Select Committees: new chairs, lessons and some thoughts

Scrutiny, evidence, magnifying glass

Today, the Speaker, John Bercow, announced the results of the elections for the chairs of the new select committees see here. Janet Sillett adds a few thoughts about what’s good about the committees, what’s not so good, and what’s new.

Some of the elections for the chairs were hotly contested – with candidates publishing mini manifestos (and who knows what was going on behind the scenes). So chairing select committees is now seen as prestigious and, crucially, influential.

Of course, some are more sought after than others and some, notably the Public Accounts and the Home Affairs committees, are increasingly high profile. Others got lots of attention in the last parliament because of the issues they were covering – Culture, Media and Sport, for example, because of hacking and the Murdoch sessions.

The CLG committee (once again to be chaired by Clive Betts MP) isn’t high profile. But many MPs, especially with a local government background, are keen to be on it. And it does solid, if not exciting, work. It doesn’t always get the results it wants but it does affect the agenda and tone of the debate.

CLG isn’t the only committee local government needs to be paying attention to – indeed most of the committees are relevant: PAC, for example, is slowly taking over some of the work of the old Audit Committee, the Health Committee is clearly crucial, Energy and Climate Change worth watching out for, Transport interesting, Environment, Food and Local Affairs can be useful too.

Committees in general are gaining in influence and attention – coverage of individual committees more than tripled between 2008 and 2012. And studies estimate that between 30-40% of select committee recommendations end up as government policy.

What’s new in this session – there are two new committees – Women and Equalities and Petitions. Maybe, like PAC, Women and Equalities will look beyond Westminster at the broader picture beyond how government policies impact on gender and equalities. Local government should be very involved here.

The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been abolished (controversially) – its remit has been combined with that of the existing Public Administration Committee (PASC). creating the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. Could this rather dry sounding committee be the one to watch in 2015/16, given the massive constitutional debates coming up?

What can local government learn from how select committees work? The perception of independence from the executive possibly – the continuing chair of the health committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, is a good example, though scrutiny committees are not usually partisan either? The resourcing of the committees perhaps.

One of the lessons, though, doesn’t reflect so positively on select committees. Although committees can have a genuine effect on immediate issues, increasing accountability and providing ideas, they don’t always look at the longer term. In a report looking at the work of select committees in the last parliament, the Institute for Government said there had been innovations and improvements since 2010, but further reforms were needed – they should focus explicitly on impact and outcomes, rather than tasks and outputs, and should clearly identify their aims and then structure their inquiries to deliver them. They should also evaluate the effectiveness of their inquiries once reports have been published.

And perhaps some of the techniques used by the more high profile committees aren’t that appropriate for local government (or for that matter for select committees either) – some chairs can occasionally harass witnesses, turning the committee into being more a trial. Question, challenge, scrutinise – yes, but intimidation is probably a bad idea.

So the lessons can work both ways. Local government scrutiny committees don’t often make the headlines, but they are less confrontational than some select committees and some are really good at involving the public – which select committees usually are not. How scrutiny works and accountability can be strengthened in local and central government, education and health has become more and more of a public issue, following major scandals such as the Mid Staffs and Rotherham child exploitation. The foundations for strong and effective scrutiny are clearly in place – let’s learn from each other.

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