Revisiting Rebuilding the House: the impact of the Wright reforms - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

2  Select Committees

8.  The Wright Committee recommended a number of changes to the way the membership of select committees was decided, including most notably "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."[3]

9.   Dr Meg Russell considered that the elections for the Backbench Business Committee and other select committees at the start of the current Parliament, the first of their kind, had helped to create "a kind of vibrancy and sense of an outbreak of democracy happening in the Commons."[4] More recent progress on select committees was reviewed by the Liaison Committee of chairs of select committees, which in November 2012 reported on their effectiveness, resources and powers.[5] Among other things, the Liaison Committee concluded that select committees had been successful in influencing Government. That Committee also made a number of recommendations for enhancing the resources made available to committees and for improving the effectiveness with which those resources were used. The Report also made a number of recommendations aimed at clarifying the constitutional relationship between Government and select committees, particularly in relation to the so-called 'Osmotherly' rules which guide departments in their dealings with select committees. The Liaison Committee recommended that the Government should "engage with us in a review of the relationship between Government and select committees with the aim of producing joint guidelines for departments and committees, which recognise ministerial accountability, the proper role of the Civil Service and the legitimate wish of Parliament for more effective accountability."[6] The Liaison Committee also called for more substantive motions in debates in Westminster Hall on select committee reports.[7]

10.  The Government responded by saying that it was currently looking at the principles governing accountability following publication of the Civil Service Reform Plan including a review of the Osmotherly rules, and that it was keen to work with the Liaison Committee as the Government carried out the review. However, the Government rejected the Committee's recommendation for more substantive debates on select committee reports, stating that the House of Commons Chamber, not Westminster Hall, was "the proper place for debates on contentious issues".[8]

11.  In our inquiry, we took evidence on some but not all of these issues. There was broad agreement among our witnesses that the changes to select committees recommended by Wright have had a very positive impact. The Shadow Leader of the House, Angela Eagle MP, told us that "Select Committees are playing an increasingly prominent role and this is to be welcomed."[9] Dr Meg Russell, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at University College London, said: "The select committee reforms ... involved all members of the 2010 parliament—old and new—in taking key decisions about the running of their institution, which must be good for morale, transparency, and democracy."[10]

12.  Many witnesses considered that the introduction of election for committee members and chairs had been particularly important in reinforcing their credibility and authority; Professor Wright told us that "I think some huge gains have come out of the changes to the Select Committee system—the authority, legitimacy"[11] and that: "There are key Committees that are being led in a different way now because of the fact of election."[12] Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Chair of the Liaison Committee, told us that "the key aspect of the Wright proposals that has strengthened the position of Select Committees has been the election of Chairs by the House as a whole and the election of members of the Committees within their parties." This, he said, had had "indirect as well as direct effects on the self-confidence of Committees."[13]

13.  There is also clear evidence that these more self-confident select committees have increased their media impact in recent years, and especially since the changes implemented as a result of Wright. Professor Patrick Dunleavy, Co-Director of Democratic Audit, revealed the results of research into press coverage. He told us that there had been "a substantial growth in the overall [press] mentions of Commons committees across the five years. Setting 2008 levels at 100, then total mentions and one average indicator (the mean) both increased to 330 by 2012, while a further average (the median) grew to 274."[14] The research suggested that "much of the total increase in mentions has taken place in four exceptionally prominent committees": Culture, Media and Sport, Home Affairs, Public Accounts and Treasury. However the trend was broad-based, with press coverage of a further seven committees increasing significantly.

14.  We heard evidence that select committees' higher public profile and apparently growing confidence have had an effect on the everyday work of committee chairs. Louise Ellman MP, Chair of the Transport Committee, told us:

aside from the public-facing aspects of my work as committee chair I undertake a wide variety of meetings and engagements on transport issues which are not in the public domain. These include speeches at conferences and participation in seminars. Outreach work of this sort has increased significantly since 2010, reflecting the increased standing of the select committee.[15]

Sir Alan Beith agreed that the burden on chairs was increasing as their credibility grew: this effect had "added to the demands and expectations on Chairs to represent their committees in the media and by meeting stakeholders and attending events."[16]


15.   There are many approaches to select committee work, and the evidence we heard suggested that committees have performed well on a number of fronts. The importance of robustness and forensic rigour in investigation of departmental or government failings or scandal was underlined by Professor Wright, who told us that there had been "frustration" among Members when he was in the House before 2010 that "Parliament could not set up its own commission of inquiry. We had to bleat all the time about 'Why isn't the Government setting up an inquiry?'"[17] Our evidence suggests that there is now a greater willingness on the part of some select committees to undertake such forensic inquiries. According to Professor Dunleavy, some select committees were taking on "very major investigative tasks that in the past might have been wholly contracted out by the Executive to a judge or inquiry or whatever".[18] He observed that Parliament had been prominent since the Wright Committee reforms "in areas like pressgate, the media scandal in the conduct of the banks and the way in which the taxpayer ended up with a huge liability, and in home affairs after the London riots".[19] We heard evidence that the series of investigations by the Public Accounts Committee into tax avoidance by major corporations and by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee into the behaviour of the media showed a determination to persist with areas of inquiry, if necessary over many months.

16.  However, there is also a role for more reflective inquiries with a longer-term focus, for instance in examining the formulation and implementation of policy proposals in some detail. The Liaison Committee report of November 2012 concluded that committees "should be proactive and forward-looking—and devote less effort to raking over the coals of past events unless there are lessons to be learnt and changes to be recommended."[20] Andrew Tyrie MP, Chair of the Treasury Committee and of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, emphasised these broader aspects of the role of committees, saying that he saw select committees as "increasing the effectiveness of Parliament in its core tasks. They are requiring the Government to explain its proposals and justify its actions in unprecedented detail."[21] Mr Tyrie said that select committees "are also the only realistic means by which Parliament can hope to hold the wider 'quango state' to account."[22]

Better links between the Chamber and Committees

17.  The Wright Report called for select committees to be given "greater access to the agenda" of the Chamber.[23] There has been progress on this front since 2010. Sir Alan Beith welcomed the initiative of the Backbench Business Committee in providing more outlets for the work of select committees. He told us:

The creation of more time, and different opportunities for select committees to bring issues to the floor of the House, such as launching of reports and inquiries or debate on substantive motions relating to select committee work, has given committees more exposure and connected their work more closely with the wider House.[24]

18.  Committees sometimes propose votable motions in the Chamber. Clive Betts MP, Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, recognising that "it would not be possible necessarily to put forward all the recommendations of Select Committee reports—there can be quite a lot of them-for voting en bloc", suggested that this could happen more often , with committees identifying "two or three key recommendations." Mr Betts said that "If the Government do not address those in their response then those are the ones that we pick out for debate and maybe a vote."[25] We note that the Wright report itself contained just such a draft Resolution as its Annex, although it was sadly never put to the House.[26]

19.  However the idea of statements by chairs on the publication of select committee reports is taking time to find its feet. Sir Alan Beith told us of his attempts to improve the procedure, and in particular to remove the element of "artificiality" involved in the current procedure in which the chair simply makes a speech and accepts interventions from other members. He observed that the concept of chair's statements "is a little bit slow getting off the ground; not many Committee Chairs have used it, partly because of some of the inflexibility in the arrangements." Nevertheless he called it "a good opportunity—sometimes more appropriate than a long debate—to get a statement noticed."[27]

20.  One way to strengthen the links between select committees and the Chamber would be to encourage more Chamber statements by committee chairs on the publication of committee reports, and we welcome the discussions currently taking place between the Backbench Business Committee and the Liaison Committee, aimed at improving the procedure for such statements.


21.  But there is no room for complacency about the achievements of select committees. For instance we heard suggestions that the introduction of elections had made little real difference to the diversity of committee membership. David T C Davies MP, Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, while welcoming the introduction of the system for electing select committee members in party groups, said that it had not done anything to promote the election of "Members who are prepared to challenge the mainstream view and raise issues that do not have widespread support across all the main parties, for example in relation to climate change or international development."[28]

22.  Despite recent advances, it was also clear from our evidence that select committees continue to face practical challenges which can limit their effectiveness. Mr Betts described the growing difficulties of finding sufficient members for committees:

As you go longer into a Parliament, you find that new Members who have come in and been on Select Committees then get given positions, so they come off, and bright people who have had positions and have lost them do not want to go on a Select Committee, so your constituency of possible Select Committee members starts to diminish.

Instead of organising contested elections for committee places, Whips increasingly spend their time "trying to find somebody who might be willing to go on a Committee where there is a vacancy."[29]

23.  Even when committees have their full complement, quorums can be difficult to maintain, according to Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Science and Technology Committee. Mr Miller said that the recent change in sitting times for example had "caused select committees to be put under even more pressure to find the time for quorate meetings during the compressed week ... I am constantly losing people to sit on Statutory Instruments [Committees] or who have other legitimate important engagements or who want to speak on some event on the floor of the House."[30]

24.  There have been clear advances in the effectiveness of Commons committees since 2010, but some issues remain and they must be addressed if the momentum for reform is to be maintained. There is no room for complacency about the success of select committees.

25.  For example, the demands on Members are now such that select committees sometimes find it hard to fill vacancies so that they can maintain their numbers and consequently their effectiveness. This could jeopardise the progress made by the committee system in recent years.

The size of committees and minority party representation

26.  We were presented with a particular dilemma about committee size. Sir Alan Beith told us that there had been strong support among the Chairs of Committees for the original Wright recommendations for smaller select committees.[31] However at the beginning of the current Parliament the House had faced real problems, "particularly ... with the incorporation of minority party members, because that led the larger parties to say, 'Oh well, if there is a Scottish Nationalist member, we will have to have another two members.' The other side would say, 'In that case, we will have to have another three members.'" There had for instance at that time been suggestions of an increase in the size of the Treasury Committee to up to 16, 17 or 18 members "to preserve a precise party balance that, frankly, is not relevant to how Select Committees operate."[32]

27.  Pete Wishart MP of the SNP described the Wright reforms as

an absolute disaster for the minority parties. What we have effectively got now with the Wright reforms is two constituencies: the Government and the Labour Opposition. There is no place for us at all practically in any of the structures of the new Committee procedures in the House of Commons ... We represent a huge constituency throughout the rest of the country and our voice is not heard in the Committees of the House.[33]

Mr Wishart argued that one of two options needed to be taken to put things right. "There is no elegant way to do this, other than to increase the size of the Select Committees or to give us one of the places that are available on them and to upset the political balance."[34] The Wright Report explicitly recommended that "Members in individual cases can be added to specific committees to accommodate the legitimate demands of the smaller parties".[35] Wright also suggested, slightly against his general principles, 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."[36] We also note that there are in fact two DUP Members, and one each from the Alliance Party and the SDLP on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, one SNP member on the Scottish Affairs Committee and one on the Treasury Committee, one Plaid Cymru member on the Welsh Affairs Committee, one on the Justice Committee and one on the Science and Technology Committee, one DUP Member on the Defence and Arms Export Control Committees, one SDLP Member on the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and one Green Party Member on the Environmental Audit Committee.

28.  We believe that there is a case for some more representation for minority parties on select committees. This would involve either making committees larger or partly suspending the rules on party balance on select committees. In the spirit of the Wright Report, we prefer some loosening of the party balance rules to the unwieldy alternative of larger committees.

29.  We believe that a process could be put in place to fill vacancies on select committees with minority party Members. We therefore recommend that the House should consider again the Wright Committee proposal that the Speaker should be given the power to nominate a Member to a select committee so that minority parties or viewpoints can be fairly represented. This would also help to maintain the effectiveness of committees where vacancies have been left unfilled for considerable periods of time. An amendment to Standing Order No. 121 would be required.


30.  Several of our witnesses supported a greater role for select committees in pre-legislative scrutiny. The Shadow Leader of the House welcomed the Liaison Committee's recent suggestion that the relevant Commons select committee should have first choice as to whether they do pre-legislative scrutiny, rather than it being a decision of the Government (on whether to ask a select committee or refer it to a joint committee).[37] Ms Eagle also raised the question of whether the House, rather than the Government, should decide whether pre-legislative scrutiny should be undertaken at all.

31.  It is clear that some select committees are taking on a more active role in relation to legislation as it passes through the House. For example Andrew Tyrie MP outlined the "novel steps" taken by the Treasury Committee in scrutiny of the Financial Services Bill, which he described as "the biggest shake-up of financial regulation for more than a decade" as it went through Parliament in 2012: "First, the Committee tabled its own amendment at Report stage in the Commons. This produced a Government concession on the floor of the House." The Committee then published a Report containing its views on what was still needed to improve the Bill, to coincide with the introduction of the Bill in the Lords. Mr Tyrie continued, "The Committee's proposals formed the basis for much of the debate in the Lords and a series of Government amendments to the Bill gave effect to some of our most important recommendations. The Bill was improved as a result."[38]

32.  The situation in respect of public bill committees, which are specifically charged with legislative scrutiny, has changed very little since the Wright Committee observed in 2009 that "the arrangements for appointment of Members to public bill committees are markedly less transparent and democratic than those for select committees", and concluded 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".[39]

33.   Three years into the Parliament, as Dr Russell noted, "the membership of legislation committees in the Commons remains untouched."[40] The case was made to us that elections could provide an opportunity for those whose views differed from those of the majority of their party to serve on legislative committees. Dr Russell said that "While the legitimacy of the select committees has been enhanced by the more transparent and democratic means of their selection, the PBCs lag far behind ... This feeds suspicions that 'awkward' members are kept off the committees, and raises questions about their legitimacy."[41] A similar situation affects the membership of delegated legislation committees, according to Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, who called for "the principle of improved scrutiny" to be extended to such committees, with members being "invited to state where they have a particular interest so that they can comment on proposals more effectively."[42] While the Commons membership of joint committees on draft bills is at least the subject of a motion in the House, the arrangements for these committees are still not as democratic in form as those for most House of Commons select committees. Among reforms of Public Bill Committees advocated by the Hansard Society was a proposal for election of Public Bill Committee members, with the exception of those places reserved for the representatives of the Government and Opposition.[43] Similar recommendations were made by the Constitution Unit at University College London in June 2013.[44] The Procedure Committee began an inquiry into the constitution and membership of public bill committees in June 2013.

34.  Sir Alan Beith criticised the situation in respect of legislative and pre-legislative committees as an example of "the old 'usual channels' mentality" at work , observing that in addition "departmentally-related select committees are still too often bypassed in deciding on nominees for ad hoc committees to examine draft bills."[45] Sir Alan concluded: "There is some way to go before Wright is fully accepted in spirit as well as in letter."[46]

35.  We believe that pre-legislative scrutiny must in future be an integral and mandatory part of the process of consideration for every public bill. The only exceptions should be cases in which there is an accepted and pressing need for immediate legislation. This principle should be reflected in an amended or new Standing Order which should contains words similar to these: "No public bill shall be presented unless a) a draft of the bill has received pre-legislative scrutiny by a committee of the House or a joint committee of both Houses, or b) it has been certified by the Speaker as a bill that requires immediate scrutiny and pre-legislative scrutiny would be inexpedient."

36.  It is unacceptable that appointments to public bill committees and ad hoc committees on draft bills are not even approved by the House, and often ignore the claims of Members with specialised knowledge. As a minimum the House should be asked to endorse, and where it so wishes amend, the proposed membership of public bill committees. An amendment would be required to Standing Order No. 86. Ideally the membership should be elected for such committees on the same basis as for select committees. We welcome some of the ideas recently put forward by the Hansard Society, and await with interest the results of the Procedure Committee's current inquiry into public bill committees.

37.   Similar considerations apply to the Commons membership of joint committees on draft bills; we see no reason why elections should not be held for membership of these committees.

3   HC (2008-09) 1117, para 80  Back

4   Q 4 Back

5   Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers, HC 697 Back

6   Ibid para 115 Back

7   Ibid para 48 Back

8   Liaison Committee, Third Report 0f 2012-13, Select committee effectiveness, resources and powers: responses to the Committee's Second Report of Session 2012-13, HC 912 Back

9   Ev w10 Back

10   Ev w16 Back

11   Q 78 Back

12   Ibid Back

13   Q 194 Back

14   Ev w31 Back

15   Ev w24 Back

16   Ev w22 Back

17   Q 75 Back

18   Q 112 Back

19   Ibid  Back

20   HC (2012-13) 697, para 70 Back

21   Ev w24 Back

22   Ibid Back

23   HC (2008-09) 1117, para 191 Back

24   Ev w22 Back

25   Q 191 Back

26   HC (2008-09) 1117 Annex : draft Resolution Back

27   Q 200 Back

28   Ev w23 Back

29   Q 174 Back

30   Ev w22 Back

31   Q 207. The Wright Report recommendations were contained in HC (2008-09) 1117 para 55 Back

32   Q 207. See also Procedure Committee, Fifth Report of Session 2010-12, 2010 elections for positions in the House, HC 1573, paras 70 - 72 Back

33   Q 167 Back

34   Q 181 Back

35   HC (2008-09) 1117 para 55 Back

36   Ibid para 91 Back

37   Ev w11 Back

38   Ev w25 Back

39   HC (2008-09) 1117 para 60. Back

40   Ev w18  Back

41   Ibid Back

42   Ev w1 Back

43   Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, First Report of Session 2013-14, Ensuring standards in the quality of legislation, HC 85-II, Ev w18 Back

44   The Constitution Unit, Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation Committees into Line with Best Practice, June 2013, page 58 Back

45   Standing Order No.86 (2)states that "In nominating [Members to general committees including public bill committees] the Committee of Selection shall have regard to the qualifications of those Members nominated and to the composition of the House" Back

46   Ev w22 Back

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Prepared 18 July 2013