1979 and all that: an alternative view of select committee reform

Dr Philip Aylett, House of Commons Clerk, discusses his doctoral research on select committees in the 1960s and 70s.

The establishment in 1979 of select committees to cover the work of government departments is often seen as pivotal to the development of backbench scrutiny in the Commons. But is this conventional account accurate? This blog suggests that there had already been considerable and sustained growth in the quantity and impact of select committee activity over the previous 15 years, and that we should, therefore, not place too much emphasis on the ‘1979’ committees.

In the late 1950s, committee scrutiny of policy matters had been rare, with only around 200 MPs serving on select committees of any kind. Michael Rush calculates that there was on average just 0.8 of an investigatory select committee meeting per sitting day in 1956-57. But committee scrutiny took important steps forward during the mid-1960s, when Richard Crossman introduced his ‘specialist’ committees, and the existing Estimates Committee was reorganised with sub-committees covering large policy areas – a modest step towards a departmental system. The specialist committees certainly had mixed fortunes. However, too much has been made of the demise of one committee, agriculture, after a dispute with the government over a visit to Brussels during EEC accession negotiations in 1967. Other specialist committees, including one on the key contemporary issue of race relations, took the place of agriculture. These 1960s committees were explicitly seen as an ‘experiment’, but in terms of impact on the life of the House, it was an experiment that worked; during 1968-69 278 MPs were members of select committees. With the more policy-oriented Expenditure Committee replacing Estimates Committee, growth continued in the 1970s.  291 Members served on select committees in 1974-75 and 294 in 1975-76. Significantly, meetings multiplied; whereas in the two sessions of 1960-61 and 1961-62 there were a total of 550 select committee meetings, in 1975-76 and 1976-77 combined there were about 1500.

Select committees also had an impact on policy; of about 800 recommendations made by the Expenditure Committee during its life between 1971 and 1979 over half were accepted to one degree or another, and less than 20 percent were rejected. These recommendations were sometimes wide-ranging;  an Expenditure Committee Report of 1971-72 on Probation and After-Care urged that the prison welfare system ‘should be thoroughly examined at an early date’, a recommendation that was accepted. The Committee’s 1973 Report on the Employment of Women made a number of major recommendations and the government responded by, among other things, agreeing to remove inequality in the level of training grants.

Some inquiries by sub-committees of Expenditure Committee addressed major issues of foreign policy, including one in 1977 on the implementation of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe which tackled topics such as ‘the interdependence of detente and human rights’. Another inquiry with foreign policy implications concerned the treatment by British firms of their black South African workers. Many companies and some Conservative backbenchers were disturbed by the impact of the inquiry on UK business in South Africa.  Accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 was also taken very seriously by select committees. As early as July 1973, the European Commission was said to be anxious that it was being overwhelmed by the number of Westminster committees coming to Brussels to take evidence.

Some 1970s committees were prepared to make a stand on constitutional issues. In 1975  and 1976 Harold Lever, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was accused of interfering in decisions on government financial support to Chrysler’s ailing British motor operation. The Trade and Industry Sub-Committee of the Expenditure Committee wanted Lever to give evidence, but the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, refused to let him appear. The issue was brought up by Margaret Thatcher, Leader of the Opposition, who said that requests to Ministers to appear before select committees should be regarded as ‘mandatory’. Cabinet concluded that there was

some danger of Chairmen of Select Committees seeing themselves as comparable to the Chairmen of the powerful Senate and Congressional Committees in the United States.

In the event, the Sub-Committee did not insist on Lever appearing; it had been pragmatic, but the case showed the potential for backbench committees to assert themselves. Indeed, select committees came up regularly in Cabinet discussions in the 1970s: for instance between 1974 and 1979 there were 171 references to the phrase ‘select committee’ in Cabinet conclusions and memoranda. Interestingly, between 1980 and 1986, the number of references in those Cabinet papers to ‘select committee’ was just 80, suggesting the surprising conclusion that, if anything, 1980s backbenchers on departmental committees proved less troublesome to Cabinet than their 1970s predecessors.

Rare in the earlier decades of the 20th century, ad hoc select committees became more frequent during the 1970s. During the 1970-74 Parliament, there were select committees on the Civil List, and on corporation tax as well as on tax credits. After 1974 there were committees on Cyprus, violence in marriage and the notion of a wealth tax. Although most were set up on the initiative of government, several of these committees flexed parliamentarian muscles. The Select Committee on Violence in Marriage of 1974-75 forced a reluctant Barbara Castle, Secretary of State for Social Services, to give evidence.  The wider political impact of committees began to grow. In the chambers of both Houses the numbers of references to the term ‘select committee’ rose from 4970 in the 1950s to 7401 in the 1960s and to 14041 in the 1970s. The phrase ‘estimates committee’ was mentioned in the chambers just 283 times during the 1950s, but in the 1960s the figure rose to 1594. Media coverage increased; there was a combined total of just 2900 references to the phrase ‘select committee’ in The Times, The Guardian and The Observer in the 1960s, whereas in the 1970s there were nearly 6000.

The select committees of the 1970s were patchy and unsystematic, but they were often vigorous and could be challenging to government. It was not surprising therefore that, when discussing proposals for a Procedure Committee on parliamentary reform in January 1976, members of the Labour Cabinet, already harassed by the growth of dissent in Commons voting, favoured reducing the number of committees. Cabinet was recorded as having complained at ‘the growing Committee structure’ which was creating ‘pressure on the time of MPs’.  As it turned out, the Procedure Committee which reported in 1978 proposed the committee structure that has lasted to this day.

The 1979 developments were certainly very important – during the 1980s many more ministers came before select committees and more reports were published, and the new system gave greater clarity and focus to the work of committees. Scrutiny became more comprehensive, though the setting of core tasks for departmental committees in 2002 was probably the crucial change in that respect. But the birth of the departmental committees should not be seen as the key event in the 20th -century development of select committees and of the role of backbenchers in scrutinising government. Rather 1979 was largely a sensible restructuring, one part of a sustained process of committee strengthening which started about 1965, took major steps forward with the Wright reforms of 2010, and may not yet be over.


Philip Aylett has been clerk of several House of Commons select committees. This blog is partly based on his thesis Thirty Years of Reform: House of Commons Select Committees, 1960-1990







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