Legacy Report - Liaison Contents

7  Powers

78. In our November 2012 report, we referred to recent difficulties in the ability of committees to secure the attendance of witnesses, the provision of documents and being told the truth. Since then there have been no cases of committees reporting to the House that they have not been told the truth by witnesses. One committee has had difficulty securing the attendance of the chair of the BBC Trust and the Director-General of the BBC, who were also members of the House of Lords. After some delay both witnesses did eventually agree to give evidence.

79. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee encountered difficulties in persuading former Prime Minister Tony Blair and two named civil servants to give oral evidence for their inquiry into the administrative scheme for the "on the runs" following the Good Friday agreement—but all three did appear in due course. In the latter case, quite properly, the two officials were accompanied as witnesses by the Secretary of State and the Permanent Secretary.

80. In relation to Members of the House of Lords, the Liaison Committee entirely respects the privileges of Members of that House and understands the convention that, unlike other people in the UK, they cannot be summoned to appear before a committee of the Commons. But people who hold paid positions on public bodies are normally accountable to select committees. It would be wrong in our view for office-holders who also happen to be members of the House of Lords to avoid being held account by appearing at select committees merely on the basis that they cannot be summoned to attend.

81. We recommend that in future people appointed by ministers to paid public office, whether subject to pre-appointment hearing or not, be required to undertake (should they be or become members of the House of Lords) not to refuse a request to give evidence to a relevant Commons select committee.

82. There have been a number of other examples of committees formally ordering the attendance of witnesses and of putting witnesses on oath, using existing powers. But it is not our impression, in the second half of this Parliament, that the work of select committees has been impeded by any lack of powers. In the meantime, the Committee of Privileges has had to suspend its inquiry into the matter referred to it at the instance of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of whether three witnesses had lied to the Committee.[31]

Training for committee members

83. For the first time, this Parliament has seen committees undertaking formal training in questioning skills. This has followed the positive experience in the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. 12 committees have received some training around coaching for chairs, effective questioning skills and how committees work collectively. The Administration Committee used the trainer as a facilitator to plan objectives for the last year of the Parliament and to air views about the effectiveness of the committees. This work was invaluable in setting a framework for future activity, especially when there is a high turnover of membership. It was also drawn on when the Governance Committee asked for the Administration Committee's views on the way the domestic committee structure worked.

84. Members report the benefits of more developed questioning skills and working more closely together as a team. Committee staffs have adjusted the style of their background briefing and suggested questions to meet different expectations among committee members.

85. Chris Banks CBE, Chair of the Public Chairs' Forum, told us "I have noted among Chairs of Public Bodies a generally positive view of the role that Select Committees can and do play in improving accountability, transparency and scrutiny. To increase further the effectiveness of select committees, further attention could be given to the skills, training and knowledge of committee members; the quality and tone of questioning; the training and preparation of witnesses; and to the role and leadership of the Chair in improving effectiveness of the committee as a whole … Behaving courteously towards witnesses is important, and helps to avoid witnesses becoming defensive or less helpful in their responses".[32]

86. The additional resources which the House has approved for scrutiny in the next Parliament include further provision for such training. We expect it to be used imaginatively to assist chairs, individual members and committees as a team. The estimated expenditure for the training proposed for committees is £30,000 in the first year, followed by £25,000 per annum in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, and a smaller sum in the expected final year of the next Parliament. It is assumed that training should be offered to those committees which wish to undertake it as soon as possible after they are established.

Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards

87. Over the years, several committees have proposed that the House have powers to set up parliamentary commissions of inquiry.[33] These proposals have included the creation of inquiries into subjects for which the government of the day did not necessarily want an inquiry at that time. Such a body would be set up by the House but would not necessarily be composed of MPs and peers.

88. Following the LIBOR scandal it was proposed that a Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards be set up and this was duly approved by both Houses. In practice this was a joint committee of both Houses, with its Commons membership drawn entirely from the Treasury Committee, which also provided the chair. Its unique powers included the power to appoint panels (or sub-committees) with a quorum of only one, to take evidence through questions asked by counsel and for its administrative decisions to be taken by the chair without a full meeting of the Commission. To support the Commission, a large team of staff from outside and inside the House was quickly assembled. Much of the cost of the Commission was reimbursed to the House by the Treasury. A note by the chair (Andrew Tyrie MP) on the lessons learned from the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards appears at Annex C.

89. The Liaison Committee welcomed the appointment of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, with the caveat that the resources for such a body should not affect support for other committees. We believe that the House should be prepared to set up such bodies again when the need arises and that the necessary funds and planning should be prepared for.

90. There is also a need to provide resources to follow-up the recommendations of such bodies after they have reported. Additional staff were provided from the Scrutiny Unit to follow-up the work of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards but some of the burden fell inevitably on the Treasury Committee staff. This follow-up work was successful, resulting in substantial changes to the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill. But dissolving the staff of the PCBS after its major report was published was a serious mistake.

91. A key aspect of establishing such a body is mustering sufficient staff and skills quickly at the start of the inquiry. This was again demonstrated when the House decided to set up a select committee on the Governance of the House in September 2014. A substantial team of staff from different parts of the House Service was assembled promptly under the leadership of a principal clerk. The fact that this Committee reported before its set date in part reflects the benefits of committing sufficient resources right at the start.

92. In this context it should be noted that in 2013-14, it is estimated that select committee costs ranged from £351,000 for the Work and Pensions Committee to £540,000 for the Foreign Affairs Committee—comprising directly attributable costs for staff, committee expenses, travel and publication but excluding overheads such as accommodation and IT, and the costs of shared services such as media and communications and the Scrutiny Unit. These costs are broadly in line with other committees which operate in the public sector. The Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was set up as an NDPB to promote ethical standards in public life, spent £289,000 in 2013-14 and £490,000 in 2012-13 (excluding expenses claimed by the Chair and Members). The Intelligence and Security Committee, which is a statutory committee comprising MPs and peers set up to examine intelligence services, had a staff budget of £560,000 in 2013-14.

Virtual meetings

93. One issue which has emerged during this Parliament is the extent to which select committees can meet and transact business without the minimum number of Members being present in the same room. For some years committees have held informal meetings with people elsewhere through video conferencing. This has extended to taking formal evidence from witnesses—as proved invaluable recently for the Foreign Affairs Committee when they were denied access to Hong Kong.

94. We understand that in the Scottish Parliament MSPs can participate in committee meetings by such remote access. We can envisage a Member unable to attend through illness or travel disruption taking part in a committee meeting by some form of teleconferencing. What the House has not yet been asked to agree is a procedure where formal proceedings can take place with one or more members taking part and making up the quorum from somewhere else.

95. The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards was given an unusual power to address this issue. This involved the chair being authorised to take administrative decisions on behalf of the committee provided he was satisfied that all Members, contacted by telephone or email, were agreed.[34]

96. This reflects the underlying need for all committee members to be given notice of decisions to be taken and have the opportunity to comment. Otherwise it would be possible for decision to be taken by a minority without the knowledge of the majority. This is particularly important when a committee is agreeing a report.

97. We believe the time has come to apply the power given to the Banking Commission more widely, while acknowledging that it places on the chair and the clerk of each committee a duty to ensure that all members are aware of decisions taken in the committee's name.

98. We recommend that Standing Orders be amended to enable committees to make all decisions other than consideration of reports, which they could properly make at quorate deliberative meetings through any form of communication provided that all members have been given sufficient notice and any decision is supported by a majority of the committee.

Informal activities

99. Most select committees conduct a wider range of activities than the formal process of taking oral evidence. Over this Parliament:

·  The Environmental Audit Committee held a seminar at St Martin in the Fields in May 2012 to discuss the sustainability agenda ahead of the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

·  The Justice Committee held an open event for the Sentencing Council of England and Wales to inform Members generally about their work and held seminars on each of the draft Sentencing Guidelines on which it was consulted by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.

·  The Committee of Public Accounts held a conference on tax in the Guildhall, City of London, with sponsorship from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales.

·  The Home Affairs Committee held a conference with the Barrow Cadbury Trust at de Montfort University on the Roots of Radicalisation.

·  The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee hosted a conference on the case for a written constitution.

·  The Transport Committee held a well-attended seminar on the role of women in transport, facilitating a debate on the number of women in the transport industry and the barriers to further involvement. The positive feedback from attendees at the event emphasised how useful the event was for people working in a male-dominated field.

·  As part of the Transport Committee's inquiry into access to transport for disabled people individual Members made journeys with disabled people in their own constituencies, to understand the challenges they face when using public transport.

·  The Energy and Climate Change Committee hosted a conference on future challenges in energy and climate change policy to coincide with the launch of its legacy report. The conference was held at the Bloomberg offices in the City of London.

100. We thoroughly endorse these wider ways of working and engaging with the public. Hitherto there have been some financial and procedural constraints which have limited the scope for such informal activities. There may also have been too much caution about entering into joint sponsorship of events with outside organisations. There should be more discretion to fund such activities, particularly when the order of cost is comparable to the cost of a committee taking oral evidence instead. Select committees should be able to arrange public meetings with interested parties without taking oral evidence.

31   Committee of Privileges, First Special Report of Session 2014-15, Matter of Privilege referred to the Committee on 22 May 2012, HC 1068 Back

32   Chris Banks CBE, Chair of the Public Chairs' Forum (SCE 0025) Back

33   Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2007-08, Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry, HC 473 Back

34   That the Chair may report to the House an order, resolution or Special Report as an order, resolution or Special Report of the Commission which has not been agreed at a meeting of the Commission if he is satisfied that he has consulted all members of the Commission about the terms of the order, resolution or Special Report and that it represents a decision of the majority of the Commission. Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015