Speaking to CSW, Sir Alan Beith, chair of the Liaison Committee – which comprises the chairs of all the select committees – said that “government should not be claiming to make rules which might restrict Parliament’s ability to do its job, and [these rules have] acquired a status that we don’t believe they were ever entitled to.”
The rules state that it is up to ministers to determine who should represent a department at a select committee hearing, and that a minister may decide that an official requested by a select committee should not appear.
Beith believes that the Osmotherly rules are preventing committees from hearing from civil servants who were responsible for project failures, but have since moved on to other departments. The rules “can be used in an attempt to stifle witnesses or restrict the range of witnesses to appear before a committee,” he said.
However, Beith admitted that his committee did not consider whether it needs greater powers to call back former ministers who oversaw projects and have since left the department, suggesting that “the experience that must have been fresh in the minds of the committee must have related to civil servants, not ministers.”
The Liaison Committee’s report, published last Thursday, said: “We do not accept the Osmotherly rules should have any bearing on whom a select committee should choose to summon as a witness. The Osmotherly rules are merely internal for government, they have never been accepted by Parliament.”
The committee also called for a reformed understanding of civil service accountability: “We don’t challenge the right of a civil servant to say: ‘That was a decision taken at a political level’,” said Beith, “but the assumption that ministers have made all the decisions that are made in departments was never realistic, and has become ever more unrealistic.”
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said the government is considering new models of accountability, adding that the Civil Service Reform Plan “established the expectation that former accounting officers return to give evidence to select committees on a time limited basis where there is a clear rationale to do so.”
Meanwhile, the Liaison Committee has also recommended that select committees change their approach to scrutiny and seek to have a greater influence on the direction of government policy.
“Select committees should influence policy and have an impact on government departments and the agencies to which their functions may be devolved,” the report said. It added that “scrutiny committees are not just involved in scrutinising others, but have an active role to play themselves in putting issues on the agenda and acting as a forum for public debate.”
It also recommended that committees place greater emphasis on departmental finances in hearings, and that they experiment with different questioning approaches, including appointing lead questioners for an evidence session.