Adrian Hamilton: The wrong way to reform the Select Committee system

The problem is not an overweening executive but that policy is so poor

Thursday 28 May 2009 00:00
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The reform of parliament is to start with the reformation of the Select Committees. We know that because every party leader and minister talking about a fresh start in our democracy tells us that, from now on, the chairmen of the Select Committees will be chosen by the Commons and not the whips and that they will be free to examine every nook and cranny of government t policy.

Now you might ask why, if this was such an obvious need, it hadn't been done before. It's an idle question. No government gives up power voluntarily unless the better to preserve it. You would have to be very naive indeed to believe that any administration with a fair majority is going willingly to stop trying to influence the make-up of select committees and deliberately open itself up to constant harrying from their hearings.

It's easy enough to point to the example of the US Senate and House of Representatives. But their committee system arises from the separation of power between the legislature and the executive. Even Barack Obama, for all his victory in the polls, cannot wield the whip on Capitol Hill. If he could, he would.

But that's not the real concern about trying to repeat the America model over here. Only the most unreconstructed loyalist would deny that the UK system needs kicking into new life. Aside from the estimable Public Affairs Committee, most of the UK panels are led by placemen, made up of the mediocre and tasked with the irrelevant. If the lot disappeared tomorrow, I doubt anyone would notice the difference.

All that may be true, if perhaps over-harsh. But what worries me about the calls for reform is that they are directed at the wrong problem. The aim, according to the reformers, is to enable parliament better to hold the executive to account. Needed, no doubt. Yet is setting up Commons Committees as attack dogs on the government really their most useful function?

If the problem were an overweening central government out of control, as the reformers suggest, that might be so. But the problem of government in Britain is not really an untrammelled executive, for all the size of recent parliamentary majorities. It is that policy making and legislation is so poor.

The failures of health and education policy, the negligence of financial regulation, the mistakes of military procurement, the lack of North Sea depletion policy or a balanced energy strategy, the perversion of Public-Private Finance Initiatives, the timidity of the transport approach, the tardiness of environmental measures – all these arise not from an over-strong executive, but a political system that has been unwilling or unable to work through and discuss alternative approaches to central issues.

Select committees ought to fulfil this function. They don't. Take the recent Treasury Committee report on banking bonuses. It's a question that much exercises the public and the committee and its chairman had great fun acting high dudgeon before the cameras. But, in the end, what did the committee produce: the banal conclusion that bonus payments had contributed to banks taking excessive risk and that they ought to be controlled. If the Committee had taken note of the early warnings of problems in the financial world and had taken evidence on them at the time, its members might have had cause to congratulate themselves. But riding a populist bandwagon after the event is not fulfilling any special public duty.

The area of the committee's purview has never been more crowded or more in need of open discussion. The rights and wrongs of quantitative easing, the question of whether banks should once again be divided between investment banking and deposit taking, the argument over government indebtedness, the threat of European rules on hedge and equity funds – all these need examination and are getting none of it either on the floor of the Commons or in its committee rooms. They are not simple matters of whether the government is right or wrong in what it is doing. They are issues where the alternatives need to be teased out and independent experts given their say.

The Scottish Assembly has done much better than its London counterpart by allowing committee discussion of legislative proposals before they are introduced and not just after. They have also opened the way to more flexible ad hoc groupings. The great 19th century investigations gained their place in history not by assaulting governments after the event but through bringing government attention to problems outside.

Of course any ambitious backbencher will want to use committee membership as a route to greater fame. But if we want better reports, we need MPs determined to use the system to improve the governance of country, not backbenchers acting out some fantasy of men of the people holding the government to account.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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