Select Committee Effectiveness, Resources and Powers

Canterbury City Council Bill – in the House of Commons at 3:40 pm on 31 January 2013.

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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 3:40, 31 January 2013

I beg to move,

That this House
welcomes the report of the Liaison Committee on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers, Second Report of Session 2012-13, HC 697, and the responses to it, Third Report of Session 2012-13, HC 911; welcomes the positive impact of the Wright reforms, particularly the election of committee chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of select committees;
endorses the Committee’s recommendations for committee best practice and the revised core tasks for departmental select committees;
looks forward to agreement on procedures for committee statements on the floor of the House and arrangements for debates on committee reports;
agrees that co-operation from Government is crucial to effective scrutiny;
and supports the Committee’s call for a new relationship between Parliament and Government, which recognises the public interest in greater accountability.

It is a pleasure to move the motion, which stands in my name and that of many Committee Chairs. It is fortuitous—it is about the only bit of good luck we have had this afternoon—that this debate follows a statement by a Committee Chair about a report that his Committee has produced. That relatively recent innovation tends to work rather better when the statement is made closer to the ministerial statements of the day, but it is welcome and something that we simply did not have in previous Parliaments.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee, the Chair of which is in the Chamber, for allowing the debate to be held. The motion is based on a report that the Liaison Committee produced in November and the responses to it from the Government and the House authorities, which we have published.

There are various aspects of the role of Parliament: we make laws; we create and oppose Governments, with this House being the forum in which the political contest between parties takes place; and we raise the grievances of our constituents as individuals or communities. However, there is a fourth function, which was sometimes neglected in earlier years: holding all Governments and the public service to account on how public money is spent, the effectiveness of administration and the development of policy.

Over the years, the Select Committee system has developed as the main means of addressing that fourth objective. The creation of a comprehensive structure of departmental Committees moved the process a long way forward at the time of the late Norman St John-Stevas. The previous Parliament left us a valuable legacy of further strengthening with the report of the Wright Committee which, in particular, put in place the election of Select Committee Chairs by the House as a whole, as well as the election of Committee members within parties. That has given Committees a new authority and mandate, and the influx of new Members, as well as the return of several experienced and senior Members to Select Committee work, has built on that authority.

Many new and more senior Members find their involvement in Select Committees just about the most rewarding part of their work in Parliament. They spend many a Wednesday listening to, or attempting to take part in, Prime Minister’s questions and they troop through the Lobby to support their party’s view in particular votes, but they can really get their teeth into things through the Select Committee process, in which they have the opportunity to question and challenge how things are being done, and to influence the shape of things in the future.

Our Committees have very small teams of staff, but the quality of their work and the way in which they cope with the demanding timetables of the Committee process are essential elements of Committees’ success. Our staff include people drawn from the Clerks Department of the House. Some appointments are made from outside, and we have indicated that there are circumstances in which it might be appropriate for such appointments to be made not only at the more specialist levels but even for the Clerk of a Committee. The Scrutiny Unit is a valuable resource for Select Committees, and we also draw on the Library—indirectly and directly, as Library staff are seconded to Select Committee service—and the National Audit Office, which I have found ready to co-operate not only with the Public Accounts Committee, as it does primarily, but with individual Committees when its expertise is valuable to their work.

Select Committees have proved to be one of the most effective ways of promoting public engagement with the House of Commons. We are always being urged to increase public engagement, and if we look at the wide range of people waiting on the Committee corridors in this building and Portcullis House to give evidence to Committees or to listen to their proceedings, and then think of all the people who watch the sittings at home on the Parliament channel or through the web system, we realise that Committees probably engage many more people than much else that goes on in the Commons. People are engaged because they are closely interested in the Committees’ work.

Today the Hansard Society published some survey results which showed a 9% increase in the past year in the public belief that Parliament holds Government to account. The survey showed that figure rising to 47%, which is just short of half, but it is a nine percentage point increase on the same question the previous year.

Select Committee inquiries have had a very high public profile. Most striking was the global coverage achieved by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into News International and phone hacking, but others, too, have attracted a high level of interest. The Science and Technology Committee’s report on the Government’s alcohol guidelines stimulated widespread discussion about safe drinking limits. The Treasury Committee’s work on retail banking has attracted close interest not only in the financial world but among the wider public, and the Banking Commission, which is now conducting its inquiries, is a partner of the Treasury Committee—a Joint Committee drawn partly from the Treasury Committee and led by its Chairman. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s current inquiry into the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain is attracting international interest.

Some Committees are less often in the national media but have a very high profile in the professional press and the stakeholder community. The International Development Committee is one example. Another is the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, whose Chairman is at a funeral today, or she would have been here pointing to much of the work that it does. There are many examples of the work of my own Committee, the Justice Committee, changing the way things are done. As a direct result of a report that we produced, new guidelines have been introduced by the Director of Public Prosecutions on charging on a joint enterprise basis, which had proved to be quite a difficult and controversial issue. I had a letter only the other day from a Minister setting out precisely how the Government would implement the Committee’s recommendations—not challenging them, but setting out how the Government was going to implement them. That is a record of which Select Committees can be proud.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have so far barely scratched the surface of using social media to engage people with the workings of Parliament? The Select Committees are particularly well placed to do that, and he will know that before a session with the Secretary of State for Education, the Select Committee went on Twitter with #askGove to ask people to come up with questions. We were inundated—there were more than 5,000 tweets. We sorted through them, grouped them by theme and went through them with the Secretary of State who, in typical style, was able to give rapid-fire answers and people felt they were genuinely able to engage with Parliament through the Select Committee and hold the powerful to account.

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

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. My own Committee has held online consultations with people in the public service who cannot come out openly to express their views, but whose views are important to us. We did an online consultation with prison officers which gave us a much better understanding of their working environment and problems. We did the same with probation officers. We had difficulty with the Ministry of Justice when we tried to do the same with court staff who were affected by the court interpretation and translation service changes, on which we will report in a few days. We were rather surprised to find the Department much less co-operative in that instance than it had been on previous occasions.

The social media are extremely important to the work of Select Committees, as are Parliament’s website facilities. The web and intranet service is working on some new designs for Select Committee homepages that will allow for more individual branding, giving Committees more control over the appearance of their online presence and greater flexibility in respect of what individual Committees can promote on their homepage. We would like to see this implemented as soon as possible. I do not claim to be the House’s expert on social media—I am the last person to make such a claim—but they clearly offer tremendous opportunities for engaging with the people who are affected by what is agreed and passed in the House. That is one of the things at the forefront of Committees’ work.

Our report honestly assesses where Select Committees can do better. It makes a range of best practice recommendations. We encourage Committees to be forward-looking in their scrutiny of departmental performance, not confining themselves to raking over the coals of past events unless there are important lessons to be learned from them. We urge Committees to give more attention to the financial implications of departmental policy and how Departments assess the effectiveness of their spending. We encourage them to experiment with different approaches to evidence taking; to broaden the range of witnesses and make more use of commissioned research; to produce shorter reports, making it clear which are the most important recommendations and who is supposed to be carrying them out; to follow up recommendations to ensure that reports have impact; and to report to the House at least once each Session on what their Committee has been doing.

Moreover, as my hon. Friend Mr Stuart said, Committees need to be more effective at communicating. That involves the social media, but it also involves traditional print and broadcast media. We get a lot of coverage and a lot of interest from the broadcasters. Occasionally they annoy us by failing to distinguish between Select Committees of this House, elected by the House, and all-party groups, which have a role and a usefulness but are not the same thing. A Select Committee of this House is a Committee of people who have a degree of expertise developed over a period but are not united by a common cause in their membership of the Committee, as is so often the case with an all-party group. There is a big difference between the nature of a report produced by a Select Committee and one produced by an all-party group. The use of the term “a group of MPs” to describe either body, which we find in the broadcasts even of the BBC, is something we deplore.

The motion before the House invites us to endorse these best practice recommendations. They are not a straitjacket; it is for each Committee to determine its own priorities in how it goes about its business. However, Committees have core tasks, and we hope that they will see the good sense of the recommendations that we are making; indeed, many are already doing so.

One of the areas where we want to develop the work of Committees is in our scrutiny of policy development at the European level. We have had a lot of discussions about this with the European Scrutiny Committee and with the Minister for Europe. Far too often, this House is confronted with draft European legislation long after the important decisions and negotiations have taken place. Committees can much more usefully engage at the early stages, as long as they can be clear which work programme issues of the Commission are attracting real interest and are likely to get somewhere; otherwise they can get submerged in a vast amount of material that is not really going anywhere.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that another way to ensure that we scrutinise much better what is happening in Europe is to have better liaison relationships with Chairs of Committees in other national Parliaments? That will help us to understand what is happening in those countries and develop these relationships even further.

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

Yes, I agree. I have tried to do that, as has the right hon. Gentleman, conspicuously so, in the home affairs field. We should also communicate more effectively with British Members of the European Parliament so that they are aware when Committees have done some work on a subject and do not go blind into discussions completely unaware that this Parliament has already examined that subject in detail and expressed views on it. We have also been arguing for some time that we want the very good assistance that we get from UK representatives in Brussels and their staff to be used on a more active and less passive basis so that Committees are alerted when issues that they could usefully consider are coming up, such as those that may be of concern to the Government or are likely to excite controversy.

We talk about the powers and privileges of Committees. Sometimes an impression is given in public discussion that Committees are lacking the powers to do their job. By and large, I do not believe that to be the case. There are improvements that we could make, and the report deals with some of them. There are also some things that it is rather difficult to do—for example, in relation to privilege and the compelling of witnesses. The Liaison Committee is not convinced that statute is necessarily the right way to go, but the issue is shortly to be examined in a Joint Committee.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Vice-Chair, Conservative 1922 Committee

My right hon. Friend will be aware that my Committee—the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—has perhaps tested the boundaries of Select Committee powers more than most. The situation seems unsatisfactory in two areas. First, when we served warrants on Rupert and James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks to appear before the Committee, it was not at all clear what the consequences would be had they failed to respond to that summons. Secondly, when we reported to this House that we believed we had been lied to by people who had given evidence to the Committee, it was, and remains, extremely unclear what the consequences of that are.

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

That is certainly true and I think it is one of the issues that will have to be examined by the Joint Committee, which is about to embark on this work. The problems are difficult to solve and affect only a few inquiries. They certainly affected the work of my hon. Friend’s Committee, which was notably successful in getting some potentially unwilling witnesses to appear before it. I congratulate him on what the Committee achieved.

It should be stressed that, for the vast majority of the time, Committees deal with willing witnesses who are very happy to come and be examined by us, even if, sometimes, they are critically examined. Most of the time, we are gaining information from willing witnesses. I will come in a moment to what happens when we deal with Government. So far as all other bodies and persons are concerned, the instances in which a draconian power might be required are very few. My hon. Friend is right that such powers as the House has in this area are not very easy to use, and we will have to further consider that issue.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

What was the Liaison Committee’s thinking behind paragraph 133 of the report? It states that the Committee was

“persuaded that the disadvantages of enshrining parliamentary privilege in statute would outweigh the benefits”,

but that conclusion was reached ahead of all the work that is being done. It seems to pre-empt a lot of work that is ongoing.

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

It was an honest statement of the view of Committee members that the possibility of the activities of the House being questioned in the courts as a consequence of the exercise of powers would be more damaging to the House than the current situation. Were the Joint Committee to come to a different conclusion after careful examination, we would, obviously, look at the issue again, but it was an honest statement of the Liaison Committee’s opinion at the time. My opinion has not changed so far, but I am clear that the matter will have to be looked at very carefully indeed.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I must back my right hon. Friend and say how much I agree with him. I was one of those on the Liaison Committee who felt that very strongly. We have had people who were not keen to appear before the Education Committee, but they were told that they were expected to turn up, that it would be seen as a failure on their part not to do so and that powers could be exercised against them if they did not do so. They came. That is the test. If we move to something more legalistic, people will hire lawyers to find out exactly how many days’ delay they can use, based on precedent, so that they can put it off as long as they can and, in effect, thwart the will of Parliament, which is for them to appear. Whatever the current situation’s shortcomings, in my opinion, subject to what the Joint Committee finds out, it is the right one: it works for Parliament and does so in a speedy and effective way.

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

My hon. Friend puts the point extremely well.

The appearances of members of the Government and civil service officials are governed by the Osmotherly rules. The Committee is stringent about those rules in paragraph 113:

“We do not accept that the Osmotherly rules should have any bearing on whom a select committee should choose to summon as a witness. The Osmotherly rules are merely internal for Government. They have never been accepted by Parliament. Where the inquiry relates to departmental delivery rather than ministerial decision-making, it is vital that committees should be able to question the responsible official directly—even if they have moved on to another job. It does of course remain the case that an official can decline to answer for matters of policy, on the basis that it is for the minister to answer for the policy, but officials owe a direct obligation to Parliament to report on matters of fact and implementation. This does not alter the doctrine of ministerial accountability in any way. Ministers should never require an official to withhold information from a select committee. It cannot be a breach of the principle of ministerial responsibility for an official to give a truthful answer to a select committee question.”

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I welcome the opportunity to debate this report briefly. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is not just about officials appearing before Committees? The Environmental Audit Committee had hoped that the Deputy Prime Minister could meet our long-standing request for him to appear before us and report back on his work on the Rio+20 agenda, but it was impossible for him to do so in his capacity as the Deputy Prime Minister. We have, therefore, had to arrange for him to appear before the Liaison Committee. That throws up the problem of a lack of accountability not just from officials, but from Ministers as well.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs, Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Panel of Chairs

Order. May I just remind the right hon. Gentleman that we said that speeches should last between 10 and 15 minutes? He has now had 19 minutes, and other Members wish to speak. We also do not have as much time as usual.

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

Mr Deputy Speaker, I hope that you will bear it in mind that several hon. Members, having looked at the clock, have decided to get their point across by intervening on me.

I should like to answer the hon. Lady’s question. She makes an important point. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have both taken the view that once they started going to Select Committees, they would end up being asked to go to all of them. Our response to both of them was that if that was their position, we would bring them to the Liaison Committee so that they could be questioned on matters in which they had played an important part.

I referred to the Osmotherly rules at some length because they are an important point of contention between the Committee and Ministers. We deal more fully with that in our report. We are saying to the Government that they need to engage with us on the way in which the Government relate to Parliament, rather than simply talking about consulting us on revising the rules.

The world has changed significantly. The election of Committees, and the way in which Members now see them as the main means of holding the Government to account, means that the Government must recognise that things are clearly different. Many Departments co-operate very well with the Committees, and quite a few Ministers find it helpful to have Committees looking at issues over which they—the Ministers—are involved in internal battles, either within their Department or with the Government. Many a Minister has had cause to thank a Select Committee for its support on such issues. There must be a recognition right across Government that Select Committees have a role to play in one of the most important functions of Parliament. There must be a clear understanding that Select Committees are entitled to information and that they should have the full co-operation of the Government.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Chair, Home Affairs Committee, Chair, Home Affairs Committee 4:01, 31 January 2013

It is a real pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, Sir Alan Beith. He covered so much ground with his description of how the Select Committees began that I am tempted just to say, “I agree” and sit down. But this would not be Parliament without everyone adding a little extra to what he has said.

I should like to acknowledge the presence in the Chamber of many of the Select Committee Chairs. This could almost be the Liaison Committee meeting for the first time in the Chamber of the House of Commons. The Chairmen of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Education Committee, the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Justice Committee are all here this afternoon, as is my hon. Friend Natascha Engel, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

I would not want this debate to consist only of us talking about ourselves and about how well we have all done. The reason that we are in this place, and the reason that so much has changed in the past five years, is that Parliament has changed. The occupant of the Chair, in the person of Mr Speaker, has decided that the procedures of Parliament should make the Government much more accountable than I can remember them being in all the 25 years I have been in the House. I know that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed has been here even longer than that. The fact that Mr Speaker has decided to use those processes to a much greater extent than they have ever been used before, and the fact that we have put in place the right reforms and that those on both Front Benches decided to implement them, mean that the Select Committee system is almost there, as far as scrutiny of the Government is concerned. I say “almost there” because, although the Chairman of the Liaison Committee rightly mentioned all the positive aspects of the system, there are a couple of things that I think could make it even better.

I also want to pay tribute to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in the persona of Mr Whittingdale, for going where no Committee, or Committee Chair, has dared to go before. He rightly mentioned phone hacking and the Rupert Murdoch affair, because those events represented a line in the sand for the powers of Select Committees. I can tell him that frequently when witnesses refuse to appear before the Home Affairs Committee, I do not have to come here and seek an order; all I have to do is remind them of what happened to Mr Rupert Murdoch when he decided he would not appear before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee—which conducted a very good inquiry, of course.

In a sense, however, we are making these rules up as we go along. As has been said, we do not know what powers we have at our disposal if somebody refuses to appear before a Committee. When witnesses say they are sick, I now ask for a sick note sent via a doctor with initials after their name, so I can be certain that that is why the witness cannot attend. We must clarify what these powers are. In one sense, I am reluctant to do so because it is always useful to have the mystique of Parliament—to have the fear of the unknown, so that people do not know what will happen. In that respect, therefore, it is better not to write things down, but to keep them vague and use that as a way to cajole people to appear. At some stage, somebody will refuse to attend and will not answer to a warrant, however, and that is when we will have to decide how to proceed.

I want to pay tribute to my Committee secretariat staff: Tom Healey, Richard Benwell, Elizabeth Flood and all the other staff who work extremely hard. The Chair of the Liaison Committee said that we had good staff, but he did not point out that we do not have sufficient resources. We need more resources if we are to be able to do our job effectively.

We need to put a stop to the practice of Clerks being moved around too regularly, and often just when they are about to really get into their job. In the past they have moved rather too swiftly. One of my former Clerks has ended up clerking three Committees and is currently clerking the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. She is so good that, like Ronaldo, she gets passed on to all the big teams. We should allow Committee staff to develop their specialisms. I am grateful to the powers that be for the fact that over the past year my Clerks have not changed, and I hope very much that we can stick to the unwritten rule that we have them for the whole of the Parliament, as that enables them to develop fields of expertise.

We look across the Atlantic in awe at the number of staff the chairs of congressional and senate committees have. Only a few months ago, I was in Washington and I met the chair of the homeland security committee, the equivalent of our Home Affairs Committee. I was told he had a staff of 32 and that was just for the majority side in Congress. I am not suggesting for one moment that we should increase the staffing of the HAC from nine to 32, because I know I would never get away with that. If we are to do our job, however, we need staff with expertise.

We also need to make sure our Committee staff are, indeed, Committee staff; far too often, they have to go off and do other House duties because that is part of the deal. I want them to be able to concentrate fully on the work we do.

Despite that little whinge, the HAC has thus far in this Session produced 11 reports, seen 118 witnesses in 49 sittings, and addressed 20 subjects. The House may therefore think that nine staff members is sufficient, and that the HAC should not be given any more staff as that would only mean we would go on for even longer. We are able to do so much work, however, only because of the expertise of the people who work for us.

The HAC has tried to travel around the country, although we do not do so often enough. We should engage with the public by getting them to come here, although they are very willing to do so because of the new regime that now runs the visitors’ facilities. We should also use social media, as Mr Stuart said that he did in the Education Committee. We stole his idea and used it the last time the Home Secretary appeared before the HAC.

Not all of the questions that were suggested by members of the public were constructive, but it is always nice to hear their thoughts not just about the Home Secretary, but about members of the Home Affairs Committee. That is all about public engagement, and I am willing to try anything new.

I welcome what has been done by the House authorities to change the websites over the past few years. We should embrace the new technology and develop it in the best way that we can.

Another way in which we could help the public to understand the distinctive contribution that Select Committees make would be to end the great ballot to find out in which room Select Committees will sit on any given day. In America, Select Committees have confirmed office space and rooms. Under that system, one would know that the Home Affairs Committee would always sit in Committee Room 19. I know that there is a problem in that the broadcasters choose which is the best session to cover.

I think that the House’s facilities should be used more imaginatively so that not only do we have a degree of permanence in where we sit, but Select Committee

Chairs are close to their staff. I have an office in Norman Shaw North, but my Select Committee staff are in Millbank. I do not know about other Select Committee Chairs, but I would think that at least 60% to 70% of my work in this House is Select Committee related. It is not difficult to ring up Select Committee staff, but it would be much more helpful if they were in close proximity to the Chairs of their Committees.

We have reached a stage that some of us would not have thought possible even a few years ago. However, it is not enough to stand still. We need to move forward, because I still believe that the most effective way to scrutinise the operation of any Government is not at the Dispatch Box, where Members have the opportunity to ask just one question, apart from the Leader of the Opposition who gets several bites of the cherry, but in a Select Committee system, where one can probe, ask and sometimes even argue. At the end of the day, I believe that that sort of scrutiny gets a better result.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Three Members want to take part in this debate. We also need to get both Front Benchers in and leave a couple of minutes at the end for Sir Alan to wind up. I therefore ask Members to be mindful of the length of their contributions.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee 4:12, 31 January 2013

I will try to be mindful of your suggestion, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am delighted that the Backbench Business Committee has allocated time for us to debate the report of the Liaison Committee following the 2010 Wright reforms. It is fair to say that Select Committees are stronger and have more influence on Government than ever before. This is the first Parliament in which the members of Select Committees have been voted for in secret ballots by their own parties, and in which the Chairs of Select Committees have been elected by the whole House. That has given additional independence to Select Committees. It is no wonder that there are grimaces from the faces of Government Whips, and it is right that there should be. If there are not grimaces on the faces of Government Whips, we do not have a strong and assertive enough legislature. We do have an assertive legislature, but we can go further.

In the Leader of the House, we have such a fine parliamentarian, such a tremendous Minister and a man of such self-confidence, personality and breadth of philosophy that he will not think that he can hold the line and make no concessions. He understands the need for the whole House to improve the way in which it holds the Government to account and to recognise the powerful role that Select Committees play.

Select Committees not only have a role in scrutiny; they inform the character of this place. In this Chamber, we sit opposite each other and make tribal noises. I like making tribal, partisan noises as much the next man— in fact, probably rather more than most—but Select Committees bring us together and form us in teams across party lines. They build deep friendships and relationships. They help us to understand where other people are coming from. That has a civilising impact on the way in which this place works, which I hope permeates through to the way in which we make law. It makes Ministers more confident about conceding ground at times, and means we are more effective in representing the overall interests of the people who send us to this place. If it does that, a Select Committee is a very fine thing indeed.

Mindful of what you have said, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will drop the rest of my remarks because we have already touched on many good points. I will simply say that Select Committees are stronger now than they were in the past and a positive influence on Parliament. They are an excellent check on the Executive, and I know that the Leader of the House and Ministers will listen to calls from the Liaison Committee to strengthen those powers going forward.

Photo of Hywel Francis Hywel Francis Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee), Chair, Human Rights (Joint Committee) 4:15, 31 January 2013

It is a pleasure to follow Mr Stuart and Sir Alan Beith, the Chair of the Liaison Committee. I apologise for missing the first minute or so of the right hon. Gentleman’s excellent and cogent contribution. I was speaking in Westminster Hall on a matter of great interest and concern to him: the Welsh language and the Welsh language channel.

I welcome the report and wish to identify three recommendations that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has already begun to implement to the benefit, I hope, of both Houses. The first concerns best practice and a recommendation on away-days. We have implemented that recommendation in order to discuss which inquiries we should choose and review our work. In doing so, we have engaged with civil society and outside organisations, and it has been a worthwhile exercise.

Secondly, there was a recommendation on leading questioners. Our Committee may be a little unusual, because its members comes from two Houses and have a wide range of experience. Decisions on certain inquiries are often led by the recommendation of a particular member. For example, the inquiry on independent living came from a strong proposal from an eminent and experienced member at the time—Baroness Campbell of Surbiton. Although it was implicit, we all recognised that she was the expert, and she basically led that inquiry. Equally, the Committee’s well-known inquiry on extradition was proposed by Mr Raab, and for most of the time we deferred to him. I was delighted that both inquiries resulted in unanimous reports.

One intriguing recommendation that I warmly recognise and embrace concerns the importance of principles of diversity and of engaging as fully as possible with civil society and small but well-known groups at national level. For example, yesterday we met Praxis community projects. It has helped a small group, Better Futures, which related to our inquiry into young unaccompanied migrant children. I am certain that the inquiry and report will benefit enormously from the first-hand experiences—often very traumatic experiences—that we heard about from those young unaccompanied migrant children, some of whom were from war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.

On principles of diversity, we are all familiar with the fact that Chairs of Select Committees are invited to conferences, and whether it is a large international conference or a small one, I always benefit from it. I am sure Sir Alan Beith will recall the conference that we both attended and addressed last year on 18 April here in Westminster on Parliaments and human rights. It marked the end of the UK’s chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers. It was a sobering experience to have such a wide range of voices and experiences from this country and throughout the world looking specifically at the work of my Committee, and it made me reflect on my work as a Chair and on the work of the Committee as a whole.

There have been other conferences, including one in November in Geneva on strengthening the role of parliamentarians in establishing human rights, which was organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth secretariat. Human rights are being struggled for, and people from some countries say, “We are freedom fighters and have fought to achieve what you have in your country.” It was sobering to hear them talking about their experiences and to reflect on the benefits of the Human Rights Act and the Joint Committee.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to the new commissioners on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. They scrutinised me and my Committee on our work, as we will do shortly when they come to meet us in the next few months.

On behalf of my Committee, I warmly welcome the report and look forward to implementing more and more of it. I look forward to Ministers doing the same. I am sure they will take the report seriously and ensure that officials see Committees as and when they are expected to do so. I endorse other Select Committee Chairs in thanking their Clerks—I thank my Clerks, Mike Hennessy and Mark Davies—and all their staff, for all their hard work. I look forward to them having more resources as a consequence of the implementation of the report.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 4:21, 31 January 2013

In the brief amount of time I have available to me I want to welcome the manner in which the Chairman of the Liaison Committee has introduced the report. We should do anything we can to get away from the widespread perception that Parliament is all about what happens at Prime Minister’s Question Time on Wednesday at 12 o’clock—that is simply not the case. A great deal of detailed scrutiny work is done not just by the Liaison Committee and Committee Chairs, but by members of Select Committees. It is important that people out there who follow what Parliament does understand that MPs can make a difference in our day-to-day work in holding the Government to account. The report shows how we have taken that forward.

I would like the time to thank my Committee Clerks—the second Clerk has just become a proud father for the second time; I am sure he would like a mention in Hansard for that—but it is important in the short amount of time I have to concentrate on what will make a difference. Select Committees work not just to hold an inquiry, get a Government response and put out a press release, but to follow up their detailed recommendations. We tenaciously follow up Select Committee recommendations so that we get Ministers to come to Parliament to respond. That is important.

Select Committee Chairs also have the opportunity to request that Committee reports are tagged. That shows that we are contributing to the work that goes on in government and holding the Government to account, which is important.

The Environmental Audit Committee is a cross-cutting Committee. Therefore, it is important that we have a working relationship with all Secretaries of State in their strategic work through the Cabinet and in their business plans. The Liaison Committee report sets out how we can take that forward.

I echo previous comments on resources, which is a big issue for my Committee. When the Government got rid of the Sustainable Development Commission, there was an in-built assumption that the Committee would take over that work. I want to leave the House with a plea. The resources available to my Committee in no way compensate for those that the Government took away and cut from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs budget and the budgets of other Departments.

My Committee was told that the National Audit Office was at our disposal, but the Government cannot dictate what the NAO does. I simply make the point that the NAO needs to look at its resources. Although we have one officer seconded to our Committee, and for whom we are grateful, that is nowhere near sufficient. We need to ensure that the NAO recognises that environmental and sustainability issues matter.

In an attempt to try to compensate for our current lack of resources, we have sought advice from other sources—something very much in keeping with the thrust of the Liaison Committee report. One of our specialist advisers, Professor Tim O’Riordan, has taken the lead in organising a network of academics with research interests in sustainability, pulling together researchers from many universities and think-tanks. I am pleased to say that the network convened at Keele university in north Staffordshire for the first time in October 2011 with members of the Committee. It is producing a database of sustainable development research to inform the Committee’s sustainable development-related inquiries, once they are under way. As we take the work of the Liaison Committee forward, I hope we are mindful of the way that others are contributing to the work of Parliament.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons 4:25, 31 January 2013

I welcome the report from the Liaison Committee. I congratulate Sir Alan Beith and all right hon. and hon. Members of his Committee on their work. We have heard from some of them this afternoon: my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, Mr Stuart, and my hon. Friends the Members for Aberavon (Dr Francis) and for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley). All do excellent work in their Select Committees to hold Government and other organisations to account.

As the report says, looking back over the last year of activity, Select Committees have done an important and successful job. The role of Select Committees has been continually evolving ever since their creation by Norman St John Stevas, who sadly passed away last year. The election of Chairs and of Committee members has strengthened the independence of Committees. It is two years since that was implemented following the recommendation of the Wright Report, and it has worked well.

As the report states, despite the many demands on Members’ time, attendance is high—approximately 75%—and very few Members have a low attendance rate. The Committee noted that there are often good reasons for low attendance, not least the need to be in several places at once—something Members know only too well. That rate reflects the importance the House attaches to the role of Committees, and, I suspect, the impact that membership of a Committee can have on job satisfaction.

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

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She made reference to the difficulties that Committees face. Many Members are placed on Bill Committees and Statutory Instrument Committees, and many are lost to the increasing size of the Executive, including Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and the shadow Executive.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I do not know what the answer is, given that Members of Parliament often have ambitions to be in the shadow Government or the Government and like to get promoted. We have made progress in the past few years in setting up a career path for those who wish to specialise in Select Committees, particularly in the area of scrutiny.

The report rightly says that holding the Government to account is the main purpose of Committee work. However, our constituents expect more than that. Parliament is here to hold the powerful to account, as well as the Government. Major multinationals are one example of powerful organisations that our constituents expect us to hold to account.

In that context, I congratulate the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend Margaret Hodge, and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, chaired by Mr Whittingdale, who is in his place, on their work. The PAC has exposed the shocking conduct of companies such as Starbucks, Amazon and Google in minimising the taxes they pay in this country. The work of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, in its relentless pursuit and questioning of News International over phone hacking, often when the issue was ignored by many others, has already been commented on. I would like to add my congratulations to its members on playing such a major role in uncovering the scandal. It is only right that we use this debate to highlight the important work that our Select Committee system has done and to congratulate those involved on the work they do. The Liaison Committee’s report rightly praises the Transport Committee, led by my hon. Friend Mrs Ellman, for its inquiry into motor insurance, which brought to light a major scandal.

It is not only major companies, however, that Select Committees need to scrutinise. The Government’s programme of increasing the involvement of the private sector in public services and the breaking up of the health service means that lines of accountability are becoming more and more blurred. The House and Select Committees have the opportunity to scrutinise what these new organisations are up to with public money, and we have to ensure that the Select Committees maintain their ability to follow public money, even if that involves the accounts of private companies. That is an area to which we have to pay particular attention given some of the changes being made.

I agree with the Liaison Committee report that the primary function of Select Committees is to scrutinise the Government, but I do not want to minimise the important role they perform in holding others to account. We share the Committee’s disappointment that the Government have not published more Bills in draft. They only published 18 Bills in draft in the 2010-12 parliamentary Session. Pre-legislative scrutiny is beneficial to the legislative process and is an area where Committees made up of members with in-depth policy knowledge can add real value. Will the Leader of the House commit, therefore, to increasing the proportion of Bills that the Government publish in draft? Even when the Government have published bills in draft, however, they have allowed insufficient time in some cases for effective pre-legislative scrutiny.

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Department for Education on conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of the special educational needs clauses of a forthcoming Bill. It was a tight timetable, but it gave us the chance to do the job. Ministers have been very open to meetings and to following up and taking onboard the advice of the Committee. It really can work.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

As someone who gave evidence before entering the House to what were then known as Special Standing Committees, which evolved into pre-legislative scrutiny Committees, I think it is important to highlight best practice and carry on evolving positively the concept of pre-legislative scrutiny.

The Energy Bill and the Civil Aviation Bill are cited in the Committee’s report as examples of where the Government have not allowed enough time for Select Committees to do their work. The Committee is also right to highlight the shambles of the draft Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill: the Select Committee members reorganised their work to enable scrutiny of the Bill at very short notice, only for the Government to pull the Bill and re-introduce it this Session. In retrospect, Committee Members could have spent many hours scrutinising it without the time constraint, which turned out not to be a time constraint. I hope that the Leader of the House will take note of the need for better organisation.

We note the Liaison Committee’s suggestion that Commons Select Committees should have first choice on whether to carry out pre-legislative scrutiny, rather than it being a decision of the Government. A Joint Committee could make a valuable contribution, but it is this House that is democratically elected and, as the Liaison Committee rights says in its report, it would make sense for a Committee of this House to consider whether a Bill should be referred to a Joint Committee. Will the Leader of the House comment on that suggestion?

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

There is a further strong argument, which is that once there is a Joint Committee, election will no longer be the process by which this House elects Committees. Instead, the Whips will perform the kind of function that they normally perform for Bill Committees, and that is not what we want.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I note that that is precisely the point the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee members made in their report. By highlighting that section, I am agreeing with him.

It is also worth considering whether we should go one step further. At the moment, it is for the Government to decide whether to use pre-legislative scrutiny at all. The Government are currently rushing ill-thought-out welfare legislation through the House that will hit people in work on low incomes the hardest. This is a piece of legislation that would have benefited from pre-legislative scrutiny, particularly evidence sessions. That was not allowed to happen, so could the Leader of the House consider whether, allowing for the Government to legislate immediately when there is an obvious need, we could have a Committee of this House deciding whether a Bill should receive pre-legislative scrutiny? These are not suggestions on which I have a settled view, but I am interested in hearing the views of right hon. and hon. Members about possible changes in that direction.

The Liaison Committee is right to comment on the role of Select Committees in scrutinising ministerial appointments. As it says in its report, the Committee previously commented on this in its 2011 report, “Select Committees and Public Appointments”, which made recommendations for reforming the process. The Government’s response prompted a further report from the Liaison Committee last September, which highlighted the

“inadequacy of the Government’s response to our proposals”.

There has been no response from the Government to date, which is clearly unsatisfactory. This has been left hanging in the air for far too long, so will the Leader of the House say when the Government will be responding?

Photo of Graham Stuart Graham Stuart Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

Governments tend to grow more and more grudging about ceding powers, whereas parties in opposition make free—they return to philosophical first principles and they tend to make promises. Let me push the hon. Lady on this point. What is the Labour party’s position on a few of these points? She should put it on the record. If there is ever a Labour Government in future, it may or may not be her that takes that position forward, but it would be useful to have on the record some promises that we can hold someone to account for in future.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

The hon. Gentleman is tempting me in all sorts of areas. I hope he realises from the tone of what I am saying that I am particularly interested in seeing what we can do to strengthen the role of the legislature in some of these areas. It is important to have a debate about the practicalities before we formulate an approach to this in the run-up to the next election. I am sure that he will be an avid reader of what comes out of that.

The Liaison Committee describes the main role of Select Committees as “influencing” Government. I understand the point the Committee is seeking to make. In outlining the role of Select Committees, the functions it describes are scrutinising and holding the Government to account. For me, however, the language of “scrutiny” is preferable to “influencing”. The measure of a Select Committee’s success should not be the sum total of its recommendations that the Government adopt. The core objectives of Select Committees, as first set out by the Modernisation Committee in 2002, have worked well, with an emphasis on their role in scrutinising the Government. However, the Liaison Committee was right to consider whether more streamlined objectives would be suitable. The proposed new guidance for Select Committees is sensible, although I note that it places a lot of weight on Select Committees in terms of their duties.

I agree with what the Liaison Committee says about how Select Committees can act as a public forum for ideas to be debated. I agree that this is an element of Select Committee work, but there are many routes for debates to take place in Parliament. It is not the primary purpose of Select Committee work to set off debates. I regret the fact that it has had to propose a compact between the Government and parliamentary Committees —again, a feature of the report we are debating—but sadly this appears necessary. The Government’s guidelines to Departments—the Osmotherly rules—state that

“departments should aim to respond to reports within two months”,

but as the Liaison Committee notes, responses frequently appear much later.

It says something about this Government that the Cabinet Office, which is supposed to be taking the lead on making government more efficient, took nine months to respond to the Liaison Committee’s report on “Select Committees and Public Appointments”, when we would have wanted it to lead a little more by example. When Government Departments finally get round to responding to Select Committee reports, the responses are often inadequate. In its evidence to the Liaison Committee, the Regulatory Policy Institute’s better government programme described the Government’s responses as “models of evasion”. Will the Leader of the House say something about what Ministers could do to respond to these criticisms from the Liaison Committee and perhaps to improve performance in the areas of timeliness and clarity of response?

There are many sensible recommendations in this report, and I do not intend to go through them all. I think that members of Select Committees will want to consider for themselves the many recommendations on how Committees can have a greater impact. I support the recommendation for Committees to experiment with different approaches, such as appointing rapporteurs to lead inquiries, commissioning external research and, perhaps more controversially, using special advisers to question witnesses on technical subjects. That can be seen in other Parliaments, and I certainly think that Committees could trial ideas in and around these areas.

I welcome the suggestion that Committees could make better use of the parliamentary website. Although, as right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, this has improved, it is still difficult for members of the public to navigate and its existence is poorly communicated. As we place more and more emphasis on the work of Committees, we should work harder to communicate their activities and ensure our constituents can readily access information about them. I welcome, too, the suggestion for substantive motions for debates on Committee reports. In its report, the Liaison Committee said that, subject to further discussion, it would explore ways to implement that.

On privilege, I note what the Committee has said. As it says in its report, a Joint Committee is considering this currently—or will be. I said earlier that there were occasions when a Joint Committee might bring benefits, and I look forward to the recommendations. I am not as certain as the Liaison Committee appears to be that there is no argument for changes in the area of privilege.

As I said at the start of my remarks, I welcome this report and many of its recommendations. Select Committees are an important part of the work of this House. I conclude by paying tribute to the work of all right hon. and hon. Members who serve on them and to the sterling work of House staff and all those who help make our Committee system effective.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons 4:42, 31 January 2013

I join the shadow Leader of the House in congratulating my right hon. Friend Sir Alan Beith on securing this debate, and I thank our colleagues, the Chairs of a number of Select Committees, for attending and contributing to the debate. It is good to see them here.

I shall, of course, want to respond to the Liaison Committee. The House will recall and members of the Liaison Committee will be aware that I did so on behalf of the Government in my letter of 14 January, which was published on 24 January. I will not attempt to rehearse or reiterate all the points that were made there. One recommendation was specifically aimed at the Government, and I shall refer to it later, but there are other important issues in the report that I want to touch on.

Ms Eagle raised a number of other issues that were not necessarily the subject of the Liaison Committee’s report. I shall seek to respond to some of them, perhaps in next week’s business questions. It may be useful for me to recall precisely what proportion of Bills in this Session have been published in draft and subjected to scrutiny. I believe that the number would considerably exceed that in Parliaments under the previous Government.

The hon. Lady is quite right to say that we are looking for more pre-legislative scrutiny. I recently gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and specifically touched on the mechanisms available for formal scrutiny, public reading stages, and evidence taking in Select Committees and Public Bill Committees. I think we should be flexible rather than being rigid and adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. The hon. Lady is only too aware—as, I know, are other Members—of the exigencies of government, and the requirement for legislation sometimes to be introduced without all those mechanisms necessarily being appropriate or available.

The background to this debate is the fact that the House now has far more power to hold the Executive to account than it has had in the past. In the last Parliament, it would not have been possible for the Liaison Committee to table a substantive motion for debate unless the Government had agreed to it and allocated time for it to be debated. The establishment of the Backbench Business Committee—it is good to see its Chair, Natascha Engel, in her place—gave Back Benchers the power to table substantive motions. That is a significant departure from the Executive control of the agenda that we saw in the last Parliament, and one that is greatly to be welcomed.

The motion welcomes the positive impact of recent reforms, particularly the election of Committee Chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of Select Committees. I agree with that. I think that the changes we have seen during this Parliament are some of the most significant since the introduction of the departmental Select Committee system in 1979. I pay tribute not least to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend Sir George Young—who is now the Patronage Secretary—for his work in implementing reforms in the House, and for much else besides.

The motion also deals with two specific issues to which I wish to refer, but before I do so, let me comment on the Liaison Committee’s observation that it considers the Government’s response to be positive in tone. I am glad of that: it was intended to be positive in tone, and I hope that our further discussions will be as well.

One of those two specific issues is the procedure for Committee report launches on the Floor of the House. I look forward, along with the Committee, to agreement being reached on a procedure that will help to provide a proper structure for Select Committee report launches. I should make it clear that our preference is that the choice of reports to be launched rest with the Backbench Business Committee, rather than with Mr Speaker, as was suggested by the Liaison Committee. That would be in line with the recommendations of the Procedure Committee’s report on the work of the Backbench Business Committee. I know from my own observation of the Backbench Business Committee’s work in just the last few months that it is extremely well placed to interpret and judge, on behalf of the House, the relative priorities that Members—but not necessarily the Government—would attach to opportunities for short debates on substantive motions relating to Select Committee reports.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

One of the main issues involved in the launches of Select Committee reports is timing. As it is the Government who allocate time to the Backbench Business Committee, it is not always possible for Select Committee Chairs to launch their reports on the days that suit them best. It would be very helpful to us if the Leader of the House could commit himself to working more closely with the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that reports were launched on days that were convenient to the Chairs.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons

I hope the hon. Lady knows that we are constantly willing and able, whenever possible, to accommodate the requests of the Backbench Business

Committee. This is the second time today she has asked me to extend to the Committee opportunities that are not often open even to heads of Departments who try to secure time for statements or debates on specific days. However, we will of course do all that we can.

That brings me to the second issue that I wanted to raise, that of substantive motions for debate in Westminster Hall. The Liaison Committee says that it is

“ready to explore whether the spirit of these proposals could be better approached in other ways”,

and I welcome that. I agree with the Committee that the 20 Thursday sittings allocated to it in Westminster Hall have not always been well attended. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will know, the debate on the Justice Committee’s report on its post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act finished before its allotted time. I find that surprising, given the extent of the interest in the administration of the Freedom of Information Act.

When I thought about the matter in preparation for this debate, I wondered whether we should at least try to look for a practical way of solving the problem. Noticeably, the Thursday Westminster Hall debates chosen by the Backbench Business Committee are often well attended, and I suspect that that Committee would be willing and able to schedule more debates in Westminster Hall if that time was available. If the Liaison Committee were to think about working with the Backbench Business Committee, perhaps even giving up some of its allocation of time in Westminster Hall, and if Chairs of Select Committees were, in parallel, more frequent bidders to the Backbench Business Committee for debates on Select Committee business on a substantive motion in this Chamber, we might find a solution that benefits both the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee, and, especially, the House as a whole. Such an approach might allow precious debating time in Westminster Hall to be used and allow the particular characteristics of a substantive motion in this House to be used; things might be optimised both ways.

Photo of Natascha Engel Natascha Engel Chair, Backbench Business Committee, Chair, Backbench Business Committee

I wish briefly to put it on the record that the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is a member of the Liaison Committee. That membership facilitates exactly that kind of negotiation between the Chairs of the Select Committees and the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that where it is best to debate and vote on a report on the Floor of the House, we can do that. We are talking about time available to Back Benchers, and we can decide between ourselves how best to allocate it. We work very closely together on this.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons

I entirely understand that that is so, and I knew it to be the case. I would not wish the House to interpret what I am saying to mean that I want to interfere in any way in this matter. Having observed the situation, I simply think that there is an opportunity for that working together to take place. That flexibility is available and the two Committees might do that.

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

I entirely endorse what the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee has said; we get on very well, we are able to negotiate and it is quite easy. It would not be ideal to give the Backbench Business Committee the job of judging between reports of Select

Committees and then placing them in competition with debates that Back Benchers want because there is a big constituency interest. We must have a procedure that ensures that, either in Westminster Hall or in the House, some kind of priority can be attached to those matters where a Select Committee wishes to warn the House that something is going wrong in the system of government.

Photo of Andrew Lansley Andrew Lansley The Leader of the House of Commons

My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point, but I am happy to see that informal work proceed. I do not think that at this moment we are talking about any requirement for a formal change in the procedure of the House. We are simply talking about the exercise of flexibility, which need not be at my behest in any sense; it might entirely be to best meet the needs of the Members of this House, be it as members of Select Committees, as constituency Members or in pursuit of their particular interests.

The recommendation of the Liaison Committee to have substantive motions in Westminster Hall has the potential to impact significantly on the procedures in this House, including possibly by disrupting the business on the Floor to take votes following debates in Westminster Hall. The proposition was made on the basis that debates on e-petitions in Westminster Hall take place on substantive motions. Such debates, which are being conducted on a pilot basis, actually take place on a motion with the formula “That this House has considered”; such a motion is not meant to be amended or divided upon. Should that happen in reality, the potential effects on procedure would be significant, and they have not been tested or evaluated. Changes of the significance suggested deserve far greater consideration of the possible consequences, and it may be that the Procedure Committee could consider those in a more general review of the types of business suitable to be taken in Westminster Hall.

Only one recommendation is specifically aimed at the Government, and it relates to a review of the relationship between Government and Select Committees, with the aim of producing joint guidelines. The Liaison Committee report said:

“We believe that the Government has not yet recognised the changed mood in the House and the strength of our resolve to achieve change.”

I would say in response that the Government have been responsible for the most significant transfer of powers for decades and I believe we can rightly be pleased with what we have achieved together. I understand the mood among Select Committee Chairs and in the House as a whole. and I hope that the Liaison Committee will accept my assurance that all the comments in our response were offered constructively with the aim of securing reform where it is necessary or improves the current situation for Members and in the eyes of the public.

There is a growing public and parliamentary interest in the accountability not only of Ministers but of civil servants. The civil service reform plan, published in June 2012, contained a number of recommendations on that accountability. The Government believe that the existing model of ministerial accountability is well established and should continue to underpin the effective workings of government. We know that we can sharpen that accountability for civil servants in a way that enables Select Committees to understand, invigilate and take views on the performance of Departments in relation to delivery, but I would not want that process to undermine the principle that Ministers are accountable for the policy and performance of their Departments.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will know, the Government are reviewing the document known as the Osmotherly rules, which provides guidance for civil servants. As part of this review the Government will liaise with the Liaison Committee and the Constitution Committee in the other place. I look forward to the productive and constructive discussions between my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and representatives of the Liaison Committee. I recognise, of course, that plans are in place for former accounting officers to be held to account.

Before I finish, I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said about the description of Select Committees. They carry the authority of Parliament and are distinct from any other cross-party group or group of Members. I noted that the Education Committee was described this morning in the early bulletins as a “cross-party group of MPs” and the Transport Committee was called “a Committee of MPs”. Select Committees engage the authority of Parliament and I urge the media to recognise that as well as the distinctiveness of that authority.

I thoroughly commend the Liaison Committee’s recommendation to other Select Committees that the National Audit Office is available to support them in their scrutiny of the use of resources. Indeed, the NAO told the Public Accounts Commission that it supported that recommendation.

The work that has been done is a thorough and timely consideration of the work of Select Committees. In its follow-up report, the Liaison Committee emphasised the importance of focusing on impact rather than simply publishing reports and letting recommendations lie. That is clearly the right approach. Select Committees have greater authority and a responsibility to be the champions of good scrutiny. They have greater access to time and to debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall and we can continue to use those opportunities more effectively. On behalf of the Government, I look forward to working with the Liaison Committee and others to pursue the recommendations.

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 4:57, 31 January 2013

This has been a short but worthwhile debate and I am grateful for the insights offered by my colleagues from the Home Affairs Committee, the Education Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Environmental Audit Committee as well as the shadow Leader of the House. They have all added something. I particularly appreciated the point made by the Chair of the Education Committee about how Committee work changes people’s perceptions of each other and significantly assists the work of Parliament.

I also welcome the Leader of the House’s clear assertion that the Government are ready to discuss in a co-operative way the revision of the Osmotherly rules. I hope that he will be personally present at the discussions with the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General as it would be useful to have the Leader of the House closely and directly involved in carrying those things forward.

My final objective, after thanking all Members who have taken part in the debate, is to seek the support of the House in carrying the motion and asserting that we want to continue the effective reforms that followed on from the Wright Committee’s work, which have so enhanced the effectiveness of the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House welcomes the report of the Liaison Committee on Select Committee effectiveness, resources and powers, Second Report of Session 2012-13, HC 697, and the responses to it, Third Report of Session 2012-13, HC 911; welcomes the positive impact of the Wright reforms, particularly the election of committee chairs and members, on the effectiveness and authority of select committees; endorses the Committee’s recommendations for committee best practice and the revised core tasks for departmental select committees; looks forward to agreement on procedures for committee statements on the floor of the House and arrangements for debates on committee reports; agrees that co-operation from Government is crucial to effective scrutiny; and supports the Committee’s call for a new relationship between Parliament and Government, which recognises the public interest in greater accountability.