Liaison Committee

Session 2002-03

31 March 2003


Embargo: 11.00am Tuesday 1 April 2003

For further information telephone Clerk of the Committee 020 7219 3286 or 6432.

LIAISON COMMITTEE ANNUAL REPORT

From spotlight to searchlight: report reveals sharper scrutiny role for Select Committees in the House of Commons

The Liaison Committee's Annual Report for 2002, to be published at 11.00am on Tuesday 1 April 2003 (HC 558, Session 2002-03), reveals a steady increase in the role and influence of Select Committees which scrutinise the work of Government departments.

Public meetings of select committees increased by 9% in the last quarter of 2002, compared to the same period in 2001, which was itself a 31% increase on 2000.

The Prime Minister now appears before the Liaison Committee twice a year, for a two and half hour public session: a development which had previously been resisted.  By this means the PM can be accountable as Head of the Government, and in respect of the staff and advisers who answer directly to him and for whom no-one else can answer.  In January, one such session was devoted entirely to the Iraq issue.

A major expansion of pre-legislative scrutiny by committees has commenced, reflected in the establishment of a central scrutiny unit.

A more methodical and less ad hoc approach to the business of scrutiny has been adopted, with the introduction of indicative core tasks, which aim to ensure that all areas of government activity are subject to proper scrutiny by Parliament.  (See Note 3).

Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the Rt Hon Alan Williams MP (Labour, Swansea West) said:

"By introducing core tasks, we aim to move the role of committees from 'spotlight' to 'searchlight.'  Care has been taken to include core tasks which cover not only the monitoring of the work of each department and its ministers, but areas where there is a lack of initiative by Government or where existing policy was deficient.  We thought it important that committees should not have to limit themselves to an agenda of the Government's making."

Accessibility and wider public involvement

Several committees, most recently Welsh Affairs and Human Rights, and previously Science and Technology, have taken positive steps to include young people directly by taking formal evidence from such organisations as the UK Youth Parliament.

Select Committees have also made it a priority to improve public access. Committee evidence sessions have always been open to the public, but accessibility has been further improved with the introduction of a pilot webcasting scheme (www.parliamentlive.tv), which broadcasts 6 or 7 committee sessions live on the internet every week.  All committees now produce explanatory welcome notes for members of the public attending evidence sessions, and web pages have been redesigned to ensure that the information is more accessible (www.parliament.uk).

Alan Williams said:

"Select Committee evidence sessions are open to the public, but they do not yet attract visitors on the same scale as the public gallery.  We need a stronger focus on encouraging wider public engagement with the House's role in holding government to account, and showing people that there is much more to Parliament than debates in the Chamber."

Problems

Co-operation between committees and government departments is reported as good, and Ministers increasingly use evidence sessions for policy announcements on which they can be fully and instantly questioned by MPs.  However, there are some problems.

Concerns raised in the report include:

The efficiency with which departments provide government replies to reports, with some committees waiting up to six or even ten months.  Although one of the preconditions of pre-legislative scrutiny - a steady flow of draft bills - is beginning to be met, problems remain with timing.  Several committees have complained of draft Bills arriving for scrutiny with far too short a timescale and inadequate notice.

Alan Williams said:

“The opportunity to shape legislation and influence Ministers’ thinking is greatest when a Bill exists in the form of a draft.  We hope the Government will learn from the problems which several bills have encountered in Parliament, which might have been eased if they had allowed proper time for pre-legislative scrutiny.  But it is good to see more Bills being considered in draft - perhaps up to 10 by the end of this Session.”

ENDS

NOTE FOR EDITORS:

1. Publications are also available on the Internet at www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/liaison_committee.cfm.

2. The Committee is chaired by Rt Hon Alan Williams (Labour, Swansea West) and includes the 34 Chairmen of select committees.  It is appointed to consider general matters relating to the work of select committees; to advise the House of Commons Commission on select committees; to choose select committee reports for debate in the House and, by a decision of the House on 14 May 2002, to hear evidence from the Prime Minister on matters of public policy.  It was nominated on 5 November 2001, 22 July 2002 and 28 January 2003.  The powers of the Committee are set out in House of Commons Standing Order No. 145.  These are available on the Internet via www.parliament.uk.

3. Core Tasks of Select Committees:

OBJECTIVE A: TO EXAMINE AND COMMENT ON THE POLICY OF THE DEPARTMENT

Task 1    To examine policy proposals from the UK Government and the European Commission in Green Papers, White Papers, draft Guidance etc, and to inquire further where the Committee considers it appropriate.

Task 2    To  identify and examine areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient, and make proposals.

Task 3    To conduct scrutiny of any published draft bill within the Committee's responsibilities.

Task 4    To examine specific output from the department expressed in documents or other decisions.

OBJECTIVE B: TO EXAMINE THE EXPENDITURE OF THE DEPARTMENT

Task 5    To examine the expenditure plans and out-turn of the department, its agencies and principal NDPBs.

OBJECTIVE C: TO EXAMINE THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE DEPARTMENT

Task 6    To examine the department's Public Service Agreements, the associated targets and the statistical measurements employed, and report if appropriate.

Task 7    To monitor the work of the department's Executive Agencies, NDPBs, regulators and other associated public bodies.

Task 8    To scrutinise major appointments made by the department.

Task 9    To examine the implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives.

OBJECTIVE D: TO ASSIST THE HOUSE IN DEBATE AND DECISION

Task 10    To produce reports which are suitable for debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or debating committees.