Parliament’s new centre of gravity

6 October 2010

The centre of gravity in the House of Commons is shifting from the chamber to the committee corridor, with far-reaching implications for parliamentary accountability and the role of MPs.

This was the key theme of Sir George Young, the Leader of the House of Commons, at the IfG / Hansard Society fringe meeting on the role of the MP at the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday. He was strongly supported by Andrew Tyrie MP and Stephen Dorrell MP, who chair two of the most powerful select committees.

Greater parliamentary accountability through the Liaison Committee

Signalling a potentially significant increase in parliamentary accountability, Sir George said he personally supported more frequent questioning of the Prime Minister by the Liaison Committee – the committee which brings together the chairs of all the select committees.

This innovation was introduced under Tony Blair. He agreed with the suggestion from Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury select committee, that there should be three such sessions a year, instead of two, with a reduction in the number of MPs allowed to pose questions.

Up to 30 MPs currently sit around the table. Tyrie suggested that this number should be reduced to a dozen or less. He also noted that there was rarely a strong or consistent line of questioning. After three hours of questioning Blair and Brown, virtually nothing new or interesting was ever ascertained by the committee, he said.

Recent select committee gains

Select committee chairs are now elected by MPs as a whole, and the first elections this summer invested the new chairs with an unprecedented parliamentary mandate. Tyrie has already capitalised on this, securing from George Osborne, the Chancellor, the right for his committee to ratify – or reject – his nominee for the new head of the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

Tyrie’s committee also gained the right to approve – or refuse to approve – any proposal by the Chancellor to dismiss the head of the OBR, which Tyrie said he considers a more significant power still. He pressed Sir George Young to agree to an extension of these powers to other select committees in respect of other major public appointments, but Sir George diplomatically declined to be drawn.

The Institute is about to start a major project on the relationship between select committees and government, and how effective parliamentary accountability can be enhanced. We will be studying the OBR precedent, and considering the case for extending it more widely. We will also be working with select committee chairs to discuss how select committee members can be better prepared for their role.

How can MPs fulfil all their roles?

Two new Tory MPs, Mary Macleod and Nick Boles – the latter a political fellow at IfG – were also on the panel to discuss how MPs, as “Jack of All Trades”, combine their roles effectively.

Both said that dealing with constituency casework, and getting their offices organised, had been their biggest initial challenge, together with finding their feet in the chamber (“the world’s most brutal school playground,” in Boles’ words.)

Stephen Dorrell, chair of the health select committee, offered them two pieces of advice he was given as a young MP: Kenneth Baker’s advice to tread “the narrow strip of land between sycophancy and outright rebellion,” and Michael Heseltine’s to “march resolutely towards the sound of gunfire,” by engaging in the big issues of the day and not getting bogged down with “trivia.” Both rapidly became ministers.

The profile of backbench MPs

The low media profile of backbench MPs was a theme raised from the floor. Iain Dale, the Tory blogger, said it would help if so many of them weren’t simply identikit politicians – male, 40, Oxbridge, many of them former special adviser. MPs also had to have something distinctive to say, rather than simply parrot the narrow party line.

Select committee membership could help them do this – a view strongly endorsed by Andrew Tyrie, who made his name as a highly effective member of the Public Administration Select Committee in the last Parliament, and who won the chair of the Treasury select committee in a hard fought contest on his reputation as an independent voice.

Nick Boles thought the key to being an effective media performer without alienating your party was constantly being one step ahead of the game, as he had sought to do in his new book Which Way’s Up?

Tyrie also made the most sobering comment of the discussion.  “Never have MPs worked harder or been less corrupt – but never have they been held in lower esteem.” As he said this, another panel member whispered in my ear – “perhaps cause and effect?”  A joke, of course.
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Comments (4)

  1. Eleanor Goodison on 7 October 2010 at 12:22 pm

    Andrew Tyrie is clearly very ambitious both for the Treasury Select Committee and for Select Committees more generally. But can he take all his colleagues who chair the other departmental Committees with him?

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