Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers - Liaison Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations


1.  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. (Paragraph 12)

2.  While committees' primary purpose is to scrutinise Government, it is sometimes in the public interest for them to extend their scrutiny to other organisations. (Paragraph 13)

3.  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. (Paragraph 14)

4.  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. (Paragraph 16)

5.  Activity of itself is not a measure of effectiveness, and different subject areas require different levels, and different forms, of scrutiny; but the overall high level of committee activity this Parliament is a positive indicator of the commitment made by committees to the tasks they have been set by the House of Commons. (Paragraph 21)

6.  We believe that the value of these debates would be greatly enhanced if they were considered on a substantive motion. We note that this is possible under the Standing Orders — substantive motions have recently been used for debates on e-petitions in Westminster Hall — though any division would need to be taken on the floor of the House. Where the committee concerned thinks this is appropriate, and subject to the agreement of the Chairman of Ways and Means, we intend to use this approach in future. (Paragraph 48)

7.  We will continue to give priority for Estimates Day debates to committee reports which focus on departmental expenditure and performance. (Paragraph 51)

8.  The consensus of those who gave us evidence is that committees are successful in influencing Government. (Paragraph 61)

9.  While we welcome the wide consensus that select committees have a significant, positive impact, we take very seriously the critical feedback received. (Paragraph 63)

10.  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. (Paragraph 64)

11.  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. (Paragraph 70)

12.  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. (Paragraph 85)

13.  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. (Paragraph 104)

14.  If a government response is inadequate, a committee can and should draw attention to this when it reports and publishes the response. (Paragraph 108)

15.  We stand ready to work with the Cabinet Office on new guidelines for departments on producing government responses to reports. (Paragraph 109)

16.  We do not accept that the Osmotherly rules should have any bearing on whom a select committee should choose to summon as a witness. The Osmotherly rules are merely internal for Government. They have never been accepted by Parliament. Where the inquiry relates to departmental delivery rather than ministerial decision-making, it is vital that committees should be able to question the responsible official directly — even if they have moved on to another job. It does of course remain the case that an official can decline to answer for matters of policy, on the basis that it is for the minister to answer for the policy, but officials owe a direct obligation to Parliament to report on matters of fact and implementation. This does not alter the doctrine of ministerial accountability in any way. Ministers should never require an official to withhold information from a select committee. It cannot be a breach of the principle of ministerial responsibility for an official to give a truthful answer to a select committee question. No official should seek to protect his or her minister by refusing to do so. (Paragraph 113)

17.  The way ministerial accountability operates has on occasion been unacceptable, with ministers blaming officials for failures in their departments or in agencies for which they are responsible, but also with officials then refusing to answer questions which would indicate where responsibility for failure actually lies. (Paragraph 114)

18.  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. (Paragraph 121)

19.  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. (Paragraph 128)

20.  We are persuaded that the disadvantages of enshrining parliamentary privilege in statute would outweigh the benefits. (Paragraph 133)

21.  We conclude that, at the very least Parliament should set out a clear, and realistic, statement of its powers — and perhaps also its responsibilities — in a resolution of the House and set out in more detail in Standing Orders how those powers are to be exercised. (Paragraph 134)


For Committees

22.  Our Committee has asked the Procedure Committee to consider whether members wishing to leave a committee could be counted as discharged, even if it means that the lack of an applicant leaves a vacancy on the committee. We reiterate the concern we expressed in the last Parliament about the size of select committees and support the Wright Committee's recommendation that the size of departmental committees should not normally be more than 11 members. (Paragraph 29)

23.  We encourage other committees to make use of the support of the Scrutiny Unit and to discuss with the National Audit Office how its programme of work might help support the work of the committee. (Paragraph 42)

24.  As a model of "best practice", we recommend that committees:

  • have a candid discussion amongst themselves about how they see their purpose, and what they wish to achieve over the length of the Parliament;
  • 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;
  • clearly record their conclusions and remind themselves of them when considering proposals for inquiry and programme planning;
  • 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
  • canvass opinion among the key players in their subject area about their performance. (Paragraph 65)

25.  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. (Paragraph 66)

26.  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. (Paragraph 69)

27.  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. (Paragraph 72)

28.  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. (Paragraph 73)

29.  We encourage committees to review departments' Mid-Year Reports when published, using them to identify relevant issues and questions relating to finance and performance. (Paragraph 74)

30.  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. (Paragraph 76)

31.  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. (Paragraph 77)

32.  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. (Paragraph 78)

33.  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. (Paragraph 79)

34.  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. (Paragraph 83)

35.  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. (Paragraph 84)

36.  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. (Paragraph 96)

37.  We recommend that committees consider the benefits of using professional trainers to help them refresh and develop their questioning skills. (Paragraph 97)

38.  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. (Paragraph 100)

For the House

39.  The timing rule should be relaxed to provide that a statement on a select committee report should be within a reasonable period of the publication of the report: say, within 10 sitting days (so that reports launched when the House is not sitting are not precluded). Finally, we recommend that it should be for the Speaker, in consultation with the Chair of the Liaison Committee, to decide whether a select committee report is sufficiently topical and significant to merit a statement on the floor of the House on any sitting day. It would remain the responsibility of the Backbench Business Committee to decide what select committee reports merit debate in backbench time. (Paragraph 50)

40.  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. (Paragraph 120)

41.  We recommend that committee clerks, and in some cases other key staff, should normally remain in post for at least four years. (Paragraph 122)

42.  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. (Paragraph 125)

For Government

43.  We recommend that the Government engage with us in a review of the relationship between Government and select committees with the aim of producing joint guidelines for departments and committees, which recognise ministerial accountability, the proper role of the Civil Service and the legitimate wish of Parliament for more effective accountability. (Paragraph 115)

For others

44.  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"). (Paragraph 91)

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Prepared 8 November 2012