The Poodle Bites Back: Select Committees and the Revival of Parliament

In a new report The Poodle Bites Back: Select Committees and the Revival of Parliament, published by the Centre for Policy Studies on Thursday 18 June, Andrew Tyrie MP, Chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, argues that despite the ‘anti-politics’ mood in the UK, the House of Commons is achieving notable success in reforming itself into a more effective institution. In particular, parliamentary scrutiny is now reviving, with the Select Committee corridor – galvanised by the introduction of elections in 2010 – playing a leading role.

As Alistair Darling explains in his Foreword to the report:

“Why have these Committees worked? There are a number of reasons. First and foremost they are usually bi-partisan and unafraid to criticise the Government of the day where it’s justified. The fact that MPs in the same party as the Government are prepared to do that adds to the strength of the Committee’s opinion…

It is not just the Government and its agencies that are subject to rigorous cross-examination. In the last Parliament the Treasury Committee not only shone a bright light on the behaviour of some bankers but was also instrumental in helping to frame new legislation designed to strengthen the regulatory system. The Public Accounts Committee did more than most to draw attention to those multi-national companies who made a lot of money in the UK but didn’t seem to feel it necessary to pay tax on the profit. The Home Affairs Committee did a good job in pointing up the failings in security at the Olympic Games by a private company.”

Andrew Tyrie MP, Chairman of the Treasury Committee, added:

“Not long ago, decades of executive dominance looked set to reduce Parliament merely to a ‘dignified’ part of the constitution, little more than a prime ministerial poodle. After the expenses scandal, one could not be sure even about the dignity.

Yet that crisis triggered a parliamentary revival, led by more independent and effective Select Committees. What began as an experiment with elections five years ago is becoming entrenched, empowering Parliament, and for the better. The poodle is biting back.”

The Government and the public sector are now much more often forced to explain their actions, in detail and in public. Powerful quangos and individuals can now expect to be challenged, and their decisions scrutinised.

Tyrie warns that ground that has been taken can be lost again, urging Select Committees to not rest on their successes, but continue to innovate, bolster their investigative powers and follow up their recommendations vigorously.

Drawing on the experience of the Treasury Select Committee and the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards (PCBS), the Liaison Committee and other Committees, a number of further measures and tools should be considered to bolster the effectiveness of Select Committees. These include:

  • a strengthening of Select Committees’ role in approval and scrutiny of major public appointments, including vetoes on appointment and dismissal for some posts, building on the precedent established by the Treasury Committee with respect to the Office of Budget Responsibility;
  • the appointment by Select Committees of specialist advisors to conduct independent investigations into quangos, where necessary embedding them within the institutions, with powers to report to the relevant Committee – building on the experience of the TSC with respect to the failures of RBS and HBOS;
  • consideration by the Liaison Committee of the scope for more frequent hearings, and for the introduction of half an hour or more of topical questioning of the Prime Minister on any subject, following their regular hearings on subjects notified in advance;
  • scope for the adoption of a proportionate, useable sanction to ensure that witnesses comply with Committees’ orders for evidence and papers;
  • the further use by Parliament, where appropriate, of Parliamentary Commissions of Inquiry into issues of major public concern, building on the precedent of the PCBS.

Andrew Tyrie - Thursday, 18th June, 2015