In the latest episode of the ‘Parliament Unpacked’ podcast, we look at Select Committees in the House of Commons, and their role in how Westminster operates.
House of Commons Select Committees
There are four main categories of Select Committees in the House of Commons – Departmental, Cross-Cutting, Domestic, and Legislative, with each of these examining a specific aspect of Parliament or Westminster as a whole. The majority of Select Committees can be placed in the first two of these categories.
Departmental and Cross-Cutting Select Committees
Departmental Committees follow the work of a specific Government Department and its associated public bodies, and look at its spending, policy choices, and at its administration. With the exception of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, each Departmental Committee composes a Committee Chair and 10 other Backbench MPs.
Cross-Cutting Select Committees assess the Government’s performance on a single issue across a range of Departments and bodies. The two prime examples of Cross-Cutting Committees are the Public Accounts Committee, which investigates the value for money and efficiency of Government projects and programmes; and the Environmental Audit Committee, which looks at how policies contribute to the Government’s environmental targets. Membership of these Committees varies, but is usually larger than that of Departmental Committees.
A useful way to identify the difference between the two is to have a ‘Horizontal vs Vertical’ approach, with Departmental Committees looking ‘vertically’ at the responsibilities of a single Department, and Cross-Cutting Committees looking ‘horizontally’ across Government.
Role of Committees
Committee can launch inquiries, in which they will focus on an issue or issues relevant to its remit. Inquiries can look at any and all topics, whether they are related to an important and wide-ranging issue, or are far more narrow, specific and niche in nature. When a Committee decides the topic of an inquiry, it will then publish the Scope of the Inquiry, the Terms of Reference, and issue a Call for Evidence, with the public, businesses and stakeholders invited to submit evidence.
At the next stage, they will gather evidence that is submitted to them, and this comes in two forms – written and oral. Written evidence is submitted by any individual, group or business who has an interest, and it should either answer the questions set out by the Committee, or simply set out the facts of a situation. After this, some individuals, stakeholders and businesses will be asked to give oral evidence to the Committee, at which point the MPs on the Committee are able to explore deeper into any queries that they have.
Government Ministers and officials can also be requested to give evidence to a Committee session, and this provides an excellent opportunity to hold the Government to account. In these sessions, Committee members have more time and opportunity to ask questions than they do in the House of Commons.
Once all the evidence has been collected, or sometimes as an interim measure, a report which be published. This will set out the evidence that has been received, and also give the Committee’s own assessment of a topic, as well as make numerous recommendations to Government or the Government department. The Government will then, usually within 60 days, publish a response to the report, highlighting the recommendations that they have accepted or rejected.
The results of the most recent General Election determine the composition of Committees, both in relation to the Chairs and to the balance of MPs. The exceptions to this are the Public Accounts Committee, which is Chaired by the main Opposition Party, and the Treasury, Defence and Foreign Affairs Committee, which are Chaired by the governing Party. Once the allocation is decided, Committee Chairs are then voted for by a ballot of MPs. Each Committee will then also have a majority of MPs sitting on it from the party with a majority in Parliament.
Support for the Committee
Behind each Committee is a whole team of staff who assist at every stage of each inquiry. There are clerks, who help the Committee be as effective as possible, media officers who help to shape and plan communications, and specialists as part of a body called the Scrutiny Unit such as lawyers, economists and statisticians who are able to provide the Committee with support.