Effective and influential: where next for departmental select committees?

220px.Official_portrait_of_Dr_Sarah_Wollaston_crop_2Forty 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. Continue reading

The House of Commons and the Brexit deal: A veto player or a driver of policy?

pastedgraphic-1-e1494926560214With parliament set to vote on the government’s Brexit deal today, there is much speculation about what will happen if it is rejected. Here, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon analyses the potential scenarios, including whether or not the House of Commons could end up running the country directly.

A key concern for the House of Commons when voting on the proposed deal with the European Union will be not only the merits of the agreement itself, but what happens if it is defeated. In theory, parliament – and in particular the House of Commons – is the ultimate source of constitutional authority within the UK system. But, in this particular circumstance, if MPs reject what is on offer, will they be able to take the initiative and impose a different course of action, or will they simply have to wait for the government to act?

The key problem for MPs wanting to implement other solutions to the Brexit deal is time – not just 29 March but debating time on the floor of the House. The government has complete control of the business and time of the House – with the exception of specific time set aside for the opposition and backbench business. Furthermore, any solution which requires legislation could only get through parliament with the government’s support.

But is it possible to contemplate the House taking the initiative in finding a solution to Brexit? If the government’s deal does not pass in the House on 15 January, might the government really say ‘we want to hear what the House thinks of the various options’?

An ‘All-Options’ debate?

At this point many MPs will want – and the public might expect – a debate leading to a vote on a whole range of options. In procedural terms, there is a clear precedent from 2003 when the House voted on a variety of options for the composition of a reformed House of Lords – though the salutary lesson from that experience is that each option was rejected. One group of MPs will be solidly opposed to opening up the options like this: those who oppose the government’s deal and want a no-deal exit. Continue reading

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings

robert-hazell-350x350In September the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee published their report into Pre-Appointment Scrutiny Hearings. Robert Hazell gave evidence to the committee’s inquiry on the subject; here he discusses the report’s conclusions, and describes the events that led to its being undertaken, including two Constitution Unit studies that evaluated the effectiveness of such scrutiny.  

The recently published report of the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) was the product of an inquiry undertaken at the request of the Commons Liaison Committee, because of growing concerns amongst Select Committee chairs that pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were a charade, especially when the government ignored committee recommendations.  The Liaison Committee and PACAC both heard evidence from the former Constitution Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell, who explained that pre-appointment hearings were more effective than MPs recognised, and suggested ways in which they could be made more effective still.

Pre-appointment scrutiny hearings were introduced by Gordon Brown, when he became Prime Minister in July 2007.  In his Green Paper The Governance of Britain he proposed:

… that the Government nominee for key positions … should be subject to a pre-appointment hearing with the relevant select committee. The hearing would be non-binding, but in the light of the report from the committee, Ministers would decide whether to proceed.  The hearings would cover issues such as the candidate’s suitability for the role, his or her key priorities, and the process used in the selection.

The Cabinet Office and the Liaison Committee subsequently agreed a list of just over 50 key positions which would be subject to the new procedure. Ten years later, by the end of the 2015-17 Parliament, there had been almost 100 scrutiny hearings, involving almost every single departmental Select Committee. The Constitution Unit conducted an early evaluation of the first 20 hearings in 2009-10, and a second study in 2016-17, looking at a further 70 hearings. Continue reading

Questioning Prime Ministers: a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies

Prime Ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there has been little comparative research on how they are held to account by parliaments. As part of her PhD research Ruxandra Serban is seeking to fill this gap. Here, she outlines initial findings from a survey of procedures in 32 parliamentary democracies.

Prime ministers are prominent political actors in parliamentary democracies, yet there is little understanding of how they are held accountable by parliaments. What are the mechanisms through which parliamentarians may question them and how do such mechanisms vary procedurally? The UK House of Commons famously provides a high-profile weekly session for questioning the head of government at Prime Minister’s Questions. How does PMQs compare with questioning mechanisms in other parliaments?

Drawing on my PhD research, this blog presents preliminary findings from a survey of procedural rules regarding such mechanisms in 32 parliamentary democracies, and illustrates the variety of procedures available in different countries.

How does questioning take place?

Collective and individualised

Whether prime ministers are questioned individually or together with other ministers is likely to be important in determining how they interact with parliamentarians. The nature of government in parliamentary democracies is collective. Prime ministers lead the government and are collectively responsible together with their cabinets; but in most countries they are not responsible for specific ministerial portfolios. Prime ministers are expected to account for their own actions and also to speak for the government. Consequently, whether or not they are questioned individually or together with ministers is likely to have an important effect on the types of questions they are asked.

Plenary and committee

An additional dimension concerns the distinction between plenary and committee mechanisms. The setting of the procedure creates different types of questioning environments. For example, the Liaison Committee in the UK House of Commons was introduced to complement the main plenary mechanism (PMQs), specifically in order to configure a more focused forum of scrutiny.

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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.

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Liaison Committee inquiry on the effectiveness of Select Committees

Robert Hazell and Meg Russell appeared before the House of Commons Liaison Committee today. They gave expert evidence on the issue of the power and effectiveness of Select Committees.

Meg Russell recently completed a research project on the impact of Select Committees in collaboration with House of Commons Committee staff.  They coded data on committee inquiries and recommendations, conducted interviews and quantitative analysis, bringing it together into a report available at the link below

Further Information