7.This chapter highlights some of the achievements of all the sessional investigative committees during 2018–19. Most of our previous highlights reports have covered typical one-year sessions. Given the current two-year session, last year we decided to report mid-way through the session, focusing on activity from the start of the session in June 2017 to spring 2018.
8.In 2018–19 the Communications Committee undertook a wide-ranging inquiry into online regulation. It considered various aspects of regulation including the use of personal data, competition in digital markets and online harms. This built on earlier work, particularly the Committee’s reports Growing up with the internet and UK advertising in a digital age which respectively considered children’s use of the internet and the future of the advertising sector. The Committee heard from experts in a range of disciplines, as well as representatives of Twitter, Match Group, Google, Facebook and Microsoft. For the first time the Committee heard from Amazon. The Committee’s report Regulating in a digital world found that regulation was fragmented and not adapting to the changing environment of the internet. It recommended that the Government should introduce a statutory duty of care for service providers to protect users against online harms. While the Government is yet to respond to the report fully, it undertook to introduce such a duty in its Online Harms White Paper.
9.In March 2019 the Committee launched a new inquiry into the future of public-service broadcasting in the light of the rising popularity of video on demand services. It is considering whether the emergence of services such as Netflix is undermining the case for public-service broadcasting and, if not, how public-service broadcasting could be better supported in future.
10.The Committee received the Government’s response to its report UK advertising in a digital age. The Committee had found that the digital advertising market is dysfunctional and not transparent, and recommended that the Competition and Markets Authority undertake a market study of the digital advertising market. These studies provide a broad ‘health check’ of a market to ensure that it is functioning efficiently and fairly. Dame Frances Cairncross, who was commissioned by the Government to review the sustainability of journalism, explicitly endorsed the Committee’s recommendation in her report, which was in turn accepted by the Government. The report was debated in the House on 25 April 2019.
11.The Committee introduced its own Twitter account to engage directly with stakeholders and those interested in its work.
12.The Committee inquired into Parliamentary Scrutiny of Treaties. The report concluded that the current processes for scrutinising treaties were limited and insufficient given the developments in treaty-making in recent decades. The Committee recommended establishing a dedicated treaty scrutiny committee to sift all treaties, identifying which require further scrutiny and drawing them to the attention of both Houses. It concluded that the Government should provide Parliament with more information on treaties at all stages in the treaty-making process and that the Government would need to work closely with the devolved institutions in negotiating and implementing treaties after Brexit.
13.The Committee addressed the increasing prevalence of delegated powers in the second report of its inquiry into the legislative process. It concluded that, while delegated powers were necessary to allow Parliament to focus on important policy frameworks and leave detail to secondary legislation, there was a constitutionally unacceptable trend for the Government to seek wide delegated powers, including Henry VIII powers. The Committee said that the Government should take more account of parliamentarians’ concerns about secondary legislation when deficiencies were identified and, if it does not do so, in exceptional circumstances Parliament may use its powers to block such instruments and require the Government to think again.
14.The Constitution Committee reported on seven bills in 2018–19, and corresponded with the Government on one other. One example of the Committee’s impact was its scrutiny of the Ivory Bill, on which it raised concerns about the proposed powers for civilian officers, rather than recognised law enforcement, to enter and search private premises. Following the Committee’s report, meetings with ministers and debates in the House of Lords, the Government agreed to remove the power from the bill.
15.The Committee held annual evidence sessions with the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, and the President and Deputy President of the Supreme Court.
16.The Economic Affairs Committee’s Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-18 Education report was published in June 2018. The Committee found that the system of post-school education is unbalanced in favour of full-time university degrees and offers poor value for money to individuals, taxpayers and the economy. The report highlighted that the national accounts mask the true cost of higher education: around half of the value of student loans being issued will never be paid back, but these write-offs will not appear in the national accounts until the end of the 30-year term of the loans. The Committee recommended that the expected losses on loans should be recognised upfront, which would allow for a better discussion of where public money in post-school education should be directed. Citing the Committee’s report, the Office for National Statistics announced in December 2018 that it would adopt this accounting approach to student loans from 2019/20.
17.Following the Governor of the Bank of England saying to the Committee that it may be time to transition away from using the retail price index (RPI), the Committee inquired into the use of RPI. The report Measuring Inflation, published in January 2019, found that the UK Statistics Authority was at risk of breaching its statutory duties on the publication of statistics by refusing to correct an error that it admitted exists in the RPI. The Committee recommended that the Authority should seek the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s approval to correct the error and, given that RPI remains in widespread use, resume a programme of regular methodological improvements. The Chairman wrote a joint letter with the Chair of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee to the National Statistician and the Chancellor asking them to correct the RPI errors identified in the report. The Chancellor announced in the Spring Statement 2019 that the Government was consulting the UK Statistics Authority on the report’s recommendations. The Governor of the Bank of England wrote to the Committee to state his support for the report’s recommendations.
18.The Committee launched its inquiry into social care funding in England in September 2018. The inquiry is covering the short and long-term funding challenges in social care.
19.The Committee has also undertaken follow-up work on its 2015 report into High Speed 2.
20.Since January 2019 the Committee has trialled having two prominent political journalists on a job-share arrangement as specialist media advisers. They work in tandem with the House of Lords Press Office, using their experience and contacts to help the Committee increase publicity for its reports and evidence sessions. Both before and after these appointments the Committee has had significant success in promoting its work. The four reports of the Committee and its sub-committee (see below) all received extensive and prominent coverage in the national and trade press. Measuring Inflation received detailed attention in the financial press and has been the subject of substantial subsequent debate. Other Committee activity, such as follow-up work on High Speed 2 and correspondence with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, has also received coverage. As part of the media strategy for Treating Students Fairly: The Economics of Post-18 Education, six videos of interviews with Committee members were widely shared online. The committee’s Twitter account has been updated regularly, using images and video. The account has seen significant levels of engagement from other Twitter users, particularly on The Powers of HMRC, Measuring Inflation and follow-up work on High Speed 2.
21.Unlike in previous sessions, the Finance Bill Sub-Committee published two separate reports, on thematic issues arising from the draft Finance Bill. Making Tax Digital for VAT: Treating Small Businesses Fairly considered progress on the Making Tax Digital programme since the Sub-Committee’s March 2017 report on the subject, and the proposed introduction of Making Tax Digital for VAT for 1.2 million businesses in April 2019. The Sub-Committee recommended that Making Tax Digital for VAT be delayed until April 2020, and that the wider programme also proceed at a slower pace.
22.The Powers of HMRC: Treating Taxpayers Fairly considered the balance of powers between Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the taxpayer in light of additions to HMRC powers in recent Finance Bills. The Sub-Committee found that many of these recent powers were disproportionate, and often hindered taxpayers’ access to justice. The Sub-Committee recommended a review of the powers, and a number of remedies for specific powers.
23.The EU Select Committee continued to scrutinise the Brexit process. It held evidence sessions with three successive Secretaries of State for Exiting the EU (The Rt Hon David Davis MP, The Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP and The Rt Hon Stephen Barclay MP); visited Brussels to meet the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier and other EU representatives; and took evidence in London and Brussels from other key stakeholders and experts. The Committee continued its dialogue with the European Parliament, EU national parliaments and the devolved institutions, as well as the Governments of Gibraltar and the Crown Dependencies. Members attended Interparliamentary Conferences, and welcomed several parliamentary delegations to London.
24.The Committee also published three substantive reports. Two of these looked beyond the continuing political uncertainty towards the future UK-EU relationship.
25.In June 2018 the Committee published its report UK-EU relations after Brexit, calling on both sides in the negotiations, rather than focusing on ‘red lines’, to start identifying beneficial outcomes and to make the compromises necessary to achieve them. The Committee called on the Government to present an inclusive vision for future UK-EU relations, commanding broad support, and called on the EU to reciprocate, acknowledging the importance to the EU of a close and lasting partnership with the UK.
26.In March 2019 the Committee published a report entitled Beyond Brexit: how to win friends and influence people. The report outlined the formal and informal structures that will support UK-EU relations after Brexit, and considered how the UK as a whole could use them to rebuild bridges. The Committee focused in particular on Parliament’s key role, in scrutinising EU legislative proposals, examining the governance and institutional mechanisms established under the Withdrawal Agreement, scrutinising the negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, and engaging in inter-parliamentary dialogue.
27.In between these two reports, in December 2018, the Committee published its report Brexit: the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. The report was prepared, agreed and published within nine days of the appearance of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, containing a detailed and dispassionate analysis of these crucial documents. The Committee sought to inform debate in both Houses and beyond, ahead of the first scheduled ‘meaningful vote’ in the Commons—though that vote was subsequently delayed.
28.In January the Procedure Committee and the Liaison Committee decided to transfer responsibility for scrutinising Brexit-related ‘rollover’ agreements from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee to the EU Committee, for the remainder of the 2017–19 session. These are international agreements, or treaties, designed to replace agreements from which the UK currently benefits as an EU Member State, but which will cease to apply to the UK after Brexit. The Government, as part of its preparations for a possible ‘no deal’ Brexit, is seeking to conclude over a hundred such agreements.
29.By the end of April 2019 the EU Committee had published 10 reports on 40 Brexit-related treaties, either drawing special attention to them, or reporting them for information. In so doing, it has sought to support the exercise by the House of the role set out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (CRaG), under which the Government is required to lay treaties before Parliament prior to ratification, and each House has a period of 21 sitting days in which it may call on the Government to withhold ratification. The is the first time either House has undertaken such systematic and detailed scrutiny of treaties laid under CRaG.
30.All six of the EU Sub-Committees, as well as the Select Committee have been involved in this work, supported by the Committee’s Legal Advisers and a Specialist Adviser. The pace of the work has underlined some of the limitations of the CRaG process, and the lessons learned by the EU Committee are expected to feed into the Liaison Committee’s consideration of future scrutiny of treaties.
31.It was a busy year for the Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, which since April 2018 has conducted inquiries, and published reports, on the UK’s implementation of the EU fisheries landing obligation; the future of chemical regulations post-Brexit; the implications of Brexit for plant and animal biosecurity; and the impact of Brexit on the price and availability of food.
32.The Sub-Committee also held one-off sessions/short investigations on the UK’s implementation of the EU air quality Directive; the Office of Nuclear Regulation’s Brexit preparedness; post-Brexit carbon pricing; post-Brexit enforcement of environmental law; the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)’s no-deal preparedness; and food safety risk management post-Brexit.
33.The Sub-Committee has increasingly used a roundtable format as a way of hearing from a wider range of witnesses and of encouraging discussion and debate between witnesses and members. It has also improved the way it explains its work clearly and publicly: from twitter threads that explained complex EU fisheries regulations through the medium of knitted fish, to posting all its scrutiny work on its webpages with simple explanations of what the documents contain.
34.Examples of notable successes include the Sub-Committee’s work on the EU landing obligation, which came into force on 1 January 2019. The Sub-Committee had taken evidence on the likely impact of these new rules, but had yet to publish its report. On 31 December 2018, ahead of publication, the Sub-Committee issued a media statement previewing its conclusions, and this gained significant coverage, thanks both to its timeliness, and the fact that New Year is a quiet news period.
35.In December 2018 the Government published plans for an Office for Environmental Protection, to hold the Government to account on the implementation of environmental law post-Brexit. This was something the Sub-Committee called for in its 2017 report Brexit: environment and climate change—even though the recommendation was dismissed by Government at the time. A number of external organisations have commented on the role that the report played in raising awareness of this issue.
36.The External Affairs Sub-Committee’s inquiries have focused on three aspects of the UK’s relationship with the EU after Brexit: foreign affairs, customs arrangements and international development. The Sub-Committee published two reports: one on the UK’s potential contribution to Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) missions and operations after Brexit (14 May 2018), and one on post-Brexit UK customs arrangements (20 September 2018). The Sub-Committee also issued a call for evidence on international development cooperation after Brexit and had held two evidence sessions by the time this report was being prepared.
37.The Government agreed with most of the recommendations in the CSDP report, including with the central conclusion that the UK would almost certainly derive value from ongoing participation in CSDP missions and operations. The UK-EU Political Declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship, published on 25 November 2018, sets out the UK’s intention to cooperate with the EU on CSDP missions and operations on a case-by-case basis. At the time this report was prepared the Government had yet to provide a response to the report on the UK’s future customs arrangements.
38.In October 2018, three Committee members represented the House at the Interparliamentary Conference on the EU’s Common Foreign and Security and Common Security and Defence Policy in Vienna. On 13 November 2018, the Sub-Committee hosted the Joint meeting of the parliamentary committees on the Lancaster House Treaties—an Anglo-French dialogue on defence, held twice annually with representatives of the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the French Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat. The Chair, one other Sub-Committee member and a member of the International Relations Committee represented the House of Lords.
39.The Financial Affairs Sub-Committee published its report Brexit: the European Investment Bank on 31 January 2019. This highlighted the importance of the European Investment Bank’s (EIB) lending in the UK and how this had declined substantially since the 2016 referendum. The report recommended that the Government consider the creation of a national infrastructure bank. It also expressed dissatisfaction at the Government’s explanation of the UK’s not securing any share of the EIB’s retained earnings as part of the ‘financial settlement’ provisions contained in the UK-EU withdrawal agreement.
40.The Sub-Committee also held a number of one-off sessions on: contractual continuity; data sharing; financial services under the World Trade Organization; central counterparties (CCPs); and the Financial Conduct Authority’s Brexit preparations.
41.The Sub-Committee Chair, Baroness Falkner of Margravine, attended the Interparliamentary Conference on Stability, Economic Coordination and Governance in the European Union in Vienna 17–18 September 2018, and also the Global Parliamentary Conference of the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and IMF in Washington 8–9 April 2019.
42.The Home Affairs Sub-Committee has published three reports since April 2018, on Brexit: the proposed UK-EU security treaty, Brexit: movement of people in the cultural sector, and Brexit: the Erasmus and Horizon programmes. The security treaty report, which was debated in the House in January 2019, called on the Government and the EU to make pragmatic compromises on security matters to achieve the over-riding objective of protecting the safety of UK and EU citizens after Brexit. Since the debate, the Sub-Committee has continued to correspond with the Minister of State for Policing and the Fire Service, The Rt Hon Nick Hurd MP on the UK-EU security relationship during the transition period, and in February took evidence on the Government and UK security agencies’ preparations for security cooperation in a ‘no deal’ scenario.
43.The Sub-Committee published its report on the EU’s student mobility (Erasmus) and research (Horizon) programmes on 12 February 2019. A central theme was the importance of the Erasmus programme in improving employment prospects, contributing to economic growth, and increasing opportunities, particularly for people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with special needs. Also that month, Universities UK—a witness to the inquiry—launched a campaign highlighting the impact of losing access to Erasmus on UK students, and this helped to generate public interest in the Sub-Committee’s report. On publication, the report was one of the first select committee reports to be drawn to the attention of all Members of the House by means of an email from the Senior Deputy Speaker.
44.In March 2019 the Sub-Committee held one-off hearings on future EU migration to the UK for work and on UK-EU asylum cooperation after Brexit, followed by an evidence session with the Minister of State for Immigration, the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP. The Sub-Committee subsequently wrote to the Minister outlining its concerns in these areas.
45.From September to November 2018 the Sub-Committee held a series of evidence sessions on future UK-EU transport arrangements, covering the road, rail and maritime sectors. This included an evidence session with the Secretary of State, Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP. In light of the uncertainty over the fate of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, the Sub-Committee postponed publishing its report—publication is now scheduled for May 2019.
46.For most of the year, however, the Sub-Committee focused on shorter, more reactive pieces of work. For instance, in April 2018 the Sub-Committee published a letter to the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation on the implications of Brexit for the UK space industry, following this up in July with an evidence session with the Minister, in the midst of live negotiations on future UK participation in EU space programmes. Then in January 2019 Baroness McGregor-Smith attended an industry-led event, the European Space Policy Conference, in Brussels.
47.In June 2018 the Sub-Committee visited St John’s Innovation Centre and ideaSpace in Cambridge to discuss Brexit opportunities and challenges with start-ups and scale-ups. Members were motivated in part by a desire to improve parliamentary engagement with small and emerging businesses, and followed up the visit in July with a roundtable evidence session in Westminster with representatives from start-ups and scale-ups from across the UK. A letter was sent later that month to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Minister for Small Business, Consumers and Corporate Responsibility, Ms Kelly Tolhust MP on the implications of Brexit for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), start-ups and scale-ups.
48.In July the Sub-Committee also published a letter summarising follow-up evidence sessions to the Committee’s 2017 report Brexit: trade in non-financial services, which covered aviation, professional business services, digital, creative and travel, including education-related travel.
49.In October 2018 the Sub-Committee agreed a Reasoned Opinion, formally registering its concern over the European Commission’s proposal to discontinue seasonal changes of time. This was the first Reasoned Opinion adopted by the House of Lords since the 2016 referendum, and the House of Commons and the Danish Parliament subsequently followed suit.
50.The Sub-Committee also scrutinised five of the Commission’s ‘no deal’ contingency measures, including the ‘bare bones’ aviation and road haulage agreements. As part of its scrutiny, the Sub-Committee held an evidence session with the Minister of State for Transport, Mr Jesse Norman MP.
51.The EU Justice Sub-Committee focused on Brexit-related inquiries. Its report on post-Brexit governance and dispute settlement was published in May 2018, and explored how the UK and the EU would address disagreements over the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, the transition period and the future relationship.
52.On citizens’ rights, the Sub-Committee continued to press the Government for detailed assurances about the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. Members questioned the Home Secretary, The Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP on two occasions and held three meetings with Home Office officials, including a visit to the Settlement Resolution Centre in Liverpool. The Sub-Committee also met diplomats from EU/EEA countries to hear their concerns. The Sub-Committee’s correspondence with the Home Office continues to attract press interest and has been closely followed by groups representing those affected.
53.The Sub-Committee revisited its work on civil justice co-operation after Brexit, hearing from family lawyers and representative bodies about the problems posed by reducing legal cooperation, particularly for those seeking court rulings and the enforcement of judgments across borders. It also questioned the Minister responsible for this area (the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice) about the status of the Brexit negotiations, and highlighted the need to maintain cooperation.
54.The Sub-Committee’s short inquiry into intellectual property and the ‘Unified Patent Court’ focused on an often-overlooked area of law. The Sub-Committee received evidence from legal experts, corporations and industry bodies, who helped the Sub-Committee to highlight key priorities for the Government in preparing for Brexit.
55.The Sub-Committee also began an inquiry into rights after Brexit, to consider the impact of the removal from UK law of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Sub-Committee has heard evidence from human rights academics and advisers, and from human rights commissions, and will continue this work into summer 2019.
56.In December 2018 the International Relations Committee published its report, UK foreign policy in a shifting world order, following a year-long inquiry. The Committee’s witnesses included former Cabinet Ministers, former National Security Advisers, academics and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. Five members travelled to Washington DC to hear from US politicians, officials and thinktanks. The report found that the US Administration had taken a number of decisions on high-profile foreign policy issues which undermined the UK’s interests, and recommended that the UK Government should place less reliance on reaching a common US/UK approach. It drew attention to the expansion of China’s influence, the disruptive role in international relations played by Russia, the importance of defending the rules-based international order, and the need to address the challenges of new technologies, particularly cyber warfare.
57.The report received good media coverage, particularly on the conclusions on the US relationship. The Global Strategy Forum hosted a well-attended panel discussion on the report’s findings in March 2019. The Chairman wrote to the Foreign Secretary in April 2019 to express disappointment that the Government’s response had not engaged sufficiently with some of the important underlying themes of the report, including the shift in world economic weight to Asia, that some US foreign policy decisions were contrary to the UK’s national interest, and that it was necessary to engage with Russia on issues of common concern.
58.In April 2019, in the week before the Preparatory Committee of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference 2020, the Committee published the report, Rising nuclear risk, disarmament and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Committee’s witnesses included the UN Under Secretary General for Disarmament Affairs, a former Secretary of State for Defence, the Executive Director of the International Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, academics and the Minister of State for Europe and the Americas. Five members visited the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. The Committee found that the risk of nuclear weapons being used was increasing as a result of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and urged the Government to pursue dialogue between nuclear possessor states. It found that the maintenance of the existing international nuclear regime, with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at its core, was important to long-term efforts to reduce the risks inherent in the possession of nuclear weapons. The Committee called on the UK to encourage the nuclear weapon states (China, France, Russia, the US and the UK) to show a demonstrable commitment to disarmament. The report received coverage in a wide range of national press.
59.The International Relations Committee published three short reports: The NATO Summit 2018, United Nations General Assembly 20184 and Yemen: giving peace a chance. The report on Yemen generated significant broadcast and press coverage. The report has regularly been referenced in media stories on Yemen and arms sales since publication, and has generated interest from NGOs.
60.Members of the Committee met a number of foreign delegations, including the Vice President of Somaliland and parliamentarians from Kosovo, which followed up the Committee’s report, The UK and the future of the Western Balkans, published in January 2018.
61.The Science and Technology Committee started the reporting year with a short inquiry into off-site manufacture for construction. The Committee took evidence from April 2018 to June 2018 and visited Laing O’Rourke’s Explore Industrial Park. In its report the Committee welcomed the Government’s commitment to off-site manufacture, demonstrated in its Construction Sector Deal, and made recommendations for further investment in modern methods of construction. The report was published at a launch event at the Institution of Civil Engineers. The Government response contained a number of commitments to act on the recommendations made by the Committee. The report was debated in the House of Lords Chamber on 12 December 2018.
62.The Government response to the Committee’s report Life Sciences Industrial Strategy: Who’s driving the bus? was received in June 2018 and debated in October 2018. The Government was reluctant to accept many of the committee’s recommendations, particularly in relation to governance in the NHS.
63.Since July 2018 the Committee has been inquiring into forensic science. The Committee took oral evidence between October 2018 and January 2019 and received over 100 pieces of written evidence. Members visited the Metropolitan Police Service forensic science directorate to see some of the current techniques used in criminal investigations. The report was published on 1 May 2019 with a launch event at the Royal Society. The report raised concerns about the oversight, funding and research of forensic science in England and Wales.
64.The Science and Technology Committee continues to engage a wide audience through Twitter, with 57,800 followers as at April 2019. Engagement has been almost all positive, with one Twitter user praising the committee for “listening, challenging and discussing [forensic science] so thoroughly.” The Committee has sought to increase engagement with science issues among other members of the House, with the introduction of peers’ seminars on scientific issues, the first of which covered the threat of global emerging infections. This was followed by a seminar on the science of ageing.
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