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Last Updated: Monday, 14 October 2002, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
Cook and Committees
Photo of Robin Cook
Robin Cook had great hopes for the future of the committee system

As part of the Commons reform package he introduced as Leader of the House Robin Cook attempted to overhaul the select committee system.

Influential reports by the Hansard Society and the Modernisation and Liaison Committee have called for the role and influence of committees to be beefed up.

Among the suggestions were that every backbench MP should serve on a committee and there should be greater debate of committee reports.

Proposals to introduce pay for committee chairs were passed in May 2002 but at the same time attempts to wrestle control of membership away from the whips were defeated.

Legacy limited

Robin Cook called these reforms, "the most important set of changes to the select committee system since departmental committees were introduced twenty years ago."

But by the end of 2005 the way in which the members of select committees are nominated by party whips remains unchanged.

The events which culminated in the Hutton Inquiry indicate that select committees continue to lack the political influence necessary to hold the government entirely to account.

The report by Lord Hutton into the death of government scientist David Kelly and the controversy surrounding the decision to go to war in Iraq led the Foreign Affairs Committee to criticise the select committee system for lacking teeth.

It called for Select Committees to have more powers to access ministers, civil servants and sensitive documents in their inquiries after struggling to get the full picture during its own inquiry into the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Since these concerns were raised the Liaison Committee has at least received a commitment from Tony Blair that his government will co-operate as fully as possible in providing information to Parliament.

And in their annual report of 2004, members said they were "encouraged" that the government appeared to have accepted that - if asked for information - committees should presume they will get it.


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