Forty years after the creation of departmental select committees, it is beyond doubt that they have contributed significantly to the scrutiny of government. But could they be doing more? The House of Commons Liaison Committee has established an inquiry to answer this question. Dr Sarah Wollaston explains that this is a necessary task to ensure that committees continue to innovate and perform their crucial functions with the involvement of MPs, experts and the general public.
It is difficult to imagine a House of Commons without its select committees. They are places where MPs can come together and work across party divides, often showing parliament at its best. They are central to the scrutiny of government. They have the authority to question those with influence and power but are also forums where MPs engage with and listen to a range of voices, and provide a platform to those who might otherwise not be heard. Committee work provides an important focus for the working lives of many MPs, who can use them to develop and deploy their own expertise. But in fact this level and intensity of scrutiny of the government and other agencies of the state by parliament is a relatively recent phenomenon.
The departmental select committee system will celebrate its fortieth birthday in June this year. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of all the Chairs of the select committees, sees this anniversary as providing an unmissable opportunity to take stock and reflect on whether select committees are fulfilling their potential, and if not, to find what is stopping them. Do select committees do the right things, with the right people, resources, powers and outputs? What has worked well, and what could they do better?
The 1979 select committee reforms were heralded at the time as the start of a great new era. Norman St John Stevas, then Leader of the House, stated that the Commons was ‘embarking upon a series of changes that could constitute the most important parliamentary reforms of the century’. Although select committees had a long parliamentary history, their use had declined through the first half of the twentieth century. Writing in 1970, Bernard Crick, the political philosopher, noted that the government had resisted establishing a select committee system:
For one thing, Select Committees on matters of public policy have been thoroughly distrusted and disliked by the Whips; despite government majorities on them, they have an awkward tendency to develop cross-bench sentiment, and a shocking habit of regarding the Executive as guilty until it is proved innocent.
2019 is also the tenth anniversary of the publication of the Wright report, which led to the direct election by all MPs of most select committee Chairs and the democratisation of the internal party processes for choosing their other members. Until 2010, the whips had retained a degree of control over select committees through the appointment of their membership, and therefore indirectly their Chair. The Select Committee on Reform of the House, known as the Wright Committee, not only recommended this further shift of control, but also issued a call to action for MPs to use the opportunities available to them, and to innovate:
…from these key changes could flow many associated opportunities for the House to work in new and innovative ways as other bodies are having to learn to do. This will only happen if Members are fully engaged and committed to this task… The challenge for its Members, both present and future, is to ensure that this happens.
Looking at their work today, I am confident that the Wright Committee would think committees are indeed innovating. They are engaging with the public in new and different ways to increase their evidence base and use that evidence to influence policy change. Three recent examples stand out for me.
In 2017, the Work and Pensions Committee opened up a web forum on PIP and ESA Assessments where any member of the public could comment; it received over 2,000 responses. It used these responses to formulate recommendations on compulsory audio recordings of PIP and ESA assessments to restore trust and improve accountability. Widely covered in news media, the forum is still one of the most visited committee pages on the parliamentary website each month. The Department for Work and Pensions accepted the recommendations in their response, highlighting the role of the forum in coming to this decision.
For their 2016 inquiry into sexual harassment in schools, the Women and Equalities Committee invited the public’s views on the Department for Education’s assessment of the scale of sexual harassment in schools. They also used a web forum to crowdsource scrutiny, and heard from teachers, academics and charities. The participants disagreed with the Department’s assessment of the scale, arguing that they had significantly underestimated how widespread it was, and the government was forced to reassess and provide a more accurate figure. This exercise was named a global pioneer in digital democracy.
Further, as chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, I’ve been involved in a joint inquiry with the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee which was the first to commission a citizens’ assembly to look at the future funding of adult social care. This was the first citizens’ assembly held by parliament and probably one of the largest and most in-depth examples of public engagement undertaken by any committee so far. Over two weekends in the summer of 2018, 47 members of the public received briefings from social care experts before discussing and voting on options for reform, including the extent to which taxation should be looked to as a funding option. I believe that knowing the public’s preferences for reform helped the committees to make bolder recommendations. We await the government’s response and the long-awaited social care Green Paper.
The committees operate in a far more open way than they were able to 40 years ago. Every public evidence session can be watched live or by accessing the archive on parliamentlive.tv. Almost all our written evidence is published on the parliamentary website within days of its being submitted. We can communicate instantly our correspondence with ministers and witnesses, as well as their replies. In short, the public can now witness the whole story of a select committee inquiry as it unfolds, and can engage in the process of the inquiry themselves as it develops. We are reaching places select committees have not been able to before the internet age. Increasingly we communicate through platforms like Twitter and Instagram, in words and through audio visual means. Our social media following is expanding rapidly – select committees currently have 287,000 followers on Twitter. Every month, 6,000 new people follow a select committee, with committee tweets getting a reach of 10 million impressions a month
All these changes mean we must also ask whether our structures and procedures remain appropriate to the task. We have recently changed standing orders to allow more joint working to take place, giving the ability for one committee to invite a guest from another committee to join them to take evidence. But are more changes needed? And might there be a role for the Liaison Committee in cross-cutting policy areas? Do the ‘core tasks’ that the House has given the committees represent the right agenda and the right priorities for scrutiny? How might we better hold the committees to account for the work they do on behalf of the electorate?
The aim of our inquiry is to ensure select committees are equipped to maximise their influence on behalf of the public as the context in which they operate evolves. We want to ensure that our structures and processes enable MPs to continue to rise to the challenge set by Wright, and to ensure the legacy of the 1979 reforms is secure into the future.
The Liaison Committee’s inquiry into the effectiveness and influence of the select committee system is accepting written submissions until 28 February 2019: see here for more information on the inquiry’s scope and to sign up for RSS updates.
About the author
Dr Sarah Wollaston is Chair of the Liaison Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee.