European Scrutiny Committee
This committee (formerly known as the European Legislation Committee) was established shortly after the United Kingdom joined the EEC in 1973. It examines a range of European Union business: not only European Union policies, spending and draft legislation, but also institutional issues - it reported in detail on the processes that led to the Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon Treaties. It has 16 members and has power to set up as many sub-committees as it wishes. The work of this committee is covered in Chapter 11.
This is an unusual committee whose work includes both detailed housekeeping (and so might be classed with the internal committees) and some of the most high-profile hearings (with the Prime Minister) of any select committee. The committee consists of the chairs of the permanent select committees. The membership thus varies with the number of committees, but at present it stands at 33. It has power to set up two sub-committees, one of which has a limited role in relation to organising the scrutiny of government proposals for National Policy Statements on planning matters.
The Liaison Committee has the general task of considering ‘general matters relating to the work of select committees’. This may be a change in the format of committee reports, for example, or the resources available to committees, or the rules of engagement for pre-appointment hearings with senior public officials. The committee also decides how the budget for overseas travel by select committees is allocated, and it chooses reports for debate on the floor of the House on estimates days and in Westminster Hall (see pages 246 and 259).
In 2000, however, the committee changed its spots entirely and launched into a campaign to make select committees more effective. Its three reports, under the general theme of Shifting the Balance (between the executive and the legislature), put forward a reform programme that produced something of a confrontation with the government and with the then Leader of the House, Margaret Beckett. Her replacement by Robin Cook in 2001 led to the adoption of a number of the committee’s proposals. The committee has followed up its work by publishing periodic reports on the select committee system, assessing its effectiveness and examining innovations and problems.
One Liaison Committee recommendation produced an important result, although not immediately. In December 2000, the chair of the committee wrote to the Prime Minister inviting him to give evidence to the committee on the government’s annual report ‘to spell out your policies in an atmosphere very different from that on the floor of the House’. The request was turned down on the grounds of precedent and what was described as ‘the important principle that it is for individual Secretaries of State to answer to the House and its individual Select Committees for their areas of responsibility, and not the Prime Minister’ - even though the Prime Minister answers on those areas of responsibility every week during Prime Minister’s Questions.
However, just over a year later the Prime Minister did, indeed, offer to appear before the committee twice a year to discuss domestic and international affairs, and the first session took place on 16 July 2002. The Prime Minister’s appearances have become important parliamentary occasions, televised live and carefully analysed by the media. The size of the committee makes the normal style of examination more difficult, but questioning is focused on themes decided by the committee beforehand, each led by one MP. The Prime Minister is given notice of the themes but not of the detailed questions; the calm questioning in depth at these sessions has been a valuable antidote to the knockabout of PMQs, and it is difficult to see a future Prime Minister being able to discontinue the practice.