Parliament needs to protect its own integrity
Rigorous scrutiny makes for better decisions, but the Government’s attempt to impose a Liaison Committee chair undermines the committee before it even begins
We’re all pre-occupied with unprecedented constituency and national issues generated by Covid-19 but behind the scenes a row has been brewing about an important aspect of parliamentary scrutiny. And it’s coming to a head on Wednesday with a vote on who will be chair of the Liaison Committee.
Parliamentary scrutiny of the Government is important at any time but never more so than now when decisions of such moment are being made. I don’t need to make the case for scrutiny. All MPs know it. It is our job.
The select committee system depends for its legitimacy on the chairs being independent of government by virtue of being elected by secret ballot of MPs.
Hitherto the chair of Liaison has been chosen by those chairs of select committees. The chair of Liaison leads the select committees in discussion with the Government, the House Authorities and the media. And they chair the all-important sessions when the prime minister appears before Liaison.
But in a break with tradition the Government has decided that they don’t want any of the select committee chairs to become the Liaison chair and are determined to impose their own nominee rather than let the chairs of select committees choose our own chair. This is effectively a government imposition of the MP who will lead scrutiny of the government. It shouldn’t be for those who are being scrutinised to set the terms of scrutiny.
And the Government has nothing to fear from effective scrutiny from a Liaison Committee led by a strong and independent chair. It’s always the case that rigorous scrutiny makes for better decisions.
The Government are persisting with their determination to impose a Liaison chair despite the many private representations that have been made to them. And at a time when everyone is doing their best to work by consensus, it is regrettable that it appears that they will seek to force a vote in the House in their insistence that they decide who chairs Liaison.
We need a Liaison Committee. We haven’t had one since before the election. But in tabling a motion to establish Liaison but impose a chair, the Government are effectively undermining it at the same time as they allow it to start its work. Liaison must have a chair who is not only independent but seen to be so. They won’t be if they are chosen by the Government. Parliament will need to protect the integrity of its scrutiny.
Government whips are already “advising” MPs not to vote for the amendment which will let the select committees choose their own chair. But on Wednesday this will be a free vote. There will be no Government whip on this as it is House Business for each MP to make up their own mind. Voting for the amendment to the Government motion is not, therefore voting against the Whip. What it is, is voting for Parliament to do our job.
Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the Joint Human Rights Committee.