Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents

6  Select committee resources and staffing

116. Committees' effectiveness depends on the support which they receive from their small team of staff and specialist advisers, the Committee Office Scrutiny Unit and other staff within the House Service, and external sources of advice. While committees greatly value the service they receive, there has been concern among some chairs about turnover of staff in the Committee Office, the balance between generalists and specialists among committee staff, and the flexibility of the House Service to respond to the changing requirements of committee members. We have also been concerned to ensure that the current programme of cuts to the overall budget of the House of Commons should not damage our capacity to carry out effective scrutiny.

117. In 2011 we established a working group to consider staffing and resources for committees. The working group began by issuing a questionnaire to chairs and committee staff. It then commissioned a paper on what the needs of committees might be in 2015 and 2020. The next stage was to look at those needs in terms of inputs, outputs and outcomes. A digest of this work is published on the internet with our written evidence.[118]

118. One clear message from this work is that chairs of committees are under considerable pressure to attend events, make speeches and respond to media inquiries above and beyond what used to be expected of a committee chairs. This means that a higher proportion of a chair's time is spent on work related to the committee, compared with other parliamentary and constituency duties. In many cases part of this extra work is borne by the Member's personal staff.

119. Looking ahead, we need to plan for greater support for committee chairs. We envisage that this may take different forms according to particular needs:

  • In the longer term we would like to see funding for an additional member of staff in a chair's office to handle the extra committee commitments. Chairs would need to demonstrate a business need and demonstrate that the money was spent for the purpose intended. A possible approach would be for the Commission to allocate a sum for this purpose to our Committee and for us to delegate to our Chair the responsibility for assessing bids and allocating the funding, as he already does with select committee travel.
  • As an alternative, some chairs might prefer more direct support from their committee team, particularly in speech-writing and diary management. There has already been an experiment with one person from the committee staff working in the Chair of the Transport Committee's office some time each week.
  • There would be considerable advantages in efficiency and coordination if chairs of committees could co-locate their own office and that of their Commons staff with the staff of their committee.
  • Such co-located offices should also have the facility for hosting meetings with advisers and stakeholders, or have access to other private rooms for such meetings.
  • Media coverage of committees would also be improved if chairs could have access to reliable technology (such as ISDN lines in constituencies) to allow for reliable quality broadcasts when away from Westminster.

120. A second important area is media support for chairs and committees. Some chairs are completely content with the current level of support from media officers; others would like to see more support. There is also a view that committee staffs should be more media-aware and more directly involved in media and communications work. The media officers have recently suggested new approaches to how committees work with the media, which should help to deliver more results. While the ideal position would be for each committee to have a dedicated media officer, we accept that this is not realistic in the current climate. However, a small increase in funding would help considerably to spread the media officers' time less thinly. We would also like to see the recruitment of a multimedia journalist to the team to drive improvement in the content of websites. We recommend that the funding of the Committee Office Media and Communications team be increased to allow the employment of one or two additional media officers.

121. The working group has not received evidence that the overall level of current staff resources is insufficient, but there is considerable concern that cost pressures will lead to a reduction in the current level of staff, and chairs have expressed concern about the turnover of staff and the consequent lack of stability in committee teams. In some cases, individual committees have had several change of committee clerk in recent years. In others, virtually all members of the staff team have changed within one year. The Clerk of Committees has told us:

Staff are not moved to and from committees at whim. The major drivers of moves are promotion, secondment or loan to another post and maternity leave. I cannot prevent people taking the steps which lead to these moves; I can only try to fill the ensuing vacancies.[119]

Additional work arising from such additional committees as the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards could have the effect of reducing availability for existing committees. We do not regard this as acceptable. Any substantial extra committee work, beyond the normal work of existing committees including joint committees, which is undertaken at the initiative of Government should be fully funded by a transfer from the Treasury to the House of Commons.

122. We would like to see fewer changes in committee staff teams during a Parliament. We are concerned about recruitment and retention of staff, particularly at the level of second clerk (A2). Five committees have lost their second clerk in the last few months without a full replacement. The House of Commons Commission should be willing to consider reward arrangements and tackle anomalies in the pay policy. We recommend that committee clerks, and in some cases other key staff, should normally remain in post for at least four years.

123. At the outset, we questioned whether all committee clerks should be generalists with procedural experience. Some chairs felt there was little need for procedural experience and others attached importance to specialist knowledge of the subject area. In his memorandum to the working group, the Clerk of Committees explained the career background of the pool of committee clerks and second clerks.[120] We note that in the past few months a Library scientific specialist has become Clerk of the Science and Technology Committee. We welcome the greater flexibility being applied in appointing committee clerks and trust that it will continue.

124. There is an argument for going further and opening selection of specific committee clerk posts to external competition. This would have the benefit of bringing in new talent, potentially people with in-depth subject knowledge and wider experience. It would also test the calibre of career clerks against the market. It has been put to us that there are some risks in this approach: a committee clerk who did not fully understand the requirements of the House might require a high level of initial support, and it might have an impact on the morale and retention of career clerks. A change to specialist committee clerks would reduce the House Service's traditional flexibility to move staff from one job to another, and between committees and Chamber services, to meet the changing demands of the House, and might therefore increase the staffing requirement. None of these risks seem to us to preclude the use of external competition for some committee clerk positions.

125. We would also like to see greater flexibility in bringing in outside experts to support committees. We welcome the initiatives by the Treasury Committee, for example, to recruit specialists on secondment from other bodies. We believe that this success can be built on, provided sufficient attention is paid to transparency and conflicts of interest. The Scrutiny Unit is ready to assist committees in identifying, recruiting and securing relevant expertise. It is clearly in the interests of committees to draw on staff support from as wide a field as possible. We do not go as far as calling for a separate Committee Service, but we think that it would be worth testing the benefits of open competition of a high profile committee clerk on an experimental basis. We recommend that, if a committee wishes this and the Liaison Committee agrees, it should be possible to recruit a committee clerk directly to post by open competition, and that there should be greater flexibility in bringing in outside experts to support committees in their work.

126. At the same time, we would welcome closer working between the House of Commons Library and committee staffs. There is great value in the separate service that the Library gives to Members of Parliament individually, but there is a case for managing the careers of specialists in the Library and the Committee Office in a more joined-up way, to improve retention and career progression, and to ensure that Committees benefit from the best specialist advice that the House Service can offer.

127. The House of Commons Commission has undertaken that scrutiny of Government will not be affected by the current savings programme. We accept that committees will need to show that their resources are being used efficiently. We have supported initiatives to make evidence more readily available on the internet and for greater electronic working within committees. Technology obviously gives select committees the opportunity to examine how they work and apply resources as well as possible in support of effective scrutiny.

128. We understand that the Committee Office will be going through a change programme following a review under the auspices of the savings programme. The objectives of this programme include:

  • Making oral and written evidence to committees more readily accessible to the public — so it is can be read more quickly and more clearly
  • Providing committee members with easier access to committee documents — so they can be read anytime, anywhere
  • Making better use of staff resources — by reducing current effort on preparation for printing
  • Using IT more effectively
  • And through these actions, reducing costs and using resources more effectively.

We welcome this programme as an opportunity to improve and modernise the service the Committee Office gives to committees and to the public. It is important that it should be shaped not just by the need to produce savings but by the longer-term goal of increasing committee effectiveness. Now may not be the best time to argue for increased resources, but it should be the long term goal of the House to build up the capacity of select committees, to improve their effectiveness and status, to increase their powers and influence, and to improve their efficiency by providing chairs and staffs with accommodation and infrastructure to enable them to hold Government to account.

118   Ev w 85-110 Back

119   Ev w92, para 9 Back

120   Ev w91, para 3 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 8 November 2012