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 


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

· 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.

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’.