The Liaison Committee – which brings together all 35 chairs of Commons select committees – is important. As well as questioning the Prime Minister, it promotes effective scrutiny by all select committees. But the committee has struggled to realise its potential, hampered by its enormous size and the tendency of individual chairs to want to build their own fiefdoms.
Brexit now presents an important opportunity for the Liaison Committee to increase its value by leveraging the impact of select committees on government. Based on our work with select committees, we have identified five priorities for the new Chair Sarah Wollaston MP.
The Liaison Committee is the only committee able to summon the Prime Minister to give oral evidence. On Wednesday, Theresa May will appear before the Liaison Committee for the first time in a year.
Liaison Committee evidence sessions provide an opportunity for backbenchers to pursue in depth questioning in a way that is impossible in the Commons. Sarah Wollaston should press for the Prime Minister to provide updates to the Liaison Committee after each round of negotiation between now and the end of the Article 50 period.
The previous Liaison Committee Chair, Andrew Tyrie, got Theresa May to agree to appear before the committee three times a year. But this pattern is not fit for purpose in the exceptional circumstances of Brexit.
Brexit is a hot topic for inquiries in both the Commons and the Lords. A total of 55 Brexit-specific inquiries have been launched since the EU referendum in June 2016: 32 in the Commons, 22 in the Lords and one by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Since the election, at least 21 inquiries have been announced in the Commons and eight in the Lords. This frenzy of activity has generated a wealth of information, but the impact on government is harder to discern.
The Liaison Committee should track all Brexit-related inquiries, identifying common themes and opportunities for joint working, as well as spotting gaps and finding ways to fill them.
This co-ordinating role, which should include more systematic engagement with House of Lords committees, will help increase the impact of committee work on government, as well as informing the Liaison Committee’s evidence sessions with the Prime Minister.
Chairs of departmental committees should work together – via the Liaison Committee - to ensure consistent and comprehensive scrutiny of departments’ preparedness for Brexit. The Institute has published a checklist of the questions committees should be asking of their departments.
The House of Commons delegates the task of detailed scrutiny to select committees, so it’s important that they don’t operate as isolated units but feed back into the wider work of the Commons. That includes informing and being informed by the work of other committees, and undertaking joint work where issues cut across departmental boundaries. It also means engaging in debates, petitions, questions, legislation and Parliament’s work with the public.
Brexit highlights the potential of committees to add value to the wider work of Parliament. The Liaison Committee can help by systematically identifying and flagging parliamentary opportunities for influence on Brexit.
- scrutiny of the sectoral analyses which Parliament has compelled government to make public
- examination of white papers (on trade, agriculture, fisheries and so on)
- tabling or supporting amendments to Brexit-related legislation
- using their expertise to question ministers in the Chamber about how departmental issues are being addressed in negotiations
- seeking opportunities for debates on important issues highlighted by their inquiries.
The effectiveness of select committees depends not only on what they do but also on how government engages with them. The Liaison Committee must track how government is interacting with select committees to drive up standards of engagement. This should include tracking the timeliness and quality of government responses to committee reports, and the responsiveness of ministers to requests to give oral evidence.
The Liaison Committee should also encourage committees to engage with the Cabinet Office’s efforts to improve understanding of Parliament across the civil service.
Some individual select committees are focusing more on the impact of their work, evaluating the outcomes of their efforts and adapting their methods to maximise their influence. But this work is not joined up.
The Liaison Committee should be the body responsible for co-ordinating and driving forward efforts to evaluate and increase the impact of committees. This includes normalising evaluation by committees of their own impact; sharing learning between committees about what works in terms of effective scrutiny; and supporting the take up of opportunities for professional development by MPs.
To meet these challenges the Liaison Committee will require more resources and staffing. This would be a worthwhile investment in a body which holds the potential to catalyse impact across the committee system.