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Is chairing Select Committees in the House of Commons really an 'alternative career'?

5 Jan 2023
Tom Tugendhat MP, then-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in the debate on the situation in Afghanistan, 18 August 2021. ©UK Parliament/Roger Harris
Tom Tugendhat MP, then-Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, in the debate on the situation in Afghanistan, 18 August 2021. ©UK Parliament/Roger Harris

If you’ve been thinking that a more-than-usual number of MPs have recently moved straight from being Select Committee Chairs to (shadow) Ministers, then you’d be right. Yet data on Select Committee Chairs since 2005 seems to undermine the idea of Select Committee work as a career goal, with chairships instead increasingly acting as launchpads for, or interludes between, (shadow) ministerial posts.

Stephen Holden Bates, Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham
,
Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham

Stephen Holden Bates

Stephen Holden Bates
Senior Lecturer in Political Science, University of Birmingham

Stephen Holden Bates is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Birmingham. In 2022 he completed a Parliamentary Academic Fellowship which examined Select Committee membership patterns and the impact of those patterns on committee work.

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So far in the 2019 Parliament, there have been 11 cases of an MP moving directly from being a Select Committee Chair to being a Minister or shadow Minister. As shown by Figure 1, this is more than in the previous four Parliaments combined. (The 11 cases involved 10 MPs, because one of the MPs chaired two Committees.)

Figure 1: Number of House of Commons Select Committee chairships where a departing Chair moved directly to being a Minister or shadow Minister, per Parliament, 2005-2022 • The figure for the 2019 Parliament covers the period to the end of 2022.

Source: Author compilation from UK House of Commons Select Committee Data Archive (2019); House of Commons Library Research Briefing ‘Chairs of Commons select committees since 2010’ (December 2022); and UK Parliament website

The trend became particularly pronounced amidst the ministerial churn occasioned by the formation and then rapid collapse of the Liz Truss Government, with five Select Committee Chairs resigning in less than two months in September-October 2022 after being appointed to ministerial office.

Table 1: House of Commons Select Committee Chairs in the 2019 Parliament who moved directly to being Ministers or shadow Ministers • Dates are dates of resignations as Chair.

YearMonthMPCommittee
2020AprilKate GreenStandards
Kate GreenPrivileges
Rachel ReevesBusiness, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2021MayLilian GreenwoodFinance
DecemberYvette CooperHome Affairs
2022JulyGreg Clark Science and Technology
September Tom Tugendhat Foreign Affairs
OctoberJeremy Hunt Health and Social Care
Mel StrideTreasury
Robert HalfonEducation
Huw MerrimanTransport

The ‘Wright Reforms’ of 2010 implemented a number of changes to the Commons Select Committee system which aimed at cementing Select Committee work as “an alternative career” to ministerial office (in the phrase used by the Liaison Committee a decade earlier). In 2003, the Commons had already agreed to pay an additional salary for Chairs of the principal investigative committees (as well as setting term limits for Chairs). In measures which had been advocated previously by both the Liaison Committee and the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee, the ‘Wright Reforms’ built on these Select Committee changes by, among other things, introducing elections by secret ballot both for Chairs (by the whole House) and Members (by the relevant parliamentary party).

As is generally well-known by now, the reforms were broadly welcomed, and the idea became quite well-established that MPs increasingly saw Select Committee chairing as an alternative to a ministerial career. For example, Nat Le Roux of the Constitution Society in 2014 and Lucy Fisher in Political Quarterly the following year both argued that this was the case, and a 2017 Constitution Society paper by Lucy Atkinson reported interviewees taking the view that:

... changes in the system have elevated the profile and status of select committees in Parliament and government, to such a degree that the position of select committee chair or member now seems more viable as a career alternative.

However, the figures presented above appear to undermine the claim that Select Committee work has become a career goal.

Indeed, if we look in more detail at what MPs do before and after becoming Select Committee Chairs, a different picture emerges with respect to chairship career pathways, and as to whether committee work offers an alternative career opportunity to ministerial office.

Of the 144 Labour and Conservative Select Committee chairships in the House of Commons since 2005, only 42 (29.2%) were held by MPs who had not previously been a Minister or shadow Minister. Of these 42 chairships, 35 (83.3%) were held by MPs who also did not go on to become a Minister or shadow Minister (either immediately or at any subsequent point, up to the end of 2022). Thus, Select Committee work as an alternative career, and a Select Committee chairship as a career destination, is only the case for less than a quarter (24.3%) of Conservative and Labour Chairs since 2005. (The total of 144 is for chairships, not MPs: an MP is counted more than once if they chaired more than one Committee, or a single Committee more than once. SNP and Liberal Democrat Select Committee Chairs are excluded from the analysis because, due to these parties’ smaller size, it is usual for their MPs to combine multiple roles, such as Committee Chair and frontbench spokesperson.)

Regarding the other three-quarters of chairships, three other career pathways can be identified:

  • Chairship-as-launchpad — for MPs who were previously only ever backbenchers before becoming a Select Committee Chair, but subsequently became Ministers or shadow Ministers;

  • Chairship-as-postscript — for MPs who were Ministers or shadow Ministers before being a Select Committee Chair, but not subsequently; and

  • Chairship-as-interlude — for MPs who were Ministers or shadow Ministers both before and after being a Select Committee Chair.

Figure 2 below shows the proportions of Select Committee chairships held by MPs who travelled, or who are currently travelling, along these four possible career pathways since 2005, for all Select Committees. Figure 3 shows the proportions only for chairships of those Select Committees of which the Chairs are (now) elected by the whole House.

Figure 2: Proportions of House of Commons Select Committee chairships held by MPs taking particular career pathways, per Parliament, 2005-2022: All Select Committees • Of all Select Committee chairships in each Parliament, the chart shows the % held by MPs on each of the four different career pathways. The data for the 2019 Parliament covers the period to the end of 2022.

Source: Author calculations from UK House of Commons Select Committee Data Archive (2019); House of Commons Library Research Briefing ‘Chairs of Commons select committees since 2010’ (December 2022); and UK Parliament website

Figure 3: Proportions of House of Commons Select Committee chairships held by MPs taking particular career pathways, per Parliament, 2005-2022: Select Committees with Chairs elected by the whole House • Of Select Committee chairships in each Parliament for Select Committees with Chairs elected by the whole House, the chart shows the % held by MPs on each of the four different career pathways. The data for the 2019 Parliament covers the period to the end of 2022.

Source: Author calculations from UK House of Commons Select Committee Data Archive (2019); House of Commons Library Research Briefing ‘Chairs of Commons select committees since 2010’ (December 2022); and UK Parliament website

We can perhaps discern some trends from these figures, particularly among Select Committees which were the focus of the 'Wright Reforms' and where Chairs are (now) elected:

  • On the one hand, seeking to chair Committees as a career destination, or as a postscript to ministerial or shadow ministerial service, appears to be in long-term decline.

  • On the other hand, using a chairship as a launchpad for a ministerial or shadow ministerial position, or as an interlude between ministerial positions, appears to be increasing over time. This is especially the case if we consider that there is a strong possibility that some of the Chairs in the current Parliament who are on ‘destination’ or ‘postscript’ pathways may well traverse onto ‘launchpad’ or ‘interlude’ pathways at some future point in time, which would suggest that the relevant current figures for the 2019 Parliament are artificially high or low, respectively. For example, Darren Jones, who is the Labour Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee, is currently on the destination pathway but is often talked about as a future frontbencher. If this move were to happen, he would shift onto the launchpad pathway.

An argument can perhaps be made that, among ‘postscript’ Chairs, chairing a Select Committee might not be post-climactic but rather the career pinnacle, in terms of the relative prestige or influence which these MPs consider their various career positions to have carried. However, even in the unlikely event that all chairships-as-postscripts could be reclassified on this basis as chairships-as-destinations, the proportion of chairships made up by the latter would still show a decline over time.

Of course, there is a lot that has been going on in British politics over the past few years. The disruptive effects of Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, and prime ministerial churn have almost certainly impacted chairship patterns over the recent past, and it will be interesting to see what happens if and when we have a ‘normal’ Parliament again.

However, we can fairly safely say that, hitherto, while the 2010 ‘Wright Reforms’ have influenced chairship patterns, this is not in the sense of providing an alternative parliamentary career, but rather in the sense of providing an extra stop in the (interrupted) ministerial career pathway.

If true, this trend perhaps raises questions about whether, among some Chairs at least, there is potential for conflict to arise between, on the one hand, leading the effective scrutiny of Government in a ‘non-party mode’ (to use Anthony King’s 1976 formulation), and, on the other, seeking to become a Minister, perhaps in a Government led by a different Prime Minister.

Holden Bates, S. (2023), Is chairing Select Committees in the House of Commons really an 'alternative career'? (Hansard Society: London)

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