Background

Good parliamentary scrutiny has significant potential to improve the effectiveness of government. Select committees are one of the key mechanisms used by Parliament to conduct scrutiny. During the 2010-15 parliament a number of select committees very obviously increased their public profile. What’s less clear is whether this increased their impact on government.

Impact on government effectiveness is not the only thing that select committees try to achieve. The MPs involved in scrutiny have other motivations to balance in their scrutiny work – personal, party, political and parliamentary. But when they do try to achieve a positive impact on government, it is difficult for them to know if they are being successful.

Impact from scrutiny is hard to define and the ways it can change things in government are poorly understood. Select committees themselves also seem remarkably uninterested in seeking feedback on their work. From a government perspective, there is little to be gained from evaluation which gives the credit for positive change to parliamentary committees. This means that opportunities to improve the select committee scrutiny system are being lost.

Research

Based on over forty interviews, as well as roundtables and informal meetings, the research in this report examines the relationship between select committee inquiries and their impact on government during the last parliament. We look in particular at the impact of three committees:

  • the Defence select committee
  • the Home Affairs select committee
  • the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards.

This report sets out our high-level conclusions. Our detailed findings on these committees are available in a separate report via the link below

Our findings on select committees

Based on our case studies and a wider review of Commons committee activity in the last parliament we identify six sources of influence for select committees. We suggest that committees ought to spend more time cultivating their ‘softer’ sources of influence, such as expertise and relationships, and be less quick to resort to their formal status and powers.

For their part, government departments should remember that it is in their own interests to help committees develop different sources of influence.

We draw out eight lessons about the relationship between scrutiny and impact on government. We argue that select committees must

  • work out what impact they are trying to achieve (valuing long as well as short term change) and consider what approach will be most effective in securing it.
  • realise the value of predictable scrutiny and pester power, and recognise that impact can result from an inquiry process as well as its outputs.
  • make conscious decisions about the trade-offs involved in scrutiny and remember that sometimes it can create a ‘win-win’ for government and parliament.
  • recognise that sometimes their ability to achieve impact will be influenced by factors beyond their control.

Finally we argue that the Commons select committee system is not set up to identify its successes and learn from its failures. If committees are to fulfil their potential to improve the effectiveness of government, they need to shift their focus from fulfilling tasks to achieving outcomes. They need to adopt a nuanced understanding of impact, recognising that long-term influence, which may be difficult to measure, can be just as important as the short-term impact that is more readily attributable to committee activity.