Evidence on select committees, 1990

The following evidence was given to the House of Commons Select Committee on Procedure on 14 February 1990 and printed with its Second Report of Session 1989-90, HC 19-II, The Working of the Select Committee System, (pp 167-8). See also related written evidence, other oral and written evidence. See copyright notice below.




Members present:

Mr Graham Allen
Mr D. N. Campbell-Savours
Sir William Clark
Sir Charles Morrison
Mr William Powell
Mr Roger Sims
Mr James Wallace

In the absence of the Chairman, Sir Charles Morrison was called to the Chair

* * * *

Examination of witnesses



Dr Michael Rush, Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Exeter, called in and examined. Professor Rhys and Professor Norton further examined.

Sir Charles Morrison

538. Dr Rush, could I invite you to come to the table and welcome you? I would like to apologise, first, for the absence of Sir Peter Emery, the Chairman, who was unavoidably unable to attend this meeting and, secondly, for the fact that we are running a little late. We are very grateful to you for your two memoranda, firstly the one which deals with the specialised question of select committees and pressure groups. Perhaps I could start by asking one or two questions on that and no doubt my colleagues will then wish to come in. What would you say has been the relationship between departmental select committees and pressure groups and what do you think they are expecting from each other? Before you answer that question, could you define a little more what you mean by a pressure group? Does it include, for example, the CBI or the NFU, or are they organisations or associations?

(Dr Rush) To answer your last question first, Mr Chairman, the answer is yes, it does include bodies like the CBI and the NFU. I have chosen in this memorandum, in the title certainly and quite often in the substance, to use the term “pressure groups”, but you will note that I also use the term “outside organisations”. You will note that in the first paragraph I say that this work was done on behalf of the Study of Parliament Group. It is therefore part of a larger study which Professor Norton was involved in as well, in other aspects of it, and we spread the net extremely widely. That is to say, we did not limit ourselves to what some people would conventionally regard as pressure groups, bodies like the CND, the Child Poverty Action Group or something of that sort, which are set up specifically to exert pressure, wherever they feel pressure needs to be exerted, on Government, Parliament or whatever. We spread it much more widely than that. We included trade associations, trade unions, which obviously are not solely concerned with exerting pressure, and so forth. So we spread it very widely in that sense. You asked about the relationship between pressure groups–if I may, I shall use the term “pressure groups”, having said what I mean by them–and select committees and you suggested that there are two sides to it, what the committee wants from them and what the groups want from the committees. I think what the committees want from pressure groups is basically information, information in two senses. They want information in the factual sense of the term: they want to know what the facts are of various matters. There are various organisations that can provide information; sometimes they are the only organisations which can provide that information. But they also want to know opinions, what are the opinions, of various interests outside Parliament and Government on the various matters that the particular committee is concerned with. I think that basically is what the committees want. What the groups want is, I think, a variety of things. They want to be able to use any means that come their way. I do not think that it is true to say, for instance, as some of the conventional wisdom does in textbooks, that when pressure groups come to Parliament they have lost the battle elsewhere. That may well be so in some cases. I think that they spread their activities very widely, they do not move from one position or situation to another, they often operate globally. As one of the political consultants who contributed, in the sense of being interviewed, towards the study that I referred to put it, they operate on a wide basis and they operate simultaneously in various channels to bring their views to bear. That includes Parliament and, within Parliament, select committees. So they are trying to get their point of view across. They particularly value, for instance, the opportunity to appear before select committees, because that gives them a second opportunity for something they want, which is publicity, and they can obviously get much better publicity by appearing before a select committee and giving oral evidence, but they can also get publicity by simply submitting evidence, which of course is open to anyone to do, and as is clear from the evidence that I presented, many do that. So I think that what groups are concerned with is trying to secure publicity, to get their point of view heard and, in turn of course, to influence policy. In the case of select committees it might be asked why should they want to use select committees to do that, because basically as far as the departmental select committees are concerned there is no particular business that comes through those select committees that has to come via those select committees to be decided. Those select committees do not decide anything, but they may well influence matters, and in one sense it is not necessarily that important from the point of view of organisations whether select committees have any influence whatsoever. If they think they do, then they will seek to exert influence wherever they possibly can. So ultimately their objective is to influence policy, not always in the sense of trying to influence a particular piece of policy that is currently being dealt with by the Government, but, for example, to get things on to the political agenda or to get things moved up the political agenda, to focus attention on particular issues that they feel are of concern to them. So in those ways I think that is the sort of relationship that exists between groups and committees.

539. Do you think that any of the select committees and pressure groups have developed an excessively close relationship and do you think any of the pressure groups have developed particular techniques of influencing select committees?

(Dr Rush) One hears rumours about particular committees having what might be termed cosy relationships with pressure groups. In the work that I have done, not that I would claim to have looked at that very closely, I would say that, rather like one of the questions that Professor Norton replied to, in order to answer it you would have to be on the inside rather than on the outside. I say that this tends to be very much a matter of rumour. I have heard it suggested, but I do not necessarily give any credence to those suggestions, that for example the Transport Committee and Trade and Industry have had a cosy relationship. I do not know whether that is an accurate assessment of the relationship. I think there is something else to be said. It can be misleading to talk of cosy relationships between outside interests and select committees in the same way as it is sometimes talked about Government departments and particular interests. Most of the committees range quite widely on the various matters that they investigate and therefore, even if a particular outside organisation has a better entrée than others, possibly because there are Members on the committee legitimately acting as consultants or advisers to that organisation or are associated with it in some way or other–for example, sponsored members or interests declared in the Register of Interests–it will only be in relation to particular issues that come before the committee; it cannot be on the whole of a committee’s business, because it is extremely unlikely that there is a particular organisation that wishes to influence the committee on the whole of its business.

(Professor Norton) Could I just add something to that? I think the real problem is not a cosy relationship between groups and committees, but in terms of communication, of groups actually understanding what committees do. Certainly the survey that was carried out of organisations suggested in many areas a lack of knowledge of the way Parliament works and actually how to go about the task of making representations to members of committees, either of standing committees in relation to legislation or select committees in relation to making particular recommendations. I do not think the problem lies in groups being too close with committees; it is rather that committees need to explain to groups, and groups need to learn, about how committees operate. I think that is where there is far more of a problem.

© Parliamentary Copyright 1990. Parliamentary copyright material from House of Commons publications is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office on behalf of Parliament.

Prepared by Simon Patrick, 31 May 2001