The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

The work of committees

1.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. (Paragraph 18)

2.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. (Paragraph 22)

3.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 (Paragraph 25)

4.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. (Paragraph 26)

5.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. (Paragraph 30)

6.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. (Paragraph 32)

7.Follow-up should be considered part of the core ways of working of select committees. (Paragraph 35)

8.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. (Paragraph 36)

9.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. (Paragraph 38)

10.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. (Paragraph 42)

11.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. (Paragraph 45)

12.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. (Paragraph 46)

13.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. (Paragraph 48)

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

14.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 deployed as efficiently as possible. (Paragraph 75)

15.We agree that 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. (Paragraph 82)

16.One option which we believe requires further investigation is the creation of a single integrated European committee to provide oversight of EU-UK matters. (Paragraph 83)

17.Further work is also required to consider the appropriate model for future treaty scrutiny and the Liaison Committees of both Houses should hold internal discussions to take this forward. Options for consideration include the establishment of a joint “treaties” committee of both Houses. (Paragraph 84)

18.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. This must reflect not only the demands of EU and international work, but also the expanded workload deriving from any potential return of policy competence from the EU level to the domestic level. To meet the needs of the committees as a whole, it is therefore imperative that any new arrangements are 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. (Paragraph 86)

19.We recommend the development of a Framework Agreement between both Houses of Parliament and the Government on providing information on treaty negotiations and conclusion. (Paragraph 89)

20.Discussions must now take place 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 and at whatever pace of change. (Paragraph 90)

Evidence, engagement and research

21.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. (Paragraph 96)

22.We recommend that by the end of March 2020 the Committee Office should make proposals to the Liaison Committee on how a system for witnesses declaring interests could work and what procedural changes, decisions of the House and guidance would be needed to enable such a process. (Paragraph 100)

23.Select committees are now operating in a very different media and communications environment, where information is conveyed as much through audio, video and image as the written word. Whatever its medium or format, information submitted to committees which they then seek to publish by order of the House ought to be recognised as formal evidence. The House must take the necessary steps to bring about this change. We invite the Procedure Committee to identify and recommend to the House any changes in the House’s practices that would be necessary to achieve this. For our part, we commit to establishing a protocol to ensure that such material is used appropriately by select committees seeking to report it, for instance by ensuring that all parties to an audio recording have consented to the reporting of such material. (Paragraph 104)

24.We recognise that we need to make it as easy as possible for members of the public to engage in our work. However, the current requirements for submitting written evidence pose barriers which prevent this from happening. An online form with a series of text boxes to help structure the submission could encourage contributions from members of the public. We recommend that this should be trialled by the Web and Publications Unit over the next twelve months. (Paragraph 107)

25.We note how discourteous it can appear to witnesses and how disruptive it can be for them to have to pause an evidence session when the division bell rings. Many witnesses travel long distances to give evidence and the House should consider how its voting procedures could be modified to reduce this disruption, including trialling the use of electronic voting posts in committee rooms. (Paragraph 113)

26.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. (Paragraph 116)

27.In order to improve the quality and effectiveness of questioning by select committees, further effort should be made to renew the mentoring and training for select committee members and chairs. This might include a new “chair’s mentoring scheme” run peer-to-peer but facilitated by the House. It might also be worth exploring the possibility of a 360 degree feedback scheme for committees which asks witnesses, special advisers, and key stakeholders, for honest (and anonymised) reflections on an annual basis. Members should agree in advance how they will deal with other communications, including social media, during committee hearings and be mindful of the impact on witnesses if members are not paying attention to their evidence. (Paragraph 117)

28.Those appearing before committees in person should be supported to give the best account they can. This means offering all such people a telephone briefing and, unless committees feel that their status and the topic on which they are giving evidence should preclude it, giving them guidance on the likely questions or topics in advance. There should be no theological anguish amongst committee staff about whether or not this might trespass on the zone of contempt of the House. Chairs should also consider taking steps to put witnesses at ease before a session, greeting witnesses on their arrival, introducing themselves and setting the scene. (Paragraph 121)

29.Committees’ needs must be considered in both the design of the temporary House and planning our future return to Parliament. 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. (Paragraph 125)

30.Hansard does not currently transcribe informal proceedings, but having a record of such sessions is extremely valuable. We recommend that Hansard be resourced and therefore enabled to provide this support. (Paragraph 126)

31.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. (Paragraph 129)

32.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. (Paragraph 131)

33.We recommend that the Committee Office explores the costs and constraints on widening the scope of the “witness expenses” arrangements to embrace a wider range of events both in Westminster and beyond and brings forward costed proposals for enhancing this capacity. (Paragraph 137)

34.We agree with the SCET that committee members and staff would benefit from receiving training in how to facilitate public engagement events. (Paragraph 140)

35.We recommend that the Committee Office and Select Committee Engagement Team together find a way to capture, record and evaluate, in a way that can easily shared and accessed by different teams, the range of digital and face-to-face public engagement activities being undertaken by committees and how these can be used more effectively. (Paragraph 141)

36.Providing feedback to participants after public engagement is very important. (Paragraph 144)

37.Digital engagement is an increasingly useful tool for committees, enabling us to hear directly from large numbers of people and specific sections of the public. Work should begin between the Parliamentary Digital Service and Web and Publications Unit to trial new digital engagement tools and ensure that the new website can facilitate the use of a range of these. (Paragraph 146)

38.We note that the research budget could be used to commission analysis from an external organisation of the data gathered from digital engagement and would endorse this approach where taken. (Paragraph 147)

39.The House should consider how knowledge and learning on citizens’ assemblies and other types of deliberative public engagement should best be captured, recorded and shared with a view to undertaking such activities more easily in the future. (Paragraph 149)

40.In general, what we heard during this inquiry underlined the need for greater research, development and knowledge exchange capacity within the Committee Office, and better connections between the Select Committee Outreach Service and this capacity. (Paragraph 150)

41.We endorse the use of evidence checks by select committees and encourage a wider range of committees to consider their use where appropriate. We would like government to be more open to sharing its own evidence base with select committees. (Paragraph 152)

42.We welcome the positive contribution that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology makes to the work of select committees. However, efforts to make best use of the research capacity and knowledge of academic institutions and other research based organisations must continue. We recommend that POST, the Committee Office, UKRI and the other research councils, along with the major charitable research funding foundations 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. (Paragraph 157)

43.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. (Paragraph 159)

44.We recommend that the Committee Office act upon the Association of Charitable Foundation’s offer to facilitate better engagement with the charitable research foundations and that this function is also assigned to the Office’s central knowledge exchange capacity, working together with POST. (Paragraph 163)

45.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. (Paragraph 165)

46.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. We invite those with an interest in this area, as custodians of very substantial public funds, to consider how such a body could be constituted, operated, and held accountable to Parliament while giving the widest possible benefit of access to the best research knowledge for all interested citizens. (Paragraph 168)

Powers, privileges and contempts

47.We invite the Privileges Committee to consider the issue of the extent of the immunity of Members of the House of Lords. (Paragraph 173)

48.We conclude that, should the co-operation of Members of this House in the future arise as an issue, it would be open to any committee to seek an ad hoc order of the House to secure the attendance or documents of any reluctant Member. (Paragraph 174)

49.Events since the letter from the Chair of this Committee was submitted to the Committee of Privileges in June 2018 have only served to further convince us that the option of doing nothing is unacceptable. (Paragraph 186)

50.We further note that recourse to an Address would be available at the initiative of a committee, but the main issue would be the ability of the government to refuse to find time for a motion for an Address to be debated. We believe that, as it is tantamount to a matter of privilege, should any committee feel obliged to have such resort to seeking a motion for an Address, it should become the clear practice of the House that time would be found urgently to debate its motion. (Paragraph 189)

51.We urge government to be more forthcoming in releasing papers that set out the evidence on which decisions are made, even if this involves redacting sections which are formal advice to ministers. There is no excuse for withholding evidence gathered at public expense which should rightly be in the public domain so that it can be subject to scrutiny. (Paragraph 190)

52.We agree with the general conclusions of both the 1999 and 2013 joint committees on parliamentary privilege that the Parliamentary Papers Act 1840 needs revision. So far as select committees are concerned, the mischief of the 1840 Act is obscurity and ambiguity. These factors are an unnecessary inhibition on select committees taking advantage of the breadth of modern means of communications both to gather evidence and to publish their findings in different ways which will engage different audiences. (Paragraph 193)

53.No doubt more work may be required to achieve a simple, clear statement of the statutory protection that select committees (and other parliamentary proceedings) need to enjoy in order to be able to perform their functions in as up-to-date a way as possible. But, once again, no action has been taken on recommendations from joint committees of both Houses for two decades. 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 ourselves. (Paragraph 195)

54.We support the recommendation of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs committees for a new standing order of the House to provide for committees to have a right to initiate a short debate in cases where Ministers propose to override a negative report of a committee following a pre-appointment hearing. (Paragraph 198)

Communicating our work

55.In its 2012 report, our predecessor committee encouraged committees to keep their reports short and to avoid too many recommendations, and we endorse and restate this approach. (Paragraph 205)

56.We agree that 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. (Paragraph 207)

57.We want our work to be accessible and to have a wide reach across a diverse range of audiences. To this end, 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, bring our work to life for the wider public. Such outputs should be made under an order of the committee wherever possible. To enable committees to develop a ‘digital first’ approach to reports and produce complimentary digital assets requires greater capacity and resources. Provision should be made to expand the Web and Publications Unit so that they are able to provide the support that committees need to digitally innovate. (Paragraph 210)

58.We recommend that Standing Order No. 134 be amended to give committees complete discretion and flexibility over the timing and distribution of their embargoed reports before publication. (Paragraph 213)

59.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. The depth and breadth of select committee activity should be showcased, and engagement by the public in their work through the website should be made easier. (Paragraph 217)

60.The current rules on photography no longer reflect modern practice and hamper committees’ attempts to engage the public in their work and set it in its proper context. We recommend that the Administration Committee review and update the rules to allow committees discretion about the use of photography. (Paragraph 222)

61.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” which is confusing to the public. (Paragraph 229)

62.The formal structures and rules of the House should not be an inhibition on experiment except where absolutely necessary. We encourage committees to continue to innovate and be radical about how they engage with the world beyond Westminster and Whitehall. We look forward to continuing this approach and embedding it within a wider communications strategy. The formal report may not always be the best or most effective output from an inquiry in the future—what matters is what works, and different outputs will be appropriate to different purposes and audiences. As committees increasingly engage throughout an inquiry with their different interlocutors and stakeholders they must be able to communicate the progress of an inquiry effectively as it goes along. The dialogue which is an increasing feature of their work should be a continuous and two-way dialogue. (Paragraph 230)

Chairs and Members

63.We recommend that the relevant changes to Standing Order No. 122B be made to extend chair elections to all select committees. (Paragraph 239)

64.We suggest that the Procedure Committee consider different options available for allowing Members to leave select committees part way through a Parliament. (Paragraph 240)

65.We suggest that eligibility to sit on select committees should be determined by extending the application of the provision of those eligible to sit on the Backbench Business Committee to all select committees. (Paragraph 245)

66.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 following the initial ballot. (Paragraph 250)

67.We repeat here the recommendation of the Wright Committee but extend this from the principal committees to all committees: “that select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen’s Speech”. We further recommend that the Liaison Committee should be enabled to sit with an interim chair pending the formal constitution of all committees once the majority have been elected. It is not acceptable that scrutiny of the Prime Minister should be unduly delayed. (Paragraph 252)

68.The 60% rule has continuing value as a declaration of the general expectation of the House as to Members’ attendance at select committees, and we continue to endorse the view of the Liaison Committee in 2012 as to how it should work in practice, with the chair in question consulting with the Chair of the Liaison Committee and taking all factors into account before deciding whether to take further action. (Paragraph 257)

69.We recommend that committees should from now on record in both their Formal Minutes and their attendance tables, in the manner set out in this Report, the periods for which any Member of the committee has a proxy vote under the House’s scheme agreed on 28 January 2019. (Paragraph 263)

70.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. (Paragraph 264)

71.We recommend that committees record long term or recurrent reasons for absence, which the chair is satisfied are legitimate and which the member concerned is content to divulge, on published committee attendance tables. (Paragraph 269)

72.Committees should also add at the bottom of their attendance tables the following text:

Note: attendance rates at any particular committee will reflect other parliamentary commitments by Members, including membership of other select committees meeting at the same time or commitments in the Chamber or at public bill, delegated legislation or other parliamentary committees. Attendance rates can also be affected by such things as long-term illnesses, family illnesses or caring responsibilities. In some cases, a Member may have indicated an intention to leave the committee but has not yet been discharged by the House. (Paragraph 270)

73.The wider recommendations of this report are seeking to ensure that the time of Members is most effectively applied where it will have the most influence, and committees need to be self-critical in ensuring that this aim is always kept in mind.(Paragraph 273)

The role of the Liaison Committee

74.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. (Paragraph 277)

75.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. (Paragraph 279)

76.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. (Paragraph 281)

77.We recommend that the Liaison Committee be given the power to appoint specialist advisers. (Paragraph 282)

78.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. (Paragraph 284)

79.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. (Paragraph 286)

80.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. (Paragraph 290)

81.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. (Paragraph 293)

82.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. (Paragraph 294)

83.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. (Paragraph 295)

84.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. (Paragraph 298)

Published: 9 September 2019