149.Joint committees of both Houses are formally composed of separate select committees appointed by each House to join together and operate as a single committee making decisions jointly, with members from both Houses but with a single chairman (which the joint committee is usually given the power to appoint) from one of the Houses. Joint committees generally follow Lords procedure, unless they agree otherwise, including the use of the Chair’s vote and the outcome in the case of equality of votes. Joint committee reports are generally made to both Houses.
150.In addition to formally constituted joint committees, there are frequent opportunities for committees in the Commons and Lords to work closely together, often by exchanging information behind the scenes, or at official level. Most witnesses considered that House of Lords committees should continue with their approach of complementing the departmental committees in the House of Commons and avoiding duplication. As Dr Sarah Wollaston MP put it: “The two Houses should complement each other, rather than directly mirror each other, to add value.” Current House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee Chair and former MP Lord Blencathra agreed:
“The fact that we do not shadow House of Commons committees is another strength. We have our own particular niche, where we do specialised work. There is some complementarity as well.”
151.Several witnesses stressed the importance of complementarity in terms of taking a parliamentary approach to scrutiny, building on the respective strengths of the two Houses of Parliament and seeking to avoid scrutiny gaps. This was the view of Professor Russell:
“There is a degree of friction and competition even between the committees in the House of Commons on some issues. For the House of Lords to get mixed up in that competition would not be a good thing. The approach that you have been speaking about so far, in terms of identifying real scrutiny gaps and weaknesses in the parliamentary system as a whole and how they can be filled, is the correct one.”
152.Lord Norton took a slightly different approach:
“There is an obvious need to avoid overlap in inquiries but not necessarily a need to avoid overlap in remit … I do not see a particular problem as long as there is communication between the committees to avoid duplicating what they are inquiring into … There may actually be merit in committees in the two Houses looking at different aspects of a particular sector.”
153.Our attention was drawn to instances of good practice of how committees can work together across the Commons and the Lords. One such example comes from Baroness Tyler who in December 2018 gave evidence to the House of Commons Treasury Committee’s inquiry into consumers’ access to financial services. This followed Baroness Tyler’s time as Chair of the former ad hoc committee on financial exclusion, demonstrating how expertise gathered in one House can prove beneficial in the other. Frank Field MP, Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee, was another advocate of closer working between committees, telling us: “I hope that we would see automatic working together between our two Houses in doing our reports”.
154.Witnesses offered several suggestions as to how the relationship between committees in the two Houses could be improved. When considering enhanced joint working, witnesses emphasised the importance of bearing in mind the availability of staff and members of both Houses. Lord Blunkett suggested that short inquiries or bodies of work in one House could be developed in the other, where resources may allow for greater depth and increased knowledge. Baroness Fookes and other witnesses emphasised the importance of increased joint working and contact between committees as a means of preventing duplication of work.
155.Dr Wollaston MP suggested that “One idea might be, if the [Lords] Liaison Committee was thinking of holding future ad hoc committees, to involve liaison and see how we could add value with committees in the Commons.” House of Commons Clerk of Committees Mr Paul Evans also referred positively to “the opportunities for joint meetings of the two Liaison Committees”.
156.We welcome the suggestion from House of Commons colleagues that the two Liaison Committees should meet together from time to time, and hope that this can be piloted on an informal basis in the next Parliamentary session. This would provide a valuable mechanism for closer joint working between the two Houses, and could deliver a more comprehensive approach to Parliamentary scrutiny.
157.Procedurally, when members of two or more committees meet together the combined meeting is often concurrent, as opposed to joint. As Ms Katy Stout, Second Clerk of the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee explained, that Committee had worked with the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee to produce “a joint Carillion report, but it was not an official joint committee; it was more a coincidence of interest and time. Certain members from both Committees were nominated to form the joint committee, but procedurally it was a meeting of the two separate committees at the same time.”
158.Under House of Lords Standing Order 67, select committees have the power to confer and meet concurrently with any committee or sub-committee of the Commons appointed to consider a similar matter. Select committees may also grant this power to sub-committees. Commons select committees have a similar power under House of Commons Standing Order 137A.
159.We considered whether procedures might be simplified to facilitate more formal joint working between committees of the two Houses. In particular, the need for a House of Lords sub-committee, for example of the EU Select Committee, to seek the prior agreement of the main committee before agreeing to meet concurrently with a House of Commons committee inevitably slows down the process of arranging a concurrent meeting. Concurrent meetings do, however, also have a procedural advantage. We learnt of at least one recent example that demonstrated the benefits of concurrent meetings rather than joint meetings.
On 20 July 2018, the EU Internal Market Sub-Committee (chaired by Lord Whitty) announced an inquiry into future UK-EU transport arrangements. The timing of the inquiry broadly coincides with a Commons Transport Committee inquiry into the implications of Brexit for UK freight operations (chaired by Lilian Greenwood MP). Neither inquiry includes border or customs arrangements within its scope directly.
Prior to the summer recess, the secretariat and chairs of both committees provisionally agreed to take oral evidence concurrently on Thursday 13 September. It was agreed at the outset that the day and time of the meeting would coincide with the Internal Market Sub-Committee’s regular meetings. It was later agreed to hold the committee meeting in the Internal Market Sub-Committee’s regular meeting room and that Lord Whitty would chair the meeting.
Two days before the session, the Commons Clerk confirmed that the Commons committee would be unable to achieve quorum (three members) due to unforeseen circumstances. The evidence session went ahead with members of the House of Lords only, the same witnesses and a moderately revised question set.
160.We recommend that House of Lords committees should continue to pursue ways of meeting on an informal basis with House of Commons committees. The Liaison Committee will continue to support and seek to enable such work.
161.Just as it is important for the UK Government to talk to the Devolved Administrations, it is important for Westminster colleagues to work collaboratively with those in the devolved legislatures (the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly). Throughout the evidence taking process a number of witnesses spoke positively about the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit. The first meeting of the Forum was held in the House of Lords on 12 October 2017, chaired by the Senior Deputy Speaker, and organised by the House of Lords European Union Select Committee. It brought together Chairs, Convenors and representatives of Committees scrutinising Brexit-related issues in the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales, Northern Ireland Assembly, House of Commons and House of Lords. As of April 2019, the Forum, which meets in the different parliaments on a rotating basis, had met on seven occasions to participate in inter-parliamentary dialogue on Brexit related issues including the implications of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill upon the devolution settlements in the United Kingdom. A joint statement is issued following the meetings.
162.The benefits of informal collaboration have been particularly apparent in recent years in meetings involving the devolved legislatures to discuss matters of common interest. Mr Mick Antoniw AM, Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in the National Assembly for Wales, highlighted the importance of developing working relationships not just between the two Houses at Westminster, but also involving the devolved legislatures:
“What the inter-parliamentary forum has taught us is that there is a considerable need for far greater co-ordination and co-operation between committees. There are three legislatures operating in the UK now … all three passing legislation that can impact on the others, in one way or another. We all have a direct common interest … There is greater scope where scrutiny and policy work has taken place in committees … and a growing justification for saying we out to look at our own procedures to enable far greater working together on that.”
163.Mr Antoniw considered:
“The forum has become quite important, and one where those participating see the value of the exchange of information and the development of a slightly more common strategy approach on these major constitutional issues that are challenging us.”
164.The importance, and demonstrable success, of interparliamentary dialogue between committees was highlighted by other parliamentarians including Mr Bruce Crawford MSP, Convenor of the Finance and Constitution Committee in the Scottish Parliament. Mr Crawford noted that the Forum “has provided members of devolved and UK Parliaments a neutral environment in which the cross-party concerns of the devolved and UK Parliaments could be raised”. Mr Crawford also highlighted that the “the strength of the Forum flows from its informal nature”.
165.Many witnesses were in agreement that post-Brexit there would be greater need for the House of Lords to develop a stronger relationship with the devolved nations. The Hansard Society highlighted that “issues relating to devolution and relations between the nations of the Union [are] taking on ever-increasing importance”, and therefore there is an argument for a permanent committee on devolution. However, not all witnesses agreed to the formalisation of a dedicated committee to deal with this scrutiny and interaction. The Earl of Kinnoull suggested “regular and timetabled interaction” to look at devolution mechanics would be enough, whereas Eirik Bjorge, Senior Lecturer in Law, Bristol University, Arabella Lang, Senior Researcher, House of Commons Library and Ewan Smith, Shaw Junior Research Fellow, Jesus College, Oxford in their submission suggested that “a UK Treaty Committee has the potential to promote inter-parliamentary dialogue on treaty matters”. In addition, Lord Kinnoull also suggested we have a role in “welcoming relevant people here, sending our members to speak and attend gatherings and visiting” as part of post-EU parliamentary diplomacy. The Law Society of Scotland also noted existing forums including the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Association of State Legislators to be aware of. The Earl of Dundee also drew our attention to the work of the Council of Europe. We consider that House of Lords Committees should seek to take into account relevant work by the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
166.Dialogue between Westminster and the Scottish Parliament, National Assembly for Wales and Northern Ireland Assembly is very important. Our evidence demonstrates the positive experience of informal joint working structures such as the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit. We recommend that this format should be encouraged further to facilitate other discussions of cross-party concerns of the devolved legislatures and the UK Parliament.
167.Informal joint working still requires resource, mostly by way of staff support but with a small amount of expenditure needed for travel to other legislatures in the United Kingdom when it is their turn to host the informal meetings. Hitherto this activity has been organised by the House of Lords Committee Office. If this important work develops further, as we hope it will, then consideration should be given to providing dedicated resources for inter-parliamentary dialogue within the United Kingdom.
112 (Dr Sarah Wollaston MP)
113 (Lord Blencathra)
114 (Prof Meg Russell)
115 (Lord Norton of Louth)
116 Oral evidence taken before the House of Commons Treasury Committee, 11 December 2018 (Session 2017–19), (Baroness Tyler of Enfield)
117 (Frank Field MP)
118 Written evidence from Lord Blunkett ()
119 Written evidence from Baroness Fookes ()
120 (Dr Sarah Wollaston MP)
121 (Paul Evans)
122 (Katy Stout)
123 (Mick Antoniw AM)
124 (Mick Antoniw AM)
125 Written evidence from Bruce Crawford MSP ()
127 Written evidence from the Hansard Society ()
128 Written evidence from the Earl of Kinnoull ()
129 Written evidence from Ewan Smith, Arabella Land and Eirik Bjorge ()
130 Written evidence from the Earl of Kinnoull ()
131 Written evidence from The Law Society of Scotland ()
132 Written evidence from the Earl of Dundee and John Howell MP ()