Should the 2015-17 Parliament be remembered for anything more than Brexit? Alexandra Meakin looks at Select Committee work over the last two years.
How to assess the 2015-2017 Parliament? Its theme was set right at the beginning, when the Queen set out the Government’s intention to “renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union” and to legislate “for an in-out referendum on membership of the European Union before the end of 2017”. Legislating for the referendum, and handling the consequences of its unexpected outcome, dominated the first eighteen months of the parliament. This had been expected to continue throughout 2017, but instead of scrutinising the planned Great Repeal Bill, MPs found themselves pounding the streets, as Brexit was the spur for an early general election, bringing the Parliament to a close some three years earlier than planned.
The BBC’s Mark D’Arcy has argued that the past two years are likely to be remembered as the “Brexit Parliament”. Brexit was certainly the main topic on the committee corridor in the past few months, where there were 55 separate select committee inquiries taking place. A new ‘super-size’ select committee was established to scrutinise the Department for Exiting the EU, although as Marc Geddes describes, its aims and objectives remain unclear.
But it was not just on Brexit where select committees were active and high-profile. Further new committees were established, bringing previously unconsidered issues to be considered in the Palace of Westminster. The Women and Equalities Committee, for example, carried out parliament’s first ever inquiry into transgender issues, and in doing so, the Chair Maria Miller said they received “an opportunity to gain some sort of insight into the prejudice, discrimination and ignorance that trans people endure every single day of their lives, but also the great joy that they experience when they are able to be recognised by the gender with which they identify”. In the Lords too, short-term ad hoc select committees extended the parliamentary spotlight to cover issues such as financial exclusion; the long-term sustainability of the NHS; and sexual violence in conflict. More committees went outside of London to take evidence, or sought evidence from under-presented groups or in new formats. Across both Houses committees were innovative in the topics they chose and the people they spoke to.
A new Petitions Committee was established, offering a much-needed improvement to the previous Number 10 petition system, and as Cristina Leston-Bandeira described, representing “a formal integration of the citizen’s voice into the parliamentary process”. Through the Petitions Committee over 50 topical issues were brought to the Commons Chamber and Westminster Hall, including a call for a second EU referendum (over four million signatures); the visit of Donald Trump to the UK (over two million signatures on two petitions); and the availability of the Meningitis B vaccine. Direct communication with all petition signatories, in addition to use of Twitter and web forums on specific issues raised in petitions, has transformed how many people communicate with parliament.
There was a noticeable increase in committees acting jointly to hold the government to account on cross-cutting issues, including a four-committee inquiry on air quality, and a joint inquiry with a committee in the Scottish Parliament. The joint scrutiny of BHS by the BIS and Work and Pensions Committees, and work by the Transport Committee on the Volkswagen Group emissions violations and Vauxhall vehicle fires; and by the BIS Committee on working practices at Sports Direct also demonstrated a growing trend in which Committees have sought to hold private companies to account directly, highlighting potential failures in regulation, but also raising questions about the roles and powers of select committees themselves. Sir Philip Green, the former owner of BHS, had lawyers on his behalf describe the process as a “kangaroo court”. Perhaps the issues of select committee powers and privileges, considered only recently by a Joint Select Committee in the previous parliament, will require further examination.
Joint working did not extend to all Committees, however, with two high profile cases where committees publicly disagreed with each other, in reports on the same topic. The Committee on Arms Export Control (comprised of four separate Commons committees) divided in September 2016 on the use of UK-manufactured arms in Yemen; with the Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and International Development Committees calling for the suspension of sales to Saudi Arabia of arms which might be used in the conflict in Yemen, while on the same day the Foreign Affairs Committee instead called for the High Court to decide on the legality of such sales (the fourth committee comprising CAEC, the Defence Committee, declining to endorse either option). In March 2017 the Public Accounts Committee called for an urgent decision on plans for the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster: a week later the Treasury Committee published a “preliminary report”, prior to taking evidence, calling for such a decision to be delayed.
These disputes demonstrate how each Committee is its own entity, and emphasises the importance of the Committee Chair. The decision of three high-profile Labour figures: Hillary Benn, Yvette Cooper and Mary Creagh to challenge for, and secure committee chair roles when they became vacant during the Parliament signalled the status the positions are held among MPs—and possibly also the potential for such posts to offer an alternative opportunity for parliamentarians in opposition to their party leadership to highlight their heavyweight policy credentials.
Of course, the early general election has led to much of this work being brought to a premature halt—or abandoned completely. As Hannah White of the Institute for Government has pointed out, of the 300 inquiries underway when the election was called, 45 reports were rushed out; almost 100 inquiries were abandoned entirely, and a further 122 left without a Government response. Perhaps this will be most keenly felt in the fledgling Petitions Committee: over 31,000 petitions fell at the dissolution of Parliament. These included 16 petitions awaiting a Government response, and nine petitions which had reached the 100,000 threshold for a parliamentary debate, but not been debated. In light of the efforts made by parliament as a whole, and individual committees, to encourage the public, charities and community groups to submit evidence or sign petitions it must be hoped the unexpected curtailment of committee work, does not discourage future engagement with parliament.
But despite the impact of Brexit, the work of select committees in the 2010-2015 Parliament should be remembered for more than just reacting to the referendum result. By innovating in the topics, they chose; how they communicated with the public and how they worked together, select committees have continued to build on the foundations established in the first post-Wright reforms parliament. Whether committees can continue these trends, and how they can handle Brexit, alongside their wider remits, are questions to consider as we look ahead to the 2017 Parliament.
Alexandra Meakin is a doctoral student at the University of Sheffield and Research Fellow at the Crick Centre, where she is examining the governance of the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster. She previously spent over a decade working for MPs and for House of Commons select committees.
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