Celebrating 40 years of departmental select committees

involve_portraits_may18_029b (1)download.jpg.pngForty 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). 

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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. Continue reading

When meeting a new woman MP was no longer a rarity! Recollections of the impact of the May 1997 election on parliament

The outcome of the 1997 general election, 20 years ago this month, saw the number of female MPs double overnight. The new intake of female MPs included many women who would go on to become senior figures in the Labour Party, as well as the current Prime Minister Theresa May. Oonagh Gay, a former senior official at the House of Commons Library, recalls the impact that this change, together with New Labour’s wider ‘modernisation’ agenda, had on parliament.

On 1 May 1997 120 women MPs were elected; exactly double the number elected in 1992 and representing 18.2 per cent of all MPs. 71 of these MPs were new. For House of Commons Library staff suddenly it was no longer a rarity to meet a woman MP. Previously, it was possible to recognise each woman MP and name their constituency without much difficulty. Suddenly there was a host of younger, unfamiliar, female faces to process. 101 of those 120 women elected were Labour, reflecting the landslide majority achieved by their party, and the positive action policies which it had developed in the 1990s. To Commons Library staff, women MPs were new and demanding customers, anxious to meet their constituency responsibilities and to research policy alternatives. Due to a delay in allocating offices to ,embers, the Library’s Oriel Room staff were really busy with tours of the Members’ Library, especially in the first couple of weeks or so after the election, and so got to know the new women members quite well.

Among that intake were some women who were to become major figures. Labour’s new members included Anne Begg, Hazel Blears, Yvette Cooper, Maria Eagle, Caroline Flint, Patricia Hewitt, Beverley Hughes, Oona King, Joan Ryan, Angela Smith, Jacqui Smith, Gisela Stuart and Rosie Winterton. The smaller intake of female Conservative MPs included Eleanor Laing, Caroline Spelman and … Theresa May. Some already had a public presence; others were less established in their careers and from a wide variety of backgrounds. The impression was that they tended to be slightly older than their male counterparts and to have had more experience of elected office (in local government) and the public and voluntary sector. Suddenly, the Commons appeared a more welcoming, more diverse space. This was the first change of government for 18 years, and long-serving MPs were replaced by new faces and new accents.

The unprecedented numbers of women MPs coincided with a major change in the provision of information to members. The internet and emails came into their own during the 1997-2001 parliament. So it can be difficult to disentangle the two developments. Inevitably, the culture of the Commons changed as the provision of information by electronic means became widespread, and debates in the Chamber could be watched in MPs’ offices. Portcullis House opened in February 2001, providing a significant increase in office and committee room space, and creating a lasting change in the day to day operation of MPs, as they interacted with each other, and with staff, in its sunlit atrium. The number of senior Commons staff who were female began to increase too, although the first woman Commons Librarian, Jennifer Tanfield, had already been appointed back in 1993.

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English votes for English laws one year on: a critical evaluation

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On 28 November the Constitution Unit hosted a seminar in parliament to mark the publication of a major new report by Professor Michael Kenny and Daniel Gover evaluating the first year of the new English votes for English laws procedures in the House of Commons. Kenny and Gover summarised their findings before two respondents, Roger Gough and Oonagh Gay, offered their thoughts on the report and the EVEL system. Dominic Walsh reports.

In his speech in Downing Street following the Scottish independence referendum David Cameron drew attention to the ‘English question’. ‘We have heard the voice of Scotland’, the then Prime Minister said, ‘and now the millions of voices of England must be heard’. With this in mind a set of procedural changes to the workings of the House of Commons, known as ‘English Votes for English Laws’ or EVEL, were proposed by the Conservatives at the last general election. These were implemented through changes to standing orders in October 2015.

There was great fanfare about the introduction of EVEL at the time. Over a year on, however, it appears to have faded almost entirely from the public view. How has the procedure worked in practice during its first 12 months? Has it been a success so far, or have criticisms of it been vindicated? These questions are addressed in a new report published jointly by the Centre on Constitutional Change, the Mile End Institute and the Constitution Unit, supported by the Economic and Social Research Council. This was launched at a Constitution Unit seminar held at Westminster on 28 November. What follows is a summary of the event; the authors, Daniel Gover and Professor Michael Kenny have written a separate blog post outlining their report in more detail.

Overview of the report

Michael Kenny introduced the event by outlining the aims of the project. These were to evaluate EVEL’s first year of operation, to examine whether the evidence bears out the criticisms made of EVEL, and to explore options to make EVEL more legitimate and transparent. He also gave some background by summarising recent historical trends which gave rise to the adoption of EVEL as policy by the Conservatives.

By and large, Kenny argued, EVEL has worked as intended thus far. However, major issues of legitimacy remain. The partisan division in the Commons vote introducing the measure was stark: every single MP who voted in favour was a Conservative, and all who voted against belonged to an opposition party. This may raise concerns that EVEL will not survive a change of government – particularly as the procedure was introduced through changes to standing orders rather than legislation, meaning that it could be repealed or suspended through a single vote. Kenny also added the caveat that the current Conservative government has a larger majority in England than in the UK as a whole and so the system has not yet been ‘stress-tested’ in circumstances where different English and UK majorities on pieces of legislation are likely.

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The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: lessons from Canada

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The Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster reported last week, recommending a full decant from the Palace. Attention is now turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament’s more advanced redevelopment programme, which will see MPs sitting in a temporary chamber from 2018, can offer some insights into some of the challenges likely to be faced. Oonagh Gay outlines the background to Canada’s restoration project and some of its more controversial aspects.

Following last week’s publication of the report from the Joint Committee on Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, recommending a full decant from the Palace, attention is turning towards the process of implementation. The Canadian parliament at Ottawa is also undergoing its own programme of redevelopment and provides a useful comparator.

The Canadian parliament was established on Parliament Hill, an escarpment next to Ottawa river. Its grand gothic revival buildings were designed to dominate the horizon. Opened in 1876, the complex suffered a devastating fire in 1916 which led to major rebuilding. A century later the parliament in Ottawa faces many of the same problems as the Westminster parliament. A complete restoration project began in 2001, when a Long Term Vision and Plan (LTVP) was developed in order to direct change in the parliamentary precinct in the city south of Wellington Street. It was designed as a 25-year programme to upgrade dilapidated buildings and add accommodation to the site for MPs, officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

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The restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster offers an opportunity to make parliament more user-friendly

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A joint parliamentary committee is currently considering options for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster, expected to begin after the 2020 general election. Much of the media speculation has focused on what will happen whilst the work is undertaken but the committee must also address some other big questions. Oonagh Gay sets these out and argues that the programme offers major opportunities to re-design the Palace to be more user friendly.

The Palace of Westminster is falling down, and gradually the need to do more than patch and repair it has become urgent. This is a Grade 1 listed building forming part of an UNESCO World Heritage Site, with a million visitors a year, after all, even if extra expenditure on accommodation and services for MPs and peers is hardly popular. But a nineteenth century palace has struggled to adapt to modern office practices, with a growing need for online working and public transparency.

Senior parliamentary officials warned in October 2012 that irreversible damage would occur if nothing was done. A programme of Restoration and Renewal (R & R) began in the last parliament. The House of Commons Commission set in place an Independent Options Appraisal which was published on 18 June 2015, just after the general election. This set out three options:

  1. Rolling programme. Undertaking minimum work taking 32 years. Both chambers would have to close for between 2-4 years, at different times, but sittings could be relocated to a temporary structure elsewhere in or around the Palace.
  2. Partial move out. The work would be carried out more quickly if first the Commons, then the Lords, were to move to temporary accommodation outside the Palace.
  3. Full move out. If both Houses fully vacated the Palace this would take the least time and would avoid disruption to parliament from construction works. This approach would take around six years.

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