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Select committees are likely to be absent at a critical time

Getting Commons committees up and running quickly after an election should be a priority.

Getting Commons committees up and running quickly after an election should always be a priority, and Alice Lilly says it will be even more critical after the 2019 election.

One of Parliament’s most important roles is to hold the government to account – and its select committees are a crucial part of this. Across the House of Commons, 25 committees scrutinise the work of each government department, as well as their treatment of issues that cut across wider government policy.

Committees have to be set up anew after every general election. But this process can take months, creating a gap in the ability of MPs to scrutinise government policy in detail. After the 2017 election, most departmental committees were not able to begin work until mid-September – five months after Parliament’s dissolution that April.

Following the 2019 election, a similar gap is likely. Boris Johnson, returning to office as prime minister with a comfortable majority, has little incentive to move quickly and open his government up to committee scrutiny earlier than necessary. Given the PM’s Brexit timetable, committees are unlikely to be able to begin work until after the UK is due to leave the EU at the end of January – a time when their scrutiny would be of considerable value.

Setting up Commons committees is a lengthy process

In the Commons, committees cannot begin work until MPs have chosen their chairs and members. Since 2010, most committees have had elected chairs, although a small number – like the European Scrutiny Committee – still have chairs appointed.

Before elections for Commons committees can begin, the Speaker of the House confirms how many chairs each party is entitled to receive, and the party balance of members on each committee – both broadly reflecting the overall makeup of the whole of the Commons. Party whips then agree between themselves which committees will be chaired by which party.

But while elections for committee chairs have to happen within a specific timeframe – within three weeks of the Queen’s speech – there is no timetable for electing committee members, which is done within each party by means that are largely opaque. This means that getting committees actually up and running can take months. Ultimately, both the government and opposition parties tend to be focused on filling ministerial and frontbench roles, with committees coming lower down their list of priorities.

Circumstances could make the process take even longer

The changes that the prime minister wants to make to the structure of government departments – such as abolishing the Department for Exiting the EU at the end of January – may require changes to the Commons’ committee system. These changes would be in the gift of the government.

At the same time, the new government will want to decide how to deal with the issue of term limits for committee chairs. In the Commons’ rules, chairs are limited to either eight years or two parliaments – whichever is longer. But after the unexpectedly short 2015 parliament, the rules were temporarily altered to allow a chair to remain in post for up to 10 years. That change expired at the end of the 2017–19 parliament.

As things stand, any chairs who have been in their role for eight years will not be able to stand again in the new parliament. If any soon-to-be-ex chairs complain, and if it is expedient for the government to allow them to continue in post, another temporary change to the rules may need to be made.

We already know there will be some changes in Commons committees

However long it takes to set committees up, and whatever the election result, some changes are certain. The Petitions, Science and Technology, International Development, and European Statutory Instruments committees will all need new chairs – as their incumbents stood down as MPs. Other committee chairs lost their seats in the election, including Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee and the influential Liaison Committee. Mary Creagh, who chaired the Environmental Audit Committee, was not returned to Parliament – and nor was Dominic Grieve, who chaired the Joint Committee on Security and Intelligence.

In addition, even if the temporary rule change allowing chairs to serve up to 10 years is made permanent, some, including Sir Bernard Jenkin (Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs), Clive Betts (Housing, Communities and Local Government), David T.C. Davies (Welsh Affairs), and Sir Bill Cash (European Scrutiny) will soon hit the extended cut-off. Unless term-limits for chairs are abolished altogether – which would be a retrograde step for committee effectiveness – all these chairs will certainly change hands at some point during the new parliament.

Getting committees up and running should be a priority

No government has any real incentive to speed up the process of select committee formation. Superficially, the post-election gap in scrutiny is a welcome bonus for new or returning ministers.

But as Parliament returns after the election, with another Brexit deadline just a few weeks away, the role of select committees in conducting meaningful scrutiny of the government’s plans will be more important than ever.

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