While the formation of the Independent Group of MPs is a direct challenge to the two main parties at Westminster, the select committee system has found itself caught in the crossfire.
The MPs who have recently left the Labour and Conservative parties to sit as independent members in the Commons include several who are prominent members of select committees. Sarah Wollaston – previously a Conservative MP – chairs both the Health and Social Care and Liaison Committees. Luciana Berger has been a member of the Health and Social Care Committee since 2016. The MPs that Labour is seeking to replace, Ian Austin and Mike Gapes, are two longstanding members of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Other MPs have been elected as Labour members but retained their seats on committees despite leaving the party for a variety of reasons. Frank Field has continued to chair the Work and Pensions Committee, and Ivan Lewis, Kelvin Hopkins and John Woodcock have continued to sit on the International Development Committee, PACAC and the Home Affairs Committee. The Conservative Party has made no move – yet – to remove Sarah Wollaston or Heidi Allen from their committee roles.
But for the MPs who have most recently decided to leave Labour, the party seems to have adopted a new policy of removal – presumably to provide a disincentive to others considering following their example.
This action runs counter to the spirit of reforms made in recent years to reduce the influence of political parties over select committees, changes which are widely considered to have strengthened the committee system. The ‘Wright reforms’ implemented after the 2010 election removed from party whips the power to appoint select committee members and introduced the election of select committee members by their parliamentary peers.
These reforms increased the effectiveness of select committees by enabling members with expertise and interest in particular policy areas to become members of committees, whether or not they are in favour with the whips. The introduction of elections has meant that, on the basis of their democratic mandate, committee members have had licence to act independently of their parties’ interests. They have been able to do this without fear of being removed by disgruntled whips. And one of the strengths of the select committee system is widely acknowledged to be its ability to generate cross-party consensus, something which may be at odds with the interests of the whips.
The make-up of select committees is intended to reflect the balance between the parties in the House of Commons as a whole. The growing number of independent members sitting in the Commons highlights the difficulty with ensuring fair representation of smaller parties across the system, but an unpicking of the electoral system will not solve that.
Labour’s decision to replace Ian Austin and Mike Gapes, who were elected by MPs to the Foreign Affairs Committee, is an unwelcome reassertion of party interests over the select committee system. MPs could yet resist the move by demanding a debate on the motion that has been tabled on Monday. They should do so – the risk of undermining the widely acknowledged strengthening of the select committee system over the past decade is too great to allow this change to be made without wider consideration.