Burden of oversight grows as committee membership drops

IUSS workload expands as average attendance at meetings falls to six MPs. Rebecca Attwood writes

April 23, 2009

Concerns have been raised about the ability of a committee of MPs to properly scrutinise higher education owing to its dwindling membership.

When the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee was formed in 2007, 14 MPs were responsible for examining the administration, expenditure and policy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills - a government department with a budget of £17.5 billion.

But the number of MPs who attend has declined to nine, making it one of the smallest of all the select committees and, on average, just six MPs attend each committee session.

Two MPs who are on the committee have not been to a single meeting, leaving Tim Boswell as the only Conservative to attend regularly. Others have moved on to other roles but have not been formally removed and replaced by the whips.

Phil Willis, the Lib Dem chairman of the IUSS committee, said the declining membership put an "incredibly heavy load" on the MPs who did attend, leaving them without time to "really drill down into the evidence base".

Mr Willis claimed that the issue of select committee places remaining unfilled was a problem across Parliament.

According to figures published earlier this month, at least 60 of the 220 members on Commons select committees missed more than half their meetings last year, suggesting a lack of commitment.

Too busy to take part

Mr Willis believes that MPs are reluctant to join select committees owing to the heavy workload. "Part of the problem is that so many MPs now have positions within the government machine - parliamentary private secretaries, the Whips Office, regional committees," he said.

"We have ended up with a nine-person committee, which is effectively one of the smallest memberships of any ... Despite that, we've always been quorate at all our meetings, and we have the third-busiest agenda - according to the annual report last year - of any of the select committees."

The core members of the IUSS committee, he added, had been "absolutely brilliant", and while higher and further education policy might not be the most "sexy" area to look at, it was "vitally important".

Mr Willis thinks select committee membership should count as a "major responsibility" for MPs and that they should be paid an allowance to support their work.

When Times Higher Education approached Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, about her failure to attend any IUSS committee meetings, her office sent a posting from her blog, in which she vows never to attend.

Select committee chairmen "must be of utmost integrity, non-partisan, balanced and fair", she writes. "I can't think of anyone in the Conservative or Labour Party who would think that there are more than three Liberal Democrat MPs ... who would fit the above description." In the blog, Ms Dorries claims that she was silenced when she complained about a report published by a committee she was previously a member of.

MPs from other parties dismissed her claims. "That was the abortion inquiry, and she had a very dedicated pro-life agenda," said Des Turner, Labour MP for Brighton, Kemptown.

Dr Turner has left the IUSS committee for the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. He said the IUSS committee had "completely lost" its science and technology focus and was "bogged down in higher and further education administration issues, which I find so deeply boring I can't find words for it".

He also launched an attack on Mr Willis' chairmanship.

"The chairman is an absolute duffer who thinks he's the bee's knees and you can't shut him up. In fact, I found his chairmanship quite offensive. He was totally disrespectful to other members of the committee ... He's a Liberal, so what do you expect?"

Where's the Opposition?

Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris said he believed Mr Willis' chairmanship was supported by the core members, and Dr Harris said it was "amazing" that the Conservative Party was not better represented.

"It is astonishing that the official Opposition can't turn up to scrutinise this area. Isn't higher education a key area for the next general election?"

In recent decades, the number of committees has increased substantially, according to Philip Giddings, head of politics and international relations at the University of Reading.

Dr Giddings agreed that outside the "politically sexy" areas, such as scrutiny of the Treasury, it could be difficult to fill committee places.

Low attendance or membership meant scrutiny was "not perhaps being as effective as it might be", though he added that putting "the only person you can persuade or some idle time-server" on a committee did not add much to its work.

Brian Iddon, Labour MP for Bolton South East, who has one of the highest attendance records, admitted that the IUSS committee "wasn't working properly".

He said the problem was that the committee's remit was too broad, covering science as well as higher and further education.

"There is a schism in the committee, which is natural, between people who are more interested in education matters and people who just want to examine science and technology in depth," Dr Iddon said.

"But I don't agree that the committee is not making a place for itself. I think some of our inquiries are being watched very carefully, particularly the one on students and universities."

He added: "The select committees are the only way now we can scrutinise the executive in detail."

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com.

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