Select committees are not usually all the rage, but there is widespread media coverage of the Treasury Select Committee’s grilling yesterday of RBS and HBOS bankers.
All four men (the former HBOS chief executive and chairman, Andy Hornby and Lord Stevenson, and the former RBS chief executive and chairman, Sir Fred Goodwin and Sir Tom McKillop) apologised for the events that have led to the crisis in their banks. Andy Hornby said that it was an error to pay huge bonuses for short-term successes. Sir Tom admitted that the purchase of Dutch bank ABN Amro for £10 billion was a mistake. The witnesses were also keen to impress upon the committee – and the wider public – that they have personally lost a great deal of money.
The question, however, is what is to be done about it all, and how a future crisis might be averted.
In the Times today there is a leading article calling for an overhaul of the select committee system. It says that committees are "better at theatre than scrutiny" and "thinly staffed and poorly resourced". The piece calls for committee chairmen to be paid at least as well as junior ministers, so that committees are an alternative career path and not just for mavericks, has-beens and the hopeless. (In fact select committees are a good place for junior MPs to start – David Cameron thrived on the Home Affairs one).
Peter Luff, who chairs the Business and Enterprise select committee, suggested a way forward in an article for ConservativeHome published in January. He wants fewer committees with greater powers, and the creation of one new one – a social justice committee chaired by Iain Duncan Smith.
Under Mr Luff’s proposals, which are well worth reading in full, most select committees would be reduced in size to nine members. He argues that most "cross-cutting" committees get in the way of those that scrutinse specific government departments, and that they should have "the power to refer more issues about expenditure, appointments and policy to the floor of the House not just for debate but also for votes."
Select committees were an early and excellent innovation of the first Thatcher government. It is indeed time that they had greater bite.