Liaison Committee - Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Minutes of EvidenceHC 697

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House of commons



Liaison committee

select committee powers and effectiveness

Thursday 23 February 2012

Rt Hon Peter Riddell, Professor Robert Hazell, Dr Meg Russell, Professor Matthew Flinders and Dr Ruth Fox

Evidence heard in Public Questions 1 - 26



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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Liaison Committee

on Thursday 23 February 2012

Members present:

Sir Alan Beith, in the Chair

Mr James Arbuthnot

Mr Adrian Bailey

Malcolm Bruce

Mr William Cash

David T. C. Davies

Mrs Louise Ellman

Natascha Engel

Sir Alan Haselhurst

Margaret Hodge

Mr Bernard Jenkin

Miss Anne McIntosh

Andrew Miller

Mr Laurence Robertson

John Thurso

Mr Andrew Tyrie

Keith Vaz

Joan Walley


Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: The Rt Hon Peter Riddell, Institute for Government, Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Meg Russell, Constitution Unit, University College London, Professor Matthew Flinders, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield, and Dr Ruth Fox, Hansard Society, gave evidence.

Q1 Chair: I have to speak loudly because this is quite a large room and, as you see, quite a large committee; it is not the size we would recommend for normal committee activity, but if you want to get together the Chairs of all select committees, it necessarily creates a body of this size. Peter Riddell from the Institute of Government, Professor Robert Hazell and Dr Meg Russell from the Constitution Unit, Professor Flinders from the University of Sheffield and Dr Fox from the Hansard Society, welcome. We are very glad to have you with us. We benefited from all your comments and research papers over a considerable period on the work of select committees, and they have featured in our discussions. They have influenced our discussions previously. We are obviously focusing more at the moment on the effectiveness of the select committee system. In a very short answer, I wonder if you could say whether you think our role is to expose Government to closer view, or to improve Government by changing its decisions.

Professor Hazell: I think the latter. Your job is to keep Whitehall on its toes. Whitehall is naturally cautious and conservative-some of you may know I was a civil servant for 15 years-and the quite strong default setting in Whitehall is to maintain the status quo, so your role is to get them to raise their sights and to raise their game. I think you act much more effectively in your role as coaches, rather than as negative critics. You are critical, but you are critical friends; you believe in better government and you are trying to get Whitehall to improve the system of government and to improve public services.

Peter Riddell: I would slightly disagree with Robert on that. I would take more of the former. It is your role to hold Government to account. You are one of the crucial mechanisms for doing that, with the hope that by openness, by exposure, you will improve government. I do not see the two being incompatible, but I think there is a crucial constitutional role of public account, which has been well established in the last 33 years.

Q2 Malcolm Bruce: Professor Flinders, you talked about the role of select committees improving-I think you used this term-political literacy among the public, which sounds a bit patronising, but I do know what you mean. We have tried various mechanisms for doing this, such as outreach, going out, meetings, and obviously the live medium and so forth, but the reality is that it is extremely difficult to explain to people the very important but somewhat boring process of going through Government policy and the delivery of policy, and trying to pick it apart and come to a conclusion about it. How do you think we could do that better? Indeed, how do committees resist the temptation to do the opposite, which is to recognise that the public like things in cheap and easy soundbites and to serve them up accordingly-to give them the menu they want?

Professor Flinders: It is a long-standing challenge. The opening question is very interesting. In a sense, the role of the select committee is to scrutinise the Government, but in a sense, a fresher way of looking at the effectiveness of a select committee is to see the committee as having two roles: an internal role, which is about Whitehall-the Whitehall village and scrutiny. Then there is a much broader external role, which is trying to explain to members of the public exactly what MPs do, and I simply do not agree with you that most of the public are not interested. I spend my whole life talking at big public hearings, and the fact is the public do not hate politicians. The public are interested in politics, but what they struggle to find is people who can talk humanly and explain what a politician does in very simple terms. When you explain that, most of them are absolutely fascinated, but it is about reaching out and tapping that pool of interest that is out there. The two go together. A committee’s effectiveness would be increased if those whom it brought before them were well aware that whatever that committee did was going to get much larger public exposure.

Q3 Malcolm Bruce: Can I follow that up by saying that’s fine? In other words, I think most of us have the experience that when you have the opportunity to engage with the public, particularly a public who have predetermined that they do actually want to know what you do, you get a good exchange. The problem is there are a lot of people out there who are predetermined in their view, and when you try to reach them-which we have done; we go and have public meetings, we advertise the fact we are there-all you get are the usual suspects and the predictable responses, not a wider reach. It is a practical question really-I am not disagreeing with your analysis-about how you think committees could more effectively reach the people who have the interest that you are talking about, other than in the ways that we already do.

Professor Flinders: I am sure Dr Fox from the Hansard Society might be able to tell you more about the reaching out, which has been very successful and very interesting, with different uses of IT. There are a number of broader questions here about the way select committees publish and disseminate their information, and the way the committees are structured and face the public agenda. There is also a broader issue about the people who make up select committees and the issue of political recruitment, which is really at the heart of this issue about effectiveness. One of the great issues with my job is I spend my whole life with young people, and I am trying to encourage them to consider a career in politics. Many of them would be fantastic, from a whole range of backgrounds, but this issue of political recruitment is key, because many just do not consider a career in politics to be open to them.

Dr Fox: Yes. We do research on public attitudes to politics and Parliament through our annual political engagement. People are not going to come to select committees because they automatically think that select committees are a good thing and they are interested in the mechanisms of Parliament. That is not what interests people. It is the issues that are the hook, and the impact that they have on their daily lives. The latest research that I have been able to find, in terms of attitudes to select committees, was conducted just last month-it is an online poll by Britain Thinks. In that poll, only 25% of the public say that they are interested in the work of select committees; 36% are not interested; 9% do not have a view. We have to be quite careful about the extent to which we think there is a level of interest out there.

That goes to the way in which inquiries are conducted and the issues that you select in terms of public interest-those where you think there is likely to be significant public interest. It is about thinking very carefully about the audiences and how you reach them. Holding traditional meetings of this kind, if I may say so, is perhaps not necessarily the best way to engage with the public. It is about thinking more about the variety of models that you utilise for evidence, and also thinking very much about online engagement.

One of the more effective inquiries, in terms of reaching a broader audience, was done by the Treasury Committee, using a forum that is already up and running and that already has an audience of people interested in the issue. That was through going to Rather than expecting people to come to Parliament’s website and give evidence through that system, and give evidence directly to you, go to forums that are already out there, where people are already engaged with the issues that they care about, and utilise those in as many various ways as you can.

Dr Russell: Could I just urge a little caution on both the previous points? I am sure you are well aware of this, but we have to be careful not to assume that there is one model for a successful committee inquiry. Committee inquiries are very diverse and have different purposes on different occasions.

In answer to your first question, I think day-to-day accountability in Government is very important, as is exposing failure sometimes, as is sometimes pushing Government further to be more bold in new policy areas; all of those are important.

Similarly, you can expect public engagement with some inquiries, but not with all inquiries, and if you focus too much on public engagement and trying to get media coverage for inquiries that are fundamentally technical or about routine scrutiny, you are liable to lose focus on the things that are important in those inquiries. I think it is horses for courses in both those respects.

Q4 John Thurso: Dr Fox, in your paper you have three paragraphs relating to core tasks, and you broadly say that we have them right, but that how and why committees determine their inquiries, and the role the core tasks play in this, remain unclear. You go on to suggest that each committee should publish a strategic plan at the start of each Parliament. Do you see that plan as something to help the committee internally to plan its work, so that it has a more strategic and planned way of working, or would you see that as something that should be published externally and, therefore, become something that the committee holds itself to account on when it does its sessional report?

Dr Fox: I think it should be both. If you look at the beginning of the Parliament, it is an opportunity for the committee to think strategically about the core tasks and, given the many burdens that fall on committees, what kinds of work you are going to prioritise, with the proviso that you have to have some flexibility for upcoming issues that you cannot foresee, and topical issues you may want to take up. I do think it should be published, so that external stakeholders-bodies like ours and others, the media and so on-can apply some of the scrutiny and the oversight and the accountability to you, in terms of how you are working, your use of resources, and the kinds of issues that you are focusing on. At the moment it is very unclear, in terms of the core tasks, to what extent that strategically informs your work and the decisions you make about the inquiries you take up; whether it is something of a retrospective report card function-a tick-box exercise at the end of the process where, once you have decided on your inquiries and you have to do a report back to this Committee or your own annual reports, you decide that those are the tasks you looked at.

In terms of deciding inquiries, prioritising work and resources, and the types of inquiries that work well, I think a strategic plan would enable you to manage the work better, and external bodies to look at and better understand the choices that you have made. In terms of people who come to give evidence, or interested parties in the work of departmental committees, one of the key questions is, "Why did you choose that inquiry and not another? What is the decision-making process and how is that reflected in terms of the core tasks?"

Q5 John Thurso: Is there an implied suggestion or criticism that sometimes we choose to do the sexy things rather than the less sexy work that requires to be done-the day-to-day scrutiny?

Dr Fox: Yes. Sometimes I think there is a sense that some of the inquiries might be the media-grabbing inquiries. Depending on the issue, that is not necessarily always a bad thing, but I think there has to be some strategic reflection on the tasks, particularly when, if a new form of scrutiny is needed, committees are the default option for that scrutiny and therefore you are getting new tasks loaded on to you. Being strategic about prioritising what you do and how you do it, I think, is key. Where the role of the more headline-grabbing topical inquiries falls into that, and the explanations you give for the choices you make, will be quite informative to people outside Parliament who are interested in your work.

Peter Riddell: Could I add briefly to that? That comes back to Meg Russell’s point about a mixture. I know a lot of you have one-off sessions on things; indeed, there is also informing the committee-having something informal-and then seeing whether it justifies having a full inquiry. I think it is maximum tools of flexibility.

One point struck me yesterday morning: in the first 20 minutes of the Today programme, after 7 o’clock, Margaret Hodge was quoted in the news; you were interviewed, Sir Alan; and so was Mr Arbuthnot, so I do not think select committees are necessarily being ignored.

Chair: At which point, I call James Arbuthnot.

Q6 Mr Arbuthnot: You have kindly produced a paper about the way civil servants are accountable to select committees. There is the problem that they are speaking not on their own views, but on the views of their Ministers, and this sometimes creates difficulty for them and sometimes frustrations for the committee. You suggested that there should be a new concordat between select committees and Ministers. How exactly do you expect that to work, and could you give an idea of what it would contain?

Peter Riddell: There are two aspects to that. The Osmotherly rule or convention-it is not a rule; it is a convention that the Civil Service defined-that civil servants speak on behalf of their Ministers is being tested, because you have new structures of government, with civil servants now being formally responsible, via a variety of arm’s length bodies and executive agencies, for large chunks of government, which does strain those conventions. What I am suggesting is that you, as a committee, need to talk not just to Ministers, not just to the Leader of the House, but also to the new dual leadership of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood and Sir Bob Kerslake. Have a discussion with them, because clearly those conventions have been strained. For example, Margaret Hodge in the PAC has been challenging one convention, which is the distinction between the office and the person, when doing PAC-type inquiries; it is often going back. It is not just the current Permanent Secretary; it is previous ones. It is an absolutely crucial issue for the Civil Service leadership. You need to talk about it. Various things have happened in the last year. I think you need to sit down and go through the conventions with, as I say, not just Sir George Young, but the senior Civil Service to get a new mechanism. That is one instance.

The other instance is the much broader one of the accountability mechanisms you rightly want. Sir Alan, for example, in the agencies that you look at in Justice, a lot of the key people are quite a way down. It is not just Sir Suma Chakrabarti; it is below him in Justice. The convention is that anyone at any level is speaking on behalf of Ken Clarke. That is strained in practice. That is why you need to talk about that. There is also a big question for the Civil Service on their internal accountability mechanism.

Q7 Mr Arbuthnot: We can talk about it, but what conclusion do you expect us to reach?

Peter Riddell: The conclusion I expect you to reach is that there is a sense on both sides recognising how far it is legitimate to ask civil servants questions on policy. My distinction is between policy and performance. You can absolutely ask how they performed, because often they are the people responsible for that, but on actual policy, some of the current convention should be preserved; otherwise they are put in an impossible position.

Professor Hazell: Very briefly, you are asking what might come out of it. What we are proposing is a renegotiation of the terms of trade. The Osmotherly rules are one-way terms of trade. They were issued by the Cabinet Office and they dictate how Whitehall gives evidence to select committees.

Q8 Mr Arbuthnot: They have not been accepted by the select committees.

Professor Hazell: Indeed. Sir Alan, it might possibly be a topic for a very specific inquiry by the Liaison committee to discuss whether there could be a negotiation about the terms of trade between select committees and Whitehall.

Chair: We are indeed engaged upon such a task. I am going to call Margaret Hodge, who has been mentioned, and Keith Vaz, on supplementary points to this.

Q9 Margaret Hodge: This is something that is concerning my Committee quite a lot at the moment, and I just want two things. Of course, you can make the traditional distinction between policy and performance-policy and execution of policy-but actually it is much greyer than that suggests. In my Committee, we are finding that is where we start falling into problems, because when we try to challenge what we consider an execution, they say, "That is ministerial policy". I would like your thoughts on that.

The second thing I would like your thoughts on is an issue that you touched on, which for us is following the taxpayers’ pound. Given that the landscape of public services is going to be so transformed, if you really want accountability for wherever that is spent, you need to have a much stronger hold on all those who get a hold of the money. I know the other select committees have a slightly different role to the one we have. As a Committee, we feel pretty passionately that it is important, particularly in this environment, where money is tight, that we are able, without being inhibited, to follow the pound, and we do feel that the current conventions on which civil servants fall back do inhibit us.

Peter Riddell: Commercial confidentiality ones, particularly?

Q10 Margaret Hodge: It is not just commercial confidentiality. Commercial confidentiality is one thing-I think that is a wider issue-but it is much wider than that. Interestingly enough, we had it this week when trying to look at the Work programme, which is going to be delivered entirely by private providers and, through them, into voluntary and other specialist providers. Trying to get real accountability for that is very tough. Then we are increasingly getting accounting officers saying, when we ask them a question, "Can’t answer that. It’s policy; it’s a ministerial decision." That again limits and inhibits. I think a proper role for Parliament is, through its committees, to hold the Executive to account. I just want your thoughts on that.

Peter Riddell: Can I, just briefly on that? Of course, there is also a traditional inhibition on your Committee that you have changed: it has mainly been accounting officers giving evidence. Now you have changed that, and Ministers have been giving evidence to the Committee. Part of the answer is that you have Ministers along. I can think of several inquiries you have been conducting in the last 18 months where you should have had both past civil servants and Ministers. It is legitimate sometimes for civil servants to say, "Hold on, we were giving policy advice on that", and that is a very big step for them to be questioned on confidential policy advice. You get the Minister along too, or whoever the Minister was at the time.

The key thing is the distinction between current Ministers and past Ministers, and current occupiers of accounting officer posts and their predecessors. That is the really big issue, which comes back to Robert’s point on the terms of trade. You have to establish new terms of trade, otherwise you just get what there is now, which is a lot of mutual suspicion and frustration.

Q11 Keith Vaz: Mr Riddell mentioned agencies, and we all have agencies that we have to scrutinise. In Home Affairs, our biggest is the UKBA, but is it really an agency? It is placed within the Home Office, and the head of the agency was appointed by a civil servant, not a Minister. When we have attempted to get information from the head of the UKBA, he will go to Ministers to get clearance. The difficulty we have is trying to scrutinise these agencies, which of course are quite separate from Ministers. The second point relates to special advisers of Government Ministers, who are put in a very important position as they represent Ministers at events. One particular special adviser, Lord Wasserman, is a Member of the House of Lords. We cannot get him to give evidence to the select committee. Is he a civil servant? Is he a special adviser? How do we try to get that accountability right in dealing with these issues?

Professor Flinders: Maybe I can take the first question on executive agencies. You are absolutely right that agencies are hived into public bodies, so in a sense they are formally part of the Department. All their employees are civil servants so the Osmotherly rules apply. The reason why this is a big issue for the effectiveness of select committees is that, in the current public bodies reform agenda, the Government has basically decided that executive agencies are the default organisational form. At the moment, lots of Departments across Whitehall are reforming what were freestanding non-departmental public bodies, bringing them into executive agencies. The Government seems to think that that will increase accountability, whereas if you look abroad-if you look, for example, at Wales-what tends to happen when you bring functions back in closer to Ministers is you get less accountability, because the issues that are dealt with become politicised.

Chair: Mr Cash has a brief supplementary point on this before we move on.

Q12 Mr Cash: On the question of accountability, would you be surprised to know that the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs-the Foreign Secretary-was disinclined to give evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee on questions relating to the recent treaty? Don’t you think it is absolutely essential that Secretaries of State do in fact come before us, when they are requested to do so, on matters of such importance? I have to say, he did subsequently agree that he would come for a short session at a later stage, but we deemed that was actually too late for the purposes of our inquiry. In general, do you not agree that Secretaries of State, when the matter is of considerable importance, should be expected to turn up and to give evidence, and not just leave it to a junior Minister?

Chair: Does anyone want to take that, briefly?

Peter Riddell: The answer is yes. You could argue in that case that for some of the inquiry, David Lidington is a perfectly responsible Minister, because he is the Minister for Europe. You can pick and mix. It is a very big issue, but certainly a responsible Minister should, yes.

Q13 Andrew Miller: Professor Hazell, your paper implies a proliferation of papers coming out of select committees. I have been here 20 years, and I am not entirely sure what the evidence base for that is. Are you suggesting we are trying to do too much too quickly-that we should take things a little bit slower and do things better? If so, what is the evidence base for that suggestion? Particularly, you use the phrase, "leading to an over-reliance on the ‘usual suspects’". I do not recall the usual suspects appearing in any of my committees; there is occasionally a repeat of the Chief Scientific Adviser or David Willetts, but that is to be expected. Quite where do you get your evidence for those suggestions?

Professor Hazell: On the last point, you have rather a line-up of the usual suspects in front of you today. This is the second time this week that I have attended, Sir Alan.

Chair: Professor Hazell has given evidence to me already this week, on Tuesday.

Professor Hazell: Seriously, forgive me, but I am going to repeat and reinforce some of the points made by Dr Fox and Dr Russell. Clearly you cannot do everything with your very limited resources, in terms of both your time and your very small staff, so how do you choose the limited things that you do do? This is where I think what Dr Fox was saying is so important: at the start of a Parliament, pause and take stock and, if necessary, consult with others. I have attended more than one private seminar at the beginning of a Parliament with a select committee where they have called in a dozen or so people and talked about the possible agenda for the committee for the next four to five years. Having done that stock-taking, you publish a strategic plan. That would be the ideal.

The major inquiries that you then choose to do would probably reflect the main priorities identified in the strategic plan. Of course that does not preclude holding smaller, more focused inquiries and, as we have all said, you need to allow room for topical issues on which you can do something very quick; as Peter was mentioning, there might be a one-day session, not necessarily leading to a report, but just shining a torch on something. You need that mixed diet, a balance of all those things.

Q14 Andrew Miller: It is not so much a proliferation that you are concerned about as a lack of planning.

Professor Hazell: No.

Dr Russell: On the question of where the data come from, perhaps I could quote some data from my report, which I know was circulated to you. We looked at only seven committees, but seven committees over three Parliaments. This is not to criticise any particular committee, but for example, the Home Affairs Committee in the 1997 Parliament produced 14 inquiry reports, and in the 2005 Parliament it produced 30. The Public Administration Committee produced 12 in the first of those Parliaments and 36 in the 2005 Parliament. The Treasury Committee produced 31 in the 1997 Parliament and 46 in the 2005 Parliament, so I think there is hard evidence that the number of reports is going up. That is not necessarily something to criticise. It is to do with the increased resources that were made available to committees, and that is a very valuable thing.

One of the things that we did find in our research was that committees sometimes carry on too many inquiries at once and sometimes move too quickly from one inquiry to the next. Some of the successful inquiries that we found, in tracing recommendations and also interviewing people who had been associated with them, both on the committee and at the receiving end as witnesses and so on, are those that go in-depth into an issue that hasn’t been thought through in Government properly enough; sometimes conduct research; and come up with original conclusions that are, crucially, followed through by the committee after they have been published. We saw too much evidence of committees publishing something and then very quickly moving on to the next issue, and not coming back to that previous issue and saying, "What happened to those recommendations? Let us have the Minister in and ask why they did not implement them. Let’s go back and look at the industry again to see if they have improved their practice." Where committees have done that, it has proved very successful.

Q15 Chair: Is there anything we could be doing less of in order to free up resources for that kind of work?

Dr Russell: Oh dear, that is a very difficult question. I would not like to point fingers and pull out examples, but one of the things that committees were criticised for-I do not know, honestly, to what extent it happens-was what some people referred to as "ambulance chasing", jumping on bandwagons of what were seen as sexy subjects with a lot of media appeal in order to get coverage and maybe appear on the Today programme more often. I think fewer, higher-quality, more detailed inquiries, with well-thought-through conclusions, rather than more superficial inquiries, is probably a key.

Q16 Mr Robertson: I accept the final point that Dr Russell has made about following reports through, which is extremely important. On the number of reports, do you not accept that while they have increased, Government, in its size and in the things it is involved in, has increased as well? There is a lot for us to look at. Even in my own Department, Northern Ireland, where we have most issues devolved, there is still an awful lot that we can still look at.

Dr Russell: Yes. I do not think it is a straightforward metric of more is worse, because I also think some inquiries can be too big and cover too much, and maybe smaller, more focused inquiries are more likely to succeed than big, sprawling ones. I do not think you can say whether higher or lower numbers of reports are a good thing. It is the quality that matters, and I think the follow-through is a crucial point. The fact that it took our research to log how many reports there had been over time, and what the pattern was, and how many recommendations there had been over time, and what the pattern was, is quite surprising. We found it particularly surprising, when we were trying to follow through what had happened to committee recommendations, that among the seven committees that we looked at-I think I am right in saying this-only one, the Home Affairs Committee, had conducted its own research into what had happened to its recommendations from previous inquiries. I find that quite surprising. It is quite fundamental; you would expect committees to be tracking what worked and what did not, and following up the things that Government said it was going to do and did not do. As Ruth was suggesting, they should also be thinking about what worked, not just at the recommendation level but at the inquiry level: "Which were our successful inquiries and why, and how can we repeat that performance?"

Peter Riddell: Can I just say that I think follow-up is crucial? For example, one thing the Defence committee does is return to some themes every year, sometimes more often in a year, to highlight them, because the problems do not get solved, to say the least. That is extremely effective. As an observer of committees, I am struck with coming back to themes; being dogged on them, when it is not necessarily convenient for the Executive to be reminded of them, is really important. That is possibly one of the most important things you do.

Q17 Joan Walley: To follow up on that, where you have a committee that does follow up, do you think there is an issue about whether that follow-up is in the public domain? It is a question of people outside not knowing how different recommendations of a committee report have been followed through, because it is a more informal part of the committee’s work, rather than a formal part.

Peter Riddell: That is partly up to you and your communications. You have to highlight it. I think there is a lot more imagination in the presentation of reports than there was, say, 10 or 15 years ago, but there is still quite a long way to go. You have to point it out quite strongly when something has not been followed up or whatever, or indeed when there has been a success.

Dr Russell: I am not sure it is just about communication. We spoke to committee staff and committee Chairs in conducting our research, and it is not that there are secret data hidden away in the offices of committees that are not being shared with the public. The data simply did not exist. That is not to deny that there are all sorts of informal conversations that go on between committee members, particularly Chairs, and Ministers and senior officials behind the scenes. Those are very important, and one of the key things that come across from our report is that you over-simplify if you try to have a tick-box mentality about influence. Often the influence that committees have is very subtle. It is behind the scenes. It is Government anticipating what the committee would say if they did something, and therefore improving their performance and not having to be hauled up in front of a committee. So there is all sorts of informal behind-the-scenes stuff, but I found no evidence that committees were privately tracking the success of their inquiries.

Q18 Mr Bailey: Dr Fox, you submitted evidence on the training and induction of new Members. When they come here, MPs like to think they know everything, and perhaps you have seen evidence of that today, but could you just elaborate further on what sort of training you think is appropriate and what is your evidence base for saying so?

Dr Fox: There is training for Members generally when they join the House after an election for the first time. That is something that we have certainly looked at and, indeed, have been actively involved in. The Hansard Society, jointly with the Institute for Government, ran some induction sessions for new Members after the last general election. The sessions, in terms of sheer attendance, were quite low-marginally higher than for the sessions that the Clerks ran. I am not sure whether that tells you anything or not, but we did get marginally higher attendance.

With regard to engaging Members in an induction at the beginning of a Parliament, there is an issue in terms of the sheer number of pressures and the number of other things that they have to do, and engaging Member participation actively in that. Certainly at the start of the last Parliament there was more support provided than ever before, much of it very high-quality. We have been conducting research with new Members over the course of their first year as MPs, and you can see from that a very good response from Members to the support that they received. Where the House falls down is that that has not been carried through. I would not necessarily call it "training"-I think that puts people’s backs up-but there should be some kind of professional development support for the kinds of work that Members have to do. There is a case for the House providing more of that, and tailored professional development support for the types of roles that Members have. Now, if you are a select committee member that would be specifically on select committees.

I have to say there is reluctance among Members to undertake this. In our research, only half of the new MPs believed they should undertake some form of professional development training, at 49%. Of those who think that they should, 70% of Members have already had experience of professional development training in their previous occupations. I think there is an issue there about perceptions of professional development support, but it would be worth exploring what has been done in Scotland and Wales; three committees in the Welsh Assembly last year had some professional development training. Their needs are slightly different to select committees, because of course they have a legislative role, and because of the sheer size of the Welsh Assembly, many of the Members on a subject committee also will be on the legislative committee. They got professional development support in respect of the legislative process that perhaps select committee members would not need, and you need a different focus, but I think it would be worth looking at what they have done.

They have also had support in respect of questioning styles. I believe they use the same QC that the Scottish Parliament used at the start of the 2007 Parliament, so they have both had an experience of that kind of QC training in advocacy and questioning styles-again, with marginal success, in terms of attendance and take-up of it. I am not sure that that kind of QC/barrister-style-questioning training is necessarily all that committee members need or should have. There are other styles of questioning that should be considered, but it would certainly be worth engaging with both legislatures to see how effective it has been, and certainly we are continuing our research at the moment. In fact, we have colleagues in Wales next week interviewing members of the Welsh Assembly about this, so I can certainly submit a further memo to the committee updating you with further information on that.

Q19 Sir Alan Haselhurst: You refer elsewhere to possibly a lack of attention on the part of Members of Parliament who are on select committees, coming in and out and not necessarily participating in the whole of the inquiry. I suspect this is because there are a great many different responsibilities that Members of Parliament are trying to attend to in the first place. When you are trying to get greater professionalism on the part of the select committee in tackling an inquiry, do we not also have to think carefully about how the Members are chosen in the first place? At the beginning of a Parliament, when there was a huge turnover of Members and we were electing Members to select committees, it was pretty hit or miss, I think, as to whether a person was going to get on a particular committee for which they were well qualified. Should we be giving some thought to the format in which a candidate should put themselves forward to serve on a select committee? It is all very well having the training afterwards, but are we getting the right people in the first place if, in electing people, we are not absolutely certain that they are the right horse for that particular course?

Chair: I will take Anne McIntosh’s point as well at the same time, if I may.

Q20 Miss McIntosh: You mentioned training, and on some of the comments made in reply to the last questions, clearly there are resource implications. We are very aware that we have limited resources, and most of the resources are going on staff dealing with ongoing inquiries. Even going back to previous reports and seeing where the Government have implemented or failed to implement the recommendations of the select committee is quite demanding, in terms of resources. Have they costed, in Wales, such training? We obviously have views on advocacy. A number of us already are barristers or advocates and are trained in that regard. I am not sure that it is always entirely appropriate to take that approach with witnesses in most circumstances. I think the David Frost approach is often more revealing than the Jeremy Paxman approach in getting witnesses to respond.

Chair: I am afraid that the brief approach is all that we are going to have time for, because there is another subject I need to get in.

Peter Riddell: Could I just give a very brief answer?

Chair: Yes.

Peter Riddell: Sir Alan, the point is there was a second chance, because a substantial number of the new members of committees changed after three months. On Anne McIntosh’s point, there is an issue that the Institute for Government was very involved in developing. We have worked closely with one select committee on this already in this Parliament, and it is not that expensive. You have to have good people doing it, but I think there is tremendous value-underlining what Ruth Fox said-in having a continuing process. It is not so much about what you do at the beginning of Parliament; it is about bringing people together. You either do it individually or collectively. There is tremendous value in doing it now or in a year’s time, because people have a bit of experience and then they can be advised and so on.

Dr Fox: On the cost issue, I do not know what the costs are, but we can certainly ask that of both the Assembly and Parliament and come back to you. Underlining Peter’s point, I do not think it is that expensive, but it comes back to strategic priorities and what it is that you want to focus on-what delivers most bang for your buck in terms of the use of resources with inquiries that you want to do. If you have that more strategic approach at the start of a Parliament, you can better plan that, bearing in mind the resources that you have at your disposal. Working with outside bodies, I think, will offer you opportunities that otherwise you would not have.

Dr Russell: I just wanted to take the opportunity to say we have just seen an example of one of the things that we criticise in our report, to some extent. We have had the "usual suspects" point; we have now had the "Well, we must move on to another point" point. This is again a matter of breadth versus depth, and I think that there are two things that have come across to me, in terms of weaknesses of questioning styles. One is that people whom committees want to put on the spot-particularly Ministers, maybe senior officials, maybe senior industry figures-are all too aware that if they can flannel for a couple of questions, there will very quickly be a Chair stepping in saying, "Well, we must move on". Maybe sometimes you need to prioritise what the key questions are that you want to get an answer to and not move on until you have them. That does not really apply to witnesses like us, where it is much more of a conversational style, as was just referred to.

The other point that came across in our report was this issue about people wandering in and out and not paying proper attention to the papers and so on. I completely agree with Sir Alan Haselhurst: the biggest challenge that you face are the many, many pressures on Members’ time. All of us on this panel are extremely sympathetic to that but, nonetheless, particularly as Chairs, I think that is a major challenge for you because, as I said before, one of the most important impacts that committees have is this impact <?oasys [pc10p0] ?>of anticipated reactions-of people in Whitehall and out there in agencies and in industry thinking, "They are watching us; what if we get pulled up in front of them?" Their key time when they are encountering you is when they are being questioned. We heard some terrible stories about people who were repeatedly asked the same question by different Members of the committee who had not been present to listen to each other’s contributions, and so on. This gives a very poor impression to those people out there whom you are trying to keep on their toes.

One of the things that might be interesting is if Chairs move to not calling people to ask questions unless they had been present from the beginning of the evidence session, as happens in the Chamber with respect to speeches. I think that would be absolutely fair.

Chair: That is the practice of this Chairman, as is the practice of not necessarily allowing questions to continue if you think that nothing useful can be obtained by further questioning of that particular witness. Professor Hazell.

Professor Hazell: May I make one more point about the role of Chairs? You are potentially an enormously important resource, in terms of training. Training does not have to be formal. It should be continuous, as Peter has said, and it can be informal. You are the leaders of your committees. Many of the members of your committees are relatively new Members of Parliament. Part of your role, I would like to suggest, is to mentor them and coach them into being better members of the committee. We-the witnesses-do not know what happens when we troop out, but sometimes, if you do not do this, it might be useful to have a very quick debrief: "Right, we have had these witnesses for an hour." You might ask not just, "What did we learn?" but, "How did that session go? If we were questioning similar witnesses next week, how could we improve our act?"-that kind of thing. As select committee Chairs, you have a potentially hugely important role in raising the effectiveness of your members as well.

Q21 Mr Jenkin: I could carry on that conversation. On the question of media, Professor Flinders, you are quite critical about the way we are unable to present our reports more effectively. Partly, that may be the vagueness of the content and the recommendations; that is something we have been discussing. In our defence, I would say we are extremely hobbled. I would say that at least 50% to 60% of the media work done for my committee, I do myself. We have to choose a launch date miles in advance, so the Government always see us coming, and if the report is the least bit controversial, they will have something to announce that day that is much more interesting. They will offer a spat on the Today programme between two high-level figures in the Conservative party to make sure that their subject is properly covered, instead of having a select committee report. But what should we be doing to improve our media coverage?

Professor Flinders: The bigger issue here about this whole inquiry is about the role of Parliament in the 21st century. Parliament has improved massively in the last 10 to 20 years, in terms of the professionalisation of Members and the role of select committees, but the pressures on you, as Chairs, and on the members of your committees are greater than ever. It is about not working harder but working smarter. Essentially, that is what every one of us has said this morning-that there are many subtle ways that do not cost a lot of money, where you can get more bang for each buck, at this time of getting more for less. It is about professionalisation. It is about mentoring and support. It is about training. It is about being braver, sometimes, and being willing to stand up to the Executive on certain issues.

The media thing is interesting, because if you look at the output, in terms of standard select committee reports, it would be quite hard to design them to make them any less attractive for anyone beyond this building. This isn’t rocket science. We are in a time when I, with a laptop, can put up videos that can be seen around the world in seconds. There are so many innovative ways you can show what your committee is doing. I am a bit of an anorak, but I do think it is very interesting. Even the Public Administration select committee doesn’t sound very interesting. The issues that you are dealing with matter; they matter to people because they affect people’s lives. People are interested, but there is a gap, there is a breakdown, there is too much distance, and it is the media.

On the issue of resources, you say that you do 60% yourself. One of the issues for a Chairman is that sometimes Chairmen feel too dominant and they become the lightning rod for everything in their committee. It might be that Chairs need to be far more proactive in getting media training in, to have a number of informal sub-media people who take more of a lead on projecting this out beyond just yourself. The media issue is not the media going through the tabloids or the broadsheets, but more direct media accessibility. It is probably one of the easiest challenges to face, and the fact that you don’t have the resources to do it-again we are not in a time when it is very fashionable to say, "MPs should be paid more or given more resources", but it is incredibly inefficient not to spend a very small amount of money to get far more out of the incredible work that is going on along this committee corridor.

Q22 Mr Jenkin: Thank you for saying that. Can I move on? On the question of our powers to summon witnesses and to make them tell the truth, is it the consensus of the panel that we have all the powers we need and we should not disturb the existing arrangements? That seems to be the evidence we have had.

Professor Hazell: Subject to what we were saying earlier about a possible concordat, which might give you a bit more leverage in identifying which witnesses, especially among officials, you might be able to call.

Q23 Mr Jenkin: What should we do when somebody has clearly misled a select committee? In a court, that would be perjury. It is punishable by an imprisonable offence. Is the high court of Parliament so much less important than a court of law that we just do not have those powers?

Professor Hazell: I think your best weapon, as always, is publicity.

Peter Riddell: Recall-if you have been misled by a witness, recall them. Go through it. Also, as Robert said, there is publicity.

Q24 Mr Jenkin: So it is a slap-on-the-wrist offence, as opposed to a criminal offence?

Peter Riddell: It is a bit more than that, I think, and there have been instances where people have had to apologise for misleading the committee.

Mr Jenkin: There is an Act on the statute book; I think it is the 1911 Perjury Act-do I have that correct-which makes it a criminal offence to lie to Parliament, but I do not think it has ever been used in recent years.

Peter Riddell: Do not underrate the fact that if you are critical, the implications of that-the waves-are much bigger than you might think.

Q25 Mr Jenkin: Sooner or later, someone is going to call our bluff and we will turn out to be a paper tiger. Don’t we need to clarify this and sort it out?

Dr Fox: You may need to clarify it, and I suppose one concern I would have is that this Committee’s inquiry should not get too focused on that and that alone. I understand why it is a particular issue at the moment, but something like the draft Privileges Bill, it seems to me, would be an area where this kind of more focused inquiry might look. The only thing I would say is that the kind of incidents you are talking about are a very small number of occasions, compared to the vast bulk of the work that you do that would never require-

Q26 Mr Jenkin: For brevity’s sake, my concern about that-and I think a lot of our concern-is that it is like having a nuclear weapon; you never want to use it, but having it is quite important. If you do not have it and they know you do not have it, aren’t we in danger of being in that position both with perjury and with the power of summons? The mechanisms for compelling someone to attend-

Chair: It is not as though we do not have it.

Mr Jenkin: Well, the mechanisms for actually compelling someone to attend Parliament, if they do not want to come, have not been tested for a very long time.

Professor Flinders: But they do exist. What often does not exist is the political will among you and your colleagues to use the powers that you have.

Q27 Mr Jenkin: But wouldn’t it be a good expression of our will to exercise these powers if necessary, and to re-express them either in statute or in our Standing Orders?

Peter Riddell: It is probably a matter of Standing Orders.

Mr Jenkin: I think it is a matter of Standing Orders.

Peter Riddell: Yes, I think it is more Standing Orders. The statute gets you into all kinds of problems. It also gets you into the judiciability point.

Mr Jenkin: Would the rest of you agree with that?

Professor Hazell: Yes.

Mr Jenkin: That is very useful, thank you.

Q28 Natascha Engel: I wanted briefly to ask about a specific power of select committees, and that is pre-appointment confirmation hearings. I just want to know what the panel thought about that.

Professor Flinders: Going back to the issue you raised earlier about overstretching yourselves, I think the pre-appointment hearings are an area where I am not for or against, but the power of committees seems to have stumbled forward in a classically British way. Now what we have is a ladder of different ministerial appointments being subject to different powers-pre-appointment hearings, some post appearance, and some now needing a vote in the House. The great problem with pre-appointment hearings is this. The Treasury Committee-that is where this came from, from the Monetary Policy committee-behaved itself; it did not play politics, but what happened more recently is that a large element of game-playing and point-scoring has slipped into pre-appointment hearings, and on occasion it has been quite brutal; the appointee has become a pawn in a game they are not really playing. My recent research on public appointments suggests that a lot of very good people are now simply not applying for ministerial posts, if they are likely to involve a select committee pre-appointment hearing.

Peter Riddell: Can I just follow up on that? There are different types of appointments. The crucial point on that-we did a report on the Institute for Government on that last year-is you have to distinguish various types of appointments-some executive appointments, some regulatory, some directly related to Parliament in various ways. They have to be looked at in different ways. There ought to be different types of involvement of Parliament in different levels of appointment. That needs clarification. The Liaison Committee produced a very interesting report on it. There needs to be further progress on that classification because it is still a bit muddled.

Professor Hazell: May I follow on? As some of you may know, we did some research on this a couple of years ago, which was commissioned by the Liaison Committee, and we analysed the first 20 public appointments after the system of pre-appointment scrutiny hearings had come in. From memory, we interviewed about 50 or 60 people, including all the candidates bar one, all the head-hunters who had been involved in the recruitment process, and the officials in the Whitehall Departments who had been in charge of the recruitment. Out of that, I would mention three conclusions. First-forgive me for disagreeing with you, Matt-there was no evidence of a chilling effect or disincentive because the post required appearing before a select committee. There is plenty of evidence, especially from the head-hunters, that it is difficult to fill senior public appointments, especially when looking in the private sector. They said the turn-off was the very slow-it is very thorough and laborious-process in Whitehall in making senior public appointments, which can take many months, but there was no evidence of a deterrent effect arising from the need to have a pre-appointment scrutiny hearing.

Secondly, going back to the earlier question about formal powers, it is also a rather good illustration of the powers that select committees have, through influence and through publicity. You will all know you do not have a formal power of veto, save for some very important exceptions that Andrew Tyrie’s Committee has gained, but for all the others you have a power to issue a report.

Forgive me, I have not done an update, but I think the tally now is that there have been at least five occasions when a committee has recommended against appointment, and I think on three of those occasions the candidate has either withdrawn or the Department has withdrawn the nomination. That is not a bad hit rate, so committees do have very significant influence.

When we interviewed the candidates and asked them, "If the committee had recommended against your nomination, what would you have done?" A majority of them said, "We wouldn’t have taken up the post".

Chair: We have reached the time at which I promised colleagues that they could go back into the Chamber, where Question Time has already begun. I thank the team of witnesses for their very helpful evidence this morning, and for the written evidence they have given to us. This discussion is obviously going to continue. Thank you very much indeed.

Back to Report

On to Written Evidence

On to Additional (unprinted) Written Evidence

Prepared 7th November 2012