House of Lords Committees: What needs to change?

25476The House of Lords Liaison Committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the functioning of select committees in the House of Lords. With Brexit due to occur in March 2019, it is likely that the scope and role of many committees will change significantly. In this post, Lord McFall of Alcuith, who chairs the Liaison Committee, discusses the inquiry and some of the issues it will need to examine in order to be effective.

When I joined the House of Lords in 2010, following 23 years in the House of Commons (including ten as Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee), I was impressed by the range and extent of committee activity in the second chamber. Having gone on to serve on a number of committees – including the Draft Financial Services Bill Joint Committee, Economic Affairs Committee, the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee – I developed a stronger appreciation of the depth, breadth and rigor of their work. Committee activity is a crucial part of the work of the House of Lords, which is well placed to draw on the extensive and wide-ranging expertise of our members and adds significant value to the work of parliament as a whole. I believe that Lords Committees also contribute to society more widely through their influence on government policy and societal change.

Nevertheless, we need to do more to increase awareness of this vital and relevant role. House of Lords committees should be more at the forefront of engaging the public in their work. I want to see that engagement develop into a national conversation about the work of our committees and how and why they are relevant to the public. Committees provide a unique opportunity for people from all walks of society and all parts of the United Kingdom to interact with the House of Lords. Our inquiries should inspire conversation and debate about the important issues they address. And we need to use digital tools, as well as our more traditional meetings and visits, to extend their reach.

With this in mind the House of Lords Liaison Committee, which I chair, has launched a review of House of Lords investigative and scrutiny committees. This will be a wide-ranging examination of the structure of our committees, the first in the House for 25 years. During the intervening period, House of Lords committees have developed significantly. We have added new sessional committees, including the highly-regarded Constitution Committee and more recently the International Relations Committee. And the Lords has expanded greatly its use of ad hoc committees, and typically now appoints four each year, including one devoted to post-legislative scrutiny. These committees have addressed a wide range of highly topical issues, including those which cut across government departments and therefore may be difficult for an elected House to consider, such as HIV/AIDS policy in the United Kingdom, and sexual violence in conflict. Others have been more technical, such as the Licensing Act 2003 Committee, which undertook post-legislative scrutiny of licensing legislation.

Committees are valued and regarded highly in the House – rightly in my opinion – for the expertise, experience and wisdom that they bring to their work. We want to hear from you, as a reader of this post about how we are doing, and where we should be going. How should we evaluate the work of House of Lords select committees? How do we distinguish between their influence and that of other actors which impact on government policy? What are the best metrics for evaluation – not necessarily numbers of recommendations accepted by the government, as this would fail to distinguish between major and minor policy changes – but what weight should we attach to social media impact, for example?

Of course not all inquiries attract media interest, and sometimes that is right. The role of some of our committees is to do the forensic scrutiny of areas, including secondary legislation, which it is difficult for members of the House of Commons, with their constituency responsibilities, to find the time for. Some of this work falls into the ‘dull but worthy’ category, but it is in all our interests as citizens to get secondary legislation right. The House of Lords is currently gearing up for what has been described as a ‘tsunami’ of secondary legislation to be scrutinised over the next couple of years. It is fortunate that it has an established expertise and reputation in this scrutiny work, as well as into the delegated powers which lead to secondary legislation.

With these and other current issues in mind, the aim of the review is to ensure House of Lords committees continue to work as well as they can and to consider how we shape them for the future, mindful of the Brexit process. This will include taking stock of the balance between ad hoc committees and sessional committees – which are broader in scope and whose work is ongoing across different inquiries. This is an ideal time to take stock of what our committees do well, and where they can do better. I hope that a diverse range of people and organisations will send us their views to help us ensure House of Lords committees are fit for the future and relevant to as many people as possible. Our aim is to agree and publish a report by the end of 2018, to allow time for the Committee’s recommendations to be implemented in spring 2019, when Britain is due to exit the EU.

The Liaison Committee are inviting written submissions from any interested parties, with a deadline for responses of Monday 19 March 2018. We have posed five key questions, with other more detailed questions in the call for evidence:

  • How can committees add most value to the scrutiny work of the House of Lords as a second chamber?
  • How can House of Lords Committees develop a national conversation to complement their inquiry and scrutiny work?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current House of Lords committee structure and what should change?
  • How can House of Lords committees maximize their impact inside and outside the House?
  • How can House of Lords committees promote inter-parliamentary dialogue both within and outside the UK?

Please feel free to help us answer as many of these questions as you wish. I hope you will be able to assist the review with suggestions about the ways in which House of Lords committees can best evolve from March 2019 onwards. If you have never taken much interest in Lords committees it would be helpful to know why. Is some of the archaic language we use off-putting – for example referring to Committee heads as ‘Chairmen’ regardless of gender, or our use of quasi-judicial terms such as witness or inquiries? Or are there other practical or procedural barriers to your involvement? Whatever may have been in the case in the past, I do hope you will feel able to send in your views now, and will encourage others to do so. This is a genuine invitation, and I hope you will welcome it accordingly. 

The House of Lords Liaison Committee’s review of investigative and scrutiny committees is accepting submissions until 19 March 2018, with a report expected to follow later in the year. Should you like to put evidence before the inquiry, please go to the inquiry’s submissions page

About the author

Lord McFall of Alcuith is Chairman of the House of Lords Liaison Committee and Senior Deputy Speaker of the Lords. 

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