Dr Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Liaison Committee, discusses its new report into how the system of select committees can operate more effectively, both in terms of their place within the House of Commons and their external impact. New ways of working and more powers are suggested, such as taking a ‘digital first’ approach to reports and formalising formalising further the arrangements for the Prime Minister to appear before the Liaison Committee.
Even at times of deep political division, select committees often show parliament at its best. MPs work together across party lines to reach consensus and to hold the government of the day to account. This June marked the fortieth birthday of the departmental select committee system. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairs of all select committees, took the opportunity to review what select committees do and how they do it, publishing our recommendations on 9 September, in a report entitled The effectiveness and influence of the committee system.
Our report introduces a new set of aims and objectives that better reflect the work of modern select committees. From climate change to social care, the impact of Brexit to fake news, select committees have become a driving force for investigation into emerging issues of the day. They have always been a place where the administration, policies and spending of government has been scrutinised. Since the banking crisis of 2008, they have increasingly become a place where those outside government who hold significant public roles or power over people’s lives can be held publicly to account. We recognise this role in investigating areas of public concern in our new aims and objectives and call for it to be reflected in our formal remits.
The new objectives talk about what we do; they also talk about how we do it. We have made progress in hearing from more diverse groups of people and engaging directly with the public in new and more inclusive ways. The Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committees, which worked alongside a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care, and the Petitions Committee’s inquiry into the online abuse of disabled people, are exemplars of how committees are increasingly engaging with people outside the usual groups who contribute and including those who have lived experience.
There is, however, still much more to be done. At a time when political passions are running high, we have a responsibility to uphold, and to be seen to uphold, the seven principles of public life and the House’s Behaviour Code. We need to be more flexible about how we hear from people, move away from legalistic terms like ‘witnesses’ where they aren’t appropriate, and be more strategic about the work we do. We also recognise that the traditional ‘horseshoe’ layout of committee rooms doesn’t work well for all hearings. Flexible spaces need to be designed for Richmond House and for a restored and renewed Palace of Westminster to allow committees to use different room layouts and have access to dedicated video conferencing facilities. We need more information about the people we are hearing from, to increase diversity and transparency about who they represent. We will continue to work towards better gender balance among witnesses and members.
We have also made progress in communicating our work. Some committees have taken on a more ‘campaigning’ type role, looking for opportunities to raise awareness of their recommendations and the issues their work raises. Calls for evidence, hearings and events now play a key part in many committees’ communications strategies. Committees have also expanded their social media presence considerably in recent years, through their Twitter accounts, the House of Commons Facebook page and the livestreaming of hearings.
Again, however, there is more that we can do. Committees regularly produce reports in more accessible digital formats; we believe all reports should be ‘digital first’. We feel there is more scope for committees to publish findings in formats that are less formal and more flexible than traditional reports. We would like greater flexibility for committees about how they share traditional reports with witnesses and the media before publication. A more strategic approach to committee work can be extended to communications and follow-up, building on examples like the Work and Pensions Committee’s work on Universal Credit or the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into fake news and disinformation.
We can also do more to work with expert researchers in the fields we are examining. We should look for closer strategic links between parliament, research councils and charitable foundations to bolster the evidence which underpins our inquiries. There may be potential, in the longer-term, for an ‘Office of Public Evidence’ to bring together research evidence, fact checking and academic liaison functions; aligning publicly-funded research with the work of committees and, through them, parliament.
The link between the House’s work and that of committees is crucial. Over the last year, committees have called debates on subjects ranging from customs and borders to plastic pollution and long-term funding for adult social care. We would like to see the arrangements for such debates made clearer. We also want to see committees made more accountable to their colleagues in the House for the work they do. This should include opportunities for questions to select committee chairs. Committees should report to the Liaison Committee about the work they have done on an annual basis. Committees could better reinforce the work of the House as a whole.
Select committee powers have been in the news over recent years. Most of our work takes place through consensus and agreement. It is rare for individuals or organisations to refuse to engage with our work. We do not have a settled view on how committees should be able to enforce their powers to summon witnesses or call for papers when this happens; it is a subject our colleagues on the Committee of Privileges are currently examining. However, we do believe some changes could be made. We believe committees should be consulted before the House calls for government papers to be laid before them. At the same time, any committee that felt the need to call for papers in this way should be guaranteed time in the House. We also believe that committees should be able to secure a debate if their recommendation following a pre-appointment hearing is disregarded by ministers.
Most people who have heard of the Liaison Committee will have done so through our hearings with the Prime Minister. We would like to see the agreement whereby those hearings take place three times a year formalised in the rules of the House and it is deeply concerning that the current Prime Minister has twice delayed his appearance despite assurances to the contrary. Delaying giving evidence beyond the point where scrutiny can influence the outcome of events is tantamount to avoiding it.
Joint working between committees is becoming ever more common, for example, the four committees which jointly inquired into air quality or the six which have set up a citizen’s assembly on climate change. For the most part this takes place most effectively through arrangements between the committees themselves. Very occasionally, however, committees might agree that the Liaison Committee itself is best placed to hold hearings on a wide-ranging and cross-cutting issue, as was the case following the collapse of Carillion. We would like to see flexibility in the rules to recognise this and to be able to appoint specialist advisers to support our work more widely.
The select committee system has evolved in ways that would probably have been unimaginable to Norman St John-Stevas, when 40 years ago, as Leader of the House, he introduced the motions that created the departmental select committee system. Since then, select committees have become a central part of our public and political life. Our recommendations would allow committees to take a further step, to widen their reach both within parliament and outside it, to work more effectively, more strategically and more inclusively, to ensure better scrutiny of the government of the day and those holding positions of power and public responsibility. We look forward to taking them forward together.
This blog is a brief summary of the findings of the Liaison Committee’s report, The effectiveness and influence of the committee system, which was published on 9 September.
In addition to the report, the House of Commons and the Study of Parliaments Group organised a two-day conference in June, 40 Years of Departmental Select Committees, in which experts such as the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell, spoke about the past, present and future of select committees. Some of the contributions to the event were summarised on our blog. For more information on the event, including transcripts of some of the contributions, visit the conference website.
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About the author
Dr Sarah Wollaston is Chair of both the Liaison Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee.