Forty years ago, the House of Commons revolutionised the way in which it scrutinises government by creating departmental select committees so that each section of government now receives continual and detailed scrutiny by MPs. In June, a two-day conference was held to explore the past, present and future forms and functions of these committees. Rebecca McKee and Tom Caygill summarise some of the event’s key themes and contributions.
Almost 40 years to the day since the debate to establish the first departmental select committees in late June 1979, the House of Commons and the Study of Parliament Group held a two-day conference in parliament. The conference showcased the work of the committees, reflecting on changes since 1979 and looked forward at emerging challenges and how committees may need to evolve for the future.
There were 15 panels over two days, with a range of speakers from academia, Whitehall, the House of Commons and civil society. In this post we consider themes from the conference, looking specifically at the past, present and future of departmental select committees.
Looking back at 40 years of select committees
The history of select committees
With 40 years of departmental select committees to explore, the panel ‘History, origins and early days of select committees’ began by looking back to their inception in 1979. The panel heard contributions from Philip Aylett (clerk); Professor Gavin Drewry (Royal Holloway, University of London), Mike Everett (clerk), Sir David Natzler (former Clerk of the House), and was chaired by Oonagh Gay, (formerly of the Parliament and Constitution Centre).
The session began with a discussion of the work conducted by the Study of Parliament Group in helping to develop and monitor early select committees. It was noted that the group did not always speak with one voice. Bernard Crick, one of the group’s founders, initially argued against specialist committees.
However, these committees were not a complete novelty. Committees have existed since the late 13th century, when the Committees of Triers and Examiners of Petitions were established. Their usage expanded over the centuries. A dramatic increase occurred in the 16th century following the designation (in 1547) of a special Committee Room in the House of Commons.
The panel then turned to the 20th century. They argued that the 1960s were a dark age for select committees; the Estimates Committee existed but had a very narrow remit and committees avoided policy issues. In 1965 however, the Procedure Committee recommended a greater specialisation of select committee work and in 1966 discussions began between parties to develop specialist committees. Harold Wilson argued that select committees should expand their remit beyond financial questions to cover policy issues also. By the 1970s a different role started to emerge, similar to the Committees we recognise today.
The Wright reforms
Another panel addressed the more recent past, focusing on the Wright reforms introduced almost a decade ago. Analysis was provided by Professor Tony Wright (former MP and Chair of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons) and from Greg Power (Chair, Global Partners Governance, and former specialist adviser to the Leader of the House of Commons at the time of the reforms). The session was chaired by Lucinda Maer (Clerk of the House of Commons Liaison Committee).
They addressed the Wright reforms, including the election of committee chairs by the whole House and the election of committee members by their respective parties. They also reflected on the process of getting the reforms through government and parliament.
Impact of select committees
The panel entitled ‘Impact – View from the outside’ comprised Sarah Allan (Head of Engagement, Involve), Georgina Holmes-Skelton (Head of Government Affairs, National Trust), John Foster (Director of Campaigns, CBI) and Stephen Meek (Director of the Institute for Policy and Engagement, University of Nottingham). They discussed the ways in which organisations can maximise their impact in parliament by working with select committees. Holmes-Skelton explained that the National Trust own a significant amount of land and property that could be used for research, but the timeframe for committee inquiries is often too short to take advantage of this. Sarah Allan suggested that select committees could make a much stronger case for their work by using public engagement processes to encourage broader interest from the media.
‘The part of parliament that is actually working’
The first panel of the conference saw four current (at the time) select committee chairs take to the stage; Lilian Greenwood MP (Transport Committee), Nicky Morgan MP (Treasury Committee Chair who has since become Culture Secretary), Stephen Twigg MP (International Development Committee) and Damian Collins MP (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee). They shared their own experiences and discussed the work of their committees. Summing up the work of committees, Nicky Morgan stated that the committee system is the ‘part of parliament that is actually working’ as ‘we ask the questions that people can’t ask, won’t ask or take too long to ask’.
Dr Sarah Wollaston MP (Chair, Liaison Committee) gave the Michael Ryle Lecture (for video footage of the speech, see here). In her speech she praised the work of committees and gave her own expert view on what makes for a ‘good committee’. Several ‘leaps forward’ were made over the last 40 years that have reformed and strengthened the system. Dr Wollaston stated that there is now ‘a system that allows for careers to be forged in scrutiny as opposed to ministerial office’, opening up an alternative career path for MPs.
In the Q&A session, Dr Wollaston revealed that the Liaison Committee has invited the new Prime Minister to appear before it on September 2nd, the day before the House of Commons is due to return from summer recess. This provides a very current example of the important role select committees play regarding scrutiny of government.
Looking forward: the future of select committees
In the first session Stephen Twigg and Lilian Greenwood touched on the importance of incorporating lived experience into committees’ evidence base. They agreed that committees need to better ensure witnesses feel comfortable giving evidence. They commented that a person at the top of an organisation may not be best placed to give evidence and that broadening invitations to others in the organisation could help improve the diversity of witnesses, a point raised several times during the conference. This is something for clerks to think about, but organisations also need to be more comfortable allowing individuals beside the head of the organisation to give evidence.
Anne-Marie Griffiths (Clerk, Work and Pensions Committee) explored public engagement and lived experience further in the session ‘Putting lived experience at the heart of committee work’. The ‘public engagement’ break out session with Dr Danielle Beswick (Senior Lecturer, University of Birmingham), Dr Stephen Elstub (Lecturer, University of Newcastle), Naomi Jurczak (Select Committee Engagement Manager, House of Commons), and Kate Anderson (Petitions and Communications Manager, House of Commons) offered interesting insights into how committees can ensure authentic public engagement in their inquiries, and how this improves scrutiny and impact. They suggested various means of improving public engagement, including a mixture of online and offline methods, such as using Skype to take evidence and using voice recordings if people would rather not be filmed. But they also recognised practical barriers to engagement including timing and resource limitations. It was widely agreed that committees must be able to use video evidence submissions alongside written evidence.
In the ‘Digital reach and reports of the future’ session with Miranda Olivier-Wright (Head of the Web and Publications Unit) and Sarah Davies (Clerk Assistant), the panel spoke about their work digitising reports and improving engagement. As Sarah Davies explained, reports are only part of the process. Analysis of engagement statistics illustrates that ‘more people are listening than we realise’. Therefore, going forward, they argued that there was scope for committee outputs to be more accessible, in order to build on this engagement.
On the panel of committee chairs, Damian Collins and Stephen Twigg gave examples of how digital engagement has helped their work. In some cases, they were able to receive corrections to witness statements in real time from experts outside the room. This allowed them to re-question witnesses during the same session.
Powers of select committees
In the final session of the conference, ‘Where next for select committees?’, Professor Meg Russell (Director of the Constitution Unit, UCL), Dr Ruth Fox (Director and Head of Research, Hansard Society) and Paul Evans (Clerk of Committees, House of Commons) reflected on what the future of select committees might look like.
Meg Russell noted the striking fact that select committee chairs have been ‘key players and brokers’. At a time when party leaders are facing challenges from within their own parties, committee chairs have a mandate not only from their own party but from the whole House, now that they are elected by fellow MPs. However, she warned that as committees get bolder, they need to be more careful. In particular, they need to protect their reputations because ‘if their legitimacy bubble is burst, their power will go’.
The conference took place on 27 and 28 June. This post only covers a selection of the content discussed, for full details of the programme and more exciting content (papers, videos, posters etc.) see the website here. You can also view other insights from the day on Twitter here.
This blog has been co-posted with the Study of Parliament Group blog. To see their version, click here.
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About the authors
Dr Rebecca McKee is a Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit. Rebecca is researching representation and diversity in parliament and is currently running a survey of MPs’ staff. She tweets as @rmcmckee.