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Liaison Committee

Volume 736: debated on Monday 17 July 2023

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 145, the Liaison Committee shall have power to appoint specialist advisers in relation to its inquiry on Strategic thinking in Government. —(Penny Mordaunt.)

Since I objected to this motion going through on the nod the other night, I am surprised that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is moving it formally instead of trying to explain the background to this move. We have always had the system in this House that the Liaison Committee comprises those Members who have been appointed by the House to be Chairs of Select Committees, and those Chairs meet together to comprise the Liaison Committee.

The Liaison Committee is set up under Standing Order No. 145. An appointment was made in this Parliament by the former Member for Uxbridge, Boris Johnson, who as Prime Minister listened sympathetically to representations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), saying that he had not been appointed successfully to be elected to a Select Committee, and would it not be wonderful to break with precedent and create a new post for somebody who was not already a Select Committee Chair, but who would become Chair of the Liaison Committee.

I have no objection to the decision that the former Prime Minister took in appointing my hon. Friend as Chair of the Liaison Committee, but I am concerned that now, with his having been appointed to that Committee, we are engaged in a bit of mission creep. Standing Order No. 145 specifies:

“A select committee shall be appointed, to be called the Liaison Committee”,

and its role shall be

“to consider general matters relating to the work of select committees, to give such advice relating to the work of select committees as may be sought by the House of Commons Commission, and to report to the House its choice of select committee reports to be debated on such days as may be appointed by the Speaker in pursuance of paragraph (15) of Standing Order No. 10 (Sittings in Westminster Hall).

The committee may also hear evidence from the Prime Minister on matters of public policy.”

We know that that is essentially the high-profile role of the Liaison Committee—to try to hold the Prime Minister to account. My hon. Friend, as Chair of that Committee, played a significant role in trying to hold the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, to account.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will correct me. Is it right that we have a joint strategic Committee—I cannot remember its exact name, but if I had known this subject was coming up I would have looked it up—which I think is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Derby South (Margaret Beckett)? Surely strategic issues, and strategic security and so on, should be within the remit of that Committee under our current structure.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are not short of Committees in this House, and the purpose of Standing Order No. 145 was to set up a Liaison Committee—whether that is a useful exercise is for others to judge. It was approved and set up in the Standing Orders, but now, without vigilance on our part, we will find that that Liaison Committee is becoming almost like a Select Committee in its own right, and carrying out its own inquiries—inquiries that could be carried out by any of the other individual Select Committees. Now, in the motion on the Order Paper, it is seeking funding for the appointment of special advisers to facilitate its work. It seems to me that the case for this measure has not been made. I am sorry, as I said earlier, that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House did not make the case at the beginning of this debate, instead of waiting to respond to the debate later.

Referring again to Standing Order No. 145, it states:

“The committee shall report its recommendations as to the allocation of time for consideration by the House of the estimates on any day or half day which may be allotted for that purpose; and upon a motion being made that the House do agree with any such report the question shall be put forthwith and, if that question is agreed to, the recommendations shall have effect as if they were orders of the House.

Proceedings in pursuance of this paragraph, though opposed, may be decided after the expiration of the time for opposed business.”

Sub-paragraphs (4) to (6) of that Standing Order state:

“The committee shall have power to send for persons, papers and records, to sit notwithstanding any adjournment of the House…and to report from time to time.

Unless the House otherwise orders, each Member nominated to the committee shall continue to be a member of it for the remainder of the Parliament.

The committee shall have power to appoint two sub-committees, one of which shall be a National Policy Statements sub-committee.”

The Standing Order then sets out what that sub-committee could be comprised of and what it would do. I am not aware of any such sub-committee on national policy statements having yet been appointed, but if I am wrong about that, I am sure I will be corrected by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. The Liaison Committee also has the power to set up another sub-committee if it so wishes. Each sub-committee has requirements about a quorum and the fact that it needs to report minutes of evidence and so on.

It is clear from reading that Standing Order that the Liaison Committee has a limited remit. It is particularly designed to ensure that, because the Prime Minister does not answer and will not give evidence to other Select Committees, he comes along regularly to the Liaison Committee and he is held to account there.

That is all very well, so why have we ended up where we are today? On the Order Paper, the motion states:

“notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 145”—

the one to which I have been referring—

“the Liaison Committee shall have power to appoint specialist advisers”—

in the plural—

“in relation to its inquiry on Strategic thinking in Government.”

It may well be that there is a shortage of strategic thinking in government and that that inquiry into the shortage of strategic thinking is required, but I am surprised that that inquiry is being conducted by the Liaison Committee, when any of the other Select Committees would be able to inquire into that issue in relation to their remits.

The Liaison Committee has set up that inquiry on strategic thinking in government, and it wants to have special advisers appointed, and I imagine paid out of the public purse, to provide advice to the Committee, which is, as I emphasise, a Select Committee in name, but not by nature. This is an example of mission creep.

I had the privilege of speaking earlier to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, who drew to my attention the press release issued by the Liaison Committee on 22 June this year. It states:

“The Liaison Committee is launching an inquiry into select committee scrutiny of strategic thinking across Whitehall.”

In other words, it is trying to find out whether Select Committees are up to the task of scrutinising strategic thinking across government. That would be fair enough, one might think. However, when one looks at the small print, the Chair’s comments and the terms of reference, one finds that, far from being an inquiry into Select Committee scrutiny of strategic thinking across Whitehall, this is an inquiry into strategic thinking across Whitehall—nothing to do with the Select Committees, for which the Liaison Committee has been specifically established.

The hon Gentleman is generous in giving way once again. I have been listening to him expand on that point. Would it not be more appropriate for such an inquiry to be conducted by the Public Accounts Committee, which has inevitably undertaken similar studies into thinking because of the resource consequences that arise from strategic thinking, or the lack thereof? Was that not the appropriate route?

That, in my view, would be wholly appropriate. Why does the National Audit Office, which feeds into much of the Public Accounts Committee’s work, not get involved if it thinks that this is a big issue? Incidentally, today, the National Audit Office reported on the Government’s hospital building programme, and I found in the small print that Christchurch hospital is no longer part of the 40 hospitals being built—it has been withdrawn from the programme and will be added to a future programme. That is rightly criticised by the National Audit Office, and that is a current example of why we need proper scrutiny.

To return to what the Liaison Committee says it wants to do in this new inquiry, the Chair’s comments are:

“Major events such as Brexit, covid-19 and Ukraine demonstrate the need for long-term planning and delivery across multiple departments and across the duration of several Parliaments, as well as the importance of successful collaboration with our international partners. As the pace of events over recent years have shown, the Government needs to be more agile in its ambition—and it should also be coordinated across departments and sustainable over time.

Select committees provide a mirror to Government policy and practice. Their work has demonstrated the value of cross-party checks and balances on departmental strategic thinking. This inquiry by the Liaison Committee will consider how select committees can improve scrutiny of strategic thinking in government as the UK confronts the major questions we face in the near and longer-term future. Better scrutiny of strategic thinking by Parliament will contribute to better strategic thinking within Government.”

I am sorry that I was not able to précis that, Madam Deputy Speaker; that is one of the issues we have, as a Parliament and with the Government—there is too much verbosity in these sorts of announcements—but be that as it may.

I then looked at the terms of reference, expecting that they would be exclusively directed to strategic thinking in Select Committees and the Select Committee’s control over strategic thinking in government, but the call for evidence—Members and others are told that they must send in written evidence by Friday 15 September—states:

“The Committee is looking for evidence on: Examples of best practice of strategic thinking in Government, including: how well Government identifies strategic opportunities as well as strategic risks and threats; how effectively Government uses internal and external challenge; how feedback loops”—

whatever those are—

“are used to ensure that lessons from delivery are fully considered when developing future strategic plans;”


“how No. 10 and the Cabinet Office should best lead on these issues across government”.

That is one item. The second item is:

“What government should publish or explain about its overall strategic concept.”

Surely, the section that the hon. Gentleman has just read out—there may be more of it—is in the remit of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee?

Absolutely. I do not know—perhaps we will find out later—the extent to which the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has been consulted on this and has agreed that, on Government strategic thinking, it will have its role usurped by the Liaison Committee. I am sure that all will be revealed in due course. If my hon. Friends want to intervene on these issues, I will be happy to take interventions.

The next item of the terms of reference is:

“What additional machinery of Government, knowledge and skills are necessary to support strategic thinking and effective strategy and delivery, both within individual departments, and across two or more departments, and how strategy and strategic thinking can be sustained by building consensus between the main parties”.

The fourth item on which evidence can be given is:

“Which governments around the world demonstrate best practice in strategic thinking”.

That is an opportunity for some overseas visits, no doubt, to go and see which Governments across the world are demonstrating best practice in strategic thinking.

The next item of the terms of reference—the sixth—contains the first reference to Select Committees:

“How Select Committees consider strategic questions, including any recent examples of scrutiny of Government strategic plans and/or their delivery; and elements of Government strategy- and delivery that are repeatedly identified by Select Committees as effective or as deficient”.

At least that item on which evidence is sought is relevant to the purported nature of the inquiry. The next item in the terms of reference is:

“The engagement of individual departments, and Whitehall as a whole, with Select Committees on strategic challenges, including through the provision of information necessary for effective scrutiny.”

The next one is:

“What additional resources”—

more taxpayer’s money is going into this, I can see—

“parliamentary procedure, knowledge and skills are necessary to support effective Select Committee scrutiny of strategic thinking and effective strategy-making, as well as monitoring implementation of any Government action in response”.

This is a great one:

“How other parliaments around the world are engaging with the strategic thinking of their respective governments.”

Well, what an inquiry. It could take years, could it not? Woe betide whoever is appointed a special adviser under the terms of the motion before us. They will need to be handsomely remunerated, will they not, for the time and effort they put into the inquiry? They will have a global remit.

I speak as a member of two Select Committees—the Procedure Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee. The Environmental Audit Committee is cross-cutting and looks at the effect of the Government’s environmental policies across a whole range of areas. The Liaison Committee seems to be creating a new cross- cutting Select Committee covering public administration, strategic thinking, oversees democracy and so on. I want to hear the justification for that, what the cost is likely to be and how this idea ever got a start. Was it discussed by the Liaison Committee? Did it agree those very wide terms of reference? Did it think through the implications? In supporting the motion, has the Leader of the House thought through exactly what that strategic thinking is all about?

I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the start of the debate, but I have been listening to my hon. Friend carefully on the television.

Order. Can I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is absolutely customary to be in at the start of a speech if the right hon. Gentleman is going to intervene?

This is such an important debate and my hon. Friend is raising such an important point about the fundamentals of the Liaison Committee. Do I understand from what he is saying that the Committee would need to change its name if it takes on those responsibilities, because its job is simply liaison, not to go further than that?

Absolutely. That is why I am worried about the mission creep. We have the Liaison Committee proposal set out in the press release to which I have been referring, but it bears little resemblance to the motion on the Order Paper, which states that

“the Liaison Committee shall have power to appoint specialist advisers in relation to its inquiry on Strategic thinking in Government.”

Its inquiry purports to be on the ability of Select Committees to scrutinise strategic thinking across Government, which is completely different. As anybody who has been listening to the terms of reference will know, it is not limited to strategic thinking across our Government, but restricted to strategic thinking across all Governments that are members of the United Nations. So it has an enormously wide remit.

I must say that I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, the Chair of the Committee, on his imagination and breadth of vision. He could have a job for life fulfilling this important role. But our job in questioning matters like this, which are put on the Order Paper and would otherwise go through on the nod, is to say, “Well, hang on a minute, what are we about? Have the members of the rest of the Select Committees thought about the implications, the costs and the dangerous precedent that is being set?” It is only in this Parliament that we got the exception to have a Chair of the Liaison Committee who is not already a Chair of another Select Committee, but how will the members of the Liaison Committee be able to give their time and devotion to this particular subject?

For example, I am a member of one of the Committees that very much deals with strategy and strategic thinking: the Defence Committee. I am not aware—I may have missed it—that there has been any reference to that Committee on whether it thinks this move is appropriate or not.

Well, there we have it, Madam Deputy Speaker. And I see my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex, the Chair of the Liaison Committee, at the Bar of the House. I do not know whether he intends to participate in this debate.

The hon. Gentleman ought to know that it is very difficult for the Member who has just come in to participate in the debate, when he has already been speaking for nearly 25 minutes. I had assumed that he had informed the hon. Member that he was going to refer to him.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I was talking to my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee earlier on today and he gave me—

I am not sure that quite counts as informing him that you were going to mention him in a debate, but I assume that that is what you are indicating.

I am indicating that I am referring to him in the debate, because he indeed gave me the Liaison Committee terms of reference and the press release, including the quote from himself. Since he is the Chair of the Liaison Committee, I am rather surprised that he has not made himself available to participate in this debate, particularly given that it is all about a much more important role for that Committee, which he has the privilege of chairing. I had not realised, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I rose to my feet at the beginning of this debate, that my hon. Friend was not actually in his place. I now see that he is not in his place but at the Bar of the House. But because of what you said—the debate perhaps started earlier than he expected —he will not now be able to participate in it and will have to rely on the Leader of the House to put the case, which he would otherwise be able to put himself, as to why this proposal does not amount to an expensive and unnecessary mission creep on the part of the Liaison Committee.

It is, in my view, probably unique to this Parliament that we have a Chair of the Liaison Committee who is not already the Chair of another Committee. I wonder how the members of the Liaison Committee, all of whom are Chairs of other Committees, will physically be able to get to grips with the enormous subject of the quality of strategic thinking across the world, because that is what we are talking about.

The House will know that I am second to none in my admiration for my hon. Friend, but I actually am a member of the Liaison Committee, and I think that—in drawing his comments to a close—he will, like me, welcome any progress in strategic thinking in Government, and particularly in this Government.

I am all in favour of more strategic thinking, and I know that my hon. Friend is a great exemplar of it. He has deployed that talent over many years in the House, and continues so to do. But I am disappointed, in a sense, that in his intervention he did not address the issue of mission creep, and why this subject cannot be dealt with by the Public Administration Committee or by other Select Committees that have already been set up under the rules of the House. He did disclose to us that he is a member of the Liaison Committee, although he did not say how enthusiastic he is about being able to participate in the evidence gathering and the consideration of the evidence that is gathered in conjunction with this particular remit of setting out the inquiry on strategic thinking in Government.

It often happens that towards the end of a Parliament the Government are trying to think beyond the next general election, and perhaps, in proposing this motion, my hon. Friend the Chair of the Liaison Committee is thinking beyond this Parliament to the next. Perhaps he is thinking that the Liaison Committee in that Parliament may have some unfinished business in relation to its inquiry on strategic thinking, and that the specialist advisers will be champing at the bit, wanting their remuneration to be extended to an inquiry that will continue—dare one say, ad infinitum? Maybe; I do not know. But I think that something like this should not go through the House without Members having been alerted to its potential consequences and implications, which is why I have spoken about the motion in this way.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again; he is being very generous. According to his reading on the background of the Committee, does it intend to hold hearings and evidence sessions, and would that mean that all the Select Committee Chairs would have to attend weekly sessions in order to hear the evidence and then prepare the report?

That is a very good point. The Committee is specifically calling for written evidence. Normally, when Select Committees call for written evidence and that evidence comes in, they decide that the most compelling evidence should probably be supplemented by oral evidence from those who have submitted the written evidence. It is, I presume, implicit in the fact that the Committee has invited written evidence that it will also receive oral evidence and will cross-examine, or question, some of the people who have submitted that written evidence, whether it be from Members of the Australian Parliament, the Canadian Parliament or the Hungarian Parliament. Who knows, but I imagine that they will be holding oral evidence sessions. As the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) implies, if an oral evidence session is not within the remit of the one of the specific Sub-Committees of the Liaison Committee, to which I referred earlier, there will be a need for a quorum and for people to be there paying close attention to the evidence.

Where are we going? This is essentially a new Select Committee that is being expanded to cover everybody else’s areas of responsibility so that it can have a grandiose role. It is not sufficient for it to be able to hold the Prime Minister to account and allocate questions to the Prime Minister among Liaison Committee members—now we are getting into the whole area not of the role of Select Committees in holding the Government to account on their strategic challenges, but of the strategic challenges in toto.

In summary, what I am really saying is that I despair. I despair that this proposal has reached the stage it has. I look forward to hearing an explanation from the Leader of the House about why she thinks this is a good move. I hope that she will be able to explain how our fears and concerns about dangerous precedents can be allayed. Strategic thinking is perhaps just the start of a takeover bid by the Liaison Committee of almost all the other subjects that are the remit of individual Select Committees at the moment. Who knows? In the absence of any contribution from the Chair of the Liaison Committee himself, we depend on the knowledge that the Leader of the House has gained from the briefing that she has no doubt received, as I did, from the Liaison Committee.

I am all in favour of strategic thinking and of scrutinising the Government’s strategic thinking, but I do not think that this is the right way forward.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I, through you, apologise for not having been present from the start of these proceedings? I was not expecting this business to be debated this evening; I should have been more alert, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) has been, to the possibility that it would be.

I would not consider it appropriate to try to catch your eye to make a contribution to this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker—unless you deemed it appropriate.

I did say that if the right hon. Gentleman wanted to make a contribution, he should have been here at the beginning. May I clarify whether he was told that he would be referred to in the debate?

I was going to say that if the right hon. Gentleman had not been told, it would be perfectly reasonable for him to make a contribution. In the circumstances, I am prepared to allow him to make a one-minute contribution.

I am most grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker; I appreciate the courtesy being extended to me.

First, I should reiterate that there is support among all the Select Committee Chairs for the inquiry. Secondly, the issue is about the effectiveness of Select Committee scrutiny. Many Select Committees find it difficult to obtain information about long-term challenges facing this country, particularly if they are cross-departmental issues. The Select Committee’s inquiry will be concentrating on that. Thirdly, there is ample precedent for Liaison Committee inquiries into the effectiveness of the Select Committee system. That is what the Liaison Committee exists to do and it is firmly within its remit. We are confining ourselves to that.

I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that the Liaison Committee will confine itself to that but, in that case, why are the terms of reference calling for written evidence by 15 September so widely set that they cover—I will not repeat all those points, Madam Deputy Speaker—which Governments around the world demonstrate best practice in strategic thinking? There are also references to strategic thinking about Select Committees—

I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), who is talking about the context of the inquiry. How can we conduct the inquiry in a vacuum, without reference to what happens in other countries, what other Parliaments are doing to scrutinise long-term strategic thinking, and what other Governments are doing in response? There is a strong public interest in this, and I have held a very close interest in the subject matter, which he generously acknowledges.

This is not a threat to Select Committees. The Chairman of the Defence Committee, on which the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) sits, has supported this inquiry, and I hope he will take part. We do not imagine that we will have a great number of oral evidence sessions, because Select Committee Chairs are so busy. Much of this will be conducted on a desktop basis through written evidence, rather than through oral evidence sessions.

I hope that clarifies it for the House, and I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to make a contribution under these circumstances.

I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate.

I tabled today’s motion following a request from the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, with the blessing of the Liaison Committee. I am facilitating that request.

On mission creep, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee has set out why the inquiry is taking place, but hon. Members should note that the change we are making limits the appointment of special advisers to this particular inquiry. The appointment will be made within the current budget envelope.

Members may be interested to know that, as the shadow Leader of the House will verify, the Commission discussed the work of Select Committees at its last meeting—those minutes have been published—and the Finance Committee is taking a greater role in scrutinising the work of Select Committees and ensuring value for money.

We are not here to debate the merits of this particular inquiry, although hon. Members will know the previous work of the Chairman of the Liaison Committee in this area. What we are here to decide is whether the Committee should have a special adviser to assist it in this particular inquiry.

I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.