In a report published today, senior MPs on Parliament’s Liaison Committee say that, 30 years after their creation in their current structure, the work of select committees is more focussed, more extensive, more visible, better resourced and more engaged with the public than ever before. It warns, however, that committees’ much-prized autonomy, and the quality of the scrutiny they perform, may be reduced if committees are overloaded with demands or too many committees are created.
The sessional report by the House of Commons Liaison Committee, which is made up of the Chairs of all select committees, says the scale and scope of select committee work has changed enormously since the system was set up in its present form 30 years ago. The idea that each Minister and their department should be accountable to Parliament through a committee of backbenchers was a huge step change in 1979. The Committee says, however, that the reality of senior ministers, from the Prime Minister downwards, regularly having to justify their policies before committees has taken longer to achieve.
Select committees play a key role on behalf of the public in holding Government and major public figures to account, asking the questions that they believe the public would want answered. Has public money been wasted? Are officials serving the public properly? Have Ministers made the right policy decision? Are the consumer’s interests properly protected? Is this person suitable for a public appointment? Committees have also been developing a variety of innovative ways of obtaining information, engaging with the public and publicising their work to carry out their task, including the live and archived webcasting of meetings on www.parliamentlive.tv and the growing use of online forums during inquiries.
The report shows that 326 Members of the House served on select committees during the 2007-08 parliamentary session, with committees holding 785 public hearings and publishing 387 substantive reports. The Committee warns, however, that one of the most significant pressures on committee resources is the availability of Members, who already face many demands on their time. These demands are only exacerbated by committees being too large or too many committees being established. Committees’ autonomy is much prized by chairmen and Members.
Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Alan Williams, said:
"This report records the wide range of ways select committees continue to hold the Government to account, and the scope of their achievements. Select committees have come a long way since the establishment of the new committee structure 30 years ago, and the Liaison Committee welcomes the fact that the Government is seeking to increase Government’s accountability to Parliament through a variety of initiatives involving select committees. But a proper balance has to be struck to avoid overloading committees with tasks initiated by Ministers."
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