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Liaison Committee

Volume 782: debated on Monday 3 April 2017

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Committee New Investigative Committees in the 2017–18 Session (2nd Report, HL Paper 144) be agreed to.

My Lords, it is widely acknowledged that Select Committee activity is one of the greatest strengths of the House. The expansion of this activity in the 2010-15 Parliament with the growth in the number of ad hoc committees from one each Session to three, together with the introduction of post-legislative scrutiny, has been rightly popular. In the present Session, we have seen the establishment of the International Relations Committee, which is currently considering its second report. In addition, it is probably true that there has been more committee activity generally in the House of Lords than ever before, in large part in response to the result of the EU referendum. The work of our committees has never been more important or had greater potential to inform debate on issues of national and international consequence and significance.

I am grateful to all the Members of the House who put forward proposals for ad hoc committees in the next Session. Once again, this has been a very popular exercise and the Liaison Committee has had an excellent range of topics to choose from, with many detailed proposals which were clearly a culmination of great preparatory work and which underline the range and breadth of expertise in your Lordships’ House.

I am also most grateful to members of the Liaison Committee for the constructive and thoughtful way in which they approached the task of first shortlisting, and then selecting, the proposals recommended to the House. We all know only too well that it is never possible to please every Member of your Lordships’ House, even some of the time, but I hope that noble Lords will agree that the committee’s recommendations cover a wide range of subjects which will make excellent use of Members’ talents and contribute to debate and policy-making in a range of topical and cross-cutting areas.

We agreed the following proposals: an ad hoc committee on artificial intelligence; an ad hoc committee on citizenship and civic engagement; and an ad hoc committee on political polling and digital media. We also agreed to recommend an ad hoc post-legislative scrutiny committee to consider the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. Inevitably, there is disappointment that not everyone’s proposal could be selected. We received proposals from 45 Members, individually or severally; therefore, 33 proposals have not been chosen.

We considered all the proposals against our published set of criteria, considering which inquiries would make best use of the knowledge and experience of Members of the House, complement the work of Commons departmental Select Committees, address areas of policy that cross departmental boundaries and be able to be confined to one Session. This was no easy task and it was a duty that the Liaison Committee took great care and time in fulfilling. I hope that the House will agree with me that our recommendations provide a timely and manageable set of inquiries for the coming Session.

I end on the note of thanks with which I began. Both the process which led to the committee’s report and the process of agreeing it have confirmed to me the seriousness with which noble Lords approach their role in your Lordships’ House and the range and depth of expertise. I am most grateful to all concerned. I beg to move.

My Lords, it is not my practice to question decisions of the Liaison Committee, having spent some years on the committee myself. I congratulate those who have been successful in their applications. I understand that not everyone can be pleased, but I am finding it difficult to understand the Liaison Committee’s attitude to yet another failed application for an ad hoc inquiry into national identity cards.

The story I am hearing is that the committee felt that attitudes to the introduction of national identity cards are too polarised, with strong feelings on both sides of the argument. There was also a view that the Government were unlikely to respond positively. I was a member of the committee when additional resources were made available to increase the number of inquiries: the ability to deal with difficult issues, where further thinking was required, was one of the principal reasons for setting them up, and the potential response of the Government was not to be a consideration for the committee. Its remit was to carry out in-depth inquiries, enabling Parliament and the public access to information on what are sometimes the most difficult subjects.

This application was supported by four former Cabinet Ministers in both Labour and Conservative Governments, yet the application was rejected. The truth is that only we in this House can do this work in depth. Those of us who have been in the Commons know that Select Committee examinations of issues take place only over short periods: two months for a Select Committee inquiry in the Commons is a lengthy inquiry. The potential of ad hoc committees is for six- and 12-month inquiries, enabling us to carry them out in far greater depth.

I understand the position of the Liberal Democrats on the committee because historically they have been opposed to national identity cards, but I am having great difficulty understanding the position of the Government. A huge change is taking place in both Houses of Parliament in attitudes to national identity cards. There is strong support among Conservative supporters in the country. I say to Conservative Members of this House that they should check with their own associations because my Conservative friends—and there are quite a few of them—almost universally tell me that they support the introduction of national identity cards. Furthermore, there is no longer pressure on the Government from the Liberal Democrats, as there was when they were in coalition, when they blocked the Labour Government’s initiative of introducing national identity cards. Moreover, we now have the Brexit debate, where the issue of identity is becoming more important. On my own Benches, there is overwhelming support for the reintroduction of national identity cards. Whereas originally they were voluntary, after a compromise arrangement was made, many of my colleagues now believe that they should be mandatory.

However, there are aspects of the Liaison Committee procedures that I believe need further thought. First, there is a member of the Government on the committee: the Leader of the House. I have no objections to the Leader of the House being on the committee but whether the Leader of the House should influence what is essentially a Back-Bench decision made by the committee is questionable. Then there is the question of who is actually making the decisions. We know that at least one member was called away on important business abroad when some of the applications were approved, although all members approve the final list on a write-round.

I believe we need an amendment to the way the committee deals with applications. As ad hoc committees make an important contribution to the House’s work and reputation, they should be the subject of a special approval procedure. All committee members should be required to list their preferences and, after either a formal or an informal consultation with their own groups, then make the decisions. Decisions on ad hoc committees can influence the credibility of the House and they should reflect the widest possible consultation and consideration. A handful of members, dependent on their diaries, able to attend a committee only at a particular time, is a totally inadequate basis on which to make such important decisions, which command hundreds of thousands of pounds of the House’s resources.

Finally, in light of what has happened, I have a suggestion—perhaps even a solution. Why can the House authorities not be tasked to find the additional resource in this year to fund an additional ad hoc committee? The Clerk of the Parliaments and officials responsible for financial control, through their diligence and sensitive understanding of our needs, have made huge savings on House expenditure over recent years. Why cannot a little of that saving find its way into an additional ad hoc committee on this important issue? The introduction of these cards is an extremely important issue in these times of both social and economic instability internationally. An ID card inquiry is now a must and Parliament needs to move with the public debate. I call upon the House authorities to seriously consider whether the additional resources can be found.

My Lords, I should like to make a short additional point. It seems to me that your Lordships spend an enormous amount of time and use quality arguments, and we produce good reports. Unfortunately, those reports seem to get very little exposure in the nation and in the departments of state. This is somewhat in contrast to the Public Accounts Committee in another place, which I had the privilege to be on for some 12 years. Every one of its reports was covered in all the media that are worth talking about and by every department of state. Perhaps I may say to the Senior Deputy Speaker that he and his colleagues need to look at the distribution of these reports and what happens to them, and make sure that they reach the potential audience for which they were originally prescribed.

My Lords, I had the privilege of serving on this committee under the very able chairmanship of the Senior Deputy Speaker. I always feel that committee work is democracy in action. Even members of the committee do not necessarily get their first choice considered, because a lot of hard work goes into discussion. I hope that people who have been disappointed will accept that disappointment and approve this Motion.

My Lords, I should like to follow what the noble Baroness has just said. I too am a member of the Liaison Committee. When we were told about the people who should be thanked, it occurred to me that among others they should be the clerk to the committee and those who worked for her. One thing which all of us shared was a substantial briefing, prepared by her and her assistants, on each of the topics before us. The decisions that we took were based not only on discussion among ourselves but on private reading, so that we had informed ourselves as to what the issues were and how the various contestants should be balanced against each other. As was pointed out, it was a two-stage process. First, there was the reduction of a wide number of cases to a shorter list. Secondly, when we looked at it again, that shorter list was supported by further research. It should be understood that these decisions are not taken lightly. I am not aware of any political influence. As a Cross-Bencher, I think that the decisions were taken on their merits and on the basis of the information which we were given.

My Lords, as I am a member of the committee as well, I want to endorse what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, has just said. The staff did a tremendous job. I hope that my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours was not implying that a huge amount of work was not done by them, because it was—they did scoping reports on each of the subjects, right from the start. As my noble friend knows, I agree with him that his is an important topic but, with respect, he is not the only one who is disappointed by their topic not having been chosen.

One thing that the Senior Deputy Speaker said needs to be underlined. I agree on the importance of the work of committees of this House. I have recently been rather annoyed by some of the comments about the work of the House, which have detracted from the work done in committees. I was particularly disappointed that the documentary series “Meet the Lords”, which otherwise had some quite good parts in it, did not cover the work of committees. The EU Select Committee and all its sub-committees, and all the other committees, were not there. When I suggested to one of the producers that they should cover them, they said, “Committees are boring—they don’t make good television”. But if you want to give a clear idea of what the House does, you should cover committees, where a huge amount of work is done.

I must declare an interest. Not only am I a member, but I was lucky enough this year that the only topic I suggested was elaborated on and ultimately included in the recommendations.

The House is jumping to the wrong conclusion. If your Lordships look back to a year ago, you will see that I also spoke in that debate and, on that occasion, I had put forward six proposals. None of those was accepted and I still thought that the committee had done a damn good job.

Particularly with the noble Lord, Lord McFall, in the chair—like with his predecessor the noble Lord, Lord Laming—a huge amount of careful work is done. The noble Lord, Lord McFall, spent hours and hours going into this and discussing options with the staff. In the end, someone will always be disappointed—more than one on this occasion, although only one has raised it.

I would go along with what my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has said, and if further resources are available, the topic ought to be looked at carefully. But I hope that will not stop this report being endorsed, because as I understand it, the committees need to be up and running immediately after the Queen’s Speech if they are to be effective. If we delay endorsing this report until after Easter, that will not be possible. I hope we will give a vote of confidence to the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and to the staff of the Liaison Committee, who have done a tremendous job.

I would like, very briefly, to commend the committee for its work on a very wide and interesting range of subjects, but in particular for the way, at least in respect of one proposal, it has managed to put together three proposals. That seems to me to be a very satisfactory way of approaching this, if it is possible.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord opposite who spoke about how sometimes excellent and well-researched reports fall on fallow ground as far as publicity is concerned, but I disagree with his conclusion that it is up to the authorities to do something about these reports. It is very much up to those of us who sit on these committees to work hard to get these reports out into the public domain. We are the people who can talk these reports up and get them out among the different constituencies which we have direct lines into. I encourage all of your Lordships to work very hard in making sure that the great work of these committees actually gets out there.

My Lords, the ad hoc committees are an excellent innovation, but as the noble Lord and the Liaison Committee know, the committee on which I happen to have the honour of serving, on personal service companies, did not receive co-operation from the Treasury Minister concerned, who did not allow his officials to appear and give evidence to us. I am sure that is completely wrong. Can I be assured that the House authorities will make it clear that we expect government officials to co-operate in our inquiries, not least because in this particular case the Government then adopted in a Budget many of the ideas we put forward but gave us absolutely no acknowledgement?

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords for their comments, in particular the noble Baroness for her very positive ones.

The noble Lord, Lord Naseby, made the point about communication, but I have to disagree with him. If we had been looking at the press for the past three or four months, we would have seen the coverage that the many reports the House of Lords produced, not least on the EU, have had. I remember leaders in the Financial Times, the Guardian and the Telegraph on those reports. Is there more that we can do in this area? Yes, but we are looking at the communications strategy for getting this out, and a lot of hard work has been undertaken by staff in that area, which I would like to build on. I reassure the noble Lord that a lot of good work has been going on in that area.

The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, put recommendations in which were not accepted, but I recognise the point that the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, made about officials co-operating with the committee. The Liaison Committee will certainly look at that issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, mentioned the issue of a Member being abroad at the time of a meeting. That Member spoke to me before the meeting and I said to them that they should put their point of view into the committee. I incorporated that in the report I gave to the Liaison Committee.

To give your Lordships a bit more understanding of how we went about our business, there were 33 proposals, so we decided we would have two meetings. The first would look at all the proposals and condense them down to about 10 or 12. In that process, we combined a number of proposals. For example, the proposal of the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, whom I see in her place, was combined with the citizenship proposal, and the staff engaged with the individuals who had contributed these suggestions to get that number down. The result of those three weeks of intense negotiation was that we had nine proposals to consider at our second meeting.

I say very strongly that there was no political bias in the Liaison Committee report—no hint whatever. That must be a matter of public record. The Leader of the House was mentioned. It is not for me to decide whether the Leader of the House is on the committee or not, but I can say on reflection that the Leader of the House wanted one proposal to be considered for one of the ad hoc committees and it failed to be selected. So there was no influence from anyone, whether Liberal Democrats or the Leader of the House, and I can say today that, as long as I am chairing a committee of the House of Lords, I will not allow any political influence at all. That is a guarantee to noble Lords, and I hope that they take that on board.

Let us remind people that this is a very difficult exercise. The issue of staff capacity has to be taken into consideration. Noble Lords should remember that a review of committee staff is taking place in 2017-18, which I shall be chairing. I should like Members to contribute their points of view to the review, because with us exiting the EU and the EU committees eventually dissolving, there is an opportunity for us to consider that again. I will be taking that on board as we go along. So, yes, I want more engagement from Members.

When I got this job, I mentioned three themes: transparency, accountability and engagement. That applies with force to my chairmanship of the Liaison Committee and adopting any further enhancements of committee work, which I think we in the House of Lords should all be proud of. I commend the Motion.

Motion agreed.