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

Pressures to recall parliament over Brexit during the summer seem likely – what if they occur?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgIMG_20190723_020219.jpg (1)A new Prime Minister is expected to be appointed tomorrow, the day before MPs break up for the summer recess. With just 14 weeks remaining before the current Article 50 deadline, the Commons is then not due to meet for almost six weeks. This creates some very obvious scrutiny gaps. Meg Russell and Daniel Gover suggest that pressures for a Commons ‘recall’ during the summer recess seem likely, but that this will revive difficult questions about who can, and should be able to, recall MPs.

On Thursday, MPs are due to leave Westminster for the summer recess. Yet, barring mishaps, a new Prime Minister is expected to be installed in Downing Street only the preceding day, making immediate parliamentary scrutiny of the new government’s key decisions all but impossible. An added pressure, of course, comes from the Brexit context. The current Article 50 deadline for the UK to depart the EU is 31 October, but parliament is due to remain closed for around half that time – for almost six weeks initially, until 3 September, followed by another break for the party conferences. During this period, calls for parliamentary scrutiny of the new government – most obviously over Brexit – seem very likely to grow. 

In this post we examine the pressures that may build for a recall of parliament during the summer, and what mechanisms exist for MPs if they do. Crucially, a formal Commons recall can only be initiated by the government – which may push parliamentarians towards innovative solutions. In the longer term, pressures for reform of the recall process may well be revived. 

Why there may be pressures for recall 

Demands for the Commons to be recalled from a recess are not unusual, as discussed below. However, they seem especially probable this year. MPs are set to break up just one day after the new Prime Minister takes office, while the tensions over Brexit and how he intends to handle this (particularly if the winner is Boris Johnson) are running high.

An initial challenge, raised in another recent post on this blog, is whether it will even be possible to know that the new Prime Minister and his government enjoy the confidence of parliament. The first action of a new premier is to appoint a cabinet, followed by junior ministers. Within the 24 hours available to the House of Commons, this process may not be complete. As the Commons’ confidence depends not only on the personality of the Prime Minister, but the personalities and balance of the whole government, this could well be brought into doubt. Additionally, there will be very little time under current plans for parliament to quiz the Prime Minister on his Brexit strategy. A statement on Wednesday afternoon or Thursday is possible, but not assured – and if MPs are dissatisfied there will be very little time to respond. The immediate start to the recess hence already looks problematic, and MPs may depart amidst claims that the new Prime Minister is dodging scrutiny. Continue reading

175 not out: the new edition of Erskine May and eight years of constitutional change

sir_david_natzler.smiling.cropped.3840x1920.jpgIn March, Sir David Natzler retired as Clerk of the Commons after over 40 years in the House. Now, he is the co-editor of Erskine May, the 25th edition of which is the first new edition in eight years, and is freely available to the public: a significant change. Here, Sir David discusses some of the key changes to the text after what can only be described as an eventful eight years for the Commons. 

The years since the last edition of Erskine May in 2011 have been pretty turbulent by any standards. We have had three types – coalition, majority and minority – of government, two general elections, three national referendums and numerous constitutional statutes of real significance. So it was plainly time for a new edition of this timeless work, which is often referred to but rarely read.

The new Erskine May is exciting to me because, as its co-editor, I had the happy task of reading through the chapters as they emerged from the efforts of many of my former colleagues. We all had to ask ourselves: is this a clear and honest account of parliamentary procedure and practice, and if not, how far can we go in recasting it? It is not a new book; but nor is it merely a historical text with minor amendments for the benefit of a modern audience. New content has been added, but nothing has been asserted without due authority, and we also recognise that some assertions of the past are too precious to be excised. Paragraph 21.4 on the rule against reading of speeches is as good an example as any: the principle remains valued by some MPs but it would be idle to pretend that it is rigorously observed in practice. There has to be some wishful thinking.

Who is this edition of Erskine May for? Plainly for practitioners, meaning the occupants of the Chair (such as the Speaker and Deputy Speakers), those who advise them, MPs and officials. But it is not just for them. Recent controversy over decisions by the Speaker on procedural issues related to Brexit and threats of early or extended prorogation by some candidates for leadership of the Conservative Party have served to remind all of us that parliamentary procedures are not some sort of secret masonic ritual to be understood only by a priestly caste of clerks and a handful of others, but are as integral to a parliamentary democracy as electoral rules. And it is not just for Westminster: one of my great pleasures as Clerk was to receive emails from colleagues around the Commonwealth seeking elucidation of a procedural – and usually political – issue where their knowledge of what was said in Erskine May was far in advance of my own!

Fortunately this edition has been preceded by two very different works which help set it in context. In 2018 the Commons authorities published a Guide to Procedure which is intended to help those involved in its day to day work, set out in plain English. It is of course available online. And secondly, at the end of 2017 Hart Publishing produced a book of essays – edited by current Clerk of Committees Paul Evans, entitled Essays on the History of Parliamentary Procedure: In Honour of Thomas Erskine May, to mark the great man’s 200th birthday in 2015. Continue reading

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

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