Publications / Submissions

Evidence to the House of Commons Procedure Committee: Establishing select committees in a new Parliament

27 Jun 2018
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In our evidence on the establishment of House of Commons select committees in a new Parliament, we reiterated the arguments of an earlier blogpost about the damage caused by delay, and proposed the insertion of a deadline into Standing Orders to avoid it.

-- Full submission (June 2018) --

Just before the House returned from recess in September 2017, the Hansard Society published a blogpost decrying the fact that its select committees had not yet been re-established following the general election, and arguing that it should amend its Standing Orders to ensure that this situation could not arise again. The post set out the timelines by which House of Commons select committees had been re-established after the two earlier post-Wright-reform elections, in 2010 and 2015, and it pointed out that the Wright Committee had recommended that Standing Orders be amended to ensure the timely nomination of committee members, but that this recommendation had never been implemented.

The Hansard Society continues to believe that a lengthy post-election delay in the re-establishment of select committees damages their reputation and effective operation, and thus also those of the House. This brief submission therefore re-presents the argument of the September 2017 blogpost in favour of the amendment of Standing Orders to introduce a deadline for the nomination of select committee members after a general election.

'The Procedure Committee would like to invite written evidence to address … The effect on the reputation and integrity of the select committee system of undue delay in the House's appointment of its select committees'

1. Undue delay in select committees' post-election re-establishment carries five risks:

i) To the ongoing scrutiny of government and policy. The lack of relevant select committees risks causing difficulties most obviously where scrutiny work is based on an ongoing flow of documents (European Scrutiny Committee) or where scrutiny is tied to particular events that will not wait (some public appointments; legislation; the budget). Any programme of evidence sessions agreed with ministers or officials in terms of 'X-many per year', most notably the Liaison Committee's sessions with the Prime Minister, fall into a similar category. However, select committees now routinely conduct such a volume of scrutiny work, in such important fields, that committees' absence for any period risks opening scrutiny gaps and obliging committees, once appointed, to play 'catch up'. This jeopardises the quality of scrutiny being delivered by the select committee system.

ii) To the public reputation of, and public engagement with, select committees and the House. Select committees now enjoy a higher public and media profile than they once did. Backed by the investment of House staff and communications resources, select committees now make considerable efforts to encourage the public to engage with them, whether through the traditional submission of formal evidence, less traditional transmission of views (social media; online forums), participation in outreach events or simply attending or watching evidence sessions. Having encouraged the public to look to select committees, the House risks undermining this aspect of its own work if its committees are then missing for months. A member of the public who wished to raise an issue, but found there was no committee to raise it with, would be much less likely to try again in future.

The risk to committees' public engagement from any lengthy post-election absence arises most acutely in connection with the Petitions Committee. Our research and that of others shows that e-petitions are among the most popular forms of political engagement. In our annual Audit of Political Engagement, the number of people reporting that they have created or signed an e-petition in the last year has risen steadily from 9% in the 2013 Audit (Audit 10) to 24% in 2018 (Audit 15). In the 2018 Audit, creating or signing an e-petition was the second most popular form of traditional political activity (after voting), and the second most popular form of online political engagement.

Both of these risks - i) to scrutiny work and ii) to select committees' public reputation - would be most likely to be realised if it turned out that an important development had been missed when committees were in abeyance, or if some scandal or crisis broke without select committees being in place to respond.

Both of these risks also have the potential to generate contrasts with the Lords which would presumably be uncomfortable for the elected House. The Lords reliably gets its select committees up and running relatively quickly after the start of a new Parliament. For example, the Commons European Scrutiny Committee met for the first time after the 2017 general election on 1 November 2017; the Lords European Union Committee was nominated on 27 June and was already working in early July.

Overall, by charging select committees with the conduct of scrutiny on behalf of itself and the public, but then potentially allowing this function to go undone for months after a general election, the House risks appearing not to be serious about its scrutiny role, while being casual about the public’s views of and engagement with its select committees.

iii) To the efficient use of staff resources. Select committee staff are permanently in place, even if select committees are not yet re-established. Particularly where select committee scrutiny work is document-based, or where chairs have been elected and are able to indicate areas of future work they would like to pursue, there is useful work that staff are able to undertake even in the absence of their select committee(s). However, there are also limits to such work in the absence of formal committee decisions about work programmes and inquiry subjects and witnesses. Inasmuch as this results in more hurried activity when select committees are re-established, this again risks detracting from the quality of scrutiny.

iv) To select committee cohesion. Under the current system, for committees with chairs elected by the whole House, it is possible for chairs to be in place months before committees' remaining members are nominated. This is preferable to an alternative in which even elected chairs are not in place for an extended period after a general election. However, the potential lengthy time gap between the election of chairs and the nomination of other members carries risks for relations between chairs and other committee members. It would be useful, if possible, to take soundings from those concerned in 2017 as to whether this risk was real, or indeed realised.

v) To the efficient arrangement of House business. The Backbench Business Committee and Liaison Committee now have responsibilities for the programming of some business on the floor of the House which they cannot fulfil if they have not been re-established.

'The Procedure Committee would like to invite written evidence to address …Changes which might expedite the election of committee members by parties … (and) Potential for delay in assembling the full list of proposed memberships for decision by the House'

2. The Wright Committee intended that one of the results of its reforms would be the prevention of lengthy delays in reconstituting select committees after general elections. In its report, it said that it 'consider(ed) that under any system 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, this recommendation was never implemented in full. The House inserted into Standing Orders a set of deadlines to govern the election of select committee chairs, but not any provision concerning the second part of the process of getting committees re-established, namely the nomination of members. Rather than inserting any provision on this issue into Standing Orders, in a motion 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', in line with the Wright Committee's preferred timeframe.

3. It appeared in 2017 that the main source of the delay in nominating select committee members was the election of a hung Parliament and the formation of a minority government, which had knock-on effects on the politics of allocating committee places among parties. A number of analysts, including Professor John Curtice in the 'Britain Votes 2017' special issue of the Hansard Society journal Parliamentary Affairs, regard hung parliaments as increasingly normal rather than the exceptions. The need for provisions in Standing Orders to ensure the timely post-election nomination of select committee members has thus strengthened since the Wright Committee reported.

4. In 2017, the delay in re-establishing select committees after the general election appeared especially great, in calendar rather than sitting-day terms, because the committees were not in place before the start of the summer recess. Since the Wright Committee reported, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) has provide that, in the relevant year, general elections are held on the first Thursday in May. The FTPA might thus be thought to guarantee that there will be sufficient time between a general election and the summer recess to get select committees in place. However, 2017 showed that the FTPA does not prevent a general election being held on dates other than the first Thursday in May - including, in late spring/early summer, much closer to the summer recess.

5. In our blogpost, we recommended that Standing Orders be amended so as to require that the motion for the nomination of select committee members is made 'within six weeks of the Queen’s Speech or at least two sitting days before the House rises for any adjournment of longer than one month, whichever is the earlier'. This would adhere to the original six-week Wright Committee recommendation, while also covering a situation in which the Queen's Speech takes place less than six weeks before an extended recess.

Our suggestion of a minimum of two sitting days between nomination and any recess was intended to ensure that newly re-constituted committees could at least hold a first meeting before any recess, to enable them to elect chairs (where relevant) and take initial decisions about working methods and work programmes. If the Committee were to receive evidence from clerks or Members that, to achieve this aim, it would be advisable to provide for more than two sitting days (or that it would be sufficient to provide for one), we would be in favour of changing our suggested two days accordingly.

Our prime objective, namely to ensure that select committees can be up and running before the summer break, accords with the recommendation made by the Liaison Committee in its very first report, over a decade before the Wright Committee reported: 'At the very latest, the committees should be nominated in sufficient time for them to begin work before the following recess.'

Submitted: June 2018; Published June 2018