Government interference in parliament’s Liaison Committee is a retrograde step

The installation of its preferred chair at the head of the most senior select committee represents poor governance

May 22, 2020
JenkinMatt Crossick/Empics Entertainment
JenkinMatt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

In getting the House of Commons to appoint Bernard Jenkin as chair of the parliament’s most senior committee this week, the government has ignored or forgotten that “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” On 20th May, against the expressed wishes of opposition parties and some of its own backbenchers, it got the House to back its motion naming Jenkin to chair the Liaison Committee, which has functions encompassing House business, the select committee system and scrutiny of the prime minister, and which otherwise comprises select committee chairs.

The government’s move is a retrograde one that violates the principle that the scrutinised should not choose the scrutineer. It runs counter to the spirit and practice of reforms strengthening the select committee system over the last decade; and it confirms that, after the Brexit-related upheavals of 2017-19, constitutional and procedural questions around the scope of what the government can and should do with the House of Commons remain very much live.

The problems with the government’s Liaison Committee appointment motion this week were partly of substance and partly of process.

The government’s motion rolled together two distinct issues: whether the Liaison Committee chair should be a “full-time” figure not simultaneously chairing a regular select committee or a “double-hatted” one holding the position on top of a regular select committee chairmanship; and the process by which the chair should be appointed.

In naming Jenkin, the government’s motion reverted to the pre-2010 practice of having a full-time chair. Having lost January’s election for the Defence Committee chairmanship to Tobias Ellwood, Jenkin is not the chair of any other Commons select committee. Given the scope of the Liaison Committee chair role, the ever-increasing workloads of all select committee chairs and the potential for conflicts of interest to arise for a Liaison Committee chair who is double-hatted, there are good grounds for again making the Liaison Committee chair a full-time position.

However, in naming the chair (in the motion that the House must anyway pass to appoint the committee’s members), the government overturned all precedent—whereby the committee has formally chosen its chair itself.  This was what caused the government’s move to be blocked when it first tried in March, and what an amendment from Labour’s Harriet Harman and other opposition committee chairs and backbenchers that was defeated on 20th May sought to prevent.

In practice, before 2010, it was understood that the “additional” member the House appointed to the Liaison Committee would become its chair. In that respect, before 2010 the committee’s decision was a formality, and by explicitly naming the chair the government’s motion this time is more transparent. It has also always been accepted that the Liaison Committee chair would come from a government party, however he or she was appointed.

However, by in effect reverting to pre-2010 practice, the government’s motion ignored the change that has been wrought since then by the House’s direct election of many select committee chairs, as well as the view of such chairs at the time that they did not want to be headed by an unelected chair “parachuted in.” And the precedent has now been set that the chair of a select committee has been named via a government motion.

This in effect changes the procedural practice of the House, at least for this parliament, and as such raises concerns on grounds of process. Since the House agreed in 2010 to start directly electing most chairs, it has agreed Standing Orders listing the committees covered. By default, select committees not on the list choose their chairs themselves from among their members. The government’s motion this week in effect created a third chair-appointment process, albeit for only one committee. While—as the government argued—the House in effect voted for Jenkin’s appointment and could in theory have backed an amendment proposing a different candidate, this is not the same as a whole-House election in which multiple MPs may choose to put themselves forward.

However, neither the new appointment process nor the re-introduction of a full-time Liaison Committee chair had been called for, or subject to any recent public examination, by the Liaison Committee or the Procedure Committee. Indeed, in its major 2019 report on the select committee system, rushed out in September to beat the prorogation that was then cancelled, the previous Liaison Committee called for the committee’s chair to join the list of those elected by the whole House.

The manner of the government’s introduction of the change thus represents poor governance.

It also confirms the process for House of Commons procedural reform as an area that the new Liaison Committee could usefully pursue, supporting the Procedure Committee. (This is especially so given the breakdown of consensus over the discontinuation of the House’s coronavirus-induced “hybrid” proceedings, including remote voting.)

One of the most regrettable aspects of this whole Liaison Committee episode is that, personally, Jenkin is in many respects ideally placed to take forward the large Liaison Committee agenda partly bequeathed by the 2019 report. As a select committee chair for a decade between the 2010 and 2019 elections, Jenkin has significant experience, and was a member of the committee that produced the report.

Moreover, he was chair of the Public Administration Committee and then the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), which as a consequence of its responsibilities for scrutinising the civil service is by default the committee which, if any, scrutinises the cabinet office. Scrutiny of the work of the cabinet office and No 10, and the delineation of responsibilities in this respect between PACAC and the Liaison Committee, is another area Jenkin should fruitfully address. In the Commons debate on his appointment and a post-appointment Times article, Jenkin has stressed scrutiny of cross-government matters, most immediately the handling of the coronavirus crisis, as a major area where the Liaison Committee should develop its work under his chairmanship.

Given its unfortunate beginning, the best outcome from Jenkin’s appointment is that it proves the value, in post-2010 circumstances, of the Liaison Committee having a full-time chair. Important but potentially awkward decisions about the redistribution of select committee responsibilities and resources after the end of the post-Brexit transition period could see an impartial chair come into his own. Improved Liaison Committee questioning of the prime minister—who has agreed to appear before the committee for the first time on 27th May—could also enhance the case for a chair enjoying greater preparation time. Jenkin should also seek to leverage the government’s arguments in favour of ending “hybrid” proceedings that effective scrutiny is the purpose of the House.

This year’s chair appointment process could then come to be a stepping-stone to the election of a full-time Liaison Committee chair by the whole House. House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg argued for the government’s appointment motion this week by claiming that it was equivalent to such an election, and more democratic than the chair’s selection by a “clique” of committee members. In that case, the next chair of the Liaison Committee should be determined in a competitive election by the whole House of Commons.