Audit 2017: How effective is the Westminster Parliament in scrutinising central government policy-making?

The House of Commons is one of the oldest and foremost legislatures in the world – yet in the past it was also a byword amongst political scientists for weak legislative control of government. Recently some revisionist authors have painted a more active picture of MPs’ influence. As part of our 2017 Audit of UK Democracy, Patrick Dunleavy and the Democratic Audit team consider how well Parliament maintains knowledge and scrutiny of the central state in the UK and England.

committee room

Entrance to a committee room. Photo: Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via parliamentary copyright.

What does democracy require for how the national legislature monitors, understands, publicises and questions the policies that national government develops?

  • The elected legislature should normally maintain full public control of government services and state operations, ensuring public and Parliamentary accountability through conditionally supporting the government, and articulating reasoned opposition, via its proceedings.
  • The House of Commons should be a critically important focus of national political debate, articulating ‘public opinion’ in ways that provide useful guidance to the government in making complex policy choices.
  • Individually and collectively legislators should seek to uncover and publicise issues of public concern and citizens’ grievances, giving effective representation both to majority and minority views, and showing a consensus regard for the public interest.
  • In the preparation of new laws, the legislature should supervise government consultations and help ensure effective pre-legislative scrutiny.
  • In considering legislation Parliament should undertake close scrutiny in a climate of effective deliberation, seeking to identify and maximise a national consensus where feasible.
  • Legislators should regularly and influentially scrutinise the current implementation of policies, and audit the efficiency and effectiveness of government services and policy delivery.

 

Although floor debates in the main Commons chamber – and the rowdy weekly showcase of Prime Minister’s Question Time – are the dominant images of the UK Parliament, like any legislature the House of Commons also does a lot of detailed work holding the government to account. (The Lords have their own, smaller and much less influential group of select committees, but our focus in this chapter is on the work of the democratically-elected Commons.)

Recent developments

The House of Commons select committee system has grown in influence over time. In the past, the issue of reconstituting committees after a general election has sometimes been delayed, and until 2010 the party whips in the Commons ‘fixed’ who would chair which committee. Now, however, committee chairs can be elected by MPs, if there are multiple candidates. Table 1 shows that only nine contests were held for the 26 chair positions in July 2017. But this low number reflects the fact that many influential and well-liked chairs continued unchallenged from the 2015-17 Parliament.

Table 1: Key characteristics of the 26 select committee chairs in July 2017

Party Experience Type of committee Competition for chair 
Conservative14Backbench10Departmental18One candidate17
Labour10Cabinet/shadow cabinet9Parliamentary5Election held9
Liberal Democrat1Minister4Cross-cutting3
Scottish National Party1Junior minister3

Source: Computed from data in HC Speaker, 2017

Table 1 also shows that half of the chairs now had ministerial experience, with nine having had earlier cabinet or shadow cabinet roles – a testimony to the increasing salience of these chairing roles (which also attract a salary addition for the MPs involved). There are 18 single-department committees, five that handle internal parliamentary issues, and three cross-cutting committees, of which the Public Accounts Committee is best known. The distribution of chairs broadly follows the proportion of MPs belonging to each party. 

After the EU referendum the Department of Exiting the EU Committee, chaired by Labour’s Hilary Benn, was set up to scrutinise the work of DExEU. It has published a critical first report into the UK’s negotiating objectives.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis

Current strengthsCurrent weaknesses
The select committee system now provides one committee scrutinising each Whitehall department’s executive actions and implementation processes in detail. Select committee members build up worthwhile expertise in that area and a more effective ‘corporate’ spirit than in the past. Attendance at committee sessions has increased and there is more of a premium on effective engagement by members.Select committees only work effectively when they operate in a bipartisan manner, with MPs from different sides of the committee endorsing the same report. Creating this ‘corporate’ spirit is difficult and biases the topics that committee chairs investigate, because they are anxious to secure wide agreement. As a result critical issues dividing the parties may not be examined as ‘too difficult’. Sometimes committees will take on an issue wanted by party A, but only so long party B also gets its favourite issue tackled. These cases rarely work well.
Select committee chairs are now paid a worthwhile salary increment and attract a good deal of media attention. So their role has grown in salience – increasingly attracting serious ex-ministers and genuinely expert and less-partisan backbenchers who can command regular engagement from committee members. Departmental committees mostly operate by calling ‘witnesses’ to give evidence, and taking written evidence from relevant or involved bodies. This is a weak and old-fashioned form of information gathering, and produces a lot of claim and counter-claim that committees do not have the staff or expertise to critically or objectively assess – except in a vague, judgement-of-plausibility manner.
Since mid-2007 select committees have had the capability to review major ministerial appointments of people to head quasi-government agencies. These pre-appointment hearingsnow strongly conditions how ministers and top officials make these appointments. Out of a set of 59 hearings so far, appointments have divided committees or been rejected 13 times. Some very serious government jobs have been involved. MPs on the Education committee initially rejectedthe government’s proposed head of Ofsted (which monitors schools’ quality) after a lacklustre performance at their hearing. And a candidate for Bank of England Deputy Governor resigned in 2017 after the Treasury Select Committee criticised incomplete answers that she had given them.There is strong evidence of a past lack of diversity in who is invited to give evidence, partly reflecting biases in who sits on committees. Women MPs have been severely under-represented on some committees, especially Defence and Foreign Affairs whose members have been 93% male since 1979. Women MPs are most prominent on the health and education committees. A study of nearly 600 witnesses in 153 hearings in 2013 found that 75% were men, with some committees like PAC hearing from nine men for every woman appearing. Other groups strongly favoured were academics, think tanks and trade associations, whereas trade unions were rarely invited.
The support staff for chairs and committee members has increased somewhat. And in response to criticisms of a lack of witness diversity, select committees staff and chairs have recently been more proactive about soliciting evidence from people who might not normally volunteer as witnesses.Select committees’ powers to compel witnesses to appear and to tell the truth seem weak and undefined. Senior civil servants have to appear before select committees, but ministers may refuse. The committees can invite outsiders to appear, and they might be in contempt of Parliament if they fail to show up. Witnesses have to answer questions but can claim not to know or have information with impunity. Some corporate sector witnesses have made plain their
unwillingness to be frank, without much come-back.
The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) benefits from receiving the National Audit Office’s advice and 60 ‘value for money’ reports per year. (NAO is the leading Parliamentary agency, providing an independent check for MPs that monies votes to the government were spent for the correct purposes and in an effective manner). Its hearings and final reports regularly attract media attention in addition to the NAO reports themselves. Many PAC reports deal with single-department subjects, and could more helpfully be processed by the relevant departmental select committees. They could also benefit greatly from gaining access to the 800 strong NAO professional staff and expertise to boost their information-generating capabilities – but at present PAC ‘exclusivism’ has prevented most select committees from gaining any NAO assistance, except for a few cases.
The PAC Chair is always a senior opposition figure, and plays a significant role in giving some ‘parliamentary’ overview of secret spending and defence areas, signing off on some key projects.The PAC’s agenda is a crammed one, so that time devoted to cross-Whitehall issues is regularly squeezed by the pressure of single department reports, sometimes quite minor in scale. PAC members are necessarily generalists in terms of processing a random stream of reports across different departments, although they do develop experience of Whitehall spending and control processes. The NAO produces around 10-15 VFM reports per year that are never reviewed by any parliamentary committee because of capacity limits in the PAC.
Some revisionist accounts have defended legislative committees as operating to show up the ‘viscosity’ of different measures, alerting ministers of where changes are needed, even if the changes involved are always those proposed by ministers. Similarly, the ‘inexpertise’ of MPs on legislative committees has been exaggerated on this benign view (see below).All NAO and PAC scrutiny occurs ‘after the fact’, and so is limited to a post hoc audit role. The NAO claims to save £9 for every £1 that it spends, but PAC plays no prospective or policy-warning role on decisions. Small amounts of NAO advice go to other select committees, e.g. checking the economic growth estimates included in the Chancellor’s annual public spending statements.
The new DExEU committee has enjoyed an unusual amount of press attention, particularly after its questioning of David Davis, clips of which were widely circulated on social media.The separation of legislative committees from select committees is unhelpful and reduces the ability to have legislation reviewed by experts, in favour of many members still being just partisan ‘cannon fodder’ primed to vote the party line whatever the problems that emerge in discussion. The deliberative quality of legislative committee sessions is also low, reaching a nadir in the Opposition day debates supposedly on the budget but in fact about any convenient issue for attacking the government.

Future opportunitiesFuture threats
The unexpected return of a hung Parliament in June 2017, just two years after the earlier 2010-15 period, may once more encourage MPs to be more assertive towards the executive on more issues – especially those that can command cross-party agreement. The Brexit process, for example, creates many opportunities for lobbying for changes, and Brexit divisions often cross-cut party lines.The Brexit process is likely to involve extensive use of statutory instruments, over which Parliamentary surveillance has generally been weak.
Proposals for radical reforms, such as allowing the NAO to advise all departmental select committees, and for them to discuss all single department VFM studies in their area, could offer big improvements quickly to the staffing and information resources of select committees.Radical proposals (such as that opposite) seem unlikely to be adopted, with select committees locked into obsolescent and high cost ways of operating via ‘witnesses’.

Legislative committees

During the legislative process, most bills are sent to a Committee stage when a group of at least 11 MPs consider the proposed Act clause by clause in detail. Of course, the ministers attending come from the department involved and are matched by the shadow cabinet frontbenchers that parallel them, and this brings a certain degree of different expertise to each discussion. But the remaining MPs are just those deputed by the party whips to serve on each committee. The government and opposition whips determine who will sit on each one, and each handles a varied stream of legislation in which the ‘ordinary’ members may have little expertise. There are generally six legislative committees operating in tandem.

Critics have historically argued that the committees have no real purpose beyond being a kind of ‘mini-me’ image of the Commons as whole, always dominated by a government majority and chair, and with over 99% of ministerial amendments moved at the Committee or report stages, and a success rate for non-government amendments of below 1%. Hardly any opposition amendments ever succeed, despite the fuss made by some authors about the greater incidence of backbench rebellions. Most MPs vote with the party line almost all the time, in Committee as much as on the House floor. Partisan timetabling considerations shape how ‘line by line’ scrutiny is, with guillotines often invoked. And Berry notes that ‘sometimes whole sections of bills pass through committees without scrutiny’.

Some recent revisionist authors have argued that this picture is misleading. Russell and Cowley reported on a systematic examination of over 4,360 amendments on six bills, which at one level replicated the picture above. However,

‘closer examination found that nearly three quarters of government amendments had little policy substance—being purely technical, clarificatory, or “consequential” on other amendments.  Of those government amendments with substance that actually changed any of the bills, over 60%— 117 in total—were traceable to influence from nongovernment parliamentarians, usually through prior amendments withdrawn when ministers promised to reconsider. In most cases, there was no [government] defeat involved, but some changes were substantial’.

Similarly Thompson’s 2013 study argued that:

‘bill committees are the perfect conduit for changes to government bills. They enable ministers to effectively be lobbied by MPs. They are both the breeding ground for amendments to legislation and a platform for allowing policy issues which have already been aired by MPs through other parliamentary tools to be tagged on to a bill, making policy change more likely’. (p.89)

These arguments suggest that the Committee and Report stages of legislation can increase the ‘viscosity’ of different measures, pointing ministers and officials towards fixing the most egregiously damaging of their initial provisions. However, this remains an exceptionally modest role, and one that falls well below the rationale of careful deliberative debate and consideration that other legislatures in Europe can claim.

The increasing salience of Select Committees

Much that governments do uses executive capabilities and administrative discretion to deliver services, make regulations or undertake interventions in particular ways. The select committee system (founded in 1979) has provided an ever more influential mechanism for ‘shadowing’ each department and bringing legislators’ views to bear.

The committees have especially been able to develop as independent forces for policy scrutin,. since their Chairs have been paid extra salary amounts and elected by MPs, the membership of committees has been chosen by MPs, and their records of influential hearings and reports have grown their media and public profiles. Especially under the coalition government (2010-15), select committees became important venues for discussing controversial issues. Chart 1 show that there was a substantial growth in the mentions of Commons committees in the UK press. Setting the initial levels of coverage in 2008 at 100, then index numbers for both total press mentions and one average indicator (the mean for committee mentions) increased to 330 by 2012. The index number for a further average (the median press mentions) grew from 100 to 274.

Chart 1: There was a substantial increase in press coverage of House of Commons Committees, 2008-12

chart 1

Source: Dunleavy and Muir, 2013. Analysis of Lexis-Nexis press database.

Table 1 below provides a detailed view of which committees became more salient in this period, and which did not. The yellow rows show that much of the total increase in mentions in this period took place in four exceptionally prominent committees:

  • The Public Accounts Committee, long rated the most influential Commons committee, and supported by the National Audi Office. At this time it had a dynamic new Chair in Margaret Hodge MP (and see below).
  • The Home Affairs Select Committee was already the second-most important committee in 2008. Its press mentions increased sharply in 2011 and 2013, following the summer riots in London and the Committee’s inquiries into them.
  • The Treasury Select Committee was again an already important committee in 2008 under the Conservative chair Andrew Tyrie. In 2017 the former Tory cabinet minister Nicky Morgan stood for and won election as Chair, quickly assuming a pro-active approach. And
  • the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, whose prominence at this period grew greatly during the phone-hacking scandal over media behaviour. Both Rupert and James Murdoch were called to give evidence on the scandal, attracting global media coverage. This interest continued during the subsequent Levenson Inquiry process. But it may now have decreased considerably.

Table 2: Trends in the UK press mentions of Commons’ select committees, 2008-12

Committee20082009201020112012
Home Affairs2954053029892033
Public Accounts5576446398131956
Treasury213418277308530
Culture, Media and Sport4985102573476
Transport13511390186229
Public Administration58908081200
Energy and Climate Change555886101148
International Development27151342112
Standards and Privileges1433331819894
Scottish Affairs1748243773
Health3036425470
Environmental Audit8354507962
European Scrutiny1615406858
Defence81947310856
Education107203955
Business, Innovation & Skills010494654
Work and Pensions1727185842
Backbench Business032812141
Foreign Affairs4465404236
Commons Liaison1344281734
Justice2530323132
Procedure91824q3028
Communities & Local Government2533161824
Political & Constitutional Reform2202721
Environment, Food & Rural Affairs13119818
Northern Ireland Affairs14922129
Welsh Affairs51454
Finance and Services01102
Administration00011
Members' Expenses00031
Armed Forces Bill00030
Commons Privileges10400
Regulatory Reform185020

Source: Dunleavy and Muir, 2013. Analysis of Lexis-Nexis press database. Note: We searched across years in a standard grid, so committees may not exist in all years covered.

However, the green rows in Table 1 also show that seven other Commons committees enjoyed a consistent growth of press coverage in this period. Overall, fourteen committees more than doubled their press mentions between 2008 and 2012. A further four saw smaller increases, while seven committees received less coverage.

Yet were select committees just more attractive ‘talking shops’ for the media? Or have their deliberations, and especially their recommendations had substantial effects on policy? The grounds for thinking they have start with their selection of issues to cover, which has tended to become topical and substantial over time.

One innovative study collated many thousands for recommendations to government made by six select committees over a long period, and then set out to chart out many of these were recommended, and how many were subsequently acted upon. Table 2 shows the key results for implementation of a large set of over 1,330 recommendations that could be tracked. The authors concluded with a strikingly benign assessment: ‘Numerous committee recommendations are implemented by government, including many for major policy change’.

Table 2: How recommendations from seven select committees were implemented by the government, or not (from 1997 to 2010)

Scale of change in recommendationFully implementedPartially implementedLimited attemptsUnclear if implemented or notClearly not acted uponAll responses
No/small change15865339
Medium change8*10*101312**52
Large change1*1*113**6
Scale unclear100012
All recommendations2519181918100% (N=1334)

Source: Computed from Benton and Russell, 2013, Table 1. The committees covered were those for BIS, Defence, Foreign Affairs, Health, Home Affairs, Public Administration (PASC) and Treasury. The period covered was the Blair and Brown governments.

However, Table 2 shows that this is a highly ‘stretched’ interpretation of the actual findings. The figures with a single asterisk show that one in five (20%) of the trackable committee recommendations were both ‘medium’ or ‘large scale’ in their impacts, and also implemented by government. But one in six recommendations (15%) (with a double asterisk) were at the same scale and were clearly rejected by government (while in a further one in seven case implementation was unclear). Large scale changes accepted by minister in fact formed only 2% of recommendations, whereas those rejected were 3%.

Of course, our interpretation here excludes the top row in Table 2 covering ‘no change’ or small change recommendations from committees. MPs and Commons officials will freely admit that there is an accepted art of writing ‘chaff’ committee recommendations, which suggest to ministers or officials that they should do something small that they already want to do anyway. This tactic allows the committee to look friendly and ‘on the same page’ as the executive. And it fosters government MPs supporting reports that make criticisms elsewhere, since ministers can agree to the easy bits. So although the top row in Table 2 shows another 23 to 29% of minor recommendations being implemented (versus only 3% not acted on), these cases probably are ‘chaff’, and so ought to be set aside.

Nevertheless, although committees’ hit rate for acceptance and implementation of recommendation is far less than the over-enthusiastic revisionists suggest, it is still a pretty creditable record. Select committees remain one of only two areas where the Commons is clearly contributing to detailed policymaking.

Legislative supervision of UK government spending

The other key area is the post hoc scrutiny of government spending achieved by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), acting on the reports of the independent National Audit Office, the UK’s ‘supreme audit institution’ (or SAI). In international terms the NAO is perhaps the second most powerful SAI in the liberal democratic world (after the Government Accountability Office in the USA). With a constant flow of high quality reports to consider the PAC is a powerful committee, and is always chaired by a leading opposition MP, usually with past ministerial experience. For Permanent Secretaries attending PAC hearings is a stressful experience requiring a lot of preparation.

Yet it is easy to exaggerate the PAC/NAO influence. In a recent five year period NAO staff accounted for a third of witnesses to the PAC, and HM Treasury personnel for another 30%. Only seven ministerial departments or major agencies had more than 4 witnesses a year (Health, Defence, Defra, HMRC, Education, the Home Office and DWP), and another six had over one. Eight departments had one or less per year. In this period the NAO issued 40 VFM studies that tackled cross-government issues (like egovernment or environmental issues). But the PAC held hearings on only half of these (see Figure 13). MPs preferred to devote their time to the more easily media-understandable (and more frequently scandalous) reports on single departments. Just officially detailing already well-known cost over-runs and obvious mistakes made by Whitehall typically earned the PAC Chair more headlines than engaging with more difficult task of fostering more general and sustainable improvements in systems and policy-making.

More generally the influence of MPs over ex ante legislative budgeting in the UK is inherently small, because of very strong party discipline plus the restrictions in the House of Commons standing orders which prohibit any ordinary MP from proposing an amendment to add even £1 extra onto public spending, unless they can provide the Commons clerks with a certificate signed by a minister. This blanket ban has spread from the UK to other Westminster system countries and to France and Ireland, and explains why cross-national studies show them as having exceptionally un-powerful legislature when it comes to influencing or shaping budgets. For instance, Joachim Wehner’s index assigns the UK fifth to bottom place in a league table of legislatures’ influence over public spending across 30 liberal democracies.

Conclusions

Where once Parliament lurked almost completely impotently on the sidelines of policy-making, recent revisionist accounts have ‘talked up’ MPs’ collective influence, with some justification. Yet the Commons is still far from having the ‘full spectrum’ and decisive influence that democratic criteria suggest are needed. Party loyalties inhibit criticisms and evidence-based reasoning. Budgetary consideration is largely a joke. And legacy procedural practices plus MPs’ traditionalist attachment to inefficient and ineffective ways of working (like the witness system for select committees, instead of developing proper investigative staffs) have limited the legislature’s role, despite some positive recent developments.

This post does not represent the views of the LSE.

Patrick Dunleavy is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the LSE and co-director of Democratic Audit.

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