What does ‘evidence’ mean to MPs and officials in the UK House of Commons?

Select committees are a key mechanism of the House of Commons in its role as scrutineer of legislation and government policy. However, there has been little research on how committees’ members and officials use evidence to support their work. Marc Geddes has been researching the topic; here he offers a summary of his findings.

Select committees are the principal mechanism of accountability in the House of Commons and act as information-gathering tools for parliament. They are generally regarded as influential in the UK policy-making process (even if this is often informal), who enjoy widespread media coverage, and who have a generally positive reputation. Despite their importance, we know comparatively little about how they approach and use evidence to support their work (with some notable exceptions). In this blog, I want to explore precisely this topic.

Select committees are made up of small groups of MPs, elected as members by their colleagues. In order to hold governments to account, select committees rely on extensive evidence-gathering, including an open call for written evidence and oral evidence through invite-only committee hearings. Evidence is analysed and published in a report, which will include recommendations for change. What does ‘evidence’ mean in this context?

The formal meanings of ‘evidence’ are set out in Erskine May, the authoritative reference book on parliamentary procedure for the UK Parliament. It is expected that evidence is ‘truthful’ (para 38.31), which may otherwise be ‘treated as a contempt of the House and investigated and punished’ (para 38.55). Interestingly, evidence prepared for a committee becomes its ‘property’ (para 38.32) in order to be protected by parliamentary privilege (preventing evidence from being called into question by the courts).

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Commons select committees and Brexit

wager.150x150This week, the Constitution Unit co-published a new report, Parliament and Brexitin which some of the UK’s leading academics look at how parliament has managed Brexit to date, and how it might seek to handle the issue in future. Here, Alan Wager argues that select committees in the Commons proved their worth at a time when the public perception of parliament was at a low point, but that future Brexit challenges will see them come under pressure.

The House of Commons select committee system is a parliamentary success story. But it is a success story about to come under a period of sustained pressure. The influence and public profile of the committee system has been boosted by a reputation as a generator of agenda-setting policy discussion, and a vehicle for genuine cross-party scrutiny. The new political environment since the 2019 general election provides a test of whether these factors can be sustained. In an environment where the government is explicitly setting out to reduce the level of parliamentary scrutiny around Brexit and its consequences, select committees face the challenge of maintaining the levels of influence they enjoyed during the 2017-19 parliament.

Some government decisions that inhibited select committee scrutiny at the start of Boris Johnson’s tenure are temporary. The attempted prorogation, actual prorogation, dissolution and the slow start after the general election, combined with the distraction of the Labour leadership contest, have disrupted committee activity. The Liaison Committee has yet to question Boris Johnson, who cancelled an agreed appearance in October, having postponed twice previously. All this at a critical time when negotiating mandates and opening positions are being fleshed out.

Yet there are other substantive and long-term problems for scrutiny, resulting directly from government decisions, which will continue to impact throughout the transition period. As discussed in Lisa James’ contribution to the Parliament and Brexit report, government revisions to the post-election EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill (WAB) reduced MPs’ ability to scrutinise the next steps on Brexit on the floor of the House of Commons – including the negotiating mandate and updates on negotiations. This means that MPs (and watchers of BBC Parliament) will be denied those pinch points of high drama – and, more importantly, high scrutiny – that shaped government strategy throughout the last parliament. The question is whether select committees – with their proven capacity to generate moments of scrutiny and expose the government of the day – can partly fill the gap. Continue reading

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.  Continue reading