Legacy Report - Liaison Contents

8  Attendance

101. Committees have for many years published details of the attendance rate of Members at meetings. The Wright Committee said in 2009: "We believe there should be clear consequences for unreasonable absence from select committees".[35] The Liaison Committee has kept an eye on this issue in this Parliament. There are a few cases of Members whose participation in committee work could have been higher. We are conscious however that there are many reasons why a Member may not have attended most meetings of a committee to which he or she has been appointed. These include:

·  Personal or family illness

·  Membership of other select committees which meet at the same time

·  Participation in public bill committees meeting at the same time

·  Other parliamentary commitments or posts which make membership of the committee no longer possible or compatible.

102. Early in the Parliament, a procedure was adopted by the House under which Members with an attendance rate of less than 60% could be removed from a committee if the chair invited the Speaker to request the Committee of Selection to remove him or her. The safeguards in place were to allow for the Member having some compelling personal reason for not attending. The possibility of using this provision has been drawn to the attention of Members in some cases, but the process has not been carried to a conclusion to date.

103. In practice the problem has been different: a Member who is no longer attending because of other duties and commitments cannot resign before his or her party elects a replacement—the motion discharging one Member from a Committee usually appoints the replacement. Most cases of poor attendance fall into this category. The Committee of Selection has accordingly agreed that in cases where a Member wishes to stand down from a committee but the party cannot nominate a replacement within six weeks, then a motion can be moved in the House to remove the Member from the Committee. This has now been used in a small number of cases.

Size and number of committees

104. There is a wider problem which was also highlighted by the Wright Committee: a finite number of backbenchers has to be spread over an increasing number of select committees. The size and number of select committees remains an issue. The Wright report said:

    54. … [In] March 2009 the Liaison Committee repeated its concern at the size of select committees, which over the 30 years since foundation of the departmental select committee system in 1979 has risen from 9 or 11 on a standard committee to 14, despite objections over many years from the Committee. The number of places to be filled on all Committees, including temporary and statutory committees, has doubled in that time, from 275 to 576, but there has been no change in the numbers willing and able to serve. There has also been a steady rise in the number of committees, from 24 to 39, not counting the Regional select committees. As a result, a number of Members serve on two or more committees, and the prohibition on service by PPSs and Opposition front-benchers has been breached in order to fill vacancies. Chairs have argued that committees are now unwieldy and that it is hard to engender a collective purpose and direction. In this report we make proposals on increased access for select committees to the floor of the House for debate and decision on substantive motions. If committees are slimmed down, we recognise the need to incentivise attendance and participation among that smaller group of Members. Rather than an unremunerated honour to be sought, and a responsibility to be discharged, a select committee place is in danger of being regarded by some backbenchers as a burden best avoided.

    We propose that the new House of Commons reduce the size of its standard departmental committees to not more than 11; Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties. We also recommend that the practice of appointing parliamentary private secretaries and front bench Official Opposition spokesmen should cease. We believe there should be clear consequences for unreasonable absence from select committees. The House must also seek to reduce the numbers of committees, ending overlapping or duplicate remits and rationing the scarce resource of Members time and commitment.[36]

105. Some 321 Members serve on 39 committees, 85 of them belonging to more than one committee. There are some 440 places on committees in all. There are obvious overlaps in certain areas. In the coming Parliament there will be a new Petitions Committee and, possibly, a new Committee on Gender and Equalities, as well as a temporary Joint Committee on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster. These additional committees will require the participation of Members and the commitment of staff resources.

106. One reason for increasing the size of certain committees has been to enable the representation of minor parties on such committees. Thus the Treasury Committee has 13 Members to provide places for the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party as well as six Conservative and five Labour Members. We wholly support the inclusion of minor parties on key committees and endorse the principle that, taking the number of places on select committees as a whole, the party representation should reflect that of the House. It is preferable if this can be achieved by accommodation between the parties rather than by making committees too large. Because select committees operate by consensus and unanimity, arithmetical proportions do not have the same degree of relevance that they do with public bill committees. As the Wright Committee recommended, departmental select committees should have a maximum of 11 Members.

107. In this Parliament select committees have worked well, with no one party having a majority in the House and 44 Members representing parties other than the two largest. It may be time to contemplate the possibility that each committee itself does not have to mirror the exact party composition of the House. For instance a committee of nine might have four from the largest and three from the second largest party with two places for Members representing other parties. The balance need not be identical on each committee if the overall representation across all committees was fair and proportionate. Otherwise there is a risk of committees getting bigger and bigger to incorporate Members from smaller parties—and spreading Members too thinly over many committees.

Support for committees

108. This Parliament has seen some significant changes in the way committees are supported by staff of the House. These include:

·  A savings programme in line with the rest of the public sector reducing the budget by 17%

·  Moving committee and Library staff to work alongside each other in open plan offices in one building

·  A major shift towards greater use of digital technology and social media

·  An increasing number of inward and outward secondments broadening the experience and diversity of staff supporting committees

·  Greater innovation in using staff in different ways in support of chairs and committees.

109. We are confident that these developments will continue to bear fruit in the next Parliament. The additional resources now allocated by the House for scrutiny will need to be deployed imaginatively and accounted for carefully.

35   House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117  Back

36   House of Commons Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, Rebuilding the House, HC 1117  Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015