As part of its civil service reform agenda, the government has outlined measures to strengthen civil service accountability to Parliament. Meanwhile, in Westminster, MPs question whether the traditional conventions for this process are effective. This paper is the Institute for Government’s contribution to the debate on these issues, and forms part of a wider programme of research into accountability arrangements in Whitehall. Based on interviews with MPs and officials in both Westminster and Whitehall, we examine the state of the relationship between select committees and the government departments they scrutinise, and clarify the specific issues which both sides face. We also consider the nature of select committee powers and consider the case for reform.

We argue that, ultimately, the effectiveness of the accountability relationship between committees and departments depends less on formal powers and the processes set out in the Osmotherly Rules than on the attitudes and behaviours which Parliament and government adopt. To achieve more effective scrutiny of civil servants in Parliament, positive steps should be taken on both sides in this respect. Departments (led by their ministers) should be willing to open up more, to actively engage with committees and to see parliamentary scrutiny as a constructive tool to drive their own improvement. Meanwhile, committees should avoid the temptations of political grandstanding, over-aggressive questioning, and the automatic search for scapegoats.