What are select committees?
Select committees are cross-party groups of MPs or Lords (or both) charged by Parliament with a specific role or with investigating a specific issue. They are one of Parliament’s main tools for holding government to account.
Who chairs select committees?
Select committees are chaired by backbench MPs (i.e. not government ministers). Select committee chairs are chosen at the beginning of each Parliament. Since 2010, most chairs have been elected by MPs, although the chairs of a small number of committees, such as the European Scrutiny Committee and Liaison Committee, are elected by members of the committee, not the whole House.
In 2019, the Liaison Committee recommended that the parliamentary rules be changed so that all select committee chairs are elected by the whole House. 14 House of Commons Liaison Committee, The effectiveness and influence of the select committee system, Fourth Report of Session 2017–19, HC1860, 9 September 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmliaisn/1860/1860.pdf
How are the chairs of select committees divided among parties?
The broad principle is that the balance of committee chairs should reflect the party balance in the House of Commons, although there is some flexibility to accommodate political realities. Once the number of seats won by each party in a general election is known, the Speaker’s office applies a formula – the details of which are not public – to work out how many committee chairs should be allocated to each party. Following the 2019 general election, the Conservatives were entitled to 16 chairs, Labour were given nine and the SNP were given two.
On the day after their election, the Speaker of the House of Commons informs each party represented in the House of the proportion of chairs allocated to each party. The usual channels (party whips) then negotiate which select committee chair should be allocated to which party.
Under Commons’ standing orders, the Public Accounts Committee must be chaired by an opposition member. Treasury, Defence and Foreign Affairs are often taken by the government, but there is no rule that they must.
Parties will try to get the committees responsible for the policy areas in which their political priorities lie; for instance, following the 2019 general election, the SNP has again secured the Scottish Affairs Committee, as well as the International Development Committee – a ‘reserved’ (non-devolved) matter.
How does the election of chairs work?
Once MPs know which chairs their party has been allocated, they can start to think about which committee they might want to chair and to campaign among their colleagues. To stand, MPs must secure the signatures of 15 MPs elected to the Commons as members of the same party, or 10% of MPs elected to the Commons as members of the same party (whichever number is the lowest).
The election of chairs usually takes place 14 days after the party allocations are announced, although MPs voted to extend this period 20 House of Commons, Order Paper No.1: Part 1, 20 December 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmagenda/OP191220.pdf following the 2019 general election, to allow for the Christmas period and changes to government departments planned for the end of January. Following the 2019 general election, most elections for select committee chairs took place on Wednesday 29 January. Members of the committees were then appointed through internal party elections. It was well into February before many Commons select committees were up and running – potentially to the detriment of parliamentary scrutiny
A secret ballot using the alternative vote system is used to elect committee chairs, and all MPs (irrespective of party) have a vote on every chair. Despite the introduction of elections for committee chairs in 2010, it is common for many candidates to stand unopposed, somewhat undermining the principle of election and suggesting the choice of committee chair is left to internal party politics.
In 2020, the chairs of 13 committees were appointed unopposed, down from 17 in 2017, but slightly higher than the 11 chairs who took up their posts uncontested in 2015.
Are there limits to how many times an MP chair a select committee?
The standing orders (parliamentary rules) usually impose a term limit on committee chairs 21 House of Commons, Standing Orders: Public Business 2019, HC314, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201919/cmstords/341/so_341_051119_web.pdf of two full Parliaments or eight continuous years, whichever is the greater – which would have meant some high-profile committee chairs in the last Parliament – such as Sir Bill Cash (European Scrutiny Committee) would not have been eligible to stand. However, the government succeeded in suspending these limits 22 House of Commons, Order Paper No.8: Part 1, 16 January 2020, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm5801/cmagenda/OP200116.pdf for the remainder of the Parliament, allowing former chairs to stand again for election. Members of the government or party front benchers are not eligible to be committee chairs. If a committee chair wishes to take up a ministerial post, they must resign their chair, as Nicky Morgan (former chair of the Treasury Committee) did in July 2019.
When Keir Starmer was elected Labour leader in March 2020, he conducted a reshuffle of the shadow cabinet. Following this, the chairs of two Labour-chaired committees – the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee (Rachel Reeves) and the Standards Committee (Kate Green) – stepped down to take up shadow ministerial roles. On 27 April 2020, nominations opened for their replacements. As both committees have been allocated to Labour during the 2019 Parliament, nominations are only open to Labour MPs. However, the replacement chairs will be elected by all MPs.
Who else sits on select committees?
The process for electing committee members kicks off once the results of the chair elections are known so that unsuccessful candidates can stand.
The party balance of committee membership is intended to reflect the balance of seats in the House. In the 2017–19 Parliament, a typical committee with 11 members, including the chair, had five Conservative, five Labour and one SNP member(s). Some committees can have additional members where minority parties particularly want to be represented (for example, the Defence Committee had an additional DUP member between 2010–15, so 12 members in total). The finer details of this will be determined by the usual channels but, given its sizable majority, the government would expect to have a majority on select committees.
There was a suggestion from the Liaison Committee (charged with overseeing the select committee system and comprised of the chairs of the select committees) at the end of the 2010–15 Parliament that – in order to avoid committees getting too large – party representation could be balanced across the system as a whole rather than within each committee. This may be attractive for the SNP. Given its number of seats, the party is likely to be eligible to be represented on most committees. Reform may be attractive for the SNP, as it would allow the party to have several members on the Scottish Affairs Committee, as well its chair, while reducing (or removing) their representation on committees relating to devolved matters.
How are select committee members elected?
Committee membership elections are held within each party. Since 2010, committee members have been elected from within their party through a "secret ballot by whichever transparent and democratic method they choose". 23 Hansard, Election of members of select committees, 2010, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200910/cmhansrd/cm100304/debtext/100304-0017.htm#10030456000013 Each party uses a slightly different process. The process used by each party will determine the time it takes; in the last two parliaments the process has taken around a month to complete after the election of committee chairs.
In an effort to limit the time without select committee scrutiny, at the end of the 2017–19 Parliament, the Liaison Committee (comprised of the chairs of Commons select committees) restated the 2009 Wright Committee recommendations 24 House of Commons Reform Select Committee, Rebuilding the House, 24 November 2009, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmrefhoc/1117/111702.htm that select committees should be nominated no more than six weeks after the Queen’s Speech. It also said that the Liaison Committee should be able to sit with an interim chair once a majority of committee members had been elected.
Once each party has decided who will represent it on each committee, a motion setting out the membership of each committee must be agreed on the floor of the House – in 2017, this happened on 11 September (excluding the Standards Committee).
How influential are select committee chairs?
Committee chairs exert considerable influence over the focus and working practices of the committee. The move to elected committee chairs in 2010 gave committee chairs greater legitimacy and has arguably made chairing a committee a possible alternative to taking up a ministerial position.
Previous Institute for Government research has found that the chair of a select committee determines its impact more than any other factor. However, committee chairs can be outvoted by other committee members, and so must work constructively with others.