Select committees are one of the key ways the two Houses of Parliament hold the government to account. They are also important bodies for Parliament’s engagement with the public.
Select committees are committees appointed by one or both Houses of Parliament to carry out particular tasks on behalf of the House or both Houses, or to work on a particular issue or policy area and report back.
In the Westminster Parliament, select committees are separate from and additional to legislative committees. (In this respect, the Westminster Parliament differs from many other parliaments.) Legislative committees scrutinise bills and draft bills. (Legislative committees may also be referred to as ‘general committees’.)
What are the different types of select committee?
There are several different types of select committee:
- Some have administrative roles, such as, in the House of Commons, the Administration Committee and the Finance Committee.
- Some deal with particular types of parliamentary activity or areas of parliamentary work. Examples in the House of Commons are the Backbench Business Committee, the Petitions Committee, the Privileges Committee, the Procedure Committee and the Standards Committee.
The best-known type of select committee are scrutiny committees. These fall into several groups:
- Some, in the House of Commons, scrutinise the work of specific government departments or offices. These committees are known as ‘departmental select committees’ (DSCs). The list of these committees is set out in Standing Order No. 152. At the start of the 2019 Parliament, there are 20 such committees.
- Some scrutinise policy issues that may straddle more than one department. In the House of Commons, examples are the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). In the House of Lords, most scrutiny committees are of this type, such as the Economic Affairs Committee. The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) and the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy (JCNSS) are also of this type.
- Some scrutinise particular types of document, including delegated legislation and treaties. Examples are the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) in the House of Commons, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) in the House of Lords, and the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments (JCSI).
- Each House has a Liaison Committee, which has an overarching role to consider select committee-related matters. The House of Commons Liaison Committee comprises the chairs of other select committees. The House of Lords Liaison Committee comprises senior Peers chosen by the House, includes the leaders of the three main parties and the Crossbench Peers’ Convenor (or their representatives), and is chaired by the Senior Deputy Speaker.
The House of Commons may create a select committee at any time, by agreeing a motion to do so.
Such motions are normally moved by the government, in the shape of the Leader of the House.
The House of Commons changes the line-up of its select committees most commonly when the government makes a machinery-of-government change that affects the number of government departments. The government may make such a change at any time, although it is most likely after a general election or when a new Prime Minister takes office.
Standing Order No. 152 provides that:
“Select committees shall be appointed to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the principal government departments … and associated public bodies.”
This has always been implemented so that each government department is shadowed by its own, dedicated, House of Commons select committee.
For how long does a House of Commons select committee exist?
When the House of Commons creates a select committee, it must decide whether to create it as a select committee which will by default exist permanently (unless and until the House were to decide to abolish it), or as a select committee with only a limited lifespan – most commonly until the end of the current Parliament. The House may choose the latter option when it wishes to try out a new committee, as it did originally with the Women and Equalities Committee, or when the task for the new committee is expected to be time-limited.
If the House chooses the permanent option, it will probably agree an amendment to Standing Orders. Committees created under non-time-limited Standing Orders still exist at the start of a new Parliament and therefore do not need to be re-created at that point.
If the House chooses the time-limited option, it may do so only via an agreed motion, or the motion may also make a Temporary Standing Order. These are published at the end of Standing Orders. In this case, Standing Orders are amended in line with the Temporary Standing Order; but when the Temporary Standing Order lapses, Standing Orders are re-amended automatically to reflect this.
Three select committees that existed in the 2017-19 Parliament were created only until the end of the Parliament. These were the:
- Exiting the European Union Committee (‘Brexit Committee’);
- European Statutory Instruments Committee (ESIC); and
- Selection Committee. (This Committee was established for the 2017 Parliament to carry out the functions of the Committee of Selection.)
The default arrangement at the start of the 2019 Parliament is thus that none of these three committees exists. If the House wishes to re-create one or more than one of them, it will need to agree a new motion to do so.
The positions of select committee chairs and members must be re-filled at the start of a Parliament.
House of Commons select committee chairs are divided into those that are elected by the whole House, and those that are elected by their committee.
The election of select committee chairs by the whole House now takes place for most committees, and has been one of the most high-profile and far-reaching of the ‘Wright reforms’, introduced in 2010 on the basis of the post-expenses-scandal November 2009 report of the ‘Wright Committee’, the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons chaired by Tony Wright.
In its major September 2019 report on the select committee system, the Liaison Committee recommended that chair elections be extended to all House of Commons select committees.
Which select committee chairs are elected by the whole House and which are not?
Select committee chairs that are currently still elected by their committee include the chairs of the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC) and the Liaison Committee.
If a committee is electing its chair and a vote is required, a candidate needs the support of a majority of committee members to be elected.
Select committee chairs who are elected by the whole House are the chairs of the:
- departmental select committees listed in Standing Order No. 152;
- Environmental Audit Committee (EAC);
- Petitions Committee;
- Procedure Committee;
- Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC);
- Public Accounts Committee (PAC);
- Standards Committee; and
- Backbench Business Committee.
What is the process for electing select committee chairs?
The process has several stages.
Allocating chairmanships to parties
First, the chairmanships of most committees must be allocated to particular parties.
This does not apply to the chairmanship of the Backbench Business Committee, which is open to any and all MPs whose party is not in government (and only to such MPs).
Among other committees, the chairmanships of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Standards Committee are allocated to the Official Opposition by Standing Orders.
The allocation of other chairmanships to parties first involves the Speaker, who must determine the overall number of elected chairmanships which are due to each party, so as to “reflect the composition of the House”. The Speaker must make this determination on the day after his election at the start of a Parliament.
Then, the parties must agree amongst themselves on which party gets which chairmanship. By tradition, some chairmanships – such as of the Treasury and Foreign Affairs Committees – go to the government party. Otherwise, the parties negotiate among themselves, via the ‘Usual Channels’ of the party whips.
The assignment of the relevant chairmanships to specific parties must be agreed by the House by a motion. (If a motion must also be agreed to change the line-up of select committees, the two are often considered together.) The leaders of the parties involved have two weeks from the Queen’s Speech jointly to table the motion concerned. If two weeks pass after the Queen’s Speech without such a motion having been tabled, on the following day the Speaker must give time for the consideration of any motion tabled by any MP allocating the chairmanships to parties.
After the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections, the House agreed the motion allocating chairmanships to parties on its 6th, 10th and 11th sitting days, respectively.
Chair nominations and elections
Once the chairmanships have been allocated to parties, the House can proceed to the elections.
Standing Order No. 122B provides that the elections which it governs take place 14 calendar days after the motion allocating chairmanships to parties is agreed. However, the Standing Order gives the Speaker the power to vary the timetable. After the 2017 general election, held on 8 June, Speaker Bercow brought the chair elections forward to 12 July so that elected chairs would be in place before the summer recess.
After the 2010, 2015 and 2017 general elections, the select committee chair elections were thus held on the House’s 12th, 18th and 16th sitting days, respectively.
Nominations for each chairmanship are open only to MPs from the party to which it has been allocated. No MP may be a candidate for more than one chairmanship.
Nominations must be made by 5pm on the day before the election, by 15 MPs elected for the party to which the chairmanship is allocated, or 10% of such MPs, whichever is the lower. Up to five MPs from other parties may also back a nomination.
If there is more than one candidate for a chairmanship, the election takes place by a single secret ballot, using the Alternative Vote system. MPs rank the candidates, and the votes of the candidates with the lowest number of first preferences are successively redistributed until one candidate has more than half the votes.
The election of the Backbench Business Committee chair may take place on the same day as the other chair elections or separately.
Nominations for the chair of the Backbench Business Committee must be made on the day before the election by between 20 and 25 MPs, including at least 10 each from government and non-government parties. If there is more than one nomination, the election takes place by secret ballot as for the chairs of other select committees.
Unlike other elected select committee chairs, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected for only one parliamentary session.
How many chairmanships are uncontested?
At the start of Parliaments since the ‘Wright reforms’, the number of select committee chairmanships which were uncontested (including the Backbench Business Committee) were:
What happens if an elected select committee chair leaves the post?
If any elected select committee chair, having taken up the post, resigns or is no-confidenced by his or her committee, an election by the same procedure as at the start of a Parliament is held to fill the vacancy.
Are there term limits for select committee chairs?
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.”
This provision became controversial after the 2017 early general election. Because the 2015 Parliament lasted only two years, select committee chairs who had taken up their positions after the 2010 general election and been re-chosen after the 2015 election, and who expected to be in post until 2020, found that the term limit of eight years was now longer than the term limit of two Parliaments. They therefore faced the prospect of having to stand down in 2018, only one year into the 2017 Parliament.
Five select committee chairs were affected (Clive Betts at Communities and Local Government; Sir Bill Cash at European Scrutiny; David TC Davies at Welsh Affairs; Sir Bernard Jenkin at PACAC; and Lawrence Robertson at Northern Ireland).
Recognising the problem, the House decided in April 2018 that Standing Order No. 122A “shall be read as if the word ‘ten’ were substituted for the word ‘eight’ in the text of that Order”. This meant that chairs who first took up their posts after the 2010 general election could serve until July 2020. The House made its decision on the basis of a Procedure Committee report which concluded that:
“The maximum term of a select committee chair should be a period equivalent to two full Parliaments. Since the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 the period equivalent to two Parliaments is ten years.”
However, the House ordered the change to apply only for the rest of the 2017 Parliament. The change has therefore now lapsed, and at the start of the 2019 Parliament, Standing Order No 122A stands with its original, eight-year, term limit. Unless the Standing Order provision is changed again, select committee chairs who have been holding their positions since the 2010 general election are thus ineligible to hold them further.
This panel was amended on 17 January 2020.
The first step in the process of populating select committees with members is that the size of each committee must be agreed.
How many members do select committees have and how are they divided up by party?
Any motion agreed by the House which creates a select committee normally also specifies the number of its members. For select committees which already exist at the start of a Parliament, Standing Orders will thus already set out their size, and there may be no need to re-visit the question.
Under Standing Order No. 152, most departmental select committees have eleven members.
However, the number of members of a committee may need to be adjusted for political reasons. This is most likely to happen at the start of a new Parliament, but the House may decide to vary the number of members of any select committee at any time, by making a change which affects the relevant Standing Order.
The make-up of each select committee by party is supposed to reflect as closely as possible the party balance of the House.
The line-up of members of each House of Commons select committee must be agreed by the House, on the basis of a motion moved on behalf of the Committee of Selection. (In the 2017 Parliament, the functions of the Committee of Selection in this respect were taken over by the Selection Committee.) The Committee of Selection must normally give two days’ notice of any such motion. There is no requirement that all such motions be moved at the same time, and it is common at the start of a Parliament for the House to agree motions appointing select committee members over several different days.
In practice, once the overall number of members of each committee is known, the parties must agree amongst themselves on how these committee places are divided among them. Broadly, for a committee of any given size (such as eleven), the balance of parties across the House converts into a particular division of committee seats.
Once the division of committee places by party is known, the party whips then give the Committee of Selection a matching number of names of MPs from their party to fill their seat allocation. The Committee of Selection then moves a motion in the Chamber proposing (‘nominating’) for appointment the full, cross-party, line-up of members for each committee.
Several political factors may intervene to complicate the process of allocating select committee places among parties. Sometimes, the problem may be resolved by changing the size of a committee:
- The party balance across the House may not convert exactly or clearly into a division of select committee seats for a select committee of any given size.
- If there is a hung Parliament, the question can arise of whether the government should have a majority on select committees even though it does not have one in the House.
- The party balance across the House may be such that some or all of the smaller parties would not be entitled to select committee seats. In this case, the number of select committee places may be increased. 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. Alternatively, a larger party may give up a select committee seat so that a smaller party has some representation.
- The geographical distribution of a party’s MPs may mean that it does not have members from Scottish or Welsh constituencies available to take up the seats due to it on the Scottish or Welsh Affairs Committees. The issue arises especially acutely with respect to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
- In October 2016, the Exiting the EU Committee was created with 21 members, so as to maximise the likelihood that a more-than-usual number of parties and parts of the UK would be represented, as well as ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’.
In its last report of the 2010-15 Parliament, recognising the strains to which the House of Commons’ increasing party fragmentation was giving rise, the Liaison Committee said that it:
“endorse[d] the principle that, taking the number of places on select committees as a whole, the party representation should reflect that of the House. It is preferable if this can be achieved by accommodation between the parties rather than by making committees too large. Because select committees operate by consensus and unanimity, arithmetical proportions do not have the same degree of relevance that they do with public bill committees. As the Wright Committee recommended, departmental select committees should have a maximum of 11 Members. … It may be time to contemplate the possibility that each committee itself does not have to mirror the exact party composition of the House. … The balance need not be identical on each committee if the overall representation across all committees was fair and proportionate. Otherwise there is a risk of committees getting bigger and bigger to incorporate Members from smaller parties — and spreading Members too thinly over many committees.”
How do parties choose the MPs they put forward for their select committee seats?
Standing Orders do not specify how parties should choose the MPs they put forward for their select committee seats, nor require parties to publish information about their process. The process is essentially an internal party matter.
However, as part of the 2010 ‘Wright reforms’, the House agreed that parties should at least hold internal elections for their select committee places, rather than, as previously, the places being allocated simply by party whips.
The governing provision is thus the motion agreed by the House in March 2010 that:
“parties should elect members of select committees in a secret ballot by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose”.
Why can it take so long to get select committees in the House of Commons fully up and running?
At the start of the first three post-Wright-reform Parliaments, elected in 2010, 2015 and 2017, the House of Commons did not start to agree motions appointing members to select committees until at least its 25th sitting day. In calendar terms, this has been at least six weeks following the start of the Parliament. The delay was most egregious in 2017, when the timing of the election (in June) meant that select committee members only started to be appointed in September.
For select committees with elected chairs, delay in appointing committee members means that several weeks can go by in which elected chairs have no functioning committees. Select committees which elect their own chairs obviously have no members at all during this period and can undertake no work. This creates an especially high-profile problem for the Liaison Committee, since the Committee cannot meet and elect its own chair until all the select committee chairs who are its members are themselves in place, and yet it has the responsibility of holding regular evidence sessions with the Prime Minister.
The procedural problem is that, in contrast to the arrangements for the election of select committee chairs, the House has never put into Standing Orders the deadlines for the appointment of select committee members that the 2009 ‘Wright report’ recommended. This has left the process of appointing select committee members vulnerable to internal party timings and to any political complications – such as 2017’s lack of a government majority – that may arise at the start of a Parliament.
The Wright Committee recommended that:
“the principal select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen’s Speech and that this should be laid down in Standing Orders and capable of being enforced by the Speaker.”
However, rather than inserting a deadline into Standing Orders, the House in March 2010 only agreed a motion. In this, the House:
“approve[d] the principle that the principal select committees ought to be appointed within six weeks of the beginning of the Session at the start of a new Parliament.”
At the end of 2017-19 Parliament, the Liaison Committee repeated the Wright Committee’s recommendation that “select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen’s Speech”. For his part, in a letter to the Leader of the House and the newly elected Speake about the Committee’s 2017-19 work, Procedure Committee Chair Sir Charles Walker MP “stress[ed] the importance of establishing select committees as early as possible in the new Parliament, in view of the significant scrutiny work required to be undertaken on Government proposals for Brexit whatever the outcome of the election.”
Just as in the Commons, the House of Lords must agree via a motion on the creation of any select committee and on the names of its members. As in the Commons, motions proposing the names of members for appointment to select committees are put forward by the Committee of Selection.
However, getting House of Lords select committees up and running at the start of a Parliament is more straightforward than in the Commons, and usually takes place more quickly.
This is despite the fact that most House of Lords committees are formally appointed only until the next parliamentary session. That is, they must be formally re-established and re-populated at the start of each session (not only at the start of first session of a Parliament after a general election).
However, this is normally a formality, and House of Lords ‘sessional’ committees are in effect permanent.
More important than the need for this formality are procedural and political factors that make the appointment of House of Lords select committees more straightforward than in the Commons:
- There are no committee chair elections. Committee chairs are either identified in the motion appointing members to the committee, or chosen by committees themselves.
- There is no requirement that parties hold internal elections to identify their select committee members.
- The lesser importance of party politics in the Lords, and the much larger proportion of independents (Crossbenchers) there, means that party balance is less of a consideration and the filling of select committee places is more consensual.
- The size of House of Lords select committees is much more flexible than that of their Commons counterparts.
After the 2015 and 2017 general elections, the House of Lords appointed its main sessional committees on its 9th and 6th sitting days, respectively.
Unlike the House of Commons, the House of Lords operates a ‘rotation rule’ for select committee members. Under the rule, members who have been appointed to a committee for three successive parliamentary sessions may not be reappointed in the next two.
In its July 2019 report on House of Lords investigative and scrutiny committees, the Liaison Committee recommended that the Procedure Committee give further consideration to the future of the ‘rotation rule’, so as to balance the preservation of expertise with the provision of opportunities for all Peers.
What select committees are there in the House of Lords?
House of Lords select committees fall into the same broad types as their Commons counterparts.
However, rather than have select committees which shadow specific government departments, the House of Lords conducts policy scrutiny via select committees which are responsible for broad policy areas. This is partly to avoiding duplicating the Commons’ department-based work.
House of Lords select committees thus include, among the ‘sessional’ committees, the Communications Committee, Constitution Committee, Economic Affairs Committee, European Union Committee, International Relations Committee and Science and Technology Committee.
Special inquiry committees
Unlike the Commons, the House of Lords makes routine use of fixed-term special inquiry committees appointed only to consider and report on a particular issue. (These committees used to be known as ‘ad hoc committees’.)
Peers are invited to put proposals for special inquiry committees to the Liaison Committee, which makes recommendations to the House on which of them should be established.
The Lords now typically apppoints four special inquiry committees each year.