Peter Riddell on the progress of a Parliamentary reform

  • The New Select Committees: A Study of the 1979 Reforms edited by Gavin Drewry
    Oxford, 410 pp, £25.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 19 822785 X
  • Commons Select Committees: Catalysts for Progress? edited by Dermot Englefield
    Longman, 288 pp, £15.00, May 1984, ISBN 0 582 90260 6
  • British Government and the Constitution: Text, Cases and Materials by Colin Turpin
    Weidenfeld, 476 pp, £25.00, September 1985, ISBN 0 297 78651 2
  • Parliament in the 1980s edited by Philip Norton
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £19.50, July 1985, ISBN 0 631 14056 5

The new select committee system was launched in 1979 with a characteristic flourish by Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House of Commons. MPs were ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important Parliamentary reforms of the century’. The proposals were ‘intended to redress the balance of power’ – as between Parliament and the executive – ‘to enable the House of Commons to do more efficiently the job it has been elected to do’. This rhetoric and the expectations it raised have coloured all subsequent discussion of the role of select committees, 14 of which now monitor the work of various government departments. The New Select Committees, a collection of essays by the Study of Parliament Group, provides a sober corrective to the early euphoria in adding to the growing literature on the subject. The authors are mainly academics, though with a sprinkling of House of Commons staff.

The committees were created, and have operated, in the political framework of the Commons as it is, not as it might be. As John Biffen, that quintessential Commons man and current leader of the House, points out in Commons Select Committees, the new committees are not a move towards the extensive and powerful committee framework of the US Congress. The British committees have ‘no formal role in the legislative process. It is not a procedural requirement in Parliament, as it is in the US, for all legislation to be referred to an appropriate committee before it is considered on the floor.’ Instead, ‘the criterion of measuring the effectiveness of the committees will be by judging how far they have been successful in increasing the power of scrutiny by the House of Commons over the activities of ministers and government departments.’

Accountability and scrutiny, not power over decisions or legislation, have been the essence. Indeed, for all his considerable success in bouncing a reluctant prime minister and Cabinet to accept the new system of select committees in 1979, Norman St John Stevas did a disservice by exaggerating their likely role. This enabled traditionalists like Michael Foot and Enoch Powell to warn that expanding the role of the committees might distract attention from the proper Parliamentary forum, the floor of the House. On their view, this would damage the position of individual members and of Parliament itself. Moreover, as Priscilla Baines of the Commons Library points out in discussing the background to the 1979 reforms in The New Select Committees, some MPs were worried that the bipartisan, consensus-seeking approach of select committees would be incompatible with the party struggle. ‘Mr Powell argued in the February 1979 debate (on the procedure committee’s report urging reform) that real power in the House of Commons depended on party, while, as Mr Foot had suggested on another occasion, “what we are concerned about is maintaining the conflict of clash of interest.” ’

Yet neither need have been worried. None of the select committees has attempted to challenge the party system or the dominant role of the executive in initiating legislation and securing its passage. Members of committees are, after all, party men and women, receiving the weekly whip and often interrupting committee proceedings to go and vote in opposite lobbies.

The committees’ starting-point was more modest than that outlined by Mr St John Stevas. Indeed, both in organisation and, in several cases, in membership, the 1979 committees could be traced directly back, in an evolutionary way, to the series of experiments in cross-party scrutiny committees launched in the early 1960s. The major change in 1979 was that the system was made more comprehensive and more clearly related to the structure of Whitehall departments, though with no new powers of investigation. In general, the most successful, or at least most harmonious, committees have been those which have recognised the overriding constraints of the party system and have not sought to question the fundamentals of government strategy. These committees have taken existing policy as given and have concentrated on how policy is implemented or administered, or have questioned the merits of policies only where differences are across party lines. The clearest example in the 1979-83 Parliament was the Employment Committee where, as Nevil Johnson points out in the same book, chairman John Golding ‘recognised from the start that it was going to be difficult to hold the committee together and do useful work if its members were constantly caught up in the party political controversy so easily generated by many of the issues within its remit, most notably unemployment and the Government’s trade-union legislation.’ Mr Golding’s response was not to encourage the committee to pronounce at length on complex and usually contentious policy issues, because this was bound to exacerbate differences, but to stress that the committee’s main objective was to bring about an increase in accountability.

This was in many ways a safety-first approach, avoiding the controversial in preference for the bland. Some other committees have managed to maintain consensus by being more adventurous in tackling controversial issues such as housing finance and road transport policy. Yet the drawback of straining the present conventions of party loyalty too far has been shown by what has happened to the Employment Committee since the 1983 General Election. Under the chairmanship of Ron Leighton, the committee has examined highly contentious questions such as the banning of trade unions at GCHQ and the dismissal of striking miners. The result has been bitter divisions, notably between John Gorst and other Tory MPs who have disliked his criticism of the Government. This has seriously impaired the working of the committee and reduced the impact of its reports.

The chapters here on the individual committees show how, in mainly pursuing a consensus approach, MPs have aimed for scrutiny and influence, not power. This has involved lengthy Royal Commission-type inquiries into major problems like racial disadvantage and perinatal mortality; studies of the theoretical support for a government approach like monetary policy; short inquiries into topical issues such as the future of Promenade Concerts and the Mexico summit; examinations of the administration of departments such as the Manpower Services Commission; and regular monitoring of government expenditure and economic announcements. Most committees have mixed these types of inquiry, with varying objectives and varying degrees of success. As Gavin Drewry, the editor of The New Select Committees, points out in his introduction, ‘the purpose of a report may be to influence a government department, or another public sector agency, or to provide information for MPs to use in a forthcoming Parliamentary debate.’

But how then are the committees to be judged? Is the right yardstick their impact on Government policy, on fellow MPs or on public and informed opinion? The essays devote a considerable amount of space to this amorphous task – freely acknowledging the problem of distinguishing between what a committee recommends and the continuing evolution of a department’s policy in response to the changing external environment, as well as the changing fashions of policy. A committee report may coincide with many other factors to bring about a shift in policy.

There have been a few well-known instances where policy has been changed following, but not necessarily just because of, a committee report. These include the repeal of the sus law, the reversal of government policy on the privatisation of Heavy Goods Vehicle testing and the White Fish Authority levy. The Foreign Affairs Committee report on the repatriation of the Canadian constitution is widely reckoned to have influenced the smooth passage of the ensuing legislation. But such instances are exceptions rather than the norm and have generally occurred because government policy was itself fluid or the issue did not produce divisions on party lines.

Some committees have consciously sought influence at the policy-formation stage. For instance, the Agriculture Committee’s report on animal welfare is reckoned to have reinforced the pressure on ministers to produce tighter controls. Again, the Energy Committee added considerably to the calls for a rethinking of the Government’s approach to energy conservation. This influence should not be exaggerated since when reports have gone against what departments have wanted, their proposals have been ignored – for instance, on the future of the Civil Service Department and the sale of council houses.

A more subtle, though nonetheless lasting, impact may have come from the inquiries into administration following the precedent of the Public Accounts Committee. This work seldom catches the headlines unless there is a scandal, but the Defence Committee’s lengthy inquiry into procurement policy helped to focus attention on a previously submerged area of public spending.

Beyond these general impressions it is difficult to measure even the indirect influence of the committees’ activities. Detailed recommendations are often brushed aside by the government saying the matter is being kept under review (possible replies can be found in the scripts of Yes, Minister). Similarly, as most of the contributors recognise, looking at the number of committee reports which are debated on the floor of the Commons is misleading. Such discussions are frequently just slow-motion replays of what happened upstairs in the committee room with most of the speakers exactly the same.

Indeed, with few exceptions, the impact of the select committees has come less from the reports than from the broadening of public debate on policy resulting from ministers and civil servants having to be accountable. Sir Douglas Wass, the former Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, admitted in his 1983 Reith Lectures that ‘the knowledge that your department is going to be examined in detail on the background to a policy statement is a great encouragement to be rigorous in formulating your justification for it ... One question has become commonplace: “how do we explain this particular awkward fact to the select committee?” ’

The new system of select committees has changed the life not only of ministers and civil servants but also of commentators and interested pressure groups. For the journalist, the committees have provided a major new source of material which would not otherwise have been available, at least in a publicly attributable form.

The impact on the media is mistakenly ignored by most of the academic contributors to the book. During 1980-81, the public questioning of Treasury and Bank of England officials by the Treasury and Civil Service Committee highlighted some of the internal contradictions in the early versions of the medium-term financial strategy in ways that would not otherwise have occurred. It was primarily these sessions that forced the Treasury to reveal more information about the likely trend of manufacturing output and about estimates of North Sea tax revenue. The resulting reports by the Treasury Committee, both their mammoth one in 1981 on monetary policy and the regular inquiries on Budgetary announcements, were influential primarily because of the evidence produced, which served to widen the range of public debate. They certainly did not alter the Treasury’s view and indeed increasingly infuriated ministers and officials.

A shortcoming of the book is that most of the essays are written in the somewhat prim style of a headmaster’s report which ignores the rough-and-tumble reality of the classroom and playground. For all the references to the importance of political chemistry on the committees, none of the flavour of the personality clashes on several of them is conveyed, even though they were clearly apparent to journalists present, let alone to MPs. These differences cannot be dismissed as mere journalistic tittle-tattle. They affected the standing and reputation of the committees. For instance, the series of reports sharply critical of Government economic policy by the Treasury Committee led to increasingly strained relations between Mr (now Sir) Edward du Cann, the committee’s chairman and a champion of the new system, and Sir Geoffrey Howe as Chancellor. In turn, this affected the way the committee’s reports were received by MPs and led to semi-public rumblings among senior Tories about a possible conflict of interest with du Cann’s other role as chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee and contributed to his eventual defeat when that position was contested in autumn 1984.

One of ministers’ main criticisms of committees is that they have become vehicles for pressure-group views – and in some cases for those of their special advisers. In short, they have become subject to what is known in the US as agency capture. Ann Robinson makes a useful distinction here between committees which balance demands for extra spending against control of costs and value for money (such as Defence, Industry and Trade, Energy and Treasury and Civil Service), those appearing to be ‘unashamed filters for the demands of special interests’ (such as Transport, Agriculture, Social Services and Scotland) and those little interested in financial aspects (such as Home Affairs, Employment and Welsh Affairs). Gabriele Ganz argues that the Transport Committee has ‘acted as a pressure group asking for more public expenditure untrammelled by the responsibilities of Government to suggests cuts elsewhere’. Similarly, the Scottish Committee has become part of the Scottish lobby, has engaged in log-rolling activities to seek more money for Scotland, and has acted to promote Scottish interests (such as Prestwick Airport and Ravenscraig) regardless of the impact on the rest of Britain. In many cases, pressure groups have become expert at using the committee as another channel for putting over their views.

Is it all therefore much ado about nothing, or, as Gavin Drewry asks, ‘new labels on old bottles’? Any answer has inevitably to be qualified, recognising the constraints imposed on committees by the party system and by MPs’ own desire for consensus, as well as by the limits on inquiring into advice given to ministers by civil servants. If the committees are properly regarded as another step in a gradual evolution of Parliament’s role, then their work can be seen as valuable – especially in requiring civil servants as well as ministers to be answerable in public. No longer can ministers brush aside an awkward issue during a 30-minute statement to the House or a brief oral question. This point has even been recognised in a new constitutional textbook for lawyers, British Government and the Constitution, which notes the development of questioning in depth in a way that is impossible on the floor of the House.

In the conclusion to his volume of essays Gavin Drewry writes that ‘British government is founded upon executive initiative tempered by answerability to Parliament. The balance of power (an oft-used, but less than meaningful phrase) is not susceptible to adjustment merely by the setting-up of more and better select committees.’ He notes Nevil Johnson’s point that ‘the expanded activity of committees has so far brought little genuine change in the manner in which Parliament operates, or in the relationships between it and the executive.’

However Gavin Drewry reckons, fairly, that the new committees have ‘at least intermittently enriched the quality of Parliamentary debate and sharpened the edge of backbench and opposition interrogations of ministers’. The new committees, he argues, offer something to everyone: they offer backbenchers (156 of them now) a chance to specialise, ministers a chance to explain themselves at greater length, pressure groups an opportunity to lay out their case in public, and civil servants an opportunity, despite added burdens, to argue publicly a departmental case. ‘Probably the greatest beneficiaries are those seeking knowledge and information.’

Can the system be extended, particularly to cover scrutiny of expenditure? A major change in financial procedures, barely mentioned in this book, was approved by the House in 1982 and implemented in the session before the 1983 Election. Financial estimates are now referred to the relevant select committee for scrutiny, and the liaison committee, consisting of the chairmen of all the select committees, decides which should be debated on the floor of the Commons on one of the three estimates days per session (one of the rare occasions when public business is not initiated by the government or opposition). These days have proved to be a modest success in focusing attention on supplementary estimates where there is evidence of government inefficiency or bad budgeting, as with Parliamentary stationery or support for the British National Oil Corporation. There have been hardly any votes because the constraints of the party system have applied. While Parliament has in no way resumed control over expenditure, it has succeeded in spotlighting examples of spending problems which merit greater examination and a fuller explanation. This is an important adjunct to the retrospective work of the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.

How do the committees fit in with the broader life of politics (a subject largely ignored by contributors)? Philip Norton has highlighted the change in MPs’ behaviour – a move towards independence and rebellion which began in the early 1970s when the Heath Administration had a working majority and which provided the impetus for the select committee reforms of 1979. On his view, expressed once more in Parliament in the 1980s, significant structural and procedural reforms are achievable, but only if the political will exists among MPs to ensure their implementation and sustenance. However, he may be too optimistic, since after the developments of the late 1970s and early 1980s there now seems to be a desire for consolidation.

The central political question is how MPs regard the committees. There is certainly competition to go on the main committees (Defence, Foreign Affairs and Treasury and Civil Service). They also provide outlets for varying types of MP, for the young and ambitious (13 current ministers and whips served on select committees in the 1979-83 period), for ex-ministers (and for those inexplicably ignored such as Terence Higgins, a major contributor to the extension of financial scrutiny) and for perpetual backbenchers (notably and successfully, Christopher Price, who chaired the Education Committee up to 1983).

Cynics – that is, party whips – may regard the committees as a cheap way of keeping potential dissenters quiet (not always successfully, as anyone who knows Tory MPs Nicholas Budgen and Anthony Beaumont-Dark would admit). But for all their attractions, the committees have still not provided a counter-magnet to the lures of office. The committees may give a useful education about Whitehall to the inexperienced but they are stepping stones MPs eagerly leave even to take up such menial posts as Parliamentary Private Secretary or the unseen and unrewarded job of junior opposition spokesman. The executive, even in its shadow form, still holds most of the cards.