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Liaison Committee Report

Volume 809: debated on Wednesday 13 January 2021

Motion to Agree

Moved by

That the Report from the Select Committee Review of investigative and scrutiny committees: strengthening the thematic structure through the appointment of new committees (5th Report, HL Paper 193) be agreed to.

My Lords, I shall speak also to the second Motion in my name on the Order Paper, which deals with the sixth report of the committee.

In July 2019, the Liaison Committee published a report on our 18-month review of House of Lords committee activity. That report followed the most comprehensive review of the House of Lords committees ever undertaken and was the first major review for 25 years. It proposed the start of a significant change in the positioning of our committees to put in place a thematic approach designed to ensure more effective scrutiny of all the major areas of public policy.

During the review, more than 50 proposals for new committee activity were received from Members, many of which reflected gaps in our coverage of key issues at that time. A number of measures to address scrutiny gaps, including the expansion of existing committee remits and the creation of a new Public Services Committee, have been put in place since the report was agreed by the House in October 2019. We have also implemented other important recommendations, such as the establishment of a committee chairs forum, which has already proved to be an important means of communication and exchange of ideas, and the introduction of a regular committees newsletter for Members of the House.

In the 2019 report, we noted that many areas of public policy, including the environment and home affairs, had hitherto engaged EU competence and were addressed principally through our European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees. The review “ring-fenced” the EU Committee and its sub-committees, leaving them unchanged at that point, but acknowledged that further work in this respect would be required in due course.

Noble Lords will be well aware of the excellent reputation of the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees. The scrutiny by the then European Communities Committee was the starting point for House of Lords committee activity in the modern era. Following its establishment in May 1974, the quick success of that committee was built on bit by bit to form the basis of our current EU Committee structure. Many Members and staff over the years have worked tirelessly to support the EU Committee’s success. In the context of the debates on Brexit, that work has increased in intensity. As the work of the EU Committee in its present form comes to an end, I invite the whole House to pay tribute to the outstanding work of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, the current chair, and his colleagues.

Last autumn, the Liaison Committee undertook this final element of the review of committees. As previously, we were keen to seek the views of committee chairs as well as those of Members of the wider House. I am grateful to all those colleagues who contributed their views in response to my invitation. We also had a very successful virtual seminar on 3 September on the Lords committee structure post Brexit and post Covid. It featured presentations from the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, and a further five Members of the House, before moving on to a good discussion in which almost 60 Members participated. This too informed our decisions.

The fifth report from the Liaison Committee includes our final recommendations in relation to the restructuring of the House of Lords committees. Our report recommends the following new, cross-cutting thematic committees: Built Environment Committee; European Affairs Committee, with a European Affairs Committee Sub-Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland; Environment and Climate Change Committee; Industry and Regulators Committee, and Justice and Home Affairs Committee.

We also recommend that the International Agreements Sub-Committee be appointed as a free-standing sessional committee for the remainder of this Parliament and that the current COVID-19 Committee should continue until November 2021, when its work will be further reviewed.

Our recommendations tie in with our decision that the existing EU Committee and the EU sub-committees should continue until 31 March this year to allow for an orderly transition to the new committee structure. The new sessional committees will therefore begin their work in April 2021, with the exception of the International Agreements Committee, which will succeed the current sub-committee later this month. The overall number of committees will remain unchanged. It is likely that, despite all the careful planning, the new committees will take a little while to settle in after Easter. I reassure the committee chairs that, once appointed, we will welcome feedback on the operation of the new committees and that the work of the Liaison Committee and committee chairs forum is there to give systematic support to the new structure. My door is always open too. I am always happy to receive comments and feedback on the operation of our committee structure and suggestions for improvement and enhancement.

The recommendations in our fifth report build on the findings and conclusions developed throughout our work on the review of committees. Taken together, they are a significant step forward in strengthening the thematic structure of House of Lords committees. The new committees will have broad, cross-cutting remits which will enable them to adjust flexibly and swiftly to the many challenges which the country will face in the years ahead.

Turning more briefly to the sixth report, I remind the House that, in the light of the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, in April 2020 the Liaison Committee recommended that the usual special inquiry process be “paused” to allow a degree of re-focusing on Covid-19. The COVID-19 Committee, chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox of Soho, was established as a result. In July, we recommended the establishment of two new special inquiry committees, on a national plan for sport and recreation and on risk assessment and risk planning. In a separate report in July, we further recommended the establishment of another new committee to scrutinise common frameworks. All these committees are doing valuable work. In the case of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, which has now been in existence for half a year, the chair, the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, recently wrote to me. Her letter, which I believe is available on the committee’s website, sets out the impressive and wide-ranging work that has already been undertaken and which is likely to develop still further in the months ahead.

Our sixth report recommends the appointment of one further special inquiry committee, on youth unemployment, following a proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Baker of Dorking. We recommend that, like the special inquiry committees on sport and recreation and on risk, the youth unemployment committee should report by the end of November 2021 to enable the next cycle of special inquiries to proceed smoothly in January 2022.

I am once again very grateful indeed to all Members of the House who put forward proposals for special inquiry committees. We considered them all carefully, and I hope that the House will agree that the successful proposals underline the range and breadth of expertise that exists in your Lordships’ House.

Over the past 25 years, House of Lords committees have become increasingly important in scrutinising matters relating to the EU and on the wider international and domestic agenda. During 2020, the speed with which our committees adjusted to new ways of working was a visible indicator of their flexibility and continuous innovation. In recommending these two reports to the House, I end on a note of gratitude for the work of all committees. I note, too, that the Liaison Committee’s fifth report brings to an end the comprehensive review of committees that began in January 2018. I believe that we were right to proceed carefully and collaboratively, engaging widely within and outside the House in changing the structure that has grown over nearly 47 years and that predates the establishment of the House of Commons departmental Select Committees.

The approach taken by the review is innovative, as it establishes a firm but flexible framework within which our committees will operate. We are now in a position to consider any future adjustments to our committee structure as and when the need arises, particularly during our annual reviews. There is no need for any further set-piece reviews as in the past, since we have succeeded in constructing a built-in continuous review process. In this way, we trust that the comprehensive review will provide committees with a firm foundation for many years to come. I beg to move.

My Lords, I have had one definite request to speak and two potential requests to speak. I call the noble Lord, Lord Newby.

I thank the noble Lord the Senior Deputy Speaker for undertaking an exhaustive review which has produced very sensible proposals. Of all the committees to be created as a result of the review, arguably the new European Affairs Committee is the most important, not least because we have seen within the last week the unilateral decision by the Leader of another place to disband the Commons Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union and put nothing in its place. As we see from the immediate effects of Brexit, not least in Northern Ireland, clearly there will be a lot for this committee and its sub-committee to look at.

What makes all our committee reports of more value than, say, an equivalent think-tank report is, first, that the Government have to respond to them and, secondly, that your Lordships’ House has to debate them. In both those areas, the current practice is far from satisfactory. For the government response to be effective, it needs to be timely, which simply has not happened in many cases. The most egregious example is the Economic Affairs Committee on social care policy, which reported some 589 days ago and still has not had a government response. It really is incumbent on government to do better in that respect.

Furthermore, it is important that these reports have a timely debate in your Lordships’ House. I understand why we have not been doing so in recent months, but it is still unsatisfactory that we now have Select Committee reports that are 22 months out of date, as it were, and have still not had a debate in your Lordships’ House. I hope very much that, as the mass of secondary legislation which we have seen in respect of Brexit and coronavirus dwindles to a trickle, or to a more normal level, it will be possible to reinstate a timely system of debates on Select Committee reports. Certainly, even if we cannot do it literally immediately, I hope that when we start a new Session later in the year we will do so with a new resolve to deal with the valuable work and reports of these committees in a way that really makes best use of them.

With those caveats, I and my colleagues welcome these proposals and look forward to seeing the work of the new committees develop.

For noble Lords’ information, I should say that the Senior Deputy Speaker has the right to reply. I shall take all questions first and we will go to him afterwards, should he wish to return to them.

My Lords, these are extremely welcome proposals, and we are very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McFall, and his colleagues for the review that they have undertaken of the committee system in the House and the proposals that they have made. Rather belatedly—but at long last we are getting there—noble Lords are essentially introducing a proper systematic arrangement of committees in respect of domestic policy. Until now we have had a committee system only really in respect of European affairs. It is my view, which I have expressed in the House before, that we have been overweighted. It was good that we had the European Union Committee, but we gave no scrutiny whatever to the great generality of domestic policy, which is hugely important. As I have noted in the House before, in my five years as a Minister, including a period as Secretary of State, I was never once summoned to appear before a House of Lords committee, even though I am a Member of the House of Lords, which is a pretty serious condemnation of the way in which this House has conducted its scrutiny.

In respect of the proposals themselves, essentially we are playing catch-up with the House of Commons. The noble Lord said that our committee on European affairs was 47 years old, which is somewhat older than the Select Committees of the House of Commons. But of course the House of Commons had all the departmental committees in respect of domestic departments in 1980, and it has taken us 40 years before we finally got to a system which, in a very intelligent way, taking domestic policy areas in a cross-cutting way, has given us the capacity to do the same.

The House of Commons has made two big changes in the past 40 years in respect of its committees. The first was to introduce systematic departmental committees, but the second—and I am surrounded by former Members of the House of Commons who might have views on this, but it seems to me to be just as important a development—is that the chairs of those committees are now elected by the House at large. That great outbreak of internal democracy in the House of Commons has, I am told, had a very beneficial effect, not least that it has given much greater prominence to the MPs who chair those committees, and it has given them a strong mandate on behalf of the House as a whole. Indeed, because they are no longer beholden to the Whips, because they are not appointed by the Whips or through a process that involves the usual channels, they are also likely to be—how can I put this delicately?—less subject to persuasion from Ministers as to what they should say in their reports.

I want to ask something of the noble Lord, Lord McFall, a very distinguished former member of the House of Commons Treasury Committee. Now that we have domestic affairs committees worth the name, I encourage the Liaison Committee to adopt the second of the reforms that the House of Commons has adopted and have the chairs of these new committees elected by the House as a whole, as we elect the Lord Speaker, and not continue to be appointed essentially by the Whips in dark recesses of the House through processes which most of us have no knowledge of or capacity to influence. I ask the noble Lord to tell the House whether that is under consideration by his committee.

I rise very briefly to pay the same tribute as the noble Lord, Lord McFall, not only to the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, but to the chairs of our other committees, who do the most extraordinary work. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. Where I disagree with my noble friend Lord Adonis is that I do not think that they do it for prominence. The great shortfall in what he has just said is exactly that MPs do it for their own prominence. One of the many strengths of our system is that our chairs actually do not get prominence; that is not why they do the job—they do it for good hard work and the quality of what they produce.

The funniest thing, though, is the idea that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, would in any way be open to persuasion by Ministers. We have seen him jumping up on almost every occasion to get at his own Government’s Ministers for having done not very much about the report he has produced, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newby. That is a strength of the sort of people in this House. They do not owe their future to the Whips and they show it. My noble friend of course is a brilliant example of that. He does not owe his future in this House to the Whips and he shows that by his many contributions.

Having mentioned the report from the noble Lord, Lord Forsythe, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said. On page 8 of today’s green pages there is a list of the reports that are yet to be discussed, of which his is not even the oldest; there are some older than that. I do hope that we can take forward the comments that have been made about timely reports from Ministers—I am glad to see some nods—and speedy debates. For the moment, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McFall, for all that he has done in making this report possible.

I thank my colleagues for their comments. In fairness to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, the European Affairs Committee will certainly have a lot to do in the coming months. That is one of the reasons why, in discussions with the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, we decided that the present committees would extend until the end of March, so that we can view how the land lies. At the end of the day, that was quite a wise decision.

The issue of government reports has been raised in the chairs’ forum. I have written to Ministers and engaged with the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip on this in my regular meetings with them; it is a live part of the agenda. This is an issue about which the committee chairs in particular feel strongly. We will continue that process, so that there is maximum engagement with the House. I take the point that there is no use having a report that is not debated in the House.

The noble Lord, Lord Adonis, mentioned a “proper, systematic arrangement” for our committees. I am grateful to him for those remarks, but the essence of our committees now is their flexibility, larger footprint and cross-cutting nature. We can respond to challenges as we see them. For example, we established the COVID-19 Committee specifically to look at the issues of Covid-19. We have also established a Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee. Only yesterday, I had a meeting with the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, on that point. These committees are working well, and having this systematic arrangement is important.

The issue of the election of chairs was reviewed quite a long time ago, but it was felt by the Liaison Committee, and those who provided evidence to it, that this was not the time to do it. It is still on the agenda and I am happy to receive any representations on such issues as we go forward, not least from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis.

That touches on the issue of increased powers. I am in touch with the current House of Commons inquiry into Select Committee powers, along with the Leader of the House, regarding greater government participation and Ministers giving evidence. One feature of the review of committees was that the Liaison Committee of the House of Lords would engage with the Liaison Committee in the House of Commons at an annual meeting. That has not yet taken place, but I have written to the chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin, to make him aware of what we have been doing. I have no doubt that we will shortly be meeting him, and others, to ensure that there is coherence in our approach to this area as we go forward.

I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, on her participation in the Liaison Committee and her interest in everything that the committee has done, notwithstanding her very heavy workload on the Front Bench. I take her point about the work of all the committee chairs, and I congratulate them and their staff on their work and application. An awful lot of work goes on in the background and there is fantastic staff input to our committees—our work would not be possible without them, so it is important that we congratulate them as well. I will finish on that celebratory note.

Motion agreed.