Legacy Report - Liaison Contents

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 effective:

·  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.[4]

·  Limiting the number of Members taking part at each meeting to about eight to 12 —the normal size of a select committee oral evidence session—instead 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,[5] 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 difficulty—perhaps in securing the attendance of witnesses or in getting a timely reply from a government department—the 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 committees—known 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 actually lies.

    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.[6]

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 rules—not Parliament's rules—and 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

5   Hansard Society, Tuned in or Turned off? Public attitudes to Prime Minister's Questions, p 35 Back

6   Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers, HC 697 Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015