Effective and influential: where next for departmental select committees?

220px.Official_portrait_of_Dr_Sarah_Wollaston_crop_2Forty years after the creation of departmental select committees, it is beyond doubt that they have contributed significantly to the scrutiny of government. But could they be doing more? The House of Commons Liaison Committee has established an inquiry to answer this question. Dr Sarah Wollaston explains that this is a necessary task to ensure that committees continue to innovate and perform their crucial functions with the involvement of MPs, experts and the general public.

It is difficult to imagine a House of Commons without its select committees. They are places where MPs can come together and work across party divides, often showing parliament at its best. They are central to the scrutiny of government. They have the authority to question those with influence and power but are also forums where MPs engage with and listen to a range of voices, and provide a platform to those who might otherwise not be heard. Committee work provides an important focus for the working lives of many MPs, who can use them to develop and deploy their own expertise. But in fact this level and intensity of scrutiny of the government and other agencies of the state by parliament is a relatively recent phenomenon.

The departmental select committee system will celebrate its fortieth birthday in June this year. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of all the Chairs of the select committees, sees this anniversary as providing an unmissable opportunity to take stock and reflect on whether select committees are fulfilling their potential, and if not, to find what is stopping them. Do select committees do the right things, with the right people, resources, powers and outputs? What has worked well, and what could they do better?

The 1979 select committee reforms were heralded at the time as the start of a great new era. Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House, stated that the Commons was ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important parliamentary reforms of the century’. Although select committees had a long parliamentary history, their use had declined through the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in 1970, Bernard Crick, the political philosopher, noted that the government had resisted establishing a select committee system:

For one thing, Select Committees on matters of public policy have been thoroughly distrusted and disliked by the Whips; despite government majorities on them, they have an awkward tendency to develop cross-bench sentiment, and a shocking habit of regarding the Executive as guilty until it is proved innocent. Continue reading

Parliamentary reform and The Constitution Unit

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In the last of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Tony Wright reflects on 20 years of parliamentary change and reform. He argues that parliament has become a good deal better over the past two decades, and points to Unit research as making a major contribution to bringing this about.

I am struck by the fact that if you want to campaign for office in the United States, you have to campaign against Washington. Every candidate has to be going to Washington to sort them out, to break the Washington consensus. What I notice is that this has now started to happen here. Everybody campaigning for office here seems to have to attack Westminster, or the ‘Westminster elite’. This was standard fare in Nicola Sturgeon and Nick Clegg’s general election speeches, and in the Labour leadership contest. Now this is an interesting development, and it is certainly different from twenty years ago. Even at this event today, we have been encouraged by Vernon Bogdanor to organise our thoughts around the idea that parliamentary sovereignty is a busted flush, and the serious ways that power has been cut into pieces. I would actually put a more positive spin on it, and say that there has been accountability explosion over the last twenty years. If you think back about the accountability environment then, and what it is now, we are in a different world. In that respect there is much to put in the positive ledger.

But the problem is where does parliament fit in to that changed environment? The health of our representative institutions is something that matters and getting the right relationship between the old forms of representative democracy and the new forms that we might want to develop is where the challenge comes. The mistake we make is how we think we can embrace new forms, and simply forget about these old institutional bits, when the health of our representative institutions actually matters profoundly. And in some respects – and this is why I react against this Westminster elite trope – parliament has got a good deal better over these last 20 years.

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Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years

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On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

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Time For Commons To Seize The Reform Moment

01 September 2013

Seizing the moment

There has been much talk about shifts in the balance of parliamentary-Executive relations following the Government’s defeat on the Syria vote on 29 August, with Parliament said to be more emboldened in standing up to the Executive – despite the fact that, for example, it was still only the Government, not the Speaker or MPs, who could initiate its recall to have that debate and vote.

In a recent CU Blogpost criticising the endorsement of the ‘Wright approach’ by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, I outlined a way in which the Commons itself could take control of its own agenda and procedures back from the Government.  Here, I explore this issue further, in the hope that someone within the Palace of Westminster might feel that there is now, because of the events of ‘29/8’, a brief window of opportunity for a radical move forward.

The PCRC Report, and its related media and Chamber statements, made the usual call for its particular analysis to be accepted and its proposals to be implemented.  But like all such calls, it has no way of ensuring that the House – in practice, the Government – pays any heed at all to this plaintive plea.  How can the House or its committees make those reforms they may want actually happen, without being totally dependent on the Executive’s blessing?

Bypassing the Executive blockage

One approach would be to bypass existing formal structures and procedures, such as select committees or debates, as these are ultimately subject to Executive veto or control.  Alongside this Government-dominated ‘parliamentary’ Commons where the formal business of the House is conducted (mostly in public), lives an ‘institutional’ Commons, where the Government’s dominance does not apply, at least to the same degree.  At the apex of this ‘institutional House’ – a rather byzantine structure (see the House ‘organogram’) – is the Speaker, the HC Commission and the House Service (ie the House’s own staff), supported (often in private) by any number of departments, committees and the like (some of which, like the Commission and various ‘domestic’ committees, have MP or ministerial membership).

What if a ‘parliamentary reform body’ existed within this institutional structure, and not as a traditional parliamentary committee?

Crucially, the ‘institution’ operates according to public aims, objectives and principles, articulated in its Strategic and Management Plans.  These apply to the House Service, but many of them relate to the ‘parliamentary’ operation of the House (Chamber, Committee and related activities of the House and its Members), and to its relation with the public.  As such, it seems both obvious and logical for any reform proposals coming from select committees, the Government or from external sources also to be assessed against these standards.  Such compliance would also have the benefit that individual reform proposals would be designed to contribute to the achievement of an overall, consistent approach, rather than, as is the norm in the Commons, ad hoc, piecemeal and often reactive.

The HC Strategic Plan as the benchmark

The current version of the Commons’ ‘mission statement’ seems to be the Strategy for the House of Commons Service 2013-17.  For ‘reform compliance’ purposes, the key parts of the Strategy include the following:

“Our vision is that: The House of Commons will be valued as the central institution in our democracy: effective in holding the Government to account, scrutinising legislation, and representing the diverse views of the electorate. It will be seen both in the UK and abroad as a model of good practice and innovation, and will provide value for money. Members of Parliament will have the information, advice, support and technology they need to be effective in their work and to engage closely with their constituents.”

It then lists various ‘strategic goals’ with specific actions, such as

“1. We will make the House of Commons more effective by:

• supporting the House in implementing reforms to the way in which the Government is held to account and in strengthening the scrutiny of legislation

• supporting initiatives that develop new ways to represent the diverse views of the electorate

• influencing decisions on constitutional and procedural change, and being ready to respond to the outcomes

……………

3. We will ensure that Members, staff and the public are well-informed by:

• giving Members and their staff the support and access to the information they require to be effective in their role…

• giving the public the information needed to understand and appreciate the work of the House and its Members, by continuing to develop our website, education and outreach services, and opening a new Education Centre at Westminster

 4. We will work at every level to earn respect for the House of Commons by:..

• encouraging public participation in parliamentary business, including the work of select committees and the legislative process, and making the House more welcoming to the public

Within all this are various key benchmarks against which procedural reforms can, and should, be assessed, to ensure that reform proposals are ‘Strategy compliant’.

‘Speaker’s Advisory Panel on Strategy Compliance’

Just as the Speaker unilaterally set up his Advisory Council on Public Engagement in 2009-10, so he could establish something similar to assess procedural reform proposals.  I believe that the office of Speaker is a more appropriate sponsor for this body, rather than, say, the Commission or the Management Board, because the Speaker is, in the words of the parliamentary website, “chief officer and highest authority of the House of Commons”, and is political impartial in office.

Membership of this body would be a matter for careful consideration.  Arguably its membership should not to be confined to MPs or Commons officials, but also contain appropriate ‘external’ representatives, including senior former members of Westminster Model parliaments/assemblies within and outwith the UK (a retired devolved Presiding Officer would be a good option as Chair), academics and members of civic society.

The remit of the Panel would be to review all proposals for Commons reform – from relevant committees, such as Procedure, PCRC, Liaison, Privileges and Standards, and from the Government (as set out in election manifestos, Queen’s speeches, Coalition agreements etc) – and to assess how well they match the principles, vision and goals set out in the current Strategy for the House Service.

Again its working process would be a matter for careful consideration – not least to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort – but should be open and transparent, and involve the public as well as the relevant officials, Members, and ministers. It would be required to make a public report to the Speaker setting out its conclusions on the extent to which the proposals are or are not compliant with the Strategy.  The Speaker would then certify these conclusions as ‘compliant’ (in whole or in part) or ‘not compliant’ and transmit them to the relevant initiating body, with the expectation that ‘not compliant’ proposals will not be proceeded with unless and until appropriately amended.

This would all be informal and indicative, as they are unlikely – at least initially – to be adopted in Standing Orders or the like, and would rely for their ‘enforcement’ on the prestige of the office of Speaker and the robustness of the work of the Panel.  However, if it became accepted as the norm, it would be a way for the House as a corporate institution to assert its autonomy and influence how it operates.

Over to the Speaker

Occupants of the Chair elsewhere can be proactive in matters of procedural reform – it was, for example, the Holyrood PO who triggered the review process which led to major changes in 2011-12 – and there is no reason why the Commons Speaker, who is at the centre of both the ‘parliamentary’ and ‘institutional’ Commons, should not be the catalyst for this proposed development in Commons reform.

The present Speaker came to the Chair as a ‘reformist’, and he has continued to express such sentiments, as in his recent speech in New Zealand.  He has been handed a rare opportunity now to give effect to his aspirations for a reformed House, by providing a coherent and public framework – however transitional – for ensuring that desired reforms are not obstructed or delayed by Ministers and that Government initiatives (such as the linkage of its e-petitions scheme to the backbench business innovation) are not unilaterally or inappropriately ‘imposed’ on the House.  Carpe diem!

ON THE WRONG WAY TO ‘WRIGHT’ THE COMMONS – AND A SUGGESTED ‘WRIGHT’ WAY

The PCRC Report

Surprise, surprise.  The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s review of the 2009 ‘Wright Committee’ package of parliamentary reforms, published on July 18, endorses and continues the traditional incremental, pragmatic ad hoc approach to ‘strengthening’ the House of Commons.  It welcomes the various ‘Wright reforms’ that have been implemented in some form, and calls for the implementation of those which are still outstanding.  These include old favourites of the ‘Mark 2’ conventional parliamentary reform agenda, like select committee elections, business committees (backbench and wider), petitions and better legislative scrutiny.  As has now become almost a parliamentary convention, the report concludes with a call for its proposals to be implemented quickly to, in the words of the Committee’s press release, “maintain the momentum for reform.”  This was reinforced during the PCRC Chair’s statement to the House that day (immediately after the usual weekly ‘Business Questions’ farce where our representatives beg the Government to allow them to debate various important issues, including procedural changes discussed in the PCRC Report!)

Need for a broader approach to reform

All well and good, and no doubt the coterie of reform-minded parliamentarians, academics and commentators will welcome this further predictable reinforcement of their broad consensus.  But the report does nothing to tackle the fundamentals of radical change in the Commons, especially the need to provide a comprehensive principled framework for the operation of an effective and autonomous parliamentary body, one that can set its own parameters for doing its core democratic tasks, such as scrutinising government, and representing the public who elected it.

Ad hoc reform – whether at the initiative of ministers, academics or parliamentary committees – will do no more than, at best, improve matters at the margins.  Ministers, with the power of initiative over parliamentary business and time in the House, remain in overall control of any such change process.  Just look at the early paragraphs of the Wright Report itself on the delays by the Government in allowing it to be set up; what that report called ”the impotence of the House to find time to debate and decide its own internal affairs.”  When changes are made, the Executive can nobble them to suit its own interests – as with the disruption to the Backbench Business Committee and petitions proposals by unilaterally inserting its own e-petitions system into the mix.

A narrow focus on piecemeal procedural reform misses the two main areas of change required – the institutional and the cultural.  Both reports talk the talk on these essential aspects, but focus on procedural/structural changes, which, in the Wright Report’s own words, “we hope … will lead gradually to a change of culture.” The new report worries away at the conflicting evidence from its witnesses about whether Reform A or Reform B has ‘changed the culture’ or not.

When will it be realised at Westminster that this is the wrong way to go about meaningful and beneficial change?  Piecemeal reform cannot fundamentally change the culture of the Commons or sufficiently rebalance the Executive-Parliamentary relationship.  There needs to be a serious examination of what a modern parliament is for and about, and how – as the central democratic institution – it can be designed to operate effectively as the unique forum where the various actors like the Executive, the public and others come together in our governance.  The trend towards more ‘direct democracy’ via technological innovations and rise in public expectations makes this all the more urgent.  Without needing to resort to a US-style ‘separation of powers’ model, the ‘Westminster Model’ has the potential to provide a framework for democratic, accountable and effective governance, which appropriately involves the public as well as politicians and officials.  There are variants of the traditional Model around the world – even within the UK! – which deserve more than cursory examination (of the ‘having popped up to Holyrood for a day or so, I can say that procedure X or process Y does/does not work, and would/would not work at Westminster’ variety).

If the Commons developed a culture of institutional autonomy and a strong corporate identity that could, to some degree, challenge the dominance of party and of the closed Government-Opposition battle, and if this were based on coherent, comprehensive and robust principles against which any reform proposal or parliamentary action or conduct could be measured, then particular processes, rules and procedural reforms could be developed to flesh out that framework in a logical, consistent way, able to withstand knee-jerk ‘something must be done’ ministerial reactions or hysterical moralising from the media and others.

Remember the Wright Committee was set up in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal – a perfect example of the wrong sort of culture – not because of any particularly compelling demands for procedural change.  Similarly, this new report comes out a time when the focus is not on procedural change but on ethical issues like lobbying or ‘ethicalised’ issues like MPs’ pay and expenses.  Reforming select or legislative committees or the like will not be seen as obvious ways of addressing these supposedly priority issues.  Only changing the culture and the constitutional ‘place’ of the Commons can do both that and the necessary process stuff.

A ‘Wright way forward?

How would such a comprehensive examination of parliamentary reform – encompassing the institutional, the procedural and the cultural – be constructed?  Well, how about starting with the Commons setting up some mechanism itself to monitor and, where appropriate, champion reform?  Rather than the usual impotent promises from select committees that they will revisit progress, or that they hope their successors will, what is stopping the House authorities, especially the Speaker and/or the HC Commission, setting something up themselves, distinct from conventional select committees, to test and contextualise reform proposals?

A cursory look at the Westminster website reveals an explosion in the number of bodies and groups established (by SOs, statute, Speaker or Commission etc.) to deal with particular aspects of House administration and activity.  Some even have non-MPs as members.  Indeed one of the problems with the current arrangements is that, not only do many of these important committees operate in virtual practical anonymity (despite varying degrees of online transparency), they also appear to exist within a rather byzantine governance ‘system’, (see the House ‘organogram’). What, if any, is the relationship between, say, the Speaker’s Advisory Council on Public Engagement (SACPE, with no current MPs on its membership);  Management Board (with 2 external members as well as the departmental heads); Administration Estimate Audit Committee (with 3 MPs and 3 external members); Finance & Services Committee; Administration Committee; HC Commission; Office of the Chief Executive; Speaker’s Office (interestingly, of these last three, only the Speaker’s Office appears to have no direct public contact details, with a request that enquirers contact the HC Information Office) etc etc?

Whatever impact this governance structure may have on the normal institutional running of the House, it seems hardly likely to foster a comprehensive, holistic approach to monitoring and responding to – never mind, initiating or evaluating – parliamentary reform policies or proposals, whether they come from the Government, external academics and organisations or internally via the Procedure Committee, Liaison Committee, PCRC etc (including those in the Lords, especially where there are, as is often the case, cross-House or Parliament-wide aspects)?  For example, is any procedural reform routinely ‘public engagement assessed’, eg by SACPE? Which of these bodies have an input into the work of IPSA (either directly or via yet another internal body, the Speaker’s Committee for IPSA, with a mixed membership of MPs and lay people) whose resourcing powers and functions are so crucial to the working of the House and its members, not least in relation to the public?

All this suggests that there is a need for some House-owned group to monitor ‘parliamentary reform’ in all its procedural, institutional and other aspects, with a broad overview remit to consider the wider implications of particular changes, or proposals for change, of procedure, policy, structure or operation, including any unintended or unexpected consequences for, as appropriate, public engagement, procedural effectiveness and efficiency and so on.  There is sufficient precedent for such a body to be set up internally, especially by or on behalf of the Speaker, and for its membership not to be confined to MPs or Commons officials. 

It would need some set of principles and objectives to measure any proposals against, similar in function and purpose to, say, the Scottish Parliament’s ‘founding principles’.  Whether this was, for example a variant of the existing published Strategy for the House of Commons Service – probably the nearest thing the House has to such a set of overarching principles of its role and purpose – or something newly drafted in some way, would be a matter for consideration.

If all the self-proclaimed reformers around, including the Speaker and the Chair of the PCRC, really want to ensure continuing meaningful improvement for the Commons, in line with the ambitious rhetoric of the Strategy, then this proposal for a dedicated group within the House may be something they should think about – and quickly.

MPs’ PAY: THE IPSA ALBATROSS AROUND PARLIAMENT’S NECK

1st July 2013

Remember the ‘good old days’ – I refer to 2009-10 – when transferring control of MPs’ pay and expenses from the Commons to an independent body, IPSA, was supposed to lance the boil of public outrage and usher in an era of smooth, rational and crisis-free regulation? Oh happy day!

As we begin the latest round of this sorry tale, perhaps some who supported the back-of-the-envelope ‘solution’ – of ceding parliamentary self-regulation as the perceived inevitable price of stemming the tsunami of the media/public frenzy over the expenses scandal that finally exploded in 2009 – will reflect a little. Not just on the practical need to reform a fundamentally flawed and unpopular system, but, as important, on the continuing harm it is doing to the Westminster Parliament’s reputation and standing with its public, and, thereby, its ability to operate effectively on their behalf.

Yet again, Parliament is seen to be on the sidelines when crucial issues affecting it are being discussed. As usual, the pundits’ first resort is not to ask ‘What can Parliament itself do to resolve this problem?’ but what can the PM and Government do about it! Just listen to Nick Robinson on BBC R4 this morning, for example. The culture of Executive dominance and initiative is so inbred that it does not seem to occur to the pundits – and sadly, not to many MPs themselves – that perhaps it is up to Parliament to try to reform itself (as part of an engagement with the public it serves), not to look always by default to Ministers for answers and action.

This is another ‘perfect storm’ of negativity for Parliament. Most of the blame, with (this time, self-imposed) none of the scope to defend itself. Many parliamentarians prefer this sort of political irresponsibility, leaving it to others to do their work for them. It’s what the Commons has been doing for decades. And this time, they have a cast-iron alibi, especially if and when they are ‘forced’ to take a large pay rise or whatever – ‘We cant do anything about it. IPSA has imposed it on us’.

As always, I doubt that the relevant internal authorities, from the Speaker, Chief Executive and HC Commission to the byzantine network of relevant committees within the Commons – such as the Speaker’s Committee on IPSA and the Members Expenses Committee – will have much of an input in all this, bar some reactive statements and maybe an ad hoc inquiry or two.

In written and oral evidence to the 2009 (Kelly) Committee on Standards in Public Life inquiry on the then system and its proposed reform, and in a couple of postings in late 2011 (here and here), I argued that what was needed was a modern form of parliamentary self-regulation, buttressed where necessary with appropriate external, independent elements, within a new culture of robust openness, transparency and public accountability. It was the ancient – and, in many respects, still flourishing – corrosive culture of privacy, entitlement and privilege that enabled the abuses to survive, and which made ‘old-style’ self-regulation both a political and practical no-no.

If out of this current mess, some form of genuine evidence-led and publicly inclusive review can propose a stable and acceptable system for regulating and operating the democratically crucial issue of effective and efficient parliamentary resourcing, then perhaps these 4 years of muddle will have been worthwhile.