What are the strengths and weaknesses of select committees?
They investigate issues in much more depth than is ever possible in Parliamentary debates or questions. Hearings last several days and a range of witnesses can be questioned. This is one of the few areas where interest groups can participate directly in Parliamentary proceedings. Select Committees have their own staff that can do background research and suggest questions to ask and there is a Scrutiny Unit which also provides advice.
MPs work across party lines and so this gives their recommendations greater authority than if they were just being proposed by a political party. The Government has to reply to the report. The fact that a minister is being questioned may lead his or her Department to revise their policy to avoid the embarrassment of being shown up by the Committee. Even if there is no immediate change in policy it may happen over time by helping the arguments of interest groups or strengthening the hand of one Government Agency or section in a Department against another that is resisting change.
Select Committee recommendations which criticise existing policy are increasingly being reported in the media
The quality of investigation depends on how well briefed MPs are and how skilled they are in following a line of questions to the witnesses. MPs do not have the experience and training of, say, barristers in questioning witnesses in court. Select Committees do not have the power of a court of law to require people to attend or require information to be made available.
They can only cover a limited number of topics in any one session compared with the range of things that Government is doing.
The Government has to reply to a Select Committee report but does not have to act on its recommendations. Few reports are debated in Parliament.
Although they are improving, Select Committees have tended to investigate a topic and then not come back to it to see what has changed. They have also had limited ability to investigate Departmental spending and also tend to choose immediate problems to look at rather than look forward to long term problems that will have to be dealt with.
- The Committee almost always agrees a report with recommendations across party lines. The Government has to reply to the report but does not have to implement it.