Parliamentary reports on select committees and the civil service

Summary:

Who said what

There have been a couple of interesting (if you’re a parliament and civil service watcher) reports published of late. One on the resources, powers and effectiveness of select committees, [Not enough, not enough and not nearly as they could otherwise be] and another on the accountability of the civil service. [Could be improved but don’t politicise it].

Select Committees

They are slowly but surely beginning to get into their stride, though a number of select committee chairs rile a number of Puffles’ followers. Their profile as select committee chairs is also slowly beginning to rise, though some seem to be more media savvy or publicity hungry (depending on your viewpoint) than others. I’ve commented previously on all things select committees, and feel that the work done in this report pretty much covers my concerns in their recommendations.

Which recommendations stand out?

The list of recommendations is here. I’ll try and list the ones that stand out in bullets with one line explanations:

  • No.2: Extending scrutiny beyond Government departments & agencies – will we see more appearances say by multinational corporations and big business as ‘hostile witnesses’?
  • No.13: New guidance on how select committees should work is due to be published. Will this be crowd-sourced or done ‘in house’? Outside input would be welcome
  • No.16 & no.17: On who gets summoned to committees & who gets the blame. This looks like it’ll tease out accountabilities between ministers & officials
  • No.19 & no.32: Increased resources. I back this strongly. Select committees are starved of support. In my view, each select committee should have access to leading counsel (something the Liaison Committee voted against) and have beefed up analytical functions. This would be commensurate to increased powers too.
  • No.24: Indicates a more longer term ‘strategic’ approach by select committees. Perhaps it feels a bit too ‘ad hoc’ and reactive at present.
  • No.31: Broadening the range of witnesses – will it go beyond the usual suspects?
  • No.34: Post-report scrutiny – formalising the system of coming back to previous reports to see what progress has been made.
  • No.35: Cross-departmental joint select committees where an issue crosses departmental boundaries – something that will happen more often
  • No.37: A mention of formal training and development for select committee members. Recent high profile select committee hearings have demonstrated this need.
  • No.40 & No.41: Long term clerks and additional media officers. Adding to corporate memory and dealing with the increased demands from corporate and social media.
  • No.44: One for the mainstream media to recognise the higher profiles of select committees.

My big disappointment as mentioned above was the decision of the Liaison Committee to vote against recommending the appointment of leading counsel to be attached to select committees. I’m tempted to ask MP/Lords’ followers to get the Liaison Committee to justify that decision. I also think as time goes by, there will be something – perhaps in future guidance – on how to select committees can use social media too.

Any thoughts on the report and the recommendations?

Accountability of the Civil Service

This report comes from the Lords’ Constitution Committee. In my experience, cross examination from the House of Lords is far more detailed and forensic than from the House of Commons – much as it pains me to say so on pro-democracy grounds. Some of you may recall me making the case for an appointed upper chamber to replace the House of Lords. Looking at the shallowness of the political gene puddle that the Police and Crime Commissioners were drawn from, I don’t hold out much hope for an elected second chamber. There’s got to be room in our political system for non-party-political types and the expertise they can bring to bear.

“What stands out here?”

Again, I’ll try and do what I did for the above with the recommendations listed. I’ll do these by paragraph given the difference of listing style.

  • Para.115: “We maintain our view that there is no constitutional difference between the terms responsibility and accountability”. But do ministers agree?
  • Para.117: Temporary appointments – special advisers – does this indicate a greater role for the civil service commissioners?
  • Para.118: On ministerial input to performance management, this is conceded but not on anything disciplinary.
  • Para.119: Convention of a single senior civil servant being responsible for major projects from start to finish. I can see how in principle this is good but the devil is in the detail. What about the case of major leadership failure where the SRO is clearly at fault? Criteria for when they should be replaced? Does this also mean some older senior civil servants will be overlooked due to retirement or will retirement have to be postponed? What about maternity leave? What about illness? It’s not as straight forward as it sounds.
  • Para.122: Responsibility and accountability of special advisers rests clearly with ministers as far as the committee is concerned. But not in the minds of successive administrations unfortunately.
  • Paras 123-5: On select committee appearances by civil servants – rules that bind civil servants do not bind Parliament.
  • Para. 126: Former permanent secretaries CAN be called to appear before select committees to account for things that happened under their watch. Retirement isn’t a ‘get out’ it would seem.
  • Para 128: Civil servants are not required – and should not be invited to state what advice they gave ministers. It is for ministers to waive that right as ministers are the decision makers. In principle this should make it harder for ministers to pin blame for policy failings on civil servants. Civil servants advise, ministers decide.
  • Paras 129-30: In extreme cases, select committees can recommend disciplinary action be taken. I expect the trade unions may want to comment on that.

Those are the things that stand out for me. Any thoughts?

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