COMMONS

Select Committee powers and effectiveness report: main issues

08 November 2012

In Chapter 2, the Committee considers the purpose of scrutiny committees, maintaining that their primary role is to influence Government, but that it is sometimes in the public interest for their scrutiny to extend to other organisations. It reviews the "core tasks" – the common objectives for departmental select committees agreed in 2002 – and proposes some changes to reflect new priorities and changes in Government.

In Chapter 3, the Committee reviews committee activity during the 2010-12 parliamentary Session, noting the high level of activity and member engagement overall but also the high turnover of membership. It explains the approach it has taken to the new "60% rule" – the requirement that committee members attend at least 60% of meetings in a session – and argues that members wanting to leave a committee should be discharged immediately (paragraph 29). It illustrates how committees have covered the core tasks, including scrutiny of draft bills, European matters, public appointments and departmental performance. It draws attention to the increased opportunities for committees to raise matters on the floor of the House and in Westminster Hall, and recommends that the Speaker should be able to decide if a committee report merits a statement on the floor of the House on any given day (paragraph 50). It describes different approaches taken by committees, in addition to the traditional format of inquiry: short, sharp inquiries, informal seminars, joint working between committees, and innovative ways of engaging the public in committee work.

The evidence the Committee received shows a consensus that committees are successful in influencing Government, but also highlights a number of areas where there is room for improvement. The Committee says "we take very seriously the critical feedback received" and Chapter 4 focuses on how committees can increase their impact. It recommends that committees: 

  • Take stock and agree their objectives for the rest of the Parliament, and publish them for consultation; and set out, before launching each inquiry, what they aim to achieve (paragraphs 64-68)
  • Be forward-looking in their 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 their range of witnesses, and make more use of commissioned research (paragraphs 75-78)
  • Keep reports short and accessible and indicate clearly which recommendations are most important (paragraph 79)
  • 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)
  • Give more attention to communication, thinking more clearly about intended impact and target audience, and making better use of the parliamentary website (paragraphs 85-93)
  • Put more effort into the induction and continuing professional development of committee members, and consider using professional trainers to help refresh and develop questioning skills (paragraphs 94-97).

The Committee sets out guidelines for committee chairs and recommends that chairs seek feedback from their committee (paragraphs 98-100).  It notes the risk to committee reputation if witnesses are not treated with courtesy and undertakes to prepare guidance on committee good practice (paragraph 104).

The Committee states that more effective scrutiny requires the co-operation of Government (paragraph 105). Chapter 5 highlights 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. It says "it is vital that committees should be able to question the responsible official directly – even if they have moved on to another job" (paragraph 113). It recommends that "the Government engage with us 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" (paragraph 115).

In Chapter 6, the Committee considers whether the staffing and other resources available to support committees is adequate given their increasing activity and changing expectations.  It recommends more stability in committee staffing, the ability to recruit committee clerks directly from outside, greater flexibility in bring in outside experts, a modest increase in the number of media officers and, for the longer term, funding for additional staff in chairs' offices. It recognises that now is not the best time to argue for more resources, but says that "it should be the long term goal of the House to build up the capacity of select committees" (paragraph 128).

In Chapter 7, the Committee considers the powers available to select committees and notes the uncertainty about their enforceability – brought to the fore by last year's inquiries by the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee into the takeover of Cadbury and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee into News International and Phone Hacking. The Government’s recent Green Paper on Parliamentary Privilege sets out options for legislating to end these uncertainties. A joint committee of both Houses is expected to be established shortly to examine the Green Paper: the Liaison Committee expects to be represented on the Joint Committee and does not wish to prejudge its conclusions, but it expresses the view (in paragraph 133) that the disadvantages of legislating would outweigh the benefits, as it is concerned that the courts would be drawn into questioning how committees operate and that committees would be less effective if they were required to adopt the kind of process followed in the courts. It argues instead (in paragraph 134) that Parliament should set out a clear statement of its powers in a resolution of the House.

In Chapter 8, the Committee sets out its vision for the future. Its aim is that "committees should be respected, listened to and feared by departments and ministers for the quality of their investigations, the rigour of their questioning, the depth of their analysis, and the value of their reports"; "their ability to do their job will not be limited by constraints on access to information or the witnesses they wish to hear from"; and their role will be understood by the public and their work "respected for its integrity and relevance to people's lives … contributing to reviving faith in the value of parliamentary democracy" (paragraph 136).  It maintains that "This is not a utopian dream but a vision which is achievable … by 2020" (paragraph 137).

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