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Select committees not always successful in scrutiny role

Mike McCartney

26th October 2021

These bodies are important, but here is a good example of when they fail

I have frequently waxed lyrical about the success of departmental select committees on this blog site. A common refrain goes something like this...

Arguably the single most important development in executive-legislative relations is the introduction of departmental select committees in the UK in 1979. There are numerous examples of their excellent work to support this assertion. Some of the most prominent include: Arms to Africa (1999); ineffective Office of the Deputy PM (2002, 2005); role of Attorney General (2007).

It is the increasingly high profile that these bodies have achieved over the last decade, however, that is of particular focus here since it is a very recent change and definitely one that would impress examiners if referred to explicitly in the given context. A report released by the Democratic Audit once went as far as saying that the media coverage of select committees is now at unprecedented levels and that their work even merits international attention. This upsurge has occurred following Tony Wright's House of Commons Reform Committee (Rebuilding the House) recommendations [specifically here in respect of select committees]:

• chairs are now elected on a free (and secret) ballot of all MPs

• backbench members, not whips, determine who should represent their party on each committee

Wright (a former MP and now a Professorial Fellow at Birkbeck) himself has hinted that the real action is far away from the floor of the Commons: “The external media attention that the House gets comes far more from the Select Committee system than from anywhere else.”

In depth analysis by the team (Patrick Dunleavy and Dominic Muir) at the Democratic Audit reveals that media mentions of work by committees more than trebled between 2008 and 2012. Unsurprisingly, much of this increase can be attributed to the work of four major committees: Public Accounts; Home Affairs (especially after the English riots in 2011); Treasury; and Culture, Media, and Sport. But increased broadcast and press coverage was evident almost across the board, with 17 of the 25 committees experiencing growth.

The Wright reforms have in part achieved, therefore, what they set out to. Namely, increase the public profile of Parliament. The caveat here, of course, is that more press coverage does not necessarily mean that the public consciousness of the inner working of Parliament has changed. If it hasn’t, given the magnitude of the change it can’t be long before voters recognise the shift.

So what does this mean in terms of the ability of the legislature to hold the executive to account? Peter Riddell once wrote that select committees have “been a major factor in the opening up of the workings of government over the past twenty years”. If this is the case, and one of the most effective limbs of the parliamentary apparatus is receiving far more media attention, government departments are far more likely to be held liable for their actions.

This week, however, Lord Frost appeared in front of the European Scrutiny Committee and the session was hardly a shining example of holding government to account.

John Crace, the Guardian columnist, writes:

"The clue should be in the name. The purpose of the European scrutiny committee ought to be to scrutinise. Only it turns out there are times when the select committee, largely composed of hardline Brexiters, will go to some lengths to do anything but. Especially when their star witness is the Brexit minister, Lord Frost. The man on whom so many of them have staked all their hopes. This is a committee which exists as an echo chamber. It only hears what it wants to hear."

Crace's quite satirical column can be found in full here:

A recording of the session, if one can bear to watch it, can be found here:

Mike McCartney

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

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