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Select committees are crucial for holding ministers to account

20 Jan 2020
Theresa May, Liaison Committee session, House of Commons

The process for getting House of Commons select committees re-established after the general election is so far broadly on track. However, government reorganisation and the Labour leadership contest could yet cause delays and disruption. And this time, there are particular reasons to get committees into place urgently.

Dr Brigid Fowler, Senior Researcher, Hansard Society
Dr Ruth Fox, Director , Hansard Society
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Dr Brigid Fowler

Dr Brigid Fowler
Senior Researcher, Hansard Society

Brigid joined the Hansard Society in December 2016 to lead its work on Parliament and Brexit, as well as contribute to its ongoing research on the legislative process, parliamentary procedure and scrutiny, and public political engagement. From 2007 to 2014 she was a Committee Specialist for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, where she led on the Committee’s EU-related work. In the first six months of 2016 she was on the research team of Britain Stronger in Europe. She has also worked as assistant to an MEP in Brussels and as an analyst and researcher on EU and European affairs in the private sector and at the University of Birmingham and King’s College London.

After completing BA and MPhil degrees at the University of Oxford in PPE and European Politics, respectively, she spent the first part of her career focusing on the politics of post-communist transition and EU accession in Central Europe, and completed her PhD at the University of Birmingham on the case of Hungary. She has given media comment, appeared before select committees and published several journal articles and book contributions.

Director , Hansard Society

Dr Ruth Fox

Dr Ruth Fox
Director , Hansard Society

Ruth is responsible for the strategic direction and performance of the Society and leads its research programme. She has appeared before more than a dozen parliamentary select committees and inquiries, and regularly contributes to a wide range of current affairs programmes on radio and television, commentating on parliamentary process and political reform.

In 2012 she served as adviser to the independent Commission on Political and Democratic Reform in Gibraltar, and in 2013 as an independent member of the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Committee Review Group. Prior to joining the Society in 2008, she was head of research and communications for a Labour MP and Minister and ran his general election campaigns in 2001 and 2005 in a key marginal constituency.

In 2004 she worked for Senator John Kerry’s presidential campaign in the battleground state of Florida. In 1999-2001 she worked as a Client Manager and historical adviser at the Public Record Office (now the National Archives), after being awarded a PhD in political history (on the electoral strategy and philosophy of the Liberal Party 1970-1983) from the University of Leeds, where she also taught Modern European History and Contemporary International Politics.

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Originally published in The Times Red Box on 20 January 2020 and reproduced with permission

Last Thursday the House of Commons agreed which party would get which elected select committee chairmanships, and the Speaker has set the elections for Wednesday January 29.

Despite speculation that it could be Easter before Commons select committees are fully re-established, so far the process is proceeding broadly in line with the timings seen at the start of other recent parliaments, at least in terms of sitting days. If these timings continue to be followed, select committees could be fully re-established in mid-to-late February.

But delay and disruption to the process also remain possible, with potentially damaging consequences for the new select committees’ early performance.

First, there’s the government’s promised Whitehall reorganisation, slated for the days or weeks after Brexit and thus also after the select committee chairs are elected. For some committees, an MP could run a campaign and be elected as chair, only to find that the committee is to be abolished because the department it shadows is also going.

A re-allocation of chairmanships so as to maintain party shares might also be needed. For example, the Department for International Trade reportedly might disappear in the reorganisation. This would presumably cause the International Trade Committee which shadows it to be abolished, but this is one of the two committees due to be chaired by the SNP.

The House has re-established the Brexit Committee, but some uncertainty remains over its fate given the government’s plans to abolish the Brexit department.

The Labour leadership contest is another factor that could disrupt the select committee re-establishment process. There are Labour figures, such as Yvette Cooper, who might run and win a committee chairmanship at the end of this month, but then be offered and accept a shadow front bench position once the new leader is in place in April.

So the chair elections might be followed by relatively speedy disruption, as the line-up of committees is changed or chairs only recently elected stand down. The disruption might last for weeks as a result of the Labour leadership contest, which could have an even greater impact on the appointment of members to committees. This stage of the process normally only takes place after the chair elections. Without members, there are limits to what elected chairs can do. But unlike the election of chairs, there is no deadline attached to this stage of the process, and the Speaker has no power to intervene. Instead, it’s up to the parties to get their committee members nominated.

The Labour Party might be so distracted by its leadership race that it fails to hold its elections for committee members in a timely way. Even if it does, the subsequent reorganisation of its front bench under the new leader could result in some members of select committees having to stand down shortly after being elected, in order to take up posts in the shadow cabinet.

The longer it takes to get select committees fully up and running, the greater the gap in scrutinising and holding ministers to account. And there are other good governance implications.

For example, select committees have been at the forefront of the House of Commons’s public engagement efforts and the e-petitions system is Parliament’s 'front door' for the public, but the door is shut as long as the petitions committee is in abeyance.

The Backbench Business Committee has a role in scheduling important debates nominated by backbench MPs rather than the two front benches, but it can’t fulfil this role until it is fully constituted. Other committees perform vital technical scrutiny of legislation, and will already face a backlog of work. These committees, such as the Statutory Instruments Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee, are among those that don’t have elected chairs, in order that they could be set up more speedily than those that do. But in practice, this has never happened.

This time, the European Scrutiny Committee has particular priority, because under the Withdrawal Agreement Bill it will have a new statutory role reviewing new EU law from February 1. Although the politics may make some disruption unavoidable, this year there are especially good reasons to get these committees into place urgently.

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