Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture, 2014

    Select Committees and the “reform parliament” of 2010–2015
    Internal improvement
    Additional responsibilities
    Legislation—time to export democracy to public bill committees?

The Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, delivered the Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture in Westminster on Monday 30 June 2014. It is reproduced here:

It is a huge pleasure for me to deliver this first Michael Ryle memorial lecture. I cannot compete with Dawn Oliver in her appreciation of the life and work of Michael Ryle so I will not attempt to do so other than by applauding and echoing her sentiments. I would like to thank her as President of the Study of Parliament Group, John McEldowney, Chair of the Group, and Emily Baldock, the Secretary of the Group, for all that they have done to make this event happen. Andrew Kennon, the heir to Michael’s empire today and custodian of his legacy, has also been at the heart of this celebration. The real cheerleader here, however, is Bridget Ryle and it is wonderful to see her tonight. Bridget will be impressed and touched by the extraordinary collection of retired senior clerks and indeed serving senior clerks who are with us here on this occasion. If all the wigs which could be worn on the heads assembled here were placed in a line I suspect they might stretch from the State Bedroom to Central Lobby. In anticipation of such a stellar turnout, albeit not a display of high fashion, I have put my mind to what might be the most appropriate collective noun for such an esteemed set of individuals. We cannot alas call you a Parliament of Clerks, as apt as that might otherwise be, as there is already a Parliament of Owls and I do not think we should risk confusion by adding a further chamber in this instance. Perhaps instead we should settle for a Procedure of Clerks as a suitable designation. It is an astonishing assembly.

Parliament has been truly blessed by people such as Michael Ryle for devoting their lives to this institution and doing so with a commitment, dedication and faith which resemble that of a priest or a monk, except in the case of Westminster, mercifully without the celibacy. It is fashionable in some circles to dismiss public service as an ideal or imply that it is merely a very long-term strategy to maximise a pension. Such barbs are rot. This Parliament could not survive without the service of people like Michael Ryle and his predecessors and successors and we should have no compunction in stating that baldly. In any case, whether you are a member of the Procedure of Clerks or, like me, a mere mortal then you are extremely welcome in Speaker’s House to celebrate Michael Ryle and his many endeavours.

Michael was, as we have heard, a Clerk of Committees. He had a special affection for Select Committees and was a radical figure in championing them with Leaders of the House of Commons as diverse as Richard Crossman, Norman St John-Stevas and Robin Cook. In pressing for radical change, rather than simply the highly competent administration of the status quo, Michael was both visionary and in my experience exceptional. As this is the first of what I trust will be many Michael Ryle Memorial Lectures, and as I am speaking towards the end of a Parliament in which the status of select committees has been transformed by their democratisation, it seems only logical that I focus on this particular form of parliamentary animal. In doing so, and in the spirit of continued radicalism of which Michael Ryle would I suspect approve, I want to float the notion that democratisation should not end with Select Committees but be extended elsewhere. In this lecture, therefore, I want to salute the transformation of the select committee system which we have witnessed over the past four years, endorse a series of relatively incremental improvements which were largely outlined by the Liaison Committee in its report on select committee effectiveness, resources and powers which was published about 18 months ago, indicate my enthusiasm for a set of bolder initiatives to entrench select committee authority further and then finally, as I have just mentioned, consider how the principle of democratisation adopted for select committees by the Wright Committee and endorsed by the House in 2010 can be extended.

Select Committees and the “reform parliament” of 2010–2015

Select Committees were not invented in 1979. They have a deep history as far as the House of Commons is concerned and were an especially important instrument in the Victorian era. In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, they were corroded by fierce partisanship and as a consequence came to be eclipsed or marginalised. Moreover, various later well-intended reforms around the concept of Subject Committees either as institutions in their own right or as sub-committees of an Estimates Committee never really caught fire. In part this was because of a lack of consensus as to what the ideal subjects might be, but in truth there was a lack of consensus as to whether or not select committees would compete with or complement the chamber itself. There were many prominent parliamentarians—not least Michael Foot and Enoch Powell—who were profoundly suspicious of the whole concept. To them the authority of the House rested in the theatre of the chamber. Anything which detracted from the spirit of a Committee of the whole House had the whiff of parliamentary euthanasia about it and they had no wish to see the House of Commons rendered as sterile, as they might have put it, as the US House of Representatives.

Parliamentary reform, furthermore, was a cause which politicians tended to endorse in opposition and avoid once they assumed ministerial office. If the commitment to introduce select committees had not been specifically endorsed in the Conservative Party manifesto of 1979 and come to the floor of the House of Commons within weeks of Mrs Thatcher’s arrival in Downing Street at the behest of a Leader of the House willing to put Parliament before Government, it might easily have never happened. For at least a decade thereafter select committees were treated by MPs and commentators as an experiment which it was not inconceivable could be found wanting. This was not an irreversible change. If the select committees of the 1980s had not swiftly developed a distinct culture different from that of the chamber but not a threat to it, either matters might have been reversed or the select committees would have continued but—to borrow from Bagehot—as a “dignified” rather than an “efficient” element of the contemporary House of Commons.

The departmental select committees had within a decade of their creation established a purpose. Their challenge, and to be candid the fact that it was a challenge was their fundamental weakness, was to establish their legitimacy. The spirit of cross-party co-operation was admirable and many of the individual reports published over the course of thirty years were commendable. Some in fact were absolutely seminal. Some of those responsible for those reports are with us tonight. Yet the fundamental limit on those committees’ influence remained the method of their selection. They were seen, at times a little harshly but mostly understandably, as the creature of the Whips and therefore in the impossible position of having a mission to scrutinise the activities of the executive but being chosen by a method which made them dependent on those exercising patronage in its name. All the collegiality in the world and all the academic praise for their work could not square this circle. Put simply, those charged with the scrutiny of the executive were handpicked by that executive and, in the case of opposition members, by the executive in waiting. Reformers thought they might be able to release the select committees from their chains when Robin Cook referred the matter to a Modernisation Committee which he knew was sympathetic to change. Yet when their recommendations came to a vote in the House itself they were the victim of what struck many as the parliamentary equivalent of a drive-by shooting, with those associated with the Usual Channels playing their customary part as the Usual Suspects. Absent a fundamental review of composition and selection, the part which select committees could play in Parliament was limited.

Then came their opportunity for liberation. The link between the expenses scandal and select committee composition was a marginal one but in the truly astonishing atmosphere of Spring 2009 anything was possible, including the election of an under-age midget as the Speaker of the House of Commons. The Wright Committee was created. It produced a wish list of reforms of which the direct democratic election of Select Committee Chairs by the whole House, with the rest of the committee nominees to be determined by a secret ballot of their party colleagues, was central. Sceptics and cynics doubted whether the proposition would ever reach a vote in the House or if it did whether the outcome which occurred in 2002 would simply be repeated. It is no secret that even Tony Wright himself did not put forward his proposals with a sense of unrestrained optimism that they would be adopted. They were, after all, bold and potentially transformative in their character.

Yet they were accepted, and transformative they have proved to be. There cannot be a single commentator on Westminster matters who would deny that select committees have been more confident institutions in this parliament and that confidence has been reflected in their content. The virtually gladiatorial activities of the Treasury Select Committee, the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and the Home Affairs Committee, led respectively by Andrew Tyrie, John Whittingdale and Keith Vaz, have seized most of the headlines, but the reality is that select committees across the board have become more consequential political actors. Indeed, the Public Accounts Committee, long celebrated for its ability to shine a bright light on spending and administration across the field of public policy and, now led brilliantly by Margaret Hodge, has excelled itself in holding powerful feet to the fire. This has been assisted by the incorporation of this new select committee activism into the work of the chamber. This has been achieved through the opportunity for select committees to obtain a short slot in the Chamber during prime time after Questions to present the publication of a report to the House.

This development is significant in another regard. The performance of select committees in this Parliament has, to my mind at least, surely ended the anguished discussion about whether they were the friend or foe of the chamber and the House of Commons as a whole. What the past four years have illustrated is that select committee activism, allied with other means of scrutiny such as the revival of the Urgent Question—for which I will immodestly take some credit—and the debating time which is now under the control of the House Backbench Business Committee, all combine to enhance scrutiny. The determined Member of Parliament now finds himself or herself with a variety of means by which to hold ministers and public officials to account. Accountability at Westminster today resembles a tool-kit in which constituency work, campaigning on certain causes or issues, service on a committee, written questions and operating within the chamber itself are all available options. The entrepreneurial backbencher is now a much more effective political animal.

The new era of select committees would have been utterly impossible without democratisation. And once democracy and therefore legitimacy was introduced it instantly became unimaginable that it would be reversed no matter what the political circumstances or how vast a parliamentary majority. The old legitimacy gap has been closed. As I will note later, this means that another one has opened.

Internal improvement

None of this means that there is little or no room for improvement in terms of select committee output. It is a welcome sign that select committees have been among their own harshest critics in this regard. The democratisation of these institutions has presented new opportunities, and entirely understandably it takes time to ascertain how best to make the most of them. There are five areas worthy of reflection, most of which were identified in one form or another by the Liaison Committee report on select committee effectiveness, resources and powers published just over 18 months ago.

The first of these is settling upon a more strategic focus for a committee whenever possible. There is value in having an overarching theme across a whole session, indeed perhaps even an entire Parliament. This should not be pursued too theologically, the ability of select committees to produce timely and topical reports is, after all, at the very core of their value to the House and the country. Nonetheless, I think the example set by the Education Select Committee, which decided to take a special interest in the long tail of educational underachievement in the United Kingdom, is a novel and interesting one which I am sure could be successfully emulated elsewhere.

The second is the virtue in committees chasing up their past reports more vigorously: demanding a timely response from departments and seeking an independent form of assessment as to how much of their work has been accepted by the executive and where it has not, why not. Select committees are, not think tanks, but instruments of Parliament. Thus the practical yardstick for measuring their impact cannot simply be the contribution that they make to the world of ideas, honourable as that is, but to the world of policy implementation. Recalling ministers and officials on a regular basis to discuss their response to past reports as well as present ones strikes me as a worthwhile use of time.

Thirdly, I think it is well worth considering providing select committees with more in-house research and specialist writing capacity rather than having to rely too much on external experts, as immensely helpful as I know from my own tenure on the Select Committee on International Development that these can often be. There is a cost implication here and I fear resources will be constrained in the House for some time but I wonder if there is room for a trade-off whereby committees accept that the typical report should perhaps be somewhat shorter and more policy-focused than has perhaps been the norm in the past in return for the additional research capacity which would allow for the production of such inquiries. This is an area which the Liaison Committee might explore in the next Parliament.

Fourth, I think it is worth some experimentation with the style of questioning or inquisition which a committee deploys. At the moment, these are admirably democratic with all members offered equal time to extract information, but there have probably been times when this has not been the most effective method of extracting embarrassing or inconvenient facts from a witness. It would be intriguing to see committees, by consensus, mixing their techniques up somewhat and possibly benefiting from the element of surprise. Two or three members might assume the majority of the responsibility for questions on occasions or even just one if he or she is widely acknowledged to be especially knowledgeable about a particular sphere of enquiry. The continental rapporteur method might be worthy of evaluation. It would be commendable if one or more select committees in the next Parliament were to see if different techniques led to more candid and revealing answers.

Finally, in this essentially “housekeeping” section of my remarks, I think that there are some huge topics worthy of parliamentary investigation which traverse departmental lines and could be dealt with thoroughly only by Joint Enquiries. There are many of these but, to take an example, the issue of almost institutionalised poverty is one which surely ranges across Whitehall borders. Where the executive itself has formed Cabinet committees and sub-committees in an attempt to track and to shape policy proposals then there must be a case for Parliament doing so as well. Once again, a major act of innovation by select committees in the next Parliament would be valuable.

Additional responsibilities

I would not, however, want to leave the impression that I thought that the select committee system is now more or less all that it could be bar a few important but incremental changes. I think that Parliament should be more ambitious for its committees than that. We needs to test how much the new legitimacy of the select committees can take them and how far their democratic mandate can be extended. We also need to see whether we can connect them closer to the public than today.

In this light, I have three further thoughts that I would like to put to you. The first is that the notion of “confirmation hearings” which we have begun to see take root notably with the Treasury Select Committee is one which should be enhanced and formally institutionalised. There must be at least 100 senior appointments across Whitehall where the individuals concerned have immense authority and their personal qualities of leadership really matter to policy outcomes. Although the process of public appointments is much improved on what it once was, the role of Parliament in all this is not all that it could be and, needless to note, is light years from that of the United States Senate. I think it would be a very positive advance for public policy for there to be a Public Appointments Act which recognised the right of select committees to report on a set of designated appointments and to take the matter to the floor of the House of Commons if they believed that a certain nomination was seriously mistaken.

Second, we could do more still to link the activities of select committees and the chamber more effectively. If every select committee report were brought to the floor for a full debate we might well not have much time for any other parliamentary business. Yet I suspect that more reports are worthy of more attention than is currently given. I would not, however, want such airtime to come at the exclusive expense of the House Backbench Business Committee, which has other matters which it will rightly want its section of our timetable to be able to accommodate. Perhaps instead we could have a system in which if a select committee report attracted quite a high level of signatures from members through an official internal petition system, a debate and furthermore a vote on that report could be triggered within a certain specified number of sitting days.

Finally, there is the importance of encouraging further select committees to hold evidence sessions outside of Westminster and to utilise the full range of new technologies available to draw citizens in to what they are doing. I appreciate that this is an area which the Commission on Digital Democracy is actively examining and I would not want to pre-empt their recommendations but I would urge select committees to look at those conclusions carefully when they come and act upon them.

Legislation—time to export democracy to public bill committees?

This leads me to one final area, namely legislation. Select committees have, as we are aware, become involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny of draft Bills, and that is extremely welcome. Reformers have asked whether this could not be extended further. Select committees could take on the committee stage of certain legislation, notably where there is no profound disagreement between the Government and the Opposition. There is potential scope for some experimentation with a real Bill being referred to the relevant select committee and reported back to the House in an amended form. This is particularly so when legislation has started life in the Lords not the Commons and so by convention is not subject to scrutiny in oral evidence sessions in a Public Bill Committee.

This is certainly worth contemplation. It is an approach that comes with some risks. First, it would put considerable pressure on the time of the committee itself and could come at the opportunity cost of weaker scrutiny of the executive through Whitehall departments. Second, it could corrode the culture and comity of select committees to become involved in the cut-and-thrust of legislation. Third, it would risk introducing an ambiguity as to what exactly select committees are here to do.

This has led me personally to think in more radical territory. It was not that long ago when the Whips had enormous influence over the election of the Speaker, the appointment of the Deputy Speakers, the chairs and members of Select Committees and the composition of Public Bill Committees (or Standing Committees in the vocabulary of times past). Three of these four have fallen to the forces of democracy. I was the first Speaker to be elected after overt campaigning including manifestos and hustings. We have had elections and a by-election for the Deputy Speakers. We have had elections and by-elections for select committee chairs and members. Why not Public Bill Committees too? There is a case for the chairs of these bodies to remain the preserve of the Panel of Chairs but subject to confirmation by the whole House, but the crucial issue is surely how members are determined. Why not allow MPs—Parliament—to decide in a secret ballot which of their number should be chosen as what are, after all, constitutionally their representatives on a Public Bill Committee? Why not invite nominations on the basis of expertise and interest? Why not, in other words, acknowledge the fact that we have a new legitimacy gap, one between select committees which have democratic legitimacy and Public Bill Committees which do not have and never have had, and eliminate that divide through an institutional reform which would extend the democratic principle to Public Bill Committees? Such a change would, in conjunction with the creation of a House Business Committee which regrettably has not been secured in this Parliament, complete the quiet revolution of 2009–10. And would not 2015, the 750th anniversary of the creation of the House of Commons, be the ideal time to consider whether the House believes it would deal with legislation more effectively if those who scrutinise it line-by-line on behalf of the whole House were chaired, as with select committees, by an individual from a designated party but elected by the entire House and by committee members who, once again with select committees as the example, were selected by secret ballots of party caucuses?

It has been very kind of the Study of Parliament Group to afford me to this chance to set out my thinking not only on where select committees might travel in the next Parliament but through that vehicle where parliamentary reform more broadly might be taken. I have perhaps been bolder than some might have anticipated in this regard. I favour an ambitious agenda because I am convinced that the House has been transformed in this Parliament by the changes embraced at the very end of the last one. Ours is, however, a revolution which is only two-thirds complete, there is more yet to do. Of one aspect of all this I am certain. It took over thirty years to get from the creation of departmental select committees in 1979 to the Wright Committee recommendations and without the catalyst of the expenses scandal it would almost certainly have taken an age longer. We should not want to wait for another generation for Parliament again to empower itself.

I cannot know for certain whether Michael Ryle would have approved of what I have said tonight, but it struck me as precisely the right forum in which to say it. I suspect, however, that he would be with me in spirit. He was a great parliamentary servant who fought for great parliamentary causes. The best way to honour him is not just through a dedicated lecture but through a continuation of the fight for a rigorous, exacting and self-confident Parliament which holds the executive to account in the interests of our country.