9.In 2002 the House, on the prompting of the Modernisation Committee and as part of the package of enhanced resources for scrutiny which it had just approved, invited the Liaison Committee to “establish common objectives” for the departmental select committees. These “core tasks” were refreshed in 2012 by our predecessors, who urged that they should be used to help committees to plan and set their priorities. They also recommended that committees should report their performance against them at the end of each session. We believe that, as resources devoted to select committees have grown further since 2012, it is important that we reaffirm the need for standards against which committees are judged and could be held accountable. They are not intended to be restrictive but could help committees as they set their priorities and plan their future programmes and subsequently reflect on their performance. We believe that if committees planned more, and worked in a more focused way, their influence and effectiveness could be even greater.
10.The primary purpose of select committees remains “to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments … and associated public bodies”. But as former Permanent Secretary Dame Una O’Brien told us, “As each Parliament takes up the cudgel, the world out there is changing, and how to give effect to those responsibilities needs to change”. What we heard in our inquiry persuades us that the core tasks could usefully be revised to reflect such changes.
11.The core tasks are intended to guide the departmental select committees without constraining them. Initial assessments of the use of the core tasks were positive. Writing in The Times in April 2003, Peter Riddell noted that select committees were “adopting a more methodical and less ad hoc approach via a series of core tasks”. When they were reviewed by the Liaison Committee in 2012, it asked whether the tasks were “still realistic given the limitations on Members’ time”. The Committee concluded that the core tasks were still useful, whilst accepting that not all were relevant to every committee. Several changes were made to the core tasks in 2012, including the addition of a “public engagement” core task, and making scrutiny of departmental strategy a stand-alone task.
Box 1: The core tasks of select committees endorsed by the House in 2013
Overall aim: To hold Ministers and Departments to account for their policy and decision-making and to support the House in its control of the supply of public money and scrutiny of legislation
Strategy: Examine the strategy of the department, how it has identified its key objectives and priorities and whether it has the means to achieve them, in terms of plans, resources, skills, capabilities and management information
Policy: Examine policy proposals by the department, and areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient, and make proposals
Expenditure and Performance: Examine the expenditure plans, outturn and performance of the department and its arm’s length bodies, and the relationships between spending and delivery of outcomes
Draft Bills: Conduct scrutiny of draft bills within the committee’s responsibilities
Bills and Delegated Legislation: Assist the House in its consideration of bills and statutory instruments, including draft orders under the Public Bodies Act
Post-Legislative Scrutiny: Examine the implementation of legislation and scrutinise the department’s post-legislative assessments
European Scrutiny: Scrutinise policy developments at the European level and EU legislative proposals
Appointments: Scrutinise major appointments made by the department and to hold pre-appointment hearings where appropriate
Support for the House: Produce timely reports to inform debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or debating committees, and to examine petitions tabled
Public Engagement: Assist the House of Commons in better engaging with the public by ensuring that the work of the committee is accessible to the public
12.We heard some views that there were too many core tasks, too widely framed, with select committees not best placed to undertake some of the functions. Dr Mark Goodwin and Dr Stephen Bates argued that with respect to post-legislative scrutiny “while many… are strongly in favour of committees doing more post-legislative scrutiny, it seems to be an unattractive task for committees themselves”. The Hansard Society believed that “of the 10 core tasks, delegated legislation and post-legislative scrutiny are particularly ill-served” and concluded that “a decision therefore needs to be made about whether they should remain a core task” or whether they would be better served by dedicated scrutiny committees. Sir Richard Mottram noted that the strategy core task alone was “an absolutely huge task if a Select Committee is really required to try to do it”. The Procedure Committee has recently drawn attention to the extent to which departmental select committees discharge their remit to examine departmental expenditure plans, and has questioned whether this amounts to systemic scrutiny of the Government’s proposals for spending public money.
13.We also heard other recommendations for additional core tasks. The Institute for Government suggested that committees could “scrutinise the implementation of recommendations made by public inquiries”. The case was well argued, and it is clear that there does need to be some form of follow-through for such inquiries when they have reported, and the absence of any such mechanism is a significant shortcoming which can reduce the impact of these expensive undertakings and let government and others off the hook. However, we also recognise that such monitoring is a significant call on resources and could only be done through an increase in staff. It might also be best done in a centralised way, even within Parliament, rather than left to individual committees for which different inquiries and their outcomes will engage very different levels of political engagement.
14.Rather than add tasks to our list, we have sought to group them together, making it clear that, while there should be a guiding strategy, the way in which a particular task is undertaken by a committee will depend on the circumstances of each committee. When considering policy or administration, a committee should certainly consider whether recommendations from any major public inquiry should be followed up, but the choice of whether and how to do so will be for each committee—the key thing is that it should not go by default.
15.A committee on public inquiries could be established, as could more committees on delegated legislation, as proposed by the Hansard Society. There are undoubtedly many orphaned areas of executive activity which are too often neglected by Parliament. But committees cannot possibly cover-off every risk and initiative—they must rather become adept at using the resources of civil society to keep track of particular issues and be ready to hold the feet of Ministers to the fire when evidence of negligence or neglect is produced. There are tasks that might be given to stand-alone committees, but handing scrutiny to a stand-alone body always risks making others feel that they have no further responsibility (and therefore interest) in it.
16.The Liaison Committee’s 2012 report on effectiveness stated that:
… in a growing number of cases, third parties—including private sector bodies—can be the focus of committee inquiries. Increasingly, the private sector is involved in delivering public services, and committees have a legitimate interest in scrutinising how taxpayers’ money is spent. And some private sector services are of such concern that the public expect the committee to intervene, filling the accountability gap.
17.The number has continued to grow. The Institute for Government observed that “increasingly committees are stretching the boundaries of their delegated role, for example, by investigating the behaviour of private companies beyond the public policy implications of what they have done”. The Hansard Society found that committees increasingly act as “an instrument of accountability in relation to concentrations of power and influence wherever that is found in the public or private sectors”. Dr Craig Prescott saw this as a “positive role for select committees, particularly when there are no other scrutiny or accountability mechanisms, or when they have failed”.
18.While select committees interpret their own remit, there is a question as to whether the wider role which they have adopted should now be reflected in their Standing Orders. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that the time had come for this to be done. Dr Prescott believed that the lagging of the standing orders behind the reality of committee work could give rise to problems. We recommend that paragraph (1) of Standing Order No.152 should be amended to read as follows:
Select committees shall be appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments and their associated public bodies as set out in paragraph (2) of this order; together with matters of public concern falling within the area of competence of those departments and bodies.
19.The core task on EU scrutiny was agreed before the EU referendum of 2016 and the triggering of article 50 in 2017. We will explore the impact on select committees of the changing relationship with the EU in chapter 3 below, but there is a changing picture in this regard, no matter what the outcome of the negotiations with the EU.
20.The creation of the public engagement core task 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” was a valuable step forward in 2012. We heard in this inquiry widely held views that it is now insufficient to represent the types of dialogue with the public that committees currently undertake. Professor Cristina Leston-Bandeira and her colleagues from the University of Leeds told us that:
The assumption behind ‘making work accessible to the public’ implies a broadcasting mode, whereby Parliament informs the public about its work. This is of course important, but public engagement entails more: it is also about listening to the public and about integrating this into ordinary parliamentary business.
We agree. Engaging the public is about far more than just informing. We also consider that public engagement should not be a stand-alone task but a thread running through all of a committee’s way of working. It needs to be considered and incorporated when undertaking the full range of select committee activity. We set out more detail on our public engagement proposals in chapter 4 below.
21.It has long been understood that committees conduct different types of inquiry. Some inquiries are short and sharp, with few evidence sessions on highly topical issues. Others (though this is much less common nowadays than it was thirty or forty years ago) take an approach more akin to the Royal Commission mode: assembling the evidence, hearing from a broad range of voices, perhaps commissioning further research or working with outside special advisers to produce a report which may stand as an enduring summary of the state of knowledge in a particular policy area. For some inquiries, hearing from those with lived-experience is crucial, for others, public opinion can be a useful guide. An investigatory inquiry, for example, where the truth is sought about a complex series of events may involve questioning of a very different style from that of a deep-dive into a policy area, where research evidence will be of particular importance. Some inquiries will involve the publication of a lengthy report, others will result in an exchange of letters or the publishing of information for the public record. There is no one-size-fits-all method of inquiry. However, reflection on what kind of inquiry a committee is about to undertake may inform decisions on how it goes about its work, and interacts with those in the policy community and potential witnesses.
22.The core tasks had a positive effect on the ability of select 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. We believe this approach can help foreground the need for forward planning, public engagement, and innovation. Our revised core tasks are set out at the end of this chapter.
23.Committees are increasingly thoughtful about how they use their resources to deliver effective scrutiny. They need to give careful consideration to the kind of impact they wish a particular inquiry to have, and the ways in which that can be maximised. We heard examples of how that can be achieved:
Committees have the greatest chance of getting this right if they fully consider the process of the inquiry, from planning and prioritising through to following-up.
24.At the start of each Parliament, best practice amongst select committees is to consider their objectives and how they will go about meeting them, often in consultation with key stakeholders. The Liaison Committee’s 2012 report endorsed this approach, as do we.
25.In particular, we strongly encourage committees to consider how to engage with their key stakeholders on their objectives. This might be, as has become traditional, through round-table discussions. However, we encourage committees to go further and publish and consult on their strategy at the start of a Parliament. This could include setting out how the public and stakeholders can submit ideas for future inquiries. This would allow committees to hear a wider range of views on not only what they inquire into, but why it matters and how they might go about doing so, from those who are most engaged in or affected by a policy area.
26.We recommend that the Committee Office facilitates, with Research and Information, including the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the creation of documented and published “Areas of Interest” in the same way that government departments now do. The Government’s Areas of Research Interest (ARI) provide details of the main research questions facing departments in order to improve how they access, commission and use research evidence. In the parliamentary context, ARIs would be of use not only to those in the university sector, but those in other third sector and research-based organisations. UCL Public Policy explained that publication of “Areas of Evidence Interest” could:
… both act as a signal to academic communities as to likely broad areas of select committee interest and knowledge needs, and could form the basis for discussions with UKRI about funding schemes to support academic responses.
We give further consideration as to how committees could work more effectively with academics and researchers in chapter 4.
27.Committees should take a strategic and purposeful approach to their public engagement and communications work. There should be early conversations with the engagement team, as well as media and communications and Web and Publications Unit officers. This must form part of their early planning processes so that resources can be allocated effectively and decisions made in a timely fashion. These matters are discussed in more depth in chapter 4 below.
28.Similarly, committees should at an early stage consider whether the nature of their inquiry is such that they are likely to need advice from Speaker’s Counsel on aspects of the eventual report. If so, this should be factored into the timeframe for the inquiry and report preparation. While some committees are expressly entitled to the advice of Speaker’s Counsel, others are of course at liberty to request it.
29.As part of this planning process, committees may consider the balance between volume of activity, depth of inquiry, and leaving space to consult, follow-up, and assess their own work. As Professor Emma Crewe and Dr Ayesha Saddiqi noted, “committees tend to embark on so many inquiries that there is insufficient time for debating evidence, reviewing their own work and achieving follow-up to their scrutiny and investigation”. Professor Matthew Flinders told us that:
I have often thought that select committees take on far too many inquiries and therefore become incredibly over-stretched in terms of a capacity to deliver. …doing half-as-much-twice-as-well could be a recipe for greater effectiveness and influence.
30.Select committees must make choices about what they do and why. Members’ time and the resources we have to support committees are limited. Thorough planning and time for follow up are likely to deliver greater impact, more time for engagement, and better use of evidence.
31.The onus should not fall entirely on small committee teams to try to discover what actions have come about from select committee work. Some of this burden should fall on parliamentary teams in government departments. Tom Tugendhat MP suggested that the Government should be asked to commit to producing an annual submission to each committee, setting out significant areas of progress in implementing committee recommendations, or other key developments relating to issues reported upon by committees. Committees should then be encouraged to review those submissions and follow-up where appropriate. We agree and extend this to other reports flagged as being of interest to committees.
32.We recommend that every government department produces an annual memorandum to the relevant select committee which sets out progress on implementing committee recommendations and other reports notified as being of interest to the relevant committee. This would enable both committees and departments to monitor the quality as well as the timeliness of government responses. Departments should also provide memoranda to cross-cutting committees where their responsibilities apply.
33.Such an annual memorandum might also encourage greater focus in government departments on the quality and timeliness of their responses to select committee reports. The deadline for producing Government responses is 60 days, but in practice, this is regularly missed. Sometimes this may be for good reasons but, by the end of the sixty-day period, ministers should be ready to explain and justify further delay, and should provide regular monthly updates on progress if need be. The Science and Technology Committee noted that a fuller response rather than a timely response may sometimes be more valuable. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee rightly warned readers away from measuring impact by considering government responses alone. She argued:
While that figure may be informative it is not necessarily an accurate proxy for performance or impact—clearly the fact that the Government doesn’t accept a recommendation does not mean the recommendation is wrong, inappropriate, poorly evidenced or unworkable. Conversely, it would be a perverse incentive if Government acceptance were the prime measure of the quality of a select committee’s work.
34.A number of committees have taken a more assertive approach to poor quality government responses, for example putting them out to review by those who participated in an inquiry or returning them to the department for further consideration. Committees themselves can contribute to the chances of receiving thoughtful and considered responses which address the arguments as well as the conclusions and recommendations of their reports by showing self-restraint and avoiding a scattergun approach to recommendations.
35.One of the simplest things that a committee can do to increase its impact is to follow-up on their previous work. A published report is not the end of the story. It can be tempting for committees to move on to the next thing, not leaving enough time and resource to follow-up what came before. However, examples of committee work that has been particularly effective, such as the Health and Social Care Committee’s inquiry on Childhood Obesity, show clearly the value of returning to a subject, and continuing to push the Government to respond, including to emerging evidence. Follow-up should be considered part of the core ways of working of select committees.
36.We believe it remains appropriate to have a deadline for government responses, but how it is met should be a matter of negotiation between ministers and chairs. We intend to monitor the timeliness of these responses over the next twelve months. Where departments are persistently late, or responses are persistently poor quality, we will notify the Leader of the House of our concerns. We believe best practice in this area will not happen of its own accord: the Committee Office should invest resources in the technology and techniques which are shown to work in improving the follow-through of committee recommendations. Together with the Cabinet Office, the Committee Office should be developing official-level dialogue about how both sides of the bargain could be strengthened to ensure that committees are not casting their bread on the waters when they make recommendations to government.
Box 2: Impact and follow-up: childhood obesity
The Health and Social Care Committee has held three inquiries into childhood obesity. The Committee’s first report into this in 2015 made just nine key recommendations, most of which concentrated on toughening the regulations around unhealthy food and drink, including a tax on sugary soft drinks, which was introduced a few months later.
The inquiry was timed to report whilst the Government’s childhood obesity strategy was under development. The Committee engaged closely with Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency which had prepared an evidence review to inform the Government’s strategy, over its decision to delay publication of this review. After repeated requests, including an accountability hearing with the chief executive, the Committee eventually persuaded PHE to publish the review so that its contents were available to the public and campaigners ahead of the Government’s strategy.
In the spring of 2017, the Committee held a follow-up inquiry, which was instrumental in persuading the Government publish a “Chapter 2” to its Childhood Obesity strategy, to consider recommendations which the first strategy, in the view of the Committee, had not adequately considered.
The Committee held a further follow-up inquiry in 2018, and produced a targeted report with 10 key recommendations, many of which have now been implemented. Further follow up aims to focus government attention on particular areas of concern, such as widening health inequality in childhood obesity.
37.One way to maximise the impact of our work is to act in partnerships with others inside and outside the House. As well as working more closely with research communities and civil society, we can continue to form effective working relationships across committees through joint working.
38.Select committees already work in a way that is more joined-up than ever before. We have seen a number of concurrent inquiries using the provisions of Standing Order No. 137A. We are particularly pleased the new “guesting” provisions which allow Members of one committee to participate in certain proceedings of another as a “guest” have been so enthusiastically taken up. Other forms of innovative joint working include committees coming together to run deliberative democracy initiatives such as a citizens’ assembly on social care in 2018 and now on zero carbon launched earlier this spring. We hope that as our new joint working practices are embedded, they might be mirrored by similar provisions in the House of Lords, and that their innovative use could provide opportunities for joint working between legislatures. We also welcome the Defence Committee’s initiative of a joint inquiry with its counterpart from the French Assemblée nationale, and are pleased to hear that they are planning further joint inquiries We look at the case for better inter-parliamentary working below.
39.Select committees need to be more accountable for their own use of power and resources, for with power comes responsibility. As Dr Hannah White of the Institute for Government told us, once select committees are established, it is up to them to decide how to interpret the role and remit the House has given them, but that:
It would be desirable for there to be a feedback element within that, for the House to take more notice of what it is that this group has gone off to do … “What has this group of Members made of this opportunity that we have given them, and the resource that they have had?” … Committees being held to account within the House is a missing aspect of the picture at the moment.
We set out below a series of reforms we believe would improve accountability to the House and to the public.
40.At present, select committee reports may be debated on the floor of the House and in Westminster Hall using the following routes:
41.We have found a high level of demand for debates in the Chamber. Demand exceeds supply. This has been a particular frustration when the legislative load has recently been so light. The breadth of the issues which have been brought to the floor of the House through the work of committees is immense. Debates held have covered topics from Customs and Borders, to plastic bottles and disposable coffee cups, through to the long-term funding of adult social care.
42.The current pilot swap arrangements for Estimates Days have given the Committee access to the agenda on three days a session. We believe this pilot arrangement to have been a success and recommend that it should be embedded in Standing Orders, and we await the outcome of the Procedure Committee’s evaluation of the pilot, which it instituted in January 2018. Given the somewhat elastic length of a parliamentary session, the number of days given to the Liaison Committee should be at least three a year, rather than three a session.
43.Professor Meg Russell suggested there should be a half hour question time for select committee chairs whenever a report is published:
That would be an opportunity for the chair to showcase what they had just published, but it would also be an opportunity for Members to come along and ask, “Well, why didn’t you look at this? Why didn’t you look at that?” if they felt that the Committee had not focused in the right places. That would be quite a nice umbilical link to have.
We think there is merit in a regular weekly question time in core parliamentary time for the chairs of departmental and other significant committees. If two 15 minute slots could be made available in the Chamber each week, each chair would be subject to questions roughly twice a session. This would do more to link committee business to the Chamber, and provide part of the missing feedback loop.
44.In addition, it would be possible to make use of existing provisions in Standing Orders to allow for oral questions to chairs, and perhaps to chairs and ministers alongside each other, in Westminster Hall. Questions could be tied to cross-cutting themes (such as climate change policy or drugs policy) in a way that is not possible in the Chamber.
45.We invite the Procedure Committee to come forward with proposals for select committee questions in the Chamber, and to produce a scheme for cross-cutting questions on select committee work to take place at sittings in Westminster Hall.
46.Certain political scientists have drawn a distinction between “talking” and “working” legislatures. By this they generally define those that are based on the plenary as talking and those that are based on committees as working. Westminster is an essentially plenary-based legislature. But as we have seen, over the last forty years, the committees have come to make up an increasingly vital and prominent part of the House of Commons. The House has been often reluctant and laggardly in recognising this fact. The proposals we make above are only a modest increase in the present arrangements for integrating the work of the committees with the work of the main Chamber more fully. There is a case for a review of procedures in the Chamber to ensure that the work of select committees is sufficiently reflected there. Amendments to legislation tabled in the name of select committees—a change championed by the Procedure Committee in the 2010 Parliament—is one means whereby committee work may be more visibly integrated into legislative activity, and we see no reason why the principle ought not to be extended to amendments to motions. We would encourage the Procedure Committee, when time allows, to take a long and comprehensive look at the ways in which the select committees reinforce rather than compete with the work of the plenary, and be prepared to make recommendations which would represent a step change in that settlement. We would, of course, be happy to support such an endeavour.
47.For many years, the Liaison Committee published an annual review of select committees, based on committees’ individual annual reports. More recently, the Committee has moved away from this format. In 2012, it explained that it had “encouraged committees to send us a memorandum, setting out what they had achieved during the 2010–12 Parliamentary Session but also reflecting on what could be done better”. The Committee has not repeated an annual review since. Although the Committee produced a “legacy report” at the end of the 2010–15 Parliament it was unable to do so before the 2017 snap election.
48.Committees have a number of ways to explain to the public, stakeholders and the House what it has achieved. For example the Science and Technology Committee produced a video in Parliament Week 2018 discussing its role, the impact the Committee had had and what it was working on. We recommend that the process of Committees accounting for their performance on an annual basis be reintroduced. Departmental select committees, and those with a policy scrutiny remit, should produce a short, visually engaging output each year. This could be a document making use of data visualisations and infographics to set out key achievements and innovations, statistics and notable examples of impact the committee had had, or it could be a video providing information on these points.
49.What we do is important and so is the way in which we do it. We want select committees to show Parliament at its best. The House’s Behaviour Code applies as much to Members interactions when they are serving on select committees as it does in other elements 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.
50.The House of Commons Committee Office has recently introduced Standards of Service which set out the role of committee staff and the standards to which they work. Committee staff are members of the House service and their role is to offer politically impartial procedural, policy, administrative and media and communications support to committees. Their professionalism and support is hugely appreciated by chairs and members alike and everyone has a responsibility to make sure that this professionalism is reciprocated. The House has a duty of care to its employees, including ensuring that they do not work excessive hours or be asked to undertake unreasonable tasks or an unreasonable workload. 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.
51.Much of the strength of select committees comes from the varied and innovative approach they take to their work. Our recommendations in this chapter seek to build on the flexible approach taken to scrutiny, whilst ensuring that guidance and good practice reflects current interests and concerns. As Professor Tony Wright, former MP and Chair of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, told us, “select committees are a work in progress; they are not the finished article”. We wish to encourage committees to continue to push the boundaries, within a framework that maximises their impact and effectiveness, while also paying due regard to efficiency in the use of resources. This will require committees to consider trade-offs and make hard choices. That is a key task of politics.
Box 3: Revised aims and objectives
Overall aim: To hold Ministers and Departments to account, and to investigate matters of public concern where there is a need for accountability to the public through Parliament.
To deliver this aim our core tasks are:
To deliver these tasks we will:
5 HC Deb, 14 May 2002,
6 Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2002–03, , HC (2002–03) 558, para 13
7 Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012–13, , HC (2012–13) 697, para 20
8 For more information about the genesis of the core tasks of select committees, see , Standard Note SN/PC/316, House of Commons Library, last updated 29 January 2013.
9 Standing Order No. 152.
11 Dr Mark Goodwin ()
12 Hansard Society ()
14 Institute for Government ()
15 Hansard Society ()
16 Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012–13, , HC (2012–13) 697, para 20
17 Institute for Government ()
18 Hansard Society ()
19 Dr Craig Prescott ()
20 Dr Craig Prescott ()
21 University of Leeds ()
22 See for example, Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012–13, , HC (2012–13) 697, para 20
23 UCL ()
24 These are the European Scrutiny Committee, the Regulatory Reform Committee, the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, the European Statutory Instruments Committee and the Exiting the EU Committee.
25 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People ()
26 Professor Matthew Flinders ()
27 Tom Tugendhat MP ()
28 Institute for Government ()
29 Science and Technology Committee ()
30 Ms Meg Hillier ()
31 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People (); Science and Technology Committee ()
32 Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 922
33 Defence Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2017–19, , HC 1071, and Assemblée nationale, XVe législature, Commission de la défense, Rapport d’information conjoint, No 1493, .
36 Standing Order No. 10(6) provides for business in Westminster Hall to include oral questions.
Published: 9 September 2019