Letter from the Chairman of the Committee
of Selection to the Chairman of the Committee
THE APPOINTMENT OF THE SELECT COMMITTEES
Thank you for allowing me, as Chairman of the
Committee of Selection, to make this submission to the Modernisation
of the House of Commons Committee's inquiry into the appointment
of select committees. The views I express are my own, rather than
the Committee's, although I have circulated this submission to
all the Committee's members.
1. The Committee of Selection is appointed
under Private Business Standing Order 109, with a membership of
nine and a quorum of three. Nominations to the membership of the
Committee appear on the order paper in the name of the Government
Deputy Chief Whip and are put to the House at the time of unopposed
private business. The current membership of the Committee was
agreed by the House without opposition on 3 July 2001.
2. The Committee was established in 1839,
when its role was to ensure the appointment of impartial Members
to committees considering private bills.
It still maintains this responsibility. On 1 December 1882 the
Committee was charged by the House with the further responsibility
of appointing Members to standing committees (the order has since
evolved into Public Business Standing Order No. 86).
The Committee's responsibilities in respect of select committees
arise from an order of the House of 30 October 1980, now incorporated
into Public Business Standing Order No 121.
The Committee of Selection and select committees
3. Under Standing Order No. 121(2), the
Committee of Selection has responsibility for the nomination of
Members to serve on the domestic committees (Accommodation and
Works, Administration, Catering and Information) and the select
committees relating to government departments (commonly known
as the "departmental" select committees). The Committee's
nominations are presented to the House as motions in the name
of the Chairman of the Committee. The wording of the standing
order restricts the Committee of Selection's involvement to those
committees named in two other Standing Orders, numbers 142 and
152: the consequence of this is that there are a number of select
committees established under separate Standing Orders for which
nominations are presented to the House directly, in motions in
the name of a member of the Government. These other committees
include the Public Accounts Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee,
the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Broadcasting Committee.
4. Criticism has been expressed of the Committee's
current mode of operation, in three respects: firstly, that nominations
to select committees, both at the start of the Parliament and
subsequently, are controlled by the party Whips upon the Committee;
secondly, that substitutions to select committee memberships are
often severely delayed; and thirdly, that the minority parties
are insufficiently represented in these discussions.
The appointment of select committees, and the
involvement of the Whips
5. It has been argued that the involvement
of the party Whips who sit on the Committee is inappropriate,
because Whips have a particular loyalty to their party which may
conflict with the best interests of the House. However, those
in the Whips' offices have a very close knowledge of the Members
for whom they are responsible: they are in close contact with
them and know not only the Members' strengths and interests, but
also the various demands upon their time. While the Committee
could carry out its responsibilities without the involvement of
the Whips I doubt, under the current arrangements, whether it
could carry out its responsibilities as efficiently while also
seeking to "match" Members to committees more effectively.
6. I also believe that the current practice,
whereby the Committee's members are able to take note of consultations
and decisions made within their own party organisations before
submitting nominations, is valued by the parties. What causes
difficulty is the delay which sometimes occurs to the Committee's
work, as a consequence of a member's request to consult further
through these entirely separate mechanisms. In the circumstances,
criticism of the Committee seems almost inevitable: either it
will be criticised for acting slowly by those who are unaware
of such practices; or it will be criticised for anticipating such
consultations by those who are more familiar with them.
who are more familiar with them.
7. It appears to me that the House has a
choice to make in determining how its committees are appointed.
The Committee of Selection provides an efficient appointments
system for a huge variety of business. The House may keep it,
but it may have to be prepared to accept that appointments made
quickly may not always be the result of a wholly rigorous test
of the available interests. Alternatively, the House can choose
to have a system of appointments which is set apart entirely from
the political interests of the various parties.
8. The approach advocated by the Liaison
Committee in its report Shifting the Balance was of the
latter kind. As a member of the Liaison Committee in the last
Parliament I acquiesced in that report: but I have reservations
about its practicalities.
9. The Liaison Committee proposed a system
whereby any Member could make direct, and independent, representations
to a triumvirate of distinguished and equally independent backbenchers.
Even were the parties themselves to accept the proposal, I have
doubts whether a panel of three, however distinguished, would
be more representative than a committee of nine: I am concerned
that the minority parties, particularly, would find their interests
overlooked. Further, while the members of the panel would themselves
set out to be entirely objective in the judgements, the House
collectively would have a view of them as individuals. I believe
that any motion to appoint such a panel would inevitably be challenged,
and create dissent.
10. The Liaison Committee's proposal that
all committee nominations should be announced within two weeks
of the application deadline is also impracticable, in my opinion,
particularly at the beginning of a newly-elected Parliament.
11. There are currently 400 places available
to Members in total upon the House's select committees (including
both the "departmental" and other committees but excluding
the Liaison Committee). Thus the proposal is that, in first setting
up the committees, the three Members should make 400 separate,
rigorously tested and wholly objective, judgements within 14 days.
Such a system would require a far more complex and plentiful provision
of resources than is currently available to the Committee of Selection.
The panel would require staff able to research Member's participation
in debates on particular subjects; to sift applications; to facilitate
the production of shortlists and, perhaps, the conduct of interviews
within a very short period of time. To preserve its objectivity
the panel would have to be barred from seeking advice and assistance
from the various parties' internal organisations.
12. Such a system could not operate with
the level of resources available to the Committee of Selection.
At present the Committee has only two staffa Clerk and
an Assistantboth of whom have other responsibilities within
the House service.
responsibilities within the House service.
13. Nonetheless, the Committee takes its
wide-ranging responsibilities towards the House seriously: in
the three weeks since its appointment on 3 July last, the Committee
has appointed 49 Members to sit on Standing Committees on Bills;
256 Members to sit on Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation;
and has submitted 210 out of a possible 226 nominations to the
membership of select committees to the House. It has achieved
this with the incentive of the House's clearly expressed wish
to establish the department committees before the summer recess;
and because it was able through its members to draw support and
guidance from the parties.
14. The second count of criticism against
the Committee of Selection has been occasional lengthy delays
in changing the membership of select committees when the need
arises. These delays are not generally the consequence of Committee
inactivity. In fact, once such changes are brought to the Committee,
it is usually the case that a proposal is put to the House for
its consideration within four working days. The slow progress
in achieving change is, again, in my experience because the parties
themselves wish to take a view on potential candidates within
15. The details of vacancies on the departmental
and domestic committees are generally only communicated to the
Committee of Selection by the parties as and when a clear candidate
for the seat has been identified. Yet the committee Chairmen are
often aware of a vacancy, or potential vacancy, long before this
formal communication is made. If the Chairmen were to take it
upon themselves to communicate this information formally at an
earlier stage, the Committee itself could act sooner, either proceeding
to direct discussion or seeking to hasten discussions elsewhere.
16. I can think of only two other alternatives,
in principle, to appointments to select committees by the Committee
of Selection. The first is to have all nominations to select committees
tabled simply in the name of the Government Deputy Chief Whip
following agreement through the usual channels: I do not believe
that the House would countenance this. The second is the former
Liaison Committee's proposal that it, or its successorsbeing
a panel of senior and respected backbenchersshould assume
the responsibility. Since the membership of the Liaison Committee
is determined by the decisions of the other committees in respect
of their Chairmen, it would not exist to appoint committees at
the start of a Parliament. Therefore, unless the House should
conclude that it is willing to support the establishment of a
new, three-member panel and to provide it with an appropriate
level of resources, I can see no practical alternative to the
status quo. The panel proposal was rejected by the House in the
last session of Parliament.
17. Taking the view that the Committee of
Selection remains the best available, and most practical option,
it is appropriate to look at the issue of safeguards. The Committee
is, of course, aware that the pressure to support the House's
business can at times be significant and potentially problematic.
It has therefore built its own safeguards. These take the form
of sessional resolutions, which require:
"That, after a Bill has been under consideration
in a Standing Committee, no application for changes in the composition
of that Committee in respect of that Bill will be entertained
by this Committee except where a Member is incapacitated from
attendance by illness or where he has been appointed or ceased
to be a member of the Government or has changed his office for
another, or has acquired other duties or ceased to hold or changed
"That Motions to alter the membership of
Select Committees may be tabled on behalf of the Committee of
Selection only if previously approved at a meeting of the Committee
The combined effect of these resolutions is
18. The Committee is content for its members,
by the exercise of delegated authority, to substitute the name
of one Member for another on a standing committee, provided
that the committee in question has not yet commenced its business.
In my view this is a sensible approach to take for all concerned,
since there are many occasions when Members are required to deal
with urgent matters arising in other places. It allows the essential
business of the Houseparticularly in committees on delegated
legislationto proceed with the minimum delay. In the period
previously cited, from 3 July to the rise of the House for the
summer recess, seven such substitutions were made within a composite
standing committee membership of 305.
19. Equally, however, the Committee holds
to the view that it should not permit the exercise of all its
powers under delegated authority. Thus, the Committee will only
allow the membership of standing committees on bills to be changed
during the course of consideration in exceptional circumstances;
and will only allow changes to the membership of select committees
to be presented to the House when they have been properly and
formally put to the Committee for its consent. While the select
committee resolution could be perceived as an instrument for delay,
the practice of the Committee is to the opposite effect: not for
the first time, the Committee met twice on 11 July with the sole
aim of enabling as many nominations to select committees to be
formally agreed as possible.
20. I hardly need to add that the ultimate
safeguard is the will of the House: in agreeing nominations to
the select committees, the Committee is agreeing only the substance
of a motion which may be put to the House in its name. Appointments
are always approved finally by the House itself.
21. While I see the Committee of Selection
as the only body which is in practice able to fulfil the House's
demands I can also see that there are ways in which its work might
be done differently.
A larger committee, protecting minority interests
22. As the Liaison Committee suggested in
Shifting the Balance: Unfinished Business, the membership
of the Committee of Selection as provided for by Private Business
Standing Order 109, might be increased.
While, for reasons I have argued previously, I would be reluctant
to lose the Whips from the committee, an increase in the membership
of the committee should provide further opportunities for the
minority parties and backbenchers to participate in selection:
not only for select committees, but also for standing committees
and the other bodies which the Committee appoints under Private
Business Standing Orders.
23. The House might agree to provide the
Chairman and the Committee with greater resources for the first
two months of a Parliament, to enable both a more open system
of applications and a more systematic testing of competing claims
for nomination. Such resources would have to be significantly
greater than they are now.
24. Throughout the Parliament, the Chairmen
of the committees appointed by the Committee of Selection might
be encouraged to formally notify the Committee immediately they
become aware of a vacancy. I am sure that such action would greatly
facilitate discussion, and be welcomed both by the Committee and
25. The safeguards the Committee traditionally
agrees through its sessional resolutions could be made permanent
by their inclusion in Standing Orders.
Such safeguards could be further increased if the Committee were
to be bound, or to bind itself, to the formal internal circulation
of potential nominations to the select committees a fixed period
of time before the Committee meets. It might be that the establishment
of such a safeguard would cause further delays in some instances
(if such a deadline were to be narrowly missed, and the business
of the Committee consequently deferred); but it may be that this
is a price the House would be willing to pay for a system in which
it might place greater confidence.
Mr John McWilliam MP
7 August 2001
(b) That Motions to alter the
membership of Select Committees may be tabled on behalf of the
Committee of Selection only if previously approved at a meeting
of the Committee of Selection; and
1 Clifford's History of Private Bill Legislation,
Vol II, p. 835. Back
CJ Vol. 137 (1882) p. 523. Back
CJ Vol 236 (1979-80) p. 820. Back
Shifiting the Balance: Unfinished Business First Report
of the Liaison Committee Session 2000-01, paragraph 13. Back
Shifting the Balance: Unfinished Business: First Report
of the Liaison Committee, 2000-01, paragraph 14. Back
The terms of the Committee's Sessional Resolutions, in full, are:
(a) That after a Bill has been under consideration in a Standing
Committee, no application for changes in the composition of that
Committee in respect of that Bill will be entertained by this
Committee except where a Member is incapacitated from attendance
by illness or where he has been appointed or ceased to be a member
of the Government, or has changed his office for another, or has
acquired other duties or ceased to hold or changed such duties; Back