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 agreementbut 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
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
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.
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
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
Behaving courteously towards witnesses is important,
and helps to avoid witnesses becoming defensive or less helpful
in their responses".
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
87. Over the years, several committees have proposed
that the House have powers to set up parliamentary commissions
of inquiry. 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
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 Committeecomprising 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.
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 witnessesas 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
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.
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
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.
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
Chris Banks CBE, Chair of the Public Chairs' Forum (SCE 0025) Back
Public Administration Select Committee, Ninth Report of Session
2007-08, Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry, HC 473 Back
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