On 31 January the House of Commons agreed to a motion supporting the Liaison Committee’s call for a new relationship between Parliament and government, which recognises the public interest in greater accountability.
The Liaison Committee brings together the chairs of all the select committees. Last year we carried out a review of committee scrutiny since the general election. We set out to assess whether committees were effective and had the powers and resources they needed to do the job. We drew on reports from individual committees and independent academic research, took evidence from outside observers, and held a number of informal meetings. Among these was a very useful seminar hosted by the Institute for Government with participants from the civil service and arm’s-length bodies. Our report, Select Committee Effectiveness, Resources and Powers, published last November, concluded that, two years after the general election and the Wright reforms, the evidence is broadly encouraging – although committees face some obstacles and there is room for improvement.
We focused on committees’ effectiveness in influencing government, which would be boosted by clearer objectives; sharper questioning; fewer recommendations; better communications; and more follow-up. But we also highlighted the need for better co-operation, calling on the government to engage with us in producing joint guidelines for departments and committees that recognise ministerial accountability, the proper role of the civil service, and the legitimate wish of Parliament for more effective accountability.
The government’s response was positive in tone, but disappointing in some respects. The government says it is keen to work with us, but its approach seems to be to consult with us on its own proposals for reform, rather than to embrace our recommendation for a joint approach designed to produce joint guidelines. We shall certainly respond positively to the government’s offer to engage with us – I am due to meet with Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude and leader of the House Andrew Lansley after Easter – but we are after something more than a modest revision to the Osmotherly rules (which determine how and when civil servants can be called in front of select committees). What we want is a different attitude from departments to parliamentary scrutiny.
Recent Justice Committee experience illustrates the problems we face and the need for a change of approach. We have been inquiring into the contracting out by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of its interpreting and translation services. In courts, in particular, when the new interpreting arrangements were introduced there was a substantial decline in the quality of service to the courts. We set up an online forum to enable people, including litigants, lawyers, court staff and the public, to give us their direct experiences of the new arrangements, anonymously if they preferred, only to discover that the MoJ had put out a circular discouraging court staff from participating in the forum.
We have heard the views of probation and prison staff through such forums in the past without any interference, so we could not understand the MoJ’s action. It might have been expected that the department which is responsible within government for constitutional and legal matters would have been alive to the potential consequences of discouraging its staff from giving evidence to a select committee. They ran a serious risk of the committee asking the House to refer the matter to the Committee of Privileges, to consider whether the ministry’s actions amounted to a contempt of the House.
More often, the MoJ just fails to give us the information we need – for example, on the proposed justice and home affairs opt-out from the European Union – or decent notice of announcements. Other committees report the same problems. These discourtesies may well be inadvertent, or the result of lack of co-ordination within departments. But they are symptomatic of an unhelpful approach to Parliament and select committees – or perhaps just a failure to understand how we work – which is quite widespread within Whitehall. We need a change in culture within the civil service. In this post-Wright era, select committees expect a relationship with their department which is based on mutual respect, courtesy and openness. And the public expect this too.
Sir Alan Beith is chair of the Liaison Committee and the Commons' Justice Committee
For more on the MoJ see Ursula Brennan interview; and Editorial