Thank you for coming to the Procedure Committee on 31 January for what was a very constructive discussion on the procedural changes affecting select committees indicated in your letter of 17 January.
It was very helpful to be able to discuss the Liaison Committee’s proposals in greater detail, and I hope you will agree that a substantial measure of consensus was achieved.
To run through the matters discussed in turn:
The Procedure Committee recognises the case for a Standing Order change which would allow a select committee to invite a nominated member of another committee to participate in oral evidence sessions with witnesses where it would otherwise be difficult to meet the quorum requirement under SO No. 124(2) for joint meetings of select committees under SO No. 137A(1)(b).
Such participation would require the minuted agreement of the sending committee and the receiving committee, and would generally be expected to take place as part of existing joint activities between committees.
The Procedure Committee would in principle be content to support a proposal for change to Standing Orders which gave effect to this arrangement, in effect allowing a guest from one committee to ask questions at an oral evidence session convened by another.
I know you will have taken note of the concerns raised in our discussion about the potential risks to Committee confidentiality from allowing the admission of persons not on the House staff to private meetings of committees for the purposes of supporting the Chair. While it was asserted during the meeting that unauthorised disclosures of information are typically made by Members, that is not always the case: in a report of May 2009 the Standards and Privileges Committee remarked on the serious effect on trust relationships within the Culture, Media and Sport Committee following the leak of sensitive committee information to the press via political party staff members who were associates of a Member’s researcher.
We recognise the case for a pilot scheme to be implemented to allow a nominated staff member to attend certain elements of private committee meetings for the purposes of supporting the work of the Chair: permission to attend should be subject to the unanimous consent of Committee members, and subject to parameters agreed in advance and made available to all members of the Committee.
The pilot would require the House to agree to give the committee or committees designated to take part in the pilot the power to admit persons other than House staff to private meetings of committees. Should suitable safeguards be put in place we would be content to support a proposal to implement such a pilot. It would be for the Liaison Committee to monitor implementation and evaluate the benefits.
I am copying this letter to Bernard Jenkin and to the Leader of the House.
Thanks very much for your time on the phone yesterday. I thought it would be helpful if I wrote to update you following my meeting yesterday with the Leader of the House in which we discussed items which I have also raised with you in correspondence.
The Leader agreed that my proposal for adding to S.O. No 137A(1) in order to give committees the power to invite members of other committees to join them in formal meetings, and participate in asking questions during evidence sessions, appeared uncontroversial. The Leader was, in principle, content for a relevant motion to be tabled in her name.
However, the need for the agreement of the Government, Opposition and SNP Whips was noted, both for this and for other proposed changes. This agreement is more likely to be forthcoming if tightly drafted amendments are suggested, and if reassurance can be provided that Members on all sides are unlikely to raise objections to the changes.
I am therefore looking to you and your Committee to help take this forward. It would be extremely helpful to know your views on the detail of the suggestion for change outlined in my letter of 29 November 2017, or whether alternative drafting would be more appropriate.
I also raised with the Leader the suggestion that a Chair’s researcher should be allowed to attend private meetings of committees, subject to the agreement of the full committee. This would likely require a change to Standing Orders which may be possible if there is broad agreement. Again, any amendment to Standing Orders would need to be carefully drafted. I am hoping that you and your Committee would be able to advise on appropriate wording for a Standing Order, as well as commenting on the suggested change (see my letter of 1 December 2017). The Leader gave her in-principle agreement for an amendment to be tabled in her name.
I have been invited to attend your Committee on 31 January at 2.30pm. The Liaison Committee will be meeting later that day and I would like to be able to update members on progress on these issues. If it would be helpful for us to have a meeting beforehand, do let me know.
Thank you for agreeing to meet me next week, I hope this will be the start of regular engagement between us in our respective roles. It may be possible for us to work together to resolve some of the difficulties that Committee chairs raise through the Liaison Committee.
I thought it would be helpful to update you in advance of our meeting on matters that the Liaison Committee is currently pursuing. I enclose copies of my correspondence with the Chair of the Procedure Committee raising matters, some of which would require changes to Standing Orders.
One matter which I am keen to pursue is a Standing Order amendment to allow easier cooperation between committees when examining witnesses by generalising the power given to any committee considering a National Policy Statement under S. O. No. 152(H)(3) to invite members of other committees to participate in proceedings (and to ask questions of witnesses).
I wrote to you recently following the first meeting of the Liaison Committee seeking the support of the Procedure Committee for the prompt resolution of an issue relating to the attendance and participation of other Members (not members of the Committee) in Committee meeting and evidence taking.
There was another issue which the Committee hoped could be resolved swiftly, subject to the support of the Procedure Committee.
The Liaison Committee was overwhelmingly of the opinion that it would be a considerable help to Chairs of Committees if they were able to bring one nominated research assistant with them to private meetings. However, under standing orders, committees only have power to admit members of the public during the taking of evidence (S.O. No.125). We recognise that any general relaxation of this rule would require the agreement of the House, but we believe that for the small change we are recommending it would be sufficient to have the consent of the Procedure Committee, unless your Committee felt it needed a higher level of authorisation. It is also important that the power would be closely circumscribed and that the rights of other members of committees were respected. I hope you would consider it sufficient if your Committee reported a resolution to the House along the following lines:
That the Chair of any select committee or sub-committee with power to send for persons, papers and records may, with leave of the committee or sub-committee, invite one member of his or her personal staff to attend its private meetings, provided that:
(a) this permission does not extend to times when a committee or sub-committee is considering any draft report;
(b) if at any time a member of a committee or sub-committee indicates his or her objection to the presence of such a person, that person will immediately withdraw without any question being put;
(c) no such person may participate in any proceedings of a committee; and
(d) the presence of any such person is formally noticed in the minutes of a committee.
I believe that this formulation would be clear in restricting this permission to only one member of staff nominated by a Chair, and would preserve the right of any member of the committee to veto such an arrangement.
I am writing following the first meeting of the Liaison Committee to seek the support of the Procedure Committee on a proposed amendment to Standing Orders to facilitate easier cooperation between committees when examining witnesses. It would also be good to be updated on other matters on the agenda of the Procedure Committee.
Standing Order No. 137A makes provision for concurrent meetings of committees. However, procedurally it is a little cumbersome. The need for a simpler and more easily used provision has been urged on a number of occasions. A particular issue is the problem of a member of another committee being unable to participate in a meeting without a quorum of their own committee members being present. I am seeking an amendment that would enable such a member to ask questions of witnesses and would also allow committees more widely to use their discretion in allowing members with a key interest to join them on occasion.
The simplest way to achieve this would be to generalise to all select committees the power given to any committee considering a National Policy Statement under S. O. No. 152(H)(3) (also a power of the Regulatory Reform Committee under S.O. No. 141(13)) to invite members of other committees to participate in their proceedings. This could be done by adding this power to S.O. No. 137A(1) as follows:
( ) to invite Members of the House who are not members of the committee to attend, and, at the discretion of the chair, take part in, its proceedings, but such Members may not move any motion or amendment to any motion or draft report, nor vote nor be counted in the quorum of the committee.
I believe this would be an uncontroversial and straightforward change which would likely be passed with little or no debate.
It might be simplest to replace sub-paragraph (1)(a) of S.O. No. 137A with this provision.
That sub paragraph currently reads:
to communicate its evidence to any other select committee or subcommittee of either House of Parliament or to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales or the Northern Ireland Assembly or to any of their committees; provided that evidence from the National Audit Office shall first have been agreed between that Office and the government department or departments concerned;
The provisions of that sub-paragraph are pretty much obsolete in the era of electronic publication of evidence when this material is publicly available on the internet and have not, I am advised, been used for many years.
I will be writing to the Leader of the House separately on this matter, but the support of the Procedure Committee would be very welcome.
I would be very happy to meet you to discuss these matters further if you would find that helpful.
29 March 2018