168.The role of Committee Chairs and members is at the heart of all parliamentary select committees. The House of Lords is fortunate in being able to draw on a wealth of expertise which in many ways is unique for a parliamentary chamber. Members are enthusiastic about using their expertise to serve on committees, and conscious of the important role they play in the work of the House as a whole, including in terms of wider public engagement.
169.It is therefore unsurprising that the Committee received a large number of comments relating to committee membership.
170.In order to secure a regular turnover of membership, a ‘rotation rule’ operates in the case of most House of Lords committees, whereby members who have been appointed (or co-opted) for three successive sessions (or parts of sessions) may not be reappointed in the following two sessions following a period as a member of a committee. The three sessions may be extended to allow a member appointed as chairman a three-session term as chairman. Select committees apply the rotation rules to their sub-committees. The rotation rule was last considered by the Procedure Committee in March 2014, when its proposal to reduce the length of membership from four successive sessions to three, in order to secure a regular turnover of membership and therefore broaden participation in the work of committees by members, was agreed to by the House.
171.Lord Best argued that the current rotation rule “does not optimise the Members’ capacity to really understand the context and intricacies of their role” and he would therefore advocate “four-year terms for Members and five-year terms for Chairs of Committees.” The Hansard Society also noted that the current rotation rule “risks losing expertise in select committee work and wastes experience” and that “retirements from committees could be staggered more effectively.”
172.However, Lord Blencathra pointed out that longer term Chairmanships could lead to others missing out and we should be careful not to “[deprive] others of the chance to serve.” Baroness Fookes suggested one possible way to avoid this loss of expertise, whilst maintaining rotation, would be by “appointing a new chairman from a member of the Committee rather than ‘parachuting’ in someone unfamiliar with the work of the particular committee.”Witnesses also highlighted concerns regarding the involvement of the party whips in deciding committee membership. It was suggested that the current system could be unfair to unaffiliated members of the House. Some witnesses suggested that the House of Lords should move to be more closely aligned with the House of Commons by electing committee Chairs and members (see paras 174–175 below).
173.There is a difficult balance to be struck between facilitating continuity of membership and expertise whilst also providing new members with the opportunity to serve on committees. In particular, there could be a case for providing a degree of flexibility in the three-year rotation rule when its rigid application would result in a large number of members of a committee being “rotated off” simultaneously, or in the event of a very short parliamentary session being held. We recommend that the Procedure Committee gives further consideration to the operation of the rotation rule in due course.
174.In 2009 a number of significant changes to House of Commons select committees were recommended by the House of Commons Reform Committee, chaired by Dr Tony Wright (then Labour MP for Cannock Chase). These changes took effect from the beginning of the 2010–12 session and included the election of select committee chairs by a secret ballot of the whole House, the election of committee members by party groups and the appointment of a Backbench Business Committee to schedule backbench debates and other decisions. These changes are widely acknowledged to have had a significant impact in strengthening the role, and raising the profile, of House of Commons departmental select committees.
175.Lord Soley suggested “we consider electing the chairs of select committees as they do in the Commons” to offer greater “status and independence.” Other witnesses agreed with this idea, including Lord Balfe and Baroness Tyler, who argued elected committee Chairs would create “greater legitimacy and clout, and help ensure that they had strong cross-party support.” The Law Society of Scotland also highlighted that “elected chairmen are considered a success because of the experience of the House of Commons, the Dáil Éireann and the National Assembly for Wales”.
176.Despite the success of elected Chairs in other parliaments, Lord Blencathra argued that the current system is satisfactory and “in accordance with our self-regulating ethos” and introducing elected committee Chairs would “bring in unnecessary politics”. Lord Forsyth supported this, as he believed elected chairmen could lead to “a certain amount of game-playing”. Professor Flinders agreed and did not recommend the introduction of elected chairs in the House of Lords, however he did note that consideration should be given to “increasing the transparency vis-à-vis how committee chairs are appointed in the Lords.”
177.The Hansard Society observed that the way in which committees are established or re-established and chairs appointed after general elections meant that House of Lords select committees could be up and running several months earlier than their Commons counterparts, avoiding scrutiny gaps. Whilst acknowledging concerns that the rotation system for committee membership risks losing expertise from the system there was a counter-argument in that longevity of membership carried the associated risk of ‘groupthink’, or ‘capture’ by relevant government departments or other stakeholders. Fresh perspectives from a refreshed membership could help counteract that risk. In general, however, Dr Fox said that “our view would be that, unless there is deep unhappiness among members, if it is not broken, it is not something you need to focus on fixing.” We agree with that view.
178.The Committee of Selection, which nominates the members of all select committees and normally also proposes the Chair, includes the party leaders, whips and the Convenor of the crossbench peers. It is thus well-placed to ensure political balance, and also to take into account considerations such as gender diversity and representations from members across the House. We welcome the fact that the House of Lords Commission, in its response to the UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018, has asked the Committee of Selection to carry out annual monitoring regarding Lords committee membership and chairing.
180.Some parliamentary witnesses noted that they have a guide for committee Chairs to assist in understanding the role and responsibilities attributed to the position. The New Zealand House of Representatives implemented a clear role of the chairperson in 2017 when they “recognised that committee effectiveness relies heavily on the proper exercise of the role of chairperson.” Since the implementation of the formal guidance for chairpersons, the New Zealand House of Representatives noted a number of benefits:
“These expectations have provided useful guidance for chairpersons to understand the broad responsibilities of their roles. They also inform discussions between committee staff and the chairperson and provide helpful direction for the chairperson when trying to navigate difficult situations.”
181.A similar list of expectations has also been introduced in the Welsh Assembly and the Canadian Senate. Various witnesses including Baroness Fookes, The Law Society of Scotland, Lord Whitty and Baroness Kidron also supported the introduction of a written role, for committee Chairs in particular, but also for members of committee.
182.Currently, a guide is made available to Chairs and members of House of Lords select committees which explains what members can expect by way of administrative support, committee compositions, how inquiries work, committee meetings, travel and reports. This guide is updated annually, so that its contents are regularly refreshed. The current Guide includes the following responsibilities: “willingness to be available for and to participate in relevant media, publicity and stakeholder engagement”, and “willingness to engage in promoting the follow-up of committee reports”. We consider that this should include “willingness to participate in any debate on a report agreed by the committee for which the Chair is responsible within three months of its publication, or if that is not possible, to arrange for another member of the committee to lead the debate so that it can proceed without undue delay”.
183.The Committee has decided that the Guide for Chairs and members of House of Lords committees should be revised in order to provide specific written guidance on the role, responsibilities and obligations of committee Chairs and members.
184.Although the Chairs of the European Union Committee and its sub-committees meet together from time to time, as well as in the formal setting of meetings of the European Union Committee itself, there is currently no established forum bringing together all the Chairs of House of Lords committees.
185.In November 2016 the Liaison Committee agreed to set up the Informal Brexit Liaison Group, which brought together the Chairs of all the sessional Select Committees, under the Chairmanship of the Senior Deputy Speaker, to discuss matters of common interest relating to Brexit. This Group has developed well. Between November 2016 and November 2018 it met 14 times, usually with a high profile speaker. The meetings have taken place in private, and a brief note of the discussion has been sent to members of the Liaison Committee, the Group itself, and has been posted on the internet.
186.The meetings of that Group highlighted the fact that in the Lords there is no natural forum where committee Chairs can meet together to reflect on their work and to share best practice as well as possible areas for improvement. The Committee heard from the National Assembly for Wales how its Chairs Forum acts in this way, and the National Assembly for Wales, Scottish Parliament and a number of other legislatures provide a continuous professional development (CPD) programme for committee Chairs.
187.Mr Antoniw noted that “continuing professional development is very important.” He went on to explain that CPD in the Welsh Assembly can be two-fold as “new chairs of important committees may have gaps in their own expertise that they want filled” as well as “professional development in respect of particular areas of policy.” Mr Antoniw reiterated that “in a modern democratic parliamentary system, ongoing training is of considerable value and benefit”. Whilst he warned about the risks of finding time to participate in training, Mr Antoniw was keen to highlight the benefits this training offers to members as well as support staff.
188.The 2018 UK Parliament Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit recommended that:
“Existing Continuous Professional Development options for MPs and peers should be publicised or expanded as appropriate to include, for example, unconscious bias, equality legislation and witness questioning techniques. Such provision could be different in the Commons and Lords.”
In the Commons there is a members’ CPD budget but there is no similar provision in the House of Lords.
189.We support the recommendation of the Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit that CPD must be publicised and expanded. We further recommend that CPD should be regarded as an integral part of the role of committee Chairs and members, focused upon specific areas of requirement, such as press and media training.
190.The working group on communications recommended a regular meeting of all committee Chairs to discuss upcoming inquiries and topics. They argued meetings such as these could help to promote a joined-up communications strategy linking the different aspects of work in committees and the House. As well as this, they noted that this could enable greater cohesion in the work of committees.
191.This proposal for such a Chairs’ Forum has added value in the light of our earlier recommendation for the development of our existing committees, in order to minimise scrutiny gaps. An informal Chairs’ Forum could provide added value in ensuring that any duplication or overlap between committees was managed and that consistent focus on all major areas of public policy was maintained.
192.We have agreed that the Senior Deputy Speaker should convene a Committee Chairs’ Forum, to meet around three times a year following the introduction of our recommended adaptations to the committee structure. Its membership would be all the Chairs of investigative scrutiny committees. The Chairs’ Forum would offer an important opportunity for Chairs to manage any possible overlap of work that may arise in the early stages of any new committee structure and would provide a mechanism, across the House, to ensure that effective scrutiny of all major public policy areas was taking place.
193.Much of the evidence we received in relation to the membership of committees related to concerns about the transparency of all processes relating to committee selection. The Law Society of Scotland noted that “more transparency around the appointment of Committees would help to ensure public confidence in the process”. Baroness Fookes suggested that there should be improvements to the availability of information to members, particularly new members of the House, regarding “opportunities to serve on select committees when there are vacancies and also how to register an interest on serving in one or more committees”. The 2018 UK Parliament Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit suggested “setting expectations in relation to committee workload, including in relation to consideration of committee reports and the timing of committee visits.”
194.The House of Lords Handbook on facilities and services for Members and their staff includes only three pages about committees. We recommend that the Committee Office should produce a general guide to House of Lords committees for members of the House, including guidance as to where to go for further information about membership and the work of current committees.
133 Written evidence from Lord Best ()
134 Written evidence from the Hansard Society ()
135 Written evidence from Lord Blencathra ()
136 Written evidence from Baroness Fookes ()
137 Supplementary written evidence from Lord Inglewood ()
138 Written evidence from Lord Cormack ()
139 House of Commons Reform Committee, (First Report, Session 2008–09, HC 1117)
140 Written evidence from Lord Soley ()
141 Written evidence from Lord Balfe ()
142 Written evidence from Baroness Tyler of Enfield ()
143 Written evidence from the Law Society of Scotland ()
144 Written evidence from Lord Blencathra ()
146 (Lord Forsyth of Drumlean)
147 Written evidence from Prof Matthew Flinders ()
148 (Dr Ruth Fox)
149 (Dr Ruth Fox)
150 House of Commons and House of Lords Commissions, (June 2019), p 5
151 Written evidence from the New Zealand House of Representatives ()
153 (Mick Antoniw AM)
154 Written evidence from the Canadian Senate ()
155 Written evidence from Baroness Fookes (), the Law Society of Scotland (), Lord Whitty () and Baroness Kidron ()
156 (Mick Antoniw AM)
158 UK Parliament, UK Parliament Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018 (November 2018) [accessed 4 July 2019]
159 Written evidence from the Law Society of Scotland ()
160 Written evidence from Baroness Fookes ()
161 UK Parliament, UK Parliament Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018 (November 2018) [accessed 4 July 2019] p 13