Select Committees: Civil Engineering Contractors Association

Just a few days ago, the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform department, BERR, began consulting on the detailed arrangements for the new post of Chief Construction Officer. I think this is an idea whose time has come – but I would, wouldn’t I? After all, it came from my own committee’s report on the construction industry, published last year.

Exactly how Parliament scrutinises Government legislation and departments is little known outside Westminster. But committees like mine can make a real difference to the policy environment in which professions and businesses like yours operate – the Chief Construction Officer is but one recent and clear example.

The economic challenges have led the Business and Enterprise committee to refocus its work on the challenges facing British business – for example we have just launched a new inquiry into how we can export our way out of recession. Our lengthy inquiry into how to maintain a higher value added economy has acquired a new relevance in the new circumstances and I hope we will be able to publish it in the spring. Our report on the regional development agencies is due very soon too – another timely report, I suspect.

Other committees have been busy as well and this is especially true of the Treasury committee which has been looking at the regulatory and financial fall-out from the credit crunch.

The knowledge that their actions are potentially going to be subject to committee scrutiny is a real incentive for responsible behaviour around Whitehall departments – and often our interventions can introduce new ideas into policy making too.

Of course we politicians always complain we are misunderstood, but there again, we are. Only last week an editorial in “The Times” showed alarming ignorance of how select committees work when it accused us of doing little more than dramatising events. The theatre of making the ex-bosses of the banks apologise for their failings in front of the Treasury committee was valuable but simply not representative of our real work, as “The Times” should have known.
Select Committees are made up of backbench MPs with the express purpose of enquiry, investigation and scrutiny into government policies, expenditure and administration. Within our terms of reference we wield significant influence, and can call on ministers, civil servants, public bodies and individuals to appear before us to give evidence. After extensive enquiries, we publish reports which the Government is obliged to consider and to which they must respond.
My committee looks into the important issues concerning trade and business in the UK including issues such as UK energy policy, the Government's relationship with Royal Mail, competition policy, business competitiveness, trade promotion – and, of course, almost every sector of the economy, including the construction industry.

And, unless the Commons shows some imagination, we on the Business and Enterprise committee remain the only MPs who can ask questions of the Lords ministers at BERR – the Lords Mandelson, Carter and Davies and the celebrated Lady Vadera. In a recession, that gives us a whole new dimension, and it is to Peter Mandelson’s credit that he has recognised this and offered to come in front of us regularly.

In the last year alone, as a result of my Committee’s own enquiries, apart from persuading the government to act to improve its interface with the construction sector by establishing the new position of Chief Construction Officer, we also prodded a reluctant regulator, Ofgem, into action over energy prices and we achieved significant improvements to the post office closure programme
Already this year the government has accepted a series of our recommendations relating to the important work of Companies House. An earlier report on trade with India led to a series of welcome changes too. I am sure my fellow chairmen could all make similar claims.

[This is not to say, of course, that there isn’t a strong case for reform. This year is the thirtieth birthday of the modern departmental select committee and although not broken, the system has become a little tired. Under the present Government the number of Committees has mushroomed, as has their membership. We need to streamline them to make sure they don’t loose their effectiveness. They could also do with being given bigger sticks to hold over the Government, and be given the power to wield them if necessary.]

For Select Committees to be effective, of course, they rely on gathering extensive evidence of good quality. All too often interest groups forget about the influence a Select Committee can have. Writing in this publication, I urge all civil engineers and interested parties to keep an eye on the work of relevant Select Committees. When new inquiries are announced, Committees welcome evidence from all sides – the more diverse the better. It is the perfect opportunity to get your own views across and have a chance at influencing government policy.

So although there is plenty of scope for reform and for the introduction of new powers Select Committees do an important job, and they do it well. We can only do that, though, if people offer us their views. So don’t hold back – if you see an inquiry that is relevant to you, get writing! It could make all the difference.


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