The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system Contents

Summary

Introduction

Select committees are a supple and adaptable tool of the House of Commons. They make good use of the freedom to innovate and engage that their relatively non-rule-bound nature allows. The recommendations in this report are addressed to maximising the opportunities for committees to be a vital part of the institution at the heart of our democracy. We want to draw on and add to the knowledge, skills and energy that is so richly available from all those engaged in ways to make our society work effectively, and exploit the full potential of our digitally connected world to increase participation in the business of politics.

Remit and core tasks

The core tasks for select committees, which were first endorsed by the House in 2002, have had a positive effect on the ability of committees to plan and be held to account for their work, but the time has come to restructure them. We propose a shorter set of core tasks which include the “how” as well as the “what” of committee work. The revised aims, objectives and core tasks are set out in chapter two.

Committees have gradually extended their remit beyond the narrow consideration of the work of the relevant government department and its associated public bodies to include wider matters of public concern. We recommend that Standing Order No. 152 should be amended accordingly, to include a reference to “matters of public concern” falling within the area of competence of the relevant department.

Strategic planning

We recommend that committees publish and consult on their strategy at the start of a Parliament. This would allow committees to hear a wider range of views on not only what they inquire into, but how they might go about doing so, from those who are most engaged in the policy area. It should enable committees to consider the balance between volume of activity, depth of inquiry, and leaving space to consult, follow-up, and assess committees’ own work. It will provide an early opportunity for committees to consider how best to deploy the finite resources at their disposal—including, in particular, Members’ time—and whether they might need to draw on support from other teams across the House, including Participation and Speaker’s Counsel.

Government responses

We recommend that every government department produce an annual memorandum to its departmental select committee which sets out progress on implementing committee recommendations. This practice should also be followed in respect of recommendations made by cross-cutting committees. This would enable both committees and departments to monitor the quality as well as the timeliness of government responses.

The Liaison Committee will continue to monitor the timeliness and quality of government responses over the next 12 months, and refer any department whose responses are persistently late or of poor quality to the Leader of the House of Commons.

Working in partnership

As well as working more closely with research communities and civil society, committees can continue to form effective working relationships across committees through joint working. The new “guesting” provisions which allow Members of one committee to participate in certain proceedings of another have contributed significantly to this. Other forms of innovative joint working include committees coming together to run deliberative democracy initiatives, such as the citizens’ assembly on zero carbon launched earlier this spring.

Accountability

Select committees are emanations of the House itself. They need to be more accountable for their own use of the powers which the House confers on them and the resources which it places at their disposal. We therefore propose the following reforms which would better connect the work of committees with the work of the House and improve their accountability to the public:

Values and behaviours

The House’s Behaviour Code applies to Members’ interactions when they are serving on select committees as it does in every other element of their work (see Annex 2). We must also uphold, and be seen to uphold, the seven principles of public life. Chairs have a particular responsibility, as holders of leadership roles, to actively promote and robustly support these principles and be willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs. We remind chairs and members of select committees to be mindful of the impact of their decisions on the staff of the House. Staff resource, as well as that of Members, does have a limit.

Select committees and the UK’s future relationship with the European Union

The high degree of uncertainty regarding the future relations between the UK and the EU points towards flexibility as a key principle for how select committees approach their future tasks. As events unfold, committees may have to adapt to ensure that scrutiny remains proportionate to the state of the UK’s relationship with the EU and the rest of the world. Any future relationship negotiations are likely to be wide-ranging and complex. As such, they are likely to engage the interest of most select committees, requiring expert support to be deployed as efficiently as possible.

There is scope to adapt committee structures in response to the challenges presented by the evolving UK-EU relationship. While acknowledging that committee structures are linked to decisions about the machinery of government, we also conclude that we must respond to the deep uncertainty which is—and will remain—a factor for some time. One option which we believe requires further investigation is the creation of a single integrated European committee to provide oversight of EU-UK matters. Further work is also required to consider the appropriate model for future treaty scrutiny. We recommend the development of a Framework Agreement between both Houses of Parliament and the Government on providing information on treaty negotiations and conclusions. Discussions must now take place in earnest between the Liaison Committees of both Houses, with input from the Leaders of each House, to determine the next chapter in the House’s oversight of UK-EU relations, whatever form they take.

We recommend that the Committee Office give thought to the requirement for expertise and its consequences on models for staffing committees, considering the range and uncertainty of demands. It is imperative that any new arrangements be designed to make the most flexible and efficient use of existing resources, so that EU and international legal and policy expertise can be deployed to best effect.

Evidence, engagement and research

Where possible, committees should seek to build in opportunities for stakeholders to engage in their work, such as consulting on inquiry topics. Timescales should be set to enable those with limited resources to respond. This includes allowing sufficient time for them to prepare written submissions or to prepare for an oral evidence session.

Submitted evidence

The current requirements for the format of written evidence to select committees are outdated. Committees should be able to accept evidence in a much wider range of formats, including, for example, video and audio clips and images. Information in any format which is accepted by a committee and published by Order of the House should be treated as formal evidence and we invite the Procedure Committee to identify and endorse any changes in the House’s practices that would be necessary to achieve this and commit ourselves to establishing a protocol to ensure that such material is used appropriately and make sure there are proper safeguards for individuals’ privacy.

The current requirements for submitting written evidence pose barriers which prevent some members of the public from engaging with committees’ work. An online form with a series of text boxes to help structure the submission could encourage contributions from members of the public.

Witnesses and oral evidence

Giving oral evidence to a select committee can be a challenging encounter for even the most experienced witnesses. In some circumstances, that is as is should be. But, for many witnesses, the whole experience can be very trying. We note that the UK Parliament’s Behaviour Code, which sets out shared behavioural expectations for the parliamentary community, applies just as much to the way we treat witnesses and those attending our public engagement sessions, as it does to our treatment of each other and House staff.

We also recommend a greater formalisation of the process by which witnesses are encouraged to declare all relevant financial interests when giving written or oral evidence.

Those appearing before committees in person should be supported to give the best account they can. The traditional horseshoe layout of committee rooms is not appropriate for all occasions. Committees should be free to experiment with different room layouts for different types of witnesses and evidence. Committees’ needs must be considered in both the design of the temporary accommodation in Richmond House and planning our future return to the Palace of Westminster. We need flexible spaces which can be easily adapted so we can take evidence in different formats and there must be ready access to reliable, and preferably permanently situated, video-conferencing facilities.

We have already set a target that, by the end of this Parliament, at least 40% of our discretionary witnesses should be female and that a panel of three or more discretionary witnesses should normally include at least one woman. When deciding who to put forward as witnesses, organisations should share and respect our commitment to diversity and consider how a lack of diversity among their representatives might appear to the wider public and reflect on their sector.

We recommend that steps should be taken by the Committee Office to gather wider data on witness diversity and witnesses’ feedback on oral evidence sessions, possibly by way of a questionnaire sent to witnesses after a session.

Public engagement: listening to those with lived experience

We are convinced of the value of and need for public engagement—both face-to-face and digital—seeing it very much as a listening activity rather than an occasion to “broadcast” about the work of Parliament. We recommend the following measures to promote further public engagement work by select committees:

Research evidence

We believe there is great merit in effective use of research information with best practice available. The Government often assembles research evidence in its policy making process which would be of great value to committees’ work. However, this research is not always publicly available and can be hard to find. Select committees could ask departments to provide their evidence base before an inquiry began.

Efforts to make best use of the research capacity and knowledge of academic institutions and other research-based organisations must continue. We need to build more systematic and better understood structures within which co-operation between select committees and the wider research community can be more effectively enabled and enhanced.

We recommend that work with UKRI and other relevant bodies in building connections with the research community through outreach and the use of fellowships, secondments and short-term attachments be taken forward by POST and the Committee Office.

The Association of Charitable Foundations has offered to facilitate better engagement with the charitable research foundations. We recommend that the Committee Office, working together with POST, should take up this offer.

The most effective way for Committees to access research is to find ways to work in partnership with, and gain access to, not only the outputs of our publicly-funded research sector but also to its inputs, helping to influence (but not seeking to control) the priorities of the research funders and the criteria used in awarding grants. The publicly funded research sector should also continue to recognise the value in contributing to public debate and parliamentary scrutiny, and to reward academic institutions which contribute to this goal.

We would encourage the research funders to look at ways of building collaborative and co-operative, thematically coherent research transmission hubs where meta-analyses and syntheses are prepared proactively and are readily accessible. These might form a basis, over the longer term, for some kind of “Office of Public Evidence” that would bring together some of the synthesis of research evidence, fact checking, and academic liaison functions for select committees.

Powers, privileges and contempts

Recent events have reinforced the view that serious consideration must be given to the nature and extent of the power to “send for persons, papers and records”, which is delegated to almost every select committee by the House.

The options before the House are essentially to do nothing, to seek to reassert its claim to penal powers or to legislate to put those powers on a statutory footing in compliance with the expectations of current constitutional and juristic principles. There is no clear consensus on this Committee about the relative merits of a statutory solution or the middle way of an “assertion”, and it may be that the Privileges Committee will be forced to choose between recommending that the House simply abjures its claim to the power to compel attendance and penal powers to punish contempts or finds a way to give them at least some element of statutory force.

The Procedure Committee’s recent report on the power of the House to call for papers from government concluded that the power remained a valid and useful procedure but noted that, where a motion for return engaged a select committee, the consent of that committee ought to be secured before the motion is debated. We support this recommendation. We further note that recourse to an Address would be available at the initiative of a committee. We believe that, should any committee feel obliged to have such resort, time should be found as a matter of practice to debate its motion.

Publishing unconventional material and the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840

The obscurity and ambiguity of the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 is an unnecessary inhibition on select committees taking advantage of the breadth of modern means of communications, as we have recommended, both to gather evidence and to publish their findings in different ways which will engage different audiences.

We believe that the matter of the review of the 1840 Act should now be taken forward, either by a reference to the Committee of Privileges or through further work by this Committee.

Pre-appointment hearings

We support the recommendation of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that there should be provision in standing orders to secure a debate on the floor of the House when a Minister intends to disregard a recommendation by a committee not to appoint their preferred candidate to a public office.

Communicating our work

To improve public engagement with committees’ work, reports should be ‘digital first’ and, where possible, be complemented (and perhaps eventually supplanted in some cases) by other digital formats which, chosen and designed with their needs in mind, convey our work to the wider public. Such outputs should be made under an order of the committee wherever possible.

Although reports will continue to be the main output from select committees, we there is a need for different kinds of ‘communication’ from committees which, while formally agreed and reported to the House, are less formal than a report, with its rather cumbersome procedural apparatus, but which carry more weight and status than a letter and can be specifically addressed to the world. Such publications might be a paper analysing the evidence received so far or responding to what was heard in a public session, a summary of their interim findings which might invite people to respond to them, a more general update on their work partway through a long inquiry or a follow-up survey of the progress in implementing their recommendations.

By giving more notice of publication, committees could increase the impact of their reports by working with outside organisations to give them added publicity. Standing Order No. 134 provides that embargoed reports should be sent out no more than seventy-two hours in advance of publication. We recommend that the Standing Order be amended to give committees complete discretion and flexibility over the timing and distribution of their embargoed reports before publication.

Online presence

Our website is Parliament’s main means of communicating with the public. For many, it will be their first and only point of access to our work. We are pleased that efforts to replace our existing website are underway. However, it is critical that this work is completed at the earliest opportunity. The new site must be easy to navigate for those who have no prior knowledge of the workings of Parliament. It should be easy for the public to find out about how the issues that interest and concern them are being debated and investigated by Parliament and its committees.

Committees’ use of social media is sophisticated, innovative and live to emerging trends. We should continue to explore how committees can further diversify their use of online platforms and networks, including using ‘social listening software’ to help committees gauge the public mood on an issue and join existing conversations.

Ongoing campaigning and communications

By taking the approach of planning, prioritising and following-up their work, committees would be operating more like campaigning organisations, which continually look for opportunities to highlight issues and further their cause in a range of different ways in Parliament, the media and beyond. Some committees are already operating in this way. Adopting this approach across all committees would clearly require us to be more strategic and call for additional member and staff time. It will almost certainly entail increased resources for the central communications functions of the Committee Office.

The impact and accessibility of the language of scrutiny

Although familiar and well-used by MPs and officials, the language of Parliament appears rather alien to members of the public. Our use of terms such as ‘evidence’, ‘witnesses’, ‘inquiry, ‘select committee’ and ‘terms of reference’ can be confusing and off-putting.

Committees should feel emboldened to adapt their language as they see fit, keeping the needs of their audience in mind, and the use of technical terms in the Standing Orders should be no impediment to this. By way of example, we could invite people to give us their “views, concerns and experiences” on a topic and, instead of “witnesses”, we could refer to “guests” or “participants”. We could also start by referring to just “committees” in our communications, leaving out the term “select”.

Chairs and Members

The success of a committee depends on the Members who serve on it, and on the leadership of the chair. Their independence, attitude and commitment are what makes committees work. The fact that committees are composed of elected representatives from across the range of opinion in the House is their unique and most important characteristic, which is the foundation of the authority they enjoy.

Elected chairs and members

The direct election of most select committee chairs by secret ballot of the whole House has led to more confident committees, with an increasing willingness to innovate and push the boundaries. We recommend that the relevant changes to Standing Order No. 122B be made to extend chair elections to all select committees.

There is currently no provision for a member of a committee to relinquish their place if, for whatever reason, they are no longer able to prioritise the work of the committee. We suggest that the Procedure Committee may consider whether there are any different options available for allowing Members to leave committees part way through a Parliament, rather than having to wait for a replacement to be found.

The House’s Standing Orders defines eligibility for the Backbench Business Committee by excluding Ministers of the Crown, parliamentary private secretaries and principal opposition front-bench spokespeople. We suggest that eligibility to sit on committees should be determined by extending the application of the restrictions on membership of the Backbench Business Committee to all select committees.

Gender balance

Political parties need to ensure that reasonable diversity, at least on grounds of gender and ethnicity, is achieved on all committees. We believe that gender representation on committees is important enough to require positive action. We suggest that the Procedure Committee should report on how quotas might be used so as to require a minimum of three Members of every select committee to be male, and a minimum of three female.

Parental leave

We recommend that the Selection Committee propose temporary substitutes for select committee Members on parental leave, replacing them with the original Members when they return from that leave.

We recommend that committees should from now on record in both their Formal Minutes and their attendance tables the periods for which any Member of the committee has a proxy vote under the House’s scheme agreed on 28 January 2019.

The role of the Liaison Committee

Our regular meetings with the Prime Minister are crucial to effective parliamentary scrutiny of the executive. The sessions with the Prime Minister now take place three times a year. Although there is no hard and fast requirement on the Prime Minister to attend, it would be difficult for any future Prime Minister to avoid. The presumption must be that the Prime Minister will make three dates a year available in good time for us to make the necessary arrangements. In particular, any new Prime Minister must appear before us at the soonest possible opportunity after they take up office.

The Liaison Committee is restricted to considering “matters relating to select committees” only, except in our evidence sessions with the Prime Minister. We recommend amending Standing Order No. 145 to extend our ability to take evidence on matters of public policy from others than just the Prime Minister.

A co-ordinating role?

This Committee does not, and should not, exercise any form of control over the activities of individual committees. However, it should be the forum in which cross-over is discussed and co-ordination through informal means achieved. The Liaison Committee, as the place where all chairs come together, can host and facilitate such knowledge sharing.

Sector, thematic, or locality reviews

We were drawn to suggestions that select committees could work together to consider how policies have affected a particular section of society, across departmental boundaries. At the start of each Parliament, the Liaison Committee might usefully decide upon two or three sectors or areas of the UK and invite select committees to work together to consider the impact of government policy across departmental boundaries.

Resources for scrutiny

The total budget for the Committee Office now stands at around £16 million a year, of which over 90% is staff costs. That represents less than 5% of the House’s total resource budget.

Although scrutiny work is protected within the House’s budget, the Finance Committee has recently told us that it will, for the future, take a stricter interpretation of the scrutiny exemption, applying it only to demonstrably novel demands agreed by the House (typically to establish a new committee) and that the “flat cash” remit will apply to the scrutiny budget in general. The pressures on staff resources however, continue to grow, and the appetite for work amongst select committees is certainly not diminishing.

We note and endorse the Procedure Committee’s recent proposal to expand the financial section of the Scrutiny Unit into a Commons Budget Office to support committees’ financial scrutiny.

We note the increasing pressure for additional resources to support the committees’ media and communications work. As part of the deal for the increased resources which the House granted in 2002, the Liaison Committee agreed to commission a review of select committee resources by the National Audit Office (NAO). A further review was commissioned and reported in 2007. The time has come to invite the NAO again to undertake a full review of the staffing and wider resourcing model that supports select committees.

There is a demand for greater inter-parliamentary working, which should be an aim whatever the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. The Clerk of the House should negotiate with the chief executives of the devolved legislatures to establish a jointly-owned “shadow” secretariat of a UK-wide co-ordinating body to undertake feasibility studies and prepare options for the establishment of an effective, but not over-formalised, UK interparliamentary body based around the committees of each UK legislature.

Process of establishing the Liaison Committee

The process of constituting the Liaison Committee at the beginning of the Parliament needs simplifying so that it can be done in a timely fashion. We invite the Procedure Committee to bring forward further changes to Standing Order No. 145 so that the Liaison Committee can come into existence as a when chairs take office following a general election.

A champion for the select committee system

We recommend that the Committee Office communications staff develop and pilot a regular publication (perhaps monthly) highlighting in accessible formats the work of select committees collectively, providing a gateway through which the non-specialist and those with a direct but non-sector specific interest in parliamentary scrutiny could be drawn into the outputs of select committees across the whole range of their scrutiny activity.





Published: 9 September 2019