By Stephen Bates and Mark Goodwin
Rupert Murdoch being attacked with a custard pie. Michael Gove alleging a ‘Trot conspiracy’ in English schools. The vice president of Google being informed that ‘you do evil’. Three highlights of the last Parliament, all of which took place within hearings of House of Commons select committees. These cross-party groups of MPs have become an important site for the exercise of Parliament’s scrutiny function and have been regarded by some as arguably the most significant and successful recent innovation in the relationship between the UK government and its legislature. While these committees have limited legislative powers when viewed in comparison with committees in other parliaments, they have received ‘universal praise’ – according to the Wright Committee on Reform of the House – from media, academic analyses and from parliamentarians themselves. Since undergoing significant reform in 2010, select committees have gained a higher profile (see research on media coverage by Dunleavy or Kubala (2011)) and, many claim, have become even more assertive and effective. For example, the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, recently claimed that the 2010 reforms have made Select Committees ‘pivotal players in politics’.
On what basis is such ‘universal praise’ made? Perhaps not on as reliable or comprehensive an evidence base as one might wish. Important research in this area does, of course, exist. For example, the work of Meghan Benton and Meg Russell (2013) and of Andrew Hindmoor, Phil Larkin and Andrew Kennon (2009) tracks the influence of select committee reports on legislative proposals brought forward by government. Yet, while these studies are extremely useful in evaluating some of the work of Select Committees, they cannot provide a complete picture since select committees are not solely, or even primarily, legislative committees. For example, much of the praise enjoyed by select committees is related to their investigative work, as for example, with the Culture, Media and Sport Committee inquiry into phone hacking, or the Public Accounts Committee’s work on tax avoidance by transnational corporations. Indeed, since 2002 and under an overall aim of holding “Ministers and Departments to account for their policy and decision-making and to support the House in its control of the supply of public money and scrutiny of legislation”, departmental select committees have operated with a series of core tasks – revised in 2013 and currently ten in number: scrutiny of (1) departmental strategy; (2) departmental policy; (3) departmental expenditure and performance; (4) draft bills; (5) post-legislative processes and outcomes; (6) draft EU legislation and EU documents; (7) departmental appointments; (8) assisting the House in the consideration of Bills and Statutory Instruments; (9) supporting the House by informing debate through reports; and (10) engaging with the public. To these tasks can be added those of the ‘domestic’ or ‘administrative’ select committees, such as the Procedure and Backbench Business Committees, concerning the organisation and running of the House, as well as perhaps informal tasks related to, for example, providing a training ground for MPs destined for the (shadow) cabinet. Hindmoor et. al. also talk of five potential targets for select committee influence: government, Parliament, political parties, the media, and interest groups – to which can perhaps be added a sixth: the general public. Taken together, these tasks and targets produce a fairly complex matrix by which to identify and measure different indicators of select committee performance.
A more rounded evaluation of select committees in general and of the impact of the 2010 reforms in particular, then, requires empirical evidence across a wide range of areas. It is to this purpose that our Select Committee Data Archive Project (1979-present), part funded by the British Academy, is directed. Drawing on Sessional Returns and other parliamentary documents, as well as existing datasets on MPs’ backgrounds and parliamentary careers, we are collecting and analysing information on select committee membership, activity and outputs in order to provide evidence that can help to evaluate some of the different facets of select committee performance or, where this is not possible from the data collected, to point towards where and how we might be able to find such evidence. This should hopefully put us in a better position to decide whether praise for the different aspects of select committee work is deserved or otherwise.
Dr Stephen Bates is lecturer in political science at the Department of Political Science and International Studies, University of Birmingham. His main research is at the intersection of British politics, governance research, and political sociology.
Dr Mark Goodwin is post-doctoral fellow in public policy at the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. His main research interests are in contemporary British politics and public policy, especially schools policy in England.