The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system Contents

8The role of the Liaison Committee


274.An informal Chairman’s Liaison Committee was established in May 1967.316 However, the Procedure Committee of 1976–78 recommended formalisation through a new Standing Order. This new Standing Order was approved by the House on 31 January 1980 and gave the Committee power to make recommendations on staff and other facilities and advise on the choice of reports for debate, among other tasks. Over time, the Committee has taken on new tasks. Most notably, since 2002 the Liaison Committee has held regular evidence sessions with the Prime Minister.317

Prime Minister sessions

275.Our regular meetings with the Prime Minister are crucial to effective parliamentary scrutiny of the executive. We are the only Committee which has taken evidence from a Prime Minister during modern times. The forum is one where detailed and sustained questioning takes place, in contrast to the fractious and febrile atmosphere and one-off questions which often characterise the Chamber.

276.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. We heard some suggestions that it would be preferable to write the frequency of our hearings with the Prime Minister into Standing Orders, requiring a minimum number of appearances.318 So far in 2019, we have seen the Prime Minister just once. In 2018 Theresa May appeared three times, but she appeared just once in 2016 and in 2017 as a result of delays to setting up the Committee. We also heard that our hearings were considered at their most effective when the number of participants, and the number of topics, were limited in order to allow more detailed questioning and follow-up on initial responses.

277.Specifying the number of oral evidence sessions with the Prime Minister in Standing Orders would not be a proportionate step. There should remain some flexibility in timing to allow us to respond to events. However, 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. Where we suggest a particular timing, the Prime Minister should consider their response in the context of the value of public and parliamentary scrutiny and should try to accommodate requests to attend on or close to these dates. In particular, any new Prime Minister should appear before the Liaison Committee at the earliest opportunity after they take up office.

The role of the Liaison Committee

278.Some told us their view was that the Liaison Committee should do more to co-ordinate and oversee the work of committees, and take on a wider role in matters of public policy itself. The Institute for Government explained:

There is potential for the Liaison Committee to play a much greater role in cross-cutting policy issues, as well as in identifying gaps in scrutiny and reducing duplication on high profile issues.319

Cross-cutting work

279.We do not think that all calls for more cross-cutting work should necessarily be met with additional roles and responsibilities for the Liaison Committee itself. In the majority of cases, joint working between existing committees is the best way to add value. As the BEIS Committee told us, the Liaison Committee is too big, with its 36 members, to operate as an effective select committee.320 Our members, with our responsibilities as chairs, would find it challenging to devote time to an additional scrutiny role. Nevertheless, there are some potential ways for the Liaison Committee to develop its role.

280.The Liaison Committee is restricted by its Standing Order. Our remit allows us to consider “matters relating to select committees” only, except in our evidence sessions with the Prime Minister when we may question the incumbent on issues of public policy. This narrow role for the Committee has the effect of preventing us from using our knowledge and experience to conduct crucial cross-cutting work, although on two occasions the Committee has taken evidence from others: Sir John Chilcot on 2 November 2016 following up the lessons to be learned from the report of his inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003;321 and from the C&AG, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Chief Executive of the Civil Service and the Government Chief Commercial Officer on the collapse of Carillion.322

281.We believe that these two examples usefully illustrate the advantages of the Liaison Committee occasionally taking evidence from ministers and officials on matters that cut across the work of a number of select committees. We believe that we can be trusted to ensure that extending our standing orders to widen our ability to hear from witnesses would not result in a ballooning of our role as some might fear—the chairs of the relevant committees would not allow that to happen. The ability to hold a one-off evidence session on a topic of immense public concern which spans the interests of a number of select committees could be of great value to Parliament and the public, and would (as in the case of Carillion) often represent the most efficient use of both ministers’ and committees’ time. Standing Order No. 145 should be amended to extend our ability to take evidence on matters of public policy from others than just the Prime Minister.

282.Even when working within our currently restricted remit the absence of a power for this committee, unlike all others, to appoint specialist advisers to help with our work on select committee best practice and innovation has proved occasionally frustrating. This minor anomaly should be removed. We recommend that the Liaison Committee be given the power to appoint specialist advisers.

A co-ordinating role?

283.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.

284.For example, we received evidence that there had been possibly unhelpful duplication of work between committees on matters relating to leaving the EU. The Institute for Government wrote that “ The need for such a role has been amply demonstrated by Brexit, which was the subject of 13% of all inquiries announced by Commons committees in the year following the 2017 election”.323 Academics from UK in a Changing Europe noted that the Liaison Committee would be the “obvious venue” in which to work out how committees can complement each other, reduce duplication and ensure that key issues are not missed”.324 We agree. Although it is for individual committees to decide their own work programme, conversations between Chairs sharing knowledge, plans and approaches will help them make informed choices and trade-offs between future work. The Liaison Committee, as the place where all chairs come together, can host and facilitate the knowledge sharing of plans for future inquiries so that decisions can be made about whether joint inquiries or guesting arrangements would be more appropriate.

Sector, thematic, or locality reviews

285.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. For example, Involve told us that there was potential for the Liaison Committee to undertake work to better understand the concerns and priorities of sections of the public, such as young people, or those living in rural areas.325 Likewise, Dame Una O’Brien noted that:

I would love to see Select Committees choose some localities and look at the combination of policies in a given locality, and reflect that back to Government. If that could be co-ordinated across a number of Committees, it would be an immensely powerful thing. For example, if you choose a city such as Manchester and a couple of rural areas, and ask how these policies come together on the ground in relation to people’s lives, I think it would be innovative and interesting.326

286.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 as part of their work stream. A number of individual or concurrent inquiries might take place, with research evidence gathered or commissioned to support findings.

Resources for scrutiny

287.Standing Order No. 145 requires us “to give such advice relating to the work of select committees as may be sought by the House of Commons Commission”. In practice, this means advising the Commission, as the ultimate budget setting authority of the House, on the resources required for the select committees to operate effectively.

288.Over the last forty years there has been a very significant increase in those resources. In 1979 the number of staff in the Committee Office was around 30—by 1996–97 it had grown to around 90, by 2005–06 to 175 and it is now approaching 300. There were significant real-terms uplifts in the budget in 2002, 2013 and in the current year. The total budget for the Office now stands at around £16 million a year, of which over 90% is staff costs.327 That represents less than 5% of the House’s total resource budget and less than 0.002% of total public expenditure, or to put it another way between about two and nine (depending on how you calculate it) minutes of annual public expenditure. Whichever way one looks at it, it is a relatively modest burden on the public purse given the value added by the select committee system.

289.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. In particular, we have identified throughout this report the desire and need for greater engagement and more creative communication. There also looks to be a growing demand for the kind of “mini-publics” represented by the Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care, described in chapter 4. There will inevitably be more demand for the particular skills needed to deliver on these aims as well as the more traditional policy analysis skills which have been the focus of most previous increases in resources.

290.We have also laid emphasis throughout this report on the need to share knowledge and experience of best practice between committees. Such work is often the first victim of organisations operating under pressure. While much of the innovation in ways of working by committees comes from particular committees, capturing and generalising those lessons depends on some form of central knowledge exchange system, as does the development of techniques for assessing the impact of different ways of working (or even the traditional ways of working). It is vital that the Committee Office funds and protects a capacity for research and development in scrutiny, able to work in a way that takes a long view rather than constrained by resources to short term firefighting work.

291.The Procedure Committee’s recent report proposes that the Unit be developed into a Commons Budget Office to support committee work in examining the spending plans of Government departments, a core select committee function which it considers is insufficiently exercised at present. Many of the people who submitted their views to this inquiry had other, and often good, ideas for additional work for committees. We see no prospect of a reduction in demand.

292.There is a constant tension between increasing resources for individual committees and providing specialised central resources which can be applied more flexibly. In general, the trend has been towards the latter, and we expect this to continue to be the most efficient way to meet future demand in most cases. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee made the case for an experiment with delegating budgets to individual committees.328 While this has an attraction in enabling committees to make their own trade-offs between, say, commissioned research, travel, engagement activities and perhaps even the size of their permanent secretariats, it would be a highly complex challenge to devise a system that worked and went beyond the very modest (and generally uncapped) sums of money currently available for discretionary expenditure by individual committees. The benefits and complexities of delegating budgets to committees should be tested by piloting such an approach with three or four committees over a couple of financial years. As a first priority, committees with an international remit should have delegated to them a modest annual budget for travel in a representative capacity to facilitate speedier decision-making and allow greater flexibility.

293.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 using the National Audit Office as an external and impartial moderator. A further one was commissioned and reported in 2007. Given all the pressures we have identified above, and the expectation that for at least some years to come there will be no further real-terms increase in the scrutiny budget, we believe the time has come to invite the National Audit Office again to undertake a full review of the staffing and wider resourcing model that supports select committees, and we recommend that the Comptroller & Auditor General be asked to initiate one during the current year with the target of reporting before the beginning of the next financial year. The proposal for an experiment with delegated budgets should be considered as part of that review.

294.We have also noted above (in chapters 3 and 5) the demand for greater inter-parliamentary working, which should be an aim whatever the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the EU turns out to be. Successive reports since devolution have lamented the lack of attention given to this aspect the new constitutional settlement.329 But this idea will continue to languish unfulfilled if some proper resources are not dedicated to it. Neither will it work if it is seen as a purely Westminster-driven initiative. We recommend that the Clerk of the House 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

295.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. The membership of the Committee is agreed by resolution of the House. The resolution lists the committees of which the chairs shall be ex officio members of the Liaison Committee, and was not agreed in this Parliament until 6 November. This meant that exactly twelve months elapsed between the hearing with the Prime Minister in December 2016 and the next in December 2017. It also means that the various other duties imposed by standing order on the Committee (selecting matters for debate in Westminster Hall and on Estimates Days, allocating national policy statements) and other less formal work cannot be performed. Since changes in composition are relatively infrequent, there is no obvious reason why the list could not be incorporated into Standing Order No. 145 rather than agreed separately as a resolution (and it would also have the small advantage of making the standing order self-explanatory, while at present it is almost wholly opaque). The Committee would then come into existence as soon as a quorum of the chairs in the list took office. In order to maintain the tempo of scrutiny, this could apply as soon as they were elected rather than when their committees were constituted, but the newly-constituted Committee could elect a Chair on a temporary basis until all the vacancies had been filled. 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 and when chairs take office following a general election. We recommend that an interim chair of the Committee could then be elected by chairs once more than half were in place, pending a final decision when the Committee was complete.

Our name

296.We are called the Liaison Committee as it was envisaged that this would be the forum for facilitating liaison between select committees. Before the formal establishment of this committee, the task had been conducted by the Chairman’s Liaison Committee which was set up in 1967 at the suggestion of the then Leader of the House, but without the authority of the House itself. The 1979 Procedure Committee report which recommended our current departmental select committee system recommended that the task of liaison between committees, and associated tasks, required the creation of a formal committee and that it should be called “the Liaison Committee”.

297.Our name is well understood. We are now a much more visible body, not least owing to our role in questioning the Prime Minister, and in that context our title is almost unhelpful in explaining who we are, what we do, and why we are doing it. It is difficult, however, to come up with alternatives. One suggestion that has some appeal is that we might be called a “conference of chairs”. Another is that we might be called the “committee of Chairs”.

A champion for the select committee system

298.Finally, we have been struck over the course of this inquiry that whilst the work on individual committees might be well-known to its own stakeholders, we do a less good job of telling the story of select committees across the piece. 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.

299.To the same end, we will be using the individual annual returns from select committees to publish our own annual report which, as well as setting out achievements and challenges, will help tell a narrative across select committee work. This process will also draw out areas where duplication may have been avoided, and co-operation encouraged so we can better show the benefits of joint working and discussion. It will pick out instances of innovation and best practice to ensure lessons are learnt and successes are celebrated. And it will be a resource in years to come, outlining the impact of the select committee system and the benefits of parliamentary accountability.

316 The detailed history of this Committee is set out in the report of the Select Committee on Procedure, First report, 17 July 1978, HC 588–1 1977–78, para 6.5

317 Dr Mark Bennister (SCS0025)

318 Dr Mark Bennister (SCS0025)

319 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

320 Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (SCS0041)

322 Oral evidence taken on 7 February 2018, HC (2017–19) 770

323 Institute for Government (SCS0038)

324 UK in a Changing Europe Research Hub (SCA0048)

325 The Involve Foundation (SCA0070)

327 This figure does not, of course, represent the full economic cost, as it does not include such centrally-borne costs as rental, energy, IT, security, maintenance and so forth. A number of select committees are also staffed from outside the Committee Office complement.

328 Tom Tugendhat MP (SCA0050), Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (SCS0041)

329 Silk Commission recommendation 54a

Published: 9 September 2019