Note – this was originally published in May 2009
There was a very interesting article in today’s (May 2009) Evening Standard by Robert Lea on how useless is the Select Committee on Energy. I sent him the e-mail below.
However I have attached a word copy of the article, which is headed “WHY ENERGY MPs SHOW THE SYSTEM IS ROTTEN”
Dr Fred Starr
Here is my note to Robert Lea on his article
“I am a member of the Claverton Energy Group which consists of a set of experts who correspond via the internet and meet twice a year to deliver papers on energy matters. Most of us support renewable energy and energy conservation.
There has been some discussion in the Group of how the Energy Minister gets information and makes up his mind on various subjects. One would have hoped that the Select Committee would be providing informed and reasonably objective views on these subjects.
Judging from your article there seems to be little chance of this happening. Especially when the issues are “quite difficult for the uninitiated” as some members of the Select Committee have affirmed. This is how half baked and costly schemes like “Smart Metering” get legislative support.
I am getting Claverton, to post your article on our web-site.
Keep up the good work!”
Dr Fred Starr.
Why Energy MPs show the system is rotten
When the Energy regulator turned up at the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change this week, he left its members in no doubt as to their importance.
This committee, Ofgem chief executive Alistair Buchanan told MPs, is keeping an eye on an industry that is at “a profound crossroads”. It is an industry, he told them, that is tottering in the face of a financial crisis and an environmental crisis.
Because of the retirement of old or dirty plant in the next half decade it is an industry, he said, that is having to find and connect by 2020 almost half as much again generating capacity as is currently available. It is, he declared, an industry that needs to be overseen because it is riven by faction and self-interested obfuscation and left open to the vagaries of Government intervention.
With such a testimonial to the significance of their role, studying complex issues in this most consequential of industries, you could excuse the 14 MPs who sit on the Energy Select a warm glow as they pondered the estimation of their role.
You could. Except you can’t. Well, at least not the half of the committee members who didn’t even bother to turn up for what was the committee’s debut session with the head of the Government-appointed industry regulator itself. Elliot Morley, the committee’s chairman and former Minister of State for Climate Change, declined to take his place. He is, of course, currently suspended from the Labour Party over a phantom claim for £16,000 of mortgage payments, one of the worst abuse cases in the last fortnight of MPs’ expenses scandals.
Morley may even be deselected as an MP, and it seems his “unavailability for a short period of time” to chair Energy Select may yet become more permanent. No seat was taken either at the meeting by Julie Kirkbride, keeping a low profile after being at the centre of a row over claims for multiple second homes by husband-and-wife MPs that has seen her partner Andrew Mackay lose his high-ranking role advising Tory leader David Cameron.
There were also no-shows by five other members, some of whom have been forced to answer questions about their expenses, some of whom have not. It is an attendance record for a Commons select committee that is unfortunately all too par for the course – even if you might have hoped it would not be replicated quite so quickly by the Energy and Climate Change Committee, as it has only been in existence for a few months, formed to shadow Ed Miliband‘s newly created department of the same name.
Attendance is one thing. But the performance of these committees is quite another. The high-profile Treasury Select Committee showed that outside a couple of star performers, it was a group of MPs failing to grasp the complexities of the credit crunch, and who count their greatest feat as extracting fatuous apologies from bank bosses that answered no questions but did make it on to the Ten O’Clock News.
And so it is with Energy Select.
Some members may be excused partisan or constituency interest but others are just unable to rise above lowbrow, petty point-scoring. There are others still who have patently not read the brief, let alone got anywhere near to mastering it. Or, as one member admitted, the issues are quite difficult “for the uninitiated”.
Which points to the fundamental issue with this committee and the select committee system, and indeed Parliament itself. There is simply not the quality of intellectual rigour on the backbenches of this House of Commons that can sustain a 14 member specialist committee.
If an MP on a specialist committee can refer to himself as “uninitiated”, then he should spend a bit more time initiating himself, or spend time finding a job where he does not have to do his homework. The issue of MP quality is one about which the expenses scandal says much.
But there is a need for a more systemic revolution at the Palace of Westminster: a reformed and far smaller house of better-qualified, more professional, more easily accountable and, yes, better-paid members has to be a solution.For the same amount of money we currently pay our 650 members, we could get 400 members on £100,000 a year, so long as we stop the expense scams and make sure they earn their money.
A smaller House would mean smaller committees. But why not? Seven MPs who actually have an interest and are happy to turn up would be more than enough. But that committee should also be augmented by regularly co-opted or seconded members, preferably from industry (Government does this with the appointment of unelected ministers; senior civil servants are similarly plundered from the private sector).
Sectional interest needs also to be represented. If our electoral system is not to embrace proportional representation – otherwise known as fair representation for 85% of the country disenfranchised by the current first-past-the-post voting system – there should at least be some mechanism for the representation, on the Energy Select for example, of the Green Party or the wider environmental movement.
The committee system matters because the UK energy industry, for instance, neither has a watchdog with teeth nor a regulator that can admit its markets have failed, as to do so would be an admission of its own failure.
In this environment, the Parliamentary oversight role of the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee cannot be overstated.
It’s just a shame the current lot are not up to it.
Robert Lea: Energy Analysis