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The Liaison Committee: function matters more than form

The Liaison Committee's role in questioning the prime minister means it has a unique accountability role which must not be undermined or lost.

Boris Johnson appearing at the Liaison Committee
Prime minister Boris Johnson giving evidence to the Liaison Committee at the House of Commons.

Amid the flurry of online select committee hearings which have scrutinised the emerging UK response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Liaison Committee has been notably absent. Its role in questioning the prime minister means it has a unique accountability role which must not be undermined or lost, says Hannah White

There is nothing new about delays in the establishment of the Liaison Committee. As it is made up of the chairs of 36 other select committees, it must wait until the other committee chairs are all elected or appointed – so it is always the last of the House of Commons’ select committees to be established after an election.

Following the 2019 election, the usual delays have been exacerbated by a wrangle over who should be its chair. The government is insisting that this should be Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin, but government and opposition chairs have resisted the attempt to impose a government-approved chair on the committee.

Previous delays in forming the Liaison Committee raised questions about gaps in scrutiny, as one of the committee’s key roles is questioning the prime minister. For example, there was a gap of a year between the 2017 general election and Theresa May’s first appearance. The current row, however, threatens the committee’s credibility.

MPs object to Bernard Jenkin’s installation as Liaison Committee chair on principle

Objections to Jenkin’s appointment are based on at least three matters of principle. First, Jenkin is not an elected chair of another committee. In 2010, elections were introduced for the members and chairs of 28 select committees, instead of them being selected by the whips. In light of this change, it was also agreed that ‘parachuting’ in a non-chair to chair the Liaison Committee was inappropriate, and it became the norm for the chair of the Liaison Committee to be chosen by the elected chairs who make up the committee.

The first chair from 2010 – during the coalition government – was the Liberal Democrat, Sir Alan Beith. The two most recent chairs – Andrew Tyrie and Sarah Wollaston – were both Conservatives, but both had an established reputation amongst their peers for independence from government; indeed, Wollaston subsequently left the Conservative party for ‘The Independent Group’.

The second objection of principle is that the decision has been taken away from the chairs who make up the committee. And third, it is inappropriate for the government to choose the chair of a committee which plays an important role in scrutinising the prime minister.

Chairing the Liaison Committee is a difficult job which requires impartiality

Who chairs the Liaison Committee matters because it is a difficult job.

Made up of 36 Commons select committee chairs, the committee has three official roles. It fulfils administrative tasks (such as adjudicating between committee bids for funding for international travel – not currently an onerous responsibility). It has a mandate to promote effective scrutiny by all select committees (making recommendations such these last year). And, three times a year, it takes oral evidence from the prime minister – something no other committee can do.

The committee has always been hampered by its enormous size.  Most select committee chairs are not overly interested in the mechanics of the select committee system and regular meetings to discuss administrative matters often struggle to achieve their quorum.

Not surprisingly though, all chairs are normally keen to participate in scrutiny of the prime minister. In practice, this means that in order to avoid chaos, the chair of Liaison normally needs to adjudicate between all the other chairs – agreeing a set of key themes for questioning and a small sub-set of chairs to participate. This requires the chair of Liaison to have both diplomatic skills and a reputation for impartiality – their peers must trust that they will enable the committee to identify the most important areas for questioning and ensure the most appropriate chairs undertake it. A Liaison chair who was not chosen by the members of the committee themselves might not be trusted to perform this delicate task.

The Liaison Committee can play an important role in joining up scrutiny

The Liaison Committee has also taken on an informal role in facilitating joined up scrutiny sessions involving more than one committee, but its current absence from the select committee landscape means it cannot play its informal role of helping facilitate joined up scrutiny of coronavirus – a classic cross-cutting issue.

Some committee chairs have taken matters into their own hands. On Friday 17 April, Jeremy Hunt – chair of the Health and Social Care Committee – invited four other chairs (Yvette Cooper of Home Affairs, Tom Tugendhat of Foreign Affairs, Greg Clark of Science and Technology and Clive Betts of Communities and Local Government) to participate in his committee’s questioning of Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care. To do so, Hunt made use of a new power given to committees last year, to invite members of other committees to participate as ‘guests’ in their evidence sessions.

Historically, Liaison’s potential for facilitating joined-up scrutiny has been impaired by the tendency of individual chairs to want to build their own fiefdoms rather than cooperate, though Sarah Wollaston managed to facilitate some joined-up scrutiny of issues cutting across the responsibilities of several committees, such as the collapse of Carillion. But a future chair who was not chosen by the members of the Liaison committee themselves might have less success, not being seen as an impartial arbiter.

The Liaison Committee’s function matters more than its form

It has been reported that the government might decline to set up the Liaison Committee altogether if MPs continue to oppose Bernard Jenkin’s appointment as chair. This appears to be a classic tactic from the current government – threaten the committee’s abolition in order to persuade MPs to accept its original plan and install Jenkin as chair.

Either would be a mistake. Abolishing the Liaison Committee would remove its unique function as scrutineer of the prime minister – a significant backward step in government accountability. But installing a chair who is not seen as independent of government would risk seriously undermining the committee’s credibility as a scrutiny body.

That is not to say that the Liaison Committee deserves to exist in the exact form it did before the 2019 election – but that its crucial functions must continue to be undertaken by a senior group of MPs chosen by their peers rather than by the government they are trying to hold to account. 

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