Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents

1  Introduction

1. It is now two years since select committees were re-established in the current Parliament and it is a good time to take stock of where we are, assess what we have achieved and identify what we should do better. Select committees have been around for centuries, but our current system of departmentally-focused select committees dates from 1979, a radical reform for which we must pay tribute to Norman St John Stevas, Mrs Thatcher's first Leader of the House of Commons, who died earlier this year. In the current Parliament, committees have been strengthened by a number of "Wright reforms" — reforms agreed in 2010 following the 2009 report of the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, chaired by Tony Wright[1]: direct election of most chairs by the whole House of Commons, open elections of committee members within each Party (instead of nomination by the Whips), and a clear expectation of good attendance, underpinned by a "60% rule" (with members not attending at least 60% of meetings in a Session at risk of removal). Select committees are now a firmly established feature of our parliamentary democracy, with a high profile in the media and — at least relatively — good standing in the eye of the public.

2. The 2009 Wright Committee acknowledged the importance of select committees but also noted the demands they placed on Members' time:

Select committees have rightly won respect for the work they do and they are being asked to take on an increasing number of tasks on behalf of the House. As a result committee members find it increasingly difficult to devote time to select committee work as well as all their other duties. We consider that the Liaison Committee should re-examine the current role of select committees, their resources and their tasks, and in particular how to deal with the increasing demands of time made of Members as their role grows.[2]

In its response, our predecessor Liaison Committee undertook to consider the issues raised by the recommendation and report further in due course.[3] In February 2010, the House approved the recommendation and welcomed "the Liaison Committee's proposal to carry out a review of the role, resources and tasks of select committees."[4]

3. This call for a review was echoed in a report by the Hansard Society on Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operations in 2011. It found that select committees were "now the principal mechanism through which the House of Commons hold the executive to account" and that recent reforms had "increased their status and sharpened their operation"; but it thought that "more could be achieved" and recommended that the Liaison Committee undertake a "proper review of its tasks and resources".[5]

4. We agreed on the need for a review: we felt there was much we could be proud of, but also areas where we needed to do better. Increased activity levels and growing demands on elected Chairs have brought into question whether committees are adequately resourced, and whether those resources are used to best effect. We wanted committees to become fully operational, and to see the impact of the Wright reforms, before reaching conclusions on our role and resources. Events during 2011, particularly the Culture, Media and Sport Committee's inquiry into Phone Hacking, also brought into question the powers that are available to us: particularly our power to ensure the attendance of witnesses and the truth of evidence.

5. In December 2011 we therefore announced an inquiry into select committee powers and effectiveness and issued a call for evidence, inviting views, in particular, on the following questions:

  • Are select committees effective in achieving better government? What can they do to be more effective?
  • Are the core tasks set by the House for select committees in 2002 still realistic given the limitations on Members' time?
  • Do select committees have the powers and resources they need to carry out their scrutiny function effectively?
  • Are members of select committees given the training and support they need to operate effectively?
  • How might select committees get better coverage for those aspects of their work which are important but not attractive to the media?
  • How can select committees get the public engaged more actively in their work?
  • Should select committees have an increased legislative role?
  • How can select committees scrutinise cross-cutting issues more effectively?

6. We received 37 written memoranda: 24 from other committees and committee chairs, 10 from external witnesses, and three from within the House of Commons Service. We held an evidence session in February 2012 with a panel of distinguished external observers. In addition, we had a number of informal meetings. The Institute for Government hosted a seminar for us with participants from the civil service and arm's length bodies (to learn how we can be more effective in influencing Government). We met Rt Hon Jack Straw MP (to gain the perspective of a former Minister), and separately representatives of the Parliamentary Lobby (to understand better how to get our message heard in the media).

7. It has been customary for the Liaison Committee in previous Parliaments to produce an annual report summarising the activities of committees and highlighting common themes and concerns. This year, we encouraged committees to send us a memorandum, setting out what they had achieved during the 2010-12 parliamentary Session but also reflecting on what could be done better. These memoranda are all published on our website, alongside the written evidence received from other witnesses.

8. Within the Liaison Committee we have reflected collectively on committee effectiveness in general, and also on the effectiveness of the Liaison Committee itself. We set up a working group of committee chairs to look into committee resources and staffing and appointed a rapporteur (the Hon Bernard Jenkin MP) to consider committee powers.

9. Our inquiry has also been informed by research by the UCL Constitution Unit into the impact of seven committees from 1997 to 2010[6] and by the Hansard Society's review of select committees' operations.[7]

10. We are grateful to all those who have contributed to our inquiry, and look forward to their continued engagement in discussion of the recommendations we make in this report.

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

2   Ibid, para 93. Back

3   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2009-10, Rebuilding the House: Select Committee issues, HC 272, paras 26-28. Back

4   Votes and Proceedings, 22 February 2010, item 12. Back

5   Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox, Reviewing Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operation, Parliamentary Affairs, Vol 64 No 2, April 2011. Back

6   Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees, Meg Russell and Meghan Benton, Constitution Unit, UCL, June 2011. Back

7   Parliamentary Affairs, Vol 64 No 2, April 2011. Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 8 November 2012