2 The Prime Minister's oral evidence
to the Liaison Committee |
6. The Liaison Committee's own contribution to holding
the Government to account has been the regular oral evidence sessions
with the Prime Minister. A number of changes have made these more
· Three meetings a year for 90 minutes each
(instead of two for two and a half hours).
· Focusing on only two subjects for each
meeting and concentrating on areas where the Prime Minister makes
a difference within government.
· Limiting the number of Members taking
part at each meeting to about eight to 12 the normal size
of a select committee oral evidence sessioninstead of the
full committee of 30+.
· Extending the Committee's reach by also
taking oral evidence on one occasion from the Deputy Prime Minister.
7. These meetings have provided a deeper analysis
of the Prime Minister's role and leadership than is possible on
the floor of the House itself. Chairs of select committees have
been able to follow-up issues raised in their reports when closer
co-ordination across Whitehall is desirable or where individual
departments have been slow to respond to committee recommendations.
We have also been able to explore areas where it is apparent that
the Prime Minister or his officials are influencing or circumscribing
the policies or initiatives of departmental ministers.
8. A recent study by the Hansard Society,
commenting on PM's questions in the House, drew up a schematic
of the words most used by the public in relation to his evidence
to the Liaison Committee:
9. An indication of the impact of these regular evidence
sessions with the Prime Minister can be drawn from his closing
remarks at the meeting on Tuesday 24 February 2015:
Q75 Chair: Thank you very
much, Prime Minister. Somebody else will occupy this chair [at
the next meeting], and they will be questioning whoever is occupying
your chair, after the general election.
Mr Cameron: I hope
to be back, as they say, but I have enjoyed these sessions. They
give me the chance to try to explain more about what the Government
are doing across a broader basis. I hope you have found the way
we have moved to having specific sessions helpful. In terms of
accountability, which that also brings about because I have to
check all that is happening in those specific areas, it is actually
a force for good in government as well.
Chair: And thank you for
the follow-up letters, in which we get all the details.
10. To assist the Liaison Committee in future we
suggest its quorum for oral evidence sessions be reduced to six
and the power of the Committee to take evidence from the Deputy
Prime Minister (where he or she is exercising a cross-governmental
role) be confirmed.
11. We recommend that SO No. 145
(Liaison Committee) be amended by inserting in para (2) after
'Prime Minister', 'and from the Deputy Prime Minister' and in
para (10) to reduce the quorum for oral evidence sessions to six.
Liaison Committee as guarantor
12. Less visibly, the Liaison Committee plays a fundamental
role as the protector of the House's backbench and committee scrutiny
of the Government. On occasions when individual committees have
difficultyperhaps in securing the attendance of witnesses
or in getting a timely reply from a government departmentthe
collective support of the Liaison Committee can reinforce the
rights of individual committees to carry out their scrutiny function.
13. In this context, we have had exchanges with the
Cabinet Office about the rules which are applied to civil servants
giving evidence to committeesknown as the Osmotherly rules.
In our November 2012 report we said:
The old doctrine of ministerial accountability
(by which ministers alone are accountable to Parliament for the
conduct of their department) is being stretched to implausibility
by the complexity of modern government and by the increasing devolution
of responsibility to civil servants and to arm's length bodies.
It is important that Parliament should be able to hold to account
those who are in reality responsible. However, we accept that
it may not always be possible to distinguish clearly between responsibility
for policy making and responsibility for delivery. These are not
simple matters. 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
115. 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.
14. After a long delay the Cabinet Office eventually
produced (in October 2014) a revised version of the Osmotherly
rules with little radical change. The most significant developments
are to make the Senior Responsible Owners (SROs) of major projects
directly accountable to the relevant departmental committee and
for former Accounting Officers to appear before the Committee
of Public Accounts.
15. It remains our approach that it is not for the
Liaison Committee or the House to endorse Whitehall's own rules
about giving evidence to Parliament. These are the Government's
rulesnot Parliament's rulesand Parliament reserves
the right to depart from them when necessary.
16. Our overall impression is that
government departments are taking committees seriously and engaging
positively with them. While there have been occasions of late
replies to reports and disagreements about witnesses and evidence,
most relationships between select committees and departments appear
to be constructive.
4 The subjects on which the Prime Minister has been
questioned over this Parliament are set out in Annex A Back
Hansard Society, Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister's Questions,
p 35 Back
Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers,
HC 697 Back