Gordon Brown just loves committees – give him a problem and he’ll establish one (or set up an inquiry), anything to avoid a decision but be seen to be taking action, however ineffective.
There is, though, one type of committee we Conservatives should embrace warmly and make more effective – the Commons select committee. As chairman of one and past chairman of another, I know just how effective and useful they can be. But they need a breath of fresh air to make them better still.
This year is the modern select committee’s thirtieth birthday. One of the most effective Conservative reforms of Parliament was the establishment in 1979 under Norman St John Stevas of the system of departmental select committees.
Thirty years on, when we form a government, we will need to reform, reduce and empower these committees to make them still more effective. Frankly, I don’t think it matters whether committees are appointed by the whips or voted on by the whole House – there are some much more important reforms to make.
Select committees have mushroomed in number and size under New Labour. As a result they are much less effective. True they have been given some new responsibilities – such as scrutinising a limited range of public appointments – but on the whole the growth in numbers and membership has made for confusion and a lack of engagement by members of the committees.
The great unappreciated scandals are the difficulty in finding MPs to
serve on many committees and the real challenge of maintaining a quorum
for the less high profile but important sessions of virtually all
Too many committees means too many MPs have to serve on more than one –
or have to balance select committee membership with other important
Parliamentary roles. And too many MPs on committees makes it difficult
for individuals to contribute to the work of the committee. I know my
committee is much stronger for being reduced from fourteen to eleven–
but how much better if we could reduce numbers to nine – then an even
stronger team spirit could emerge. So there’s reform one – make the
normal size of each just nine.
Reform two is abolition of many committees. We just don’t need several
of them at all, especially the so-called cross-cutting committees.
There is no need for the Environmental Audit committee for example –
its job is done by the Environment, Food and Rural affairs Committee
and the new Energy and Climate Change committee. The Modernisation
committee can go, with any necessary work done by the Procedure
Committee. Our changes to Human Rights legislation mean the joint
committee can go too.
Most controversially, I would even abolish the Public Accounts
committee – the scrutiny of expenditure it undertakes would be much
better done by the individual departmental select committees who really
understand the departments they monitor.
Overall, when the wretched new regional committees are set up (and they
should be the very first to be axed by the new Conservative Leader of
the House), there will be 525 places on select committees. My reforms
would reduce the number to a much more manageable 301. (If you exclude
the Liaison committee and the Committees on Arms Exports Controls,
which are comprised of ex officio chairmen and members of other
committees, the number actually falls to just 260.)
Smaller, fewer committees would automatically increase their
effectiveness – but, and here is my third reform, we should also give
them more power – for example, giving them 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.
There is, though, one new committee I would establish – and I’m
grateful to a friend for the idea. Most “cross-cutting”
committees just get in the way of the main departmental committees and
duplicate their work. But there is one subject a new Conservative
government needs to be seen to be taking really seriously. The
environment and the economy are well scrutinised by the main
departmental committees, but one vital issue isn’t – our broken
society. So I would establish a new nine-member committee on social
justice – and who better to chair it than Iain Duncan Smith?
It might take numbers up to 310, but we’d still be 215 places down.
There would be more competition to serve on all committees and that
would be a good thing – and I suspect the Social Justice committee
would be one of the most popular of them all.
The select committee system isn’t broken, but it is tired. Reform,
reduce and empower the committees – and set up just one new one. If
the Conservative Party is serious about Parliament and about social
justice, as I know it is, this is a package of change just crying out
to be made.