Could do better, but could also do worse

I was on the Westminster Hour last night, talking about select committees (the feature starts about 35 mins in). Unfortunately they only selected one quote, in response to the question ‘what could select committees do better’. In fact the results of our project on the policy influence of select committees are quite positive, and in the rest of the interview I said as much.

We looked at the initial government response to nearly 2000 recommendations from seven different committees over 13 years, and then painstakingly traced what ultimately happened to them (with a lot of help from a team in parliament!). We also looked at things like what the recommendation called for, and how much a change to government policy it would be. We found that 40% of recommendations get a fairly or very positive response from government. And it turns out this isn’t just lip service: looking at what happened to the same set of recommendations long-term, half were ultimately implemented. This means that some recommendations that received a lukewarm or negative initial government response were actually taken up.

There are limitations to this kind of quantitative analysis. It’s difficult to tell whether the government does something because of a select committee, or because it’s getting the same suggestions from other groups. Quite a lot of recommendations are trivial, say for the disclosure of information. Or sometimes examining recommendations underestimates influence if the government realises they have a problem in the course of the inquiry, before the report even comes out.

We therefore supplemented the analysis of recommendations with almost 60 interviews. From these we have built up a more subtle picture of committee influence, including contribution to wider debate, drawing together of expert evidence, and spotlighting policy issues and changing priorities within departments. But the least visible of these forms of influence might be the most significant: generating fear. The government anticipates the potential response of the committee and thinks about how it might look if there was an inquiry and how decisions might be justified. In the words of one interviewee, government tries to make policy ‘committee proof’.

Our full report will be out in May, launch date tbc. Do get in touch if you’re interested in attending, or if you’ll be attending the PSA conference then come and see us on Thursday 21st April, when we’ll be presenting our findings.

Past their bedtime

Pulling an all-nighter is no longer the preserve of students with deadlines or ravers with glow sticks. The Lords have just started the second session of the week tipped to take them up to breakfast tomorrow. The source of this nocturnal behaviour is the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which sets up the AV Referendum and provides for shrinking the size of the Commons. Labour say that Part 2 of the bill, which reduces the number of constituences to 600, will receive insufficient parliamentary scrutiny due to some heavy-handed government timetabling (and the application of a guillotine to the time taken for debate in the Commons), so want the bill split up.

Other than the camp beds, toasties and dedicated newsletter, most of the coverage over the last couple of days has been about filibustering and whether this stretches the conventions of the House. Jim Pickard of the FT Westminster blog observes that Monday’s marathon session saw some meandering speeches that included references to cannibals and prime numbers. But from the few bits of speeches I’ve read from the early hours it’s hard to separate out fatigue, flourish or genuine filibuster. The concern is more about the precedent that this sets. The Crossbenchers are said to be annoyed at Labour peers’ antics – like many others in the House, they jealously guard the principle of ‘self-regulation’. According to the Clerk of Parliaments back in 2005, “There is no tradition of filibustering, and self-regulation encourages orderly progress on all bills.” If the government imposes a guillotine this might signal the end to the authority of the Companion to the Standing Orders, the document that sets out the conventions on which the Lords operates. Even (presumably considerably younger) blog conventions seem under threat – in a spat with Lord Tyler on Lords of the Blog Lord Soley comments ‘This blog is not designed for party political battles’.

Although Mark D’Arcy says there’s still talk of a guillotine down at the Lords, a deal looks more likely. The FT say expect a deal or at least a ‘more nuanced position’ by the weekend: Labour want at least a system of public consultancy over constituency boundaries and the provision for constituency size to vary up to 10 per cent instead of the 5 per cent proposed. A deal would be problematic for the Coalition, as it would give Labour a taste for blood and they might start employing similar tactics on other flagship bills. But it would also be much less costly for Coalition relations than splitting the Bill up. Watch this space.