Debating the Effectiveness of House of Commons Departmental Select Committees in Informing the House

Stephen Holden Bates (University of Birmingham), Mark Goodwin (Coventry University), Steve McKay (University of Lincoln) and Wang Leung Ting (LSE) discuss the impact of departmental select committee work on business in the House of Commons chamber.

One of the core tasks of departmental select committees is to support the House of Commons by producing “timely reports to inform debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or debating committees, and to examine petitions tabled”. One way – but not the only way – of measuring the effectiveness of departmental select committees in undertaking this task is to count the number of select committee reports that are debated in some form within Parliament

We used sessional returns from 1985-86, which is when this information started to become available, until 2016-17 both to count the number of reports and other select committee publications, such as evidence and responses by government, that are debated or tagged in debate during a parliamentary session, and to count the number of reports that are debated or tagged in debate at least once at some point after their publication.

There are several ways in which select committee reports and publication might be considered by the House. First, the select committee reports themselves might be the subject of a debate in the main chamber. This can happen at the point that the reports are released (launch debate) or at a later time. Second, select committee reports could be debated in Westminster Hall, the secondary chamber, once again either at launch or later on. Third, they can be ‘tagged’ – i.e. on the Order Paper for a given day of parliamentary business, they can be listed as relevant to a debate in the main chamber on a subject other than the report itself[1]. Fourth, they can be tagged as relevant to a debate in Westminster Hall.

Numbers of Published Items Debated per Parliamentary Session

Over the period covered, items published by departmental select committees were debated or tagged in debate in Parliament at least 1716 times[i]. Figure 1 shows both the unweighted figures and the weighted scores, as well as trend lines, for the number of items debated per parliamentary session; the weighted score taking into account the length of parliamentary session.

Bates et al fig 1Figure 1: Number of Items Published by Departmental Select Committees Debated during a Parliamentary Session (Unweighted & Weighted; with Trend Lines), 1985-2017

As can be seen, there is a gradual increase in the number of items being debated over time but the introduction of ‘core tasks’ in 2002 and, specifically, the core task concerning informing the House does not, on the face of it, appear to have had a startling impact on the number of items debated. Rather, it appears, as elsewhere[ii], that the core tasks have codified something which was undergoing a secular increase over time (as well as perhaps the fact that the number of departmental committees publishing various items has tended to increase over time).

Table 1 presents the average weighted scores of select committees for the number of published items debated per parliamentary session[iii]. On this measure, of those committees which have not been in existence for only a short time, the Defence, Justice, Communities & Local Government, International Development and Transport Select Committees are the most successful in informing the House, and the Scottish Affairs, Northern Ireland Affairs, Education, Culture, Media and Sport, and Welsh Affairs Select Committees are the least successful.

Table 1: Average Weighted Score of Select Committees for the Number of Published Items Debated per Session

Select Committee (& Forerunners) Average Weighted Score No. Sessions
Defence 16.49 31
Justice 15.11 9
Communities & Local Government 12.70 19
International Development 12.28 19
Transport 11.46 31
Environment, Food & Rural Affairs* 11.42 31
Energy & Climate Change 10.57 15
Women & Equalities 10.28 2
Treasury 9.77 31
Work & Pensions* 9.63 31
Foreign Affairs 8.48 31
Health 6.77 31
Business 6.71 31
Home Affairs 6.08 31
Science & Technology 6.05 31
Welsh Affairs 4.61 31
Culture, Media & Sport 3.89 24
Education 3.79 31
Northern Ireland Affairs 3.33 22
Scottish Affairs 2.75 26
Exiting the European Union 2.57 1
International Trade 0.00 1
* Families of Select Committees for which more than one committee was counted for at least one parliamentary session.

Number of Full Reports Debated at Least Once

Of the 3605 full reports published by departmental select committees over this time period, 1035 (29%) were debated or tagged in a debate at least once and 2570 (71%) were never debated or tagged in debate[iv].

As can be seen in Figure 2, while the trend line for the absolute number of full reports debated or tagged in debate at least once has risen over the period, the trend line for the percentage has declined. This may be partly accounted for by the fact that the output of departmental select committees has increased over time. Select committee members may also have decided, over time, to devote more of their energies to one of the other nine core tasks with which they are charged, or to other work that committees undertake whether formally codified or otherwise. Members may increasingly regard government, the media, the policy community, or the general public as the main audiences for their publications rather than, or more so than, Parliament.

Bates et al fig 2Figure 2: Number & Percentage of Full Reports Published by Departmental Select Committees Debated at Least Once by Parliamentary Session

Table 2 shows the percentage of full reports which were debated at least once for each of the departmental select committees. On this measure, the Defence Select Committee is again the most successful at informing the House with almost half of its reports being debated at least once, followed by the Transport, Work & Pensions, International Development and Energy & Climate Change Select Committees (among those committees which have not been in existence for only a short time). The Scottish Affairs, Education, Culture, Media & Sport, Home Affairs and Business Select Committees are the least successful in this regard.

Table 2: Percentage of Full Reports Debated at Least Once by Select Committee

Select Committee (& Forerunners) Debated >0 (%) Average No. Reports per Session No. Sessions
Defence 47 9.6 31
Women & Equalities 42 6.0 2
Transport 35 9.3 31
Work & Pensions 34 8.3 31
Exiting the European Union 33 3.0 1
International Development 33 9.0 19
Energy & Climate Change 32 6.9 15
Health 31 5.9 31
Communities & Local Government 31 11.3 19
Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 30 10.9 31
Foreign Affairs 29 6.7 31
Justice 27 10.7 9
Treasury 27 9.9 31
Science & Technology 23 7.0 29
Northern Ireland Affairs 23 4.0 21
Welsh Affairs 22 4.3 31
Business 22 8.5 31
Home Affairs 21 7.5 31
Culture, Media & Sport 20 6.3 24
Education 20 6.4 29
Scottish Affairs 17 3.8 26
International Trade 0 1.0 1

Are Select Committees Effective in Informing the House?

Without comparative data that looks at committee systems in other legislatures, it is not really possible to say whether or not the select committee system in the UK is effective in informing parliamentary debate. What we can say is that the departmental select committees appear to be getting slightly better at achieving this core task over time in as far as more of their output is debated in Parliament. There are a number of possible reasons for this. There are now more opportunities to debate select committee work after the introduction of Westminster Hall debates and the possibility of launching a select committee enquiry on the Floor. It may be that select committees have become better at identifying what is coming up on the legislative agenda, or more willing to address it earlier in the process. It may also be that select committees are better at setting the parliamentary agenda. It may simply be that select committees have decided to concentrate more on this task (although not necessarily as much as they could do, given the decline over time in the percentage of reports debated or tagged in debates at least once). A less positive interpretation would be that an increasing percentage of select committee work is not picked up and debated by – or even intended for – Parliament, even with the increasing resources devoted to select committees, and the increased number of opportunities for Parliament to select this material for debate through report launches, Westminster Hall or the Backbench Business Committee.

It is also possible to say that some committees are more effective than others at informing debate. The Defence Select Committee stands out in this regard, coming top in both the measures we focus on here. Furthermore, the fact that the Defence and Culture, Media and Sport Select Committees occupy opposite ends of the scale in terms of how frequently their reports inform parliamentary debate is perhaps significant. The Defence Select Committee is arguably the archetype of an ‘inward-looking’ committee that focuses its activity on regular, routine or ‘police patrol’ scrutiny of its corresponding government department. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee tends to interpret and prioritise the core tasks in a very different way, often undertaking campaigning, agenda-setting inquiries that attract a high media profile but apparently do not as frequently draw the attention of the House. Of course, it is also important to note that select committees do not operate in a vacuum and, to a certain extent at least, they are reliant on opportunities provided by the government’s legislative agenda, the government-controlled timetable and, to a lesser extent, Opposition Day or Backbench Debates.

These findings ought to qualify any blanket statements about how effective committees are in performing the tasks assigned to them. Committees and Committee Chairs may interpret their scrutiny role in very different ways and face trade-offs in attempting to fulfil the wide range of tasks assigned to them. A more outward-looking committee that prioritises public engagement and agenda setting may be less effective in the more inward-looking tasks of scrutinising departmental policy, administration and expenditure or informing debates in the House. Since select committees are quite weakly connected to the legislative work of the House and lack coercive powers to affect the behaviour of government, there is always a danger, whatever the intentions of the membership and Chair, that committees produce reports that merely gather dust rather than leading to action.

Overall, these findings suggest that select committees are only moderately successful in getting Parliament to engage with their work, although they are (probably) getting better. This ought to lead to some reflection as to why this is, and whether or not there is a need to re-focus the work of departmental select committees so that it is more directed towards this core task.

Notes

Stephen Holden Bates is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Birmingham, UK. Follow him on Twitter: @Stephen_R_Bates 

Mark Goodwin is a Lecturer in Politics at Coventry University. Follow him on Twitter: @MarkRGoodwin

Steve McKay is Distinguished Professor in Social Research at University of Lincoln. Follow him on Twitter: @SocialPolicy 

Wang Leung Ting is a Fellow in the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Follow him on Twitter: @kiwiting

Our project, the Select Committee Data Archive (1979-Present), from which this blog emanates, was part funded by the British Academy (SQ140007).

[1] For example, a report by the Health Select Committee on mental health might be ‘tagged’ as relevant to a chamber debate on NHS reform.

[i] This is a conservative figure, as are all the results presented here, because, from anecdotal evidence, the number of reports recorded in the Sessional Returns as having been debated or tagged in a debate is probably lower than the reality.

[ii] See Gaines, Goodwin, Holden Bates and Sin (2019) for a working paper which has similar findings regarding the ability of select committees to make their work accessible to the public, as measured by visibility of committees within the print media. Please contact either Mark Goodwin or Stephen Holden Bates if you are interested in a copy.

[iii] The rankings of the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs and the Work & Pensions Select Committees may be artificially higher because more than one committee was counted for at least one parliamentary session when the figures were collated into select committee families.

[iv] These figures are slightly skewed by a small number of reports, such as the annual reports introduced in 2002-03, which were never intended to be debated or tagged in debate on the floor of the House of Commons or Westminster Hall.

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