Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents

2  Select committees' role and core tasks

The purpose of scrutiny

11. Select committees are each given a task by the House of Commons (the "order of reference" set down in the Standing Orders or founding resolution of the House) but they are free to interpret it as they wish. Some committees (the Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards and Privileges, for example) have an internal focus; but most are tasked with scrutiny of Government or of forms of Government legislation. It is the scrutiny committees which are the focus of this inquiry.

12. While there is no clear and agreed statement of what scrutiny is for, the purpose of the scrutiny committees is often described as being to "hold Ministers to account".[8] Certainly an important element of our work is to require Ministers and civil servants to explain and justify their actions and policies, to subject them to robust challenge; and to expose Government — both ministerial decision-making and departmental administration — to the public gaze (though some elements of scrutiny — where matters of national security are involved, for example — have to be in private). Some would argue that scrutiny, and the openness it brings, are an end in itself; others that its ultimate purpose is to improve Government. The political reality is that, individually, Members' agendas will differ: some will be keener to improve the Government's performance, others to expose its weaknesses. But, collectively, select committees should influence policy and have an impact on Government departments and the agencies to which their functions may be devolved. This is our first objective. The extent of this influence and impact is the primary measure of the effectiveness of select committees.

13. But committees are not only concerned with influencing Government. Many reports contain recommendations targeted at bodies outside Government: the European Commission, for example, professional bodies and occasionally private sector companies. And, in a growing number of cases, third parties — including private sector bodies — can be the focus of committee inquiries. Increasingly, the private sector is involved in delivering public services, and committees have a legitimate interest in scrutinising how taxpayers' money is spent. And some private sector services are of such concern that the public expect the committee to intervene, filling the accountability gap. The inquiries by the Transport Committee into the cost of motor insurance, and the Treasury Committee into retail banking are examples.[9] While committees' primary purpose is to scrutinise Government, it is sometimes in the public interest for them to extend their scrutiny to other organisations.

14. A further important function of committees is to act as a forum for discussion and informed debate, raising issues in the public consciousness and giving a public platform to experts and affected individuals. The Environmental Audit Committee reported, for example, that "as much as holding Government to account, we have also raised the profile of vital global issues".[10] Scrutiny committees are not just involved in scrutinising others but have an active role to play themselves in putting issues on the agenda and acting as a forum for public debate.

15. Some witnesses considered that it was a further function of committees to help Parliament engage with the public. Professor Matthew Flinders saw committees as having a dual role: first to hold the executive to account, and secondly to promote public understanding of politics.[11] Many committees reported that they saw public engagement activity as an important part of the work.[12]

Core tasks

16. In 2002 the House of Commons agreed the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that a set of common objectives should be set for select committees.[13] The Liaison Committee at the time subsequently agreed a set of "core tasks" which are set out in Table 1 below.[14] These core tasks were not designed to be prescriptive but to serve as a reminder to the departmental select committees of the broad range of their responsibilities, to guard against them focusing on policy to the exclusion of other matters, and to ensure that they support the House in its legislative role and in its control of public money. The list of tasks is a little daunting, and some — the Wright Committee included — have questioned whether they are realistic given the pressures on Members' time. Some committees reported that the full range of the core tasks were not relevant to their brief;[15] but the evidence from their activity reports suggests that most took effort to cover, if not all, at least most of the core tasks over the course of the parliamentary Session. Much of the background scrutiny can be done by committee staff, or by the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit, with only significant issues requiring the attention of the committee itself. We believe it continues to be useful to define core tasks for committees, to guide committees in deciding their programme, but not to constrain their freedom to decide their own priorities.

Task 1To examine policy proposals from the UK Government and the European Commission in Green Papers, White Papers, draft Guidance etc, and to inquire further where the Committee considers it appropriate.
Task 2To identify and examine areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient, and make proposals.
Task 3To conduct scrutiny of any published draft bill within the Committee's responsibilities.
Task 4To examine specific output from the department expressed in documents or other decisions.
Task 5To examine the expenditure plans and out-turn of the department, its agencies and principal NDPBs.
Task 6To examine the department's Public Service Agreements, the associated targets and the statistical measurements employed, and report if appropriate.
Task 7To monitor the work of the department's Executive Agencies, NDPBs, regulators and other associated public bodies.
Task 8To scrutinise major appointments made by the department.
Task 9To examine the implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives.
Task 10To produce reports which are suitable for debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or debating committees.

17. Ten years on, it is not surprising that the core tasks are a little out of date. The Government has now abandoned Public Service Agreements, for example. And they make no reference to some tasks which committees are now expected to do: to examine petitions received by the House, for example, and scrutinise draft orders under the Public Bodies Act.

18. The Better Government Initiative (which involves a number of retired senior civil servants) argued that the core tasks should be made "simpler, more vivid and more specific" and should encourage committees to focus on Departments' delivery of public services:

the quantity and quality of their outputs and outcomes, their funding, value for money and the department's information for monitoring current performance and for making longer term decisions, notably about efficiency gains, including new methods of delivery, and new investments.[16]

19. The current core tasks envisage that the scrutiny of expenditure, administration and policy are separate activities. Arguably, this no longer makes sense. Given competition for scarce resources, it is increasingly important that committees assess policy decisions alongside their financial implications, and vice versa. And departmental financial management and performance in delivery are intertwined. Moreover, now that Chairs and members of committees have an elected mandate from the House, select committees are increasingly proactive in their efforts to influence the strategic direction of government and its departments.

20. We set out in Table 2 below revised core tasks, which we encourage committees to take into account when planning their programmes. They will not all be relevant to every committee; and some committees — those with a large amount of legislation, for example — will not have the time to cover everything.

Overall aim: To hold Ministers and Departments to account for their policy and decision-making and to support the House in its control of the supply of public money and scrutiny of legislation


Task 1  To examine the strategy of the department, how it has identified its key objectives and   priorities and whether it has the means to achieve them, in terms of plans, resources, skills,   capabilities and management information


Task 2  To examine policy proposals by the department, and areas of emerging policy, or where   existing policy is deficient, and make proposals


Task 3  To examine the expenditure plans, outturn and performance of the department and its   arm's length bodies, and the relationships between spending and delivery of outcomes


Task 4  To conduct scrutiny of draft bills within the committee's responsibilities


Task 5  To assist the House in its consideration of bills and statutory instruments, including draft   orders under the Public Bodies Act


Task 6  To examine the implementation of legislation and scrutinise the department's post-  legislative assessments


Task 7  To scrutinise policy developments at the European level and EU legislative proposals


Task 8  To scrutinise major appointments made by the department and to hold pre-appointment   hearings where appropriate


Task 9   To produce timely reports to inform debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or   debating committees, and to examine petitions tabled


Task 10   To assist the House of Commons in better engaging with the public by ensuring that the   work of the committee is accessible to the public

8   See Q 1 Back

9   Ev w48, para 8 [Note: references to 'Ev wXX' are references to written evidence published in the volume of additional written evidence published on the Committee's website]; Transport Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2010-12, The cost of motor insurance, HC 591. Treasury Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2010-12, Competition and choice in retail banking, HC 612-I. Back

10   Ev w20 Back

11   Ev 14, para 10 Back

12   Eg Education, Ev w13; EFRA, Ev w23 Back

13   Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, First Report of Session 2001-02, Select Committees, HC 224-I, para 33. HC Deb 14 May 2002, cols 648-730. Back

14   Decision of Liaison Committee, 20 June 2002; see Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2002-03, Annual Report for 2002,HC 558, para 13 and Appendix 1. Back

15   Eg Foreign Affairs Committee, Ev w32 Back

16   Ev w76-78 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 8 November 2012