Select committees are often overlooked. In this respect, they could be considered the middle child of the legislative family. They get on with their work dutifully but under the radar, while their noisier siblings PMQ’s and Commons votes get both more media coverage and political interest.
However, is all this beginning to change?
Once considered the consolation prize for MPs, the chairmanship of select committees is now relatively sought after. As well as this, there are few occasions that would get the likes of Rupert Murdoch and other top execs feeling the pressure than the summons of a select committee for a bout of questioning. So, is this long neglected branch of Westminster politics finally on the up?
Select committees have come a long way since their creation at the beginning of the last period of continual Conservative government in 1979. Their former position of merely shadowing the work of government departments has evolved, with departmental committees being joined by topical committees such as those for environmental audit and women and equalities. As well as this, their membership and chair are no longer in the complete control of party whips, which would appoint the members and chairs of the then fourteen committees.
This change is mainly thanks to renewed Conservative control of the Commons, which introduced reforms to select committees in 2010. Now, instead of being appointed by whips, committee members and chairs are elected by their fellow MPs from across the house. Therefore, a level of cross-party support is necessary for one to be chosen to head up a committee. This undoubtedly leads to an increased independence with which one can criticise the government, as well as providing chairs with a significant mandate.
This independence is probably most evident with the new chairs of both the Scottish Affairs and Energy and Climate Change Select Committees (and not only because of their politics). Two SNP veterans now occupy these positions, Paul Wishart at Scottish Affairs and Angus MacNeil at Energy, thanks to their resounding success at the last general election. On becoming the third largest party, the SNP were entitled to a share of select committee chairmanships, along with Labour and the Conservatives, due to electoral performance. Given the “roar” of opposition the SNP has been presenting (as Alex Salmond might put it) I think one would be correct in thinking that the SNP select committee chairs will be doing all they can to carve out an independent, and critical, voice in their policy areas. However, the independent mindedness of select committee chairs in not limited to chairs from opposition parties. In fact, it could be argued that Dr Sarah Wollaston (the Conservative MP for Totnes) was able to garner the cross-party support necessary due to her rebellious streak-having voted against the government on votes for 16 and 17 year olds in the EU referendum, the Church of England requirement for the monarch and in support of Zac Goldsmith’s recall bill (to name but a few).
Select committee chairs can also bring an element of expertise on the policy specifics of their briefs. For instance, the experience of Dr Wollaston, a GP of two decades before entering politics, naturally lends itself to her chairing of the Health Select Committee. This was also true of Rory Stewart who, in the last parliament, was chair of the Defence Select Committee. His pre-parliament experience included working for the foreign office, with stints in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the Work and Pensions Select Committee, chairperson Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, was previously Director of the Child Poverty Action Group and Low Pay Unit during the 1970s. From these few examples it seems clear that the knowledge of specific policy areas that many of these chairs possess can only help in the performance of the committee itself.
But it’s not only the nature of select committees and their membership that is changing, but also their status. In the last parliament, chair of the Home Select committee Keith Vaz and his contemporary on the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, became household names. Hodge, from 2013-2014, was mentioned in the press over 2000 times and has often stated that her role in chairing a committee was more influential than her time as a minister. This may in fact be true, with the 30-40% of committee recommendations that become law being testament to the newfound power they possess.
Also, the ability of committees to call upon government ministers and public figures is also noteworthy. The level of scrutiny and probing inquisition presented by MP’s is something not only painful for those being questioned, but also painful to watch. It is therefore no wonder that Rupert Murdoch remarked that his run-in with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was the “most humble day of my life”.
However, even when seasoned select committee members and chairs move on, their expertise on these policy areas stands them in good stead. For instance, the former Tory MP for Thirsk and Malton and chair of the Environment Select Committee, Anne McIntosh, was recently nominated by the Prime Minister for a life peerage. And one must not forget our own Honorary President, John Whittingdale, who due to his service as chair of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee was made Secretary of State for this department after the last election.
Therefore, it is evident that select committees have come a long way from being a play thing for party whips to an informed and independent voice for real policy scrutiny and holding the government to account. Long may their rise continue!