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Controlling the Executive through Select Committees

These have become the most effective means of Parliamentary Scrutiny of policy.

When the idea of Committees to scrutinise the Government was suggested in the 1960s, it was opposed by traditionalist MPs such as Michael Foot and Enoch Powell because they argued that all important discussions should be open to every MP. Norman St John Stevas, the new Leader of the House in 1979, decided to push a new system of Select Committees through.

They have gradually become more influential, powerful might be too strong a word, and their conclusions are now regularly reported in the media and their Chairs interviewed.

About Select Committees

  • They consist only of backbench MPs though, and not everyone is happy about it, Parliamentary Private Secretaries can go on but not on the Committee to which their Minister reports
  • The membership is proportional to the numbers of MPs of each party so at present there is a Conservative majority
  • They directly shadow Government Departments so that as the Department’s structure and responsibilities change so do the areas that the Select Committees cover
  • They can look at any topic they want to. They normally also review the annual report of the Department
  • The Chair of each Select Committee is now elected by MPs as a whole and can be from any party. They were elected by the other members of the Committee but during the New Labour period the Labour Whips tried to remove Donald Anderson, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Gwyneth Dunwoody, the Chair of the Transport Committee because they were producing reports too critical of the Government. Backbench MPs revolted and reinstated them and the power of the Whips over Committee membership has gradually been reduced. MPs of each party now elect their Select Committee members.
  • The Government has to reply to the Committee’s report but there is no obligation to accept any of the recommendations
  • The Chairs of Select Committees form a Liaison Committee which reviews the overall system and also has a session questioning the Prime Minister.

The Select Committee Process

  • Chair and Clerk to the Committee meet to discuss possible topics for investigation that session
  • Committee meet to agree the list of topics proposed by the Chair
  • Committee Clerk invites people to give evidence to the Committee
  • Hearing held with MPs asking questions including those prepared by Committee staff
  • Clerk and Chair of the Committee meet to draft report after discussion with Committee members
  • Committee approves report and press releases issued
  • Government replies to the report

Key Points about Select Committees

  • The Chair and Clerk are key people and can play a role in guiding the Committee. The Clerk is not just a minute taker but a civil servant with significant experience. There is also a Committee staff that recommend who should appear, research topics and provide questions. How much influence other Committee members have depends on how much work they do in preparing or how much previous experience they have in relation to the topic.
  • Unlike most proceedings in the House of Commons there is co-operation across party lines and MPs on Select Committees almost always agree cross-party recommendations.
  • Select Committees are the only place where outside people and interest groups can take part in Parliamentary procedure and influence policy.
  • Acknowledged experts are invited to appear or submit views in writing. Most interest groups found the hearings useful and felt that their views were incorporated in the final report.
  • How well the hearing goes depends partly on how good MPs are in following a line of questioning to witnesses. Barrister MPs have commented that this is a difficult skill and MPs get no training in it. It is also important that the Committee prepares for the hearing. The Treasury Committee questioned the Governor of the Bank of England about the financial crisis and gave him a relatively easy ride as it was immediately after a Bank Holiday and they had not had time to get together. They were much more on the ball when they interviewed the Banks. On the other hand, it has been pointed out that it can be difficult for witnesses whose reputation may be affected by the tough questioning and have no legal representation as they would have in a court of law.
  • Committees do not have the power to force people to appear by means of a subpoena as the courts do or Congressional Committees in the US can, but pretty much everyone does appear, even Rupert Murdoch and Mike Ashley, the founder of Sports Direct, who had previously snubbed the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. There were questions early on about whether Ministers and civil servants can be forced to appear and Number 10 prevented Downing Street staff from doing so over the leaked Attorney General’s advice in the Westland Affair but it is now almost always too embarrassing not to. Tony Blair said he would never appear before Select Committees as Prime Minister but then he did and Prime Ministers since 2002 have appeared annually before the Liaison Committee of Select Committee Chairs. The session is not exactly a grilling with each Chair asking their question and now much follow up
  • The Government has to give a written reply to the report and may simply give it the brush off in suitable civil servant language. Influence is difficult to judge. Sometimes the fact that a Minister is about to appear before a Select Committee leads to a policy change so that the appearance is not too embarrassing. A Select Committee report may strengthen the arguments of interest groups in their meetings with ministers and civil servants and even strengthen the hand of one group inside a ministry against another so that policy changes a year or two later.
  • Selective Influence: the Policy Impact of House of Commons Select Committees by Meg Russell and Meghan Benton of the Constitution Unit at UCL, 2011, is a thorough examination of this topic and estimated that 40% of Select Committee recommendations are adopted by Government.
  • Parliament only gets to debate a small proportion of reports

Example of a Committee in action – The Defence Select Committee and the Future Rapid Effect System

In 2008 the Defence Select Committee decided to look at the Ministry of Defence’s programme for developing and commissioning new armoured vehicles.

In the Cold War the Ministry’s purchasing was based on large slow moving heavily armoured tanks to counter the scenario of similar Soviet tanks advancing across the North German Plain. Infantry and communications would be moved in fast unarmoured vehicles behind the line of tanks.

With the end of the Cold War, even before Afghanistan, it had become clear that a faster moving but armoured vehicle was needed to use in battles with quickly moving insurgents armed with rockets.

The Committee interviewed the Ministry of Defence officials responsible for the programme and representatives of the main arms manufacturers. What they found shocked them. The MoD had first tried to work with the Americans to design a prototype but after spending £131 had abandoned because ‘The American do not work like us’ and then £59m on work with Germany from which the MoD then pulled out.

Ignoring the possibility of sharing costs with countries like Sweden who needed a similar vehicle for use in their UN peace-keeping responsibilities, the MOD had awarded a contract to Alvis Vickers for £14 bn. for a Future Rapid Effect System consisting of different types of vehicles without going through a tendering process and which was already 8 years behind target.

The Committee had found that to date:

  • No one had come up with an axle strong enough to support a heavily armoured but fast moving vehicle
  • Even if one had been designed the Hercules aircraft that would transport them were not powerful enough to take the vehicles to a conflict zone because they would be too heavy
  • In the meantime armour had been banged into existing vehicles to give some sort of protection at a cost of £147m
  • The Committee concluded that the programme had been, “A sorry tale of indecision, constantly changing requirements and delay”
  • Defence procurement in Britain has been wasteful and often ineffective and pressure from the Select Committee, as well as the need to reduce public expenditure, has at last led Ministers to take control of the process.