Liaison Committee - Select committee effectiveness, resources and powersWritten evidence by Professor Matthew Flinders, Professor of Parliamentary Government & Governance, Department of Politics, The University of Sheffield

1. In recent years the balance of power between the executive and legislature has undoubtedly shifted in favour of the latter. Although this shift should not be over-stated, there is no doubt that select committees provide the most efficient and far-reaching form of parliamentary scrutiny. Moreover the new procedure for electing select committee chairs has further enhanced the reputation of the system and has arguably contributed to an increase in effectiveness.

2. Select committees have arguably become a victim of their own success because the increases in their roles and powers have not been matched by an increase in available resources (financial, personnel, expertise, time, etc). It is therefore possible to identify the emergence of an “expectations gap” between what is demanded from select committees and what can realistically be delivered by the committees.

3. The core tasks sketch out the broader “expectations landscape” of what an active select committee might usefully focus on. Moreover, the great benefit of the core tasks, and the annual reporting system, is that it injects a degree of consistency into the scrutiny system. This in, in turn, allows certain common themes, issues or challenges to be identified by the Liaison Committee in its annual report on the select committee system.

4. It is, however, important to understand that the core tasks provide an advisory set of functions and select committees can approach these tasks in a flexible manner. This may include establishing sub-committees, joint committees or simply choosing to undertake each task at regular intervals but not on an annual basis.

5. The issue of resources is a perennial theme within the Palace of Westminster when it comes to the effectiveness of select committees. To some extent it is true that the main resource that select committees really need—MPs’ time and attention—cannot be increased due to the pressures that members of the House already work under. However, there is a case for building upon earlier reforms by developing the capacity of the Scrutiny Unit to support select committees on an ad hoc basis and possibly even increasing the additional salary that is paid to select committee chairmen.

6. The Scrutiny Unit has been a great success since its creation in November 2002 but with only 15 staff its capacity to support 19 departmentally related select committees across all the areas outlined in the core tasks is obviously limited. It is for exactly this reason that the Scrutiny Unit has evolved more towards supporting select committees in relation to work of a legislative or financial nature.

7. The introduction of an additional salary for select committee chairmen in 2003 was intended to (1) establish an alternative career structure to that of ministerial office, and (2) reward MPs who took on the duties of chairing a committee for their endeavours. The initial additional salary was set at £12,500 and is currently set at £14,582 but this level of remuneration is far below that originally recommended by expert committees at the time. There is no definite link between pay and performance but I do think there is still an issue about creating a real alternative career structure to ministerial office (and that this issue will increase in importance after the number of MPs is reduced to 600).

8. Although the level of training and support that is given to new MPs has improved significantly in recent years there is still much to be done in terms of introducing new members to the procedures, institutions and culture of the Palace of Westminster. There might also be more thought given to the continuing professional support offered to MPs, especially as they are expected to bring intellectual rigour to their work, rather than just fulfil a representative role.

9. The issue of training and support flows into the issue of how select committees engage with the media. Put very simply, much of the work done by select committees is not attractive to the media but this remains a problem of presentation rather than content. Select committee reports continue to the published in a form that is almost guaranteed to put-off almost every potential reader; whereas select committee members are frequently unable to provide succinct and usable interview clips that explain to the general public why the work undertaken by the committee actually matters.

10. If select committees want to get the public engaged in what they are doing then they need to get out of the Palace of Westminster and in amongst the public more often. This is a critical issue. The public do not “hate” politics or politicians but they no longer understand who makes decisions on their behalf or why politicians sometimes make decisions that are hard to understand. In this regard select committees have a critical dual-role to fulfil in the 21st century: first, to undertake inquiries that explore urgent or important issues and hold the executive to account; and (secondly) to play a broader role in promoting public understanding of politics and increasing political literacy. These are not separate roles but are two sides of the same coin but they will only be achieved if select committee adopt more flexible and mobile working practices.

11. The effectiveness of the select committee system is dependent upon a range of issues and relationships. It is neither possible nor necessary to examine all of these issues in any depth but there are three broader issues that need to raised in light of this committee’s inquiry into the effectiveness of select committees.

12. The first issue relates to the size of the ministerial payroll. The effectiveness of any select committee is heavily related to the calibre of individuals serving on that committee. The simple fact is that successive governments have used ministerial-patronage as a way of undermining the capacity of select committees. The extent of this patronage has swelled in recent years with the introduction of large numbers of PPS positions. The challenge for the future is that if the overall size of the House of Commons shrinks but the size of the executive’s ranks stays the same then the balance of power will tip back towards the executive.

13. The second issue relates to the multiple demands that are placed on MPs (and focuses attention back on the “expectations gap” that was mentioned above). MPs have three main roles: a scrutiny role where his or her loyalty is (theoretically) to Parliament; a legislative role where his or her loyalty is (theoretically) to their party; and a constituency role where his or her loyalty is (theoretically) to their constituents. The simple fact is that these roles—and the demands that come with them—often clash and, as a result, the life of an MP is rarely an easy one. My aim in emphasising the existence of multiple and often invidious loyalties is that the current proposal to introduce an “MP recall” system risks injecting an incredibly problematic and unpredictable dimension in to parliamentary life. The 10% of constituents that would be required to trigger a by-election would very quickly become the focus of single-interest groups and tabloid newspapers and could well ensure that MPs dedicated the vast majority of their time and energy to visible constituency work rather than less visible but arguably more important work on the committee corridor.

14. Finally—and I almost feel as if I should whisper as I write this—the bigger and broader question that has very real and direct implications for the effectiveness and future of select committees is MPs’ pay. This is the elephant in the room that nobody dares to talk about for fear of being demonised by the media. Maybe I can be the first to raise my head above the parapet and dare to suggest that MPs should be paid more. This is not an issue of “snouts in the trough” or “21st century sleaze” but it is a simple reflection of the fact that MPs pay has not increased with the demands of the job. For a long time this mismatch was artificially veiled by the existence of a generous allowances and expenses system but the pathological implications of not being brave enough about tackling the issue of MPs pay head-on brought Parliament to its knees in the Summer of 2009.

15. This is not the place for detailed discussion about the politics of MPs pay but I have no doubt that if we want to (1) increase public respect for politicians, (2) increase the effectiveness and vitality of select committees and (3) if we want to recruit the very best individuals from all walks of life into politics then we will at some point need to be rather braver about the issue of MPs pay.

1 February 2012

Prepared 7th November 2012