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In the News

Select committees and role of Commons: case study

Mike McCartney

20th March 2023

Often called the real engine rooms of government, we've taken something from this year's Budget as a case study of their effectiveness.

One of the principal ways that Parliament serves the people is holding the government to account - echoing ‘great reformer’, William Gladstone, who is reported to have said to Members of Parliament that ‘Your business is not to govern the country, but it is, if you think fit, to call to account those who do’.

And when it comes to this function, select committees are far more effective than other mechanisms, such as PMQs. The introduction of departmental select committees in the UK in 1979 allows these non-partisan bodies to call for ‘persons, papers and records’ and can be seen to have resulted in more open government and act as a useful deterrent on an over mighty executive. Furthermore, the Prime Minister is now called to answer questions twice a year by the Liaison Committee. Peter Riddell has argued that select committees have ‘been a major factor in the opening up of the workings of government over the past twenty years.’

So we have taken a response by the Work and Pensions Committee to the recent budget in relation to proposed changes to welfare payments for this out of work for health reasons. As the i reported:

"The Government’s plans to streamline health and disability benefits are lacking crucial details with “fundamental questions” on how people will be protected, a senior MP has warned.

Stephen Timms, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, told i he was concerned at the lack of clarity around the proposed benefit changes given ministers intend to begin the legislative process within the coming year.

And he said the reforms could see a “fair number of people” missing out on benefits who would otherwise have been eligible, unless the changes were enacted with caution."

On the Work and Pensions Committee website, there is a call for greater clarity on the government's planned reforms. As a class we are going to monitor developments in relation to this issue, and potentially follow up on it by contacting the committee and/or its chair if information is not published. Out of work/disability payments is an read that obviously affects a great deal of people, but not one that necessarily gains a great deal of pubic attention. By holding the government to accept, therefore, we can see that committees can have something of what we used to call the 'Heineken effect' - i.e. the ability to reach parts of the governmental system that other bodies can't reach.

Watch this space.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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