Government by Explanation: The Future of Select Committees

Monday, March 7, 2011 - 11:15

About the event

On 7 March, House of Commons Treasury Committee chairman Andrew Tyrie set out his vision for "the future of select committees" to a packed room at the Institute. Former cabinet minister Jack Straw responded to the speech, and there were contributions from other influential MPs including Alan Beith and Natascha Engel.

Andrew Tyrie argued that recent developments had greatly strengthened Parliament and the committee system, but that there was a great deal of scope for further improvement. He emphasised in addition that Government would itself benefit from a more effective Parliament.

His overall vision was of a system where government is required to account for its actions more thoroughly and systematically – in what he termed "Government by Explanation".

He then set out a range of specific recommendations.

Scrutiny of public appointments

One major theme was parliamentary scrutiny of public appointments. Echoing the Institute's proposals in its report Balancing Act, he argued in favour of a parliamentary veto over a small list of "the most senior regulators, ombudsmen, inspectors and constitutional watchdogs".

This, he pointed out, would build upon the precedent set when his own committee won a veto over appointment to the new Office for Budget Responsibility.

A wider role for the Liaison Committee

Mr Tyrie also addressed the role of the Liaison Committee, comprising the chairs of the all other select committees. He suggested it should hold more regular (monthly) Q&A sessions with the Prime Minister, and that a small group of its most senior members should lead the questioning.

He also favoured the Committee taking on a wider leadership role in reforming the Commons. The members of this body, he argued, should become "more than just shop stewards for our respective committees."

Electing committee members by secret ballot

Another reform he outlined was that all members of select committees (not just their chairs as at present) should be directly elected in a secret ballot of the whole House, to further dilute the patronage power of the whips.

He was in favour, too, of reform of the Osmotherly Rules, under which civil servants appearing before committees speak only on behalf of their minister, and therefore cannot be held accountable in a personal capacity for their actions.

He was in favour of committees playing a more proactive role in setting the political agenda, and pointed to the Treasury Committee's current work on the principles of tax policy as a good example. On the other hand, he was "wary" of giving committees power over departmental estimates and spending decisions.

The Respondents

Jack Straw agreed with much of the thrust of Mr Tyrie's speech, while emphasising (as Andrew Tyrie had himself recognised) that there had been no "golden age" for Parliament and indeed that things had improved greatly since he first worked at Westminster in the 1970s.

On scrutiny of the Prime Minister he agreed that reform was needed. He noted, however, that a greater focus on the PM would be likely to accelerate the centralisation of power within government towards Downing Street, at the expense of the rest of Cabinet.

Alan Beith, Chair of the Liaison Committee backed the Institute's proposals for a parliamentary veto over additional public appointments, and pledged his committee would "work with these proposals and try to take them forward."

Among the issues raised in a lively Q&A session were:

  • whether committees should deliberate on their findings in public (an idea rejected by the speakers)
  • whether there could be greater joining up of select committees and bill committees
  • how committees should tackle cross-cutting issues
  • what had been the impact of the new Backbench Business Committee.

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