Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:55 pm on 8th November 2012.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee, Chair, Justice Committee 1:55 pm, 8th November 2012

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Thurso on his work and on how he has brought his business experience to bear for the benefit of the House. I am glad we are having this debate. It has been a long journey from the 1970s, when I was involved in the House of Commons Commission when it was first established. Nobody then had an idea how the House’s money was being spent, but now we are at the point where the House makes its own decisions, assisted by my hon. Friend and the Finance and Services Committee.

As Chair of the Liaison Committee, I need to ensure that the necessary cuts to the House budget—they are necessary to ensure we co-operate with the rest of the system in austerity—do not reduce the effectiveness of Select Committees and hamper us in our efforts to hold the Government to account and engage the public in our work. Subject to the Committee, I make decisions about travel and other expenditure. We try to steward our resources as carefully as we can, but the Committee has looked more broadly at resources, including in a report published today on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers.

The report reviews how Committees go about their work and the importance of it. We took a great deal of encouraging evidence. Academic research has indicated that Committees are successful in influencing Government and public debate, and that we play an important part in promoting public engagement with the parliamentary and political process. Of all the work that MPs do, the work of Select Committees is among the most accessible to the public, because we deal with subjects that relate directly to people’s lives, and our inquiries draw constantly on the evidence, and often the oral evidence, of people who experience the laws we pass. My Committee—the Justice Committee—regularly has in front of it victims of crime, ex-offenders and all kinds of people who bring their life experience to bear on the processes of the House. As much as possible, Committees take their inquiries out of Westminster, giving people who feel remote from the House of Commons the opportunity to see that our work is relevant and important to them.

Chapter 6 of the Liaison Committee report states:

“While committees greatly value the service they receive” from the House service and external advisers,

“there has been concern among some chairs about turnover of staff in the Committee Office, the balance between generalists and specialists among committee staff, and the flexibility of the House Service to respond to the changing requirements of committee members. We have also been concerned to ensure that the current programme of cuts to the overall budget of the House of Commons should not damage our capacity to carry out effective scrutiny.”

Another concern of Committee Chairs is the increasing burdens on their staff and constituency staff that arise from the increased expectations of them—they are now directly elected. Some of those costs should fall on the House budget rather than the budget provided to assist Members in their constituency work. The Liaison Committee report notes that the Committee Office is embarking on a change programme following a review under the savings programme. Its objectives include making oral and written evidence to Committees accessible to the public, so that they can read it quickly and easily online. With that goes an end to the routine printing of written evidence. Some Committees have found that difficult to accept initially, but because of how people access information now, it is a logical and cost-saving way to go.

Another objective is to provide Committee members with easier access to Committee documents so that they can be read any time, anywhere, and that is part of using IT more effectively. Committees, as Andrew Miller indicated earlier, are experimenting with paperless operation—indeed, he has his iPad in front of him now—but not all parts of the parliamentary estate are equipped for this purpose. This presents a real problem, and we may have to spend in order to save, by ensuring that wi-fi is available, for example, and Committees can make the transfer from paper to online.

The programme seeks to make better use of staff resources, for example by reducing the effort now devoted to preparation for printing. These sorts of actions can reduce costs and use resources more effectively. The Liaison Committee welcomes the programme as an opportunity to improve and modernise the service that the Committee Office gives Committees and the public, but we emphasise that it is important that it should be shaped not just by the need to produce savings, but by the longer term goal of increasing Committee effectiveness.

Our report recommends more stability in Committee staffing; the ability to recruit some Committee Clerks directly from outside; greater flexibility in bringing in outside experts; and a modest increase in the number of media officers to enable us to have the work of Committees better explained and properly understood in the media.

In the longer term, we would like to see funding for additional staff in Chairs’ offices, for the reason I gave earlier, and we look forward to a positive response from the House of Commons Commission to our recommendations on resources in due course.

We conclude, in chapter 6 of the report:

“Now may not be the best time to argue for increased resources, but it should be the long-term goal of the House to build up the capacity of select committees, to improve their effectiveness and status, to increase their powers and influence, and to improve their efficiency by providing chairs and staffs with accommodation and infrastructure to enable them to hold Government to account.”

When the House decided that the Chairs of Select Committees should be elected in secret ballot by the House as a whole, and that all members of Select Committees should be elected by the Members in their party, again in secret ballots, the House made an important decision about the role that Committees play. That decision has had a real effect on Committees’ self-confidence; on the way the Government treat Committees; how Committees are seen outside; and Committees’ ability to function independently and provide a scrutiny process that is different from the partisan argument about broad political policy issues that dominates the reporting of Prime Minister’s questions and such events. It is increasingly recognised what an important part of the parliamentary process the Select Committee system is, and the way in which we shape and use our resources needs to reflect that importance.