MPs say committee hearings 'dull' and new approaches needed

James and Rupert Murdoch being questioned by MPs in 2011 Recent high-profile inquiries have raised the status of select committees

Committee hearings in the House of Commons can be a "bit dull" and MPs are not always able to get key information out of witnesses, a new report argues.

Senior MPs say "different approaches" are needed, including limiting the number of members able to put questions.

But the Commons Liaison Committee rejected the idea of using barristers or specialist experts in certain cases.

One expert said committees were well-respected but could be "punchier".

Select committees are cross-party bodies that scrutinise the work of government departments and other public agencies as well as looking into wider matters of public interest.

Rising profile

Their profile has risen in recent years following investigations and public hearings into the conduct of British banks and phone hacking allegations against the News of the World newspaper.

In a new report, the Liaison Committee - comprising of 33 senior backbenchers who chair individual committees - concluded that the Wright reforms designed to increase the bodies' independence had succeeded in boosting their "self-confidence".

Among the changes introduced in 2010 were elections for MPs to chair the committees.

Start Quote

Select committees are already highly respected but they could be far more so by adopting some fairly simple changes”

End Quote Dr Meg Russell University College London

However, the Liaison Committee's review suggests that there is room for improvement in several areas - notably in how MPs question witnesses and the range of people who give evidence in Parliament.

Evidence-gathering sessions "can be a bit dull", the report concedes, and such hearings are "not always the best way of extracting information - particularly from government witnesses".

The current practice of giving each committee member five or 10 minutes to question witnesses can be counter-productive, it suggests, encouraging some witnesses "to flannel, knowing that they would soon be off the hook".

To prevent this happening, questioning could be delegated to one or two MPs acting as "lead questioners", the report argues, or a single "rapporteur" could take charge throughout a long-running inquiry.

This could provide a more focused line of inquiry and make it "worthwhile" for those concerned to prepare thoroughly for the session, it says.

'Changing expectations'

The committee voted - by a margin of seven to four - to reject "more radical" proposals to allow committees to employ counsel to conduct forensic questioning in exceptional circumstances and to invite specialist advisers to take part in sessions.

The committee's other recommendations include:

  • broadening the range of witnesses beyond the "usual suspects" and encouraging "underrepresented groups"
  • being more forward-looking rather than merely "raking over the coals" of past events
  • paying more attention to how departments assess the effectiveness of their programmes and spending
  • developing joint guidelines with government, covering ministerial accountability and the role of civil servants
  • following up recommendations to ensure reports have lasting impact

"There is clear evidence that select committees are successful in influencing government," Sir Alan Beith, the Lib Dem MP who chairs the Liaison Committee, said.

"But for committees to be fully effective, we need a new relationship with government.

"Ministers must recognise that it is not acceptable for departments to refuse committees access to information or witnesses they need. Expectations are changing, in Parliament and among the public."

One leading constitutional expert said select committees had an important role in holding the government to account, and welcomed the "very sensible" recommendations for enhancing their purpose.

"Select committees are already highly respected, and our research shows that they are effective, but they could be far more so by adopting some fairly simple changes," Dr Meg Russell, from University College London's Constitution Unit, said.

"These include setting clear objectives for inquiries, producing shorter, punchier reports, commissioning their own original research, and following up their recommendations later to check whether government has acted on them."

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