Term limits for select committee chairs in the 2017 Parliament Contents

Term limits for select committee chairs in the 2017 Parliament

1.Our predecessors in the 2015 Parliament recommended that we examine an unexpected consequence of the June 2017 general election.1 This related to the operation of Standing Order No. 122A, introduced in 2002, which limits the maximum term a select committee chair may serve. We report below our analysis of the issue and our recommendation for the remedy of a potential anomaly.

Limiting the maximum term a select committee chair may serve

2.Term limits for select committee chairs were introduced in Standing Orders in May 2002, as part of the Modernisation Committee’s proposals to strengthen select committee scrutiny.2 That Committee recommended that “the House should impose an indicative upper limit of two consecutive Parliaments on service as chairman.” This recommendation was given effect in the original form of Standing Order No. 122A, which was passed as follows:

Unless the House otherwise orders, no select committee may choose as its chairman any Member who has served as chairman of that committee for the two previous Parliaments, or a continuous period of eight years, whichever is the greater period.

It was amended in 2005 to replace the word ‘choose’ with the word ‘have’ and now reads as follows:

Unless the House otherwise orders, no select committee may have as its chair any Member who has served as chair of that committee for the two previous Parliaments or a continuous period of eight years, whichever is the greater period.

The situation in June 2017

3.Since the last revision of the relevant standing order, there have been two developments which affect the position of chairs of select committees.

Taken together, these changes have altered the way in which select committees approach their work. Chairs now operate with the authority which comes from election by the whole House in a secret ballot, and committees are better able to plan multi-annual programmes of work to cover a statutory five-year Parliament.

4.The risk to committee work of early dissolution nevertheless remains, as the events of April 2017 demonstrated. The dissolution which was the consequence of the House’s vote on 19 April 2017 cut short the programmes of all select committees. The premature end of the Parliament elected in 2015 also raised an issue for the continued service of committee chairs whose service had begun in 2010. Had the election not intervened, they might reasonably have counted on serving until the statutory dissolution foreseen in early 2020.3

5.Following the process of election of chairs and constitution of committees in the present Parliament, a total of five serving chairs will, as matters stand, vacate their positions in July or September 2018, eight years from the date their service started but only ten months into the present Parliament.4

6.Standing Order No. 122A has been interpreted to provide that a Member who takes a committee chair part way through a Parliament, in succession to a departing chair, does not have service in that Parliament reckoned as part of the two terms provision: that is to say, “two Parliaments” has been taken to mean service throughout two Parliaments. This in itself creates an anomaly which the operation of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act makes particularly glaring: a committee chair obliged to step down one year into the present Parliament, having served the maximum term of eight years provided for in the standing order, would be succeeded by one who could look forward to a potential fourteen years of service.

Our remedy

7.We have consulted the Government and the political parties from which select committee chairs are presently drawn on potential remedies to the anomaly which we have outlined above.

8.In the light of the circumstances which could allow a successor chair to serve an exceptionally long term, we considered whether the present standing order should be varied to allow the affected chairs elected in 2017 to serve to the end of the present Parliament. While initially attractive for its simplicity, this solution was not deemed desirable, since it would provide a maximum twelve-year term for the chairs concerned.

9.Instead we have returned to the original intent of the Modernisation Committee when it first proposed term limits in 2002. We consider that the maximum term of a select committee chair should be a period equivalent to two full Parliaments. Since the passage of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 the period equivalent to two Parliaments is ten years.

10.We recommend that Standing Order No. 122A be varied in its application for the duration of the present Parliament by substituting the word “ten” for the word “eight”.

11.Our proposal would mean that the chairs affected would serve ten years in office, which would take their service until July 2020. On the tenth anniversary of their assumption of office, the position of committee chair would fall vacant, if not already vacated by resignation.

Review of standing order provision

12.The remedy we propose is straightforward, easy to implement and provides certainty for the remainder of this Parliament. It nevertheless leaves some questions unanswered in respect of the operation of Standing Order No. 122A in the next Parliament.

13.Should the House accept the principle which underpins the remedy we propose above—that a select committee chair should serve no more than ten years—then we will make a further report with recommendations for how the principle should be given effect for future Parliaments.

1 Procedure Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2016–17, Matters for the Procedure Committee in the 2017 Parliament, HC (2016–17) 1091, paras 31–38

2 Standing Order No. 122A, made on 14 May 2002, amended on 13 July 2005; Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of Commons, First Report of Session 2001–02, Select Committees, HC (2001–02) 224.

3 Chairs elected by the House under Standing Order No. 122B begin their service on the date that the committee they are elected to chair is nominated by the House. Those chosen by their committee begin their service on the date of their appointment as chair.

4 The committees whose chairs are affected are: Communities and Local Government and Welsh Affairs (both nominated on 12 July 2010); Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs (nominated as Public Administration on 12 July 2010); Standards (nominated as Standards and Privileges on 26 July 2010), and European Scrutiny (Chair chosen on 8 September 2010).

7 February 2018