Select committees have been one of the best known aspects of Parliament’s work since 1979 when the current Commons select committee system was established. Since 2010, when select committee chairs were first elected by the whole House, there has been even greater interest in the role and influence of these key parliamentary bodies. Following the 2017 General Election, committees’ increasing significance was demonstrated by the decision of several MPs who were former ministers to stand for election as chairs. Their election has injected greater understanding of government into the Commons select committee system and has helped increase media attention to committees’ work. Committees have been highly active in the session so far, with MPs’ attendance at committees higher than in the 2016/17 session. Much of their work – more than one in eight inquiries – has concerned Brexit, though committees have also conducted high-profile inquiries on other subjects.
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. One unique aspect of select committee scrutiny is the fact that governments are committed to reply to every select committee report, and to do so within 60 days of its publication, setting up the possibility of real dialogue between Parliament and government over the direction and implementation of policy.
Quantifying the impact that select committees have on government is difficult. They have influence through the reports they write, media attention they generate, or by encouraging ministers to brush up on their knowledge before giving evidence. Much of this is hard to measure or trace. Nonetheless, data gives some insight into committees’ work, and whether MPs and peers are making the most of the opportunities Parliament affords them to told government to account, as well as enhance their own understanding. And analysing the ways in which committees work – the kinds of inquiries they conduct, and how they gather evidence – can help to identify potential areas for improvements in their working practices.
The Commons and Lords committee systems are designed to complement each other
For centuries Parliament has delegated specific tasks to small groups of members, increasing its capacity and enabling certain members to scrutinise specific issues of public policy, or to examine scandals or disasters. In the past, these committees were normally ad hoc; the one exception being the Public Accounts Committee set up in 1861 to look at the expenditure of public money. Decades later, in 1912, an Estimates Committee was established to look at the detail of government activity, but its coverage, and that of its successor committee the Expenditure Committee, remained patchy.
Major change came in 1979, when the Commons set up the current system of committees focused on the policy, administration and spending of one specific government department, designed to systematise scrutiny of government. Shortly afterwards, the Lords established its own systematic structure, designed to avoid duplicating the departmentally focused work of the Commons.
Most select committees are established under the Standing Orders – the parliamentary rules – making them permanent entities that exist from one Parliament to the next, albeit with shifting membership. Other committees are appointed for a single session or to fulfil a specific purpose, and cease to exist once the parliamentary session is over or their inquiry is complete. Based on data from the 2016/17 session, a select committee incurs on average just over £26,000 of expenses per financial year. This includes the cost of special advisers, overseas visits and witnesses’ expenses, though does not include staff costs. The staffing costs of an ‘average’ Commons select committee are around half a million pounds annually.
The two Houses delegate a range of powers to their committees to enable them to fulfil their roles. Typically, these include the power to access papers and call witnesses, to produce reports and to appoint specialist advisers. These powers are more limited than those afforded to committees in other legislatures, including the United States Congress, which often have different responsibilities including the scrutiny of legislation, and decisions on budgetary matters. The division in Westminster between committees which consider policy and public spending, and those which examine legislation is one of its most distinctive features. In the Commons the committees which look at bills, secondary legislation and European legislation are ad hoc bodies set up for each piece of legislation. In the current parliamentary session we have seen reluctant witnesses contest the power of committees to compel them to give evidence.
There is no single agreed way of classifying select committees. According to our classification (Figure 5.1) in the Commons:
Almost half (19) of Commons committees are departmental, examining the expenditure, administration and policy of a specific department and its associated public bodies.
Cross-cutting committees (6) look across Whitehall to examine government performance on a single issue.
Legislative committees (5) undertake tasks in relation to the legislative process.
Domestic committees (9) facilitate some aspect of parliamentary process, or administration of the House of Commons.
In the House of Lords:
There are currently six investigative committees (sometimes known as sessional committees), which are renewed at the beginning of every session.
Ad hoc committees (4) consider a specific issue for a single parliamentary session, or for around 12 months in a two-year session. Some ad hoc committees are tasked with conducting post-legislative scrutiny of a piece of legislation, such as the committee currently scrutinising the Bribery Act 2010. These committees are normally dissolved once they have reported.
The four Lords legislative committees undertake tasks relating to the legislative process.
Domestic committees (9) facilitate the processes and administration of the House.
Joint Committees draw their members from both Houses. Some are permanent (such as the Joint Committee on Human Rights); while others are temporary, established to consider a piece of legislation in draft form: for example the Joint Committee on the Draft Health Service Safety Investigations Bill.
Over the last 40 years the Commons committee system has adapted to mirror changes in the structure of government. Meanwhile committees have been added by both Houses to reflect the changing interests of politicians (for example Environmental Audit, and Women and Equalities in the Commons, and International Relations in the Lords).
The House of Lords Liaison Committee is currently undertaking the first wide-ranging review of its committee system in 25 years, considering whether its current structure is fit for purpose. Following the EU referendum, the review is also analysing the options for redeploying the large proportion of Lords resource currently devoted to scrutiny of EU legislation. If the Commons Liaison Committee were to initiate a complementary review of the Commons committee system, the two reviews could usefully interact to avoid overlaps and gaps in parliamentary scrutiny.
A high proportion of current Commons chairs are former ministers or shadow ministers
The chair of a committee determines its impact more than any other factor.
In the Lords, committee chairs are normally appointed by the House on the proposal of the Committee of Selection. In the Commons, committee chairs have been elected by the whole House since 2010. Following the 2017 General Election, 11 of the 28 elected chairs were contested, with significant competition for some positions. Former Secretary of State Nicky Morgan and high-profile Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, both Conservatives, competed for the chair of the Treasury Committee, while former minister Liam Byrne and former shadow minister Rachel Reeves, both Labour MPs, fought for the chair of the BEIS Committee. Of the chairs elected, four are former secretaries of state, eight are former ministers of state, and eight are former shadow secretaries of state. Several others are senior figures in their parties.
The election of these former ministers has injected greater understanding of government into the Commons select committee system. It has also helped increase media attention to committees’ work, which in turn has enhanced their influence.
Some have argued that MPs should see select committees as an alternative career to seeking ministerial office. But in practice, it seems most MPs would immediately give up a committee position if offered a ministerial or shadow-ministerial position, in however junior a capacity. Recent examples include Rory Stewart MP, who in 2015 gave up the chair of the Defence Committee to become a junior minister at Defra, and Jesse Norman MP who in 2016 gave up the chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee to become a junior minister at BEIS. This is despite the fact, as noted by former MP Chris Mullin – who alternated being chair of the Home Affairs Committee with brief stints as a junior minister at Defra, DfID and the FCO – that in many ways committee chairs have more power over government than junior ministers.
However, a variety of current factors, including internal divisions within the Conservative and Labour parties, may mean some backbenchers feel that opportunities on their party’s frontbench are a distant prospect. Chairing a committee can provide them with an alternative parliamentary platform.
Only two Commons committees have more female than male members
Since the 2017 election, several of the most influential Commons committees have been chaired by women: Nicky Morgan chairs the Treasury committee; Yvette Cooper the Home Affairs committees; and Sarah Wollaston chairs both the Health and Social Care committee and the overarching Liaison Committee. Over one third – nine of the 25 departmental and cross-cutting committees – have female chairs, up from six in the last Parliament.
Women make up 32% of the membership of the House of Commons, and 32% of the membership of the Commons’ departmental and cross-cutting committees. The Women and Equalities, and Education committees are the only two committees to have more female than male members. The least balanced committees are Transport and International Development, with just one woman on each – though Transport is chaired by a woman. Overall, these figures represent a significant improvement on previous years. Further progress rests in large part on more women being elected to the Commons.
In the Lords, where 25% of active peers are female, women are over-represented as committee members – making up 35% of investigative and ad hoc committee members. But they are underrepresented among chairs, holding just 19% of available positions.
Scrutiny was delayed after the election
Committee membership reflects the party balance in the Commons as a whole, as does the distribution of chairs between parties. The Speaker confirms each party’s share of chairs in each Parliament and the Selection Committee agrees the party shares of other members. Following the 2017 General Election, a typical 11-member committee has five Conservative, five Labour and one Scottish National Party member, though there are several local variations and the total numbers allocated to each party are divided across all the committees. On some committees the Official Opposition or the Government will ‘lend’ a seat to a minor party (for example Labour have lent a seat on the Environmental Audit Committee to the Green MP Caroline Lucas and the Conservatives have ceded places on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee to the DUP). Of the elected chairs, there are 13 Conservative, 12 Labour, two Scottish National Party and one Liberal Democrat.
Since 2010, the members of most Commons committees are required to be chosen by a system of internal party elections. Each party is free to choose its own method of election but the House requires that it must be “transparent and democratic”. This process can begin only once ministerial and shadow ministerial appointments have been made. Once the Speaker has announced the party allocations, the whips negotiate over which party will chair which committee. Within three weeks of the Queen’s Speech, the whole House then elects the chair of each committee via secret ballot. The parties propose the other committee members, following internal party elections. The Selection Committee then meets to agree the party nominations and puts a motion to the House for each committee, so that the whole House can vote to ratify the entire slate of names.
The lengthy process of establishing Commons committees following an election is a problem because it creates a gap in the scrutiny of government; a problem the Government has little incentive to fix. Having brought many inquiries to a premature end in late April 2017 before the June General Election, departmental and cross-cutting committees were not set up and able to launch inquiries until mid-September 2017.* Other committees were established even later – including the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC), which was not established until the end of October – a particularly unfortunate delay given the ESC’s expertise and interest in the issues surrounding Brexit.
A further notable gap occurred in the Liaison Committee’s evidence sessions with the Prime Minister. By convention, the Liaison Committee is the only committee that can take oral evidence from the Prime Minister, with thrice-yearly sessions that range widely across the Government’s responsibilities. The delays in appointing committees meant that the Liaison Committee – which had to wait to meet until all the chairs of committees were elected – could not even elect its own chair until mid-November; five months after the election. This meant there was a gap of a year between the last Liaison Committee evidence session with the Prime Minister in the 2015–17 Parliament, and the first in the 2017 Parliament. Under normal circumstances, the Prime Minister would have been subject to detailed questioning twice during the intervening period.
The Commons Procedure Committee has launched an inquiry into the process of establishing select committees at the start of new Parliament, which will address these issues.
In the Lords there is no formal rule about the political balance of committee membership, and most committees do not have a fixed number of members. The Committee of Selection normally proposes the membership of select committees to the House, which then votes on the entire slate.
In order to secure a regular turnover of membership, a ‘rotation rule’ operates for most Lords committees. Under this rule, members who have been appointed for three successive sessions may not be reappointed in the following two sessions (based on a session lasting approximately 12 months).† Before the 2015 Parliament, the rule limited terms to four years, but the decision was taken to reduce this to three, to increase the opportunities available to peers to participate in committee work. The disadvantage of this change is that it has reduced the ability of committee members to make use of the institutional memory and expertise they build up during their tenure.
* The earliest inquiry (into sport governance) was launched by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 11 September 2017.
† The three sessions may be extended to allow a member appointed as chair a three-session term as chair.
About two thirds of eligible MPs sit on at least one committee
Not all MPs can sit on select committees, though it is difficult to build up a clear and complete picture of who is ineligible. As a rule, government ministers and whips, as well as the frontbench and whips of the Official Opposition, are not allowed to sit on mainstream select committees, although ministers do sit by virtue of their office on the Public Accounts Committee and Environmental Audit Committee. All these rules are down to convention, which appears to have been kept vague in order to allow some flexibility: for example, when 56 MPs from the SNP were elected to Westminster in 2015, the distribution formula entitled them to a seat on each Commons committee. But to fulfil this, some of the party’s spokespeople doubled up as committee members. Currently some of the leaders of other small parties in Westminster also sit on committees. The role of Parliamentary Private Secretaries has always been contentious – broadly it is applied so that they may not be a member of a committee scrutinising ministers with whom they are directly associated. Despite the need for flexibility in the system, a resolution establishing the conventions about those ineligible to sit on committees would be useful.
We estimate that of the 500 MPs theoretically able to sit on select committees, around two thirds – 323 – currently sit on at least one Commons committee.
Of these 323, the majority will sit on only one committee. All chairs of Commons committees also sit on the Liaison Committee, which is able to question the Prime Minister and is an important means through which committees can work together to scrutinise the Government. But aside from this, some other members sit on more than one committee. Committee membership is a significant time commitment for MPs, with one or two meetings per week, as well as preparation for oral evidence sessions (in the case of departmental and cross-cutting committees), visits, and informal meetings. Sitting on multiple committees – and particularly on more than one departmental committee – may therefore place a significant strain on MPs and their ability to contribute to each committee’s work.
Recognising this, the Companion to the Lords’ Standing Orders states that “It is desirable for a member to serve on only one sessional investigative select committee at any one time." The large membership of the Lords means demand for committee roles is high. It is uncommon for peers to sit on more than one committee – of 780 active Lords, 199 (25%) sit on a committee, and of those just 41, or 5%, sit on more than one.
Commons committee attendance averaged 72% in the year since the Queen’s Speech
Committees meet with different frequency, depending on their remit and how they choose to conduct their work. Among the Commons departmental and cross-cutting committees in the year from the 2017 Queen’s Speech, the Treasury Committee met most frequently (71 times), and the International Trade Committee the least frequently (26 times). The Treasury Committee’s volume of meetings may reflect its role in scrutinising both the Treasury and HM Revenue and Customs, as well as overseeing appointments to other organisations such as the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee.
The Liaison Committee has a target for members to attend at least 60% of committee meetings, as a means of ensuring that MPs are engaged in their committee work.
Overall, the data for the year since the 2017 Queen’s Speech shows that most committee members are taking their commitment to committee work seriously. Across the 25 departmental and cross-cutting committees, MPs averaged 72% attendance in the year – well above the Liaison Committee target. By comparison, in the 2016/17 session average attendance was 66%, meaning the majority of committees have improved their attendance in comparison to the previous session.
The Scottish Affairs Committee had the highest attendance, at 87% – significantly above the previous session. The Environmental Audit Committee averaged 57% attendance, though this was higher than the previous year – and their figures may also be affected by the ex officio membership of a minister, who sits on the committee but does not participate.
As the Liaison Committee has noted, there can be good reason for lower attendance, such as personal or family illness, or regular diary clashes between a committee’s meetings and a member’s other parliamentary activities. But generally, MPs’ attendance is good: just 10% of all departmental and cross-cutting committee members attended fewer than half of their committee meetings.
However, while simple attendance may give a sense of members’ engagement with committee work, it is no guarantee of effectiveness. The briefing MPs are given, the quality of the preparation they undertake and the skill with which they intervene in evidence sessions are crucial to committee effectiveness, though difficult to assess with quantitative data. Some chairs have encouraged their members to specialise in particular areas of their committee’s remit or focus on particular angles of a specific inquiry in order to increase their expertise and the quality of their questioning.
In the Lords, data on peers’ attendance at select committees is not routinely collected. It is therefore not possible to assess how assiduously Lords members are fulfilling their scrutiny responsibilities or to make a comparison with the House of Commons.
One in eight inquiries in the Commons concerned Brexit
Inquiries are a core part of the work of Commons departmental and cross-cutting select committees, though how they conduct inquiries varies: some committees undertake multiple shorter inquiries, while others launch fewer broader inquiries, undertaking a variety of work and sometimes publishing multiple reports under the aegis of a single inquiry.
In the year following the 2017 Queen’s Speech, Commons committees opened a total of 409 inquiries.
As the Commons Liaison Committee has recognised, levels of activity by committees are not in themselves indicators of effectiveness. In order to gain a more informed view, it is useful to move beyond measures of activity to explore the content and substance of committees’ inquiries, to understand the particular issues with which committees are engaging.
Brexit has occupied a significant proportion of parliamentary scrutiny capacity since the General Election. Inquiries relating to Britain’s exit from the EU account for 13% of all Commons inquiries announced since the election, with four fifths of Commons departmental and cross-cutting committees conducting some kind of Brexit-related inquiry.* On average, each committee has launched 2.6 Brexit-related inquiries in the year since the election – and only five committees had no Brexit-related inquiries at all.
Unsurprisingly, among the committees scrutinising the departments most heavily affected by the UK’s exit from the EU, a significant proportion of inquiries were Brexit-related. All the inquiries launched by the Committee on Exiting the EU, and two thirds of those launched by the International Trade Committee related to Brexit. So too did nearly half launched by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee and over a third launched by the Welsh Affairs, Scottish Affairs, Home Affairs, and Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committees. Just under a third of those launched by the BEIS Committee related to EU exit.
But committees whose departments are not directly involved with the core impact of Brexit have nevertheless dedicated time to the issue: the Science and Technology, DCMS, Health and Social Care and HCLG committees all have specifically Brexit-related inquiries underway.
The numbers above probably understate the relative dominance of Brexit-related work by the committees. Many of the non-Brexit inquiries announced may have been short, single-evidence session affairs, while the majority of Brexit-related inquiries have been lengthy and complex. While Brexit touches on the work of many government departments, and relates to a broad range of issues, the volume of Brexit-related inquiries entails risk of duplication of effort. As each committee is responsible for determining its own programme of work, there is no central authority spotting gaps and overlaps in scrutiny. The Lords Liaison Committee has established an informal co-ordination group of Chairs to undertake this role in relation to Brexit. The Commons Liaison Committee could have done likewise.
* We define a Brexit-related inquiry as any inquiry that would not have taken place if Brexit were not happening.
On average, each Commons committee report received 44 pieces of written evidence and drew on oral evidence from 12 oral witnesses
Gathering evidence is an important part of committee work. A robust evidence base helps committees to reach cross-party consensus – often cited as one of their greatest strengths. It is therefore important that committees reflect on the nature of the evidence they collect, how balanced and comprehensive it is, and whether it is likely to furnish them with evidence for their conclusions and recommendations.
Once it has decided to launch an inquiry, a committee will usually issue an invitation for written evidence. It will then normally hold oral evidence sessions, where relevant ministers, officials, organisations or members of the public are invited to speak to the committee in person. Some witnesses are invited to give oral evidence in response to their written submissions, and others are selected on the basis of their expertise or experience.
Volume of evidence is not in itself a measure of the quality of an inquiry. But a high volume of written evidence can reflect public interest in the subject of an inquiry. The volume of written evidence received by different committees varies enormously, and is often affected by the nature of the policy area the committee is examining.
Of all committees, the Transport Committee received the most written evidence in the year since State Opening of Parliament – averaging 179 pieces per report. The Work and Pensions, Home Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and DCMS Committees also received high numbers of written submissions. Committees like these tend to receive more written evidence because their subject matter is of more general interest. For example, while almost every UK citizen will have direct experience of the public services scrutinised by the Health and Social Care Committee, not all will have engaged with the UK’s foreign policy. There is also, for example, a more extensive and active body of civil society organisations working on issues relating to Home Affairs than there is on Defence. Committees with a smaller pool of citizens and organisations with relevant experience and interests, such as Justice, BEIS and Foreign Affairs, received smaller amounts of evidence. These committees saw lower numbers of oral witnesses.
The majority of evidence received by most committees is written – as the time available for oral evidence taking is limited. But while the Exiting the European Union (ExEU) Committee received the lowest amount of written evidence (eight pieces per report), it saw the highest number of oral witnesses (30 on average per report), meaning that almost 80% of its evidence came from oral witnesses. This could be because the committee has been trying to be as balanced as possible in its scrutiny of Brexit-related issues and has therefore invited witnesses of all opinions to be heard. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee also questioned a large number of witnesses, and the Scottish Affairs Committee received 54% of its evidence from oral witnesses. In general the ‘territorial’ committees receive lower amounts of written evidence – possibly because many of those with an interest in their work are more focused on engaging with the committees of the devolved legislatures. The Transport, Work and Pensions, Home Affairs, and Health and Social Care Committees saw relatively high numbers of oral witnesses in comparison to the committee average* – likely to be due to the higher number of interested parties in their policy areas.
The diversity of witnesses called to participate in oral evidence sessions does not reflect the diversity of the general public. A recent report by the Commons Liaison Committee estimated that, overall, only 33% of witnesses appearing before select committees since the start of this session were female. Thirteen of the 32 committees sampled saw fewer than one in three female witnesses. This marks a small improvement on previous sessions (29% in 2016/17, and 28% in 2015/16), but remains far from representative of the general population. That proportion of female witnesses reduces to 27% if those who are being scrutinised because of the position they hold, such as ministers or senior officials, are excluded. Parliament could do more to increase the diversity of witnesses called to give evidence to committees, and thought is being given to how to do this: the Liaison Committee has recommended that all panels of three or more witnesses should include at least one woman.
Commons figures on the gender diversity of witnesses come from committee staff assuming the gender of their witnesses. The House of Lords administration has decided on a different approach, asking witnesses themselves to provide information about their gender. This initiative – part of wider efforts to increase witness diversity – is at an early stage, so data is not currently available, though the new system will mean this data is more accessible in the future.
* 18 for Transport and 16 for Work and Pensions and Home Affairs Committees per report, compared to a committee average of 12.
Oral evidence sessions can be an important source of select committee influence
Oral evidence sessions with prominent figures on major issues can attract a lot of media attention. They are an important tool for select committees in influencing the government and others. In the year following the 2017 Queen’s Speech, notable evidence sessions included:
The DCMS Committee’s evidence sessions as part of its Fake News inquiry. This has included questioning of: Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie and its suspended CEO Alexander Nix; Leave.EU donor Arron Banks (who walked out of his evidence session); and current and former Facebook employees. 
The Home Affairs Committee’s questioning of Amber Rudd, then Home Secretary, over the Windrush scandal, which subsequently led to her resignation.
David Davis, then the Secretary of State for DExEU, gave evidence to the Exiting the EU Committee in relation to the Government’s sectoral assessments of the impact of Brexit, referring to 58 papers containing ‘excruciating detail’. He subsequently claimed the impact assessments did not exist, prompting complaints to the Speaker that he had misled the committee.
Committees can exert pressure on people to attend oral evidence sessions
However, it is generally agreed that they no longer have any formal ability to compel witnesses to attend, beyond the ‘smoke and mirrors’ of a formal summons and the power of embarrassment. In the past, both Houses had the power to imprison, and, in the case of the Lords, to fine an individual who committed a ‘contempt’ such as refusing to appear before a committee or giving misleading evidence. However, the last occasion on which the Commons imprisoned anyone was in 1880.
Today, the consequences for committing a contempt are – in practice – limited to admonishment. Most recently on 27 October 2016, following a nine-year investigation by the Privileges Committee, the Commons resolved to admonish two employees of News International for deliberately misleading the Culture, Media and Sport Committee about their knowledge of phone hacking.
In recent years, instances of non-government witnesses contemplating refusing to give evidence to Commons committees have become more frequent. Both Rupert and James Murdoch, then of News International and Mike Ashley of Sports Direct eventually gave into media pressure to attend, but Irene Rosenfeld of Kraft held out on her refusal. And in this parliamentary session, both Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, and Dominic Cummings, former director of Vote Leave, have chosen to challenge the authority of the DCMS committee to call them as witnesses, though only Mr Cummings is a UK citizen. 
In 2016, following the News International case, the House asked the Committee on Privileges to undertake an inquiry into the matter of “the exercise and enforcement of the powers of the House in relation to select committees and contempts”. That committee has revived its inquiry in this Parliament, looking at whether it would be desirable for Parliament to have clearer definitions and enforcement powers, which would probably involve some form of statute to enable the courts to act as the enforcer on Parliament’s behalf. The alternative is to stick with the status quo where the powers remain theoretically boundless, but limited in practice.
Setting out Parliament’s powers in law, however, may increase the likelihood of the courts infringing Article IX of the Bill of Rights 1689. Article IX guarantees the privilege of freedom of speech in Parliament, saying that `freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court of place out of Parliament’. But to decide if someone had committed an offence by refusing to give evidence to a committee, the courts might feel obliged to look into parliamentary proceedings. Nonetheless, the balance of opinion in the Commons seems to have shifted in the direction of creating some form of statutory offence of contempt of Parliament.
The timeliness of government responses to committee reports varies significantly between departments
Measuring the impact of select committees on government policy is difficult. Counting the number of committee recommendations taken up by government is tempting but can be highly misleading. If a committee recommends something that the government is minded to do anyway, its impact may actually be less than that of a committee that makes a challenging recommendation which is not taken up but which changes the balance of government thinking. Committees also often have invisible ‘pre-emptive’ impact simply through launching inquiries and taking evidence, long before they formulate any recommendations.
Nor is select committee impact limited to influence on government policy. Committee scrutiny can shape the way government works – for instance by prompting departments to change the way they collect data, and for ministers to brush up on neglected policy areas. Scrutiny can also improve the knowledge of committee members, which they can then use in other areas of their work. This has been a noticeable impact of the Brexit-related scrutiny in the current session: for example, MPs’ contributions to a debate on 26 April on the UK’s membership of a customs union were informed by the inquiries of several committees relating to this subject. It is notable that this debate was the first instance of the Liaison Committee scheduling a debate on a substantive motion covering a series of committee reports in backbench time. On the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, the Backbench Business Committee has agreed to allow the Liaison Committee to recommend motions for debate in the 2017–19 session, in return for the Liaison Committee allowing the Backbench Business Committee to recommend the Estimates to be debated on Estimates days.
The ability of committees to demand a reply from government to the conclusions they reach and the recommendations they make enhances the impact of their scrutiny. It is therefore useful to consider how government departments are performing against their mutually agreed 60-day standard.
In the year since the 2017 Queen’s Speech, the Government took an average of 75 days to respond to Commons reports.
The Science and Technology Committee had the quickest government responses to their reports, taking just 36 days on average. The Exiting the EU Committee also received relatively speedy responses in an average of 54 days.
The Government responded most slowly to reports published by the Justice Committee – taking 103 days on average. The Health and Social Care and Transport departments were also particularly slow to respond to reports.
The Government responded to 62 committee reports in the year since State Opening 2017. Of these responses, 30% were received within the Government’s target timeframe of 60 days. The only committees which received a 100% response within 60 days from their departments were International Trade, and Science and Technology. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Work and Pensions, Transport, Scottish Affairs and Health and Social Care Committees did not receive a response to any of their reports within the 60-day time limit, raising questions about the timeliness of government’s responses.
Snap elections, such as that called in 2017, are highly disruptive to the process of select committee scrutiny of government. Of the 300 Commons committee inquiries underway when the election was called, 100 had to be left unfinished. The remainder were curtailed prematurely, with committees rushing the publication of reports and evidence before the House was dissolved and they ceased to exist. Government also avoided having to respond to some of the 122 inquiry reports that were awaiting a response when the election was called.
Periodic review of the select committee system is an important way of ensuring that it remains well-fitted to the issues of the day. As the Lords is undertaking a review of its system, the Commons Liaison Committee may wish to undertake a complementary review.
The time taken to establish committees means that elections create significant gaps in Commons committees’ scrutiny of government. The Procedure Committee’s inquiry will examine whether changes to the system need to be made.
Whether select committees continue to provide an attractive option for experienced members will depend on the frequency with which they undertake high profile work or work which is seen to have real impact on government.
The scrutiny conducted by select committees would be strengthened if their right to use their powers to sanction people for refusing to attend or providing misleading testimony was reaffirmed in statute.