The evolving role of select committees

The Coalition government is committed to strengthening this system. It has already granted a veto power to the Treasury Committee over appointments to the new Office for Budget Responsibility.

This change comes in the wake of other procedural reforms designed to enhance committee independence and strengthen the accountability of the executive to parliament.

The select committee system

Since 1979, select committees have played a central role in the operation of parliament. The basic tenet of the current system is that a committee of MPs should be established to scrutinise the policy and performance of each Whitehall department. There are also a number of 'cross-cutting' committees with a broader remit.

The independence of select committees has been strengthened by a number of recent changes. Following Tony Wright's House of Commons Reform Committee recommendations (PDF, 1.8MB):

  • chairs are now elected on a free (and secret) ballot of all MPs
  • backbench members, not whips, determine who should represent their party on each committee
  • a Backbench Business Committee gives committees greater opportunity to place items on the agenda of the House.

The function of select committees

According to the Liaison Committee, which comprises all individual committee chairs, the general function of select committees is "holding to account individual departments and the Government as a whole".

They are expected to achieve this aim by undertaking 10 core tasks (PDF 38KB). These include scrutiny of major public appointments, which they carry out by holding pre-appointment hearings with candidates selected by government.

Work programme

As part of a larger programme of work investigating the changing role of committees, Akash Paun and David Atkinson have launched a project looking at the scrutiny of public appointments by select committees.

This builds upon the Institute's report on arm's length bodies, Read before Burning. The report's recommendation the relationship between the Public Administration Select Committee and future quangos was accepted by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude.

The project seeks to address the following questions in particular:

  1. What are the benefits delivered and risks faced? Does it strengthen public legitimacy? Does it risk creating a politicised process similar to the American model?
  2. How might the system be improved?

Which appointments should be subject to scrutiny? Should committees have veto power over certain appointments?