Commons watchdogs to press for greater powers

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THE CHAIRMEN of Commons select committees are to request greater powers to hold the Government to account amid concern that Labour has sought to "neuter" them since taking office.

A list of demands is being drawn up by Labour MPs who chair key committees. They are appalled at mounting evidence that ministers are threatening the independence of the Commons watchdogs.

Yesterday Clare Short became the first cabinet minister to express concern at the controversy, which was sparked by disclosures that Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, was sent advance copies of three reports by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

Asked on BBC Radio 4 whether she was worried that the Government was seen as "arrogant", the Secretary of State for International Development replied: "I would be worried if that was the perception. It isn't the case and it mustn't be the case. Any sensible government must listen to Parliament and must listen to criticism in order to be a good government."

The Liaison Committee, which includes the chairmen of all the Commons watchdogs, wants to reduce the influence of the party whips in choosing members of select committees and who chairs them.

To reassert their independence, the MPs want greater powers to question ministers about government policies and spending plans.

They also want to hold public hearings to vet people chosen by ministers for jobs such as heading a quango or joining the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee.

Yesterday Robert Sheldon, who chairs the Liaison Committee, warned ministers not to interfere in the MPs' work. He told GMTV's Sunday Programme he condemned the practice of handing draft reports to ministers, as it allowed MPs to be "leant upon" before they agreed their final report.

"They must be free to come to their own conclusions and, if any attempt is made to interfere with that independence, that is a most serious matter," he said.

Mr Sheldon also expressed concern after it emerged yesterday that Lord Donoughue, an Agriculture minister, was leaked a list of questions before appearing before the European Scrutiny Committee.

Tomorrow the Standards and Privileges Committee will investigate the three leaks to Mr Cook. Michael Howard, Conservative foreign affairs spokesman, dismissed Mr Cook's claims that he did nothing with the draft report into the arms to Sierra Leone affair, saying yesterday that he had used it to "get his retaliation in first" by briefing the media before its publication.