2017 select committee chair elections: a short guide

The new parliament is the third in which chairs will be elected by the whole House. These elections take place on Wednesday, with 28 chairs to be elected (though only 11 are being contested). Andrew Kennon discusses these elections and some of the trends that have developed over the seven years the system has been in operation.

Wednesday 12 July could prove to be the next best indicator (after the votes on the Queen’s speech) of how effective the new House of Commons will be at performing its constitutional role. It is the day when 28 people will be elected by their fellow MPs to chair select committees in these tumultuous times. No other parliament in the world has yet entrusted the choice of committee chairs to a secret ballot of all MPs. The system was the unexpected outcome of the expenses scandal and the imagination of the resulting reform committee, chaired by Tony Wright MP, to find ways of rebuilding the reputation of the House of Commons.

Direct elections

Chairs of select committees were first elected by the whole House in 2010 and then again in 2015, so the system is still fairly new. But members have quickly learnt how to get the best out of the system. Notably members of newer intakes have used the elections to ensure that their generation does not have to wait decades for their share of the spoils. Chair by-elections in 2014 saw two of the 2010 intake, Sarah Wollaston and Rory Stewart, securing the chairs of the Health and Defence committees, and other members of the 2010 intake were elected to chairs in 2015. It would be good to see more of the 2010 MPs taking the helm of committees now and some of the more recent arrivals staking a strong claim. The last thing we need is an American approach of longevity as the determinant of chairmanships

The distribution of chairs between parties in 2017, based on their strengths in the House, is only slightly changed since that of 2015 – the Conservatives have given up the chair of the Science and Technology Committee to the Liberal Democrats. It would have been possible, within the same number, for a more imaginative re-distribution of committees between parties to have taken place. This would certainly have occurred if there had been a change of party in government.

Term limits

There are term limits for select committee chairs and this rule will bite unexpectedly as a result of the early general election. Several chairs first elected in 2010 will – if re-elected again now – have to stand down in mid-2018 under the current rule, causing by-elections for those chairs. Some that this would have applied to are not running again but Clive Betts (Communities and Local Government), David TC Davies (Welsh Affairs), Sir Kevin Barron (Standards) and Bernard Jenkin (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs) are offering themselves for re-election. Three of these have now been re-elected unopposed but Clive Betts faces a challenge – with the exception of Ian Mearns, on the Backbench Business Committee, all other Labour incumbents are elected unopposed.

There was some thought that Barron and Jenkin may be spared by a generous interpretation of the recent changes in the terms of reference of their committees. However, last Wednesday the Speaker ruled that the eight-year limit would apply at least to Jenkin. Sir William Cash will be subject to the same rule, but the European Scrutiny Committee chair is elected by the committee under the pre-2010 procedure.

This assumes that the standing orders remain unchanged – there may be pressure to revise or repeal the term limit before next summer, and at the end of the last parliament the Procedure Committee recommended that its successor look into the rule. The eight-year/ two parliament term limits were adopted specifically in contemplation of there being an unexpectedly short parliament (as in 1964–66 and 1974). The only relevant change since then has been the Fixed-term Parliaments Act which changed the expectation for the length of a parliament from four years to five. It would be a shame if the House now extended or abolished the term limits and thereby entrenched long-serving chairs for even longer.

A real contest

Last time, there was only one candidate and so no contest in 12 cases. In eight of these 12 it was the member who had been chair up to the election who was re-elected unopposed, whilst in two cases the SNP put up just a single candidate. It is a shame that more elections were not contested, depriving the whole House of the opportunity to choose between candidates. When nominations closed on Friday 7 July, as many as 17 chairs were elected unopposed. All of these were chair of the relevant committee before the election. Since 14 of them have only been chair for less than three years, a degree of continuity is sensible.

In the 15 contested elections in 2015, there was some lively competition – in four cases there were as many as five candidates. This year, there are two elections – for the Education and Treasury Committees (both Conservative chairs) with as many as six candidates. The largest number of candidates for a Labour chair is for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, where four MPs vie to fill the vacancy left by Iain Wright’s voluntary departure from the House.

Previous incumbency is no guarantee of being elected unopposed – in 2015 two former chairs were successful in a contested election and another, Adrian Bailey (Business, Innovation and Skills), was defeated. On this occasion, incumbents Clive Betts (Communities and Local Government), Crispin Blunt (Foreign Affairs), Julian Lewis (Defence), Ian Mearns (Backbench Business) and Neil Parish (Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) all face challenges.

It is surprising that the Lib Dems have broken with their previous practice of offering only one candidate for their chair posts – this time all the other MPs will get a choice between Jo Swinson and Norman Lamb for the chair of the Science and Technology Committee.

Tactics

Following both of the 2014 by-elections, there was some anecdotal criticism among Conservative backbenchers that opposition MPs had voted strongly for the Conservative candidate who would cause most inconvenience to the Government. It is probably easier to organise tactical voting when there is a by-election for a single chair post than when 28 are up for election. But candidates know they have to appeal to MPs from the other side of the House to get elected.

Brexitologists – to coin a phrase – will pore over Wednesday’s results to discern any pattern about whether the House voted generally for Members on both sides who favour a softer or a harder Brexit. It is already clear that there will be a major battle between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ for the chair of the Treasury committee, which is vacant following Andrew Tyrie’s retirement from parliament. The six candidates include prominent Remain campaigner Nicky Morgan and prominent Leave campaigner Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Front-bench experience

The great thing is that lots of people want to be select committee chairs – and this was true even before direct elections were introduced. Competition is good but with election you inevitably only learn much later whether the best person won. It was really striking in 2015 that three former Labour ministers – Huw Irranca-Davies, Stephen Twigg and Iain Wright – chose well before their party leadership election that they would prefer to seek election as committee chairs rather than return to the front bench. Each demonstrated as committee chair their ministerial experience of concentrating on the important, using their networks and getting the best out of their committee staff.

The fall-out from subsequent developments in the Labour party brought former shadow cabinet members Hilary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Mary Creagh to the chairs of other committees when opportunities arose. It is a pity that members with comparable experience on the Conservative side had not put themselves forward.  Of the Tory chairs in the last parliament, only Crispin Blunt (Foreign Affairs), Maria Miller (Women and Equalities) and Bob Neill (Justice) had ministerial experience. This has changed this time, however, following the many departures from government when Theresa May took over as Prime Minister. Among the Conservatives candidates this time around there are 13 former ministers, though only Miller and Morgan have served in the cabinet.

There is a common fallacy that being chair of a select committee should be an alternative career path to climbing the ministerial ladder. I think the vicissitudes of politics mean this is not like choosing between being a GP or a hospital consultant. But the really important point is that having been a minister should not be a bar to being a successful committee chair.

Role of a chair

There is no job description for the chair of a select committee, nor any key requirements against which candidates can be measured. The National Assembly for Wales does have  such a job description, which includes:

  • Act impartially at all times, decisively, fairly and in a manner that maintains the confidence of the committee.
  • Secure the commitment and engagement of all committee members and build cross-party consensus wherever possible.

From time to time at Westminster other committee members express dissatisfaction with their chair, but the procedure for a committee expressing no confidence in its chair under Standing Order 122C has never been invoked. It is possible that this lies behind the challenge to one incumbent chair elected as recently as 2015. The fact that chairs are no longer chosen only by the other members of that committee has probably reduced the collegiate spirit of committees. In 2010 and 2015 some of the newly-elected chairs got ahead with setting a programme for the committee before other members had even been appointed. This also tended it make the chair more than just first among equals on a select committee.

Forthcoming chair choices

While attention this week will focus on the election of chairs to these 28 committees, some other committees which may play a key role in the Brexit process will elect their own chairs internally later. This includes the European Scrutiny Committee (where Sir William Cash has been in the chair since 2010), the Joint Committee on Human Rights (with Harriet Harman the chair since 2015), the Statutory Instruments Committee and the Liaison Committee (composed of all of the other committee chairs).

There were expectations early in the parliament elected in 2015 that the Prime Minister would be held to account more frequently in oral evidence sessions with the Liaison Committee than with the previous norm of three occasions a year. In the two years of the short 2015-17 parliament, only four such sessions were held – three with David Cameron and one with Theresa May. Other than these evidence sessions, the committee hardly ever met. The opportunity of holding the Prime Minister to account in the evidence-based format of a select committee – in contrast to the rough and tumble of Prime Minister’s Questions – should not be under-estimated. The Liaison Committee could also play a key role in avoiding committees tripping over each other during the Brexit process, but it will need a chair who commands the respect of their colleagues.

About the author

Andrew Kennon was Clerk of Committees in the House of Commons from 2011 to 2016.

8 thoughts on “2017 select committee chair elections: a short guide

  1. Thank you for the interesting analysis.

    The Commons is not the only UK parliament to elect its chairs though. The National Assembly for Wales changed its Standing Orders last year to bring in elections for the chairs of its committees. Details available in report by the Assembly’s Business Committee: https://goo.gl/NsMTbV

    Chairs were elected for the first time in June 2016, and a second election was held recently when a chair became vacant.

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