The absence of parliament’s Liaison Committee requires immediate resolution

Government efforts to install a preferred chair have left one of the most important committees out of action at a critical time

April 16, 2020
Bernard Jenkin . photo: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment
Bernard Jenkin . photo: Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment

Select committees have adapted rapidly to the arrival of coronavirus and the restrictions on physical proximity it has placed on everyone. Moving their hearings online, many Commons committees have continued to sit through the Easter recess, taking evidence from a wide range of experts and those involved in the government response, and eliciting important information.

But there has been one notable absence. The Liaison Committee—made up of all Commons select committee chairs and normally responsible for holding three oral evidence sessions a year with the prime minister—has not yet been established following the general election. In one way this is normal—the Liaison Committee always has to wait for the chairs of other committees to be elected before it can get going—but on this occasion a further delay has been introduced.

The problem is that the government is seeking to impose its own choice of chair on the committee—Bernard Jenkin. In the recent past the chair of the Liaison Committee has been elected by members of the committee from among their number. Members see it as important that the chair is independently elected because he or she will play an important role in holding the prime minister to account. Recent holders of the position—Sarah Wollaston and Andrew Tyrie—were both elected as members of the Conservative Party but had strong reputations for independence from government.

But Jenkin is not currently a member of the committee because he is not a chair of any committee, having stood down from the chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee to contest the chair of the Defence Committee—a contest he lost to Tobias Ellwood. In order to install Jenkin, on 17th March the government asked MPs to agree a motion setting up the Liaison Committee specifying that he would be chair. That motion was objected to by MPs but has been laid again for decision on Wednesday 22nd April.

MPs are suspicious of the government’s efforts in light of the reluctance Boris Johnson has shown to subject himself to the committee’s scrutiny. More than once during the febrile Brexit-related events of the autumn of 2019 he refused requests to appear or cancelled scrutiny sessions at short notice, to the frustration of the committee which wanted to question the prime minister on the government’s key policy. In these circumstances it is understandable for MPs to wonder whether the government wants a loyal backbencher to chair the committee because he will give them an easy ride (whether or not that would actually be the case). Both government and opposition chairs have expressed concerns.

The absence of the Liaison Committee at this critical time is problematic because the response to the pandemic is a perfect example of a “cross-cutting” issue requiring leadership from the top. The lack of opportunities for cross-cutting scrutiny of the government’s handling of what the prime minister has described as “the biggest health crisis in a generation” means there is a risk that scrutiny is siloed and that potentially overlapping inquiries, by individual departmental committees, proliferate. This could be both ineffective and inefficient—placing an unnecessary burden on the government to respond to multiple requests for evidence at a time when civil servants and ministers are already under severe pressure.

Other legislatures have responded differently. The New Zealand parliament, for example, has set up a new Epidemic Response Committee, chaired by the leader of the opposition, to conduct coherent, overarching scrutiny of its government’s coronavirus response. This is appropriate not just because of the scrutiny the committee will be able to conduct, but because that scrutiny will be highly visible to the public, helping maintain trust in the government’s approach. At a time when governments all over the world are taking powers to restrict civil liberties in draconian ways, sustaining public trust is absolutely key to achieving the outcomes they are designed to deliver.

The UK government should prioritise cross-scrutiny of its own efforts to tackle the pandemic. First, it should accept MPs’ objections and allow the members of the Liaison Committee to elect their own chair, from among their number. Second, it should commit to regular appearances by the prime minister, or during his recuperation from the virus his designated replacement, to be held to account by the committee. As parliament adapts to perform many of its functions remotely, ensuring that the government’s decisions are properly scrutinised is ever-more important, if its policies are to be seen as effective and legitimate.