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What happens to Select Committees when Government Departments change?

Parliament Street and Whitehall street signs. ©Adobe
Parliament Street and Whitehall street signs. ©Adobe

For each Government Department, the House of Commons has a dedicated departmental Select Committee to scrutinise it. But changes to the line-up of Select Committees, to reflect machinery-of-government changes to Departments, do not take place automatically. There is some scope for discretion and negotiation with, in practice, the Government ultimately deciding whether and how to make changes.

The principle that each Government Department would have a dedicated House of Commons Select Committee to scrutinise it was at the heart of the creation of departmental Select Committees (DSCs) in 1979. It has been set out since then in Standing Order No. 152. The principle means that when a new Government Department is created, or the remit of an existing Department changed, the House of Commons must make changes to its Select Committees so that the Department has a corresponding Select Committee.

However, when the line-up of Government Departments is changed, the process of making corresponding Select Committee changes is not automatic. To create or abolish a Select Committee, or change the name or remit of an existing Committee, the House must amend its Standing Orders. (The motion to do so will in practice be tabled by the Government, and is amendable.) And there is no bar to the House having a line-up of ‘departmental’ Select Committees which does not, in fact, map exactly onto the list of Government Departments: while each Government Department has its own Select Committee, the House may decide to have other Select Committees too.

This means that when the line-up of Government Department changes, there is some scope for discretion and negotiation about the way in which the change is reflected among Select Committees. For example:

There is no deadline, following changes to Government Departments, by which the House must make the corresponding changes to its Select Committees.

When the Government creates a new Department, there are broadly two possible ways of changing the Select Committee line-up to reflect this.

This is achieved by:

  • having the House agree a motion that “all proceedings of the House” concerning the existing Committee – including the appointment of Members and the election of the Chair – should be understood as applying to the Committee under whatever new name it is to be given; and

  • amending Standing Orders to change the name and remit of the Committee to reflect the new Department.

The most visible implication of this option is that the Chair and Members of the existing Committee remain in place and there is no election for a new Chair.

Some examples of this process are given in the table below.

Conversions of existing Select Committees into Select Committees for new Government Departments: Some examples, 1997-2023

Government Department changeSelect Committee change
Feb-March 2023Department for Business and Trade (DBT) created by merging parts of former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which was broken up, with Department for International Trade (DIT)Previous Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee converted into Business and Trade Committee (BTC); International Trade Committee (ITC) abolished
Feb-March 2023Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT) created by merging parts of former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) (including Government Office for Science) with parts of former Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DMCS)Previous Science and Technology Committee (STC) (which scrutinised Government Office for Science) converted into Science, Innovation and Technology (SIT) Committee
July-Oct 2016Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) created by merging former Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which was abolished, with parts of former Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)Previous Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee converted into Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Committee; Energy and Climate Change Committee abolished
June 2009Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) created by merging Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) with Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)Previous Business and Enterprise Committee converted into Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Committee; previous Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee converted into Science and Technology Committee (STC) (to scrutinise Government Office for Science)
May-July 2007Ministry of Justice created by merging Department for Constitutional Affairs with parts of Home OfficePrevious Constitutional Affairs Committee converted into Justice Committee
Sources: Hansard, 25 July 2007, 25 June 2009, 11 October 2016, 27 March 2023; Institute for Government, 'Machinery of government changes', last updated 4 April 2023; David Natzler, 'How the recent government restructure will affect parliamentary scrutiny', Constitution Unit blog, 28 February 2023

This is achieved by adding the new Committee to the list of departmental Select Committees in Standing Order No. 152.

This option means that Members must be appointed to the new Committee and an election held for its Chair.

The table below gives some instances of new Select Committees being created following the creation of new Government Departments.

New Select Committees created following the creation of new Government Departments: Some examples, 1997-2023

New Government Department or other innovationNew Select Committee
Feb-March 2023Department for Energy Security and Net Zero (DESNZ) (created from energy portfolio of former Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS))Energy Security and Net Zero
July-Oct 2016Department for International Trade (DIT)International Trade Committee (ITC)
July-Oct 2016Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU)Committee for Exiting the EU ('Brexit Committee')
May-June 2010Nick Clegg MP appointed Deputy Prime Minister with responsibility for political and constitutional reformPolitical and Constitutional Reform Committee
Oct 2008Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC)Energy and Climate Change
May-July 1997Department for International DevelopmentInternational Development Committee (IDC)
Sources: Hansard, 8 July 2007, 28 October 2008, 7 June 2010, 11 October 2016, 27 March 2023; Institute for Government, 'Machinery of government changes', last updated 4 April 2023; David Natzler, 'How the recent government restructure will affect parliamentary scrutiny', Constitution Unit blog, 28 February 2023

Some Select Committee changes to reflect machinery-of-government changes are uncontroversial – if a Department gains or loses a relatively minor policy area without changing its essential profile, and its name is altered accordingly, it is usually relatively straightforward for the Select Committees to follow suit.

However, sometimes, decisions about departmental Select Committee changes can be politically charged. If a departmental Select Committee is abolished, the Chair loses their position and the additional salary that goes with it. If a new Committee is created without an existing Committee being abolished, the overall number of Committees will rise and an argument may be triggered about which party is entitled to the new chairship. There may also be concerns about the availability of MPs to serve on an additional Committee, and about the extra staffing and other costs involved.

13:15, 24 April 2023

Hansard Society (2023), What happens to Select Committees when Government Departments change? (Hansard Society: London)

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