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
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."
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. 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
The Liaison Committee also called for more substantive motions
in debates in Westminster Hall on select committee reports.
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".
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."
Dr Meg Russell, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit at University
College London, said: "The select committee reforms ... involved
all members of the 2010 parliamentold and newin
taking key decisions about the running of their institution, which
must be good for morale, transparency, and democracy."
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 systemthe authority,
and that: "There are key Committees that are being led in
a different way now because of the fact of election."
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
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."
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.
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."
MORE ROBUST INVESTIGATIONS
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?'"
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".
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
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-lookingand
devote less effort to raking over the coals of past events unless
there are lessons to be learnt and changes to be recommended."
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."
Mr Tyrie said that select committees "are also the only realistic
means by which Parliament can hope to hold the wider 'quango state'
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.
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
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
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 reportsthere 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."
We note that the Wright report itself contained just such a draft
Resolution as its Annex, although it was sadly never put to the
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 opportunitysometimes
more appropriate than a long debateto get a statement noticed."
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
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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".
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."
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.
COMMITTEES AND LEGISLATION
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).
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."
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".
33. Three years into the Parliament, as Dr Russell
noted, "the membership of legislation committees in the Commons
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
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."
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.
Similar recommendations were made by the Constitution Unit at
University College London in June 2013.
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."
Sir Alan concluded: "There is some way to go before Wright
is fully accepted in spirit as well as in letter."
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
Q 4 Back
Liaison Committee, Second Report of Session 2012-13, Select
committee effectiveness, resources and powers, HC 697 Back
Ibid para 115 Back
Ibid para 48 Back
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
Ev w10 Back
Ev w16 Back
Q 78 Back
Q 194 Back
Ev w31 Back
Ev w24 Back
Ev w22 Back
Q 75 Back
Q 112 Back
HC (2012-13) 697, para 70 Back
Ev w24 Back
HC (2008-09) 1117, para 191 Back
Ev w22 Back
Q 191 Back
HC (2008-09) 1117 Annex : draft Resolution Back
Q 200 Back
Ev w23 Back
Q 174 Back
Ev w22 Back
Q 207. The Wright Report recommendations were contained in HC
(2008-09) 1117 para 55 Back
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
Q 167 Back
Q 181 Back
HC (2008-09) 1117 para 55 Back
Ibid para 91 Back
Ev w11 Back
Ev w25 Back
HC (2008-09) 1117 para 60. Back
Ev w18 Back
Ev w1 Back
Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, First Report of
Session 2013-14, Ensuring standards in the quality of legislation,
HC 85-II, Ev w18 Back
The Constitution Unit, Fitting the Bill: Bringing Commons Legislation
Committees into Line with Best Practice, June 2013, page
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
Ev w22 Back