In 2019 the work of House of Lords Committees is more important than ever. Select committees are one of Parliament’s main tools in holding Government to account and House of Lords committees, which are both cross-party and cross-cutting, play a vital role in examining policy across Government departments. They also play a key role in assisting work in the Chamber, enabling Peers to draw on their reports on Bills, and during debates. Their detailed and authoritative work has become an increasingly important feature of the House in recent years, and our review has sought to take account of the incremental development of our committees since the last major review by the Jellicoe committee more than 25 years ago, while building upon the unique attributes which allow them to bring such rigour to the scrutiny of government.
Our approach to up-dating the ways Lords committees operate has been evolutionary, seeking to adapt to today’s circumstances and provide flexibility for future change. The recommendations contained within this report would allow us to strengthen further the contribution made by Lords committees through developing our thematic approach to committee work, delivering improvements to our communications and public profile, and enhancing our capacity for follow-up and measuring impact.
Continuing also the process of incremental development, we announce a number of specific changes. In October 2015, in response to requests from members, we recommended the establishment of the newest sessional committee, on International Relations, at the start of the 2016–17 session. This recommendation, which was subsequently agreed by the House of Lords, was subject to a full review of all committees to be undertaken in the 2017–18 session. This was to be conducted in addition to the regular reviews of committee activity which we report on to the House at the end of each session.
We have indeed carried out a full review during 2017–19, taking advantage of the longer than usual session. Of the many witnesses who participated by giving oral and written evidence, none suggested that the International Relations Committee should be discontinued. We conclude that the International Relations Committee has quickly become an important feature of the House of Lords range of committees, and should continue.
When we reported in 2015 many of those who commented expressed the view that there were other priority areas for increased committee activity by the House of Lords. A key theme of the review was therefore the consideration of the overall structure of House of Lords committees, and the identification of scrutiny gaps.
At present the largest group of committee activity is the EU Committee and its six sub-committees. Until the current discussions of the UK’s membership of the EU have concluded, it is premature to take decisions as to the extent and scope of the EU scrutiny by House of Lords committees. We plan to return to this part of our consideration in a later report, including the important issue of the potential long-term need for effective committee scrutiny of treaties.
The current EU sub-committee structure does not include dedicated scrutiny of our main public services, such as health and education; nor does the wider structure of sessional committees. Several witnesses suggested that this was the main gap in the current House of Lords investigative committee structure, and we agree. In 2012 the House agreed to additional provision for the Committee Office of up to £225k (the estimated additional marginal cost of a new committee), subject to the House agreeing the Liaison Committee report. We note that the Committee Office has not yet drawn down on the additional £225k budget agreed by the House in relation to the previous expansion of committee activity and consider that this should now be drawn down to fund a new sessional committee on public services, to be appointed from the start of the next session.
We do not consider that the case has been made at present for all thematic committees to have the power to appoint a sub-committee—and as noted above, it is imperative to await the outcome of Brexit and its impact on the EU committees before making firm decisions on the potential for any re-allocation of existing resources. We propose, however, that committee Chairs should be able to make an annual request to the Liaison Committee for the power and resources to appoint a sub-committee, prior to the re-appointment of the relevant committee in the next session.
Many of our witnesses highlighted the important work of existing committees, including the special inquiry (formerly ad hoc) committees and we recommend that their work should continue as at present.
In relation to the selection process for special inquiry committees we recommend that the member of the House putting forward each of the shortlisted proposals be invited to appear before the Liaison Committee to present their case in person.
In order to address the limited ability of special inquiry committees to follow up their work we recommend that at a convenient period of time after the publication of the special inquiry committee’s report, receipt of the Government’s response and a debate in the House, the Chair of the former Committee may write to the Chair of the Liaison Committee and make the case for the Liaison Committee to hold a small number of evidence sessions to follow up the special inquiry committee’s recommendations. If the Liaison Committee accepts the case for follow up, it will then co-opt the Chair and three members of the former committee (ensuring one member from each group) onto the Liaison Committee with a view to holding two or three evidence sessions, as necessary, ideally in one meeting. This would be followed by a very short Liaison Committee report, to which the Government must respond in the usual fashion.
We need to do more to ensure that the work of our committees is better communicated both within the House and outside it, including to new audiences. We make a number of recommendations to assist this, starting with the agreement of clear objectives at the start of each major inquiry, to assist with identification of a wide range of witnesses, a clear media strategy, continuous improvement and the follow-up of recommendations.
In bringing this major review to its conclusion, whilst we recommend moving towards a system of thematic committees, it is not envisaged that this new system will broadly change the way in which committees currently work or are appointed. We believe, however, that this improved structure, achieved within existing financial resources, will allow committees to maintain and use the strengths of in depth, detailed inquiries that House of Lords committees currently carry out, and that our recommendations in relation to improving committee communications both inside and outside the House will help to increase the effectiveness of their work.