By Sam Macrory - 7th March 2011
The media may make it seem otherwise, but the list of Parliament’s most influential figures extend beyond the cabinet ranks and opposition spokesman. Make the trek across to committee corridor, and you will find a number of leadings lights making stronger cases to join that number.
Historically, the chairman of the pubic accounts committee – currently Margaret Hodge – is considered to wield the most power, while the increasingly influential backbench select committee has pushed its chairman Natascha Engel to the fore.
However, it is Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Treasury select committee, who perhaps holds the most power of any select committee chairman. Judging by a speech he has given at the Institute for Government this lunchtime, he is also prepared to make the most noise about the need to be given more.
Each of the nine reforms he put forward today were ambitious in their scope, perhaps too much so for the government to give way on, but while it is hard to see any leeway soon, the stable door of select committee reform has been irreversibly blown open by the recommendations of the Wright Committee in the last Parliament and the significant early victory claimed by Tyrie in this.
Before the executive gets to work on repairs, Tyrie is seizing the chance to make his case.
Back in July, Tyrie secured the Treasury committee’s right to veto the appointment of the chairman of the Office of Budget Responsibility. The incumbent Robert Chote watched on from the audience, as Tyrie declared that this “small change could serve as a beacon for a radical extension of committee scrutiny and Parliamentary authority.”
Not words to cheer the executive. However, with a “route map in place”, Tyrie called on his fellow committees to “march resolutely towards the sound of gunfire.” He went on to argue that a similar power to veto both the appointment and dismissal of “A-list” appointments could be extended to the governorship of the Bank of England, the head of the Competition Commission, and the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority. Radical stuff – and that was just the first reform he had in mind.
Second he called for a serious makeover in the way that the Liaison Committee does its business. Sir Alan Beith, its chairman, sat in the front row as Tyrie called for monthly meetings, smaller audiences, and advance publicity for topics. The respondent to his speech, former Leader of the House Jack Straw, was rather more explicitin his views on the committee.
Third, Tyrie suggested that the Liaison Committee become “more than shop stewards for our respective committees” and make more of a noise. It’s certainly true that the long drawn out twice-yearly sessions yield little in the way of value, but it’s doubtful whether its 33 members like the sound of being told to raise their game.
Fourth, he bemoaned the “time and energy wasted” in the chamber, and called for a “reconfiguration of the parliamentary week, giving greater scope for uninterrupted committee work. The traditionalists may be smaller in their number, but the new generation appear to be enthusiasts. The hallowed chamber always remains a sensitive subject to discuss.
Fifth, Tyrie made the uncontroversial call for committee’s to have better resources and access to external advisors. While better integration and working practice should be possible to modify, now is not the time, as Tyrie admitted, to be asking for more money.
Sixth, he argued that it was time to break down the convention which prevents named civil servants from appearing before committees. “Committees should not shrink from summoning named civil servants if they feel it necessary”, he warned, adding: “One further idea, would be to make contempt of a committee – that is failing to appear –a criminal act.” Straw quickly distanced himself from that one.
Seventh, he warned that being on a select committee “should not be a full time job…declarations of interest should not be a bar on interests.” With this proposal going firmly against the public mood, it will be hard to develop this argument.
Eighth, came the call for committees to play a role in “shaping the debate” by pushing proposals on the government. The success of the eighth demand may well depend on the success of the fifth.
Finally, Tyrie called for all select committee members to be selected by secret ballot. The whips, whose claws have been clipped by the election of chairman, will surely resist.
Reform of select committees does not ripple much further than the fringes of Whitehall but, as Tyrie concluded, the election of chairman and power over appointments may yet be seen “as a very British Parliamentary coup.” The audience liked the battle cry, and Straw himself, free from the shackles of government, responded almost entirely enthusiastically.
However, it is easy to spot the opposition to everything Tyrie suggested. So it’s fortunate then, or perhaps not if you disagree with him, that he is not the type of character to back down quietly. A quiet revolution may well be underway.