Where's the beef?

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent

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As Rupert Murdoch, various top quangocrats and the director-general of the BBC can testify, Commons select committees are increasingly assertive beasts, capable of giving the witnesses who appear before them a very hard time.

But they remain a lot less powerful than their counterparts in other countries - and MPs can only contemplate with dry-mouthed envy the clout of committees in the US Congress.

Behind the scenes in parliament, the Commons Liaison Committee (the super committee of all the select committee chairs, best known as the body that questions the prime minister once in every parliamentary term) has been taking stock of their role and powers and has today published a report on how they can be beefed up.

There are suggestions about being more strategic, following up their recommendations to see if they're being implemented, and only re-fighting past scandals or disasters when there are lessons to be learned, and not for the sheer partisan joy of it. There is a thought that committees should spend more time looking at the financial implications of government policy and should not always depend on the same old witnesses, when the same old issues crop up. But the report is as interesting for what it doesn't say as for what it does...

A couple of major irritants are dealt with. First, the regular complaint that, in the name of ministerial responsibility, civil servants are limited in what they can say to committees, under the "Osmotherly Rules", which state that they are not directly accountable to Parliament, but only through their ministers.

Many in committee-land believe this creates a sort of parliamentary Catch-22, which protects both ministers and civil servants.

The Liaison Committee complains:

They recommend that the government and select committees draw up guidelines, which would protect ministerial accountability, the proper role of the civil service and proper accountability to Parliament. Which should provide an interesting test of everyone's drafting skills...

And the Liaison Committee also weighs in on the powers of committees to summon witnesses and to punish porkies.

They quote the now-famous Culture Committee finding from their hacking inquiry:

The trouble is, Parliament seems to have no credible powers to punish anyone who misleads it. And, don't forget, until the hacking scandal became very toxic, the Murdochs were too busy to give evidence to Parliament in person - they suddenly found the time when the crisis became threatening. Again, Parliament did not seem to have any credible way of compelling witnesses to attend.

Both these issues will be pondered by a committee to be set up soon, to sort out the tangled law on parliamentary privilege - and the Liaison Committee offers the opinion that "we are persuaded that the disadvantages of enshrining parliamentary privilege in statute would outweigh the benefits". A lot of MPs think that passing a bill setting out the powers of Parliament in the 21st Century would result in the courts adjudicating on whether those powers were exercised properly - imagine a judicial review of the choice of witnesses being held, if someone criticised after a select committee inquiry felt hard done-by.

Interestingly, the chair of the Standards and Privileges Committee, Labour's Kevin Barron, attempted to delete that advice and replace it with the uncontroversial thought that there were some difficult decisions to be taken.

Which brings me to two recommendations that were not made. The committee rejected two amendments to its wording which would have made it easier for select committees to allow a barrister ("Counsel") or an expert witness to lead, or at least participate in their questioning. At the moment, they need special permission in the form of a Commons motion.

And one of the frustrations for watchers of tense witness sessions is that each select committee member has their turn, and so questioning by one MP is often halted, just when it's getting interesting, in order for the next to take their turn. The next MP may have a completely different line to pursue, so pressure on the witness is not maintained. To be sure, the more agile committee chairs give their members a bit of leeway, but there is a problem here.

But there are also fears that handing the lead role in questioning witnesses to a non-parliamentarian sidelines the, er, parliamentarians. So a recommendation that all committees would have the power, in exceptional circumstances, to employ counsel, was rejected.

In due course, all this will be debated in the Commons...it's all rather technical internal stuff, but the committees have become the most responsive and effective arm of parliament for examining the work of government. Improving their processes matters.

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