I have served on committees throughout the ten years that I have been a member of the Lords. However, I have spent even longer making the occasional appearance before committees. My first appearance before a parliamentary committee at Westminster was in 1984 and before a committee of an overseas legislature in 1985.
This morning I gave evidence to the Public Administration Committee in the Commons as part of their inquiry into Equtitable Life and the report of the Ombudsman Equitable Life: a decade of regulatory failure. I was one of five witnesses, the others being distinguished figures – including Sir Howard Davies, former Chair of the Financial Services Authority (FSA) – who knew far more than I did about the particular case. I was there because when I chaired the Constitution Committee in the Lords we undertook the first comprehensive inquiry into the accountability of regulators.
My main contribution was to distinguish between fault-finding and lesson-drawing. The Committee has been concerned primarily with the former and considering what remedy there should be, if any, for a particular regulatory failure. I was there to draw attention to the latter and to touch upon what Parliament could learn for the future. Parliament has no structure for examining the regulatory state on any informed and consistent basis. Individual select committees may have responsibility for examining a particular regulator, but they also have many other responsibilities. Most regulators fall within the purview of the National Audit Office – which reports to the Public Accounts Committee in the Commons – but not all do. The FSA, for example, is a notable exception.
The challenge to Parliament is to put in place a parliamentary means that may help prevent a recurrence of such a regulatory failure. As we stressed in our committee report, public accountability and the independence of regulators are not incompatible with one another.