Select committees and the snap general election

In this post, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon discusses the impact of the snap general election on House of Commons select committees. He notes that although many committees produced several reports between the announcement of the election and dissolution, many inquiries were left unfinished. All evidence already collected will remain publicly available but there is no guarantee inquiries will be resumed, especially where a new chair is elected.

One feature of the announcement of a general election is always the loss of some legislation which had not completed its passage through parliament. But what of uncompleted select committee inquiries? Bills which did not through by cross-party agreement in the dying days of the parliament may well be revived in the new parliament, especially if the same party remains in government. The same does not apply to select committee inquiries.

Two years into a parliament, select committees will have up to a dozen inquiries, announced and at different stages, on their work programme. The snap election was announced on Tuesday 18 April and the House of Commons sat for the last time on Thursday 27 April – very little time in which committees could wrap up current inquiries. Only reports fully drafted and on the point of agreement can be finished. This leaves, for each of the 30 or so committees, several inquiries on which evidence has been taken and others which are just being started.

It is nonetheless impressive that several committees managed to agree and publish three or more reports in the dying days of the 2015–17 parliament. All credit to Defence, Education and Justice for producing three reports each but the prize must go to Work and Pensions, with five reports out in the last week – Frank Field was probably the outstanding chair of the 2015-17 parliament.

As a committee clerk, working with the chair to plan the committee programme, I often lived with the uncertainty in the fourth year of a parliament about when exactly an election would be called. The only other panic was in the autumn of 2007 when Gordon Brown had his Grand Old Duke of York moment about a sudden election.

The end of the 2010–15 parliament was the first time when, thanks to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the exact end date was known well in advance and committees could plan accordingly. Many produced legacy reports, on a model initiated in the Scottish Parliament. These were a combination of briefing for the successor committee and self-assessment of past achievements. For committee staff, they were an opportunity to encourage MPs to think about committee working methods and best practice. In previous parliaments, the Liaison Committee encouraged similar terminal exercises but there must be some doubt about how much value they added. This April, just a few committees were nimble enough to produce a legacy report for their successors. Communities and Local Government and Justice did so – but perhaps the most important may prove to be the Procedure Committee’s firm steer to its successor to continue its inquiry on delegated powers in the Great Repeal Bill.

A useful exercise for the new committees would be to produce a short report setting out what they plan to do about the evidence collated in uncompleted inquiries of their predecessor committee. All the written and oral evidence already gathered on current inquiries is not lost – it should have been published on each committee’s website. For keen students of the specific policy issue, that collection of evidence should still be a valuable resource. Government officials following each inquiry will have noted significant points in the evidence received. It might be an exaggeration to say this is an unplanned experiment on the theory that the real value in a select committee inquiry is the evidence rather than the report. At a recent workshop with committee members in another legislature I challenged their assumption that every inquiry had to end with a report – sometimes just one evidence session can be the most valuable output.

Committees are re-appointed after each general election but this process takes several months. Retirement or defeat of previous members of each committee – and the occasional translation to ministerial office – means some turnover in membership is inevitable. Unless the previous chair is re-elected to that role there may be little interest in continuing inquiries started by the previous committee. Election of chairs will be the first select committee sport in the new parliament – and will be an early indication of who will get the coveted interviews on the Today programme over the next few years. This should happen before the House rises for the summer recess at the end of July.

Conclusions

  • Assume that any committee with a new chair will start a different work programme.
  • If the committee was looking into the most important things in their area, these will remain current and there is a good chance the new committee will pick up on work already done.
  • A re-elected chair will want to continue previous inquiries but will need to engage the interest of new members.
  • Telling points made in past evidence to the old committee may well have been registered in Whitehall.

Andrew Kennon’s talk to the Constitution Society on 5 May on how the House of Commons may handle Brexit can be found here.

About the author

Andrew Kennon retired recently after nearly 40 years working in the House of Commons, the last five as Clerk of Committees. He is a trustee of the Constitution Society and an honorary professor at King’s College London.

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