The Role of Select Committees

The House of Commons Select Committees, as they exist today, were introduced by Norman St John Stevas, Leader of the House, at the beginning of the Thatcher government in 1979. These committees are responsible for scrutinizing the policy, administration, and spending of each government department. In 2010, the coalition implemented reforms recommended by a committee chaired by Labour MP Tony Wright, which reported prior to the general election. As part of these reforms, the chairs of the House of Commons Select Committees, which oversee the activities of government departments, are now chosen by MPs, rather than being influenced by the party leaders.

The Tony Wright Commission Recommendations, notably the 2010 decision to allow MPs to elect their chairs, has enhanced their status. Their role has expanded to include pre-appointment hearings and scrutiny of legislation. However, ministers can block the appearance of officials as witnesses, and although governments have to respond to select committee reports, they do not have to act on their recommendations. Resources available to them for research remain limited. The PM appears twice a year at the Liaison Committee, which consists of the chairs of the select committees. Even so, the PM is likely to be treated more leniently by committee chairs from his or her own party. 2020 The Johnson government imposed Bernard Jenkin on the chairmanship of the liaison committee even though he was nor a chair of any other committee.BBC appointment of Bernard Jenkin

Coalition Reforms 2010-15

  • In addition to departmental committess there are several non-departmental select committees with specific functions:

  • · the Public Accounts Committee examines government expenditure, seeking to ensure that value for money is being obtained

  • the Committee on Standards oversees the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner on Standards, an official who is in charge of regulating MPs' conduct, including their financial affairs.

  • Each departmental select committee consists of 11 backbench MPs. Their composition reflects the balance of party strength in the House of Commons. For example, the Education Select Committee was chaired by Conservative MP Neil Carmichael following the 2015 general election. Of the ten other members, a further five were Conservatives, four were Labour and one was a member of the SNP.

  • Following a reform introduced in 2010, chairs are now elected by their fellow MPs rather than chosen by the party whips, a move which has increased their independence. Members are chosen by secret ballot within party groups.

  • The members of a select committee decide on the areas that they will investigate. They have the power to gather written and oral evidence and to summon witnesses, including ministers, civil servants, experts and members of the public with a relevant interest. Select committees may appoint specialist advisers — possibly an academic in the field they are investigating — to assist them in their work. They produce a report, to which the government is expected to respond within 2 months.

  • Select committees are important for a number of reasons:

  • · Their work is respected because it is evidence-based. Their hearings are televised and reported in the media, which increases their influence. They air issues of public interest. The Transport Select Committee, for example, held Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to account for the controversy over the West Coast Main Line rail franchise in 2012.

  • · The scope of the committees' work has widened in recent years to include the scrutiny of legislation. They also hold pre-appointment hearings, in which they interview candidates for some public roles. The Treasury Select Committee, for example, has the right to veto the Chancellor of the Exchequer's choice for the head of the Office of Budget Responsibility.

  • · Long-serving members can accumulate more knowledge of a particular policy area than a minister, who may stay in a government department for only 2 or 3 years. Some experienced chairs of select committees have become considerable public figures, and this role is now recognised as an alternative career path to the ministerial ladder. An example is Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Select Committee from 2010 to 2015, who has said that she had more influence in this role than as a government minister earlier in her career.

  • · Select committees can have a direct influence on government policy. For example, in 2014 the Home Office took the Passport Office back under ministerial control, following a critical report by the Home Affairs Select Committee. The chief executive of the Passport Office, organised as an executive agency at the time, had been criticised for a large backlog in applications that had caused considerable public anger during the summer.

  • the Liaison Committee, which consists of the chairs of all the select committees, questions the prime minister twice a year across the whole field of government policy·

On the other hand, the influence of select committees should not be exaggerated:

  • · A majority of select-committee members will be drawn from the governing party (or parties in the case of a coalition) and there is a tradition that MPs from the government side chair the influential Treasury, foreign affairs and defence committees.

  • · Although the resources available have increased, the committees can cover only a limited range of topics in depth and there is a tendency to avoid investigations into more long-term, strategic issues

  • 2022 The House of Lords Covid Committee took the ‘unusual step’ of publishing a report condemning the government’s response to and engagement with its inquiry on parliament’s hybrid working arrangements. According to the Institute for Government, ‘the committee noted that the government had failed to respond to a third of its recommendations’.

  • · There is still a high turnover rate for membership of committees, and some MPs do not attend regularly.

· Overall the government accepts an estimated 40 per cent of select-committee recommendations, but these rarely involve major changes of policy.

· Committees' power to summon witnesses is considerable but not unlimited. For example in 2013 as Home Secretary, Theresa May blocked the Home Affairs Select Committee from interviewing the head of MI5, Andrew Parker.

  • April 2020 a government motion installed Conservative MP Sir Bernard Jenkin as chair of the Liaison Committee – a group consisting of the chairs of more than 30 select committees, and the only commitee with the power to question the prime minister – despite Jenkin not being a current chair of a constituent committee. This was seen as an assertion of government control.

  • July 2020 members if the Intelligence and Security Committee chose Julian Lewis rather than the government's nominee Chris Grayling- this was seen as a snub for Boris Johnson sine Grayling had no security experience and was a known Johnson loyalist.

House of Lords select committees operate on a different basis to those in the Commons. They do not shadow government departments, but instead scrutinise legislation and investigate particular issues. An example is the Constitution Committee, which examines public bills for their constitutional implications and investigates broad constitutional issues. Lords committees deliberately seek to avoid duplicating the work of their counterparts in the Commons. Thus a Treasury Select Committee is to be found in the Commons, which examines the work of the Treasury and HMRC. The Lords has an Economic Affairs Committee, which looks at wider issues, such as the economic case for the H52 rail link. Lords committees can draw on the services of a range of well-qualified experts in different fields. For example, former Chancellor Lord (Nigel) Lawson is a member of the Economic Affairs Committee. Yet, however learned and thoroughly researched the reports of these Lords committees may be, their wider impact is usually limited.

Case study : Dominic Cummings gives select committee evidence

In March 2021, Boris Johnson’s former top adviser was summoned and gave evidence to a joint session of the Commons Health and Science and Technology select committees. Dominic Cummings was questioned on the government’s decision-making and its handling of the health crisis. Cummings told the committee that there was ‘no doubt’ that many senior people had performed ‘far, far disastrously below the standards which the country has a right to expect. I think the Secretary of State for Health is certainly one of those people.’ Dominic Cummings said that he had repeatedly urged the prime minister to sack the health secretary in order to prevent ‘another set of disasters in the autumn’. The immediate response to Cummings’s testimony from a Downing Street spokesman was to ‘absolutely reject Mr Cummings’ claims about the Health Secretary’ and to insist that the health secretary had the prime minister’s full support. Yet the select committee evidence gave a high-profile platform to Cummings’s assertions and when the health secretary was revealed to have ‘breached social distancing guidance’ by kissing a colleague just a fewmonths later, he was forced to resign.

Recent significant changes in select committee composition and activity in both the Commons and the Lords have occurred, including:

A continued growth in the number of committee chairs with recent ministerial experience, such as Jeremy Hunt (former health secretary and chair of the Health and Social Care Select Committee) and Yvette Cooper (a Labour government minister under Blair and Brown and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee), is perceived to be a factor in their growing profile.

■ The move to virtual proceedings during the covid pandemic enabled many committees to take evidence from a much wider pool of witnesses. According to the Institute for Government’s report, ‘virtual proceedings…made it easier for those from outside London, and with other commitments such as childcare, to attend oral evidence sessions’. In addition, witnesses assisted the committees by giving evidence ‘quickly and easily’ from ‘Afghanistan, the US, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Germany and Austria’.

■ The post-Brexit and EU transition period has also had an impact on the structure of select committees in the Commons and the Lords, with new committees created, and others retired or reformed as the end of EU law in the UK changed the scrutiny needs of the UK Parliament. In the House of Lords, the European Union Select Committee, an expert legal body that had been responsible for scrutinising EU proposals and documents, was ‘retired’.