The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system Contents


1.The House of Commons system of departmental select committees is celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year. Whilst there had been a long tradition of the House using committees to conduct scrutiny and perform other tasks on its behalf, the new departure in 1979 was for its committee system to mirror the major government departments, for the first time paving the way to systematic scrutiny by the Commons across the whole waterfront of government activity.1 Heralding the changes as he moved the motions for reform, the then Leader of the House Norman St John Stevas explained his hope that the new structure would:

Provide opportunity for closer examination of departmental policy and of the way in which ministers are discharging their understanding of the pressures and constraints under which … their departments have to work. It will bring about a closer relationship with Ministers themselves. It will also be an important contribution to greater openness in government of a kind that is in accord with our parliamentary arrangements and our constitutional tradition.2

2.The core work of select committees remains much as first set by the House to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the government department they mirror (and of its “associated public bodies”). They continue to take evidence from ministers, civil servants, experts, and others with expert knowledge or directly affected by the issue under consideration. They agree and publish reports (many more than in the early years) in which they draw conclusions and make recommendations. But this fails to capture the full scope of their activity today.

3.Over the last forty years the range and number of the House’s select committees has grown. The great grandparent of the committee system, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), predates the 1979 reforms by over a century and still stands at the centre of the House’s control of public expenditure. The National Audit Act 1983 (which also owes much to Norman St John Stevas) brought the Exchequer and Audit department under the aegis of the House in the shape of the National Audit Office (NAO) and, by giving it the duty to look at effectiveness, efficiency and economy in the use of public money, has greatly increased the scope and impact of the PAC’s work. Increasingly, the NAO has worked with other committees of the House, to great mutual benefit. Other cross-cutting committees have been added to the mix: the Science and Technology Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights and, most recently, the Women and Equalities Committee. The number of departmental select committees has fluctuated along with the number of government departments—in 2016, the temporary Committee on Exiting the European Union was added (the European Scrutiny Committee continues and predates the 1979 reforms), as well as the International Trade Committee. Another recent newcomer to the fold is the Petitions Committee—a reform which, proposed by the Procedure Committee, came into existence in 2015 and which has been at the heart of a whole new form of citizen engagement with Parliament through the e-petitions system. It is the most striking example of how the digital revolution has changed and continues to change the way the House connects with the people who elect its Members.

4.The Liaison Committee—the committee comprising the Chairs of all the House’s select committees—was formally established as part of the 1979 reforms. It now comprises 36 members.3 Its primary task is to “consider general matters relating to the work of select committees” and to advise the House of Commons Commission on their resourcing.4 Over its existence it has acted as a champion of the select committees within the House, producing reports on ways in which the scrutiny function can be enhanced. We hope this report will be a significant contribution to that series. When announcing our inquiry we asked for views on what select committees should aim to achieve, and whether they focus on the right things. We wanted examples of effective scrutiny which should be more widely shared. We asked which reports have had the biggest impact and why.

5.What we heard highlighted the extraordinary scale and range of the work of select committees. Committees have interpreted their own remit in increasingly adventurous and bold ways, seeking to move with the times but nevertheless constrained by the wider system in which they sit. A wider range of individuals and organisations are being held to account by them on behalf of the House and, more importantly, the electorate. Committees are increasingly active beyond the Corridors of Westminster, and they engage in a continuing dialogue with many more individuals and organisations: ministers; experts; professionals and practitioners; the organs of civil society including charities, think tanks, campaigning groups, trades unions and trade associations. Increasingly, they seek to hear from people going about their daily lives who are directly affected by the actions and policies of government and its agencies or by others who exercise power over the lives of citizens; and such lived experience is drawn from here in the UK and across the world. Importantly, increasingly they seek to be agents of change, not just observers and critics.

6.Select committees can be supple and adaptable, and since 1979 have made good use of the freedom to innovate and engage that their relatively non-rule-bound nature allows. The predominant theme of this report is to recognise and celebrate that urge to innovation and that instinct for adaptation. We aim to clear away unnecessary constraints and to further enable the committees to work with and learn from each other. But committees need to use their resources wisely and work in partnership with the many others who are engaged, one way or another, with holding those in power to account, looking for the truth of a matter, or in seeking solutions to some of the more intractable problems we confront in the UK and internationally.

7.Our ideas, conclusions and recommendations are intended to maximise the opportunities for these committees, rather than to be prescriptive, and to enable the sharing of the best practice and innovation that the committees have already generated for themselves.

8.Over forty years the committees have become one of the most recognisable features of the House in the media. They can also show a more positive side to Parliament. Select committees are at their best when Members are encouraged and enabled to leave narrow Party interests at the door and to work in a more collaborative and evidence-led manner. There is always room to do things better. This report seeks to build on existing achievements, reflect on what could be done better on behalf of the public, and to urge the committees to continue to innovate.

1 Select Committee on Procedure, First Report, 17 July 1978, HC 588–1 1977–78

2 HC Deb, 25 June 1979, col 48

3 Orders of the House of 10 September 2015, 11 October 2016 and 6 November 2017.

4 Standing Order No. 145.

Published: 9 September 2019