Rebuilding the House - House of Commons Reform Committee Contents


    There is widespread disquiet, both amongst Members and outside the House, about a system which is not open, and which is not clearly independent of the Government and the party managers. Those being scrutinised should not have a say in the selection of the scrutineers. We believe that the present system does not, and should not, have the confidence of the House and the public. (Liaison Committee, Independence or Control?, 2000)[8]

(i)  In this introductory section we report on our consideration of the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speakers): and recommend the general use by the House of the gender-neutral terms "Chair" for the office-holder and "chair" for the office, as we have in this report.

A. Terms of reference etc

36. The first two matters which we are directed by our terms of reference to consider and to make recommendations on are "(a) the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees, (b) the appointment of the Chairman and deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means..[ ie the Deputy Speakers]". Both matters have arisen from a sense that the House wishes to democratise its internal procedures and practices. The election in June 2009 of a new Speaker by a new procedure involving a secret ballot has shown the way.


37. Our terms of reference refer to "chairmen" of select committees, and the same term is used in the official titles of the deputy Speakers. "Chairman" is embedded in the House's Standing Orders in reference to select committees and general committees, as well as in various pieces of statute law. We do not think that is appropriate in the House of the 21st century. "Chair" is a widely used gender-neutral term for someone carrying out the chairing function, and " the Chair" is already used at Westminster as a shorthand for the Speaker or whoever is chairing proceedings. In this report we will wherever possible use the term "Chair" to denote the individual chairing a committee, and "chair" to denote the office held, save where a particular officer is meant, such as the Chairman of Ways and Means. We hope that the House will soon follow this practice.

Deputy Speakers

38. On 2 July 2009 Mr Speaker Bercow told the House of his conviction that the choice of Deputy Speakers should be determined not as hitherto by consultation and formal nomination by the House, but by a process of election. He expressed the hope that a ballot or ballots would be conducted shortly after the House returned in October to choose three deputy Speakers, one from the Opposition side and two from the Government side.[9] On 16 July 2009, several days before the Motion to establish this committee was passed by the House, the Procedure Committee announced in a Press Release that it was launching an inquiry into the procedure governing the election of the Speaker and the lessons to be learned and would also make recommendations on the rules governing the election of the three Deputy Speakers. It stated that it aimed to publish its report shortly after the House returned from the summer recess.

39. At our first meeting on 21 July 2009 we decided that it would be fruitless to pursue a detailed inquiry into the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speakers) at exactly the same time as such as inquiry was being conducted by the Procedure Committee. We did not therefore seek separate evidence on that particular matter.

40. The Procedure Committee has now reported its outline conclusions.[10] It must in our view be right that a transparent means be found for the House as a whole to elect the House's three principal office-holders below the Speaker. As we have discovered in our examination of the appointment of members and Chairs of select committees it is not easy to find a generally acceptable and fair procedure. It is now for the House to consider the Procedure Committee's Report.

B Select committees: what happens now

(ii)  In this section we describe the current system of appointment of appointment of members and Chairs of select committees and how it works in practice. We also report on three closely connected matters: the size and number of committees, the speed of their nomination in a new Parliament and the Intelligence and Security Committee.

41. There are currently 34 "permanent" select committees, including joint committees.[11] There are other committees which will lapse at the end of the Parliament or earlier; statutory committees with a membership of Members of this House; and committees whose membership is ex officio or similar. Members of each select committee are appointed by the House on the basis of a motion moved in the House, usually in the first months of a new Parliament. Membership lasts for the remainder of the Parliament, unless and until the House agrees to the removal of a Member and their replacement by another.

42. Each Committee elects a Chair from among their number at its first meeting. There are rare exceptions to this general rule. Chairs may be appointed by the House in the Order setting up the Committee, as was the case with this Committee and the recently appointed Committee on privilege and other aspects of police searches on the Parliamentary Estate. The Chair remains in office unless removed by a vote of the committee, on the basis of a motion of which notice has been given. This has not happened in recent times.


Committee of Selection

43. Under Standing Order [SO] No 121, nomination of members of nearly all permanent committees must arise on a motion moved in the House after at least two days notice by the Chair of the Committee of Selection.[12] Nomination of temporary select committees, such as the Regional select committees, is normally done on a motion moved by a Minister, but in practice following a process of nomination to the Government by the parties.

Motions and amendments

44. Appointments to committees are made in the House in stand-alone motions covering one committee at a time. They can be amended by leaving out names and inserting others, or merely leaving out names. Amendments to add names to a committee already limited in size without a balancing removal are not in order. Members proposing to nominate a Member must endeavour to ascertain if "each such Member will give his attendance on the committee"; in other words, Members must be volunteers.


45. Vacancies arise regularly throughout a Parliament. In session 2008/09 there were over 40 cases of members being removed and replaced, for a variety of reasons, typically the acceptance of a ministerial or Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) role or an Opposition frontbench role. Many committees have members who have ceased to attend for a variety of reasons and have not been replaced. It is not always easy to fill vacancies.

Origins of Committee of Selection

46. The role of the Committee of Selection in the nomination of members of most select committees is a relatively recent one. The Committee has its origins in 1839 as a means of nominating Members to committees dealing with private bills, of which there were many. When Standing Committees on Bills were first established in the 1880s the task of proposing names for members to be added to the core membership of a Standing Committee in respect of each Bill was given to the Committee of Selection. These names did not need to be approved by the House. The system of nomination of Standing Committee membership changed over the years so that the committee stage was entrusted to a separately appointed set of Members for each Bill; but the Committee of Selection retained under SO No 86 the duty of nominating the Members, still without requiring ratification in the House. In making nominations to such committees, now called public bill committees, it is obliged to "have regard to the qualifications of those Members nominated and to the composition of the House". In practice, the whips bring nominations to public bill committees for the Committee's ratification, and the names as endorsed by the Committee are simply recorded in the Votes and Proceedings.

47. The Committee of Selection is itself nominated by the House under Private Business Standing Order 109. The names of the nine Members to serve on the Committee are put to the House in a motion moved formally at the outset of a day's proceedings by the Deputy Chief Whip. It normally comprises whips from all 3 major parties, with a senior Government party backbencher in the chair.

Earlier practice

48. So far as can be discovered, the nomination of Members to serve on select committees, which were from Tudor times if not earlier a regular feature of the Commons, was made relatively casually in a motion moved without notice. In the 18th century the practice was introduced of a secret ballot for select committee membership, in which Members were called up one by one to place their preferred names in large glasses on the Table of the House. The procedure lasted anything up to three hours, with the result declared the next day.[13]

49. In the course of the 19th century the House reverted to moving a motion to nominate membership, and gradually this became the preserve of Ministers, since it was they who controlled the agenda. Motions came to be tabled in the name of the deputy Government Chief Whip, following consultations between the parties, and put down for decision after the moment of interruption, with the intention of avoiding the need for debate or vote. That remains the standard means of nominating temporary committees, such as the current Regional select committees, and was indeed the means used to nominate this Committee. There remains a shadow of backbench initiative in SO No 23, the "ten-minute rule", now used only to seek leave in a 10-minute speech to bring in a bill, but which also permits a motion by a backbencher to nominate a select committee.

1979 changes

50. The 1976-78 Procedure Committee recommended in its Report that "in future the preparation of nominations for select committee membership should be entrusted to the Committee of Selection, who have long and valuable experience in the nomination of standing committees" and that the motions to be tabled by the Chair of the Committee of Selection should be taken after at least two days' notice.[14] The idea was to shift the responsibility for nomination away from the Leader of the House and the Whips to a forum where backbenchers could at least query the party's nominations. It is this thankless task that the Committee has carried out for the past 30 years.

Current practice

51. The Committee of Selection establishes at the start of each Parliament a standard division of places between the parties on committees of different sizes, based upon a calculation of the seats in the House held by each party. This calculation holds good for select committees as well as for public bill and delegated legislation committees. Names of prospective select committee members are brought up in the Committee of Selection by the individual party whips to fill the party "quota" on committees. On occasion a party has given up a place to a Member of another party, for example to ensure some places for members of Northern Ireland parties on committees dealing with Northern Ireland: or to enable an independent Member to take a place on a committee.

52. It is up to each party how it decides who is to be put forward by its whips in the Committee of Selection, and the process is not transparent.

53. Membership of a select committee is open to any member of the House. In 1979 the then Chair of the Committee of Selection told the House that the committee would not nominate Ministers, PPSs or Opposition front-bench spokesmen. This has remained the general practice, so far as circumstances permit. In practice, PPSs have served on committees scrutinising departments other than that in which they serve; and it has proved difficult for committee membership to keep up with the frequently changing membership of the Opposition front-bench. There are no similar constraints on membership of some temporary select committees such as Modernisation, which is chaired by a Minister and has Opposition front-bench membership, or Regional select committees. The House can of course object to the membership of a committee when it is first proposed in the House, but not in practice thereafter.

Size and number

54. We are directed to consider matters closely connected with those matters referred to us. In its Annual Report of March 2009 the Liaison Committee repeated its concern at the size of select committees, which over the 30 years since foundation of the departmental select committee system in 1979 has risen from 9 or 11 on a standard committee to 14, despite objections over many years from the Committee. [15] The number of places to be filled on all Committees, including temporary and statutory committees, has doubled in that time, from 275 to 576,[16] but there has been no change in the numbers willing and able to serve. There has also been a steady rise in the number of committees, from 24 to 39, not counting the Regional select committees. As a result, a number of Members serve on two or more committees, and the prohibition on service by PPSs and Opposition front-benchers has been breached in order to fill vacancies. Chairs have argued that committees are now unwieldy and that it is hard to engender a collective purpose and direction.[17] In this report we make proposals on increased access for select committees to the floor of the House for debate and decision on substantive motions. If committees are slimmed down, we recognise the need to incentivise attendance and participation among that smaller group of Members. Rather than an unremunerated honour to be sought, and a responsibility to be discharged, a select committee place is in danger of being regarded by some backbenchers as a burden best avoided.

55. We propose that the new House of Commons reduce the size of its standard departmental committees to not more than 11; Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties. We also recommend that the practice of appointing parliamentary private secretaries and front bench Official Opposition spokesmen should cease. We believe there should be clear consequences for unreasonable absence from select committees. The House must also seek to reduce the numbers of committees, ending overlapping or duplicate remits and rationing the scarce resource of Members time and commitment.

Speed of nomination

56. Committees can take an unconscionable time to be set up at the start of a new Parliament. In 1997 and again in 2005 it took a full three months, compared to one month in 2001. The delays are variously attributed to the need for the Government to complete its ministerial appointments and then identify the PPSs, and to delays in the official Opposition naming its front-bench. The Liaison Committee reports of 1999 and 2000 seeking reform of the system were responding as much to concerns over delays in nominating members at the start of a Parliament as to concerns over the way the nominations were made. We do not underestimate the problems. But we consider 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.

Intelligence and Security Committee

57. The Intelligence and Security Committee is a statutory committee of Members of both Houses established under the Intelligence Services Act 1994 to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the three main intelligence and security agencies. Its terms of reference reflect those of the House's departmental select committees. Under section 10 of the Act, appointments are made by the Prime Minister, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition.

58. The July 2007 Governance of Britain Green Paper included a number of suggestions for minor changes in how the committee worked, to make it more like a select committee of the House, which it is not, and to increase transparency.[18] In March 2008 the Government published its White Paper proposals based on, but falling short of, its Green Paper suggestions.[19] In July 2008 the House endorsed these proposals, and passed a Standing Order, now SO No 153E, with effect until the end of this Parliament, permitting the Committee of Selection to "propose that certain Members be recommended to the Prime Minister" for appointment to the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Lords approved similar procedures in November 2008. A Member of this House was added to the Committee in October 2008 and was appointed as Chair, without a recommendation from the Committee of Selection having been put to the House. A month later, however, a Member was added using the new Standing Order. A change in the formal system of nomination to the ISC, and in the method of appointment of the Chair, would require a change in statute.

59. It is unsatisfactory that any reforms we recommend to the system of election of members and Chairs of the House's select committees cannot be applied at the same time to the Intelligence and Security Committee. In the interim, we believe that the system we recommend below for electing Chairs of departmental and similar select committees should be applied so far as possible to the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. We recommend that the Committee be regarded as one whose chair is held by convention by a Member from the majority party; that candidates wishing to stand for election by the House to the chair of the Committee should be obliged to seek in advance of the ballot the formal consent of the Prime Minister for their candidature, to be notified in writing; and that thereafter the procedure should be as for other departmental and similar select committee chairs.

Public bill committee membership

60. We are charged with considering appointment of members and chairs to select committees only, and have not considered the membership of public bill committees in detail. However it is notable that the arrangements for appointment of Members to public bill committees are markedly less transparent and democratic than those for select committees. The chairs of public bill committees are selected from the Chairmen's Panel, chosen by the Speaker, and this system is widely accepted. But the members of these committees are chosen by the Committee of Selection with no reference to the House itself. We conclude that a review would be desirable of the means of selection of public bill committee members, so that it was subject to a similar level of accountability to that long applied to select committee membership.


61. Once a committee is nominated it meets to elect a Chair. The Committee can in theory choose any Member, so long as they do not fall foul of SO 122A introduced in 2002 which establishes term limits for Chairs. In practice Members are constrained by the outcome of private inter-party negotiations on the party affiliation of each committee chair, undertaken to ensure that a fair proportion of chairs are held by the Opposition parties. The outcome of these negotiations is notified privately to Members by whips. The Modernisation Committee has recommended that this distribution be published.[20]

62. There are rare exceptions. The Liaison Committee's membership comprises one named individual in addition to the ex officio Chairs of select committees, and that Member is evidently intended by the House to take the chair. The House has also endorsed the proposition that the Finance and Services Committee should be chaired by a member of the House of Commons Commission, of whom one serves on the Committee. And the presence of the Leader of the House on the Modernisation Committee has, not without occasional controversy, been taken as a signpost as to the obvious candidate for the chair of that Committee.

63. More common has been the nomination to a committee of a "senior" figure by virtue of past Ministerial or Opposition front-bench service, with or without previous select committee experience, although this was less apparent in the appointments in 2005; and it is common knowledge that the whips on all sides ensure that members of their own party are left in no doubt about the "official" view as to the preferred candidate.

64. Most Chairs are elected without recorded opposition. That is not to say that there is not sometimes internal dissent within the committee and within members of the same party on a committee. Alternative candidates are not infrequently privately canvassed before the first meeting of a committee. In the 1992 Parliament, where a typical departmental select committee had 6 Government and 5 non-Government members, the minority was well-placed to identify which of the majority party members they preferred without it needing a recorded vote, since the 5 plus their favoured candidate enjoyed an automatic majority. On the Employment Committee the returning Chair was defeated and an alternative candidate from the same party elected in his stead. In 2001 the International Development Committee was unable to find a majority for either of the Opposition party candidates, and eventually a third candidate was added to the Committee and elected unopposed.

65. Controversy has also arisen from candidates for the chair being "parachuted" into a committee where a chair has become vacant, rather than the successor being found from among the existing membership. For this to happen does still require a majority in the House to appoint the new member, and a decision of the Committee to elect that Member to the chair.

66. Chairs evidently play a crucial role in the operation of their select committee, acknowledged by the payment of an additional sum, albeit only half as much as the additional salary paid to the most junior Minister. Perhaps more significantly, the steadily growing public profile of select committees gives Chairs a wider role in the media than hitherto, as their opinion is sought on current areas of controversy. They enjoy some priority in being called in the Chamber. And as members of the Liaison Committee they have the task of twice yearly public evidence sessions with the Prime Minister, and of exercising influence through that Committee over the agenda of the House and Westminster Hall.

C Is the system satisfactory?

(iii)  In this section we consider the strengths and weaknesses of current practices and set out three general conclusions.

Past criticism

67. There has been persistent criticism over the past decade in particular of the method of appointment of members of select committees, arising both from the lengthy delays in nominating members at the start of a Parliament and from the view that it is in principle wrong that membership should be in the hands of party whips. There has been less public comment specifically on the selection of Chairs, although recent cases of vacant chairs being "given" to former Ministers or other senior figures as a form of patronage have caused concern. The row in 2001, at the start of the 2001-05 Parliament, over the omission of Donald Anderson and Gwyneth Dunwoody from the lists of members proposed by the Committee of Selection for their respective former committees raised issues on the appointment of both members and Chairs, since it was apparent that both would if nominated to their previous committee have been likely to be re-elected to the chairs they had occupied in the previous Parliament. As a result the Parliamentary Labour Party agreed a procedure for Labour nominations of Chairs and select committee members to be agreed by their backbench Parliamentary Committee.

68. In March 2000 the Liaison Committee proposed that nominations in a new Parliament would be made by a body of three senior Members selected for that purpose, who would invite applications and after a fortnight put suggested names to the House. Replacements would be the responsibility of the Liaison Committee.[21] In July 2000 the Government gave an unfavourable response, noting the desirability of ensuring a balance not just of party on each committee but also of other categories; the difficulty in filling unpopular committees: and the need for intra-party negotiation.[22] In March 2001, with the end of the Parliament looming, the Liaison Committee returned to the issue.[23] But nothing was changed.

69. The matter was taken up by the Modernisation Committee in the new Parliament, chaired by the then Leader of the House, the late Robin Cook. In February 2002 it proposed in place of the Committee of Selection a Committee of Nomination, to be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker) and comprising a number of senior backbenchers. Parties would have made propositions to it as to the Committee of Selection, but the Committee would have been able to hear appeals from excluded Members.[24] On 14 May 2002 the proposal was narrowly defeated in the House.

Strengths of current system

70. The system as it has grown up over not just the past 30 years but over several centuries has some strengths which need to be acknowledged in contemplating change:

  • membership is subject to approval by the House, and if necessary debate, which the events of 2001 demonstrated is not a mere formality: in many parliaments the parties' propositions require no endorsement;
  • not only is party balance within each committee assured by the system, but also a balance of gender, experience, region and so on can potentially be managed;
  • the distribution of chairs between the parties ensures that opposition parties have a fair share of chairs, and that on a few specific committees there is an Opposition Chair: this is a feature of the Westminster system which is widely admired overseas;
  • the power of committee members to choose the Chair, although perhaps insufficiently exercised in practice, means that Chairs enjoy to some measure the confidence of their colleagues: and committees also have the power to remove a Chair;
  • all committees have a full or almost full complement of members, including those committees where service is plainly a duty that needs to be done on behalf of the House.


71. But there are strong feelings that the system should be reformed, in accordance with the principles we have enunciated above.

72. It should be for the House and not for the Executive to choose which of its Members should scrutinise the Executive: the House should also have a strong if not decisive influence on the identity of the Chair. It is unacceptable that the power of the whips has on some occasions in the past been used to keep off select committees those members of their own party who are seen as unsound or too critical - the "mavericks". Every Member has the right to be considered for membership of a select committee. It is also unacceptable that the whips can in effect offer chairs as a reward or "consolation prize" to former Ministers, and that favoured candidates are parachuted into committees when a vacancy occurs. There is a general perception that the party whips have too great an influence on the choice of Chair; that Members' chances to serve on a committee at the start of a Parliament may be subject to an understanding as to whom they will support for the chair; and that even after appointment to a committee Members are not robust enough in choosing their preferred candidate for the chair in the face of party discipline.

73. The system by which parties select names to put forward to the Committee of Selection, and by which the whips divide up chairs between the parties, is very far from transparent. While on occasions the internal selection procedures of the parliamentary parties have been discussed or revealed, they remain a mystery to many within Westminster as well as to those outside. The criteria for selection are unknown. It may sometimes be that selection has more to do with a record of past or expectation of future service, and proven loyalty, than evidence of interest or expertise in a particular departmental or other area. It is also not clear how particular individuals emerge as Chairs of committees.

74. The credibility of select committees could be enhanced by a greater and more visible element of democracy in the election of members and Chairs. Cross-party working is the basis of the success of select committees. That has been achieved under the current system of appointment. But the sense that a committee membership place is merely a form of party patronage—albeit formally endorsed by the House—may adversely affect Members' sense of duty to attend meetings. There is a danger that appointment to a salaried select committee chair if it remains largely controlled and influenced by the whips might on occasion be less and "alternative career path" and more of an extension of the massive patronage that already exists through the appointment of ministers. Their election by a small group of Members, acting under party constraints, is evidently not conducive to producing a truly independent figure with the required weight inside and outside the House which House-wide election might confer.

D A reformed system

In this section we examine the options for change and make proposals for a reformed system.


75. Before contemplating the range of options for change, we set out three structural assumptions we have made.

  • Party balance on each committee: we are satisfied that the maintenance in a select committee of a party balance broadly proportionate to the balance in the Chamber is necessary and beneficial to the operation of select committees.
  • Distribution of chairs between parties: we consider that it is a strong benefit of the present system that it offers a broadly proportionate number of chairs to non-majority party members.
  • Not all select committees need be treated in the same way: it is not essential that the same nomination system be applied to every committee and every chair: it may well be that different systems will suit different categories of committee, as is the case at present.


76. We identified three overall approaches and based on those a number of potentially acceptable options:

  • Maintaining the current system but with democratic safeguards: meaning transparent intra-party elections of select committee members by secret ballot conducted under the auspices of the House authorities, and a secret ballot within the committee for election of a Chair from a party openly identified in advance.
  • Creation of a "selectorate" committee of senior members to whom application for a select committee place could be made, who would present their proposals to the House, based on Members' "expertise" and demonstrable interest in the committee's subject area.
  • Election by secret ballot of the House of members of select committees and/or of Chairs.

77. Having examined the three overall approaches we ruled out the use of a "selectorate" system whereby committee members would be selected by a cross-party committee of senior Members. Whatever its advantages, we do not think it meets the current mood of the House.

78. We then gave detailed consideration to four feasible options for election of members and Chairs of select committees. We list them in an Annex to this chapter, together with some of the relevant considerations we bore in mind in looking at each of them.

A reformed system: conclusion

79. There is no perfect system and no single right answer. There are advantages and disadvantages in all arrangements. But what we propose has clear benefits. In reaching a recommendation to put to the House we have borne in mind a number of factors, including—

  • the principles enunciated in chapter 2 of democratising the House's internal processes and making them more transparent;
  • the desirability of removing the influence of party whips from the process, while ensuring the maintenance of party balance on committees and a fair division of chairs;
  • the timing of appointments at the start of a new Parliament, when it is likely that there will be a large number of new Members who will be unknown to most of their colleagues, in particular those of parties not their own, and who in turn will know few colleagues;
  • the need to avoid undue complexity and unintended consequences.

80. We recommend an initial system of election by the whole House of Chairs of departmental and similar select committees, and thereafter the election by secret ballot of members of those committees by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House, and using transparent and democratic means. The committees within this system should be those appointed under SO No 152 [the departmental select committees] together with the Environmental Audit Committee, the Public Administration Committee and the Committee of Public Accounts. We have concluded that of the four options we considered this is the system most likely to demonstrate the determination of the House more effectively to hold the executive to account, to give more authority to the scrutiny function of Parliament and at the same time to preserve the effective functioning of select committees. We also believe that it is likely to command widespread support in the House as a major step forward, but short of more radical proposals. It should give a major boost to these select committees, help establish the position of their Chairs, and increase the standing of their elected members. The review after two years which we recommend in paragraph 6 above would include examination of whether to extend this system to other select committees.


Distribution of chairs between parties

81. The House itself might decide how best to distribute chairs so as to ensure the outcome we are committed to of a spread between the parties. But the devices for doing this as part of the electoral process of individual Chairs would not commend themselves to the House. Ensuring a proportional balance would require re-distributing a number of chairs to Members who had stood for a chair and not won, and possibly not even come second, on the basis of complicated algorithms. It might be technically fair but it would not be seen as just by Members or others.

82. We have also considered a formalised system of distribution using a system whereby parties would choose a particular committee chairmanship in a systematic order determined in accordance with the distribution of seats in the House.[25] That is the system used, for example, in Northern Ireland. It has the benefits of transparency and simplicity. We recommend that the House return to examination of this and other options for distribution of the chairs when the rest of our recommendations and conclusions are reviewed two years into a new Parliament.

83. For the first running of a new system we recognise that the House may prefer to rely, as it has for many years, on the party managers coming to an agreement on distribution of chairs on the basis of established conventions. But we do recommend a greater degree of transparency. Immediately after the General Election, the Speaker would convey to the party leaders the number of chairs subject to whole-House election to which each party is to be entitled. The party leaders would then be obliged by Standing Order to report, within a week of the start of the session, to which party, but emphatically not to which individual, each select committee chair had been allocated. This would be put to the House for its approval.

Nomination of candidates

84. Candidates for each chair would have to be nominated within two weeks of the date of the House's agreement to the division of the chairs between the parties. So as to ensure that candidates enjoy at least a measure of support within their own party group, there should be a threshold requiring at least 10 per cent of members of that party, or 15 of its members, whichever was the lower, to indicate support for that and no other candidate. Candidates would also be free to seek nominations from those in other parties and have them published, up to a certain number. Those who had already served two Parliaments or eight years as Chairs would be unable to stand by virtue of Standing Order No 122A. We envisage that those who put themselves forward for select committee chairs would be likely to publish some sort of manifesto and that hustings of some sort might well be organised.

Election of Chairs

85. Election of Chairs would be by written secret ballot. All Members of the House would be able to vote, but we consider that Ministers and the principal front-bench Opposition spokesmen should voluntarily abstain from casting their votes for the Chairs of the departmental committee related to their responsibilities. If there were more than two candidates, voting would be by alternative vote, to eliminate the need for any subsequent ballots. If there was only one candidate for a particular chair—and that may well happen—then that candidate would be elected without a ballot.

Chair's term of office

86. A Chair elected by the House would remain in office for the Parliament. A Chair who wished for whatever reason to step down from an office now to be conferred by the House would formally notify the Clerk of the House, and a by-election would be held, on the same terms and conditions as the original election. It will also be necessary to provide for the situation, should it ever arise, of a Committee where the members altogether lose confidence in the elected Chair. It would be open to a Committee, subject to a qualified cross-party majority of its members, and with due notice, to make a special report to the House and thereby trigger a fresh election.


Election within party groups

87. We propose that in the new Parliament members of departmental and similar select committees should be elected by secret ballot within party groups, by transparent and democratic processes, with the outcome reported to and endorsed by the House. This has the advantage of ensuring that all members have a fair chance to serve on such a select committee, subject to sufficient support from their colleagues and that committees reflect party proportions in the House whilst maintaining an electoral system that is relatively easy to operate and understand.

88. Party groups would in effect be acting on behalf of the House as electoral colleges. They would therefore expect to act under some constraints as to the methods used to elect committee members. We do not think it necessary that the House should interfere so far as to lay down one particular method of election rather than another. But the method chosen should be one approved by the Speaker, following independent advice, as transparent and democratic: "kite-marked" as legitimate in effect. Officers nominated by the Speaker would be obliged to assure themselves that the processes followed by each party, as notified by its Leader, were indeed in accordance with these norms. And each party would be obliged to publish the method it had adopted.

89. This will leave the parties a considerable freedom to organise the elections in accordance with their preferences. For example, they may wish or not to provide for a degree of gender or regional or other balance, such as of more or less experienced members. While it is axiomatic that a Member should serve on only one departmental or similar select committee, it would be open to each party to make the arrangements to produce that result, so long as it was patently fair.

Process of election and term of office

90. At the same time as conveying the number of relevant chairs to which each party is to be entitled, as set out in para 83 above, the Speaker would convey to each party leader the appropriate proportions for committees of various sizes. Parties would be obliged to hold ballots for departmental and similar select committee memberships after the conclusion of elections of Chairs of those committees and to complete the process within two weeks of those elections. The resultant names should then be forwarded to the House for endorsement as at present. A Member who wished to resign from a departmental or similar select committee would give formal notice to the Clerk of the House, and the party would be obliged to hold a by-election within a set time period, after which the procedure as in para 87 above would be followed.

Smaller parties etc

91. There are of course a number of detailed issues requiring resolution. The smallest parties are entitled to representation on committees in accordance with their numbers: and that should not be restricted to the committees scrutinising the nations of the United Kingdom. If merely added to a handful the proportions may be skewed. Similarly, there must be sufficient flexibility to allow independent Members some opportunity to serve on a select committee. We propose that the Speaker be empowered to nominate one member to a particular committee so that minority parties or viewpoints can be fairly represented; and also that larger parties should remain free to "donate" one of the places to which they are entitled to a smaller party.

92. There may be occasions where parties do not have enough candidates for places on some committees. That is a problem at present. Where that is the case, parties should as now be under an understood obligation to find volunteers without requiring a ballot.

Work of committees

93. Select committees have rightly won respect for the work they do and they are being asked to take on an increasing number of tasks on behalf of the House. As a result committee members find it increasingly difficult to devote time to select committee work as well as all their other duties. We consider that the Liaison Committee should re-examine the current role of select committees, their resources and their tasks, and in particular how to deal with the increasing demands of time made of Members as their role grows.

E. Conclusion

94. There are a number of ways in which select committees can be strengthened. We have proposed smaller committees and thus greater competition for places on them among Members which we hope will in turn generate a greater sense of ownership and will lead to higher levels of attendance and participation. The direct election by the House of Chairs of departmental and similar select committees will raise their profile and that of their committees, at Westminster and outside, and help ensure that their work gets the results it merits. We believe that the changes we recommend, modest as they may seem, will be a boost to the whole select committee system.

8   Liaison Committee, Independence or Control? The Government's reply to the Committee's First Report of Session 1999-2000, HC 748, para 28 Back

9   HC Deb, 2 July 2009, col 496 Back

10   Procedure Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2008-09, Election of the Deputy Speakers: Principles , HC 1080. It had reported on the subject in 2002, Second Report of 2001-02, HC 770, Appointment of Deputy Speakers Back

11   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of the Committees in 2007-08, HC 291, Annex 3, p 60 Back

12   The exceptions are the Liaison, Selection and Standards and Privileges Committees. The Liaison Committee comprises ex officio the Chairs of specified committees. For the nomination of the Committee of Selection, see below. Back

13   House of Commons in the Eighteenth Century, P D G Thomas (Clarendon Press, 1971) p 267 Back

14   Procedure Committee, First Report of 1977-78, HC 588-I, para 6.19 Back

15   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2008-09, The Work of Committees in 2007-08, HC 291, paras 78-81 Back

16   Ibid., page 60, Annex 3 Back

17   See eg debate on establishment of the new Energy and Climate Change Committee, HC Deb, 28 October 2008, cols 851 ff  Back

18   Governance of Britain, Cm 7170 Back

19   Governance of Britain - Constitutional Renewal, Cm 7342 Back

20   Modernisation Committee, First Report of Session 2001-02, Select Committees, HC 224-I, para 3.22 Back

21   Liaison Committee, First Report of 1999-2000, Shifting the Balance, HC 300 Back

22   Liaison Committee, Independence or Control? The Government's reply to the Committee's First Report of Session 1999-2000, HC 478 Back

23   Liaison Committee, First Report of Session 2000-01, Shifting the Balance: Unfinished Business, HC 21 Back

24   Modernisation Committee, First Report of Session 2001-02, Select Committees, HC 224 Back

25   This is known as a modified d'Hondt system. See eg Ev5 [ John Hemming MP]  Back

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