MP seeks check on executive's power

July 6, 2001

MP Barry Sheerman is backing a radical overhaul of Parliament that would give the education select committee more power to hold the government to account over policy.

Mr Sheerman, chairman of the education sub-committee, which was due to be renamed the education and skills committee this week, said that increased powers for the select committees would allow them greater independence from government.

The drive for reform was sparked by a report from the Hansard Society published last month. The Challenge for Parliament - Making Government Accountable concludes that Parliament requires reform to enable it to fulfil its democratic role as a check on government power.

Among the recommendations is a call to give every MP a job on a select committee and to pay the chairmen and women of those committees.

Mr Sheerman, who must wait to see if he is reappointed chairman of the education and skills committee, said: "The fundamental question that select committees should be aware of is that there is a very big difference between what the government has achieved and what people on the ground think they have achieved."

Questions of independence arose earlier this year with the publication of the education select committee's two higher education reports, on access and on student retention.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat members on the committee felt that the final reports failed to tackle some key issues, including student hardship and the deterrent effect of scrapping maintenance grants.

They felt that the Labour-dominated education and employment committee had been reluctant to criticise government policies.

Mr Sheerman said he stood by the reports and he denied any kowtowing to government.

But he said: "Everybody knows that select committees reflect a government's majority and that the decisions about who is going to do what on the committees are made through the usual channels."

Mr Sheerman said that he would like the education and skills committee to revisit both reports.

He said the committee should keep a close eye on student hardship and whether there were any signs that it could deter people from higher education.

Parliament was due to consider select committee standing orders yesterday. Select committees will be restyled to take account of changes in the titles and responsibilities of government departments, including the new Department for Education and Skills.

The Challenge for Government - Making Government Accountable is available from publishers Vacher Dod. Tel: 0207 828 7256.

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