Review of House of Lords Investigative and Scrutiny Committees: towards a new thematic committee structure Contents

Chapter 3: Purpose of committees and underlying principles

Purpose of committees

20.Before being able to understand issues with the current House of Lords committee system, and the possible alternatives that are available to improve it, the committee agreed that understanding the purpose of committees was the necessary first step.

21.In 1992 the Jellicoe Review established three broad categories as to the purpose of House of Lords committees:

22.The evidence we received during our current review reiterated many of these original principles. Michael Clancy, Director of Law Reform at Law Society of Scotland, considered that the purpose of committees should be “looking at policy, examining legislation, looking at the way in which government is working and reporting to the House”.8 He added that whilst the focus “relates to the influence upon the Government and upon legislation and policy, nevertheless the public expect some kind of reaction from the House of Lords”.9 Lord Norton of Louth suggested that committees have a responsibility to more than just one audience. He stated that it was the role of committees to “inform not just the House, but also government and others in the field … as well as on occasion the wider public”.10

23.Lord Norton also emphasised the importance of developing a relationship between committees and the public:

“Filling gaps in terms of legislative and administrative scrutiny is necessary for the House to fulfil its core functions. Doing so is necessary, but it is not sufficient. It omits the third primary function, which is to give voice to and consider the concerns of citizens.

The legitimacy of the House derives from fulfilling the functions outlined above, but it is crucial to emphasise the limitations of seeing them purely in terms of legislative-executive relations. They need to be located within the prism of legislative-public relations. Both Houses act as a buckle… between government and citizens”.11

24.The Jellicoe Review had noted that the purpose of Lords’ committees is “unlike the Commons’ departmentally-related committees”.12 The Review suggested that “Lords’ select committees do not seek to hold Ministers to account or scrutinise the work of Government departments in any comprehensive way”.13

25.Our evidence demonstrated a shift in opinion since the Jellicoe review published its findings. Several witnesses noted the need for House of Lords committees to hold Ministers and the Government to account. Mr Alun Evans, Chief Executive at the British Academy, highlighted the need for committees to hold the Government to account and said committees “are essential for proper scrutiny of the legislature and of the Executive”.14 Robert Khan, Executive Director of External Affairs, Law Society of England and Wales, suggested the purpose of committees is to “provide robust scrutiny not just of government legislation but of government actions more generally”.15

26.In direct contrast with the conclusions of the Jellicoe Review, Dr Ruth Fox, Director and Head of Research at the Hansard Society, highlighted the “anticipatory power” of committees “in terms of persuading Ministers to think again”.16 The view that Lords committees do now have a role in holding Government and Ministers to account was also supported by members of the House. Lord Blencathra described the purpose as “holding Government to account”17 and Lord Clement-Jones phrased it as “challenging government”.18

Five key purposes for future Lords committees

27.Whilst the Jellicoe review established three key purposes to House of Lords committees, our evidence has led to us expanding this as we identified five key purposes which we believe should be reflected in the future work of House of Lords committees:

28.We conclude that scrutiny of Government, influencing policy, informing debate in the House and beyond, engaging with the public and detailed investigation are key purposes to House of Lords committees.

Key principles for House of Lords committees

29.Having identified the key purposes of Lords committees, and also reflecting the evidence we received, we then defined five key principles that should shape this work. Taken together, we consider that these would help to develop an enhanced approach to House of Lords committee activity. We believe that House of Lords committees should be:

30.The following paragraphs explore these principles in greater detail.

Cross cutting

31.Since 1979 the departmental structure of House of Commons select committees has provided a clear structure and purpose for most of their committees, whose role is to examine “the expenditure, administration and policy” of the relevant department and its “associated public bodies”.19

32.The Hansard Society noted that the current Lords committee system “more easily accommodates and encourages scrutiny of cross-departmental topics than its counterpart in the Commons, where ‘siloed’ scrutiny has been a perennial weakness”.20 This strength was also reiterated by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham, the Convenor of the Lords Spiritual, who said that the “emphasis” in Lords committees “on subject areas that cut across departments ensures that the Lords complements the work of the Commons, instead of competes with it”.21

33.Professor Meg Russell, Director, Constitution Unit, University College London, said that “one of the great strengths” of Lords committees is the “complementarity, the fact that committees in the Lords do not simply duplicate the Commons”.22 In our evidence the relationship between committees of the two Houses and their ability to complement one another, rather than simply replicate, was reiterated as key to the development of any committee structure.

34.We recommend that House of Lords committees should continue to be cross-cutting in nature, working across a number of Government departments and with the ability to consider major policy issues with the requisite degree of breadth and depth. This is a strength of the current arrangements and should be maintained going forward. This approach helps to ensure that our committees complement, rather than duplicate, the departmental approach of the House of Commons.


35.Building on the theme of cross-cutting House of Lords committees and complementarity with the House of Commons, witnesses identified a need for parliamentary committees to be increasingly aware of each others’ work. Increased awareness and information-sharing, facilitated by use of technology, could help establish parliamentary scrutiny rather than solely Commons or Lords scrutiny, and avoid possible scrutiny gaps across the two Houses. Professor Russell, when reflecting on the idea of Parliamentary scrutiny, thought the correct approach would be “identifying real scrutiny gaps and weaknesses in the parliamentary system as a whole and how they can be filled”.23

36.The current structure of House of Lords committees has developed in an ad hoc way, as laid out in earlier chapters. While some areas of public policy—such as the European Union—are well-covered and well-resourced, in other major policy areas there are significant scrutiny gaps. This is particularly the case for issues surrounding public services and social affairs, which are not always well covered by the remits of our current committees. Our approach to building upon our current committee structure aims to fill these scrutiny gaps and ensure that there is comprehensive scrutiny of major policy both in the House of Lords, and across Parliament more widely.

37.We consider that the structure of our committee work should be comprehensive in order to minimise the potential for scrutiny gaps and assist the House in its function as a revising Chamber. The incremental development of our committee structure to date has resulted in some scrutiny gaps. Our recommendations in this report seek to address this situation.


38.The current committee system has limited flexibility in its ability to react to external events. Dr Fox, stated a “critique would be that the adaptability and flexibility you have built in is essentially a once-a-year opportunity”,24 and she would question “whether that is necessarily as flexible as you might want going forward”.25 Dr Fox recognised, however, that “the fact that the committee structure is not tied to the shadowing of government departments allows the Upper House more discretion.”26

39.The need to improve the agility of House of Lords committees was highlighted as an important measure in ensuring that a revised structure could stand the test of time. Mr Clancy emphasised the connection between flexibility and the future and explained “the structure has to be sufficiently fixed to do the job but sufficiently flexible to take account of changes as time goes on.”27 Committees, and the House itself, will need to take into account ongoing societal changes and the continuing impact of developing technology, amongst many other challenges in forthcoming years.

40.On a more positive note, several witnesses highlighted the fact that Lords committees typically avoid the temptation of “ambulance-chasing”28 the latest media headlines, and thought that this approach could be developed further. Lord Hollick emphasised the ability of Lords committees to take a longer-term view, and to look at future policy initiatives, “on a cross-party basis, with the benefit of considerable political, academic, business and professional expertise, we are able to take a longer view on a lot of important things … giving a longer-term perspective.”29

41.We believe that House of Lords committees should develop greater flexibility to enable their work to respond to the changing external environment, whilst simultaneously addressing new challenges. Our approach to committee work should be responsive and agile enough to allow committees to horizon scan, deal with emerging themes and respond to constant societal and technological changes.

Open and outward-looking

42.Many of our witnesses from both inside and outside the House of Lords were strongly of the view that Lords committees should be better equipped to engage with wider audiences, both within Parliament—including the House of Commons—and beyond Westminster. We agree that this is an area where Lords committees need to build upon good work that has been undertaken in recent years and we explore this theme further in Chapter 6.


43.Committees should seek to understand, monitor and measure their impact. This will entail greater emphasis on planning, particularly in connection with the overall aims of major inquiries and in developing strategies for public engagement and media. We recognise the current weaknesses in tracking committee recommendations and consider that dedicated follow-up activity should form part of a new approach. We explore some means for addressing this further in the final chapter of this report, but set out here some structural challenges which currently limit our ability to understand impact and ensure effectiveness.

44.The annual cycle of appointment and reporting for special inquiry committees attracted widespread comment, much of it critical. Following up committee recommendations is one of the key tools for committee effectiveness, and a repeated criticism was the lack of resources by House of Lords committees to conduct systematic follow-up of earlier inquiries. Whilst this was to some extent true of most committees, the problem was particularly acute in relation to the complete absence of flexibility to follow up special inquiry committee reports as demonstrated in Box 1. This issue is a consequence of the time-limited nature of special inquiry committees, which are dissolved once their report has been ordered to be printed. There is currently no formal mechanism for reconvening the committee, or further follow-up other than the government response, debate in the chamber, and letters to and from the Liaison Committee. Baroness Tyler of Enfield, who acted as Chair of the Financial Exclusion ad hoc Committee in the 2016–17 Parliamentary Session and has been a member of four other ad hoc committees, highlighted that the limited potential for follow-up “significantly diminishes the likelihood of the recommendations being taken seriously by Government”.30

Box 1: Witnesses’ views on the need for improved follow-up by committees

“With the follow-up, particularly with the ad hoc committees, that is a real issue at the moment. There is an accountability cliff that it goes off.”31

“Sessional committees retain an infrastructure to follow up recommendations affecting government and others, but ad hoc committees tend to struggle with follow-up procedures”32

“The weakness that we have all identified is the follow-up. I would like to see a system …of an annual follow-up”33

“This follow-up question is probably the most important part of the whole exercise… we must do this better”34

“We ought to be looking very much at more formal ways of follow up and checking out what has happened as a result of the report, because not only is it good for the Committees and policy but it is very good for the reputation of the House to see how we influence policy”35

“The fact that ad hoc committees dissolve after the publication of their report is seen as one of the weaknesses, if not the main weaknesses of House of Lords ad hoc committees. This severely limits the ability to do follow up, which is in sharp contrast to a sessional committee”36

“Committees are cut off and their recommendations may languish once the period of existence has come to an end. There needs to be more post-report action”37

7 House of Lords Committee on the Committee Work of the House (Volume 1: Report, Session 1991–92, HL Paper 35)

8 Q 61 (Michael Clancy)

9 Ibid.

10 Written evidence from Lord Norton of Louth (RIS0023)

11 Supplementary written evidence from Lord Norton of Louth (RIS0079)

12 House of Lords Committee on the Committee Work of the House (Volume 1: Report, Session 1991–92, HL Paper 35)

13 Ibid.

14 Q 31 (Alun Evans)

15 Q 61 (Robert Khan)

16 Q 37 (Dr Ruth Fox)

17 Q 80 (Lord Blencathra)

18 Q 148 (Lord Clement-Jones)

19 UK Parliament, ‘House of Commons select committees’: [accessed 23 April 2019]

20 Written evidence from the Hansard Society (RIS0048)

21 Written evidence from the Bishop of Birmingham (RIS0066)

22 1 (Prof Meg Russell)

23 Q 6 (Professor Meg Russell)

24 Q 44 (Dr Ruth Fox)

25 Ibid.

26 Written evidence from the Hansard Society (RIS0048)

27 Q 68 (Michael Clancy)

28 Q 92 (Lord Lisvane)

29 Q 100 (Lord Hollick)

30 Written evidence from Baroness Tyler of Enfield (RIS0044)

31 Q 22 (Prof Matthew Flinders)

32 Q 82 (Lord Trefgarne)

33 Q 143 (Baroness McIntosh of Pickering)

34 Q 143 (Lord Cameron of Dillington)

35 Q 144 (Baroness Pikeathley)

36 Written evidence from Thomas Caygill (RIS0008)

37 Written evidence from Baroness Deech (RIS0024)

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