06 February 2013

Last Thursday saw the House of Commons debate a motion that I and other members of the Liaison Committee had tabled asking the House to support our report on Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers. The report recognises the public interest in greater accountability and calls for a new relationship between Parliament and government.

The Liaison Committee brings together the chairs of other select committees to look at issues of common concern and to foster good practice – as well as playing the higher-profile role of taking evidence from the Prime Minister three times a year and this week, for the first time, the Deputy Prime Minister.

Our report published in November 2012 looks at the activity of select committees since the 2010 General Election, drawing on reports from individual committees, academic research and the views of outside commentators – the Institute for Government included. We found a consensus that committees were effective in influencing government – which we see as committees’ primary purpose – but also that there were areas where they could do better: objective-setting, effective questioning, communication and follow-up, for example. Most of our recommendations were addressed at other committees.

But one, important, recommendation was targeted at the Government: that ‘it 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’.

More effective scrutiny requires not just better working by select committees but also – crucially – more co-operation from government. Some committees already enjoy cordial and co-operative relations with the department they scrutinise but there are a number of common problems: late and inadequate responses and problems in extracting information, in particular. These problems are not universal, but they are a barrier to effective scrutiny and proper accountability.

We also reject the limitations placed by the Government’s Osmotherly Rules on select committees’ freedom to choose their own witnesses. We are not seeking to undermine ministerial responsibility but we need to be able to question the officials responsible for delivery directly.

The Government’s initial response in January recognised “that there is considerable interest in this area”, welcomed our consideration of the matter and offered to consult us as it carries out its own review of the Osmotherly Rules. But it stopped short of accepting our recommendation of a joint review.
In Thursday’s debate Andrew Lansley, the Leader of the House of Commons, stated that the Government was ready to discuss the revision of the rules in a co-operative way. It was cautiously expressed – but welcome.

He also welcomed the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, and the positive impact of recent reforms, particularly the election of committee chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of committees. He agreed with the Liaison Committee’s view that committees should focus on impact rather than simply publishing and letting recommendations lie, and concluded that with committees having greater access to time in the Chamber and Westminster Hall we can continue to use those opportunities more effectively. He looked forward to working with the Liaison Committee and others to pursue the recommendations in our report.

We hope that the Government has started to absorb the extent to which the expectations of select committees have changed. We really meant what we said about wanting more effective accountability, and the changed approach which this requires from Government. We’re cautiously optimistic.