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How are Select Committee Chairs elected?

Transport Select Committee Chair Iain Stewart MP questioning Transport Secretary Mark Harper MP. ©UK Parliament
Transport Select Committee Chair Iain Stewart MP questioning Transport Secretary Mark Harper MP. ©UK Parliament

The Chairs of most House of Commons Select Committees are elected by the whole House, by secret ballot, using the Alternative Vote system.

Until 2010, House of Commons Select Committees normally chose their own Chairs from among their Members. Because Select Committees normally have a Government majority, this process in effect gave considerable influence to the Government Whips.

Elections by the whole House of Commons for some Select Committee Chairs were introduced in 2010, just before the General Election of that year. They were one of the most visible and far-reaching of the ‘Wright reforms’ made on the basis of the November 2009 report of the ‘Wright Committee’ – the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons which was established following the parliamentary expenses scandal, chaired by Tony Wright MP.

Since 2010, Standing Orders specify the Select Committees whose Chairs are elected by the whole House. They do so either in the general Standing Order which deals with Chair elections (No. 122B) or, in the case of the Backbench Business Committee, in its own separate Standing Order (No. 122D).

If the Chair of a Select Committee is not identified in Standing Orders as being elected by the whole House, they continue to be chosen by the Committee.

The Select Committees whose Chairs are elected by the whole House are the:

  • departmental Select Committees (DSCs) (as listed in Standing Order No. 152);

  • Environmental Audit Committee (EAC);

  • Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC);

  • Public Accounts Committee (PAC);

  • Procedure Committee;

  • Standards Committee;

  • Petitions Committee; and

  • Backbench Business Committee.

Select Committees whose Chairs are not elected by the whole House include the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC), the Statutory Instruments Committee (SCSI), the European Statutory Instruments Committee (ESIC) and the Privileges Committee. Internal Select Committees concerned with the running of the House, such as the Administration Committee and Finance Committee, also do not have elected Chairs.

Joint Committees (of the two Houses together) choose their own Chairs.

Select Committee Chairs are elected:

  • at the start of a new Parliament; and

  • on several possible types of occasion during a Parliament, namely: when a new Committee with an elected Chair is created; or when an existing elected Chair resigns the position, is no-confidenced by the Committee, or leaves the House (though resignation or death).

The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected at the start of each parliamentary Session.

The process for electing Select Committee Chairs has up to four stages.

First, the Speaker must determine the number of elected chairships which are due to each party so as to “reflect the composition of the House”.

This stage must take place at the start of a new Parliament. Standing Order No. 122B(2) specifies that the Speaker must communicate the number of elected chairships due to each party to party leaders on the day following his election.

Otherwise, this stage is required only if the number of Select Committees with elected Chairs changes during a Parliament.

In this stage, parties negotiate to determine which of them will hold the chairship of which Select Committee, within the overall numerical allocation set by the Speaker. The negotiations take place through the ‘Usual Channels’ of the party Whips.

Some Select Committees are not included in the negotiations:

  • The chairships of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Standards Committee are allocated to the Official Opposition by Standing Orders (Standing Order No. 122B(8)(f)).

  • The chairship of the Backbench Business Committee is not allocated to a party. The position is open to all MPs whose party is not in Government, and only to such MPs (Standing Order No. 122D(1)(c)).

By strong tradition, the chairships of the Treasury and Foreign Affairs Committees go to the Government party. For other Committees, parties may bid for particular chairships based on the political profile that they want to promote, or the wishes of particular senior MPs, or the likelihood that a Chair election for a particular Committee might trigger a damaging internal contest.

The allocation of specific chairships to specific parties must be agreed by the House in a resolution. At the start of a Parliament, the leaders of the parties entitled to at least one elected chairship have two weeks from the Queen’s Speech jointly to table the motion concerned. If they miss this deadline, on the next sitting day the Speaker must give debating time to any motion allocating chairships to parties which has been tabled by any MP (Standing Order No. 122B(5)). (In 2019, the new House extended this deadline to four weeks, to avoid it falling during the Christmas recess.)

At the start of a Parliament, if the House also needs to amend its Select Committee line-up to reflect machinery-of-government changes, the Select-Committee-line-up and allocation-of-chairship motions are often considered together.

There must be a process of allocating chairships to parties at the start of a new Parliament. Otherwise, the process is only required if a new Select Committee with an elected Chair is created during a Parliament. In this case, if a Select Committee with an elected Chair is abolished at the same time as a new one is created, the overall number of Select Committees with elected Chairs will not change, and it may be a formality to allocate the new chairship to the party that has just lost the old one. However, sometimes the process may not be so straightforward; and if the overall number of Select Committees with elected Chairs changes, the negotiation that took place at the start of the Parliament may be re-opened.

Once each chairship has been allocated to a party, potential Chairs can come only from that party. Candidates from a single party must therefore compete for the support of MPs from across the House.

Candidates’ nomination papers must include a signed statement by the candidate that they are willing to stand; and the signatures of 15 MPs elected as Members of the same party or 10% of such MPs, whichever is the lower. The papers may also include the signatures of up to five MPs elected for another party or no party.

Candidates may also publish statements about why they wish to chair the Committee, their suitability for the position, their view of the Committee’s role and their plans for its work, if elected. They may actively canvass their colleagues across the House, through communications and events.

If multiple Committees are having Chairs elected at the same time, no MP may be a candidate for more than one chairship. No MP may sign the nomination papers of more than one candidate for any one chairship.

If there is more than one candidate, an election is held, by secret ballot, in person, using the Alternative Vote system. MPs rank as many of the candidates as they wish, in order of preference. In the first round, any candidate who receives over half the first preferences wins. If there is no such candidate, successive rounds of voting are held until one candidate receives over half the votes. The candidate with the lowest number of first preferences is eliminated each time, with their supporters’ lower-preference votes being redistributed to the relevant candidates.

The Speaker (or a Deputy Speaker) announces the result of contested Chair elections, in the Chamber, as soon as is practicable after the votes have been counted - usually within a few hours, depending on the number of elections being held.

Arrangements for the election of the Backbench Business Committee Chair differ slightly from those for other Committees, and are set out separately in Standing Order No. 122D.

The House elects the Backbench Business Committee Chair for only one parliamentary Session at a time. The Chair must be elected at the start of each new Session.

The Speaker sets the election date.

Nomination papers for the Backbench Business Committee Chair election must be received on the day before the election, by 5:00pm (although the Speaker has the power to alter this timetable). The papers must comprise a signed statement by the candidate that they are willing to stand; and the signatures of at least 20 but no more than 25 MPs, of whom at least 10 must come from a Government party and 10 from another party or no party.

In other respects, the election of the Backbench Business Committee Chair takes place as for other Select Committees: no MP may sign the papers of more than one candidate; if there is only one candidate, they are declared elected unopposed; and, if there is a contested election, it takes place by secret ballot using the Alternative Vote system.

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 greater period."

However, partly under the impact of two successive early General Elections, this provision has in effect become flexible to the point of non-existence:

  • After the early General Election of 2017, Select Committee Chairs in post since 2010 faced the prospect of having to stand down only one year into the new Parliament, because the eight-year term limit was now longer than the two-Parliament limit. Five Chairs were potentially affected. In April 2018, therefore, the House extended the eight-year limit to ten years, with effect until the end of the Parliament. In a report on the issue, the Procedure Committee had argued that the term limit should be “a period equivalent to two full Parliaments” and that, since passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, this was ten years.

  • After the 2019 General Election, with the term limit defaulting back to eight years, the House simply set the entire term limit Standing Order aside for the remainder of the Parliament. This enabled two Select Committee Chairs who had been in post since 2010, one elected by the whole House (Clive Betts MP at the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee) and one chosen by his Committee (Sir Bill Cash at the European Scrutiny Committee), to retain their positions.

At the start of the Parliament following the Parliament elected in 2019, therefore, unless other arrangements are made, the original Standing Order – specifying a term limit of two Parliaments or eight years – will re-apply. In its February 2018 report on the term limit issue, the Procedure Committee promised to review the question again with respect to future Parliaments.

The table below shows the number of Select Committee chairships which were uncontested in the elections held at the start of each Parliament since the introduction of whole-House elections in 2010. The proportion of uncontested elections rose from the 2010 Parliament to the 2015 Parliament and again to the 2017 Parliament, but fell back at the start of the 2019 Parliament.

What proportion of Select Committee Chair elections are uncontested? • The table only includes Select Committee Chair elections held at the start of a new Parliament, not those held mid-Parliament. It includes elections for the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

Number of Select Committee Chair elections at the start of the ParliamentNumber of these elections which were uncontested (%)
Parliament elected in:
2010258 (32%)
20152712 (44%)
20172817 (61%)
20192813 (46%)
Source: Hansard Society calculations on the basis of House of Commons data

If an elected Select Committee Chair resigns the position, is no-confidenced by their Committee, or leaves the House, an election to fill the vacancy is held by the same process as at the start of a Parliament.

If the outgoing Chair needs to stand down immediately, more quickly than a fresh Chair election can be held (for example because they have joined the Government), the Committee may agree to name one of its existing Members as interim or acting Chair until the election can take place.

If a Select Committee Chair ceases to be an MP for the party which was allocated the chairship, after they leave or are ejected from the relevant parliamentary party, there is no provision in Standing Orders that they lose the Chairship.

In the House of Commons, the Liaison Committee is the ‘super-Committee’ comprising the Chairs of other Select Committees.

The Liaison Committee has existed in something like its current form since 1980. In that time, the way in which its Chair is chosen has gone through four phases, involving three different ways of filling the post:

  • 1980-1992: The Liaison Committee chose its Chair from among its Members, who were exclusively MPs already chosen as Select Committee Chairs.

  • 1992-2010: Formally, the Liaison Committee continued to choose its Chair from among its Members. However, as well as the Select Committee Chairs, the House appointed a senior backbencher as an additional member of the Committee. As a result of consultations among party managers, it was understood in advance that the Committee would choose this additional member as its Chair. The Committee's decision was thus a formality.

  • 2010-2019: The system reverted to the pre-1992 model – the Liaison Committee again chose its Chair from among its Members, who again exclusively comprised existing Select Committee Chairs (now mostly elected by the whole House).

  • For the Parliament elected in 2019: On a Government initiative, the House directly appointed a named Liaison Committee Chair, Sir Bernard Jenkin MP.

07:10, 16 May 2023

Hansard Society (2023), How are Select Committee Chairs elected? (Hansard Society: London)

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