Dramas at Westminster: select committees and the quest for accountability

iOpQqpWl_400x400.jpgNow that the government has a secure majority in the Commons, the role of select committees in scrutinising its work will be crucial. But how do select committees operate, what makes them tick and how effective are they? Drawing on the findings of his new book, Marc Geddes argues that if we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

How do MPs make sense of their scrutiny work? Accountability is one of three core functions of legislatures (the other two being law-making and representation), yet we know remarkably little about how MPs interpret, or seek to carry out, scrutiny work. Those MPs that do take it seriously often join select committees. They are seen as the main vehicles of accountability in the House of Commons, made up of a small group of MPs to consider policy questions. Traditionally, there is one committee per ministerial department, as well as additional cross-cutting ones (such as on public administration and constitutional affairs). Committees normally consider policy issues through an evidence gathering process that may include written, as well as oral, evidence, before then publishing a report with recommendations for action (very often these reports are published consensually, with agreement from all the committee’s MPs). Select committees are seen to be influential and have been widely celebrated, especially in 2019, which marked the 40th anniversary since their present-day incarnation. While they are seen as fundamental to good scrutiny and we know that they can be influential, I wanted to examine select committees from a different vantage point, asking why MPs join committees and how they make sense of their role. This culminated in a book, Dramas at Westminster. What did I find? 

The core argument of my book is that there is no easy answer or unifying theme to understand what ‘scrutiny’ actually means. Rather, MPs’ interpretations of the concept are wide-ranging and, while MPs’ beliefs often blend well together to create effective means to hold the executive to account, their ideas about select committee work can also contrast and diverge from what others might consider to be ‘good scrutiny’ – or, in fact, ‘scrutiny’ at all. For example, for some, scrutiny is about holding the government’s feet to the fire and they would only regard scrutiny as being successful if they have blown a minister off-course; for others, scrutiny is about transparency, i.e. better understanding why a minister might have taken a particular decision. I argue that these different interpretations create different ‘performance styles’; behaviours that MPs can adopt when they enact their scrutiny role – much like in a theatre or play. To illustrate this point, I identify six styles: specialists, who often form the core of committee business and attempt to analyse aspects of the policy area; lone wolves, who take their passions so far that they make their case irrespective of other committee members or the committee’s remit; constituency champions, who look at scrutiny through the prism of how it can benefit local causes; party helpers, who seek to protect their party interests on the committee; learners, who use their membership to better understand a policy issue; and absentees, who – as their name suggests – are largely absent from substantive committee work.

These styles are not fixed, with many MPs changing the role they adopt based on particular circumstances. For example, it might be the case that an MP is a specialist in one aspect of a committee’s work but not another, and so acts as specialist or learner accordingly; in other areas of a committee’s work, it might directly touch on their constituency while in a hearing with the secretary of state, or they cannot help themselves and use their party allegiance to poke fun at the government. It is worth thinking about performance styles to understand the wider dynamics of committee hearings and evidence processes. Doing this detailed analysis will help us to better understand why a committee will come to certain conclusions but might avoid other recommendations. Most importantly, the performance styles that I have identified here are designed to be illustrative rather than definitive, drawing on the most recurring themes and behaviours that I found during my fieldwork. 

The diversity of priorities for MPs affects scrutiny in different ways. Most notably, MPs’ styles of scrutiny push accountability in particular directions and may mean that the focus of reports could be skewed. Committees therefore depend on MPs knowing which style to adopt – acting as specialist, for example, when holding civil servants to account, but as learners when they want to gain information about a topic from academic witnesses. In my book, I particularly draw attention to two ways in which the beliefs and practices of MPs (and officials) affect committee work: evidence gathering and consensus building.

First, the book looks at how committees seek to gather evidence. Continuing the metaphor of a play, gathering evidence is a political performance in which committee members have their time in the limelight to promote their stylised versions of scrutiny. They work alongside committee officials, who become stage directors and production managers; who write briefing papers that act as loose scripts for MPs; and who ensure that witnesses – the perceived stars of the show – are willing to attend a committee hearing in the first place. Indeed, the work of officials, predominantly conducted backstage, can be just as important in making scrutiny happen as the MPs themselves, with most committee members relying on the deftness and skills of committee staff to keep the show running. 

Second, I also look at how MPs seek to build effective relationships. This is important because, traditionally, committees seek to publish reports with the agreement of all members of the committee. How do they do this? One interviewee spoke to me about ‘norms of civility’ that sustain partnership and collaboration across parliament. Effective relationships are key to good scrutiny because they ensure that MPs are able to respect and trust each other, without fear that one or another will undermine them. These everyday behaviours are often overlooked because they seem mundane, routine and inconsequential. However, they add up. And it is through their daily negotiations with each other that MPs are bound together and work with each other in good faith.

While I draw attention to evidence gathering and relationship building, the intention of Dramas at Westminster is to highlight the power of ideas, beliefs and the ‘everyday’ in affecting select committees more broadly. The book demonstrates the multi-purpose role of select committees in structuring parliamentary life, in which I find that committees allow MPs to learn about policy, act as information gathering tools for Parliament, help to socialise MPs into the conventions and procedures of the House, can allow for opportunities for MPs to test lines of inquiry to use elsewhere, and so on. While committees serve different roles, they are also under pressure from the multiple demands of work placed on MPs, from the short timeframes and reactive nature of much scrutiny work, and from changing membership of committees. 

Ultimately, the aim of this book is to provoke a debate about how we study parliaments. I use the metaphor of theatre to highlight that, very often, scrutiny becomes a spectacle or drama (think of the headlines from hearings with Sir Philip Green, for example). If we want to understand the effectiveness of scrutiny, we cannot underestimate the role of beliefs and practices in mediating accountability in legislatures.

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About the author

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. He uses an interpretive approach to study legislatures, with his most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, now available. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes