Abandoning the Buggins’s turn principle for chairs should be the start of turning our select committees into watchdogs with teeth
This week’s elections for select committee chairs, which Andrew Tyrie rightly celebrates, should be just the start of the process of strengthening parliament over the executive and making the job of backbenchers more worthwhile.
The Treasury select committee is often described as “highly influential”; that’s flattering and a testament to John McFall’s leadership and the political consensus we built together. But select committees have no legislative or budgetary powers: their influence depends on tough questioning of key witnesses, the authority of their reports and the all-party unanimity behind them.
That’s not unimportant. When it became obvious from the start of the banking crisis, for example, that regulators and bankers alike didn’t have a clue what they were doing, the Treasury committee became a focus for understanding what had gone wrong, and for testing the reforms that were needed. But parliament should be more than a forum, and I am proposing two key reforms that could turn our select committees into watchdogs with real teeth.
First, there’s no proper link between each committee and the departmental budget it is supposed to scrutinise. Yes, we look at forward plans and, afterwards, we review the annual report and accounts. But public spending remains split between three different sets of figures: the departmental budgets announced by the chancellor, the estimates presented to parliament, and the accounts filed after the money is spent. (There’s a long-running Treasury project, quaintly titled the Clear Line of Sight programme, that is currently trying to merge all three into a single set of figures.)
The government must, of course, set each department’s total. But three times a year, each department submits a supplementary estimate to parliament, requesting additional millions for new priorities or to correct overruns. These go through, billions at a time, usually on a quiet Thursday afternoon, without any proper scrutiny at all. On Thursday 10 December last year, for example, after only short debates, some £20bn was voted to the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, and some £17bn to Communities and Local Government.
The answer, therefore, is that no supplementary estimate should be presented to parliament before it has first been approved by the appropriate departmental select committee. At a stroke, this would change the balance of power: ministers would have to persuade their committee of the need for new expenditure, have to justify overruns, have to explain changed priorities.
Ministers would certainly have to take their committees much more seriously, building support for their programmes, keeping all members onside with their policies, and negotiating with each chair the timing and session of each supplementary estimate.
The second answer is to require all major public appointments to be confirmed by the respective departmental committee before being taken up. At present, we hold hearings but we have no sanction. Even though a candidate can be rejected, as the then children’s, schools and families committee turned down Maggie Atkinson for the post of children’s commissioner last autumn, for example, there is no sanction. Ministers can ignore such a vote, and in the event, Ed Balls, the secretary of state, simply brushed the committee aside and made the appointment anyway.
Instead, it should be clear that no major appointment – governor of the Bank of England, or the heads of major bodies like the Office of Fair Trading, the Environment Agency or Ofsted – could proceed without specific committee approval. Precisely because this would be a blocking power, committees would, I think, be careful how often they used it in practice; equally secretaries of state would be much more careful about their nominations.
Here, therefore, is a real agenda beyond this week’s elections. Thanks to Tony Wright’s modernisation committee, we’ve finally got away from the Buggins’s turn principle for committee chairs. Now let’s give the committees some real power over their departments.
Guardian 8th June 2010