This week I gave evidence to the Liaison Committee, which comprises the chairs of all of parliament’s select committees. It is looking into the effectiveness and influence of the select committee system.
Select committees perform a vital role in holding government to account, scrutinising legislation and providing a forum to explore policy issues in a cross-party setting.
They mainly operate by holding inquiries into specific issues, inviting written submissions and hearing oral evidence from witnesses who are expert or experienced in the issues before the inquiry.
The Committees are chaired by an experienced backbench MP and comprise MPs from different parties, supported by a small secretariat who work behind the scenes. Following inquiries, Committees write up their findings in a report and make recommendations to government, which has to formally respond.
It is a tried and tested system, in which civil society stakeholders are often involved. As someone who has given evidence to several committees, I was keen to share my reflections on how the system could be improved, including how to make it easier for a wider range of people to be involved.
Tackling the right issues at the right time
Setting out a forward programme would help to improve transparency. It’s not always clear what’s next on committees’ ‘to do’ list and how much space there is to consider emerging matters. Allowing space for reactive inquiries within busy parliamentary schedules would help avoid a time lag on urgent issues, as would greater use of one-off hearings. Committees could also consider providing a more formal route for suggesting new inquiry topics.
Making it easier to participate
For non-government or first time witnesses, appearing before a select committee can be a daunting experience. Within moments of arriving in parliament, you are whisked into a committee room and are live on parliament TV with questions being fired at you in public, often without knowing what lines of enquiry may be followed. It isn’t intended to be hostile or intimidating, but with small tweaks the experience of being a witness, and the quality of the evidence this produces, could be significantly improved.
Being greeted by the chair and told that the committee is looking forward to hearing from you and encouraging you to share your views can help calm nerves. Advance notification of likely areas for questions would help witnesses prepare deeper evidence. Avoiding last minute evidence sessions can encourage witnesses travelling long distances to attend. Committees should provide sensible deadlines for stakeholders to prepare written evidence, ideally avoiding holiday periods. Six weeks is ideal, four is doable, three is a real stretch.
Cross-cutting challenges need cross-cutting consideration
Many policy issues cut across departmental boundaries and there is a need for a joined-up approach from committees. A good example of where committees have recently collaborated in this way was on the joint inquiry from health, transport and environment committees on improving air pollution. Where greater collaboration would have been helpful was on the pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Environment Bill where the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Environmental Audit Committees held concurrent inquiries, inviting different witnesses and producing separate reports.
Improving committee effectiveness
The drive, passion and authority of the chair and their ability to act as unstinting and visible parliamentary champions for the work of their committees is a key success factor. When asked how new chairs could be brought up to speed, a parallel struck me with how new charity trustees are inducted and briefed by a more experienced member acting as a mentor or buddy. My experience of committee staff has been very positive, with their propensity to pick up a complex brief quickly never failing to impress. The staffing complement of committees often feels very stretched though and I recommended that this should be increased.
Separating committee business from parliamentary sessions, when members have to leave the room to vote, would avoid disruption to sessions and enable witnesses and members to sustain discussions and trains of thought without interruption from the division bell.
As someone who works a lot on draft bills and legislation passing through parliament, I suggested that it might make more sense for the committee that has already scrutinised or tracked legislation to be the nominated bill committee, rather than a new committee being convened from scratch for each bill.
Public engagement and outreach
There was a strong push for committees to do more to engage with the public, with plenty of good ideas on how to achieve this, including the use of citizens’ assemblies and deliberative democracy. For example, the Transport Select Committee held an evidence session in Liverpool as part of inquiry into the health of bus services. This was followed by a question and answer session offering members of the public the opportunity to ask about the committee’s work and the role of parliament.
While in most cases the intended audience of committees’ reports is government, reports must be written in a way that is accessible and understandable to a wider audience as the public is very interested in what committees have to say. This could be achieved through lay summaries or Q&A briefings.