1.Lord McFall introduced the seminar highlighting the progress of the review to date, including the emerging themes paper he put to the Liaison Committee in September. He also highlighted that the submission the Liaison Committee had received from Lord Stern and Alun Evans, on which the seminar was based, had been developed following a discussion he had had at an informal breakfast meeting in the summer of 2017 held at the British Academy. The other members of the House who had been present were Lord Hennessey of Nympsfield, Lord O’Donnell and Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve.
2.Lord Stern introduced his suggestion of an amended House of Lords committee structure, emphasising that his aim had been to offer ideas to the review of committees and not to lay out a blueprint. He also underlined that the suggested structure was intended as a contribution to the Liaison Committee’s discussions, and had not been endorsed by the British Academy as a whole. It would, of course, be for the Liaison Committee to decide on any new structure. His starting point had not been the current House of Lords committee structure, but rather to consider, from first principles, what structure would best support the scrutiny and strategy functions of the House of Lords, and maximising the likelihood of committees’ impact on Government - whilst making the best use of the cross-cutting nature and capabilities of the Lords. The resulting structure was contained in a note written by Alun Evans and submitted as written evidence to the Liaison Committee. The structure included six thematic committees which broadly encompassed the main cross cutting strategic functions of government.
3.The submission had sparked multiple discussions with members of the House regarding the science and technology committee in particular, as science and technology was not one of the six themes mentioned in the original submission. Lord Stern explained that he considered that science and technology were all-pervasive and cross-cutting in nature. Indeed, science and technology could inform all of the thematic areas proposed. He said that he could envisage a standing committee on science and technology sitting alongside the six themes that had already been suggested. He added that the omission of the current science and technology committee was not a specific or deliberate omission. This structure had consciously not sought to replicate the departmental committee structure in the House of Commons. Alun Evans stated that he believed there was less value for the House of Lords in mirroring this structure and had therefore set out a strategic cross-cutting structure. Science and technology were, by their very nature strategic and cross cutting, so a seventh such committee would make sense.
4.The session was then opened up to comments and questions from members of the House. The following questions and comments were amongst those raised:
(a)Was there consideration of spreading the Science and Technology Committee amongst the other thematic committees, for example as sub-committees to each main committee?
Lord Stern reiterated that he believed the Science and Ttechnology Committee should be a free-standing committee and it could work with the structure that had been suggested. However, there must be consideration of how this committee would work within a structure of delivery. If there was a system of greater collaboration in order to improve delivery of recommendations, etc. then this should be considered.
Lord Patel, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee also gave feedback from a previous meeting he had had with Lord McFall. He confirmed there had been much concern amongst members of the Science and Technology Committee, but that following that conversation he was reassured that no one intended to diminish the role of the Science and Technology Committee.
(b)How did this proposal relate to legislative scrutiny? Would there be a separate role for committees looking at legislation, including the Constitution Committee, or would they be included within this structure?
Lord Stern noted his instinct said that legislative committees should be included within the suggested structure, as the structure they developed was trying to look at all functions of government including Bills and legislation. Legislative scrutiny could be undertaken by sub-committees to the relevant committee.
(c)How could the Science and Technology Committee maximise its impact? What could be added to what the committee already did?
Lord Stern noted that this potential structure could allow the Science and Technology Committee to work with other committees more closely in pressing for delivery of its recommendations. The cross-cutting nature of the Science and Technology Committee meant that it could identify an issue related to social affairs for example, and this could be developed further by a specific committee.
(d)How would you approach replacing the current European Union committees?
Lord Stern noted that the structure suggested had Brexit and EU related issues under a foreign affairs committee. However, in theory, every committee would consider Brexit related issues, as they related to every topic. Lord Stern highlighted that the review as a whole must consider the context of Brexit in relation to every element.
Lord McFall also noted that the Liaison Committee would be considering the impact of Brexit on the committee structure as a whole separately, and it would not be ignored or underestimated.
5.The session ended with Lord Stern offering to write a supplementary note for the Liaison Committee following further questions on the subject of the Science and Technology Committee. The note would look at further possible structures and would include collaboration and increased links between the science and technology committee and other committees.