Committee chairs protest Government plans to "undermine" scrutiny
“The Government should be accountable to the Liaison Committee, not setting the terms of that accountability by choosing its chair,” Harriet Harman says
Influential backbenchers have tabled an amendment to try to prevent the Government installing its own choice as chair of the powerful Liaison Committee
Senior opposition MPs have tabled an amendment protesting the controversial imposition of a Government-selected chair for a powerful parliamentary committee.
A government motion would install Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin as chair of the Liaison Committee – a group consisting of the chairs of more than 30 select committees, and the only commitee with the power to question the prime minister – despite Jenkin not being a current chair of a constituent committee.
Opposition select committee chairs oppose the move, labelling it an attempt to avoid accountability. Their amendment, spearheaded by chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights Harriet Harman, would allow committee chairs to choose one of their own number to lead the group instead, as has happened historically.
Harman, who as leader of the Commons in 2010 introduced the process of MPs directly-electing most committee chairs, told The House that having a Liaison Committee chair imposed by the Government would “fatally” undermine “the credibility and independence of the committee”.
“The Government should be accountable to the Liaison Committee, not setting the terms of that accountability by choosing the chair,” says Harman, who has been an MP since 1982 and therefore holds the honorific title Mother of the House as longest serving woman Member.
Boris Johnson is yet to appear in front of a Liaison Committee in any iteration, having pulled out of three scheduled appearances while it was chaired by arch-Remainer Sarah Wollaston in the last Parliament. As the coronavirus crisis continues, however, there have been growing calls for the Liaison Committee to be established rapidly to allow for cross-departmental scrutiny of the Government’s response.
“This is a time where scrutiny is of huge importance,” Harman says, “People will think [the Government] is not establishing the Liaison Committee because they don’t want the prime minister to be questioned and that would be a very bad conclusion for people to have to draw.”
“The [existing committee chairs] who have put themselves forward to be chair are all members of the Government’s party so it’s quite bizarre that they should be so fearful even of one of their own MPs being chair,” she adds.
The Government should be accountable to the Liaison Committee, not setting the terms of that accountability by choosing the chair
In an exchange before the Easter recess with Labour MP Kevin Brennan – who warned the plans would create “a new piece of prime ministerial patronage” – Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House, announced that the Liaison Committee membership would be debated on 22 April. However the move to virtual Parliament disrupted these plans.
Now rather than being ‘nodded through’ the proposal would likely need to go to a vote due to the scale of opposition. This currently cannot happen virtually under the new hybrid arrangements; however, a remote voting system is likely to be in place by next week. Harman believes the Government may back down before then: “It would be shameful for the Government to have as one of the early votes [of the hybrid Parliament] a decision where they are imposing a chair on the Liaison Committee instead of respecting accountability to the House.” However, if the amendment was put to a vote, it is unlikely to pass, given the size of the Government’s majority.
Approached for comment on the amendment, Jenkin, who was previously chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee between 2010 and 2019 said: "I want no more than to serve of the House of Commons. If the House wants me to serve as Chair, then I will serve the members of the Liaison Committee as an impartial and independent chair.”
Harman’s amendment has been signed by fellow Labour committee chairs Yvette Cooper, Hilary Benn, Meg Hillier, Ian Mearns, Catherine McKinnell, Stephen Timms, and Sarah Champion. Kate Green MP – formerly the chair of the Standards Committee until being appointed shadow child poverty minister by new Labour leader Keir Starmer – and Angus B MacNeil, the SNP chair of the International Trade Committee, have also signed.