The parliamentary poodle must bare its teeth more often

The Times Columnists

Useable sanctions are needed for those who refuse to give evidence

Not long ago, the power of government looked set to reduce parliament merely to a “dignified” part of the constitution, little more than a prime ministerial poodle. After the expenses scandal, one could not even be sure about the dignity.

Yet that crisis triggered a parliamentary revival, led by more independent and effective select committees. What began as an experiment five years ago when committees were first elected by MPs rather than appointed by party whips is now empowering parliament, and for the better. The poodle is biting back.

This week’s select committee elections have generated a healthy debate about what they should achieve in the next five years. In the last parliament, the home affairs committee investigated the G4S Olympics security fiasco; the public accounts committee pursued multinational companies’ tax dodging; and the Treasury committee’s persistence achieved major reforms to the Bank of England. Parliament had the self-confidence to entrust the parliamentary commission on banking standards to investigate a major public scandal, the first such inquiry for a century.

Decision-makers — not only ministers but quangos, companies and even powerful individuals — now face having to explain their actions.

Partisanship has long been a valuable part of our political culture but select committees and their discursive style of inquiry mirror how voters increasingly prefer their politics.

We now need to go further. Their role in public appointments should be strengthened, not least by building on the precedent of the Treasury committee’s veto on senior appointments and dismissals at the Office for Budget Responsibility. The liaison committee’s three sessions a year with the prime minister should be more frequent and more topical. Parliament should consider proportionate, useable sanctions against those who refuse to give evidence or provide papers.

Committees could consider sending specialist advisers into quangos, as the Treasury committee did with the FSA (now the FCA) in order to investigate RBS and HBOS.

Parliament has taken a big step in the right direction — it now needs to keep going.

Andrew Tyrie is Chairman of the Treasury Committee and Conservative MP for Chichester. The Poodle Bites Back is published today by the Centre for Policy Studies

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