Please note that this piece has been cross-posted with the permission of the author. It was originally published on the Institute for Government blog, and is available here.
By Hannah White
In the aftermath of the election the shape of the select committee system in the new parliament is now beginning to emerge. Hannah White offers some thoughts about what has changed and where we might see more continuity.
Limited structural change
The Commons select committee system largely mirrors the departmental structure of Whitehall, together with some cross-cutting committees such as the Public Accounts Committee and Environmental Audit. Consequently the government’s decision to forgo the temptation of making unnecessary machinery of government changes to mark the start of the new parliament – showing the sort of restraint that the IfG has argued for – means that the select committee system will also stay broadly the same. Change has been limited to the creation of two new committees, the abolition of one, and a consequent change in remit for another.
The first new select committee – Women and Equalities – has its origins in the July 2014 report of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in Parliament. The new committee will scrutinise the Government Equalities Office and examine the gender and equality impacts of government policies. Some have argued that it might even decide to direct its gaze beyond Whitehall to look at broader issues of gender and inequality in society – moving more towards the model established by the Public Accounts Committee. Much will depend on the ambition of whoever ends up chairing it.
The second new select committee – Petitions – also has potential to change Parliament’s relationship with the public. It will consider the outputs of a revamped e-petitions website now jointly administered by Parliament and Government, as well as traditional paper petitions submitted to the Commons. Its main job will be to decide which petitions get to be debated in Westminster Hall, but it also has the power to call petitioners to give oral evidence, to seek information from the Government and to refer petitions for consideration by select committees. How broadly will its new chair decide to interpret its remit?
The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee was set up in 2010 when Nick Clegg’s portfolio of constitutional affairs was moved from the Ministry of Justice into the Cabinet Office. Now it is no longer in coalition the government has decided to abolish the committee and combine its remit with that of the existing Public Administration Committee (PASC) – creating a committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. With the government’s programme of civil service reform and the impact of austerity on Whitehall to scrutinise, PASC was already a busy committee. As others have argued, it will be challenging for the new committee to scrutinise its new portfolio effectively given the potential scope of the constitutional change that we could see in this Parliament. This could include: a referendum on Europe; further devolution of powers to cities, Scotland and Wales; the introduction of ‘English Votes for English Laws’; and a new bill of rights to replace the Human Rights Act.
How many select committee chairs will be elected?
The total number of chairs to be elected has increased by two – from 24 to 26. This is because, in addition to the net gain of one committee outlined above, the chair of the Standards Committee will be elected for the first time. This move – designed to bolster the House’s confidence in the committee – will be accompanied by a rebalancing of the committee’s membership to include seven lay members alongside seven MPs. This is intended to bolster public confidence in the committee’s ability objectively to evaluate the behaviour of MPs. Public confidence is likely to be tested again in this parliament – not least when the Standards Committee considers the findings of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on allegations about Alistair Carmichael MP leaking a government memo during the election campaign. If she finds he has a case to answer, the Committee will have to decide what penalty to impose; deliberating for the first time in the context of the Recall of MPs Act 2015 under which a suspension of ten sitting days or more would trigger the first recall petition process in Carmichael’s constituency.
Which party gets which select committee?
As usual the overall distribution of chairs between parties reflects the political make-up of the House. The main change is that the SNP – with 56 members – now has two chairs (Scottish Affairs and Energy and Climate Change), while the Liberal Democrats – now with only eight members – have lost the two chairs they had in 2010 (Justice and International Development). In 2010 the Conservatives had 12 chairs, to Labour’s ten and the Liberal Democrats two. Reflecting the shift in the parties’ numbers of seats, the Conservatives now have 14 chairs, in comparison to Labour’s ten and the SNP’s two.
There is a great deal of continuity from 2010 in which party will chair which committee – only five of the 26 chairs available have changed party. Labour and the Conservatives have each taken one of the chairs previously held by the Liberal Democrats (Labour – International Development and the Conservatives – Justice). The SNP has unsurprisingly chosen to chair Scottish Affairs (previously Labour), and has also taken on Energy and Climate Change (previously Conservative) – reflecting Scotland’s interests in oil, gas and renewable energy. The only other committee to change hands is Science and Technology – which will now be chaired by a Conservative instead of a Labour backbencher. And Labour and the Conservatives each get one of the new committees – Labour take on Petitions and the Conservatives Women and Equalities.
Who will stand for election to the select committees?
Campaigning for the chairs of these committees has been under way since news of final appointments to each party’s front bench confirmed who had been left on the backbenches at the start of this parliament. But following the debate on the motion allocating chairs to political parties it will now get going in earnest – with potential chairs seeking opportunities to raise their profile among their peers across the House.
The relative stability in party allocation of chairs means a high proportion of incumbent chairs eligible to stand – should they so wish – for the same committee in the new parliament. Of the 26 committees with elected chairs, seven are either new committees or have changed party – preventing an incumbent from standing again. The chairs of another six committees were either deselected before the election (Yeo and MacIntosh), stood down as MPs (Ottaway), lost their seats (Begg) or have taken ministerial roles (Whittingdale and Stewart). This leaves 13 committees with incumbent chairs who could choose to stand. The incumbent chairs seeking re-election seem likely to include some who built a high profile in the last parliament – such as Andrew Tyrie MP on Treasury – but not others – such as Margaret Hodge MP on PAC. Having taken over from John Denham MP as chair of the Home Affairs Committee in July 2007, Keith Vaz MP escapes the term limit on committee chairs (the two previous parliaments or eight years whichever is the greater period) so looks likely to stand again for Home Affairs.
… and who will not stand for select committee election?
Not all chairs are subject to House-wide election. A number of committees continue under the old system, under which – through heavy influence from the whips – the committee itself chooses a chair from among its members (themselves appointed by the whips). But the party affiliation of the chair of those committees is agreed in advance as part of the deal struck by the usual channels when allocating chairs to the committees discussed above. Which party takes those chairs is not an insignificant point though. Among the committees with non-elected chairs are at least two with a potentially significant role to play in this Parliament. European Scrutiny should play a key role in leading committee scrutiny of the Prime Minister’s attempts to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with Europe and subsequent referendum. Meanwhile the Joint Committee on Human Rights will presumably take a strong interest in the potential introduction of a British Bill of Rights.
The party whips will be thinking pretty carefully about who they line up to chair those committees. And that is an illustration – if one were needed – of just why backbenchers argued for secret House-wide ballots to choose the chairs of the select committees who scrutinise the Executive in the first place.
Hannah White joined the Institute for Government in May 2014, on secondment from the House of Commons as Programme Director, to lead a piece of work on recent developments in the parliamentary scrutiny of public policy. She has over ten years experience in Parliament and the civil service, most recently running the Committee on Standards on Public Life in the Cabinet Office and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons. Previously she was Private Secretary to the Clerk and Chief Executive of the House of Commons. She is on Twitter @DrHannahWhite.