Publications / Briefings

Back to Business: Setting up Select Committees

3 Jul 2024
Committee corridor, House of Commons. ©House of Commons/Jessica Taylor
Committee corridor, House of Commons. ©House of Commons/Jessica Taylor

The chairs of most House of Commons Select Committees are now elected. But how is the distribution of Select Committee chairs between the parties determined? What is the process for electing the chairs and members ? Will term limits affect any potential chairs? Select Committee seats are allocated to reflect the balance of parties in the House: will the minor parties have any representation?

By convention, the membership of each Select Committee must reflect as closely as possible the party balance of the House. Parties agree amongst themselves how the committee places are divided. Since 2010, the chairs of most House of Commons Select Committees have been elected by the whole House. This election process is now one of the most high-profile features of the start of a new Parliament. Committee members are nominated by their parties following their own internal election method. There is no deadline for the nomination of members so there can be long delays in fully constituting some Committees.

If the new Government introduces early changes to the Whitehall machinery, for example the creation, merging or abolition of departments, this will have an impact on the number of Select Committees that must be established as each Government department must have a departmental Select Committee to shadow it. The Labour Party has also indicated in its manifesto that it plans to establish a Modernisation Committee to consider future reform of the procedures and practices of the House of Commons; but it is unclear whether it intends to do so immediately at the start of the new Parliament.

While there may be some changes made to the Select Committee landscape at the start of the Parliament, the process for constituting the Committees is largely set out in Standing Orders and is unlikely to change in the near future. However, it is possible that there may be some churn in membership of the Committees in the first Session due to any reshuffle of the Opposition front bench following the completion of a possible opposition party leadership contest later in the year.

The process for the election of chairs currently applies to all departmental Select Committees (as listed in Standing Order No. 152,[1] of which there were 20 at the end of the 2019 Parliament), and seven other non-departmental committees: the chairs of the Environmental Audit; Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (PACAC); Public Accounts (PAC); Petitions; Procedure; Standards; and Backbench Business committees, each of which has its own Standing Order.

The first step in the establishment of Select Committees in a new House of Commons is the allocation of chairmanships between parties.

Standing Order No. 122B specifies that the overall distribution of elected chairs among parties must reflect the composition of the House.[2] On the day after his election the Speaker must inform the party leaders of the number of elected committee chairmanships due to each party.

Standing Orders specify that the chairs of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Standards Committee must be held by the Official Opposition, and the Backbench Business Committee cannot be chaired by a member of a Government party.

By convention, the chairs of the Treasury and Foreign Affairs Committees are usually held by a member of the Government party. Beyond this, there is no published formula by which the allocation of chairmanships takes place.

The remaining chairmanships are divided up among the parties by negotiations among the business managers, via the ‘Usual Channels’.

In 2019, 28 committees were elected by the House as a whole. 27 chairmanships were elected under the process set out in Standing Order No. 122B: Conservatives: 16; Labour: nine (including PAC and Standards); SNP: two. Additionally, a Labour MP, Ian Mearns, held the chairmanship of the Backbench Business Committee throughout the 2019 Parliament.

Under Standing Order No. 122B, the leaders of all the parties entitled to at least one chairmanship then have two calendar weeks from the King’s Speech (so by 31 July) to table the motion allocating chairmanships to each party. In 2019, the House temporarily extended this deadline to four weeks to avoid it falling during the Christmas recess. If Parliament rises for Summer recess shortly after conclusion of the King’s Speech debate a similar extension may again be needed. If party leaders have not tabled such a motion within two weeks of the King’s Speech, any MP can lay a motion to allocate chairs and the Speaker will give precedence to its consideration.

Once the motion is tabled, there may be a few more days before the motion is agreed by the House. In 2017 and 2019 the allocation of chairs motion took place on the 11th sitting day. Assuming two full sitting days of swearing-in and that the House does not sit on any Fridays before the Summer recess, the 11th sitting day would fall on Tuesday 30 July.

Under the Standing Orders, the election of Chairs takes place 14 calendar days after the House approves the motion allocating chairmanships to parties.[3] In 2017 and 2019, the election of Chairs took place on the 16th and 18th sitting days of the Parliament respectively.

The timing of both the allocation of Chairs motion and the election of committee Chairs will therefore depend heavily on the decision about the timing of the Summer recess. It is possible – indeed likely – that the election of committee Chairs may not take place until after Summer recess if this timetable is adhered to.

However, if necessary, using his power under Standing Order No.122B(12) the Speaker can vary the timings of the election deadlines.[4] At the start of the 2019 Parliament, for example, the Speaker used this power to shorten the deadline from 14 to 13 days.

Nominations for chairs must be accompanied by the signatures of 15 Members elected to the House from the candidate’s own party, or 10% of the Members of that party, whichever is lower.[5] Nominations may also be accompanied by the signatures of up to five Members elected to the House as Members of another party.

One exception to this is the Backbench Business Committee: candidates seeking to chair this Committee require the support of between 20 and 25 Members, including at least 10 from the Government side and 10 from among non-Government Members. Unlike other Select Committee chairs, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected for only one parliamentary Session at a time.

Nominations for all Select Committee chairs close at 5pm on the day before the ballot. The election of chairs takes place by secret ballot, under the Alternative Vote system.

At the start of the 2019 Parliament, the ballot for Select Committee Chairs was held on 29 January 2020, with the results declared the same day (in 2015 and 2017, the declaration took place the day after). Of the 28 chairs elected at the start of the 2019 Parliament, 13 were elected unopposed, which were therefore announced two days earlier upon the close of nominations.[6]

The chairs of Select Committees not elected by the whole House are elected by the relevant committees at their first meetings. These include the Administration; European Scrutiny; European Statutory Instruments; Finance; Liaison; Privileges; Selection; and Statutory Instruments Committees. If a vote in Committee is required to elect a chair, candidates need the support of a majority of members.

The election of the Chair of the Liaison Committee has varied over the last few decades. More recently, between 2010 and 2019, following the introduction of elected chairs, the Committee adopted the practice of choosing a Chair from among its members. However, in 2020, the Government tabled a motion to directly appoint Sir Bernard Jenkin MP as both a member and the Chair of the Liaison Committee.[7] It remains to be seen whether the next Government will repeat this precedent.

Standing Order No. 122A specifies that “unless the House otherwise orders” no Select Committee may have as its chair any Member who has served as chair of that committee for the two previous Parliaments or a continuous period of eight years, whichever is the longer.[8]

The truncated nature of the 2017-19 Parliament means that, at present, the eight-year period is the longer. This means that chairs elected in 2017 and re-elected in 2019 will be eligible to stand again in 2024, but, if re-elected, would – unless the House otherwise orders – be unable to continue as chairs beyond June 2025.

However, at the start of the last Parliament, the House agreed to disapply Standing Order No. 122A for the duration of the Parliament, and similarly in 2018 the House agreed to extend the limit from eight to 10 years for the remainder of the 2017 Parliament to enable affected chairs to remain in post.

As things stand, at least five chairs in the previous Parliament who are seeking re-election to this Parliament would be affected by the term-limit rule if they secure re-election and seek to continue as chair of their Select Committee: Clive Betts (Levelling Up, Housing and Communities); Dame Meg Hillier (PAC); Pete Wishart (Scottish Affairs); Sir Bill Wiggin (Selection); and Jessica Morden (Statutory Instruments).

Betts, Hillier, and Wishart have served more than eight years as chairs of their respective committees, having benefited from the relaxations of the term limit rules over the last two Parliaments. As a result, each became ineligible to stand again the moment that Parliament dissolved and will not be able to continue in post unless a further motion to set aside the Standing Order is approved in the new Parliament. If Labour wins the General Election then Hillier will be unable to resume her role as Chair of the PAC, even if unaffected by term limits, as the Chair of this Committee must be allocated to a member of the Official Opposition.

Wiggin and Morden were elected to their committee roles in 2017 and would be unable to remain in post beyond June 2025 unless the House otherwise orders.

Members of most Select Committees, including the departmental Select Committees, are nominated by a motion put before the House, normally by the Committee of Selection. Under Standing Order No.121, two sitting days’ notice must normally be given of Select Committee membership nominations.[9]

Standing Orders do not specify how parties should choose the MPs they put forward for their allocated Select Committee seats.

In 2010, the House agreed a motion that parties entitled to nominate members would put names forward which result from a “secret ballot by whichever transparent and democratic method” of internal election they choose, rather than selection by the Whips as previously.[10] The nature of the internal election method is a matter for each party individually.

Standing Orders do not set parties any deadline by which they must nominate their Select Committee members. This means that the timetable for establishing Select Committees can become hostage to parties’ internal processes. In previous recent Parliaments, the nomination of Select Committee members has generally occurred around 30 sitting days after the first meeting of the Parliament.

Table 2: Calendar dates of each stage in setting up Select Committees since 2010

Event2010201520172019
Election of Speaker18 May18 May13 June17 December
Queen's/King's Speech25 May27 May21 June19 December
Allocation of chairs motion agreed by House26 May3 June4 July16 January 2020
Nominations for chairs close8 June10 June7 July27 January
Election of chairs9 June17 June12 July29 January
Results of election10 June18 June12 July29 January
Nomination of Committee members12-26 July6-20 July11 September2 March

Source: Kelly, R. (12 March 2020), House of Commons Library, Select committees: election of chairs and members [11]

However, the timing of recesses means it can take several months. In 2017, the process took 25 sitting days to complete, but because the nominations took place after Summer recess, this translated into around three months. A similar schedule is likely in this new Parliament.

Table 3: Sitting day of each stage in setting up Select Committees since 2010

Event2010201520172019
Election of Speaker1111
Queen's/King's Speech5643
Allocation of chairs motion agreed by the House6101111
Nominations for chairs close1114Day after 13th sitting day16
Election of chairs12181618
Results of election13191618
Nomination of Committee members30-3828-362532

Source: Kelly, R. (12 March 2020), House of Commons Library, Select committees: election of chairs and members [12]

Since 2010, most Select Committees have 11 members. The allocation of committee chairmanships and seats to reflect the party balance in the House tends to leave smaller parties unrepresented. To ensure some minor party representation, the size of some Select Committees has been expanded beyond the norm. For example, the Treasury Committee in the 2010-15 Parliament was expanded to 13 members to allow the Liberal Democrats and SNP to have seats. When the new Exiting the EU Committee was appointed in 2016, it was created with 21 members, to allow representation of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish parties. Alternatively, a larger party may give up a Select Committee seat so that a smaller party has some representation. However, such flexibility is voluntary and a goodwill gesture by the main parties; its repetition in the new Parliament is not automatic.

The geographical distribution of a party’s MPs may also mean that it does not have enough members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to take up the seats allocated to that party on the relevant national Select Committees. For instance, in the 2019 Parliament, three Conservative MPs from English constituencies served on the Scottish Affairs Committee.

The growth in the number of smaller parties winning seats in the House of Commons has given rise to pressure for Select Committees to expand still further to accommodate them, or for a relaxation of the requirement that each Committee should reflect the overall party balance of the House.

Were the General Election to result in a very large Labour majority it is possible eight or nine of the 11 places on each Select Committee would be proportionately allocated to Labour members. This dominance by the governing party may weaken the scrutiny function of Select Committees.

In 2015 the Liaison Committee said that, as Select Committees operate by consensus and unanimity, “arithmetical proportions do not have the same degree of relevance that they do with Public Bill Committees”.[13] The Committee recommended that the balance on each committee need not be identical “if the overall representation across all committees was fair and proportionate.”[14] No formal change has been made to date to the overall party balance requirement but this may have to be looked at again in this Parliament if the arithmetic leads to one-party dominance of the Committees and little or no representation for the minor parties.

Most Select Committees are appointed under permanent Standing Orders, but sometimes a Select Committee is created for a specified period only. For example, the Exiting the European Union Committee was appointed in October 2016 under a temporary Standing Order until the end of that Parliament.

At the dissolution of the last Parliament, only one Select Committee was dependent on a temporary Standing Order: the European Statutory Instruments Committee (ESIC). This Committee is responsible for sifting some proposed reforms to assimilated law (formerly known as retained EU law) - in the form of proposed negative Statutory Instruments - to ensure they are given adequate parliamentary scrutiny. The temporary Standing Order expired at the end of the 2019-24 Parliament. The parliamentary sifting process for some Retained EU Legislation is enshrined in statute, so the Committee is likely to be restored at the start of the new Parliament or its responsibilities will have to be transferred to another Committee.

Unusually the Backbench Business Committee (BBCom) is constituted at the start of every Session rather than every Parliament.[15] Consequently, the election of the Chair of BBCom also has to take place at the start of every Session. The date of the election is chosen by the Speaker. The BBCom Chair is not included in the allocation of chairs motion at the start of a Parliament, and it is stipulated only that the Chair must be a member of a party not represented in the Government.

The nomination requirements for the Committee are more demanding than for other Select Committees, with candidates needing signatures from 20 to 25 MPs, of which at least 10 must be from parties represented in the Government and at least 10 must be from opposition parties or no party.[16]

Any changes to the line-up of departments which are made by the new Government would also normally be reflected in changes to the line-up of departmental Select Committees.

At the start of a Parliament, such changes to the Select Committee line-up are normally made through a motion or motions to amend Standing Order No.152 and normally considered at the same time as the motion allocating Select Committee chairmanships.[17]

Rather than organising its Select Committees along departmental lines, the House of Lords operates a set of thematic Select Committees to conduct policy scrutiny. At the start of a new Parliament a motion is normally passed for their re-appointment. Committee members are normally proposed to the House by the House of Lords’ Committee of Selection, with chairs either similarly proposed or left for Committees to elect.

The size of Select Committees in the House of Lords is more flexible than in the Commons, as are practices regarding the balance of membership and chairmanships between parties.

As there is no need to allocate chairmanships between parties, nor for parties to hold internal elections for committee members, House of Lords Select Committees can be re-established at the start of a Parliament more quickly than their counterparts in the Commons: at the start of the 2019 Parliament, the House of Lords appointed its main committees on its 6th sitting day.

The House of Lords operates a rotation rule, whereby members of most Select Committees can serve for only three successive years before being rotated off for at least two years.[18]

The House of Lords is also able to appoint a small number of ad hoc Committees each session which investigate a particular topic but cease to exist when they have reported or otherwise completed their task. None of the four special inquiry Committees appointed in the last Session had reported before Parliament dissolved, so the House of Lords may be expected to approve a motion early in the new Session to reappoint the Committees.

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) is a committee of Parliament but is not a parliamentary Select Committee. It is established by an Act of Parliament rather than by resolutions of the House. Its members are appointed by Parliament but unlike those of Select Committees, the members must first be nominated by the Prime Minister in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition. The Committee is staffed by Cabinet Office officials rather than officials from Parliament.

The ISC often takes significantly longer to be set up than parliamentary Select Committees. One reason for this is that security screening is required for members, given the nature of the Committee's work. Following the last four General Elections it has taken between 131 and 216 days to establish the Committee and the first meeting of the ISC has consequently taken place between five and seven months after the General Election.

The process of setting up the Committee generated particular controversy following the 2019 General Election. The Justice and Security Act 2013 removed the Prime Minister’s previously held right to directly appoint the Committee’s Chair and instead allowed the ISC to choose a Chair from among its members. Following the appointment of ISC members on 13 July 2020, the ISC chose Julian Lewis MP as its new Chair. The Government’s preferred candidate for the Chair had been Chris Grayling MP, but Julian Lewis sought support from opposition members of the Committee and won the election. Lewis had the Conservative whip removed as a result, though it was restored a few months later.

Table 4: House of Commons Select Committees at the end of the 2019-24 Parliament

Committee nameNumber of membersParty of chairChair
DEPARTMENTAL SELECT COMMITTEES.........
Business and Trade11LabourLiam Byrne
Culture, Media and Sport11ConservativeCaroline Dinenage
Defence11ConservativeJeremy Quin
Education11ConservativeRobin Walker*
Energy Security and Net Zero11SNPAngus Brendan MacNeil
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs11ConservativeRobert Goodwill*
Foreign Affairs11ConservativeAlicia Kearns
Health and Social Care11ConservativeSteve Brine*
Home Affairs11LabourDiana Johnson
International Development11LabourSarah Champion
Justice11ConservativeRobert Neill*
Levelling Up, Housing and Communities11LabourClive Betts***
Northern Ireland Affairs11ConservativeRobert Buckland
Science, Innovation and Technology11ConservativeGreg Clark*
Scottish Affairs11SNPPete Wishart***
Transport11ConservativeIain Stewart
Treasury11ConservativeHarriet Baldwin
Welsh Affairs11ConservativeStephen Crabb
Women and Equalities11ConservativeCaroline Nokes
Work and Pensions11LabourStephen Timms
OTHERS.........
Environmental Audit17ConservativePhilip Dunne*
Petitions11LabourCat Smith
Procedure17ConservativeKaren Bradley
Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs11ConservativeJackie Doyle-Price
COMMITTEES WITH NON-GOVERNMENT CHAIR.........
Backbench Business (non-Government)8LabourIan Mearns*
Public Accounts (Official Opposition)16LabourMeg Hillier***
Standards (Official Opposition)14LabourHarriet Harman*
............
CHAIRS ELECTED BY COMMITTEE.........
Administration11ConservativeCharles Walker*
European Scrutiny17ConservativeWilliam Cash*
European Statutory Instruments16ConservativeAndrew Jones
Finance11LabourSharon Hodgson
Liaison34ConservativeBernard Jenkin
Privileges7LabourHarriet Harman*
Selection9ConservativeBill Wiggin**
Statutory Instruments5LabourJessica Morden**

*Retired from the House of Commons in 2024

**Elected in 2017 and will therefore be ineligible to continue as chair beyond 2025, unless the House sets aside or amends the time-limit provisions in Standing Orders.

***Has been chair for more than eight years and would be ineligible to stand again unless the House sets aside or amends the time-limit provisions in Standing Orders.

[1] Standing Order No.152, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[2] Standing Order No.122B, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[3] Standing Order No.122B, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[4] Standing Order No.122B, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[5] Standing Order No.122B, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[6] Kelly, R. (12 March 2020), House of Commons Library, Select committees: election of chairs and members

[8] Standing Order No.122A, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[9] Standing Order No.121, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[10] House of Commons, Hansard, 4 March 2010, vol. 506, col. 1095

[11] Kelly, R. (12 March 2020), House of Commons Library, Select committees: election of chairs and members

[12] Kelly, R. (12 March 2020), House of Commons Library, Select committees: election of chairs and members

[13] House of Commons Liaison Committee, Legacy Report, 11 March 2015, para.106.

[14] House of Commons Liaison Committee, Legacy Report, 11 March 2015, para.107.

[15] Standing Order No.122D, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[16] Standing Order No.122D, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[17] Standing Order No.152, House of Commons Standing Orders for Public Business, as at 23 October 2023

[18] Companion to the Standing Orders and Guide to the Proceedings of the House of Lords, Chapter 11, The Rotation Rule, as at 26 February 2024

©UK Parliament/Maria Unger

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