Select Committee on Constitution First Report


CHAPTER 4: OTHER COMMITTEES

39. Looking at the Committee's terms of reference in another way, we agreed that there is a possibility that we might duplicate the work of existing parliamentary committees. Having more than one committee engaged on the same task can either be a waste of time, if they come up with the same result, or divisive, if they come up with different results and the Government is able to play them off against each other. These disadvantages in our view outweigh any gains there might be from constructive tension between two committees engaged in similar work. We accordingly wish to avoid duplicating the work of other committees: in particular those whose work is described in the following paragraphs. We are taking steps to ensure communication between officials and in that context we are particularly grateful for the offers of assistance we have received.

40. The Royal Commission's recommendation for a Constitution Committee included proposing consideration of a sub-committee of the Constitution Committee "to serve as the focus for the second chamber's interest in Human Rights"[20]. Last session the two Houses in fact appointed a Joint Committee on Human Rights and are expected to re-appoint that Committee this session. Given this development, we have decided to steer clear of Human Rights issues, while keeping in touch with the Joint Committee on Human Rights to ensure an exchange of information and papers as appropriate.

41. The work of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee has already been discussed. It could be argued that the delegation of legislative powers is a constitutional matter, as it is concerned with the balance between the executive and the legislature. We will ensure that our work does not overlap with that of the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee, who are already well aware of the relevant constitutional issues and keep them under review[21]. The two committees will exchange papers and information as necessary.

42. The relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union is of first class constitutional importance. Indeed, many would argue that any bill to alter that relationship would be a matter for the Constitution Committee to consider. The Committee will, however, wish to avoid conducting general inquiries into the constitutional relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, as the House already has a European Union Select Committee which not only scrutinises individual proposals for European law but also conducts in-depth inquiries into cross-cutting European issues, such as the work of the IGC. The Constitution Committee will need to be aware of the work of the EU Committee, when this covers matters of constitutional sensitivity. In the long-term, there may be a role for the Constitution Committee in examining European issues, but in the immediate future co-operation between the clerks and advisers will in our view be more than sufficient.

43. Reform of the House of Lords is a constitutional matter. In the light of the proposal for a Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, however, we will not make this a topic of inquiry, at least for the near future. It should, however, be noted that during a Starred Question on 14th November 2000[22], the Leader of the House, Baroness Jay of Paddington, said that the proposed terms of reference of the Constitution Committee would "mean that the Committee could, if it wished, consider the exercise of the House's guardianship of the constitution." This could include a study of the special power given to the House of Lords by the exclusion from the Parliament Acts procedure of any bill to prolong the life of a Parliament.

44. The House of Commons does not have a Select Committee covering the constitution. The Public Administration Committee does, however, consider topics with a constitutional flavour[23]. We will accordingly wish to work closely with that Committee.

45. It could also be argued that reforms to the House of Commons, designed to strengthen their ability to scrutinise and hold the Government to account, could be said to be of constitutional interest, as they too affect the relationship between the Government and Parliament. The House of Commons, however, already has a Modernisation Committee, a Procedure Committee and a Liaison Committee, all of which look at questions of this kind and we would not wish to overlap with their work. It would be unfortunate if a Lords committee were thought to be muscling in on the internal business of the Commons, and this would be unwelcome, although we might wish to consider the implications for the broader interests of this House, and of Parliament as a whole, of any such reforms.

46. All of the committee Chairmen that we spoke to welcomed the possibility of co-operation with our committee (QQ 11, 39, 85, 109). Jean Corston, Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in particular suggested that there should be co-operation not only between officials involving exchanging of papers but also between the Chairs of the various committees (Q 40). Generally, witnesses suggested that there was a need for committees to complement each other by agreement and avoid duplication and overlap (QQ 73, 130). Baroness Jay of Paddington suggested that we would need to avoid being so distinct from the work of other committees that there was nothing interesting left for us to do while at the same time avoiding duplication (Q 196). Lord Tordoff, Chairman of the European Union Committee, went so far as to suggest that committees should exchange information before deciding which was best placed to conduct a particular inquiry (Q 109). Jean Corston too stressed the importance of using "the very significant resources" of her committee and ours to avoid duplication of effort (Q 52). As far as substantive issues were concerned, Lord Alexander of Weedon stressed that the DPDC's role was only constitutional with regard to secondary legislation (Q 10); Professor Feldman, Legal Adviser to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, stressed that "all rights are potentially constitutional but it depends on the context as to whether they are or not" (Q 42); the European Union Committee drew attention to work they already did to avoid crossed wires with other committees both at Westminster and beyond (QQ 114—5); while Tony Wright said that his committee did go into constitutional areas and gave specific examples (QQ 85—90).

47. We note that the committees whose relationship with us is most pertinent would be the Lords European Union Committee and (as it now is) the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee; the Joint Committee on Human Rights; and the Public Administration Committee in the House of Commons. Many other parliamentary committees, however, could also conduct inquiries into matters which could be thought to be constitutional, examples include the Procedure, Liaison and Scottish Affairs Committees in the Commons[24].

48. It is our view that there is little point in duplicating the work of these and other committees. We accordingly asked ourselves whether we should try to carve out a unique and discrete area for ourselves or accept that there is a need for some overlap and try to work to make this complementary rather than duplicatory. It is our conclusion that we will not be too dogmatic about this. In considering which topics to examine, we will of course take into account whether or not an issue has been or could be considered by another committee. If we discover that it has, or could be, this may not necessarily preclude us from examining it but it might prompt us to give priority instead to issues that fall exclusively or primarily within our own remit. Where we do decide to examine an issue that overlaps with the remit of another committee we will of course need to ensure liaison with that committee, in what we hope would be a mutual spirit of collaboration, in addition to the ongoing exchange of information and papers that we will work to establish with all relevant committees. On certain occasions, indeed, we may ask another committee to work with us, either formally of informally[25].

49. We do not say much here about the mechanics we will employ for liaising with other committees: the staff of the House, both Clerks and Legal Advisers, are aware of these issues and will work as they always do to ensure appropriate co-operation. We should note, however, that we are particularly grateful that the legal advisers of the Human Rights Committee, the European Union Committee and the Delegated Powers and Deregulation Committee have already appeared before us and we will wish to make best use of the available expertise in the future. Accordingly, we do not seek to ask the House to appoint a free-standing Legal Adviser for our committee. We do not feel that, in the light of the co-operation we have been offered, such an appointment could be justified. We will of course, in the usual way, seek to appoint specialist advisers on particular topics of inquiry.


20   Op Cit n2 above para 5.33. Back

21   For example, in their Annual Reports and their submission to the Royal Commission, which we have studied and found interesting. Back

22   cols 124ff. Back

23   Its Terms of Reference are "to examine on behalf of the House of Commons the reports of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, of the Health Service Commissioners for England, Scotland and Wales and of the Parliamentary Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, which are laid before this House, and matters in connection therewith; and to consider matters relating to the quality and standards of administration provided by Civil Service departments, and other matters relating to the Civil Service". Its constitution and powers are set out in House of Commons Standing Order No. 146. Back

24   The last of these has reported on multi-layered democracy (2nd Report Session 1997-98, HC 460). Back

25   We have in mind here, as an example, the case for possible joint sessions of evidence, to avoid witnesses coming before two parliamentary committees.  Back


 
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