Evaluate the view that select committees are the most effective way for holding the government to account in the House of Commons.

The June 2023 Edexcel exam question deals with parliamentary scrutiny and evaluates the effectiveness of select committees in holding the executive branch accountable within the House of Commons. 

Tools available to the House of Commons include;

Select committees, though bipartisan and independent, are somewhat restricted by the government's dominance in the Commons but are considered the most effective means of holding the government accountable. Departmental select committees, comprising a small group of MPs, review government department activities but have limitations. They can only make non-binding recommendations, with the government accepting around 40% of these suggestions, usually those already in alignment with government policies. The power of select committees to compel witness appearances is vague and weak, leading to instances where government officials may avoid scrutiny. For instance, Home Secretary Theresa May blocked the Home Affairs Select Committee from interviewing the head of MI5 in 2013. 

The effectiveness of select committees also relies on bipartisan cooperation, with MPs from various parties needing to support the same report for it to hold weight. While select committees face challenges such as partisanship and government influence, they offer valuable scrutiny of government departments. Following the Wright reforms, chairs are now elected by MPs in secret ballots, enhancing their independence from party influence. Select committees allow for the investigation of government actions, with the power to summon witnesses and gather evidence to hold the government accountable. An example of select committee effectiveness is seen in the Health, Science, and Technology Select Committee's inquiry into the COVID-19 response, where revelations by Dominic Cummings led to increased scrutiny and calls for a public inquiry. Select committees can appoint specialist advisors and produce reports prompting government responses, as demonstrated in the Windrush scandal inquiry.The Home Affairs Select Committee led an inquiry into the Windrush scandal, where the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd denied the Home Office had targets for deporting  Leaked emails subsequently suggested that there were targets and that Rudd was aware of them.

She resigned from her post, taking full responsibility. This example demonstrates the ability of select committees to investigate the work of government and make it accountable for its actions.

Committee members in select committees develop valuable expertise in specific areas. Tom Tugendhat, who leads the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, brings his military service and experience in the Middle East to his role. Select committees prioritize cooperation over conflict, reducing the emphasis on political maneuvers. When government ministers face questioning from select committees, they must provide accurate and recent evidence, limiting their ability to dodge scrutiny using rhetoric. Serving as a select committee chair is now seen as a viable career path, attracting former ministers and knowledgeable backbenchers. By participating in committees, future ministers gain insight into government departments and operations. For example, Darren Jones was appointed Shadow Chief Secretary of the Treasury after excelling as Chair of the Business Select Committee. Various select committees, such as the Public Accounts Committee, play crucial roles in scrutinizing government actions. The Backbench Business Committee facilitates cross-party debates on important issues. The Liaison Committee cross-examined the Prime Minister on various matters, including concerns about musician visas post-Brexit. While public bill committees help amend legislation, they are criticized for being partisan and lacking expertise. Select committees are considered more effective due to their continuous operation and the opportunity for members to specialize in their subject areas.

In 2011, Sarah Woolaston, a Conservative backbench MP with 24 years of experience as a doctor, was barred from participating in the public bill committee responsible for reviewing NHS changes. She expressed her refusal to align with the government's agenda while serving on the committee. Woolaston's substantial expertise was perceived as a threat by the committees and their controlling whips. Reform, an independent think tank, reported that only 8 percent of public bill committee seats were granted to MPs from relevant select committees, highlighting the lack of diversity in committee representation. Opposition MPs are often instructed that their primary influence lies in delaying government bills and are encouraged to use tactics to impede progress. The late Paul Flynn, in his book "How to Be an MP," emphasized this strategy. Government dominance directly impacts the composition and decisions made by public bill committees. Unlike select committees, which enjoy more independence, public bill committees are subject to the government's directives through the whips. Select committees are viewed as more effective in scrutinizing government actions compared to proceedings on the Commons floor, particularly parliamentary questions. Urgent questions compel ministers to provide immediate responses in the House, leading to rigorous questioning from other MPs. The number of urgent questions granted significantly increased under Speaker John Bercow and has continued to rise under Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. Prime Minister's Questions, held every Wednesday when Parliament is in session, allow the Leader of the Opposition and other backbenchers to question the Prime Minister. Memorable exchanges during PMQs have the potential to impact the government's standing. 

Prime Minister’s Questions An evaluation

However, both urgent questions and PMQs are criticized for their limitations in effectively scrutinizing the government. Select committees are considered superior in their scrutiny efforts due to their focus on substance over image. Urgent questions have been marred by superficial criticisms, such as attire, diverting attention from critical issues. PMQs, described as a 'Punch and Judy show' by former Prime Minister David Cameron, often feature rehearsed questions from government backbenchers to enable the Prime Minister to deliver prepared responses. Opposition days offer the opposition parties the opportunity to hold the government accountable on chosen topics. These designated days in each parliamentary session allow opposition parties to set the agenda and present motions for debate. Opposition parties, including the Labour Party, are granted a set number of days to challenge the government on various issues, such as the extension of free school meals, as seen in the motion proposed by Labour in October 2020 following Marcus Rashford's campaign.

In October 2020, Labour utilized one of its opposition days to propose a motion to extend free school meals, following footballer Marcus Rashford's campaign urging the government to do so. The motion was initially rejected in Parliament, but it succeeded in keeping the issue in the public eye, eventually leading to a reversal of the government's stance. Opposition days are limited to 20 days and typically involve debates followed by non-binding votes aimed at pressuring the government to change policies or causing divisions within the governing party. A notable example is Labour's Opposition Day motion on fracking in October 2022, which caused controversy among Tory backbenchers and mishandling by party whips, ultimately contributing to the resignation of Liz Truss as Prime Minister. 

Opposition days are largely ineffective in scrutinising the government. In recent years, MPs from the governing party have simply abstained from voting if they felt they were going to lose a vote. On the 21st Feb 2024 Speaker Lindsay Hoyle was criticised for choosing the Labour amendment in an SNP opposition day debate. The debate ended in farce as the conservatives abstained and the whole debate was seen as political game-playing rather than serious debate.

Although opposition days have their limitations in scrutinizing the government, they can exert real pressure, especially in situations where the government lacks a majority or when the governing party is internally divided. Select committees, on the other hand, focus on shadowing governmental activities with a culture of bipartisanship, contrasting the more adversarial nature of parliamentary questions and opposition day proceedings. Select committees are considered more effective than opposition days in providing meaningful scrutiny, as they are less influenced by partisan politics and more focused on thorough examination. 

Public Bill Committees, on the other hand, are subject to heavy party control, while select committees have gained independence and earned a reputation for impartiality regardless of party affiliation. In comparison, opposition days are often seen as symbolic and politically charged, with a primary aim of embarrassing the government rather than driving policy changes. This contrasts with the more impactful and thoughtful reports produced by select committees, which are better equipped to facilitate meaningful policy discussions and reforms. Overall, despite some checks and balances in place, executive dominance remains a persistent issue, particularly when a government holds a significant majority and operates as an 'elective dictatorship,' potentially leading to controversial legislation like the Rwanda Bill 2024. which ignores international law and possibly reality by legislating that  ‘Rwanda is safe’