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How are Select Committees created in the House of Commons?

Committee corridor, House of Commons. ©House of Commons/Jessica Taylor
Committee corridor, House of Commons. ©House of Commons/Jessica Taylor

House of Commons Select Committees are created by Standing Orders of the House. This means that in order to establish Select Committees, or make changes to their line-up, the House must agree a motion to amend Standing Orders.

In theory, a motion to amend Standing Orders could be moved by any MP who has the opportunity to put a substantive motion before the House for decision. For example, Labour used an Opposition Day in January 2023 to move a motion to establish a ‘Fair Taxation of Schools and Education Standards Committee’.

However, as long as the Government commands a majority in the House of Commons, there is no prospect of the House agreeing any motion to amend Standing Orders which the Government does not support. In practice, therefore, outside situations of minority Government, Select Committees are created and their line-up changed only by Government motions. Such motions are normally tabled by the Leader of the House. They may be moved at any point during a Parliament (with notice), and are amendable.

The House is most likely to create a Select Committee after a new Department has been created in a machinery-of-government change. Such changes are themselves most likely to take place after a General Election or change of Prime Minister.

To create a new Select Committee, a number of decisions must be made about its features. These features must be specified in the relevant Standing Order. They include:

Unless otherwise specified, a Select Committee is established as a permanent body of the House, which will exist indefinitely unless and until Standing Orders are amended again to abolish it.

However, sometimes the House establishes a Select Committee for only a specified period. This might be because it wants to trial a new Committee before establishing it on a permanent basis (as occurred with the Women and Equalities Committee, which was originally created in 2015 for one Parliament only), or because the Committee’s task is time-limited (as occurred with the Exiting the European Union Committee, and its successor, the Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, both of which existed under a succession of time-limited Orders).

A time-limited Select Committee may be established by a Temporary Standing Order. These are published at the end of the list of regular Standing Orders.

Most House of Commons Select Committees have 11 Members but the House sometimes provides for a larger membership, to allow representation of small parties or a wider-than-usual range of opinion. (This occurred with the Exiting the European Union Committee, for example, which was established in October 2016 with 21 Members.)

The relevant Standing Order must specify what the House wishes the Select Committee to do and what powers it grants it to carry out its task(s).

Since 2010, most House of Commons Select Committees have Chairs who are elected by the whole House. A smaller number of Select Committees continue to choose their own Chairs. A Standing Order (No. 122B) lists most of the Committees which have Chairs elected by the whole House. When the House establishes a new Select Committee, therefore, it must decide whether to add it to this list or otherwise provide that its Chair is to be elected.

To make it more straightforward to use and amend Standing Orders, the departmental Select Committees (DSCs) – which scrutinise Government Departments – are created and listed together in Standing Order No. 152, and then treated and referred to elsewhere as a single group. For example, all the DSCs have Chairs who are elected by the whole House, so the list of Select Committees with Chairs who are so elected (in Standing Order No. 122B) includes as a single item all the Select Committees appointed under Standing Order No. 152.

13:00, 24 April 2023

Hansard Society (2023), How are Select Committees created in the House of Commons? (Hansard Society: London)

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