24 May 2016

Yesterday we saw the latest joint evidence session between the Work and Pensions and Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) select committees on the collapse of BHS. Hannah White argues that this kind of joined-up working has the potential to enhance Parliament’s scrutiny.

The collapse of BHS into administration put 11,000 high street jobs at risk and revealed a pensions black hole of nearly £600 million. The sheer scale of the business failure meant it was inevitable that Parliament would wish to ask questions, and it was clear that it raised issues within the remit of more than one departmental committee.

By coming together, the Work and Pensions and BIS committees have been able to take a broader view of the issues around the collapse into administration of BHS. Yesterday’s session, for example, revealed a wealth of fascinating detail about the advice that was given before the sale of BHS was completed.

It won’t always be sensible for committees to join up their scrutiny, but there are often occasions when it seems the possibility of joint working should have been more actively considered. When the same witness is called to appear in front of several committees to answer questions on the same issue, committees are only replicating the silo handling of issues they are often all too ready to criticise in government. Overlapping scrutiny can end up being less effective if it produces conflicting recommendations or allows government the luxury of picking and choosing which committee’s recommendations it finds more palatable to accept. Conversely, recommendations supported by more than one committee can be even harder for government to ignore.

As we begin the second session of this Parliament, there are heartening signs that at least some of the latest select committees share our view on the value of joint working (Iain Wright MP, Chair of the BIS committee, even issued a statement to this effect). This is encouraging because there are several factors which militate against joint working by committees. Principal amongst these is the tendency for committees – and in particular their chairs – to want to defend their own policy empires and not share the limelight of a high-profile evidence session with other MPs. Parliamentary processes – rules about quorum and the publication of reports for example – can also work to discourage joint working, as can differences in working styles between different committees.

Nonetheless, in this Parliament we have seen:

  • Joint hearings: The joint hearings on BHS are the latest in a series of examples of committees recognising the sense in joint scrutiny of issues which cut across the remit of two or more government departments. Others include joint pre-appointment hearings for the new Chair of the Food Standards Agency (by the Health and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committees) and Chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (by the Women and Equalities Committee and Joint Committee on Human Rights). The new Petitions Committee (created in this Parliament) has also helped drive this trend with a number of joint hearings with different departmental committees ahead of debates on public petitions (see for example the joint Health and Petitions committees evidence session on Meningitis B).
  • Jointly commissioned research: The BIS and Education committees jointly commissioned comparative research on the ways in which education systems can support the upskilling of the workforce. They then held a private seminar with invited stakeholders to discuss the findings, to inform their decisions about future work.
  • New joint structures: Joint committee structures designed to facilitate cross-cutting scrutiny are not entirely new. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, on which the chairs of several departmental select committees sit, is one example intended to drive joint scrutiny between the Commons and the Lords as well as across policy areas. Another example is the Committee on Arms Export Controls, which has membership from four different departmental committees. This Parliament has seen the BIS and Education committees choose to pool their resources to facilitate joined-up scrutiny by creating the Sub-Committee on Education, Skills and the Economy.
  • Combining forces: In some areas, we have seen chairs recognise the increased pressure they can bring to bear by acting together. One example was the joint letter sent by the Chairs of the Education, Health, Home Affairs and BIS committees calling on government to make personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education compulsory in schools.

The Liaison Committee – made up of the Chairs of all Commons select committees – has also demonstrated the value of joined-up scrutiny by choosing to focus its prime ministerial evidence sessions on issues in which several committees have an interest (see for example the latest session which focused on the European Union referendum). Doing more to encourage the emerging trend for joined-up scrutiny is one way in which the Liaison Committee might choose to discharge its responsibility for ‘promoting effective scrutiny’ by select committees.

Although joint working remains an exception, many issues that committees want to scrutinise have cross-cutting aspects and could benefit from more joined-up parliamentary attention. In our report on select committee impact last year, we recommended that ‘committee chairs should work together to find mechanisms to drive cross-cutting committee work… This would have benefits in terms of scrutiny outcomes but also facilitate sharing of good practice.’ It’s encouraging to see more examples of such work emerging.