24 March 2015

Today the House of Commons Liaison Committee – the Committee made up of the Chairs of the House’s 34 select committees – has published its Legacy Report on select committees in the 2010-15 parliament. Hannah White assesses the report and argues for reform of the Liaison Committee itself.

Based largely on individual committees’ own self-evaluation, the report's overall verdict is, unsurprisingly, positive. It highlights an impressive array of committee activity and innovation and notes the increase in the public profile of committees during this parliament, changes which have also been identified by the Institute’s own research. But the opportunity missed in this report is for an honest appraisal of the contribution the Liaison Committee itself has made and what it could do differently in the future.

Alongside certain specific tasks (such as recommending Government Estimates for debate on ‘Estimates Days’) the two main roles of the Liaison Committee are to take evidence from the Prime Minister – usually three times a year now – and to consider “general matters relating to the work of select committees”. In practice this means agreeing guidelines and core tasks for committees, promoting effective scrutiny and giving advice on select committee matters to the Commission (the body which runs the House of Commons). The Committee’s 2012 report summarising issues about select committee effectiveness, resources and powers is an example of the way in which it has fulfilled this task to date.

In 2002 when the Liaison Committee first secured the right to question the Prime Minister regularly ‘on matters of public policy’ it was seen as a great victory for the backbenches. The sessions provide a deeper analysis of the Prime Minister’s role and leadership than is possible on the floor of the House, and allow the Committee to look at cross-cutting issues which are harder for individual committees to address. And the innovations introduced in this parliament – including limiting the number of Chairs participating in any evidence session to a maximum of 12 and focusing on only two subjects in each meeting – have definitely helped. But Chairs themselves acknowledge that the sessions are still failing to hold the Prime Minister publicly to account in the way they might have hoped. Blair, Brown and Cameron have all shrugged off the Committee’s questioning with seemingly little effort and recent Hansard Society research on PMQs found that most of the public they spoke to were completely unaware that the Prime Minister was ever questioned in a select committee setting.

Despite the best efforts of its well-respected Chair – Sir Alan Beith – the Liaison Committee has also disappointed in fulfilling its second role – as a decision-making body and advocate for the work of select committees. The Chairs the Institute spoke to in the course of its research said they felt the Liaison committee was largely irrelevant to their work.

So what could be done differently? One option would be for the Liaison Committee to elect a sub-group from among its members to focus on developing and promoting the effectiveness of scrutiny. At the moment the very make-up of the Liaison Committee militates against its effectiveness in fulfilling this task. Any committee with 30 plus members would struggle to be effective, let alone when it is composed of some of the busiest backbenchers in Parliament. The result is an ever shifting cast of attendees. In 2013-14 Liaison Committee members managed an average attendance at meetings of 42% - some way short of the 60% agreed by the House as the minimum acceptable for members of individual committees. The consequence is that decisions affecting the operation and resourcing of select committees are taken by a different set of members on every occasion.

Add to this the fact that each member of the Liaison Committee instinctively believes their own committee to be both a paragon of good practice and the most deserving of debating time and resources and you have a recipe for decision-making which seems structurally incapable of delivering the best results for the select committee system as a whole. An example might be the grudging conclusion in the Legacy Report welcoming the appointment of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, “with the caveat that the resources for such a body should not affect support for other committees”. It is right that Chairs should be protective of the rest of the select committee system, and not want an ad-hoc committee created at the instigation of the government to dilute the efforts of the other committees. But the Liaison Committee could have shown more enthusiasm about the potential shown by the Commission, which the Institute’s research has found was among the most high-impact activities on the Committee corridor during this parliament.

Another option for improving the way the Liaison Committee operates might be for its members to choose a separate Chair who is not a chair of another committee (a return to a previous practice).

Having a Liaison Committee Chair who is also a Chair of an individual departmental committee (in Beith’s case the busy Justice Committee) inevitably restricts the time that individual has to devote to the Liaison Committee. An even more radical option would be for the Chair of the Liaison Committee to be elected by the whole House, before the other committee Chairs, establishing the status of the job as one of the most important in Parliament.

Since 2010, when most committee chairs became elected, the inadequacies of the Liaison Committee have been thrown into still sharper relief. As today’s report shows, elections have given Chairs greater confidence to pursue a distinct agenda, to innovate and push the boundaries of their powers. But what they continue to lack is a strong body which sees it as its role to capitalise on their progress and advocate within the parliamentary system for their collective interests. It will never be in the interests of the governing party(s) to strengthen the scrutiny system, so it is up to backbenchers to pursue this.

This latest report rightly cautions against any return to the old system of patronage-based appointments or elections just within parties which some fear the frontbenches may be plotting. This would certainly be a retrograde step and would risk depriving the select committee system of the independent thinkers which give it the best chance of rethinking the Liaison Committee’s role and fulfilling its potential.