Evidence on select committees, 1990 (oral)

The following evidence was given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure on 14 March 1990 and printed with its Second Report of Session 1989-90, HC 19-II, The Working of the Select Committee System, (pp 231-238). See also related written evidence and other written and oral evidence to the same inquiry. See copyright notice below.


Members present:

Sir Peter Emery, in the Chair

Mr Graham Allen
Sir William Clark
Mr Frank Cook
    Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop
Mr David Winnick

* * * *

Examination of Witnesses

DR PETER HENNESSY, Visiting Professor of Government at Strathclyde University, PROFESSOR GAVIN DREWRY, Professor of Public Administration at the Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, and DR PHILIP GIDDINGS, Lecturer in Politics, University of Reading, examined.


643. Dr Hennessy, thank you very much for joining us. I wonder whether you would introduce the two colleagues you have brought here to entertain us.

(Dr Hennessy) Philip Giddings is my colleague from Reading University and Gavin Drewry from Royal Holloway and Bedford New College.

644. Thank you very much for agreeing to be questioned together. Obviously, we shall put a number of questions to different people. If you have differences of view or additions or subtractions to make, please make certain that you make them even if you do not necessarily catch my eye. We are very pleased to see you. May I start with this general question? Do you gentlemen believe that the select committees have fulfilled the expectations which surrounded their inauguration some eleven years ago?

(Dr Hennessy) Chairman, they fulfilled my expectations; although I do not think they fulfilled the expectations of Mr St. John-Stevas when he talked about redressing the balance of power between the Executive and the Legislature. Short of miracles, economic or otherwise, which we have not seen in this country for a while, that was not going to be possible but I will give you a very crude but, I think, valid empirical test of the fulfilment of the expectation from my point of view. It is a view from the Press bench. I served an apprenticeship in the pre-1979 days and I used to attend the very best of the Expenditure sub-committees, the General Sub-Committee. And it bears no relationship, good though it was in its spasmodic but energetic fashion, to what I have seen as a journalist from that bench since and as a scholar of public policy. It is an entirely different world and it is so different from the world that George Jones has just described to you that I cannot begin to point out the differences. It may be that I am one of those people who starts off from a lower level of expectations than others but the degree to which pretty well every key area of departmental policy at one stage or another in the last ten years has been touched on is perhaps the highest level of performance of select committees, certainly in the memory of anybody that is in this House, given, I think, that the Father of the House came into the House in 1950. And you cannot really ask for more than that. Certainly, if you want to look at wider comparisons of constitutional change and advance since 1979–or since 1970, even, when the Expenditure Committee was set up, replacing the old Estimates Committee–the select committees on the whole have performed perhaps better than I would have expected. And, far from being caveat-laden, as George Jones was, about how you performed and what you should do, I think you have a very solid platform of achievement on which to produce the equivalent of a charter for the next extension. You have really solid evidence of achievement. And if that is not built on, Mr Chairman, it will be nothing short of a tragedy.

645. Thank you. Is there any further comment?

(Professor Drewry) I would only say, Chairman, that I broadly agree with Peter Hennessy’s comments. I have often wondered, when I have read and re-read, Norman St John-Stevas’s original speech in setting up the committee whether his tongue was in his cheek when he spoke about redressing the balance of power. That, obviously, was not part of the realistic cluster of expectations that most observers, I think, would have had. But, generally, in terms of the way committees have performed, of the way they have established a niche for themselves in the parliamentary system, their continuity and the fact that, unlike their predecessors, they can go back to previous subjects and follow them up and worry away at issues, has been an enormous strength.

Mr Maxwell-Hyslop

646. Could you differentiate between power and influence? Do you mean where does decision reside?–where, clearly, it still does with Government. Or are you saying that influence cannot amount to power even though decision rests in that the influence may make one decision inevitable?

(Professor Drewry) I think that an accumulation of acts of influence, as it were, can make a small inroad into what might very loosely be called the balance of power. But I think we are talking about an incremental change and not a change that can be described as constitutional.


647. Dr Giddings?

(Dr Giddings) Chairman, I think that providing one’s expectations were realistic in the first place that this would be a significant but marginal contribution to the evolution of the House’s processes, then I think they have performed very well. But the more romantic (which is the word I usually use) expectations that were apparent in the speeches of the then-Leader of the House were inappropriate and have not been fulfilled. But no one should be surprised at that.

648. Leading on from what you have said, while in this House we cannot have the sort of division of powers that one sees between Congress and the Executive in America, because the whole structure does not allow that, and would not allow it, would you not say that the examination of the Executive has been able to be much more thorough and much more in depth in the way in which select committees, on different subjects, have been able to cross-question Ministers in a way which you just cannot do in the House of Commons. And this has meant a degree of influence on Departments and influence on Ministers about the way they behaved, and about the way they had to consider behaving, as far as their Department was concerned?

(Dr Hennessy) Chairman, I think that even before they arrive here the witnesses from Departments, whether ministerial or official, have to raise the level of their game–just in case you are all on form! I have seen it many times. People in Departments tell me (and they do it very often in the kind of drizzle of complaint you get from careworn public officials) how much time they have had to put in. And they know that the performance can be patchy. Sometimes you can be on form; sometimes you can be off. But they always live in fear of the one Member who can pin them against the wall and keep them there in the way that no Member can do it, even to a Secretary of State who is off form, on the Floor of the House–as you know far better than I ever will. Therefore, they have to think through not just the presentation they are going to give you, but the policy itself to a degree which simply did not have to happen before; and simply did not happen before. I think that is an entire advantage. In that sense, it is comparable to the Public Accounts Committee. The reform that the chap watching us from up there, Gladstone, introduced caused them to raise the level of their game permanently on probity of expenditure, using the money only for the purposes that Parliament had voted. This, albeit in a slightly less dramatic way, has had a similar effect on policy; because, if they are slipshod before you, you do not have to be a lifelong expert in a subject to spot a weakness in an argument. I think that Professor Jones was underestimating. I do not want to sound as though I am flattering you. I am not. He was underestimating the capacity of the generalist MP to spot a flaw in an argument. And I have seen it time and time again in the last ten years–most recently in the Energy Select Committee three weeks ago when Department of Energy officials were asked why it was they were so surprised at National Power’s estimates of the cost of civil nuclear power. I began–and I am not a necessarily charitable person towards civil servants–to feel sorry for those witnesses after half an hour. Never before in the history of this place has any group of parliamentarians been in the position to do that.

649. It does not happen too often!

(Dr Giddings) In total contrast to what Professor Jones said to you, it seems to me that the point you have just made indicates how important in terms of the development of the House are the new select committees in their ability to cross-question Ministers at length and the way in which–and I tread delicately–Question Time has somewhat declined in its usefulness in terms of cross-questioning Ministers. In select committees, Ministers are there and can be pursued at length by both sides.

650. And they make fools of themselves at times!

(Dr Giddings) Equally, it is an opportunity for them, as well, to develop their position. I think that it is a greater gain that has come as a result of this committee development. And even if there were no other gains–although I am sure that there are–that is a very positive one in the work of the House: the ability of Members of Parliament to hold Ministers to account, to get them to explain themselves at length. And whether it is on high policy, medium policy, low policy or the nitty-gritty of administration, it matters not. It is that they are held to account on the record.

Mr Allen

651. So far, so good; but can be better in the next ten years. As St. John-Stevas set out the goals in 1979, you gentlemen, each set out the key reform for the next decade and I will prod you with my four points as I did Professor Jones: the right to report to the Floor; only four substantive Motions debated on the Floor out of 600 reports since 1979; the independence of the select committees–should we try somehow to eliminate the Executive influence on the selection and direction of select committees?–then the levels of staffing and, finally, is there a legislative role, can we start to develop if not a US Congress, at least, a feel that Members of Parliament are having a pre-legislative bite at some of the stuff that the Executive piles through this House at will.

(Dr Hennessy) I share your anxiety, Mr Allen, as I understand it; and it is this. I think that Opposition takes three forms in this place. One is the classic, adversarial, across-the-Floor; the other is what the present Prime Minister likes to call “the awkward squad”, which usually includes people I have nothing but admiration for, whatever their political party. The courage with which they can persist, as single people quite often, is amazing and absolutely necessary; the third form is the reasoned Opposition, the all-party Opposition which you get up here. I am a great believer in the reasoned, all-party side of it, feeding in more directly downstairs. Obviously, on highly-charged political occasions, it is not going to make much of an impact because when the heat increases downstairs, as you well know better than I do, evidence is driven out. I think that the more Parliament can be in a position to pursue evidence-driven inquiries, evidence-driven accountability, the better off we all are. George Jones was producing for me–and it is not because I am a soggy centrist, far from it!–a counsel of despair in suggesting that it is all politics and that knowledge can be a disadvantage because it is all politics. Let us take civil nuclear power? Whenever did political conviction build a nuclear power station? Whenever did it make it safe? We all have to live with manifestos at election time but they cut simply no ice–as you know better than I; and particularly those of you who have been Ministers–when it comes to facing the ever more complicated problems. And the one area in which Parliament has raised its game to match the difficulty of governing an advanced country, of having a genuine input by elected people into very complicated procurements, is this bit. And the more that can be done to feed in down there what you do here, the better. Many of your ideas I think are wholly admirable because they all tilt that way.

Mr Allen

652. That was the analysis. Now, can you answer the question about the next ten years?

(Dr Hennessy) In the next ten years I think there are two areas which are crucial for you, as it were, as a charter of advance, and for me. They are changing the Osmotherly Rules.(1) And, secondly, getting a different kind of back-up for yourselves, one more akin to what the Public Accounts Committee has. I think it was David Crouch, the former MP for Canterbury, who, at a conference that I once attended, said that the difference between the Public Accounts Committee and the rest is between a management consultancy and a pressure group. I thought he had it in one! Anything you can do to narrow that gap through getting better back-up–and I will elaborate if you want me to do so–will be all to the good. But those are the two key areas I would go for.

Mr Maxwell-Hyslop

653. But, in fact, he had not much experience of select committees, did he?

(Dr Hennessy) I do not think he had sat on one, had he? No, he was a Public Accounts Committee man. But there is something in that analogy, is there not?

654. Would you not say that the Public Accounts Committee looked back more, whereas the departmental-related select committees looked forward in the way that the old Expenditure Committee did; that the function of the Public Accounts Committee was concerned primarily with events past rather than with events to come?

(Dr Hennessy) But they–because of Gladstone up there!–had this back-up; they had had it for a very long time and had got their own new charter in ’83 which I think is all to the good, as well. It strikes me that what you need is to grow a new capacity alongside the National Audit Office. I would not mind it being part of the National Audit Office because I cannot understand why Mr Sheldon, who is on the record on this, is so averse to your having a bit of help from his people, as it were, because you are all-party, too. He thinks it would politicise the National Audit Office. But you are all-party and they are all-party. It strikes me that one way of proceeding, for example, would be to tack on (as a starter) to the National Audit Office something comparable to the Washington Office of Technology Assessment, which costs at the moment $16 million a year which, in our money, would be roughly £10 million. That would give all the departmental select committees help on the most complicated issues that come before you, which are those of procurements. In an ideal world, I would want another £10 million, as well, to help you with a wider range of current policy. And if I were defending that to taxpayers, as you have to do more than I–and, of course, in fact I do not have to do it at all, thank Heavens!–I would say that £170 billion a year passes through here. What is £20 million more to enable your elected representatives actually to ask real questions, persistent questions, on that? I think that is an example of remarkable value for money. And if it did not save £20 million a year in its first year, I should be very surprised.


655. Can we continue with the improvements that we should like to see and then come back to advancing further forward?

(Dr Giddings) On Mr Allen’s four options, I have a lot of sympathy with the use of the National Audit Office although I do not think I would go as wide as Peter Hennessy. It seems to me that if it were possible to enable the departmental select committees to make use of the VFM material which the National Audit Office produces, that would also encourage the select committees to pay more attention to the monitoring of the expenditure of departments. I think that would be a great gain and I would hope that could be developed, and, as Mr Hennessy has said, I think that the fears about criticising either the C&AG or the NAO are misplaced. The other option to which I would be attracted would be the greater use of special standing committees in a pre-legislative role. It would be very important to divorce the taking of evidence in relation to the subject matter of the legislation from the actual legislative discussion. Provided that those two things can be kept separate–and I think the two or three examples that there have been were quite successful–it would work very well. However, I have grave doubts as to whether any Government would buy it because of the time it would consume, the extra time that would be needed, in terms of the legislative process, and we all know what are the pressures on time in this place, Why Governments are in such a hurry to legislate is, perhaps, a rather larger issue.

(Professor Drewry) I broadly agree with most of what has been said, Taking the legislative role first, I think that legislative standing committees, when they were used–and they are still, I suppose, on the books–

656. They are, but they are not being used currently. We do not understand why.

(Professor Drewry) I think that the last occasion when there was talk of using them was on the Shops Bill; and that was not, perhaps, a very happy occasion for the Government. But I think I agree with what was implicit in what Dr Giddings has said: that if you involve select committees in the legislative process then you are changing their character, they become routine processing bodies, they get to become colonised by the Executive and by the whips; and that is really the end of their free-standing capacity. On staffing, yes, I agree entirely with what a number of witnesses have said about associating the departmentally-related select committees with the work of the National Audit Office. Indeed, I read with great interest the evidence given to you by the Chairman of the Defence Committee on that subject. This, I thought, was very interesting and very sound. On reporting to the Floor, which was Mr Allen’s first point, I do not feel terribly strongly about that because I think the real virtue of committee activity is the way in which it produces a general enrichment–one hopes so, anyway; and my impression is that it is the case–of parliamentary debate, of the content of questioning and that sort of thing. I think that flagging days for debate, days which probably would not be well attended, is probably a bit of a red herring. On the point about independence, I think that the only thing on which I agreed substantially with George Jones was when he said that he did not have any strong views about that; because I do not, either.

Mr Cook

657. Dr Hennessy, you said that one of your high priorities would be to change the Osmotherly Rules and both you and Dr Giddings placed great emphasis on accountability. In fact, your intriguing phrase was, I think, “evidence-driven accountability”. To whom is the civil servant accountable?

(Dr Hennessy) This is where the Head of the Home Civi1 Service, who is a thoroughly good chap, will disagree with me profoundly. But I shall tell you what I think. I think the Civil Service in pretty well every day-to-day circumstance is responsible to the Minister; because the Minister, as the current position has it, quite rightly, is the embodiment of the Crown for most practical purposes most days. There is, however, a view I take of the Civil Service which is rather different from that of the chap who is in charge of it at the moment. It is this.

658. Can you say the last couple of phrases again?

(Dr Hennessy) I take a different view, however, from the current Head of the Home Civil Service about the Civil Service. I am closer to one of his predecessors, Lord Bancroft, who, in a public lecture a few years ago, said, in effect, that the Civil Service is not owned wholly by the particular set of Ministers who find themselves in charge of it. It is a national asset. I would say that it is a piece of transferable technology. Under our system, it is a national asset which has to be capable of being transferred in a matter of hours on the Friday afternoon after a General Election when power has shifted. And to do that, it has to be in a position to command the confidence of the incoming Cabinet at the drop-of-a-hat. And to do that, it has to be made quite plain, both to every member of the 600,000-strong Civil Service and to people outside, that it is not in the pocket of any political administration. It is a neutral force and it is a genuinely transferable piece of technology, with no Permanent Secretary being sent on “gardening leave” or retired early to encourage the others. That would be the end of the 19th Century settlement which, like most good things in here was invented by that chap up there, Gladstone. So, as a result of that, there is one exception to my general statement that to all intents and purposes civil servants are Crown servants answering, in effect, to Ministers. And it is this. If they think they are being required to do anything that is improper–not unlawful necessarily, but improper in the sense of being partisan–they actually should have some final form of appeal beyond the head of their profession, which is where the chain of appeal stops now, to turn to. Because it is a necessary safeguard for the Opposition party, for the public and for those who think that a politicised Civil Service would be ruinous, that they are in fact in a position to keep themselves clean and decent, bearing on the day when they might have to be shifted to “other ownership”, as it were. In that sense, the Cabinet are the temporary owners of a permanent national asset. So, in that sense, there is one sense in which they are not accountable only to their Ministers; they are accountable to a wider public interest.

659. Would you remove the kind of coverlet of their ability to say, “My advice to my Minister is privy”?

(Dr Hennessy) What I would change about the Osmotherlys, Mr Cook, I could tell you very briefly. There are a few Osmotherlys which I think are an outrage. For example, let me start by saying that the way to change it would be to change the whole philosophy of this document. The philosophy at the moment is this: that you will be able to say only a kind of residue; that once all the hot and delicate subjects have been removed, once anything to do with current policy has been removed, you can say that. If they literally stuck to this rule book, they would be able to tell you only what was in Written Answers, oral questions, White Papers–and they could confirm the day of the week and the time of the day. That is, if they literally stuck to this, as it is now written. What is needed at the beginning is a general statement–which, in fact, they have in paragraph 20–where it says:

“The general principle to be followed is that it is the duty of officials to be as helpful as possible to Committees …”

Then they have 25 pages of exceptions and caveats. It should open with a statement that public servants are there to give to Parliament everything except in those narrowly-defined areas of special sensitivity. In that sense, you would shift the whole philosophy round to one of openness except in exceptional circumstances. It is the other way round at the moment.


660. Do you see that actually being acceptable either to Ministers or to the Head of the Civil Service?

(Dr Hennessy) That is a different question. Can I give you, Chairman, one bit on which I think you could negotiate on–in fact, three bits–with considerable success? First of all, on page 11 of the Osmotherlys (and it is Rule 30) they are, if they take this literally, required to refrain from commenting in any way at all on “questions in the field of political controversy”–which is pretty much a blanket ban if you take it literally. This is in page 11; it is point iv. of Rule 30. That, to me, is moving towards George Jones’ territory; that, in effect, is really offering you a suicide note to go out of business. Or to die of boredom. The next Osmotherly which I think really does need looking at is Rule 31. Of course, you have to recognise collective Cabinet responsibility as the basis of our constitution. Even if several Members of the Cabinet do not and the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary every day upstairs does not, you have to, I have to, because we are all God-fearing citizens. But it strikes me here that when they rule out on that basis their capacity to answer questions in any form on any inter-Departmental business, that pretty well covers anything, everything. Can you think of anything that is hot that the Treasury is not involved in, because money is involved? That makes it inter-Departmental. If you take these things literally, and one has to be a literal man because it is carefully drafted, that rules out everything. You cannot even be told at the level to which discussions are taken. If you ask a civil servant, “Has the Cabinet considered that?”–he cannot tell you. It is out of bounds. The third Osmotherly Rule is the one which I think is a real outrage. There is no question. You could perhaps argue about some of the things I have said; but this, I think, should enrage all decent parliamentarians. It is Rule 41. It says:

“While Select Committees should not press for internal advice to Ministers to be revealed, they are less likely to accept without argument”–

You see, they do expect some spirit on your behalf!:

“a refusal to reveal a report from a departmental committee containing outside members, and even less likely to accept a refusal in the case of a wholly external committee. In particular, they will be understandably reluctant to accept a refusal where the establishment of the committee in question has been announced, together with its membership and terms of reference, and where its report is known to exist. These implications need to be taken into account in deciding how much publicity should be given to the establishment of committees of this kind.”

This is open government with a vengeance, is it not? This is classifying the existence of departmental committees of inquiry. Mr Chairman, I am one of those who believes–

661. There is a lovely example of that (which Mr Maxwell-Hyslop might even remind you about) in his tin inquiry where, in fact, the civil servants were actually not even allowed to give us minutes of an international committee which we finally got from Washington, under the Freedom of Information Act, although we could not get them from our own civil servants. So that we understand too well that there are nonsenses.

(Dr Hennessy) Yes. I think that sometimes you need some civil rights when it comes to this kind of thing.

662. I am glad that you are not cynical about it.

(Dr Hennessy) Not at all. I was about to say, Chairman, that the chap who wrote this or, let me put it this way, the spirit of the people who drafted this–for it would be unfair to name Osmotherly, who, although he was sanctified with it and has his place in constitutional history through it, took over the job when this was already drafted–I sometimes think would classify Hansard if they thought they could get away with it.

(Professor Drewry) As far as I am concerned, the Osmotherly Rules really have the sort of baleful impact that the Official Secrets Acts have always had; namely, they are very seldom invoked but they cast a pall of gloom and unnecessary reticence over what should be essentially open proceedings. Once again, I was very attracted to some of the points that were raised by the Chairman of the Defence Committee in his memorandum where he highlighted some specific points, noting, for example, that under the financial management initiative there has been a considerable evolution of budgetary responsibilities within departments and it is important for committees to be able to establish contact with the people who are actually taking decisions at that sort of level. This links to a point which I made in my own written submission of evidence about the “Next Steps” initiative which I think provides an added incentive to look at these rules afresh.

Mr Winnick

663. Mr Chairman, if you take aside the Osmotherly Rules–and we have listened with great interest to what Dr Hennessy has said; I think he probably echoes the views of this Committee–and the points made in the Paper, “Reform of the Select Committee System” regarding the absence of a departmental committee on the Lord Chancellor’s Department, I get the impression (and you will correct me if I am wrong) that you more or less accept that the departmental committees have about got it right. Am I correct in thinking that?

(Professor Drewry) Yes.

664. We have received evidence from one or two organisations, perhaps not major organisations, that suggests in effect the very opposite (if you like) of what Professor Jones was telling us: that the select committees should be built up, with more staff, more authority and the rest of it. Is that your view?

(Dr Giddings) No.

(Dr Hennessy) But it is mine.

665. Well, there is no reason why you should be unanimous in your views. So you do not accept that, Dr Giddings?

(Dr Giddings) No. I find the Congressional model misleading–and I think that is where most of that argument comes from–and I think one has to take into account that in this House the partisan divisions are real, the power of the whips is real and the select committees and all the other activities have to take place within that context. I do not go as far as Professor Jones and say, therefore, that nothing that is policy should be entered upon. I think one has to be realistic and leave the committees to decide for themselves where they can most fruitfully apply their energies in the light of their knowledge of their subject and their knowledge of the political context in which they are operating.


666. And in the light of the importance which they put upon subjects which are being dealt with by their Department at that particular moment.

(Dr Giddings) Indeed!

Mr Winnick

667. Dr Hennessy has a different viewpoint, perhaps. I am in no way being unfair–at least, I hope not–but a journalistic viewpoint which, obviously, also has a very important role to play in a democracy. But is there not a danger, Dr Hennessy, that one can get the view that we could almost be like the United States without recognising the significance of the Chamber day in and day out; and that departmental select committees simply cannot play by the very way in which Parliament is run and has always been run unless you are going to change it fundamentally, and along the lines of the United States system whereby you have these powerful, almost Congressional-like, committees. In the United States (as, I am sure, you know better than I) it is to the committees that matters are referred. Take the Vietnam war. Was it ever debated on the Floor of the Senate? It was constantly on the agenda of the appropriate Senate Committee. Is there not a danger in your thinking, and in the thinking of those like you, that you can be so concerned with the building up of these departmental select committees as not to take into recognition what goes on daily (as you, yourself, know) on the Floor of the House?

(Dr Hennessy) Not in Britain, Mr Winnick. It is rather like, I think, Mr Barlas, when he was Clerk of the Commons and gave evidence to your predecessor committee in the mid-70s that led to the departmental select committees. He talked, I think, of the danger of the Cohn and Schine syndrome, of committees being taken over by expert advisers; although there was nothing expert about Senator Joe McCarthy’s advisers. They were monsters of prejudice; evidence was not part of their world. But I have never detected any danger in this country in any walk of public life, to be quite honest, of the expert taking over. Harold Macmillan said in 1949 that we have not fought to get rid of the divine right of kings to be taken over by the divine right of experts. But, given that most walks of public life and professional life in this country are expertise-averse, including the senior Civil Service, this is a very remote danger, indeed. Also, Mr Chairman, your asked a moment ago whether I thought there was any likelihood of this Government or any other accepting a totally-revised Osmotherly Rules; and I answered, No. There is no real danger in our lifetime, sadly, of any Government actually giving you the powers or the back-up or the resources to build you up to anything approaching the Congressional system. It is simply not a problem which arises.

Mr Winnick: I think that would be considered undesirable in itself.


668. Because we are not the Executive.

(Dr Hennessy) It is not a real danger here. You are going to have to be quite honest, I think. You are going to have to fight tooth and nail to get another half-a-crown for this enterprise to get another ounce of power for yourselves. I should be very surprised, indeed, if the day came during my lifetime when a vast constitutional imbalance is a real risk because of select-committee power surging dramatically.

669. Am I being too unthinking if I say that while, obviously, the Osmotherly Rules are there, on the whole with the cross-questioning of civil servants, they go much further and there is much greater cooperation in answering the Committees than the interpretation in the strictest sense of the Osmotherly Rules. Is that not fair?

(Dr Hennessy) They break them every day, Chairman; and I think the advent of television will increase that. Let me give one example. Sir Peter Gregson had to imitate Trevor Bailey at the wicket at Lord’s on a difficult day on the Rover/Aerospace inquiry, because he could not win. He was not the Permanent Secretary when all that took place and, given the high political charge, he had to do a straight-bat routine hour after hour. On most occasions, it is not like that. On most occasions, if a permanent civil servant appeared before you with the television cameras on and imitated Trevor Bailey at the crease, he would make himself or herself risible. And, to their credit, they have not stuck to these Rules. They break the Osmotherly Rules week in, week out–which is another very powerful argument for recognising reality and actually shifting them to the basis on which a genuine accommodation could occur. But there have been examples where–

670. If I may cross-question you on that point, are we not better to leave things as they are than to try to rectify them, and then, perhaps, to have them re-established, perhaps a little easier, but held to absolutely?

(Dr Hennessy) This is the classic, British “good chap” theory, if I may say that, Chairman. If you leave well alone, you can expect decent chaps to find a way round and not make a fuss about it, not make a song and dance, not be constitutionally pernickety about it. It used to be the argument about leaving the old Official Secrets Act where it was because no jury would convict under it. But what was not the case. I think this is exactly the same. We are very constitutional-reform averse in this country on the grounds that, if we tinker, we might make it worse. To be quite honest, I think we are sometimes a little defeatist about this. It is the law of unintended consequences; and I do not accept that. I actually think that unless the ground rules between the select committees and Whitehall are established on a different basis, they could get literal about this and you would have no recourse.

671. Dr Giddings?

(Dr Giddings) Chairman, the difficulty is that they are there. You know they are there and they know that you know that they are there. And it is rather difficult, therefore, to try to ignore them. Actually, the strength of Parliament’s position is that, although they are there, I think I am right in saying that Parliament has never actually endorsed them.

672. That is right.

(Dr Giddings) I would invite this committee to repeat that position. I do not think there is any need, even for the Civil Service, to have any set of rules at all. It is a well-established convention that responsibility is collective, that you do not reveal what advice has been given to Ministers and more than that you do not need. Civil servants who give evidence to select committees are perfectly capable of looking after themselves with those two simple conventions. You need no more. But I think it would be dangerous for the Procedure Committee to appear to endorse the rules in any sense whatsoever.

673. My last question is on the Science and Technology Committee across the departmental divide. Mr Higgins has suggested that, it is unnecessary. Other people who have submitted evidence have said that they think it is necessary. Would you, who study the working of select committees, be in favour of there being a new Science and Technology Committee, or not?

(Professor Drewry) In principle, Chairman, I think it sounds like a good idea but my own feeling about the committee system is that it is pretty near saturation point in terms of pressures on manpower; and another committee would have to be at the expense of an existing committee or a shrinkage in the size of committees. And I think that, if anything, the committees are a little on the small side as they stand now.

Mr Maxwell-Hyslop

674. This Committee is down to its quorum and has been so for some time.

(Dr Giddings) I think there are sufficient opportunities to explore those issues now if Members wanted to; and the fact that they have not done so, I suspect, means that they are not that interested. That may be unfortunate from the point of view of those who consider Science and Technology as important but that is it. I, personally, was initially disappointed–and it has become history now–that there was not a combined committee to follow the affairs of the nationalised industries. But it fell away and, of course, now it is irrelevant. The committees must follow what they are interested in because only in that way will they use the tools that are available to them. Any attempt to impose other subjects upon them, I think, will be disastrous. They will not come.

(Dr Hennessy) I think, Chairman, there is a way of doing it by other means. You have already, I believe, the powers to join with other select committees if you want to do so.


675. It has never been done.

(Dr Hennessy) It has have never been done, but I think you can do it under the present rules. You could also consider–and I think you can do this, but under which standing order I do not know. I think you can do it but I may be wrong joining up with a House of Lords Select Committee and have a Joint Committee of both Houses. They have a very good one on Science and Technology. I worry about this because it is the most difficult area of all for people of a generalist background. The former Cabinet Secretary, Lord Trend, told me on one occasion that the reason he was very keen on the Central Policy Review Staff (the “Think Tank”) was that he, as Cabinet Secretary and Deputy Cabinet Secretary, had seen many Cabinets almost completely bereft, really, of any basis on which to judge the really expensive, big, complicated, science-related procurements. And that is always going to be the major weakness of whichever set of parliamentarians we are talking about–whether it is in a room like this or in the Cabinet Room. And anything that can be done on the really difficult and complicated science issues to get round that, the better. And it may be that the existing rules could enable you to re-form into a far more effective flying wedge than a one-off select committee might be.

676. Thank you very much, indeed. Gentlemen, are there any points that you would like to put to us, points to which we have not alluded or points which you have not been able to make?

(Professor Drewry) I should only like to put down a marker for the Next Steps, which I have done in my memorandum already.

677. Do you have anything to add, Dr Hennessy?

(Dr Hennessy) Yes, Chairman. It is this. To my regret, I did not attend the Williams Committee hearings which led to the select committee structure that we now have. I became aware of it only when they reported, to be quite honest. It strikes me, looking back to that, that it is once every decade that you get a chance to look at this system (which is why it is not for me to suggest how you report). But if you do not bid high, nobody else will bid high for those select committees. And there will not be another chance, until I am a burnt-out old wreck verging on retirement, for the next successor committee to have another go. So the more you can do to build on the past, on the achievements of the past, and to shove it forward several notches for the 90s, the better.

678. While I am not in a position to tell you what our Committee will report, I do not intend to be a burnt-out wreck and see them go under. Thank you very much indeed.

Footnote to Q 652:

1. The full title of the document is “Memorandum of Guidance for Officials appearing before Select Committees”.

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Prepared by Simon Patrick, 31 May 2001