Working to make government more effective


My advice to new select committee chairs

Seven MPs will take the helm of a select committee for the first time. Hannah White offers them five pieces of advice on how to make an impact.

Houses of Parliament

Seven MPs will take the helm of a select committee for the first time. Hannah White offers them five pieces of advice on how to make an impact.

In minority government, the scrutiny conducted by parliamentary committees can take on greater significance, having a very real potential to influence government policy. For those who want to maximise their impact, we offer five key pieces of advice based on the Institute for Government's (IfG) extensive work with select committees.

1. Timing is everything

The most effective committee inquiries are those that are carefully timed to maximise their impact. The timing of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s 2015 report on Syria - published ahead of a Commons vote on military intervention – was crucial to its impact.  Government saw it as such a significant intervention that David Cameron felt it necessary to publish a response to its recommendations before the debate took place.

2. Recommendations should be focused and short

Committees often publish long reports with numerous conclusions and recommendations. While this is sometimes appropriate for the subject, it also makes it easy for the government to ‘cherry pick’ its response. Having begun a wide ranging inquiry into Courts and Tribunals fees and charges in 2015, the Commons Justice Committee decided to publish an interim report focusing on one particular area: calling for the abolition of the Criminal Courts Charge. Because this report was both timely and focused, it significantly influenced the government’s decision to abolish the charge.

3. Expertise is important

The most influential committees are those whose members and chairs take the time to build and maintain visible expertise in the policy areas they scrutinise. A well-informed cross-party consensus is much harder for the government to ignore. In 2015, we found that the conclusions and recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards were accepted by government and the financial sector because they were grounded in a thorough understanding of the issues.

4. When committees collaborate they can multiply the impact of their work

We are seeing a welcome trend of more joint working between committees to investigate issues which cut across boundaries between their policy areas.

Joint work enables committees to pool their expertise and avoid replicating each other’s efforts. Some of the highest profile committee work in the last parliament was joint work carried out by both the Committees on Work and Pensions and Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to examine the collapse of BHS. The collaborative approach was widely covered and praised in the media and contributed to efforts to resolve the issues arising from BHS’s collapse. 

5. Working with external partners can leverage impact

Another method used by committees to leverage their impact is working with partners from outside parliament. Often this can increase both the external awareness of parliamentary work and media attention.

The Health Committee’s report on childhood obesity benefitted from the media attention brought by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, whose involvement in a campaign led to a public petition being debated in Westminster Hall. The Committee’s decision to publish its report on the same day as the debate meant that media coverage was exponentially greater than for any of their other activities during the parliament, helping to increase its impact on Government policy.

Both new and returning chairs will be full of ideas about the issues they want their committees to investigate – with the impact of Brexit being a priority for many.

How committees approach their work makes all the difference between whether or not they achieve the impact they want. 

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