Legacy Report - Liaison Contents

4  Making a positive impact on Whitehall

23. The best measure of a committee's effectiveness is the assessment of stakeholders and academics who follow its work and can observe how much influence committees have on the relevant government department. A bald count of recommendations accepted and rejected does not allow for the recommendations which are easy to accept or the harder ones which are rejected initially but implemented eventually. A report which reflects the evidence drawn from stakeholders may be pushing at an opening door. An inquiry which raises a neglected issue may move it up the political agenda and produce an improvement only in the long-term.

24. We list below examples which committees themselves have highlighted of where their work has made a difference in this Parliament:

·  The Education Committee's inquiry into the Government's proposals to replace GCSEs with English Baccalaureate certificates showed that there was insufficient evidence to support replacing GCSEs with an alternative qualification and that the DfE was moving too far too fast. The Secretary of State conceded the argument and announced instead his intention to concentrate on reform of the content of the exams.

·  The Justice Committee's recommendations on the Ministry of Justice's relationship with the Crown dependencies were fully and very successfully implemented; and its main recommendation on Presumption of Death was implemented in a Private Member's Bill supported by the Government.

·  The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny of the Recall of MPs Bill, and the Government's acceptance of almost every recommendation made by the Committee, resulted in a substantially improved Bill being introduced to Parliament; this demonstrated the value in improvement of the quality of legislation from publishing Bills in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny, acknowledged by the Minister for the Constitution, Sam Gyimah MP, who stated that the Committee's work had been "helpful in shaping the Bill as it now stands".[9]

·  The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's pre-legislative scrutiny of the Draft Water Bill during 2012-13 resulted, among other changes to the legislation, in provisions in the Water Act 2014 requiring the Secretary of State to report on progress on water abstraction reform within five years of the Act's commencement, and allowing companies to leave the non-household retail market.

·  The Foreign Affairs Committee has pressed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office throughout the course of the Parliament to recognise the need to improve language skills among its diplomatic staff, and the Committee is now satisfied that the Permanent Under-Secretary has gripped the issue and is taking action on the scale needed if future heads of mission overseas are to have the credibility needed to command respect.

·  The International Development Committee's Violence Against Women and Girls inquiry was agenda-setting, focusing on a new issue for the Department for International Development (DFID) which required far more effective collaboration between DFID, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Home Office, the Department for Education and the Department for Health; the Committee's recommendation for an integrated national and international approach helped bring about a step-change in the Government's efforts to address FGM both overseas and in the UK.

·  Following the Prime Minister's undertaking, during the January 2014 Liaison Committee oral evidence session, to address concerns raised by the Work and Pensions Committee Chair (Dame Anne Begg MP) about the adverse impact of the introduction of the Household Benefit Cap on Housing Benefit claimants living in supported accommodation (including women's refuges), the Committee pursued the issue with the Minister for Welfare Reform in its inquiry into Housing Benefit reforms, and the necessary changes were subsequently introduced in the Housing Benefit and Universal Credit (Supported Accommodation) (Amendment) Regulations 2014, which were implemented for Housing Benefit in April 2014, and for Universal Credit in November 2014.

·  During the Report Stage of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, Greg Mullholland MP and the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (Adrian Bailey MP) tabled an amendment to further strengthen the statutory framework code for pub companies. Despite Government resistance, the amendment was passed by 284 votes to 269.

·  The Transport Committee has been successful in changing policy and legislation across a range of transport policy areas. In maritime policy the Committee's ongoing scrutiny of the Government's proposals to reform the Coastguard service led Ministers to revise their reform proposals in line with the Committee's recommendations. In aviation, the Committee's arguments against a new hub airport in the Thames Estuary, backed by commissioned research, were accepted by the independent Airports Commission. In rail, the Committee's recommendation led to a change in the law around scrap metal, contributing to a dramatic reduction in the number of delays suffered by passengers due to cable theft on the rail network. For drivers, the Department for Communities and Local Government is implementing the Committee's call for a common sense approach to parking enforcement, and the introduction of "grace periods" for private parking bays.

·  The Bank of England and the Chancellor have, following persistent follow-up work by the Treasury Committee over several years, accepted the bulk of the Committee's recommendations on the future governance of the Bank of England.

·  The Science and Technology Committee drove the publication of enhanced Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) Guidance and its consistent use by Government when responding to emergencies.

·  Communities and Local Government Committee: the Government accepted 30 of its 35 recommendations suggesting changes to the draft National Planning Policy Framework in 2012 and the Committee's 2014 Report on fiscal devolution to local councils, though not immediately embraced by either front bench, was seen by many in local government and beyond as laying down important principles, whilst also grappling with difficult technical challenges and forming the basis for a major debate in the next Parliament.

·  The Defence Committee carried out an inquiry into the Armed Forces (Service Complaints and Financial Assistance) Bill [Lords]. The Committee made a number of recommendations for amendments and tabled these amendments in the Public Bill Committee. The Government was defeated on amendments proposed by the Committee that effected a significant broadening of the remit of the proposed new Service Complaints Ombudsman allowing her to investigate: the substance of an individual complaint (not just its maladministration); any maladministration connected to the complaint (not just that alleged); and any undue delays in handling a complaint. These changes to the Ombudsman's remit were accepted by the Government at report stage. The Bill has now gone back to the Lords.

·  The Energy and Climate Change (ECC) Committee's numerous inquiries into electricity market reform have helped to shape the Government's legislative proposals for overhauling the way in which the electricity market works. Its pre-legislative scrutiny work on the Energy Bill, in particular, pushed the Government to revert to a single counterparty model for electricity contracts which has helped to make these contracts more robust. The Committee also helped to secure important clauses in the Bill that allowed government intervention to ensure independent generators have better access to the market. The ECC Committee has also been championing the interests of consumers throughout this Parliament, in particular, by kick starting a national debate on energy switching, exposing the practice of doorstep mis-selling by energy companies, and calling for greater scrutiny of the near monopoly companies that manage the gas and electricity networks.

·  The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee's report on Corporation Tax in Northern Ireland recommended that setting the rate of corporation tax should be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Corporation Tax (Northern Ireland) Bill, which passed the House, and was sent to the Lords, on 4 March, brings this into effect (contingent upon the Northern Ireland Executive agreeing to budgets for 2015-16). The Committee's report on Air Passenger Duty: implications for Northern Ireland called for the abolition of air passenger duty (APD) on all flights out of Northern Ireland airports and on flights from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. HM Government agreed to reduce the rate of APD for the Belfast to Newark route to the UK, rather than long-haul, rate and later announced that the power to set APD rates for direct long-haul flights from Northern Ireland would be devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Measuring effectiveness

25. The Liaison Committee is always keen to encourage and learn from research into the work of committees. At the start of this Parliament, we drew on the research carried out by the Constitution Unit/UCL research in 2011 into the impact of seven committees over the period 1997-2010[10] and the Hansard Society 2011 review of select committee recommendations.[11]

26. In January 2012 we benefited from a private seminar between committee chairs and senior civil servants at the Institute for Government, which influenced our approach to the report we published on effectiveness, resources and powers in late 2012. We note that individual committees have also found it valuable to hold such seminars with key stakeholders to discuss their priorities for inquiries and working methods.

27. We welcome the current research being undertaken by the Institute for Government into committee effectiveness (focusing on the Banking Commission, Defence and Home Affairs) and expect that its conclusions will inform committees in the new Parliament. The project will develop a framework to assist understanding of the impact of parliamentary committee inquiries, and examine the impact of recent innovations. The outputs from the research will include a briefing note on parliamentary scrutiny (published in January 2015,[12] a final report summarising our research findings (to be published in mid-2015) and an event for the chairs of committees elected in 2015.

28. The Liaison Committee itself, in its 2012 report on Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers (HC 697), added a new core task:[13]

    Public Engagement Task 10

    To assist the House of Commons in better engaging with the public by ensuring that the work of the committee is accessible to the public.

29. The Liaison Committee has commissioned a small research project by Professors Ian Marsh and Matt Flinders into how select committees have responded to the addition of a core task concerning public engagement. The research is being carried out at the end of this Parliament with the aim of informing the new committees set up after the general election. The research covers:

a)  How interest groups prepare evidence; how they react to other participants, and generally how they engage in the proceedings

b)  How the committee itself approaches its task

c)  How committee findings are framed

d)  Media engagement and reporting of evidence and findings

e)  How participants themselves assess the standing and potential of the committee system.

30. The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) is studying how research feeds into parliamentary scrutiny, debate and legislation. The study aims to assist: Members to understand where research may be able to support their parliamentary work; parliamentary staff to understand where research can best support parliamentary processes and how to integrate research as part of their usual work where it is of maximum benefit to Members; and external bodies that want to engage with Parliament through research, to understand how to maximise its utility for Parliament.

31. Towards the end of the Parliament, the Education Committee conducted an 'evidence check' approach to select topics for scrutiny. For each of a list of topics identified by the Committee, the Department for Education was asked to produce a short statement on the Government's policy and the evidence base for its position. These memoranda were then posted online for discussion on web forums hosted on the Parliament website, and attracted 500 comments. On the basis of this scrutiny from the public and researchers, the Committee held oral evidence sessions covering the work of the National College for Teaching and Leadership, the school starting age, and school admissions flexibilities for summer born and premature children.

32. The 'evidence check' approach allowed contributors to focus their comments on the Department's statement and to build on each other's analyses—unlike the traditional 'black box' approach of submitting written evidence. A separate forum provided a space for commentary on the way the Department makes use of research evidence in its policymaking in general, which many organisations saw as a welcome opportunity. Comments received on areas not covered in oral evidence sessions will provide useful material for scoping future inquiries in the next Parliament.

33. The Transport Committee has sought to engage the public in its work and promote transparency in its decision-making. During the Parliament the Committee has asked the public to suggest inquiries and published reports outlining the topics selected and explaining its decisions.

9   Letter from Sam Gyimah, Minister for the Constitution, dated 11 September 2014, on the Recall of MPs Bill Back

10   Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees, Meg Russell and Meghan Benton, Constitution Unit, UCL, June 2011 Back

11   Alex.Brazier & Ruth.Fox, 'Reviewing Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operation', Parliamentary Affairs, Vol.64, No.2, April 2011, pp.354-369 Back

12   Institute for Government, Parliamentary Scrutiny of Government, January 2015  Back

13   Matt Korris, Building on Success: Why We Need to Review the Select Committee System, London: Hansard Society; See also Alex Brazier and Ruth Fox 2011. 'Reviewing Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operation', Parliamentary Affairs, 64(2). Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015