Liaison Committee - Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers Written evidence from the Better Government Initiative

Much of English political history has been about parliament winning control over taxation and public expenditure. Yet it is common to hear disappointed reactions to parliament`s use of its powers and the contribution to it made by departmental select committees (SCs).

This note contains some suggestions from the Better Government Initiative (BGI) which are designed to strengthen the contribution of the departmental SCs. The BGI`s 2010 report Good Government made wider recommendations about SCs (eg on enhancing their ability to present reports to the House and to propose substantive motions when they do so; and raising pay of the chairs), but this note deals with two specific issues relating to the quality and delivery of public services.

Clarifying the Core Tasks and Making Them More Specific

The 10 core tasks currently assigned to SCs were set out in 2002. This note is concerned with the matters covered by tasks 5–7, ie

“the expenditure… and the administration of the department”,

These include examining

expenditure plans and outturn of the department, its agencies and principal NDPBs;

the department`s Public Service Agreements, the associated targets and statistical measurements employed; and

monitoring the work of …Agencies, NDPBs, and regulators.

In addition Tasks 1–2 mention the department`s “policy proposals” and “emerging policy”, Task 4 mentions “any specific output”, and Task 9 mentions “implementation …of major policy initiatives”.

In our view these tasks give the SCs very extensive scope to enquire into the work of Departments but a decade on they are both out of date; for example, public service agreements (Task 6) are no longer in force; and they are expressed abstractly without a clear sense of underlying purpose. In our view it would be timely to revise the core tasks and express them more directly in terms of the public services to which they relate.1 The serious aim of this revision would be to help convey that the work of the SCs is for the most part not about “bean counting” or the micro management of Departments but about holding Ministers and Officials accountable for the public services, in the broadest sense, experienced by households and by enterprises, nearly all funded by taxes or user charges.

Each SC should, as now, be able to cover the whole range of services delivered by the department itself, any agencies and NDPBs (non-departmental public bodies), its regulators and any other associated public bodies.

Within this broad field, we suggest the main focus could be briefly defined on the lines of:

(a)public service output and outcomes;

(b)the expenditure used to achieve those outputs and outcomes; and

(c)the relation over time between a. and b. , and hence value for money (vfm).

These topics will always be of great importance for people`s lives, the economy, and politics. But they are particularly so in a lengthy period of deficit reduction. The SCs can aim to illuminate the implications of changing expenditure levels and priorities for:

(a)the quantity and quality of public service outputs;

(b)the identification of gains in efficiency, whether by changing the method of delivery or by other means, with most scope for reducing the impact on service users; and

(c)the distributional effects of the choices made.

From this concern with the outcome of spending and investment decisions SCs would be able to examine:

how performance in practice relates to stated policy objectives and operational plans;

the choices made in the use of available funding;

the evidence relied on for current monitoring of performance and value for money; and

make recommendations for longer term decisions about changing programmes; and adopting new methods of delivery, new investments and the use of both regulation and deregulation.

By using such information from departments SCs can help to raise the profile of these highly topical questions and to hold the executive to account for the quality and rigour of its work on them.

SCs could do this under the existing Core Tasks. But our impression is that, with a few exceptions, they have not done so in the last two years. We believe that clarifying the tasks by making them simpler, more vivid, and more specific in the ways we have suggested should help to enhance SCs` performance.

The chances of success would be increased if proposals by the Hansard Society—that SCs should publish strategic plans for their work, consult about them and report more fully on their achievements—were simultaneously put into effect.2

They might also consider the working and possible extension of agreements made between spending departments and the Treasury which act as incentives to effective use of tax-payers` money (commonly described as “earned autonomy”).

The Role of Permanent Secretaries and other accounting officers in explaining departmental spending decisions; programme and project management

Traditionally Permanent Secretaries and other Accounting Officers have seen their principal relationship with Parliament as lying with the Public Accounts Committee. Their responsibilities, however, go well beyond issues of regularity and propriety. Accounting Officers, notably Permanent Secretaries, have personal responsibility for:

“selection and appraisal of programmes and projects: using the Treasury`s Green Book to evaluate alternatives and good quality project and programme techniques…to track and where necessary adjust progress…”3

We suggest that departmental SCs 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 approaches4 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 like the use of the Treasury Green or Magenta Books.

The NAO and PAC would continue their usual work, concentrating on past performance.

We believe that one benefit of this would be a cultural change in departments leading to greater attention being given to the quality of project and option appraisal both by those undertaking them and by Permanent Secretaries who would take a greater interest in ensuring that their department had the necessary processes and the skills in place. They would be likely to do this, if they anticipated a tougher challenge from SCs and expected to face this challenge themselves. These changes would also be likely to improve the quality of information in the public domain.

It would be consistent with these suggestions for the SC to be able to go beyond, throwing light on the specific expenditure decisions and having the ability in a few cases to make a report recommending that the relevant Request for Resources should be reduced or perhaps even rejected.


We invite the Liaison Committee to consider our suggestions for:

(a)clarifying and making more specific the core tasks of departmental SCs on 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;


(b)encouraging departmental SCs to rely more on evidence from permanent secretaries and other accounting officers, who are personally responsible for the appraisal of programmes and projects; and to seek information about departures from established practices for example in the making of investment decisions.

27 June 2012

1 Public services would include all departments` spending, including, for example defence, the FCO, the arts, and in the case of the DWP the transfers it distributes in the form of cash benefits. It could also include the public costs and benefits of regulatory activity

2 “Reviewing Select Committee Tasks”, Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox, Parliamentary Affairs Vol 64 No 2, 2011 pp354-369

3 Managing Public Money para 3.3.3

4 These should include legislation, regulation and expenditure. In principle they should also include so called “tax expenditures” but they raise different accountability issues with respect to the Treasury.

Prepared 7th November 2012