Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Speech to MPs in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus 1.4.2008 

If the talks to re-unite the island of Cyprus begin making progress, there could soon be an enhanced role for the fifty-seat parliament of the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus. Determined efforts have already begun to re-engage the interest of both the public and the news media in the long-stalled programme to end the isolation of Turkish Cypriots. A priotity for action will be the establishment of a select committee to consider what will have to be done to ensure the institutions and services of the north are able to harmonise with the requirements of the European Union. An equally pressing task is the appointment of a public accounts committee to follow through the work which has already been accomplished by the recently-formed court of audit which has been monitoring public expenditure in North Cyprus. At a seminar in Nicosia (1.4.2008) Nicholas Jones gave a presentation to North Cyprus MPs and parliamentary staff on the importance of the select committee system and explained how strengthening parliament would win new respect for its members.

In the last thirty years it is the small and specialist committees of the House of Commons and the House of Lords -- which are known as the select committees -- which have done more than anything else to strengthen the reputation of the British Parliament. While public interest in what Members of Parliament say in the main debates has been declining, the opposite is the case when we see our Mps holding the executive to account and forcing the officials of the state to answer difficult questions and to explain what they have been doing. There is no doubt that the importance of these committees -- and the reports from their wide-ranging inquiries -- have also transformed the way Parliament is reported in the newspapers and on radio and television.

I would say that when it comes to the reporting of the select committees, the coverage they get in the press now equals, if not exceeds the reporting of events in the main chamber, even taking into account the reporting of Prime Minister’s questions. The reason for this is that the Member of Parliament of today has so many different opportunities to communicate with voters, not just in debates but also through newspapers articles, on radio and television and now through websites and blogs on the internet. But what happens in a select committee is different: here we see Members of Parliament at work, conducting the kinds of tasks we want to see them perform. They are demanding answers not only from representatives of the state but from all kinds of public and commercial organisations.

These officials are being cross-examined and are being forced to admit their mistakes and if necessary to apologise to the public. The televising of these hearings has been of enormous importance. While the number of viewers might be small, here is the opportunity for pressure groups and interested people to find out what has really happened -- to hear why the government made a mistake, perhaps over choosing a site for a new airport, over the construction of a new prison, or the failure of a government department to answer complaints. This explains why the select committees are so important. They can find out what went wrong and this is so important when it comes to the news media.

Journalists spend their lives demanding answers and it is only Members of Parliament who have that ultimate authority to call the government to account. Often what we find at Westminster is that when the newspapers expose a scandal -- perhaps the failure of a hospital to treat patients properly or abuse in a care home for children -- the relevant select committee sees this is an issue of public concern and immediately begins an inquiry. This keeps the journalists involved -- so Parliament is strengthened because it is examining topical issues, people see that Parliament is relevant and this is reinforced by the interest of the news media, who want to justify their own investigations.

For the Parliament itself, the great strength of select committees is that they develop shared interests between the committee members even though they belong to opposing political parties. This cross-party co-operation can help the parties reconcile their differences on issues of vital importance to the health of the country. And when this spirit of co-operation is combined with a genuine desire to conduct a thorough investigation and a fair examination of the witnesses, it can help the committee to establish the truth and once that has been established it more likely the committee will be able to make unanimous recommendations, which then have far greater authority.

The most significant step in the development of the select committees at Westminster was taken in 1979 when it was decided there should be a committee examining the work of each government department. And these committees are very flexible -- if responsibilities are moved between government departments, then the committees do the same. This meant they keep a clear focus on what the government is doing and when ministers are called to give evidence -- and they are questioned quite regularly -- they cannot pretend they are not responsible.

The committee has made sure that it knows where the responsibility lies, where the buck stops. The great attraction for Members of Parliament to join and work on select committee is that it gives them a chance to specialise, to develop a keen interest in specific subjects. The Members of Parliament find this adds to their authority as a parliamentarian and there is considerable competition to become a chairman of a committee. Journalists will seek out these chairmen for comment and interviews because of their authority and because they have a real inside knowledge of their subject. Some committee chairmen and chairwomen get as much exposure on television and radio as do ministers in the government.

This is because they are respected for their independence and their determination to hold the government to account. Parliamentary and political journalists are great supporters of the select committees because they provide us with hard news stories and plenty of background information. Often there is the chance for journalists and the committee to share information; a reporter might have obtained an insight, perhaps a leaked document, which is not available to the Members of Parliament.

So this interchange of information can assist with an inquiry. When it comes to making a report to Parliament, the committees are often highly critical of the government, and again this creates interest in the media.

Before we go any further -- and I offer some suggestions for improving the select committee system -- let us see a committee at work. What happens at Westminster is that at least two of the committee hearings are televised each day, as well, of course, as the live televising of the main proceedings in the two House of Parliament. The websites for the two Houses of Parliament offer a selection of simultaneous feeds: there are questions or debates in the main chamber and then at least two, sometimes three select committee hearings transmitted live. Often extracts from the committees are used in television and radio news bulletins and programmes -- particularly on occasions when important witnesses are giving evidence. On occasion these hearings will also be transmitted live by the continuous news channels.

What the BBC does is broadcast select committee hearings on the separate BBC Parliament television channel. Special programmes each Friday and Sunday evening are devoted to showing highlights from the various committee hearings. Last Friday evening BBC Parliament replayed the hearing of the Treasury Select Committee at which the Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling was questioned about the Budget which he had delivered the previous week. This was an important moment as it was the first chance to put the Chancellor on the spot and ask him questions, and of course all the more significant because of the turmoil in financial markets.

Here you see the committee chairman, the Labour MP John McFall welcoming the Chancellor. Mr McFall has established quite a reputation for himself and he is often interviewed on radio, television and the newspapers, giving his committee’s opinion on the government’s economic performance. Tape One (Title 1)shows the Chancellor arriving, together with his entourage of officials. He makes his opening statement. Then the Chancellor Alistair Darling was questioned for nearly two hours by the committee members. It was a lively session. An MP from the main Opposition Party, the Conservatives opened the questioning.

Tape Two: (Title 2) Chancellor, Alistair Darling, being asked questions by Peter Viggers MP.

Obviously there is much greater coverage now than fifteen years ago when I used to present a weekly television programme on BBC 2 called Scrutiny which reported on the work of the select committees. Looking back on my career it was one of the highlights -- I enjoyed the chance to get to know more about the important task these committees performed. In one edition in January 1993 I reported how the Trade and Industry Select Committee had conducted such a thorough inquiry into the way the government had wasted so much money by acting so quickly to close down uneconomic coal mines that its findings carried greater weight than anything which had previously been said by the House of Commons itself. Here was a committee showing what a small group of Mps could achieve. Tape three (Title 3): This tape of Scrutiny is from 1993 when I looked a little younger than I do now.

Obviously the British system of select committees isn’t perfect: other democracies have their own committee systems and some are arguably stronger and more effective than what happens at Westminster. One failing of the procedures at the House of Commons is that the select committees are under political control. The majority party tries to ensure it chooses most of the chairmen and keeps a majority in the membership of each committee. There are moves afoot to give the House itself, rather than the political parties, the final say in selecting the membership of each committee.

Even now the government party does not always gets its own way because once they join a committee, the members of that committee can become very independent-minded people and make it clear they do not like being pushed around by their political party. Those committees which demonstrate their independence from the government are held in the highest respect. Another draw back is that the support for the committees at Westminster -- in terms of research and funding -- is nothing like the back up provided in Washington for the congressional committees of the US Congress.

There is a big debate about this at Westminster with frequent demands for the select committees to be given more staff so that they can carry out their research and investigations. The importance of this is that it would strengthen the quality of the questions which are asked by Mps. Often as a journalist I can tell that the Mps have not been properly briefed. Their questions are poor, not precise enough to extract real information or to find out what went wrong. But there is no doubt that the British Parliament is far more effective with select committees than without them.

 

PUBLIC ACCOUNTS SELECT COMMITTEE

The one select committee which is pre-eminent at Westminster is the Public Accounts Committee. This is the committee which can scrutinise public expenditure and it is backed up by one of the strongest institutions in the governance of Britain, the National Audit Office. It is the NAO which carries out investigations on behalf of the taxpayer into the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the public sector. So it monitors public services on behalf of the people and it is these auditors for the state -- like the auditors for a financial company -- who carry so much responsibility for ensuring effective government. There is a similar audit commission for local councils -- which monitors the spending and efficiency of local councils.

At Westminster, the Public Accounts Committee works hand in hand with the National Audit Office -- so if the NAO has found incompetent or inefficient working practices in a government department, it is the Public Accounts Committee which calls the civil servants and officials to give evidence and to explain what happened and perhaps own up to their mistakes. The news that a government service is to be the subject of a National Audit inquiry can send a shiver of fear through the management. They know their practices will be subjected to a searching investigation and that those responsible will very likely be put on the spot and have to find some convincing answers. They know too the hearing will be televised and that their explanations -- or failure to explain themselves -- will be on tv.

So if there is some kind of financial scandal -- perhaps overpayment for government services or the payment of benefits which are not needed -- then there will be this two-part assault. First a detailed financial investigation by the auditors and then a televised hearing at which those responsible will be questioned by Members of Parliament on the Public Accounts Committee. The select committees are extremely powerful. They do have the same authority as the High Court in London -- they can subpoena a witness to attend and this has happened occasionally. During a protracted industrial dispute in the 1980s, the coal miners trade union leader Arthur Scargill was ordered to attend court and when he refused the House of Commons sent an official, backed by the Police, to make sure that he did attend.

Another important safeguard is that the chairmanship of the Public Accounts committee is always given to a Member of Parliament from the main opposition party. So at present, as we have a Labour government led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, it is a senior Conservative MP Edward Leigh who is chairman of the public accounts committee. Mr Leigh -- like other chairmen of the committee -- will have the opportunity to see a great deal of confidential information and great care is taken to ensure secret data is not leaked or misused. It is the support of the Audit Office which makes the committee so powerful because the questions at televised hearings are very well informed.

Back in the early 1990s when I was presenting the Scrutiny programme, we had an enormous scandal because it was discovered that the Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont had been renting out his flat to a sex therapist. I think we can guess what therapy she was offering. Once this was discovered the papers reported it as a scandal and to defend himself the Chancellor hired the best media lawyers in London and got the Treasury to pay the bill. When this was discovered -- that the taxpayer had met the £4,000 cost of defending the chancellor for what after all was his own private business -- the Public Accounts Committee launched an investigation.

It was so high powered that the committee demanded the presence of the top three civil servants in the country: the Cabinet Secretary, who is also head of the civil service, the Treasury Permanent Secretary and the former Treasury Secretary. It really was the time to meet the Men from the Ministry. All three of the most important mandarins had to sit in front of the Public Accounts Committee and face four hours of questioning. Sometimes it was like a scene from the famous British political comedy Yes Minister. You can tell we journalists love poke fun at the top civil servants but here were the Members of the Public Accounts Committee having an unprecedented opportunity to question the three most senior public servants in the country.

As you will see from the proceedings, the committee chairman, the Labour MP Robert Sheldon, was most concerned about the fact that the civil service had agreed to help pay the Chancellor’s private expenses and there had been considerable press criticism about the Chancellor using taxpayers’ money in this way: Tape One (Title four): Scrutiny. My tape is from fifteen years ago but believe me the Public Accounts Committee is just as topical and penetrating today in its current programme of work. Its most recent investigation has been into the cost of spending on health care.

As you know the expenditure on treating patients with cancer and heart problems -- cardiovascular diseases -- has no limit. Who really knows by how much the cost is increasing. What the Public Accounts Committee has been considering is whether it is time to change priorities. For people aged over sixty dementia is the really big problem -- mental disturbances of all kinds -- and for that age group it is much the biggest disability, causing far more problems than heart disease or cancer. So the Public Accounts Committee is recommending that the priorities of the National Health Service should be changed. It says the care of patients with dementia -- and research into the whole question of mental incapacity -- should be given the same priority as heart disease and cancer. The importance of this recommendation is that it comes from the most influential Parliamentary committee and it has provoked a growing debate among health care specialists -- and especially in the news media -- about whether it is time to devote more resources to the problems caused by dementia among older people because they are living so much longer.

 

(Nicholas Jones was the guest of Links London which organised the seminar)