COMMONS

Committee Chairs call for review of relationship with Government

08 November 2012

The Liaison Committee today publishes a report reviewing the role, resources and tasks of the committees appointed by the House of Commons to scrutinise the Government.

Report

Drawing on reports from committees, evidence from outside observers and academic research, the report concludes that two years after the general election and the Wright reforms, the evidence is “broadly encouraging” – although committees face some obstacles and there is room for improvement.

Liaison Committee Chair, Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, said:

"Select committees are growing in self-confidence this Parliament. There is clear evidence that they are successful in influencing Government. But for committees to be fully effective, we need a new relationship with Government: Ministers must recognise that it is not acceptable for departments to refuse committees access to information or witnesses they need. Expectations are changing, in Parliament and among the public.
 
We have also identified ways in which the work of committees can be improved: this report sets out recommendations to help increase their impact."

The report finds that “the old doctrine of ministerial accountability (by which ministers alone are accountable to Parliament for the conduct of their department) is being stretched to implausibility by the complexity of modern government” and says that there is a need for “a changed approach”. 
It recommends that the Government engage with the Liaison Committee in a review of the relationship between Government and select committees with the aim of producing joint guidelines for departments and committees, which recognise ministerial accountability, the proper role of the Civil Service and the legitimate wish of Parliament for more effective accountability.

The report also makes numerous recommendations for Committees, including:

  • Be forward-looking in scrutiny of departmental performance, devoting less effort to raking over the coals of past events unless there are lessons to be learnt (paragraph 70)
  • Give more attention to the financial implications of departmental policy and how departments assess the effectiveness of their spending (paragraphs 72-73)
  • Experiment with different approaches to evidence-taking, broaden the range of witnesses, and make more use of commissioned research (paragraphs 75-78)
  • Follow up recommendations to ensure that reports have impact and report to the House at least once each Session on what has been done (paragraphs 81-83)

The Committee intends to ask the Backbench Business Committee for time for a debate in the House of Commons on a motion endorsing its conclusions and recommendations.

Notes

  1. The report reviews all aspects of committee work, including: the purpose of scrutiny committees; activity during the 2010-12 parliamentary session; how to increase impact; obstacles that committees have encountered in securing timely and constructive responses to their reports, information from Government, and the attendance of particular officials as witnesses; staffing and resources; powers and uncertainty about their enforceability; vision for the future.
  2. Select committees have existed for hundreds of years, but the current system of departmentally-based select committees was established in 1979.
  3. Before the last general election, the House of Commons agreed a number of reforms (the "Wright reforms" recommended by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP in 2009) which strengthened select committees, including direct election of committee chairs by the House and elections within the Parties for nominations of committee members. 
  4. The Wright Report recommended that the Liaison Committee review the role, resources and tasks of select committees.  There was no time for this before the 2010 General Election, and the Liaison Committee wanted committees to be fully operational and the Wright reforms to have taken effect, before it came to conclusions.
  5. The Committee’s inquiry drew particularly on two pieces of academic research by the Hansard Society (Reviewing Select Committee Tasks and Modes of Operation, April 2011 (PDF 97KB, external site) and the Constitution Unit, UCL (Selective Influence: The Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees, June 2011 (PDF 1.22MB, external site).
  6. Written evidence
  7. Government Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege (PDF 3.63MB, external site) 

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