Watchdog MPs learn to bite

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The Independent Online
IT HAS been called the best free entertainment in Westminster. On most days of the parliamentary session, top politicians, officials or academic experts expose themselves to interrogation, ridicule, or plain old-fashioned political bullying, all in the interests of public accountability.

Ten months into the new government, select committees have defied their Labour domination and started to take the gloves off. Last week it was the Chancellor's turn to receive a public tongue-bashing from the dissident backbencher Brian Sedgemore at the Treasury select committee's hearing. This week three Cabinet ministers (including Mr Brown again) and four junior ministers will appear in front of Commons committees in just two days. And after Easter, Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press secretary, faces a grilling from the public administration committee over letters he sent rebuking social security ministers over leaks to the press.

With a quiescent Opposition and a dull Commons chamber, some select committees are coming into their own. Their (often televised) public hearings are treated with growing respect.

It was not always like that. In the early 1980s, Lord Gowrie, then an Employment minister, brushed aside persistent and detailed questioning by a Labour MP with the words: "What do you think this is? Mastermind?"

Since then, ministers have found giving evidence much more of an ordeal. A former Tory minister said: "In the Commons a soundbite will usually do. In committee the questioning is more sustained, with follow-ups, and thus much tougher."

But the picture, as so often with the committee system, is a mixed one. The election has changed the composition, chairmanship and politics of the select committees, and several have been transformed. Because committees' make-up reflects that of Parliament itself, the precarious majority of John Major's final years has been replaced by clear Labour dominance. Fortunately, however, several well-respected MPs have opted to chair committees rather than try to pursue a ministerial or front-bench path to power.

David Davis, the Conservative chairman of the powerful public accounts committee, is one. Chris Mullin, the independent-minded Labour chairman of the home affairs committee, is another. Both have made a public impact despite the fact that the former is, because of the cycle of its work, investigating misdeeds under the previous, rather than the current, administration.

The new political climate has, however, created problems for committees. For example, because so much of the Government's policy is under review, the social security select committee, the first to be chaired by a Liberal Democrat, Archie Kirkwood,faces a tough task in deciding on what it should concentrate.

Co-operation between members is also more difficult in the immediate post-election period when adversaries tend to remain closer to the political barricades. That can impede effectiveness because committees have greatest authority when MPs of all parties (particularly those from the Government) are unanimous in their criticism.

More fundamental problems remain, too. Much weaker than their American counterparts, committees have no formal role in legislation and even the best-researched, detailed and best-argued report can be binned by ministers. In terms of the media, much depends on the chairman's zest for publicity, because committees have few resources and no press or public relations staff.

Many committees have avoided taking on the Government directly, seeking instead to investigate relatively uncontroversial or non-party-political issues in the hope of being more influential in that way. The committee on culture, media and sport, chaired by Gerald Kaufman, is a good example, focusing early attention not on government policy but on the travails of the Royal Opera House.

This debate over the role of committees is certain to intensify with suggestions from the Treasury committee that it holds US-style "confirmation hearings" into Bank of England appointments, and wider calls for more committee scrutiny of legislation before it goes on to the statute book. Last week, Mr Davis suggested a new role in deciding departmental spending totals as well as more Commons time for debate on committee reports. A potential downside is that such developments would restrict committees' ability to determine their own areas of work.

Meantime, the committee hearing is becoming an increasingly good spectacle, often attracting campaigners, lobbyists, journalists, and members of the public. And entry is free.