Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents


In this report we review the role, resources and tasks of the select committees appointed by the House of Commons to scrutinise the Government.

Our view is that the primary role of select committees is to influence Government, but it is sometimes in the public interest for their scrutiny to extend to other organisations. They also act as a forum for debate and put issues on the agenda. We review the "core tasks" — the common objectives for departmental select committees agreed in 2002 — and propose some changes to reflect new priorities and developments in Government.

We review committee activity since the 2010 General Election, and the impact of the 2010 "Wright reforms". We examine how effective committees have been in addressing the range of their responsibilities and highlight examples of good practice and innovation.

While there is a consensus that committees have been successful in influencing Government, our inquiry found a number of areas where they could do better. Committees need to be clearer about their objectives, both for individual inquiries and for the longer term. In scrutinising departmental performance, committees should be forward-looking, holding post mortems of past events only if there are lessons for the future. Committees should give more attention to the cost of policies and how departments ensure they offer good value for money.

We recommend that committees experiment with different approaches, such as appointing rapporteurs to lead inquiries, using specialist advisers to question witnesses on technical subjects, and commissioning external research. And we encourage committees to broaden their range of witnesses.

We encourage committees to keep reports reasonably short and focused and recommend a change in the format of reports to distinguish more clearly between conclusions and recommendations. And we recommend that more attention be given to following up recommendations in earlier reports, to ensure they have impact.

We attach particular importance to improving the effective communication of committees' work. Increasing media diversity means that committees have to be clear about what they want to achieve and their target audience. We want to see committee teams making much more imaginative use of the parliament website, and facility for richer audio-visual content.

We agree with our witnesses that more effort needs to be put into the induction and continuing professional development of committee members. We encourage committees to make use of trainers to develop their questioning skills, and set out guidelines for committee chairs. We acknowledge the risk to committee reputation if witnesses are not treated with courtesy.

We note that cooperation from Government is crucial to effective scrutiny and highlight a number of complaints from committees, about late or inadequate responses to reports, about delays or obstruction in the supply of information, and constraints over the choice of departmental witnesses. We call for a new compact between Parliament and Government, recognising both the constraints of the civil service but also the legitimate wish of Parliament for more effective accountability.

We consider whether the staffing and other resources available to committees is adequate given committees' increasing activity and changing expectations. We want to see more stability in committee staffing, and greater involvement by chairs in staff appraisal and appointments. We would like to see more inward secondments to the Committee Office, and recommend that it should be possible for committee clerks to be directly appointed by open competition. We recommend a modest increase in media support, and — for the longer term — argue for funding for additional staff in chairs' offices. We recognise that now is not a good time to argue for increased resources but the long term goal should be to build up the capacity of committees to hold Government to account.

We consider the powers available to select committees and note the uncertainty about their enforceability. We conclude that the disadvantages of enshrining parliamentary privilege in statute would outweigh the benefits.

Finally we set out our vision for the future. With the cooperation of Government and the support of the public, we think this is achievable by 2020.

In this report, conclusions are printed in bold and recommendations are printed in bold italics.

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 8 November 2012