Motion to Agree
This report is the outcome of the most comprehensive review of our committee structure that has ever been undertaken. After the most thorough inquiry, we have proposed the start of a significant change in the positioning of our committees to begin to put in place a thematic approach which will ensure more comprehensive scrutiny of all the major areas of public policy.
Our approach to updating the way in which Lords’ committees operate has been evolutionary, seeking to adapt to today’s circumstances while providing a platform to respond properly to future changes. The evidence gathered by the review means that the House does not need to wait years for another comprehensive review, but can instead respond flexibly on a continuing basis to new developments and to the constant technological and societal change which is reshaping the world in which we operate.
Recommendations in the report will bring more flexibility and responsiveness to changing circumstances for our committees, allowing them to engage with the emerging policies of the day without losing any of the quality and depth of research for which Lords committees are well known.
One of the key principles guiding our recommendations was that the committees’ structure should be comprehensive, avoiding scrutiny gaps and allowing the House a degree of focus upon all major areas of public policy. House of Lords committees have developed piecemeal over the past five decades and the lack of a guiding logic for the overall committee structure has resulted in significant gaps arising in our scrutiny. The principal policy areas that have suffered from a lack of detailed scrutiny are social affairs and public services, including health and education.
Although there are inevitably other omissions, compelling evidence to the review suggested that introducing a thematic structure for our committees would offer the most coherent approach to filling the current major gaps in scrutiny. We therefore recommend a number of measures to put this into place, chief among them being the appointment of a new sessional committee on public services, with terms of reference which require it to consider public services including health and education. This would address a major omission in our current committee structure, and it is notable that topics which would fall under this heading figure prominently in each year’s list of proposals for special inquiry committees. To address scrutiny gaps further, we recommend a small number of changes to the existing titles and remits of some sessional committees. Taken together, these measures will ensure that our committee structure provides more comprehensive coverage of the major areas of public policy and limit the potential for scrutiny gaps in the future.
Some areas of public policy, including energy and the environment and home affairs, are currently addressed principally through our European Union Committee and its sub-committees. The report ring-fences the EU Committee and its sub-committees at this stage, leaving them unchanged, but it acknowledges that further work in this respect will be required by the Liaison Committee in the months ahead. To assist the comprehensive approach, we have also agreed that I should convene a committee chairs forum, to meet three times a year or so. The idea of this forum comes from one of the excellent current practices of the National Assembly for Wales, about which we heard evidence.
The chairs forum, for the first time, will provide a mechanism for committee chairs and members and the wider membership of the House to ensure that effective scrutiny of all major public policy areas is taking place, identifying any gaps in scrutiny or committee remits, addressing any overlap and providing a potential avenue for the wider membership of the House to make committee chairs and the Liaison Committee aware of particular issues. The forum will help to ensure that our committees can respond quickly to societal and technological changes, as well as ongoing public policy developments.
Special inquiry committees provide an important opportunity for Back-Bench Members of the House to propose topics for one-off committee inquiries, and the Liaison Committee receives a large number of proposals from Members each year. However, two particular criticisms of their operation were made during the review. The first related to Back-Bench Member engagement and involvement in the initial process of topic selection, while the second identified the limited capacity for follow-up once the committee had disbanded following the conclusion of its inquiry.
To address the first of these issues, we have recommended the introduction of an additional stage in the topic selection process. In future, the Member of the House who has proposed a shortlisted special inquiry topic will be invited to appear before the Liaison Committee to present their case in person. The committee will then consider their direct representations before deciding which topics to propose for the agreement of the House. We hope that this new process will allow Members to be reassured that their case has been heard, loud and clear.
To address the issue of post-inquiry follow-up, we recommend that, at a convenient point after publication of the special inquiry committee’s report, the chair of the former committee can formally request that the Liaison Committee hold a small number of evidence sessions to follow up the initial inquiry recommendations. If the case for follow-up is accepted by the committee, it will then co-opt the chair and three members of the former committee on to the Liaison Committee, hold evidence sessions and publish a short committee report, to which the Government must then respond in the usual fashion. This change will bring added rigour to the special inquiry process, allowing chairs and members to follow up properly the recommendations they have made and to scrutinise the impact that such recommendations have had upon government policy.
Within the report we strongly endorse the work undertaken by specialist scrutiny committees, including the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee and the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. The House relies heavily upon the scrutiny work of these committees; it is important that they continue to perform their work effectively. We also strongly endorse the importance of pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills, as well as setting out a small number of measures to enhance post-legislative scrutiny. We conclude that one special inquiry each year should continue to be focused on post-legislative scrutiny.
Moving beyond structural changes, a key finding of the review was that we need to give much more attention and impetus to communicating the work and impact of our committees. Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, principal of the University of Glasgow, told us that,
“most of the outstanding work of committees goes on under the radar, so far as the general public is concerned”.
He was not alone in making this argument. The report recommends a much more ambitious approach to communicating externally, with a dedicated communications strategy to be embedded from the beginning of each new committee inquiry.
We propose a greater degree of focus on identification of potential audiences, including a wider range of witnesses and an increase in the use of active social media and digital platforms across committees, as well as producing reports in a wider range of formats that can be better received by target audiences. In an unelected Chamber, it is important that our committees provide an opportunity to engage the public directly in the work of the House. We also recommend an increase in the number of events and seminars held during inquiries and post-report publication, in order that committees might broaden their audience and impact.
We also set out a number of measures to ensure that the work of committees is better communicated within Parliament. A frequent complaint that I encounter is that Members of the House have limited information regarding the activity of committees. They would welcome more insight into their work and how they might usefully contribute their expertise and experience. Accordingly, we recommend the publication of a new regular report on committee activity for all Members of the House. We also recommend that debates on committee reports should usually be held within three months of the report being published, to ensure relevance when the debate is held. We also recommend that the Procedure Committee should examine ways in which greater opportunity could be made available to highlight important committee work on the Floor of the House.
Another area where we have recommended attention from the Procedure Committee relates to the rotation rule. There is a difficult balance to be struck between allowing continuity of membership and expertise on committees, while also providing new Members with the opportunity to serve. The effect of the rotation rule can be particularly pronounced when its rigid application results in large numbers of Members being rotated off a committee simultaneously. It is also predicated on an expectation that the duration of a Session will be approximately 12 months, but recent experience has not been consistent with this expectation. We therefore recommend that the Procedure Committee should undertake a review of the rotation rule.
When the rotation rule was applied earlier this year, on 1 July, a number of Members remarked on the gender balance of committee membership and chairs. I have since met with concerned members of the House, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Goudie and Lady Parminter. The report before us notes that the House of Lords Commission, in its response to the UK Gender-Sensitive Parliament Audit 2018, asked the Committee of Selection to carry out annual monitoring of Lords committee membership and chairing. It might be helpful if I inform the House that the Committee of Selection has now agreed that such statistics should be collated in February/March each year and published before the House rises for the Easter Recess. The publication timing before Easter should ensure that monitoring can properly inform the nomination of new committee chairs and members, and the replacement of members and chairs rotated off sessional committees. I hope that this action will reassure Members that we are serious about addressing this matter.
In conclusion, it is my firm belief that our recommendations for an improved, comprehensive committee structure, with more flexibility and greater capacity for follow-up, will allow us to build on the considerable strengths of our current committee work. Our proposals for improved committee communications with wider reach and engagement, both within and beyond the House, will allow us to have a greater impact and profile, and to be informed by a greater variety of expertise and experience. Our recommendations will allow committees to play a greater part in the work of the House, encourage greater engagement and interaction with the full membership of the House, and enhance the relevance and reputation of the House by making us more responsive to the major issues of the day.
I pay tribute to all chairs and members who bring so much to the committee activity in this House and hope and anticipate that they can use the recommendations in this report to deliver still more in the future. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is an excellent and very comprehensive review and the noble Lord, Lord McFall, who we have just listened to, has been doing an absolutely excellent job in building up all the work behind it and in his continuing efforts to modernise and make much more effective our committee structure in your Lordships’ House. My comments will focus entirely on the investigative committees—the sessional and ad hoc committees—not the many other management, pre- and post-legislative scrutiny committees, and so on.
My only difference—it is a mild one, but nevertheless it runs through the report—arises from comments in paragraph 51 on “delivering a new structure”. That is what I want to talk about. That paragraph says:
“Our EU Committee and its six subcommittees will be ‘ring-fenced’ until we can analyse the implications of Brexit … Some policy areas, for example energy and the environment, and home affairs, are principally covered by EU committees at present”.
I believe there is a misapprehension, particularly in that last sentence. Those three—energy, environment and home affairs—are by no means covered entirely by the European prism. These are global issues that have transformed and grown to a vast degree in the last few years. We are dealing with an entirely new global environment in relation to these three issues, and they are not the only ones. This matter has evolved over the last 10 years and, indeed, was important long before the Brexit issue had even arisen, let alone now it has gone the way it has.
The point that needs to be grasped a little more clearly in addressing our future committee structure is that today’s issues are very different from those of the 20th century. The problems of today and tomorrow will be concerned with the rise of China, the dominance of Asian power, where all the growth and dynamism will be in the next 10 years, and a totally transformed trade network that no longer conforms to the old pattern and is dominated by knowledge industries and services to a point that makes all trade policy issues of the last 20 years out of date. It is a world in which war and defence as a concept has changed. As the CGS pointed out the other day, we are now in a world of almost continuous warfare. The idea that a war happens and then it ends is a concept belonging to yesterday.
We are in a world where technology cannot just be wrapped up in a little box called “science”, but where it dominates everything. It is transforming the pattern of world power, our societies, the way we behave, our politics—as we know very well from our daily debates—questions of environment, industry and international trade flows and supply lines. The question of energy, far from being just a European matter, is now of course a climate matter as well. It is interwoven with geopolitics and our international security on a massive scale. The question of home affairs is now shot through with questions about identity politics, which transform attitudes to the way in which social policy should be organised throughout the United Kingdom.
The question of migration and the movements of people—which in the last 10 years has grown to a scale never before known in history—requires a concentration and focus that cannot just be wrapped up in international affairs, communications or anything else. The question of vast inequalities of hypercapitalism and the need for wealth sharing is, again, an issue that cannot just be put aside under economic affairs. I would perhaps add to that the question of our network relations with the giant new networks of Asia and, particularly, the network of the Commonwealth. These are matters that transcend the normal areas of international relations.
My point is that we should have started on these things long ago. Brexit should not be a marking point merely indicating when we should start changing these committee patterns. We need a committee pattern that addresses investigatively the issues that really concern people today. Those are different from the patterns of the 20th century, which tend to flavour the list that we have before us now and tend to be covered by the pattern of the six European committees. I believe the whole pattern should now change, regardless of and without waiting for Brexit. We should have a pattern of modern issues and modern committees meeting the problems of now and the future, not the old categories of the 20th century, where the debates are now redundant and largely out of date.
Lastly, a broader issue in all this—as the noble Lord, Lord McFall, has recognised very succinctly and is tackling with great energy—is of course how successfully we depict the overall work and character of your Lordships’ House and the way in which its Members are networked in a hive of activities, not only in these Lords Committees or Joint Committees or in myriad other parliamentary groups and interests, but in a wider network of civil society, through countless individual links and connections. This makes the House of Lords, condemned by critics as backward-aligned, a body in fact uniquely suited to the modern and future digital age of high connectivity and a unique bridge between the necessary central institutions of governance and legislation and the public, in a manner found nowhere else in the world. It is this intense pattern of both committee activity and of links and ties across the nation that makes your Lordships’ House, in my view, very much what has been called a “platform for the future”. There remains, of course, the question of how this is to be explained, and how the broader challenge of the public perception of the House of Lords is to be met. Having a thoroughly modern framework, with categories addressing the real issues of today and tomorrow and recognising the pervasive and transformative effect of new technologies to all our social and international affairs, is a start in overcoming that challenge.
My Lords, the whole House owes the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and his colleagues a vote of thanks for this report, because it moves us into a new era. In particular, I strongly support the move to a more comprehensive system of thematic policy committees. I will, however, suggest a few modifications, some of which overlap points made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell.
The work of the investigative and policy committees of the House of Lords is widely respected, recognised and appreciated. But it is not clear how influential all that work is in society and among decision-makers outside this Palace. Authoritative reports and in-depth analysis that appear on the bookshelves of the movers and shakers of Britain and Europe in the form of House of Lords reports are all very well, but we need to make sure that a wider influence is exerted on minds throughout the kingdom and beyond. That means a broader engagement, as is recognised by this report. The House needs to catch up with changes in society, technology and communications to enable us to engage with, and act for, a wider range of organisations and individuals. In that regard, we require reform of process and the form of the final product.
With regard to process, our established mode of operating involves contacting organisations—most of which are on a pre-existing list—and others and bringing them to Westminster or asking them to write to us, with occasional excursions outside London, usually to the regional manifestations of the same organisations we have invited here.
Those responses are then analysed, debated within the committee and eventually in the Chamber, and written up by highly competent and effective staff who have recourse to external research facilities. This ends up in a standard format, having gone through a pretty standard process. We need to increase the use of open meetings at the beginning, at the end, and in later follow-ups, in the form of round tables and focus groups that are less well controlled and happen much more outside London—possibly using social media, telephone conferencing and so on—involving the citizens of this country as well as a wide range of organisations and individuals, who often have very fixed and particular views. For that final product I am old-fashioned enough to need a written copy of almost everything that I can hold in my hand. However, we also need to produce it in a form that is accessible to social media, is interactive and can act as a two-way channel of communication and education—the educational dimension of this, as I mentioned, also being very important.
To this end, at the beginning of any inquiry the committee undertaking it needs to establish the means of engagement, communication and follow-through to meet that wider remit. The report recognises that, but we need to push it much further and faster, which will mean significant changes in the administration of this House. My key point, however, is the need for comprehensive coverage by policy committees in this House.
I have been in this House for more than 20 years. When I first arrived I was a radical, and wanted this House to change into an elected Chamber. I have not changed my basic views on that: when the Labour Government and the coalition Government attempted it, I was strongly in support. Nevertheless, I also recognise that the strength of argument for an appointed Chamber—appointed to any degree—is that it brings to the legislative process an expertise that is not normally available. By coincidence—I was going to say by mistake —it sometimes delivers extremely competent, well-informed and well-qualified individuals. However, that is not their main reason for being here, whereas many appointed Members of this House are here by reason of a distinguished career behind them in all sorts of specialist areas and a life experience which is not necessarily reflected in the political process. That is the strongest argument for having an appointed element within a legislature.
When I first came here, I was astonished that the areas of policy in which I was most interested were not covered by a single committee of this House. Of course, that has changed a bit in the past few years. We have a Constitution Committee and a Communications Committee using the expertise of people in this House and others who reflect a more general view. More recently, we have established an International Relations Committee, which has used the skills of retired Permanent Secretaries, retired heads of service and so forth—the kinds of people whose expertise was being underused. I am not saying that we should have committees of experts—we need not only the experts from this House but also its lay Members, including in that context the odd Bishop—but the expertise and life experience of the Members of this House are needed in delivering areas of policy. Some of that has fallen by default to the European affairs committee and its whole structure. For the past seven years, I have been in the sub-committee structure of the EU Select Committee. We heard yesterday from the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, that its expertise will continue to be needed—although that is being made more difficult by the Government at this point—but it will be a diminishing requirement. There will therefore be a run-down of the call on Members, staff and resources from the EU end post Brexit, however much I may regret that.
It would have been delightful had the new structure conceived by this committee and proposed to the House today coincided with the winding-up of the EU Committee substructure—we will need a European Select Committee, but we will not eventually, post Brexit, need a full substructure. Regrettably, they will not coincide, but we ought to plan the phasing of a move across from the substructure of the EU Select Committee to the more comprehensive structure of thematic committees. That could start now, but it will need to be well managed and well planned in advance.
In my view, there are some serious and immediate gaps in the list of thematic committees today proposed. I welcome the proposal for a public services committee—that was a huge gap—but there are other gaps and everybody will have their own wish list, some of which may be mentioned in the debate. Clearly, industrial policy is now subsumed by economic affairs—if my noble friend Lord Hollick were here, he would be arguing strongly for a separate industrial policy committee. There is also the issue of trade, although I think that the trade committee needs to be a Joint Committee of the two Houses in a post-Brexit era—I shall refer to that in a subsequent debate today.
There is one area not included in the list which is of great salience and importance to us and which is partly covered by the EU Select Committees but will rapidly not be approached solely as an EU matter; that is, climate change. This House and the other House and the Government having declared a climate crisis, it is somewhat bizarre that in a new list of thematic committees the House of Lords does not have a committee which covers climate change. I therefore hope that the House will soon recommend the addition of a climate change committee to the list of thematic committees.
In the last resort, the quality and effectiveness of our committees depend not only on the quality and engagement of their members but on the quality of their staff. Therefore, if we are proposing a phased move across to a new structure, it is important that it is managed effectively as well. We are blessed with an extremely diligent, informed, intelligent and adaptable staff, but adaptability has its limits and it has to be managed. I am still after 20 years a little unclear as to how the management processes for staff in this House operate, but if we are to provide for the substructure of staffing of these committees, it is clear that we need a properly managed, effective and holistic approach to the management of the staff and the other resources which go into them. Without a staff, none of our present format of committees would work, and certainly the more complex processes and products that I am envisaging and that the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and his committee have envisaged, could not be delivered. Therefore, the staff are key.
My Lords, I think I should start by declaring an interest, inasmuch as I submitted both written and oral evidence to the committee as this review was taking place. I very much welcome the report and pay tribute to the excellent work of the Liaison Committee, led by the noble Lord, Lord McFall, in conducting this really important review. We are all very much in his debt. I am speaking today as a Back-Bencher, but know that my noble friends Lord Newby and Lord Stoneham also support this report and its recommendations. There are three key points that I want to make, and in doing so I will pick up on some of the very important points already made by the noble Lords, Lord Howell and Lord Whitty.
I am a very strong supporter of broad, thematic, cross-cutting committees that can take a long-term perspective. It is very important that these committees are comprehensive and cover the broad sweep of government policy—without duplicating the department-based committee structure of the House of Commons—to ensure that effective and in-depth scrutiny takes place in your Lordships’ House. Done well, House of Lords Select Committees can do much to enhance the reputation and public standing of this House—an important issue in its own right.
As the report recognises, the current structure contains significant gaps, particularly in areas of considerable concern to me such as education, health, poverty and inequality and broader social policy. I am therefore very pleased to see the recommendation for a new sessional committee on public services, which should be able to fill a lot of that gap. Indeed, to some extent it mirrors quite closely the suggestion I made for a committee covering general home and social affairs, able to develop a deep understanding of demographic trends and changing social attitudes and to undertake horizon scanning to identify new and emerging social issues so as to be ahead of the curve, as it were, on issues of direct relevance to people’s everyday lives. If we are looking at those issues, the general public will think that we are doing something relevant and that we understand their lives.
My second point is about follow-up. I feel very strongly about this, because I have been a very strong supporter of what used to be called the ad-hoc Select Committees and are now called special inquiries. I have had the huge privilege of serving on five of them, including chairing the Financial Exclusion Select Committee, and indeed was the original proposer of two of them. To my mind, they provide a really helpful means of addressing topical issues and allow Members to contribute their wide-ranging expertise in a raft of important policy areas. That said, the big downside is that it has led to a somewhat fragmented committee structure, with little overall coherence in the range of subjects selected. Crucially—this is my absolutely key point—it has resulted in a real loss of corporate knowledge as these ad-hoc committees are simply disbanded. The risk, of course—has already been alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty—is that these very elegantly drafted reports, which a lot of work has gone into, simply gather dust on shelves.
In terms of follow-up, in the past much has depended on the individual efforts of former chairs. As a former chair of the Financial Exclusion Select Committee, I did as much as I could for the 18 months afterwards to ensure that the Government took our recommendations seriously. I was genuinely quite pleased when, somewhat belatedly, this started to happen. I feel now that the effort that went into the production of the report by all concerned—the members, the staff and those who gave evidence—was worthwhile, because the Government’s and the Financial Conduct Authority’s dial on the subject has noticeably changed. However, I felt keenly that I was doing it with no status or backing from the House. That is why I very strongly support the recommendations in paragraph 68 of the report for more structured follow-up, involving the Liaison Committee and the chair of the former committee, with support from committee staff.
My third point is that I am pleased that special inquiries will continue—I think there is a really important place for them—but I still feel there is more thinking to do about the relationship between special inquiries and the main standing committees and their sub-committees. We must make best use of the body of knowledge acquired through the undertaking of these inquiries, so that we are not starting from scratch each time a new special inquiry sets up. We need to keep this point under very strong review.
I will conclude with a personal view that I know is rather controversial. While I understand the balanced reasoning set out in relation to the election of committee chairs in paragraph 179, I continue to believe that it would offer greater legitimacy and clout and help to ensure strong cross-party support if chairs of committees were elected. I have never believed, and I do not sign up to the argument, that the fact that we have not done it before is a good reason for not trying to do something different. I hope it might be possible to at least test such an approach at some point. At a time when the House sometimes feels ever more polarised on the big issues of the day, measures to incentivise cross-party working have very much to commend them. I also feel that it might help with the critical point of gender balance, which sometimes has not been good on these committees, either on the membership or the chairing.
My Lords, that was a typically thought-provoking intervention from the noble Baroness, and it is a great pleasure to follow her. I will go away and think about elected chairs afterwards. I shall make three brief points.
First, I add my congratulations to that of others on the work of the committee. To assimilate the vast pile of very complicated evidence, to wrestle with that complexity and then to produce such a pleasingly clear report is a great achievement. It is, as the report itself admits, the first step on a journey.
That brings me to my second point and to paragraph 51, which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, talked about. This concerns the future of the family of European Union committees. Once the Brexit fog has lifted, I am looking forward very much to working with the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and the Liaison Committee as we try to shape a new structure and redeploy all our staff. They are such a precious resource, committed and highly experienced, and we must not waste a single drop of that as we seek to reconstruct the committee structure.
That brings me to something that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said. I very much associate myself with his remarks in general: I thought it was a very good speech indeed. He recommended a committee that would have climate change at its core. I shall certainly be going into discussions of the new shape thinking that one of the current sub-committees of the European Union Committee, the environment sub-committee, would be very well-suited to taking on that particular burden, although that will be for discussion.
My third and most important point concerns chapter 6, on communications and public engagement. I gave written and oral evidence on this. I feel that we as a House hide our light under a bushel. I have come from a world where one was trying desperately not to do that, and I feel we can do a lot more. As I went through the recommendations one by one, I can only say that I found them all very sensible.
The key is the increase in resources which is, of course, about people. It is important to embed people within the committees. I was delighted to hear that word “embed” in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McFall. Embedding is so important because, if you are in charge of communicating something, it is difficult to do a good job if you do not understand it. Some of the work of our committees is highly technical and very difficult to get to grips with. Committee members find it difficult, so we would need that embedding to start early. This would help those in charge of trying to communicate our work—and communicate it well in all the various modern ways which we know it must be communicated in—to have that good understanding.
However, embedding brings with it something which is not mentioned in the report, and that is the absolute need for committee members and staff to engage with the person who has been embedded. Someone is being taken up a learning curve. Members and staff of that committee will have to put in an investment of time and energy to help this person. This investment is terribly important and brings a big return because, with this extra resource, there will be a good chance of communicating our messages far wider and much better.
My Lords, may I begin by expressing my warm congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord McFall, not only for the admirable report which he and his committee have produced but also for the assiduous way in which he has gone round various groups within the House to explain and discuss it and to invite comments. I do not think I am breaching any confidences by saying that he was with the Association of Conservative Peers only yesterday. Some time ago, he came to the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber, which I chair and which my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth convenes. The noble Lord graciously invited my noble friend and me to give evidence and we were glad to do so.
This is an extremely thorough and meaty report, and I warmly commend it. Having said that, there are a number of points I would like to make, one of which follows on the remarks by the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler. I agree with her emphatically about the election of chairmen. One could go a little further and elect members—as they now do in another place. I have a passionate reason for advancing this view. It is personal, but not unique. Last year, after a number of us on this side of the House had voted for certain amendments to the first European withdrawal Bill, we were summarily dismissed from our committees as a result. I think there were a dozen of us in all, including my noble friends the Duke of Wellington and Lord Inglewood. For the official channels effectively to be able to subvert the work of a Select Committee in that way was quite wrong. Although I say so myself—and I know I speak for the others—we all have impeccable attendance records. We took an active part in the committees concerned. I speak as one who was a chairman of a Select Committee in another place for five years and who has served on other Select Committees as well.
Select Committees have to work without fear or favour. They are not accountable to the Executive, but they are accountable to Parliament in the way in which the Executive is also accountable to Parliament. They report to Parliament. The Government are obliged to respond. I entirely agree with those who say that the response and the opportunity following it for the respective House to debate the report is very important. It is a scandal that some fine reports are left languishing for months without being discussed on the Floor of the House. I deliberately call the noble Lord, Lord McFall, my noble friend—we have known each other for many years in both Houses—but on that issue I think he and his committee have been a little too timid. I should very much like action taken there.
As a preparatory step, it might be a good idea to invite applications. The noble Lord talks about publication, which I agree with, but we should use that publication to invite applications from those who wish to serve on Select Committees. In applying to serve, Members should give a commitment to attend a minimum of 80% of the committee’s meetings unless ill-health, bereavement or something else prevents it. You cannot be an effective member of a Select Committee unless you attend it, take part in the questioning of witnesses and read the written evidence submitted. That issue needs a little more attention.
Recommendation 42 refers to the fact that we need to look expeditiously at the whole issue of rotation and duration. Again, having had experience in the other place, I think that a Parliament—five years—is a reasonable term. Members should not be rotated off after three years. It is certainly very wrong for a committee suddenly to find that it is deprived of a great deal of expertise at one fell swoop. Although he is not in the Chamber at the moment, I have discussed this with my noble friend Lord Forsyth, who was suddenly confronted with the loss of six members of his committee. Stability and continuity are very important. I know that my noble friend felt strongly about that, and I absolutely agree with him. That needs further examination.
I am very glad that the report refers to Joint Committees of both Houses. This has been a hobby horse of mine for the past three years, because immediately after the referendum—I have adverted to it many times since—I proposed a Joint Committee of both Houses on Brexit. It is just conceivable, and I put it no higher than that, that the traumatic and distressing days we have had over the past three years might have been reduced, cross-party accord would have developed and there would have been greater understanding between the two Houses if such a committee had been formed. Rather late in the day, your Lordships’ House passed a resolution admirably introduced by the Leader of the Opposition, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, that such a committee should be set up earlier this year. That resolution was completely ignored by the Government, so nothing came of it.
Joint Committees have a very important place in a bicameral Parliament. I am very glad that, in that context, the report refers to less formal liaison between the two Houses, because the more we know each other and the more we understand each other and the complementary roles of the Houses—always underlining the supremacy of the elected House—the better it is for Parliament in general. It is very good that the report pays attention to that. It might not be a bad idea for a sub-committee of the Liaison Committee to develop some specific proposals on that very issue.
I am glad that there is a recommendation, recommendation 9, for a public services committee. The noble Lord, Lord McFall, and others have already referred to that.
On the whole issue of the position of your Lordships’ House and the importance of committees in the national context, there is a reference in recommendation 27 to round tables and events that effectively involve the public. One of the sad things about your Lordships’ House and the wonderful—I use the word deliberately—work of its committees is that, out there, people do not really know about it. The great thing about House of Lords committees is that they tend to be much less partisan than other groups. I believe that travelling to parts of the country, inviting people here and using modern technology—of which I am certainly not a master, as most of your Lordships know—to bring people here through various links, not just to give evidence but to discuss, can be only for the good of your Lordships’ House and the quality of public debate in general.
I have just one tiny gripe, but only because I am innately conservative. I wish we would be “Chairman” and “Madam Chairman” rather than “Chair”. When I say that, I know I have the great support of one of the most admired Members of your Lordships’ House, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who has always taken that line. I am sorry she is not here today; I know she will not mind my referring to her. I just think that this is a change we do not really want—at least, I do not. A chair is a piece of furniture, and long may it remain so.
I end with a reference to the Library, which—as for so many of our debates—has produced an admirable paper for this one. I was struck by remarks made by Earl Jellicoe almost half a century ago, when he said:
“I personally believe that in your Lordships’ House there is a pool of experience and expertise which is not properly used for the nation’s benefit. I also believe that the judicious employment of Select Committees is one of the ways by which that pool of experience and expertise can be more properly exploited for the benefit of the nation”.—[Official Report, 9/12/1971; cols. 903-04.]
True then, true now. Let us use this report as a spring- board for further action on that front.
Madam Chair, my Lords, it is a sweet courtesy in this House to thank the mover of a Motion. I want to go beyond that in thanking the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and his colleagues for the way in which they have gone about this report. We have all been consulted, talked to and absorbed in the work. The points we made have been taken on board and it is a remarkable piece of work. It is not one we would want to carry out every year, but it is therefore the more important that it has been so thoroughly and admirably done by the Liaison Committee under the chairmanship—sorry, chairship—of the noble Lord, Lord McFall.
Investigatory committees are a great glory of this House. In modern life—with all the fake news, phoney commentators and lack of respect for truth—to get a group of people generally of high intelligence and great experience, sit them down for a few months and let them listen to all the greatest experts throughout the land, and to do this without any shade of partisanship and invariably come up with an agreed report, makes such committees a pearl without price. However, that makes it the more important that these reports are effective and have an impact. I therefore want to focus today on what happens after the publication of reports to ensure that.
I have had a systematic look at one committee’s work on this. When I was sitting on the Economic Affairs Committee from 2010 to 2014, I did this and wrote an article about it for the Journal of Legislative Studies. There was a pretty mixed picture on effectiveness: the committee was extremely influential in getting the monopoly of the big four accountants looked at and dealt with, in a way which I do not believe would have happened without that report. Other reports—I think of the one on fracking—put forward an absolutely unassailable position on the desirability of controlled fracking, which has of course been completely ignored by the ideologues who are opposed to any such thing. Other reports were pretty much completely useless, but I will not name them here.
There are various reasons for what works and does not in a report. A good choice of subject is absolutely essential—the committee looking at accountancy was an example of that—as are getting good press during the work of the committee, having good communications and all those things. However, the follow-up is flawed and I am not the only one to think so. It is too internally focused and not all that systematic.
First, when I say “internally focused”, I cannot bear without pain to recall the number of hours I have spent while people have talked about when a Select Committee report would be debated, whether it would be in the Moses Room or on the Floor, and at what time of day. These debates do not, on the whole, do much for the Select Committee reports. They generally consist of members of the committee saying how well the chairman did, how well they personally performed and how good the result was. That really contributes nothing to propagating its importance. I have never seen a line in any newspaper—or even a blog—about those debates. It is like the impact of the cushion on a charging tank. You have to get into the game much more than that.
Secondly, there really is no systematic way of propagating reports. I did a number of government reports before I came into this House. One of the rules is that you need to put in as much work after reporting as you did beforehand. I hate to bring this up, but I always do: I signed a minority report on the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care of the Elderly. I am not delighted by this, but the majority report got no attention because no attention was given to getting it any publicity. We had poor communications and nobody went around trying to advocate its results. It sank without a trace. That is true of some of our reports.
Various things need to be done. When following up in the press, we send out the report—of course we do—and, if we are lucky, it gets reported. I would do this: when a subject comes up in the news in the normal way and a reasonably up-to-date House of Lords committee report on it exists, that should be sent out again to journalists writing on the new subject. For instance, HS2 is a very popular subject: send out the report when news on it comes out. Many of our reports would bear that. Every time that there is a fracking demonstration, we could send out the report on fracking by the Economic Affairs Committee. It is a fact that the modern press and media are interested only in the subject of the day, so you have to bring your report to bear on the subject of the day.
This should also be a lobbying operation. We should not just wait quietly for Ministers to come up with their response: the chair should see the Minister, talk to the civil servants and put the case. I did this with the opinion polling report that I had the great honour to chair. It is not just Ministers who need to be lobbied. In the case of the report on opinion polling, most of the recommendations were not for government; they were for the British Polling Council, the body concerned with the polling industry. I have been in close touch with Sir John Curtice, president of the BPC, about how it is getting on; we have a useful dialogue. There has to be communication, and not just about the modern stuff. Committees should consider offering to speak to thinktanks or academic institutions about their reports. Of course, there is all the online stuff as well. The impact of this work needs to be monitored all the time, so you can say at the end of the day not only that this was a great report but that it had the following impact. It is important to the status of this House that that should be so.
As regards follow-up, one thing strikes me most. There are some very good recommendations in this report—further hearings, for example—and a very good paragraph summarising what witnesses thought of follow-up; I think it is paragraph 11 of the summary. But the main thing that struck me when I stopped being chair of a Select Committee is that all your support goes, not because people are not willing to support you but because it is not their job. The committee ceases to exist, so there are no clerks to support you and press and communications tend to go off the boil. You just do not have the basic support, logistic and otherwise, that you would need to do the kind of jobs that I have referred to. It seems a terrible waste to put a huge amount of resource into getting a top-class report and then very little into making it stick. I hope the Liaison Committee might look at that further. Indeed, if the chairman is the one mostly propagating the report, they will need some help with briefing, such as on what the press is saying about the report in general, enabling him or her to reply effectively to any criticisms.
The potential of, and the need for, our reports to do good has never been greater. We live in a world of fake news: a swamp of ill-informed opinion where facts are manipulated and analysis distorted by crude partisanship, of which the last few weeks have, I fear, given us only too many examples. These reports are beacons of open analysis, clear guidance and reasoned conclusions, which set an example. But it is not enough to be right: we also have a duty to put forward the arguments which make us right. The veneer of truth and reason in our polity has worn frighteningly thin. Our reports are one way in which we can contribute to burnishing that veneer and so to a better balance in the conduct of our nation’s affairs.
My Lords, enjoying as I do the privilege of being a member of the Liaison Committee, I would like to say how encouraging it has been to me—and I am sure to other members who may be listening—to hear not only that the report so ably moved by the noble Lord, Lord McFall of Alcluith, has been welcomed but that welcoming speeches have been accompanied by positive and creative contributions to the ongoing debate.
This is very much a work in progress; there is never an endgame when it comes to reports of this kind. I so agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, who stressed the importance of Select Committees. I believe they are one of the best features of this House. They are very special in respect of knowledge, dedication, the commitment of noble Lords, the quality of the evidence taken and the conclusions reached in a wholly bipartisan way. This is unrivalled elsewhere within the Palace of Westminster and yet, to too great an extent these committees are often unrecognised.
It was a privilege to serve on the Liaison Committee. When I was appointed to it, I was told that it did not meet very often, but that it did important things. I found that it meets very often indeed; I hope the “important” definition can still be applied. Again, I echo the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, in saying that it has been a privilege to serve under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord McFall of Alcluith. All chairmen work hard, harder than the rest of the committee. In this case, the efforts of the noble Lord were immense. He carried out huge numbers of interviews with colleagues and outside bodies. The report could not have reached the stage that it eventually did without his participation. Just as the last such report was called the Jellicoe report, I hope that this one will be named the McFall report. I hope it will help to make the good even better, and better known.
The change of committees to a thematic nature—evolutionary and tentative but aiming for better flexibility and transparency—is at the core of the report. That gradualist approach, based on extensive consultation, is surely right. It provides a base for incremental development. The procedures, duties and powers of any part of our Parliament are developed and honed over decades, even centuries. It would be the height of folly for ill-considered change from any quarter in our Parliament to be enforced without extensive reflection and prior consultation. Happily, I believe this report avoids that folly entirely.
The thematic change is not just one of name; it broadens the choice of subject for committees. It avoids the chance of duplicating the work of the Commons, which is essentially departmental. It encourages the potential for complementarity between the two Houses. Alongside it, the arrangements proposed for sub-committees should be considered where, by contrast, shorter, more specific or topical subjects can be addressed, possibly as an adjunct to the subject of the main committee work—or something quite different. They could identify gaps in committees or do follow-up reports on what the main committee is doing. I expect most committees would like to have a sub-committee, perhaps full-time. While I can see advantages there, cost considerations have to be taken into account, not to mention manpower issues. Many noble Lords are already heavily committed to other committee duties.
Also, a permanent sub-committee could undermine the main committee or duplicate its work. It could lose the flexibility and greater spontaneity that are also worthy objectives of the new proposals. The new public services thematic committee that the report proposes would almost certainly want a sub-committee. One understands the force of the argument it might make, because of the breadth of subject matter that it would have to embrace, as it would include education, health and so on. Even there, a permanent sub-committee would not be a good idea.
An area the report touches on, which has long concerned me, is the variable and often unsatisfactory nature of government handling of and responding to committee reports, and the delay in a response appearing. On this, at any rate, I agree with my noble friend Lord Cormack. Devolution is an area in which no substantive proposals are made, but the need for better interaction and co-operation is important, perhaps never more so than now. Your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, which I chaired at the time, sought to achieve this closer relationship some time ago. We published one report on devolution and another on intergovernmental relations. At a time when relations were strained—and they have not got much better since—the Government took around a year to respond to one of the reports, and two years to the other. Sadly, the responses were, in general, bland and complacent, and little change is evident.
I experienced another example of the Government’s attitude to Select Committee reporting when listening to a debate on the fine report from the Economic Affairs Committee, chaired so effectively by my noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean. The subject was making tax digital for VAT and the issue of loan charges, and the date was 29 April. In his opening speech—col. 786 in Hansard—my noble friend had to report that he had asked for a Treasury Minister, the Financial Secretary, to attend and give evidence on an issue that was sensitive and political rather than technical, but had received two declinatures. Two further declinatures on other matters followed. That is not a satisfactory approach to a Select Committee’s serious work.
However, on this occasion there was a happier ending because in winding up the debate—col. 914—my noble friend was able to thank my noble friend Lord Young of Cookham, who was not a Treasury Minister but was standing in to deal with that particular debate, for the sympathetic and serious reply he had given, including an undertaking to take matters further with the Chancellor and Treasury Ministers. In due course, relations have improved dramatically with the Treasury, and I understand that the present Financial Secretary works closely with the committee and is responsive to its requests. We need very much more of that kind of response across government to the range of high-quality reports that so many of our committees produce.
As the noble Lord, Lord McFall, said, our report before the House today recognises the present weaknesses of the House’s communication efforts, as others have touched on. It makes a number of suggestions for improvements, and I very much hope that these will be followed up. A lack of resources is a factor. If committees could secure the assistance of a press officer, for example, not just at publication time but throughout the inquiry in question, I believe that the understanding and response from the media and the outside world would be very much better. I mention in passing the Artificial Intelligence Committee, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, which produced a report that had a dramatic impact on public understanding of Parliament’s approach to artificial intelligence. It was a fine example of what can be done, particularly with the use of technology—another theme that we touch on in the report and which I hope will feature extensively in further future developments.
There are a host of other suggestions, and in the time available one cannot talk about all of them. The important thing is that the report is extensive and comprehensive and is full of practical and forward-looking proposals. I hope it will form a template for the future growth of the Select Committee reports of this House and wider recognition of their value to the whole nation.
My Lords, I am speaking in the gap not by choice. I understand that there has been a procedural change. Whereas previously these debates were not listed, on this occasion they are. That is why I did not apply to speak in the debate. So I will keep my remarks very short.
Paragraph 65 of the report says:
“We recommend that, in future, the member of the House who has proposed a shortlisted special inquiry topic be invited to appear before the Liaison Committee to present their case in person”.
I suggest that it be “a Member of the House who has proposed”. Very often those who propose are in fact supported by others, among whom there may be late signatories, and they may well include people who would be more qualified to make a statement to the Liaison Committee. I hope the Senior Deputy Speaker will consider that.
Secondly, I support the recommendation in paragraph 116:
“We recommend that the Procedure Committee consider the order of speakers in debates on committee reports, in particular, consideration of whether the relevant Minister should speak at the beginning of a committee report debate”.
That is an extremely important recommendation that I understand would have to be considered by the Procedure Committee. It would give Members the opportunity to challenge the Government’s response to the position taken by members of the committee. That is a vital recommendation.
Thirdly, paragraph 156 says:
“We welcome the suggestion from House of Commons colleagues that the two Liaison Committees should meet together from time to time, and hope that this can be piloted on an informal basis in the next Parliamentary session”.
This would be to avoid any crossover in inquiries. In the case of the inquiry in which I am involved, on electoral registration, work has been done in the Commons in this area, and the House might well have taken a different decision in recommending that inquiry if it had known of the work being done in the Commons on that matter.
Finally, I will raise an issue that I have raised on previous occasions in the Chamber. I object very strongly to Whips being on the Liaison Committee. Whips work the committee. That happened over an application that I made on a national identity card inquiry, and I understand that it has happened on other inquiries. The Liaison Committee should comprise only people who are on the Back Benches of this House. That is the case in the Commons, I understand, when it considers these matters, and it should equally apply in the Lords. I appeal to the House to change this system. Take the Whips off the Liaison Committee and let the ordinary Members of the House of Lords decide what inquiries are to take place.
My Lords, I, too, regret speaking in the gap. I feel that this is one of the most important reports that we have had in front of us for a long time, so I thank the noble Lord, Lord McFall, very much.
This goes to the very kernel of what the House of Lords is about. If you want to keep a state secret, give a speech in the House of Lords. It is a massive issue for us. When I chaired the Science and Technology Select Committee more than 20 years ago, we had an inquiry into cannabis. As with the antibiotic resistance report, it is only now, 20 years later, that we start to see its value, because the follow-up has been so poor. I remember very clearly that when we came to present our cannabis report, our clerk, Mr Andrew Makower, came in and said, “My Lords, we are going to have a press conference tomorrow morning. It would be good if as many of your Lordships as possible might come. If you do, being that this is cannabis, your Lordships might want to think of your answer to one particular question”. There was a long silence in the room and the Nobel prize-winner for chemistry leant across to me and said, “Robert, what’s cannabis like? I’ve never had it”. The fact that it was the one report that had some kind of press coverage is really not good enough for this House.
I regret to say that it is no good just having websites. We have to have professionally made websites. The quality of IT support is still lacking in this place. It is not entirely the fault of the people here, because of the nature of this Chamber, but we need to think very clearly about public engagement. It is quite correctly mentioned very strongly in this report.
Sadly, there is very little mention of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology—POST—the Joint Committee which goes between the Commons and me. One thing that I must say to your Lordships, which people may not know, is that the Lords Members of the POST board are assiduous attenders. Sometimes the MPs have other things to do, but the expertise that provides totally independent, absolutely carefully judged comment, is simply part of our public engagement. Those reports go out to the scientific community. We would like more help for them to go out on a wider basis, but, of course, the finances are very short. I certainly hope that we will consider that POST is doing a very important job.
I will not take up four minutes, but I want to mention the rotation rule, which has been mentioned by so many people. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, makes an important point. I remember, some time ago when we were discussing the constitution, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, said that when we were sitting on the committee, he could not tell which party people were from. When I chaired the committee 20 years ago, not only did I not know which party they were from—it was completely irrelevant for science and technology—I did not even know whether they were hereditary or life Peers, because the people on the committee were there because of the expertise they could provide.
One of the problems with the rotation rule and the question about being fair to all Members who want to be on committees is that there is a real issue here. The Science and Technology Committee, for example, is constantly starved of scientists. That is something that we need to think about carefully. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, has already addressed the length of the rotation rule. However, we need to think very carefully about how people are chosen. While I have no comment on or criticism of the current committee, we need to make sure that when we appoint these committees, we make certain we get the best expertise for the particular committee concerned and people are not appointed just because they have been a good Member on the Back Benches.
My Lords, I thank every Member for the generous welcome the report has had. Rather than refer to individual Members, I will sum up the themes very briefly. We are dealing with an entirely new global environment and the committee was very aware of that throughout. The pace of societal and technological change is enormous and we have to position ourselves for that.
Embedded in the report is the concept of constant change, so there will be no need for further reviews. We can adapt to changing circumstances as we go along. We need a more comprehensive thematic structure, but we received 56 submissions for individual committees, so how do we deal with that? The opportunity that a thematic structure offers is that it can adapt. The chairs’ forum was mentioned. That is an extremely important initiative, which will bring committee chairs together. They will work together and listen to the House and to Members. For example, it might consider what this House should be looking at on climate change at this time. I think issues such as that should be on the agenda of the chairs’ forum and I look forward to working with Members on it.
Communications is a huge issue for the committee and I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for his work on the working party, along with the noble Lords, Lord Gilbert and Lord Sharkey. We accepted those recommendations and are going even further outwith the committee in terms of communications, so that work has been taken forward.
Noble Lords should keep in mind that we were working within a static financial envelope. I point out that we are a poor neighbour when compared with the House of Commons. If I remember correctly, our budget for committee staff is about £4 million, but in the House of Commons it is £16 million. I think we do very well with the work we are doing. Your Lordships can take it from me that the issue of resources is one that we shall be looking at in the future.
The issue of staff has been mentioned. That was hugely important. I pay tribute to Philippa Tudor and her colleagues, who have taken us through these 18 months. It was a call beyond normal duty, but they responded hugely on that. When we are taking issues forward, we have to keep the staff in mind.
House of Lords and House of Commons engagement is very important. I invited Frank Field, and Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, to give evidence. In the report, we recommend that the Liaison Committees of the Commons and the Lords meet together a couple of times a year, say. We have scrutiny of Parliament, but we do not have House of Lords or House of Commons scrutiny on their own. That is the aim on that issue.
We have a surfeit of experience, skills and professionalism here. There is an absolute need to reach out. In giving evidence, the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy—Professor Hennessy—said that we should have a national conversation with people, given the experience and skills that are here. I believe that.
The commandments, if you like, of this report are very clear. It outlines the key purposes and principles. The key purposes of this report are scrutiny of government, influencing policy, informing debate in the House and beyond, engaging the public in our work, and the detailed investigation for which we are renowned. The key principles are cross-cutting committees, comprehensive flexibility, so that we have the freedom to innovate, being open and outward-looking, and having effective committees—in other words, value for money. Every committee inquiry notionally costs £225,000, so we need to ensure we get value for money. That aspect is really important.
To echo the noble Lord, Lord Winston, this is the kernel of what the House of Lords is about. Yes, this is the first step on the journey, but our aim is to enhance the role of the House in society, and I look forward to working with committees and Members as we take this forward.