Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents

4  Increasing committee impact

The impact of committees

61. The consensus of those who gave us evidence is that committees are successful in influencing Government. That is not just the view of committees and external commentators, but is also supported by academic research. The Constitution Unit at University College London reviewed the impact of seven committees[75] during the period 1997-2010, based on quantitative analysis of the success rate of their recommendations and qualitative analysis of their influence on Government through interviews with Ministers and civil servants.[76] Their overall conclusion was that committees were indeed influential on government, though they identified some areas where they could do better. They found that:

They [select committees] are largely taken seriously in Whitehall, many of their recommendations go on to be implemented (though sometimes not until years later), and they have an important preventative effect in encouraging more careful consideration of policy within government departments.

The UCL study also found that

some committees can have significant influence outside government, including on industry. This influence comes in particular through 'exposure'.[77]

62. However, the UCL research found there was "room for improvement", mentioning in particular:

  • committees' frequent failure to follow up their recommendations;
  • committees' relative inability to commission their own research
  • poor attendance and attention to detail by some committee members
  • failure by some in Government to take committees sufficiently seriously
  • committees' relations with the media: "media attention may benefit committees' status and influence, but being too media-driven can become a problem".[78]

These criticisms were echoed in evidence to this inquiry.

63. While we welcome the wide consensus that select committees have a significant, positive impact, we take very seriously the critical feedback received. We examine below the areas in which our witnesses thought we could do better, and make a number of recommendations to committees.

Strategic planning

64. Some of our witnesses suggested that individual committees ought to be clearer about their objectives, both for the longer term and for specific inquiries. In its 2011 review of Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operations the Hansard Society recommended that each committee should publish and consult on a strategic plan, and report on its achievements against that plan.[79] We note from the memoranda received from committees that many of them have held, or are in the process of holding, meetings to review their objectives, in discussion with their advisers and, often, outside experts. We welcome this. It is important that committees should have a clear understanding amongst themselves about what they are seeking to achieve, and that they consider their objectives for the whole Parliament, rather than focusing only on the inquiry immediately ahead. It may not be possible to do this at the beginning of the Parliament: the Chair may well have a clear agenda but this may not be shared by all other members of the committee: it takes time for committees to gel and for new members to appreciate the value of a consensual approach. But, now, two years into the Parliament, is a very good time for committees to take stock and agree their objectives for the remainder of the Parliament.

65. It is not our role to prescribe to other committees how they should interpret their role, or how they should spend their time; but as a model of "best practice", we recommend that committees:

a)  have a candid discussion amongst themselves about how they see their purpose, and what they wish to achieve over the length of the Parliament;

b)  identify what are the most important functions of their department's responsibilities and design a programme of scrutiny to assess whether the department's objectives have been fulfilled;

c)  clearly record their conclusions and remind themselves of them when considering proposals for inquiry and programme planning;

d)  review this at least annually, with an "awayday" or at least a longer, less formal discussion than is possible at a regular deliberative meeting; and

e)  canvass opinion among the key players in their subject area about their performance.

66. Whether it is sensible to publish a strategic plan is more debatable. Committee members may be more cautious about signing up to a strategy which is to be made public and may see it as offering a hostage to fortune, or as setting themselves up to fail: committee plans will inevitably have to change to respond to events and new priorities. On the other hand, publishing objectives would ensure that the committee thought carefully about them, would demonstrate that they were thinking beyond the short-term and would give the public and expert observers such as the Hansard Society a yardstick against which to assess our effectiveness. Committees might usefully consult their department and interested stakeholder bodies on their draft objectives, and perhaps use them to secure undertakings in return. Certainly committees will not be able to achieve their objectives without the full co-operation of the department and of the principal third party bodies on which they rely for independent evidence. We expect Government departments to be transparent about their objectives, and we ought to practise what we preach. We commend to other committees the practice of publishing strategic objectives, and of consulting their department and other stakeholders on them.

67. With this in mind, we have drawn up our own objectives, as a Liaison Committee, for the remainder of the Parliament, in the knowledge that circumstances and priorities can change. We set these out in Annex A to this report, as a draft for others' views.

Planning inquiries

68. Several of our witnesses pointed to the importance of committees carefully considering, and planning, their inquiries, to make sure that they fitted with, or at least did not impede, the committee's longer-term objectives. The joint memorandum from the Hansard Society, Institute for Government and Constitution Unit argued that:

Clear objectives should be set for each inquiry, for example, through publication of a statement about what a committee would like to achieve, separate from the issue and questions paper that is normally published at the start of an inquiry.

It also underlined the benefits of giving witnesses a sufficiently long deadline to produce evidence: short deadlines reduced the prospects of broadening the evidence base.[80]

69. There is a tendency for committees to launch inquiries without a great deal of forethought. Evidence points to the benefit in committees doing some exploratory work before inquiries are announced. We were told that timing of inquiries is important: inquiries have most impact if they are at the right stage of government decision-making. And a shared understanding of what the committee wishes to achieve in an inquiry would provide a useful and more strategic basis for media and communications planning and support. We recommend that, before they launch an inquiry, committees agree a comprehensive minute setting out what they hope to achieve, and the likelihood of success.

Scrutiny of departmental performance

70. Our discussion with civil servants at the Institute for Government gave us much food for thought. They thought committees spent too much time on post mortems of individual projects or policies which went wrong, and missed the opportunity to hold ministers and officials to account for the overall performance and strategy of the department. We agree that committees should be proactive and forward-looking — and devote less effort to raking over the coals of past events unless there are lessons to be learnt and changes to be recommended.

71. The Better Government Initiative argued that departmental select committees should take evidence more often from Permanent Secretaries as Accounting Officers, holding them to account for spending decisions and for programme and project management. They thought departmental select committees—

should expect Permanent Secretaries, as now with the PAC, to give evidence about current performance and planned programmes and projects backed by the Government. They should take responsibility for the quality of the advice given by their departments on the key approaches considered and assumptions used in the appraisals, any inadequacies in the evidence relied on, perhaps due to an absence of evaluations of past projects or of pilots of new ones. While we would not suggest SCs become embroiled in second guessing management decisions, they should be able to satisfy themselves that proper processes are in place for appraising policies and investments and expect to be informed where there are significant departures from established procedures.[81]

They thought this would lead to departments giving greater attention to the quality of project and option appraisal and to Permanent Secretaries taking greater interest in their department having the necessary processes and skills in place.[82]

72. With competition for scarce resources becoming ever greater, it is important for committees to assess policy decisions alongside their financial implications, and vice versa. Committees need not just consider the merits of policy and the means of delivery, but whether the amount of public money allocated and spent represent the best use of scarce public funds, and whether better outcomes could potentially be delivered through different spending patterns. This argues for "mainstreaming" financial scrutiny in order that the financial aspects of a policy are considered alongside the policies and outcomes. We recommend that in future inquiries, as a matter of routine, committees include consideration of the financial aspects and implications of the policies being examined. This could include for instance, what the justification for spending public money is, what evidence there is that it will offer, or is offering, good value for money to the taxpayer, what alternatives have been considered and whether they would be likely to be more effective, and the outcomes expected to be added to or improved upon by the spending.

73. In practice, departments are routinely making financial decisions throughout the year. Those who make the decisions are accountable to Parliament and the public for the use of public funds. While the Public Accounts Committee has the lead role in post-hoc analysis of how public money has been spent, departmental select committees also have a role in ensuring that departments evaluate options robustly on the basis of sound evidence, weigh up options soundly and operate as fairly and openly as possible, keeping spending under review to ensure it delivers the outcomes desired. We encourage committees to hold evidence sessions at least annually with ministers and departmental accounting officers, and include within these sessions consideration of how departments evaluate and take decisions on spending, and how they assess the effectiveness of the spending they undertake.

74. While successive Governments have taken steps to open up the Whitehall machine, whether through the Freedom of Information Act, or the transparency agenda, more can still be done. Bare facts often require explanation and the Government appears sometimes reluctant to explain not just the "what", but the "why". More also needs to be done by Government to link spending to performance. In 2009, our predecessor Committee recommended that departments publish "Mid-Year Reports", linking spending and performance.[83] Steps are now under way to deliver this on a pilot basis in 2012, with full implementation expected in 2013. We encourage committees to review departments' Mid-Year Reports when published, using them to identify relevant issues and questions relating to finance and performance.

Evidence sessions

75. Taking evidence is a fundamental feature of select committee activity. Our strength lies in ensuring that our conclusions are evidence-based, in giving a platform to experts and to those with personal experience, and in challenging those with responsibility. But they can be a bit dull, and they are not always the best way of extracting information — particularly from government witnesses.

76. Several of those we met during our inquiry questioned the effectiveness of our tradition of going round the table, with each member asking questions in turn. We were told that the knowledge that a member would only have five or ten minutes before having to hand over to a colleague encouraged witnesses to flannel, knowing that they would soon be off the hook. It was suggested that chairs should allow successful questioners longer to develop their line of inquiry, or even for committees to delegate questioning to one or two members at each evidence session: they would then know it would be worthwhile putting time into preparation. There is, of course, a downside in this approach (committee members may not be very keen to sit through meetings at which they have no, or little, opportunity to contribute) but it could work, if the arrangement was reciprocal. And it would recognise the reality that committee members do not always have time to prepare well for every evidence session. We recommend that committees experiment with different approaches, such as appointing a rapporteur to lead on a particular inquiry, or choosing "lead questioners" for an evidence session.

77. Another important area is the diversity of witnesses. Witnesses before committees are by no means just "the great and the good". Some committees have been particularly successful in involving a diverse range of witnesses and representatives of groups who are usually disengaged from the political and parliamentary process. But some inquiries and subject areas lend themselves more to this than others; and there can be a tendency, particularly if time is short, to call in "the usual suspects". This is boring and, in limiting the breadth of the evidence base, detracts from the quality of committees' conclusions. Committee inquiries provide an important opportunity to engage underrepresented groups in the parliamentary process, and to contribute in a significant and concrete way to the aims of the House of Commons Diversity and Inclusion Scheme. We recommend that committees make every effort to broaden their range of witnesses, and to take into account the principles of diversity and inclusion in planning their inquiries and committee programme.

Commissioned research

78. Several of our witnesses argued for committees to make greater use of commissioned research. This was seen as a key contributor to an effective report — not just by academic observers (whom one would expect to be in favour of research) but also by the civil servants we talked to. The joint memorandum from the Hansard Society, Institute for Government, and Constitution Unit and others said that committees "can be at their most effective when they conduct original research, providing a new, clear evidence base for their recommendations (as, for example, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee did in surveying pub tenants for its Pub Companies report)."[84] There seems to be low awareness that committees already have the facility to commission research, and the Committee Office's budget for this purpose is often underspent. A discouraging factor is that commissioning research is time-consuming (work has to be planned, put out to tender and then carried out) and this does not always fit with the immediacy of committees' requirement. However, some committees have commissioned research. In 2010-12, the Transport Committee commissioned research on the HighSpeed2 link.[85] More recently, the Public Administration Select Committee has commissioned a market research company to conduct polling on public attitudes to national security issues. Others have commissioned research on a pro bono basis. For example, the Political and Constitutional Affairs Committee has made an agreement with the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies at King's College London to do research on codifying the constitution, supported by the Nuffield Foundation and Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.[86] Committees should bear in mind the option of commissioning research when planning their long-term strategies, and, if necessary, the House authorities should increase the money available for this purpose.


79. The Constitution Unit's report Selective Influence found room for improvement in the way committee reports are drafted:

There is some lack of clarity in how select committees express their conclusion and recommendations. It is sometimes unclear whether a paragraph included in the 'conclusions and recommendations' section of the report is actually a recommendation or not, and therefore whether it demands a government response. Such unclear wording obviously risks letting government off the hook.[87]

They pointed out that some reports contained a great many recommendations and considered that report would lose impact if the number got too large.[88] They suggested that reports should identify which the main recommendations are, to ensure that those responding cannot avoid the key issues and to make it easier to follow up if the most important recommendations have been acted upon. We take this feedback seriously. We encourage committees to keep their reports short and accessible, and to avoid too many recommendations. A clear indication of which recommendations are most important will help the committee achieve impact and make follow-up easier. We recommend that the usual template for committee reports be changed to distinguish clearly the recommendations targeted at the Government. We suggest that conclusions should be in bold, with recommendations in bold italics, and that it should be clearly stated to whom the recommendation is addressed.

80. In the longer term we would like to see the format of committee reports modernised, and made more accessible to the increasing number of readers who access them electronically.


81. Evidence to our inquiry was critical of the lack of follow-up of committee reports. Our witnesses said that committees tended to move on too quickly to the next inquiry, and did not put enough effort into making sure that recommendations are implemented. The joint memorandum for the Institute for Government, Hansard Society and Constitution Unit argued that:

Improving follow-up is a key area where committees could improve performance. They are often most successful in areas where they are most persistent. However, there is a strong tendency to move on quickly to new subjects, without always making the most of previous inquiries; a more rigorous approach is needed. Some committees do systematically log and track implementation of past commitments but the practice is patchy and unsystematic.[89]

Several committees (International Development, for example, and the Public Administration Select Committee) have been following up earlier inquiries, but we accept that this is not systematic. Following up old inquiries (particularly ones from previous Parliaments which current committee members may not have been involved in) can be unexciting; but we are guilty of a tendency to "fire and forget". If we are to be successful in influencing change in Government policy, we need to do more than just present a cogent argument and hope that Government will listen. We need to make sure that the message has been heard by the right people in Government and then need to chivvy to make sure that they do what we want. There are a range of tools at committees' disposal: we can get leverage through the support of stakeholder bodies and coverage of the media; we can seek debates in the House or ask Parliamentary Questions, requiring Ministers to explain how the Government is responding; and we can issue follow-up reports.

82. We also accept the need for longer-term follow up, to track whether accepted recommendations actually have been implemented. Departments need to know that committees will revisit subjects of inquiry, and monitor progress. Given the pressures on committee time, much of this can be done as a paper-based exercise: a full follow-up inquiry would only be appropriate for major reports, with continuing relevance.

83. We recommend that each committee should appoint a member of staff, or an adviser, or an outside body, who will monitor follow-up to recommendations in respect of each report. The committee should report to the House at least once in each parliamentary Session upon how many of its recommendations the Government has acted, and what follow-up is proposed on outstanding recommendations.

Joint inquiries

84. Some of our witnesses argued for more joined-up working between committees, with inquiries on themes which cross departmental boundaries.[90] This was also a recommendation made in the report of the Speaker's Advisory Council on Public Engagement, which argued that such inquiries would be more relevant and interesting to the public.[91] There have been some positive examples of joint activity since the beginning of the Parliament, as illustrated in paragraph 56 above. However, but practical difficulties of timetabling etc, and differences in committee culture, discourage this; and there is a risk that departmental select committees can have something of the silo mentality which we criticise in Government departments. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, on which the chairs of several departmental select committees sit, is an attempt to overcome that problem, but it is a very large committee which therefore cannot operated in the way that a departmental committee can. The Chair of the Transport Committee has suggested that the sensible approach is "to take a more relaxed view of committees ranging across departmental boundaries where it is sensible to do so for effective scrutiny, but involving the chairs of affected committees more proactively in discussions about plans for the inquiry".[92] It is sensible for departmental select committees to be able to cross departmental boundaries when this is in the interest of effective scrutiny of matters which go beyond a single department, but they should do so in ways which respect the role of other departmental select committees and in full consultation with the chairs of those committees.


85. Much of our informal discussion during the inquiry focussed on how to improve the communication of committees' work. Our work is pointless if it is not effectively communicated, but we do not always put sufficient thought into whom we need to communicate with, and why, and sufficient effort into doing it. On the other hand, at a time of limited resource — and increasing media diversity — we need to be hard-headed about what is effective. When considering how to make an impact with the media, committees have a wider range of choices than ever before, and this means we need to give more thought to what we really want to achieve and target resources effectively.

86. Effective communication is essential in order to get the evidence we need. Different inquiries need to engage different audiences: some inquiries will be of interest primarily to specialists and experts in the field; some need to draw on the experience of people who are not easily reached through the mainstream news media. To access new audiences, we need to exploit new media as well as traditional mainstream news. Social media may have a role here, as well as in increasing our direct impact amongst more 'niche' stakeholder groups. Where committees have used the Parliament website to hold e-forums, success has been varied; some have found it more productive to work with third party hosts with established communities (as in the Education Committee's successful partnership with the website Student Room[93]). Committees — particularly through individual Members — are making increasing use of social media to engage interest in their work and to encourage people to give evidence (as in the Education Committee's #askGove session[94]). Broadcast media can be useful in engaging a wider audience: committees have regularly worked with Radio 4's You and Yours, for example, providing committee content with chair interviews and phone-ins. Where appropriate, launch events can be helpful to attract more attention for a report.

87. Once a report is agreed, it is important that it is communicated to its target audience, but committees do not always stop to think clearly about who that is or why — or what specific objective the media coverage should help to achieve. The Committee Office's small team of media officers works hard to secure coverage through print, broadcast and online media, including both mainstream and specialist publications (and it is important to remember that traditional media outlets still deliver the largest audiences). The committee heard evidence which suggested that in some areas, coverage may be reaching saturation point — on Radio 4's Today, for example — particularly at certain times of year. Committees need to work harder to avoid clashes, and to exploit slower news periods: in recent years, 20 to 50 reports have been published during the summer recess, and this has consistently worked well. Some issues will resonate with a wider audience in local and regional media, improving public understanding of committee work as something which has direct relevance and impact outside the 'Westminster bubble': some chairs have used the BBC's General News Service — where large numbers of interviews are organised back-to-back with local radio around the country — with great success. Much committee work is faithfully covered by specialist trade press; however, in some areas such as science and law, specialist bloggers are increasingly influential, providing authoritative reporting, comment and analysis comparable to — and often of higher quality than — traditional specialist media. More could be done to engage their interest in committee work.

88. Media interest is not limited to the publication of reports. An evidence session — or a visit — can be used for the basis of a story, and to attract interest in the committee's inquiry. And committee chairs are acquiring a growing personal profile, which can be maintained by, for example, releasing comments in response to events, or securing spots for planned articles.

89. The parliamentary website is a crucial communications tool for committees and we would like to see committee teams putting more effort into exploiting it. The evidence we received from Parliament's Web and Internet Service pointed to a number of areas where more could be done.[95] While we recognise the need for committee webpages to conform to some common standards, we believe there is scope for adapting them more to the needs of particular committees and their different audiences. All committee pages would benefit from richer audio-visual content: not just better photos and embedded evidence sessions, but, for example, chair interviews on current issues, calls for evidence, short films about aspects of an inquiry, and report launches. And this content needs to be readily 'pushed' to other sites, as well as attracting traffic to committee pages.

90. The discussion we had with members of the Parliamentary Lobby gave us a better understanding of the time pressures under which journalists and broadcasters operate, and the huge amount of material which they have to sift. Committees are more likely to be covered if they help by providing advance warning, giving pointers to newsworthy evidence, and avoid taking evidence at the same time as Statements in the House. The bunching of committees meeting on Tuesday morning inevitably limits their chances of coverage.

91. It was suggested in our inquiry that the House could usefully increase journalists' understanding of Parliament by providing training (perhaps by providing input into National Council for the Training of Journalists courses for graduate trainees). An important aspect is to make sure that they are able to distinguish between Select committees, appointed by the House to examine matters impartially, and All Party Parliamentary Groups, which — though they may support worthy causes — are essentially campaigning groups of Members who have joined the group to pursue a shared objective or area of interest. Now that select committees are elected by the House and taking a higher profile, we urge editors and broadcasters to introduce reports of parliamentary committees in such a way as to indicate their official status, with words such as "the House of Commons Education Committee" or "the Parliamentary Education Committee", rather than somewhat absurdly saying a report has been produced by "a group of MPs" (which the broadcasters seem to use regularly) suggesting that such a group is self-selecting at random and has no official status (rather like referring to the BBC as "a group of broadcasters").

92. The support of professional media officers has been crucial in increasing committees' media profile, and we argue in chapter 6 below for a modest increase in their number. We also welcome efforts being made to increase the media awareness of other committee staff through a programme of talks by Lobby representatives, visits to the broadcasting studios in 4 Millbank, and attachments to work alongside the media officers.

93. One factor which reduces the chances of media coverage is the fact that many committees choose to meet on a Tuesday morning. This puts considerable pressure on facilities, and increases the competition for rooms with full broadcasting capability. It remains to be seen whether the change in Tuesday sitting hours, which came into effect in October, has an impact on committees' choice of sitting times.

Professional development

94. The most important resource available to committees are the skills of their members. Witnesses to our inquiry argued that the House of Commons should put more effort into the induction and continuing professional development of committee members — committee chairs included. Evidence pointed particularly to the need to develop Members' questioning skills.

95. There seems to be a growing acceptance among Members that they need training or professional development, just like other professionals. However, there was poor take-up of training offered to new Members at the beginning of the Parliament, and designing training in a form that is attractive to busy Members is difficult. And there is a risk that those most in need of training do not seek it.

96. New members of committees are given a small induction pack with background information about the committee's work and subject area and a short Guide for Select Committee Members, setting out, among other things, the requirement to maintain the confidentiality of committee proceedings, the rules on the declaration of interests and a warning about the risk of removal of those attending fewer than 60% of meetings. But new committee members — and particularly those joining later in the Parliament — are largely left to pick up from the Chair or from other Members what are the expectations upon them, in terms of attendance and committee etiquette. We recommend that the introductory briefings offered to new committee members be given more formality, and include a meeting with the chair or another experienced committee member. When there is significant turnover following a reshuffle, for example, a programme of collective briefings for new committee members should be arranged.

97. Committees frequently have factual briefings or seminars on matters in their subject area, sometimes with their own advisers or committee staff, sometimes with external experts or bodies such as the National Audit Office. Occasionally they have awaydays to look more broadly at their method of operation. A few committees — for example, the Environmental Audit Committee[96] — have made specific use of trainers to help them develop their questioning or media-handling skills. We understand that the National Assembly for Wales and the Scottish Parliament have made rather more systematic use of trainers, in particular bringing in a senior Scottish advocate to facilitate training for committees. Most committee evidence sessions do not require forensic questioning techniques, but asking questions succinctly and clearly, and in a manner which does not discourage the witnesses, is an essential skill, and most of us would benefit from occasional expert feedback on how we go about it. We are assured that funding will be made available for such training at Westminster if there is demand for it. We recommend that committees consider the benefits of using professional trainers to help them refresh and develop their questioning skills.

98. New chairs should also be offered training in chairmanship and media-handling skills, and mentoring by an experienced chair. Experienced Members of Parliament may feel that they have acquired these skills already, but there is always scope for improvement and it is good to show other members that even chairs recognise the importance of continuous development. Established chairs too may benefit from refresher training.

99. At present there is no clear statement of what the role of the committee chair involves. We note that the National Assembly for Wales has adopted a "job description" for chairs (which we reproduce in Annex B), and the Scottish Parliament has guidance for committee conveners which performs a similar function.[97] We do not wish to go so far as to prescribe a generic job description for chairs, as each committee is different, but we set out in Table 4 below some broad expectations as a guide to chairs, and to prospective chairs, and for the information of others.

Committee chairs are expected to —
  • Encourage the committee to adopt a consensual and cross-party approach and to engage actively in its work
  • Encourage the committee to develop a clear understanding of its objectives and shared expectations of behaviour
  • Acquire and maintain a strong knowledge of the committee's subject area, in order to operate effectively in committee and in the media
  • Influence the committee in its decision-making, ensuring that it follows the rules and practices agreed by the House, works within its order of reference, and is mindful of the core tasks
  • Give strategic direction to the clerk in the management of the committee programme and the staff team, ensuring that the committee is appropriately resourced and supported
  • Act impartially in the chair, treating members of the committee with equal respect, ensuring that all have a fair opportunity to express their views and question witnesses
  • Enhance the reputation of the House of Commons by ensuring that committees treat witnesses, members of the public and staff with respect and courtesy
  • Act as an ambassador for the committee, accessible to ministers, overseas visitors, stakeholder bodies and the media
  • Show commitment to professional development, continuously developing chairmanship, questioning, speaking and media skills
  • Take interest in the welfare and development of the committee staff team and assist with the recruitment and appraisal of staff and advisers

100. We recommend that chairs discuss with their committee how they see their role, and seek their endorsement for it. At this stage in the Parliament, there may be benefit in chairs asking their committees for individual feedback on their chairmanship, as an aid to the chair's professional development and to encourage committee engagement.

Committee behaviour

101. A sensitive area raised during our inquiry is the impact of the behaviour of some committee members on the overall reputation of select committees. Several witnesses pointed out what a bad impression it gives to witnesses and the public when committee members do not stay the course for evidence sessions or appear to be more interested in their correspondence than the evidence.[98]

102. An area of particular importance — and one in which committees have occasionally been criticised — is the treatment of witnesses. The great majority of witnesses are very willing participants, eager to get their views across to the committee; but the media focus is on the minority of cases where the witness may be given a hard time by the committee. It can be legitimate and necessary for committees to subject witnesses to tough questioning (and the public expects us to do so); but they should always be treated with respect and courtesy, and given a fair hearing — and it damages the reputation of select committees when they are not. Members of Parliament are used to an environment in which we are quite rude to each other without taking personal offence; witnesses may not be. It was clear from our meeting at the Institute for Government that some civil servants have felt unfairly treated by select committees, unable to defend themselves because of the confidentiality of advice to Ministers. The result is defensiveness and non-cooperation, so — from the Committee's perspective — it is counterproductive.

103. It is inevitable, and right, that committees will from time to time wish to criticise individuals or to highlight others' criticism of them. These criticisms should be based on evidence and the individuals should be made aware of them prior to publication. In exceptional circumstances the committee may feel it appropriate to seek further comment from the individual concerned.

104. The core tasks set out what committees should do; they do not give committees any guidance on how they should go about their work. Some of our practices — our formal procedures — are determined by the rules of the House, as set out in the Standing Orders, or by its established custom and practice. In other respects, an understanding of best practice has been established over the years, with this Committee playing an important role in allowing chairs to share experience and agree common approaches. In some areas, this Committee has agreed written guidance (notably, our guidelines on overseas travel and our guidance on pre-appointment hearings); in others it is left to committee clerks to share best practice and recommend it to their committees. While committees need to maintain their freedom to respond to their particular circumstances, we believe there is a case for setting some principles of good practice. It is our intention to prepare a set of guidelines for this purpose.

75   BIS, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Health, Home Affairs, PASC and Treasury. Back

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

77   Ibid, p 8. Back

78   Ibid, para 8. Back

79   Parliamentary Affairs, Vol 64 No. 2, 2011, p 363; Ev 11, para 5. Back

80   Ev 11, paras 6-7 Back

81   Ev w 76 Back

82   Ibid. Back

83   Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, Financial Scrutiny: Parliamentary Control over Government Budgets, HC 804, para 81. Back

84   Ev 11, para 8 Back

85   Ev w49 Back

86   Ev w41 Back

87   Selective Influence, p 94. Back

88   Selective Influence, p 25. Back

89   Ev 12, para 17 Back

90   Ev 11, para 10 Back

91 Back

92   Ev w68 Back

93   See paragraph 58 above. Back

94   Ibid. Back

95   Ev w62-63 Back

96   Ev w21 Back

97 Back

98   Eg Q 20 Back

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Prepared 8 November 2012