly received Government memoranda to inquiries and Government responses to reports considerably later than the agreed deadlines. We accept the Government's argument, made in response to our last sessional report, that there are "occasions on which it is not possible to provide a response within the two-month deadline".[97] We remain concerned, however, by both the frequency and the extent of delays.

    89. The Home Affairs Committee, while reporting that relations with the Home Office were in general very positive, drew attention to an increasing number of late replies to its reports.[98] The Public Administration Committee reported that four of the nine Government responses received during the last session arrived more than six months after the publication of the Committee's report. The Environmental Audit Committee drew particular attention to the Government's response to its report on carbon capture and storage. Having undertaken to revise its response to the Committee's report, the Government eventually published its formal response over a year after the publication of the report.[99] The Justice Committee highlighted two significant delays: the Government's response to its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill was received one year after publication of the Committee's report; and a response from the Attorney General's office relating to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was delayed by two months, during which time the Committee was expected to hold a pre-appointment hearing with the Chief Inspector of the CPS. The Committee reported that the "performance of the Attorney General's Office in replying to our reports has been poor and has hindered our work".[100]

    90. We regret that problems with Government responses are not confined to the lateness with which they are received. Committees drew attention once again to the poor quality of some Government responses, a problem on which we commented in our last sessional report. The most common criticism from committees in their sessional reports was that responses failed to engage with the arguments, evidence and recommendations put forward by committees. The Transport Committee stated that one response "simply did not address key points in our recommendations" and stated that "responses should not merely be an exercise in self-defence, political games or clever rhetoric"..[101] The Environmental Audit Committee "would like to see Government responses deal more directly with the recommendations we make and the arguments that underpin them".[102] We fully agree with the sentiments of the Children, Schools and Families Committee:

    In general, if the Department does not agree with a recommendation, it should say so and provide a proper rationale. This would be more open than simply avoiding the issue or concealing non-acceptance with warm words. […] The Department should not merely restate policy without re-examining fresh evidence such as that amassed by the Committee.[103]

    91. Last year one of our conclusions was that "Government replies must always seek to engage fully with the committees' reports and address the evidence on which they are founded".[104] The fact that the Government reply to this report made no comment on this point only serves to highlight the problem and reinforce our argument.[105]

    92. We warmly welcome the fact that committees continue to maintain positive working relationships with their respective departments. Nevertheless, committees continue to bring to our attention instances of Government memoranda and Government responses that arrive late or are of poor quality. We accept that there may be good reason for late submissions; in such cases, the department should ensure that the Committee is kept informed of the expected length of the delay. But there can be no excuse for the submission of responses that fail to engage with the evidence and arguments advanced by a committee. Honest and open debate should be the hallmark of the dialogue between Government and Parliament. Current Government guidance on responses does not seem to be having the desired effect. We urge the Leader of the House to ensure that all departments are aware of the need for proper and specific engagement with arguments advanced in select committee reports.

    93. Most committees expressed their satisfaction with the way in which departments responded to requests for information. Two committees drew attention to occasions on which the Government had refused to provide them with information. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee noted its "continued disappointment" at the Government's refusal to allow the Committee access to Sir Peter Gibson's report on the Omagh bombing.[106] The Science and Technology Committee's request to see letters sent by the Government to Research Councils, in which it gave details of their funding allocations, was also refused.[107]

    94. We note that it has been the practice of successive governments to make sensitive and, in some cases, classified information available to select committees (or to their Chairs alone) in confidence, and that there has been no complaint of a breach of this confidence. We accept that the Government may have good reason for not wishing this material to enter the public domain. We would be concerned if the refusal to provide information was aimed at depriving committees with information for political rather than security reasons.

    95. The Scottish Affairs Committee drew attention to an incident in which HM Revenue and Customs claimed to be unable to supply to the Committee information which it later disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information request. We welcome the fact that Stephen Timms MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, apologised to the Committee for this failure. We trust that it will prove to be an isolated incident.[108]

    RELATIONS WITH THE DEVOLVED ADMINISTRATIONS

    96. The three relevant departmental committees have continued to maintain close links with the devolved administrations and act as the formal point of contact between national parliaments and Westminster. The Welsh Affairs Committee took oral evidence from Welsh Assembly Ministers on 11 occasions, and held informal meetings via video conference with members of Assembly committees. The Committee also visited Cardiff a number of times for informal meetings with Assembly committees.[109]

    97. The Scottish Affairs Committee continued to maintain its positive relationship with the Scottish Parliament. In February 2009, the Committee held a meeting with the Scottish Parliament EU and External Relations Committee in Glasgow.[110] Towards the end of the session the Committee began an inquiry into cooperation and communication between the Scottish and UK Governments in the wake of the release from a Scottish prison of the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing.[111]

    98. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee visited Belfast three times during the last session. The Committee took evidence from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Probation Board for Northern Ireland and the Public Prosecution Service for Northern Ireland in the course of its inquiry into cross-border co-operation between the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.[112]

    99. Other committees also maintain links with the devolved governments and legislatures. The Public Administration Select Committee's only visit during the session was a combined one to the Welsh Assembly Government and the Office of National Statistics. The Committee met the First Minister of Wales and officials to discuss the Welsh Assembly Government's approach to outside appointments to the civil service.[113] The Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee gave evidence to the Northern Irish Committee Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister at Stormont.[114]

    RELATIONS WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION

    100. There is frequently a strong European dimension to policy issues being investigated by committees. Many committees take evidence from EU Commissioners and officials from time to time during the course of their inquiries and visit Brussels when necessary. The Environmental Audit Committee, for example, took evidence from EU officials when inquiring into the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. The European Scrutiny Committee continues to hold regular meetings with the House of Lords European Union Committee and with UK MEPs.[115]

    101. The UK National Parliament Office represents both Houses of the UK Parliament at EU level. Its main function is to assist the European Scrutiny Committee and the House of Lords European Union Committee in their work, but it also has an important role to play in keeping select committees informed of relevant policy developments in Brussels. The Office also supports select committee visits to EU institutions.

    RELATIONS WITH OTHER LEGISLATURES

    102. It has long been common for committees to visit other legislatures in the course of their inquiries and for members of those legislatures to visit committees in Westminster. During 2008-09 the Science and Technology Committee went a step further and collaborated in greater depth with the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Representatives in the US. The two committees chose geoengineering as a topic on which they might usefully cooperate; the committees intend to share evidence submitted to them as part of their respective inquiries, and our own Science and Technology Committee hopes that its "published conclusions and recommendations will inform the wider US inquiry into geoengineering".[116]

    103. We commend the Science and Technology Committee for the part it has played in demonstrating the merits of wider co-operation between Parliaments. The work it has done with the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Representatives in the US on geoengineering demonstrates how committees can make an impact at an international level on issues of global relevance.

    Sources of advice and assistance

    104. The strengthening of links between departments within the House has further improved the capacity of committees to draw upon resources from across the House where necessary. The Committee Office Scrutiny Unit continued to be a valued source of support during the session; the House of Commons Library and the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) likewise. In addition to these internal sources of assistance, committees also had access to one major source of support externally: the National Audit Office.

    THE NATIONAL AUDIT OFFICE

    105. During the session the NAO maintained and enhanced the support it provides to select committees.[117] The focus of its support remains the Committee of Public Accounts, which benefited from briefings and other informal help on the 50 or so evidence sessions it held following up NAO reports on a wide range of government programmes. The Committee reported that:

    The National Audit Office, under their new Comptroller and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, has continued to provide the Committee with the excellent evidence on which our own work depends.[118]

    106. In the last few years the NAO has increased the resources it has made available to support other select committees and has met a wide variety of requests for assistance relating to the NAO's core competencies of financial, performance and policy analysis. In 2006-07 the NAO began producing annual performance briefings for some departmental select committees. These have proved useful tools to committees in their general scrutiny work but particularly in the context of evidence sessions on Departmental Annual Reports. Increased demand from committees led to the NAO producing such reports on 12 departments in 2008-09.

    107. The NAO also responded to specific requests for assistance in connection with individual committee inquiries. During the session it published papers on the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme and on Adapting to climate change for the Environmental Audit Committee. It undertook some research for the Defence Committee on the views of NGOs on the MoD's "Comprehensive Approach". The NAO provided written and oral briefings to help committees identify fruitful areas for inquiry. The Treasury, Justice and Regulatory Reform Committees have all benefited from this type of support.

    108. Increasingly, the NAO has been prepared to provide longer-term assistance to committees in the form of short-term secondments. As well as providing staff to the Defence, Environmental Audit and Treasury Committees and the Scrutiny Unit, the NAO made available, on a part-time basis, a member of staff to assist each of the regional select committees established during the year. All told, the NAO provided support to 16 select committees during the session. We would like to place on record our gratitude for the expert advice and assistance provided by the NAO and for the willingness with which it responded to requests from committees for support.

    THE SCRUTINY UNIT

    109. The Scrutiny Unit is a central resource for the Committee Office. Its main aim is to maintain and enhance the ability of select committees to perform their scrutiny function through the provision of specialist assistance. In particular, it:

    110. During the session all the departmental select committees made use of the Unit's services to a greater or lesser extent. Unit staff also supported other select committees, such as the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, and contributed to the wider work of the House. Around a third of staff time was spent on tasks related to financial and performance scrutiny, where the Unit develops and advises on best practice across the committees. The largest proportion of staff time was taken up by the provision of support for the scrutiny of draft bills.[119] The Unit also provides assistance to public bill committees in administering the receipt of written evidence and the programme of oral evidence. The Unit was also able to loan staff to committees on a temporary basis to assist with specific inquiries.

    Information gathering and engagement with the public

    INTRODUCTION

    111. While formal evidence sessions in Westminster and the publication of reports continue to be the mainstay of select committee practice, they are not the only means by which committees conduct their work. Informal activities, such as meetings and seminars, play a valuable role in the inquiry process. With increasing frequency, committees' work takes them to places throughout the UK—and sometimes further afield—in the pursuit of information and the opportunity to engage with those affected directly by the subject of inquiries. This improves the quality and the diversity of the evidence base amassed by committees, as well as raising awareness of their work.

    112. In parallel, committees are also increasingly seeking to widen the scope of their engagement with the public. This is in line with wider "outreach" efforts across the House aimed at improving knowledge of, and access to, Parliament and parliamentarians. The distinction between evidence gathering and public engagement can be a blurred one, as committees increasingly supplement their formal evidence by other means. Two examples serve to highlight this point. The Transport Committee took evidence from four members of the UK Youth Parliament in the course of its inquiry into the future of aviation.[120] The Science and Technology Committee held a "select committee-style meeting" in which pupils aged between 11 and 13 from Park View Academy's science club were able to put questions to members of the Committee. The activities described below often serve both the evidence gathering and outreach objectives.

    SEMINARS AND INFORMAL MEETINGS

    113. Seminars and informal meetings can provide a valuable opportunity for committee members to hear expert views and engage in informal discussions on a subject in order to get up to speed. They can also help the committee determine on which areas it wishes to focus during an inquiry. On more sensitive subjects committees sometimes find it useful to hold a private seminar to allow participants to express their views more freely than they would feel able to in a formal, public discussion. The Children, Schools and Families Committee is one of the committees that regularly hold such seminars. It held four during the session, including one with home-educated children and their parents, and noted that "we would in many cases feel less confident when preparing a report that we had really 'got under the skin' of the inquiry without work of this kind".[121]

    114. Of course, a committee's work does not begin and end with the publication of a report. It is also increasingly common for committees to hold post-publication seminars with relevant witnesses, stakeholders and policymakers to discuss their conclusions and recommendations and, where relevant, the Government's response. The Communities and Local Government Committee held such a seminar following its inquiry into the balance of power between central and local government. The Committee felt that the discussion had been "encouraging and useful" and hoped that it would serve to progress the debate in this area.[122] The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee launched its inquiry into Securing Food Supplies up to 2050 with a public event at Borough Market.[123] The Home Affairs Committee chose to follow up two of its major reports—on knife crime and human trafficking—with seminars, noting that these "allow us to examine what progress has been made in implementing our recommendations and encourage greater coordination between the bodies seeking to rectify the problems we raise in our Reports".[124] The Joint Committee on Human Rights also regularly used "mini-conferences" to follow up its reports.[125] For many inquiries, these types of events can be an effective and time-efficient way of ensuring that committee reports are not forgotten or ignored.

    115. Informal meetings do not necessarily have to be connected to a particular inquiry. Some committees make it their practice to hold regular meetings with the organisations they scrutinise or with important interested parties. For example, the Chair and other members of the Science and Technology Committee continued its former practice of holding a series of meetings with key stakeholders in September in order to follow up previous inquiries and discuss current issues of concern.[126] The Culture, Media and Sport Committee held regular private briefings relating to progress on the London 2012 Olympics in order to keep up to date on a longstanding interest without conducting a full inquiry. Such activities ensure that committees are always visible in departments' rear view mirrors and that they stay up to date with issues of concern to those experiencing the effects of departmental activities.

    VISITS AND VISITORS

    116. Visits, both within the UK and internationally, are an invaluable part of many committee inquiries. They allow committees to meet a wide range of interlocutors and the information and insight acquired on visits play a crucial role in enriching committees' understanding of the subjects they are examining. They also provide an opportunity for the committee to focus on one issue for a concentrated period and work towards a consensus in a less formal setting.

    117. During the session, committees travelled widely within the UK. As part of its inquiry into the banking crisis, the Treasury Committee held public meetings in Belfast, Edinburgh, Halifax and Leeds in order to learn first hand how the banking crisis was affecting individuals and small businesses. The Health Committee continued its regular visits to NHS facilities, visiting St Thomas', Charing Cross, and Luton and Dunstable hospitals. The Justice Committee visited HM Prisons Elmley, Standford Hill and Swaleside as part of its inquiry into the role of the prison officer. Members of the Home Affairs Committee travelled individually to see detention centres, airports and ports as part of various inquiries.[127] Full lists of visits made by each committee are provided in the Sessional Returns for 2008-09 as well as in individual sessional reports.[128]

    118. Committees also visit the European Commission and other EU institutions in the course of their work, both for an overview of relevant policy developments and in connection with particular inquiries. The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, for example, visits the European Commission once a year: its visit in February 2009 allowed Members to discuss the postal services directives, EU enlargement and telecommunications policy.[129] The Work and Pensions Committee visited Brussels in January 2009 to discuss the operation of European equality legislation.[130]

    119. Some inquiries require committees to travel further afield in the pursuit of knowledge and experience. The work of the International Development Committee on urbanisation and poverty prompted a visit to Nigeria in June 2009 "to witness at first hand the challenges and opportunities posed by urbanisation in Lagos, the country's largest city and one of Africa's 'megacities'".[131] The Defence Committee's inquiry into relations with Russia included a visit to Moscow,[132] while the Foreign Affairs Committee's inquiry into Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories would have been similarly incomplete without its visit to Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights.[133]

    120. Committees are usually able to respond to requests for informal meetings made by committees and individual members from other parliaments visiting Westminster. In 2008-09, the Defence Committee held a number of such meetings; its visitors included parliamentary delegations from Afghanistan, Kosovo and Pakistan, among many others.[134] The Foreign Affairs Committee lists among its informal meetings visits from the Speaker of the Kurdish National Assembly, MPs from the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Governor of Helmand Province in Afghanistan.[135] The Foreign Affairs Committee tends to hold such meetings most frequently but many other committees regularly develop links with other parliaments in this way. A full list of the number of informal meetings held by committees is included at Annex 1.

    TAKING EVIDENCE AWAY FROM WESTMINSTER

    121. Formal evidence sessions away from Westminster allow committees to place on record the views of a wider range of witnesses, and allow members of the public to attend evidence sessions more easily. The remits of some committees make it particularly relevant for them to take evidence in locations away from Westminster: the Northern Ireland, Scottish and Welsh Affairs Committees regularly hold formal sessions in the relevant nations. But other committees have also held evidence sessions in a range of locations around the UK. The Energy and Climate Change Committee took evidence in Aberdeen during the course of its inquiry into UK offshore oil and gas,[136] for instance, while the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee took most of the evidence for an inquiry into the automotive industry in the West Midlands and the North West.[137]

    OUTREACH SERVICE

    122. The Outreach Service, based within the House's Department of Information Services, has worked closely with select committees since its creation last year. It has helped select committees to gather evidence from groups who might not otherwise engage with select committee work; for example, it co-ordinated a response from parents in Exeter to the Children, Schools and Families Committee's inquiry into Sure Start Children Centres. It has also offered valuable assistance to committees in organising public meetings around the UK. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee, for example, held an open public meeting in York to hear about the importance of regional media to local communities. The International Development Committee held public meetings in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets in order to engage with the UK's Bangladeshi communities in the context of its inquiry into DFID's aid programme in Bangladesh. The Outreach Service also supported the International Development Committee by facilitating public meetings in Leeds and Bradford to discuss aid and development.[138] We are grateful for the committed support that the Outreach team has given to committee work, demonstrating the benefits of Parliament establishing local links outside Westminster.

    ENGAGING WITH THE MEDIA

    123. Select committee reports enjoy a range of coverage in the mainstream and specialist press. Such coverage is important in raising the political profile of a particular issue, exerting influence on Government and encouraging future engagement by stakeholders. Many committees develop a media strategy for particular inquiries, in consultation with the House's Media and Communications Service, in order to target and reach the most appropriate audience. It was not only the Treasury Committee that enjoyed extensive media coverage during the year. The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's report into the English Pig Industry was widely covered in the print and broadcast media. The Committee's reports are often covered in the food and farming press. The Justice Committee's inquiry into the Parliamentary Standards Bill was frequently cited in the widespread media coverage of the bill's passage.

    124. The media also have an important role to play in helping committees engage with the public. The Science and Technology Committee invited suggestions for topics suitable for an oral evidence hearing in Westminster. It received nearly 50 suggestions, and chose a proposal for a session on the Learning and Skills Council's capital programme. This session ultimately led to the publication of a report.[139] The media also act as a means for committees to communicate with groups who may be harder to reach. For example, as part of its inquiry into the role of prison officers, the Justice Committee sought to engage with current prisoners, who do not have access to the internet. To this end, the inquiry was reported in the prison publication Inside Times.[140] We welcome the important and often innovative work that committees have done to publicise their inquiries and raise the public profile of select committee work and appreciate the significant contribution of the Media and Communication Service.

    USE OF ELECTRONIC MEDIA

    125. Committees use a wide range of media to gather evidence for their inquiries and to engage the public further in their work. These new methods of engagement can provide committees with valuable information, while at the same time costing very little. The Treasury Committee used a web-based forum to gather evidence for its inquiry into Credit Searches. The Committee called on Martin Lewis at Moneysavingexpert.com to ask his 3.7 million subscribers for their experiences and difficulties in searching for and obtaining credit. The Committee notes that "we received valuable evidence and the posts on the moneysavingexpert website attracted 6,500 hits".[141] The Justice Committee's e-consultation on justice reinvestment was so successful that it held a second e-consultation, this time on the role of the prison officer. By the time the e-consultation website was closed, it had received nearly 18,000 hits and had 357 registered users.[142] At one point during the session there were no fewer than five on-line forums being run by departmental select committees.

    126. The Science and Technology Committee experimented with the use that might be made of Twitter in committee work. During a seminar with leading members of the scientific community, the Chair of the Committee posted the questions under discussion on Twitter and invited responses.[143] Members of the Speaker's Conference made a video for YouTube about their motivation for entering politics in support of its online forum, in order to encourage participation by individuals from under-represented groups. Advances in communication technology are changing the way in which people communicate with each other at a seemingly ever-increasing pace. The challenge for select committees is to adjust their methods of communicating and gathering information where necessary to secure the levels and types of engagement they want, whilst acquiring an authoritative evidence base from which to work. We welcome the work that committees have already done in this respect and look forward to committees developing further innovations in the next Parliament.

    PETITIONS

    127. Since 2007 petitions to the House of Commons have been routinely forwarded to the relevant departmental select committee for their consideration. This mechanism can help committees keep abreast of areas of public concern among members of the public but risks creating a greater public expectation of eliciting some action. In fact, it does not appear that many committees take specific action in response to petitions.

    128. Two committees raised a particular concern about the petitions process. The Communities and Local Government Committee notes that it receives a number of petitions relating to matters entirely within the remit of individual local authorities. It has resolved not to consider such petitions, and has urged the Procedure Committee to consider this issue.[144] The Transport Committee faced a similar problem, and argued that "such issues lend themselves better to in-depth scrutiny by other fora than a parliamentary select committee".[145]

    129. The proposals from the Procedure Committee—first issued in April 2008—for the implementation of a system of e-petitioning were the subject of a further report from that Committee during this Session.[146] The Committee repeated its recommendation that e-petitions presented to the House under such a system would be sent to select committees and could be considered by them. The Government indicated in its response that it had concerns about the projected costs involved and referred the issue to the Committee on House of Commons Reform.[147]

    130. The House of Commons Reform Committee made a number of recommendations for changes to the petitions process, including that the Procedure Committee become (for a trial period) a Procedure and Petitions Committee, with the power to refer petitions to select committees. In our own Report, Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, we commented:

    Any scheme implemented should not impose substantial extra duties on departmental select committees, but we are confident that the Procedure Committee could exercise appropriate discretion in this respect. We would expect the select committees to give the experiment a fair wind. [148]


    82   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 1 Back

    83   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 2 Back

    84   The Science and Technology Committee was subsumed in the new IUSS Committee in 2007  Back

    85   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08, HC 291, para 78 Back

    86   See Sessional Returns, Session 2008-09, HC 1, for figures for each select committee Back

    87   Liaison Committee, First Special Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08: Government Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2008-09, HC 805,para 13 Back

    88   Reform of the House of Commons Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117, para 55 Back

    89   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272, para 19; HC Deb, 22 February 2010, col 130  Back

    90   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 9 Back

    91   International Development Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 167, para 6 Back

    92   Justice Committee Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 233, para 10 Back

    93   European Scrutiny Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 267, para 31 Back

    94   Treasury Committee, Sixteenth Report of Session 2008-09, The Committee's Opinion on proposals for European financial supervision, HC 1088 Back

    95   European Scrutiny Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 267, para 2 Back

    96   Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 87, para 54  Back

    97   Liaison Committee, First Special Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08: Government Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2008-09, HC 805 Back

    98   Home Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 265, para 45 Back

    99   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in Session 2008-09, HC 58, para 41 Back

    100   Justice Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 233, para 13 Back

    101   Transport Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 262, para 48 Back

    102   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in Session 2008-09, HC 58, para 42 Back

    103   Children, Schools and Families Committee, Third Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 187,para 36 Back

    104   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08, HC 291, para 87 Back

    105   Liaison Committee, First Special Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08: Government Response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2008-09, HC 805, p 6 Back

    106   Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 90, para 20 Back

    107   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, paras 59-61 Back

    108   Scottish Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 71, paras 26-29 Back

    109   Welsh Affairs Committee, Third Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09,HC 154, para 103 Back

    110   Scottish Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 71, para 3 Back

    111   Scottish Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 71, para 35 Back

    112   Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 90, para 12 Back

    113   Public Administration Select Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 20, para 23 Back

    114   European Scrutiny Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 267, para 43 Back

    115   European Scrutiny Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 267, para 41 Back

    116   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 51 Back

    117   For full details, see Appendix 3 Back

    118   Letter from the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, Appendix 1 Back

    119   Detailed information about the work of the Scrutiny Unit is contained in Appendix 2 Back

    120   Transport Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 262, para 43 Back

    121   Children, Schools and Families Committee, Third Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 187, para 30 Back

    122   Communities and Local Government Committee, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 179, para 44 Back

    123   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 148, para 41 Back

    124   Home Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 265, para 43 Back

    125   Joint Committee on Human Rights, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, paras 73-74 Back

    126   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 54 Back

    127   Home Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 265, para 7 Back

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

    129   Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 195, para 8 Back

    130   Work and Pensions Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 92, para 43 Back

    131   International Development Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 167, para 18 Back

    132   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 119, para 73 Back

    133   Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 87, para 12 Back

    134   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 119, Annex 4 Back

    135   Foreign Affairs Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 87, Annex 3 Back

    136   Defence Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 133, para 11 Back

    137   Business, Innovation and Skills, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 195, para 7 Back

    138   International Development Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, The Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 167, para 11 Back

    139   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 47 Back

    140   Justice Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 233, para 15 Back

    141   Treasury Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 134, para 9 Back

    142   Justice Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 233, paras 14-17 Back

    143   Science and Technology Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, The work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 103, para 55 Back

    144   Communities and Local Government Committee, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 179, paras 50-53 Back

    145   Transport Committee, Second Report of Session 2009-10, Work of the Committee in 2008-09, HC 262, para 50 Back

    146   Procedure Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, e-Petitions: Call for Government action, HC 493 Back

    147   Procedure Committee, First Special Report of Session 2008-09, e-Petitions: Call for Government Action: Government Response to the Committee's Second Report of Session 08-09, HC 952, p 1 Back

    148   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Select Committee Issues, HC 272, para 38 Back


     
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