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It is inappropriate for the government to interfere in parliamentary scrutiny

Parliamentary scrutiny will lose credibility if the government continues to interfere in the membership of parliamentary committees.

Houses of Parliament

The row over the Intelligence and Security Committee has seen Julian Lewis lose the Conservative whip for defying the government. Dr Hannah White warns that parliamentary scrutiny will lose credibility if the government continues to interfere in the membership of parliamentary committees

The government has declined to rule out the possibility of removing Julian Lewis from the membership of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) to prevent him continuing as chair against its wishes. In doing so it has illustrated once again its opinion that its substantial Commons majority should give it control over every aspect of parliament and its business. But it is inappropriate for a government to dictate who should lead the scrutiny of its policies and decisions.

Government and backbench relations will be damaged by the ISC clash

Unfortunately for the government, Julian Lewis is not alone in thinking that it was ‘improper’ for party whips to try to control the outcome of the election for chair of the ISC – the joint Commons and Lords committee that scrutinises the work of the intelligence agencies. Current and ex-Conservative MPs have criticised the government’s attempt to install former minister Chris Grayling in the prestigious role. The incident is unlikely to have smoothed already-fractious relations between the government and its backbenches.

Unfortunately for Lewis, a former member of the ISC and former chair of the Defence Committee, he is now also a former Conservative MP, having had the whip removed for having had the temerity to nominate and vote for himself, and be supported by the four opposition members of the nine-member committee. Never mind that the legislation underpinning the ISC – the Justice and Security Act 2013 – specifies that the committee elects its own chair from among its members.

The government’s claim that it was not trying to influence the outcome of the election is not credible. On the contrary, it appears that it was so keen to see Grayling in the chair it nominated just Conservative members who had vowed to support him to be members of the committee. It also abandoned the past convention that no party should have a majority on the committee, ditching a proposed crossbench peer in favour of a Tory.

The government has form in interfering in committee elections

Unfortunately for parliament, the ISC debacle is not a one-off example of a government decision to impose its own choice, rather than letting MPs decide on matters where the established precedent is that governments do not interfere. Instead it is the latest in a series of moves the government has made to impose its will on parliament.

In a similar incident back in March, the government nominated a backbencher – Bernard Jenkin – to join the other Liaison Committee members, all of whom chair parliamentary committees, responsible for scrutinising the prime minister. It then whipped its MPs to ensure Jenkin would become its chair – a choice which had previously been for the Liaison Committee to make itself.

Whatever the skills and experience of the individuals the government has sought to install in these important positions, its decision to do so is inappropriate. It should not be for a government to decide who conducts the scrutiny of its decisions and policies. If the government is involved, the suspicion will always be that it has picked someone who will be beholden to the government and may therefore pull his or her punches.

The government’s actions risk undermining parliament’s credibility

That was why, a decade ago, the Wright Committee persuaded the Commons to introduce elections for select committee members and chairs, a system which has been working well ever since. It would be naïve to assume the party whips have no involvement in these elections anymore, but the use of anonymous ballots and an alternative vote process significantly weaken the parties’ ability to determine their outcomes.

There are parts of parliament’s business which are certainly for government to control. A government with a healthy majority should be able to pass the legislation it committed to in its manifesto. But a government interfering in the membership of parliamentary committees risks undermining the credibility and effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny.

And if that makes parliament less effective at identifying the flaws in and unintended consequences of government policy, that is an outcome that could be unfortunate for us all.

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