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The Challenge for Parliament: Making Government Accountable. The Report of the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny

1 May 2001
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This is the influential 2001 report of the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny, chaired by former Leader of the House Lord Newton of Braintree. It urged a step-change in the rigour and importance afforded Parliament's scrutiny work, aimed at putting Parliament at the apex of the system which holds government to account.

The Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny was established in September 1999 with an 18-month brief to examine "how Parliament carries out its role as scrutineer of the words and actions of the executive and assess whether the structure and processes are in need of change". The Commission examined the ways in which the two Houses of Parliament pursue accountability, as well as the many non-parliamentary ways by which government is scrutinised, such as through the courts, judicial inquiries, regulators and inspectors.

The Commission was funded by the Nuffield Foundation. It was chaired by the Rt Hon Lord Newton of Braintree, and its members were:

  • Zeinab Badawi

  • Rt Hon Alan Beith MP

  • Professor Alice Brown

  • Lord Burns GCB

  • Anna Coote

  • Professor Robert Hazell (vice-chair)

  • Robert Jackson MP

  • Kate Jenkins

  • Margaret Moran MP

  • Greg Power (secretary)

  • Steve Richards

  • Peter Riddell (vice-chair)

  • Dr Ann Robinson

  • Jill Rutter

  • Professor Colin Seymour-Ure

  • Lord Sawyer

Clerk to the Commission was Alex Brazier, who drafted its report along with Greg Power.

The Commission published a consultation paper which was distributed to every MP and peer plus around 800 individuals and organisations. The Commission took written evidence and held a series of private meetings and seminars, including with the-then Leader of the House of Commons, Rt Hon Margaret Beckett MP; the-then shadow Leader of the House, Rt Hon Sir George Young MP; the-then Liberal Democrat spokesperson on constitutional affairs, Robert Maclennan MP; ministers and former ministers; the Liaison Committee and select committee members; whips and backbench MPs; the Clerks of both Houses; senior civil servants; and experts on European matters. It also visited the Scottish Parliament and received help and advice from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, as well as from several clerks of the Westminster Parliament.

During summer 2000, the Commission also conducted a survey of MPs' attitudes to Parliament, supported by the-then Speaker, Rt Hon Betty Boothroyd MP. Responses were received from 179 MPs.

The Commission met at least every two months. It also formed three sub-groups which met once a month. These covered the role of the chamber, the role of select committees, and financial accountability, and had some of their interim conclusions reflected in three discussion papers published during the Commission's lifetime.

In its report, published at the start of the 2001 Parliament, the Commission found that "Parliament has been left behind by far-reaching changes to the constitution, government and society in the past two decades", with the central question of Westminster's scrutiny of the executive left unaddressed, and serious gaps and weaknesses evident in the working of accountability. The Commission declared that "Parliament must adapt quickly if it to retain its centrality to British politics and be effective in holding government to account".

The Commission laid out seven principles that should guide reform of accountability as exercised through Parliament. These principles were supplemented by detailed recommendations. The seven principles were:

  • Parliament at the apex. The central theme of the report was that Parliament should be at the apex of a system of accountability also constituted by independent regulators, commissions and inspectors.

  • Parliament must develop a culture of scrutiny: changes in the attitudes and behaviour of politicians were as important as changes in the working of Parliament.

  • Committees should play a more influential role within Parliament. In particular, the committees' role "needs to be more closely defined, so that each has a set of core responsibilities and a set of certain pre-agreed and public goals". Also, "chairing a select committee needs to be recognised as a political position comparable to being a minister ... [and] the committees should be given the staffing and resources needed to oversee the areas for which they are responsible".

  • The chamber should remain central to accountability. As the "public face of the House of Commons and therefore the main means of informing and persuading the wider electorate ... the chamber should be more responsive to issues of public concern".

  • Financial scrutiny should be central to accountability. Financial scrutiny "underpins all other forms of accountability" and thus "should be central to the work of the Commons".

  • The House of Lords should complement the Commons, with the unelected chamber contributing especially on issues which cross departmental boundaries, and on ethical, constitutional and social issues for which the Commons has insufficient time.

  • Parliament must communicate more effectively with the public, through reforms to sitting hours, procedures, the structure of staff support and the use of technology.

  • Introduction

  • Executive summary

  • The changing role of Parliament: New forms of accountability

  • Building a culture of scrutiny in th eCommons

  • Reforming the select committees

  • Restoring the centrality of the Commons chamber

  • Parliament and financial scrutiny

  • Scrutiny, accountability and the second chamber

  • Two-way communication: Parliament and the outside world

  • Parliament at the apex

  • Conclusions and recommendations

  • Appendices

    • Appendix 1 - The theory and practice of parliamentary accountability

    • Appendix 2 - Written evidence submitted to the Commission

    • Appendix 3 - Meetings of the Commission

    • Appendix 4 - Survey of MPs: The effectiveness of Parliament, parliamentary roles and workloads

    • Appendix 5 - Survey of the subject-matter of House of Commons Select Committee Reports; Sessions 1997-98 and 1998-99

    • Appendix 6 - Financial Procedures

  • Bibliography

  • Index