231.The success of a select committee depends on the Members who serve on it, and on the leadership of the chair. Chairs and Members may take different approaches to their roles, but without them the committee is nothing. Commitment, an ability to leave tribal Party politics at the door and constructive, evidence-led joint working are what makes select committees work at their best. The fact that committees are composed of elected representatives from across the range of opinion in the House is their unique and most important characteristic, which is the foundation of the authority they enjoy.
232.The way in which chairs and members of select committees are chosen has at times during their history been a matter of some controversy. At the outset of the departmental select committee system in 1979, membership was largely a matter for the party whips. At the beginning of a new parliament, motions for the entire membership of each committee were tabled by the chairman of the Committee of Selection. In practice the Committee nominated members based on lists supplied by the whips. The mechanisms by which these lists were produced was not transparent, and varied by party. The motions were in theory all amendable and debatable, but in practice debate was rare. Chairs were elected from amongst the membership of the committee, usually to a set plan agreed by the Usual Channels.
233.The selection of chairs and members of the majority of committees changed in 2010 as a result of the recommendations of the Wright Committee. The Committee had successfully argued in favour of direct election of the majority of select committee chairs, and thereafter the agreement by the House of the remainder of committee members on the basis of lists agreed within parties by “transparent and democratic means”. The changes were to apply to the departmental select committees, together with the Public Accounts Committee, the Environmental Audit Committee, and the Public Administration Select Committee.
234.Over time, the election of select committee chairs has been extended. Not only does it apply to those committees as recommended by the Wright Committee, but now extends to the Exiting the European Union Committee; the Petitions Committee; the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee; the Committee of Public Accounts; the Procedure Committee; and the Committee on Standards. In addition, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected each Session in accordance with Standing Order No. 122D.
235.These elections have been a success on several counts. First, elections for chairs have generally been contested. Although the numbers of those contested fell in 2017, compared to 2015, this is explained by the short length of the 2015 Parliament.
236.Second, there is evidence that gender diversity amongst chairs has been improved as a result of the introduction of elections. Evidence from Dr Goodwin and Dr Bates noted that “since the introduction of chair elections the likelihood of a select committee chair being female has increased”. However, they point out that there has been a persistence of the idea of “male and female portfolios”, demonstrated by the fact that there has still been no female chair candidate for the Defence, Northern Ireland or Foreign Affairs committees and only one for the Treasury Committee. In the same period 11 women stood for the chairs of the disproportionately female Education, Health, and Work and Pensions committees.
237.Third, there is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that elections have led to more confident committees, with an increasing willingness to innovate and push the boundaries. Credibility and legitimacy are difficult to measure, but we recognise it when we assess the decisions we make and our experiences as elected chairs. It is important that party whips do not seek to circumvent this by discouraging Members from putting themselves forward for election so that they can restrict the choice available.
238.Not everyone agrees that elected chairs are more independently-minded. Dr Bates and Dr Goodwin said that there was weak evidence for this. However, we agree with the Institute for Government, that “it would enhance the credibility of the committee system to adopt whole House elections for all committee chairs”.
240.As for the intra-party election of members of select committees, we also believe this has been a step forward for the House. It is fair to acknowledge that some committees’ places are not as sought after as others and that when Members indicate their wish to come off a committee the whips are not always able to accommodate this quickly due to a lack of interest in the vacancy. However, as chairs we are aware that those members who do wish to be on and engaged in committee work make a real difference to a committee. The fault is not so much with Members, who may have requested to their whip to be removed from a committee they feel they cannot prioritise, but with a system that cannot let a member leave a committee unless a replacement can be found. We suggest that the Procedure Committee consider different options available for allowing Members to leave select committees part way through a Parliament.
Box 14: Elections to select committee chairs
In 2010, of the 24 committee chair positions covered, no ballot was necessary for 8 committees for which a single nomination was been received. A total of 590 ballot papers were submitted.
In 2015, of the 26 chair positions covered by the provisions for elections, 15 positions were contested. 6 of these had four or more candidates stand for election. A total of 621 ballot papers were submitted.
In 2017, in total, 54 nominations were received for 27 select committees. Eleven chair positions were contested through elections. No election was necessary for seventeen committees for which a single nomination was received. In total, 587 ballots were cast.
241.There are very few rules set by the House over who is eligible to sit on, and chair, committees. There are term limits for chairs (SO No. 22 states that no select committee may have as its chair any Member who has served as a chair of that committee for the previous two Parliaments or a period of eight years, whichever is the greater—currently extended temporarily to ten years and under review by the Procedure Committee). The party balance for both chairs and members of committees is set at the start of the Parliament. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee must, by Standing Order, come from the Official Opposition. The other allocations are through the Usual Channels. That balance should also account for the overall numbers elected as independent Members at the start of a Parliament.
242.It is generally held that for the larger parties, front bench spokespeople should not hold positions on select committees. The House’s Standing Orders defines those who are eligible to sit on the Backbench Business Committee by exclusion:
No Member who is a Minister of the Crown or parliamentary private secretary or principal opposition front-bench spokesperson shall be eligible to be the chair or a member of the committee: the Speaker’s decision shall be final on such matters.
243.The Government’s Ministerial Code does not forbid PPSs from being members of the departmental select committee however it states that PPSs should “withdraw from any involvement with inquiries into their appointed Minister’s department”. The interpretation of the Ministerial Code, and whether it has been broken, is a matter for the Prime Minister.
244.In this Parliament, there have been several instances of PPSs sitting on select committees including, in some cases, those scrutinising the government department of their appointing minister. Whilst we recognise that it can be difficult to fill places on all committees, and that this can be a particular issue for those committees that seek membership from particular nations of the UK, it is far from ideal. Where vacancies are unfilled according to party quotas, there is a case for allowing applications from independent Members.
245.The Institute for Government has suggested that the eligibility of Members to serve on committees might be clarified by a resolution of the House. We suggest that eligibility to sit on select committees should be determined by extending the application of the provision of those eligible to sit on the Backbench Business Committee to all select committees. We are unconvinced in this context that reserving a place for a Minister on each of the Public Accounts Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee is any longer a necessity, nearly forty years after the Exchequer & Audit Department was removed from Treasury control and the National Audit Office created.
246.At present, there is just one restriction on the gender balance of select committees: the European Statutory Instruments Committee, has a requirement of gender balance in its Standing Orders. Of the Committee’s 16 members, at least seven must be women and at least seven must be men.
247.Generally, the proportion of places held by women on select committees has been higher than the proportion of women in the House. Female MPs now occupy 12 of the 36 chairs which is proportionate to their strength in the House as a whole. However, Goodwin and Bates explained that, “select committee membership still has serious problems with gender diversity”. Some committees have not benefited from the rising proportion of female members in Parliament and remain male dominated.
248.Gender balance on select committees matters. Select committees are a highly visible part of parliamentary life. Moreover, we heard in evidence that female witnesses describe feeling uncomfortable giving evidence to committees comprised solely or mainly of men. Professor Emma Crewe and Dr Ayeesha Saddiqi noted that “Having only one woman on the International Development Committee will shock overseas witnesses or at the least fail to inspire confidence”. We agree with them that political parties need to ensure that reasonable diversity, at least on grounds of gender and ethnicity, is achieved on all select committees.
249.Whilst it was generally thought that there should be greater efforts to increase the gender balance of committees, there was some warning against greater use of quotas. The Institute for Government explained, “while greater gender balance among committee members would be welcome, achieving this by mandating more balanced committees might have unintended consequences. For example, as women comprise just under a third of all Members in the Commons, and as ministers cannot sit on committees (except ex-officio in some particular cases such as the Environmental Audit Committee), it is possible that mandating greater gender balance on committees could limit women MPs’ ability to seek ministerial office”.
250.We believe that gender representation on committees is important enough to require positive action. We suggest that the Procedure Committee should report on how quotas might be used so as to require a minimum of three Members of every select committee to be male, and a minimum of three female following the initial ballot.
251.The length of time taken to establish select committees has been a matter of concern for some time. It is noteworthy that early proposals to change the system for nomination of members were driven as much by frustrations with the length of time it took for committees to be established. Dr White told us that “I think the original rationale for not electing them was that it was really important they be set up quickly after an election, and there wasn’t time to wait for elections. They were among the last to be set up; the European Scrutiny Committee, for example—which, as Ruth has said, had an important role at that moment—was one of the last to be set up, and then of course that delayed the Liaison Committee”. Indeed, due to the timing of the 2017 election and the tardiness in making nominations, the first meetings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and of the European Scrutiny Committee did not take place until 1 November 2017. The first formal meeting of the Liaison Committee, and the election of our Chair, could therefore not take place until 17 November, nearly 7 months after our last meeting of the 2015–17 Parliament.
252.We repeat here the recommendation of the Wright Committee but extend this from the principal committees to all committees: “that select committees should be nominated within no more than six weeks of the Queen’s Speech”. We further recommend that the Liaison Committee should be enabled to sit with an interim chair pending the formal constitution of all committees once the majority have been elected. It is not acceptable that scrutiny of the Prime Minister should be unduly delayed.
253.Membership of a select committee implicitly involves a commitment to play a full part in its work and to contribute to the committee’s effectiveness. Part of that commitment involves attending committee meetings. We discuss below the present expectations as to Members’ attendance, and also how Members with good reasons for absence should be recorded so as to minimise any unfair criticism they may attract for reduced attendance.
254.A resolution of the House of 4 March 2010 relating to Members’ attendance records, following the recommendations of the Wright Committee of 2008–10, directed that:
… where the attendance of any member of a select committee in any Session is below 60 percent. of the Committee’s formal meetings, at the end of that Session the Speaker may invite the Chairman of the Committee of Selection to propose to the House that any such Member should be discharged and that an election to fill that vacancy should be held within two weeks of the beginning of the next Session.
255.In 2012 the Liaison Committee, noting both the lack of clarity about the process and the fact that there might on occasion be good reasons for low attendance, such as other parliamentary commitments or personal circumstances, recommended how the 60% attendance requirement should be implemented in practice:
Each chair should discuss with the Chair of the Liaison Committee any examples of poor attendance in his or her committee and any extenuating circumstances. Such a discussion would cover personal circumstances or meetings clashing with other commitments. It would also include cases where members have asked to come off a committee because they are, for instance, now a PPS, but the party has not designated a replacement. It would then be open to either the chair of the committee or the Chair of the Liaison Committee to notify the Speaker and the Chair of the Committee of Selection that the rule ought to be invoked in that case. It may not be necessary for the formal process to be invoked. In any event, both we and the Committee of Selection are likely to pay attention to attendance records and some turnover of membership is likely.
256.While the 60% rule still serves a role by setting a minimum expected level of attendance, it is a crude yardstick and does not allow flexibility for the different ways that committees work. For example, the Committee of Public Accounts has a higher membership (16) than most committees, and meets at least twice a week. It also has a system of ‘lead Members’, whereby two or three committee Members lead on a particular inquiry and ask the majority of questions. The counterpart to this approach is that there is less for the other Member to contribute, and the Chair of the PAC told us:
The 60% attendance rule is useful to encourage Members to attend meetings but it is more important for the PAC that the Members in the evidence session are well-briefed and engaged in the subject matter.
257.There is no record of a Member having been removed from a select committee based on a failure to meet the 60% attendance threshold. However, the 60% rule has continuing value as a declaration of the general expectation of the House as to Members’ attendance at select committees, and we continue to endorse the view of the Liaison Committee in 2012 as to how it should work in practice, with the chair in question consulting with the Chair of the Liaison Committee and taking all factors into account before deciding whether to take further action.
258.On 28 January 2019 the House of Commons approved proposals from the Procedure Committee and introduced a proxy voting system for Members absent from the House by reason of childbirth or care of an infant or newly adopted child (“parental leave”).
259.By its introduction of a scheme for proxy voting for parental leave, the House has given implicit recognition to the concept of recognised absence from proceedings for such leave. The House’s published proceedings do not include an attendance list, and so the scheme does not directly provide for recording absence from proceedings—dealing instead only with exercise of a vote. Select committees, however, publish attendance lists for each meeting in their Formal Minutes, and also produce running tables of Members’ Sessional attendance.
260.However, there is not at present any formal means of recording the absence of Members of select committees during the period of such parental leave. Members absent from the House on parental leave and with an authorised proxy vote may therefore be unfairly criticised for a perceived poor select committee attendance record.
261.It would be possible for committees to recognise, in both their Formal Minutes and their attendance tables, the period for which a Member has a proxy vote under the House’s scheme. For the Formal Minutes of meetings during that period, text could be included under the current list of ‘Members present’ saying:
“[Member’s name] was on parental leave under the terms of the Resolution and Order of the House of 28 January 2019 and the Speaker’s certificate of [xx month 20xx].”
This entry would be repeated for any meetings taking place during the period covered by the Speaker’s Certificate. Strictly speaking, the scheme and the Certificate do not prevent attendance in the House (and may be suspended by the Member); so if the Member in question in fact attended a relevant committee meeting the entry would not be included in that meeting’s minutes.
262.A similar statement could appear on any published attendance table; this would indicate the full date range for the period of the Certificate.
263.We recommend that committees should from now on record in both their Formal Minutes and their attendance tables, in the manner set out in this Report, the periods for which any Member of the committee has a proxy vote under the House’s scheme agreed on 28 January 2019.
264.Parental leave is likely to leave committees with a membership gap for an extended period. As well as the loss of expertise from the loss of the Member, it may upset the political balance on the committee, particularly in a Parliament where party strengths on committees are closely balanced. There is therefore a case for the House temporarily substituting select committee Members absent on parental leave under the House’s proxy voting scheme. Such leave will generally be predictable, giving the Selection Committee time to seek a Member willing to serve temporarily. We recommend that the Selection Committee propose temporary substitutes for select committee Members on parental leave, replacing them with the original Members when they return from that leave.
265.In addition to parental leave, there are a number of other long term or recurrent reasons why Members may be unable to attend select committees, and for which it would not be fair for them to be criticised. These include such things as: long-term illnesses, family illnesses or caring responsibilities; other parliamentary commitments such as membership of other select committees meeting at the same time, or commitments in the chamber or at public bill, delegated legislation or other parliamentary committees; or with international parliamentary assemblies; or having indicated an intention to leave the committee without having been discharged by the House.
266.Recording such absences is not possible in the same way as with parental leave, because there is no clear House scheme or principle for committees to follow. Formal Minutes cannot record absences for particular reasons unless authorised by the House. If the House were in the future to recognise other categories of absence, then in principle it would be straightforward to extend the approach outlined above to these other situations.
267.However it would be possible now for the duration of, and reason for, long term or recurrent absences to be recorded on the committee’s published attendance tables. This would have to be on the basis that the Member concerned was content for the cause to be stated, and the committee chair was satisfied that it was a proper long term or recurring reason for absence. Such a record would also allow future queries about Members’ attendance to be answered.
268.In order to cover Members who did not wish to divulge, perhaps for personal reasons, the cause of their absence, the attendance table could also state in general terms that there are legitimate and unavoidable reasons for Members’ absence from committee meetings.
269.We recommend that committees record long term or recurrent reasons for absence, which the chair is satisfied are legitimate and which the member concerned is content to divulge, on published committee attendance tables.
Note: attendance rates at any particular committee will reflect other parliamentary commitments by Members, including membership of other select committees meeting at the same time or commitments in the Chamber or at public bill, delegated legislation or other parliamentary committees. Attendance rates can also be affected by such things as long-term illnesses, family illnesses or caring responsibilities. In some cases, a Member may have indicated an intention to leave the committee but has not yet been discharged by the House.
271.It can sometimes be the case that Members ask to leave a committee but there is a delay before a replacement is elected by that party. It is possible for the Selection Committee to table a Motion to discharge a Member without naming a replacement, however. We welcome the Selection Committee’s resolution at the beginning of this Parliament that “if no replacement is identified for a Member wishing to resign from a select committee within six weeks of the receipt by the Chair of the Selection Committee of a letter from the Member, the Committee shall table a motion to discharge the resigning Member, and shall table a motion to appoint a replacement once he or she has been elected by the political party concerned”. If no replacement is found within this timeframe from the political party concerned, it should be open for an independent Member to apply for the role in order to reduce the risk of committees being inquorate. This could also apply where there is a vacancy on a committee owing to the death of a Member or because they have left the House for another reason, that their party is unable to fill.
272.This Parliament has seen a number of Members elected as members of committees removed from their posts against their will after resigning their party whip. Chairs and members are elected to serve a full term and often bring long standing expertise to their roles. Given the importance of a cross party approach that values independence of thinking, we do not think that removal or resignation of the party whip should allow party whips to remove members if they retain the confidence of colleagues. Parties should certainly not seek to replace members who have left a party when there are already vacancies or other members wishing to resign on a committee.
273.Members are the most crucial resource for select committees, and their time is the most pressing constraint. Elections of committee chairs have emboldened us and made us more representative. Further reforms, including substitute members of those on baby leave, gender quotas for membership, effective procedures for dealing with absent members and clearer rules on eligibility and grounds for removal will further increase our standing with the public and within the House. But the resource of Members’ time and attention is not infinite. The wider recommendations of this report are seeking to ensure that the time of Members is most effectively applied where it will have the most influence, and committees need to be self-critical in ensuring that this aim is always kept in mind.
303 Dr Mark Goodwin ()
304 Dr Mark Goodwin ()
305 Institute for Government ()
306 Cabinet Office, , January 2018, para 3.10
307 Temporary Standing Order, European Statutory Instruments Committee
308 Dr Mark Goodwin ()
309 Dr Danielle Beswick ()
310 Global Research Network on Parliaments and People ()
311 Institute for Government ()
314 Meg Hillier ()
315 Votes and Proceedings,
Published: 9 September 2019