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

Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’.  Continue reading

Getting a new parliament up and running: what happens after the election?

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgbeamish.jpg (1)We may not yet know the result of the election, but we do know that we will have a new parliament. David Natzler and David Beamish explain what will happen when the new parliament commences next week. No matter the outcome of today’s vote, certain processes will need to be followed: parliament will need to be officially opened, MPs will need to be sworn in, and committees will need to be re-established — and their members and chairs must be elected.

The dates

The first days of a new parliament follow a well-trodden path, and the surest guide to what will happen is usually to look up what happened last time, in June 2017. However, much depends on the political context. And we will not know that context until the early hours of Friday 13 December at the earliest. All we know for sure is that the new parliament will meet on Tuesday 17 December, and that if the current Prime Minister returns, the State Opening – the start of the new session – will be only two days later, on Thursday 19 December. If there is a hung parliament, the State Opening could be delayed. Continue reading

How to make the select committee system more effective and influential

220px.Official_portrait_of_Dr_Sarah_Wollaston_crop_2Dr Sarah Wollaston, Chair of the Liaison Committee, discusses its new report into how the system of select committees can operate more effectively, both in terms of their place within the House of Commons and their external impact. New ways of working and more powers are suggested, such as taking a ‘digital first’ approach to reports and formalising formalising further the arrangements for the Prime Minister to appear before the Liaison Committee.

Even at times of deep political division, select committees often show parliament at its best. MPs work together across party lines to reach consensus and to hold the government of the day to account. This June marked the fortieth birthday of the departmental select committee system. The Liaison Committee, which is made up of the chairs of all select committees, took the opportunity to review what select committees do and how they do it, publishing our recommendations on 9 September, in a report entitled The effectiveness and influence of the committee system.

Our report introduces a new set of aims and objectives that better reflect the work of modern select committees. From climate change to social care, the impact of Brexit to fake news, select committees have become a driving force for investigation into emerging issues of the day. They have always been a place where the administration, policies and spending of government has been scrutinised. Since the banking crisis of 2008, they have increasingly become a place where those outside government who hold significant public roles or power over people’s lives can be held publicly to account. We recognise this role in investigating areas of public concern in our new aims and objectives and call for it to be reflected in our formal remits.

The new objectives talk about what we do; they also talk about how we do it. We have made progress in hearing from more diverse groups of people and engaging directly with the public in new and more inclusive ways. The Health and Social Care and Housing, Communities and Local Government Committees, which worked alongside a Citizens’ Assembly on Social Care, and the Petitions Committee’s inquiry into the online abuse of disabled people, are exemplars of how committees are increasingly engaging with people outside the usual groups who contribute and including those who have lived experience. Continue reading

The Supreme Court ruling in Cherry/Miller (No.2), and the power of parliament

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThis week’s Supreme Court judgment against Boris Johnson on parliament’s prorogation has shaken British politics and will be looked back on as a landmark case. Yet at the same time, Meg Russell argues, it simply reinforces the core principle of parliament’s centrality in our constitution. There has long been a myth of executive-dominance in the British system. Perhaps after this case, the fact that the government gains its power and authority from parliament will be better recognised – by those both inside and outside the system.

The Supreme Court’s judgment in the prorogation case was damning. Short of deciding that Boris Johnson had misled the Queen (which would be difficult to know, given private conversations) the court issued the strongest possible condemnation on all counts. The government had argued that prorogation was non-justiciable: i.e. not a matter in which the courts could get involved. The justices instead ruled it justiciable. Having established that, they then ruled it to be unlawful. Then, rather than leaving any loose ends regarding remedies, they explicitly quashed the prorogation, declaring that ‘Parliament has not been prorogued’. To cap it all, the decision was a unanimous one by all 11 justices who sat in the case. The prorogation was hence not just ‘improper’, as argued previously on this blog, and in a letter to the Times signed by 22 constitutional experts, but also found to be unlawful in the most powerful possible terms.

In some respects this feels like a constitutional earthquake. Few at the outset expected such a resounding result. On the basis of the High Court’s judgment, the first hurdle of justiciability was in doubt. Many who watched the proceedings, and the careful forensic analysis by Lord Pannick, representing Gina Miller, will soon have started thinking otherwise. This can only have been reinforced by watching the presentations by the government’s lawyers, who claimed that the issue of prorogation should be resolved politically rather than through the courts. Their suggestion that parliament could somehow defend itself, when the very point of the case was that parliament had been shut down, rang hollow.

The court’s judgment confirmed that advising the monarch to prorogue ‘will be unlawful if the prorogation has the effect of frustrating or preventing, without reasonable justification, the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions as a legislature and as the body responsible for the supervision of the executive’ (para 50). That flows, the judgment suggested, from two principles at the very core of the UK constitution: the sovereignty of parliament, and the accountability of the government to parliament – exercised, for example, through questions and committees. Continue reading

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