British Select Committees dig in for trench warfare

I thoroughly recommend this article on how the Liaison Committee, a committee of the chairs of the Commons Select Committees, are inquiring into their own powers and effectiveness. The article’s principal focus is on their budgets and powers of appointing their own clerks and advisers, but the inquiry’s press release on the parliamentary website shows that it goes far further than that. It’s worth quoting in full:

  • Are select committees effective in achieving better government? What can they do to be more effective?
  • Are the core tasks set by the House for select committees in 2002 still realistic given the limitations on Members’ time?
  • Do select committees have the powers and resources they need to carry out their scrutiny function effectively?
  • Are members of select committees given the training and support they need to operate effectively?
  • How might select committees get better coverage for those aspects of their work which are important but not attractive to the media?
  • How can select committees get the public engaged more actively in their work?
  • Should select committees have an increased legislative role?
  • How can select committees scrutinise cross-cutting issues more effectively?

For reference, the ‘core tasks’ mentioned above are the following:

Task 1: To examine policy proposals from the UK Government and the European Commission in Green Papers, White Papers, draft Guidance etc, and to inquire further where the Committee considers it appropriate.
Task 2: To identify and examine areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient, and make proposals.
Task 3: To conduct scrutiny of any published draft bill within the Committee’s responsibilities.
Task 4: To examine specific output from the department expressed in documents or other decisions.

Task 5: To examine the expenditure plans and out-turn of the department, its agencies and principal NDPBs.

Task 6: To examine the department’s Public Service Agreements, the associated targets and the statistical measurements employed, and report if appropriate.
Task 7: To monitor the work of the department’s Executive Agencies, NDPBs, regulators and other associated public bodies.
Task 8: To scrutinise major appointments made by the department.
Task 9: To examine the implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives.

Task 10: To produce reports which are suitable for debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or debating committees.

Select Committees and Legislation

So the question of an increased legislative role is tied up with this question of core tasks. Could the committees take on this increased legislative role without impinging on their current core tasks? Admittedly, draft bills are already open to scrutiny by Select Committees, but they are relatively few.

The current session’s slew of legislation is rather skewed around certain government departments:

Treasury: 14 bills and 1 draft bill [7 of which are money bills which are taken in committee of the whole house anyway]*
Home Office: 5 bills and 2 draft bills
Cabinet Office (Constitutional reform): 2 bills and 2 draft bills**
Cabinet Office: 2 bills
Dptmnt for Communities and Local Government: 2 bills
Dptmnt for Work and Pensions: 2 bills
Dptmnt for Education: 2 bills
Ministry of Justice: 1 bill and 1 draft bill
Dptmnt for Business, Innovation and Skills: 1 bill and 1 draft bill
Ministry of Defence: 1 bill
Foreign Office: 1 bill
Dptmnt for Energy and Climate Change: 1 bill
Dptmnt for Health: 1 bill
Scottish Office 1 bill
Dptmnt for Transport: 1 draft bill

*It’s been a slightly exceptional session for the Treasury with an emergency budget and a change in the way budgets and estimates are legislated for, but the Treasury still has the most.
**I’ve differentiated between normal Cabinet Office bills and constitutional reform bills coming from the Cabinet Office because the latter would come under the purview of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (to examine Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg’s constitutional reform unit in the Cabinet Office which used to reside in the Ministry of Justice).

A typical draft bill takes up to three months of inquiry (though it can be carried over session-to-session). The Home Affairs and Treasury Select Committees have undertaken high-profile and in-depth inquiries into important matters over the last two years; would they have been able to do that if they had taken up all the draft bills, let alone have a full committee stage of a bill? For the Justice or Education Select Committees, it might not affect their other work that much, but for others it would be much more difficult.

There was a study of the New Zealand Select Committees, who commonly do three-to-six month inquiries into up to 90% of bills – which is probably a bit less now – and it showed that in 1989 (and I can’t find more up to date data) most spent 90% of their time on bill scrutiny and all but four spent over fifty percent of their time on bills. Of course, there are questions to be had about how much the tradition of undertaking non-legislative inquiries was entrenched before the new system’s creation in 1985 – in fact, it appears the previous select committees only undertook inquiries that were referred to them by the House. The tradition here has much more of an emphasis on policy inquiries and I’m sure that committees would still want to undertake mostly non-legislative inquiries even while augmenting their powers over legislation.

Recently, the Liaison Committee laid down a marker to both front benches that Select Committees wanted the power for the chair, with the unanimous consent of committee members, to put down an amendment to a bill which was differentiated on the order paper as one that was backed by the Select Committee. This would simply let the House know by looking at the order paper which amendments were backed by a Select Committee. They didn’t push it to a vote – these sort of changes need time to be lobbied over, both to the front benches and the backbenches – but it’s a sign that committees do want more influence.

Keep an eye out for the Constitution Unit’s report on Legislative Committees at Westminster: the Case for Reform; it should be out before the year’s end, though they do seem to be cutting it rather fine. I’ll be covering it here.

Select Committees and Specialist Advisers

I should say that this part of the post is almost entirely based on Peter Laughorne’s 1999 article in Parliamentary History ‘The Evolution of Specialist Advice to Select Committees of the House of Commons in the Twentieth Century’. It’s actually quite a good read, if exceedingly dry – but you’ll need an academic subscription to read it. To summarise: Before the mid-1800s, it didn’t have any. Clerks of the House of Commons, who may have been bright but aren’t necessarily specialists, were the only resource they could call upon. They were appointed by internal processes in the House of Commons. In the late 19th Century, very occasionally advisers were appointed for commercial and financial affairs. It began with explicit orders from the House to get outside advice, but changed in the early 20th Century to be a general remit to commission analysis – the most high-profile one is the Comptroller and Auditor-General, first appointed in 1861, who reports to the Public Accounts Committee. They were more witnesses to committees than the current specialist advisers who participate in private deliberations of committees.

After 1920, ad-hoc select committees began to get the right to call for advice in their own right rather than by order of the House, but they had to fight for them and not all committees got them. As late as the 1950s, the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries had no specialist advice and had to rely purely upon their members and the clerks.

The transitory 1966 system of Select Committees did not all have the power to appoint specialist advisers, and those that did had to fight for them. At the same time, a shortage of clerks to staff committees was also a problem and committees had to fight for a proper level of clerks too. But specialist advisers now were of significant help where they were used – suggesting questions and lines of inquiry for witnesses, assessing the significance of evidence, and even helping in the final drafting of the committee’s report.

The 1970s, with the advent of the new and comprehensive Select Committee system were a turning point where nearly all Select Committees had the power to appoint external advisers (even, the article points out, the House of Commons (Services) Refreshment Department Sub-Committee).

Now, some Chairs of Select Committees want to have input into the clerks, the full-time staff of the committee, too. This will be highly controversial if the committee end up recommending it and there would need to be safeguards put in place, as Mark D’Arcy says, to prevent them from becoming the creatures of the chair or one faction of the committee rather than of the committee as a whole.

I will keep up to date with the inquiry and update the blog as it progresses.

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